How George Saunders Helped Me Find My Intellectual Life


When I bought a ticket at the beginning of the year to see the author George Saunders interviewed by Dick Cavett at NYPL Live, I thought: Cool, I can't wait to hear George talk about writing along with his latest collection of stories, Tenth of December. What I knew of Cavett was what he looked like, what his voice sounded like, and that he'd had a small part in one of my favorite movies, Beetlejuice, where he danced around the dinner table to the "Banana Boat Song," sung by Harry Belafonte.

Come February, Paul Holdengråber, Director of Public Programs at the NYPL, walked on stage at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building to introduce the moment I had been eagerly anticipating. Holdengråber, a man not known for his brevity, slowly unraveled the details of the night at hand. At one point he recounted to the audience an email exchange he'd had with George Saunders:

Months ago, I asked him a simple question. Who would be your most desired interlocutor? [Saunders] mentioned a few names, of very famous writers, "Maybe we could start with those names? Do you have any ideas that I am missing here?' he asked. And then [came] this line... listen carefully... "My childhood dream was to be interviewed by Dick Cavett." And then he adds, "Or interview him. Ha!"

That hooked me. I knew this type of childhood fantasy wasn't uncommon, but for me it was. I had never once considered who should interview me. As a teenager growing up in the San Fernando Valley, I looked up to writers but was in no way 'an intellectual.' My literary diet stuck to sweeping histories like Hawaii by James Michener, The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel, and the entire series of Sweet Valley High.

Holdengråber relayed to the crowd the response he sent to Saunders. I pictured it typed out in initial caps: Your Childhood Dream Has Come True. Dick Cavett Will Interview You At The NYPL. With a wave of an imaginary top hat, Holdengråber looked out at the audience as if he had just performed a magic trick, like unfolding himself from a locked trunk. We clapped enthusiastically and he walked off the stage. Talk about build-up.

Out strolled Dick and George. Still thin and angular with a full head of hair, Dick looked good for a man of seventy-six. I can only describe George by his full beard, so full you couldn't see skin except around his eyes; and his smile, an earnest warm smile coated in beard. I tried to look beyond their good-natured veneers, and wondered if there had been time prior to the show for the men to chat, or if meeting on stage was the first go-around.

As a forty-year-old woman in graduate school, I was late to the game of becoming a writer, and as such I was eternally hopeful for any kind of enlightening conversation about that thing I most wanted to achieve: the writer's life. At the time, the hour plus event seemed filled with Cavett reminiscing about his past, rather than an intellectual dialogue with Saunders. My disappointment in the disparity of the evening (too much Dick, not enough George) left me with a small lump of resentment. Originally that's what I intended to write about here.

So I began to ponder the shows I had watched while growing up. I recalled afternoons watching The Phil Donahue Show. Donahue, with his helmet of white hair and his gold-rimmed glasses, rushed up and down the aisles asking questions of the audience, pointing his finger with one hand while the other clutched a set of index cards. "Do we have a caller?" he'd ask. I watched wide-eyed from my spot on the couch, sitting with my legs crossed. It was a talk show where I felt I was learning something. I watched Oprah too, and I recall Sixty Minutes being on in the house regularly, but I thought that was too newsy.

Later in high school I felt the tug of MTV and I watched The Real World New York, (Season 1). "Is this real?" I asked my brother. Really real? I wondered. It couldn't be. Or was it? I watched episode after episode wondering if the roommate shenanigans (fights, dirty dancing, racial epithets) were legitimately happening or if they were fabricated. Finally, I decided it must be some new form of documentary television, and I believed I was seeing the most original television programming ever made.

But for some, for many just a bit older than I, there was really real programming in the form of The Dick Cavett Show: live television that featured the great literary and cultural personalities of the time. It was an intellectual show that had almost no competition. Back then there were just three channels to choose from; can you even imagine?

After February's event I began asking around, chatting, sending emails to my parents and their friends: Did you watch Dick Cavett when he was on the air? I even posted on Facebook. I uncovered but one friend (she's 60), who watched Cavett with any regularity. She replied to my email: "The show was about the guests, not him. And he would have artists, like Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev. And he really talked to people, not sound bites and rehearsed banter."

As I learned more, my original rant about Dick failing to interview George appropriately began to transform into something different.

I farmed out another question: What did you most watch while growing up? Was there anyone you rushed home after school to watch, or that your family regularly gathered to view together? A few replied with Walter Cronkite. One said Jackie Gleason. Another chimed in with Terry Gross (the one nod to radio). No one mentioned Ira Glass, which surprised me. The last woman I heard from, a smidge younger on the timeline, said that every day after school she rushed home to watch Chuck Woolery on Love Connection with her mom. And, even though I have Millennial friends, I've received zero replies from anyone under the age of 30. Was anybody learning anything from television anymore?

Since I never caught The Dick Cavett Show, I decided to watch clips on YouTube. They're blisteringly funny. There's an episode with Katherine Hepburn where she convinces Dick to rearrange his studio furniture so she can be more comfortable, and then she crosses her legs and puts her feet up on a table. One of his most memorable episodes was with the prickly Norman Mailer, who seemed to disdain both the host and his other guests, Gore Vidal and Janet Flanner. The heart of the show comes when Flanner interrupts yet another complaint from Mailer.

Flanner: You act as if there are no other people here. I am getting very, very bored.

Cavett: You could make history here by punching a lady.

Mailer: You know perfectly well that I am the gentlest of the four people here.

Cavett: I just hope it lasts till the whatever we have left.

Mailer: I guarantee I wouldn't hit any of the people here, because they are smaller.

Cavett: In what ways?

Mailer: Intellectually smaller.

Cavett: Let me turn my chair and join these three. Perhaps you'd like two more chairs to contain your giant intellect?

Mailer: I'll take the two chairs if you will all accept finger bowls.

Cavett: What?

Mailer: Finger bowls.

Cavett: What does that mean? Finger bowls?

Cavett: To do what in?

Mailer: Think about it.

Cavett: Who wants to grab this on our team? I nearly have it, it means something to me. Finger bowls, finger bowls. Things that you dip your fingers into after you've gotten them filthy from eating... am I on the right track? Am I warm?

Mailer: Why don't you look at your question sheet and ask a question.

Mailer: Hey could I talk to the audience for a moment?

Cavett: Why don't you fold it five ways and put it where the moon don't shine?

Live television at its best. I couldn't recall a show from my era that was like it. And what about now? Is there anything like it today, an unscripted television show where writers are invited to talk about their work (or their finger bowls)?

I decided to write George. I wanted to know what it was like being interviewed by his childhood hero, and if the night had gone as he had always imagined it would. Miraculously, the busy writer, someone I had started reading along with my subscription to The New Yorker, wrote me back. He didn't want to go on the record but he had nothing but nice things to say about the night, and the only person he chided was himself, for his self-indulgent fantasy. He ended the email crediting Cavett with compelling him into an intellectual life. (George, I hope it's okay that I'm telling people this.)

In between wondering if I had missed out on something by subsisting on a teenage diet of talk shows and reality television, I wrote George back, wanting to know more about this "intellectual life" that I had missed. George replied, naming off different guests he recalled (Mel Brooks, Groucho Marx, Robert Altman, Frank Capra, and more) and his memories of Cavett. "He was funny and very, very sharp-witted, and also there was a core of kindness and generosity that he showed toward his guests. Or the nicer guests." He told me that he felt like he was watching something very new, "a mix of high- and pop-culture that felt very of the moment."

I thought of the Mailer episode, which showed Cavett at his best, both in his responses to Mailer and in his coyly aligning with his other guests, versus any showboating or condescension. The thought has occurred to me that I missed out on something that George, as a kid in his bunk bed late at night, got to watch firsthand: brilliant minds sharing whatever it was they wanted.

In his convocation speech given to the Syracuse University graduating class of 2013, George stated that what he regrets most in life are his "failures of kindness." In writing this essay I've been able to see the things I've missed along the way, and hope to still pick up. Phil Donahue inspired me to ask questions, to allow my inquisitive nature to resist being held back. George Saunders inspires me to be more creative, and more kind. And finally, watching the Dick Cavett show reminds me of an intellectual past that hasn't vanished, but perhaps has become a little harder to find.

Photo by Flickr/japp1967.