Essay: George Plimpton: The Professional Amateur

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The formula of Out of My League has been repeated, with varying degrees of success, in every other Plimpton venture into Mittydom. It is always the comic-terror story of the amateur trying his hand at a craft not his own and, without exception, suffering defeat and humiliation when he attempts to master it. "I think he has an idea that there's a kind of mystery one can get to, a really professional mystery of an altogether exciting kind," says Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books and one of Plimpton's closest friends. "But if an amateur enters into this, he will stumble into a nightmare. It's always a story of failure, with some terrible thing happening." Thus, unlike Walter Mitty, who always succeeded in his daydreams, Plimpton always fails in his. If he ever won, the mystery of craft would vanish altogether. Still he must try. "I know that when I do these things," he says, "I hope desperately that I'll succeed at them." In fact, the Plimpton method is somewhat more than a reporter's gimmick. The product of Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard and Cambridge, not to mention three centuries of New England ancestors, he always felt deprived of at least one thing. "I was never able to consider seriously doing what I could do quite well, which was to throw a ball," Plimpton says, somewhat wistfully. "It was the first instrument of superiority I found myself owning." ∙ Failure is Plimpton's fascination, but for him the line between failure and success is not always distinct —and not always where it seems to be. There is, he thinks, a certain "tragedy in being better. The successful man of any profession I know of somehow rues success." His first novel, which now exists only in notes, is not about the Jet Set or the grand, fun-filled days of the '50s when he and his friends began the Paris Review, but about a 70-year-old photographer, an ostensible failure, who is always in the right place at the right time yet always gets the wrong picture. He is on the Lusitania, but shoots only the horizon and a snip of the bow as the ship goes down; he is present at a political assassination, but records only the assassin's coattails; he was present when the flag was raised at Iwo Jima, but handed his camera to someone else while he helped the Marines put up the colors. "Maybe he is only unsuccessful in terms of the majority report," Plimpton asserts. "He's not a failure in my lights at all, because his view of the world is the extremely sensitive one that may be born out of being a maverick."

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