On Sydney J. Harris

I’ve mentioned Sydney J. Harris in a number of previous posts here (feel free to search).  In my early teens, I was enamored with his nationally syndicated column Strictly Personal and the idea of writing one like it myself someday.  In fact, my Thoughts at Large posts were named after his similarly-titled columns (where the resemblance more or less ends).

Sydney J HarrisSince I kept citing Harris as one of my inspirations, I thought it might be prudent to re-read his writing as an adult, to see if my recollections were valid.  So I ventured into his book of Strictly Personal columns from 1975 to 1981, titled Pieces of Eight for no obvious reason.  It is a compilation of short essays with pertinent thoughts-at-large inserted here and there as punctuation marks.  My thoughts (along with excerpts) follow.

• One can hardly argue with the clarity and readability of his essays.  They were just the right length for Harris to introduce an idea, make his point or observation, and then leave the stage before the endeavor grew stale.  While many bloggers — myself included — often allow opinions to turn into rants, Harris was a craftsperson with admirable discipline, as newspapers of the time demanded.

The pessimist sees only the tunnel;  the optimist sees the light at the end of the tunnel; the realist sees the tunnel and the light — and the next tunnel.
Our opinion of others depends far more than we like to think on what we believe their opinion of us is.
Most of us are incapable of arguing aboout principles without soon involving personalities.
Asked why he wrote his recent autobiography, the behaviorist [B. F. Skinner] explained simply, “In order to make people love me.”  This laudably candid reply recalls Stephen Leacock’s remark that the true title of every lecture is “How to Be More Like Me.”

• Some of the topics he covered seem dated now, as you might imagine.  The collection is in many ways a time capsule: opinions that may have been considered forward-thinking or controversial at the time now come across as conventional, even pedestrian.

Psychologically, one of the most important reasons for seeking more female leadership in national and world affairs is that a woman would not feel her womanhood was at stake if she dealt with crises in a sympathetic and conciliatory fashion.  This is not to say she always will; but it is to suggest that the man’s fear of appearing weak is not a built-in component of her nature.
Terrorists are made, not born, and are heroes to themselves, willing to die to vindicate their cause.  They can be killed, but there is no way to extinguish the past.  All of us, innocent though we may feel, must suffer for the sins of our fathers…

• What bothered me as I read Pieces of Eight is how often Harris adopted the fatherly, authoritative tone of the 1950s and 1960s and made pronouncements on what is good, what is bad, what is important and what can be dismissed — perhaps a carryover from his other role as a drama critic.  Here are some disappointing examples from the book:

Offstage, most actors and actresses are not at all the vivid and colorful figures they seem to be. Only a few are distinct individuals; the others are bland and neutral personalities with little to say, and that little is generally dull.
The contractor sent around two sullen, slack-jawed young assistants to do some repair work on the tennis court across the road.  They brought with them, inevitably, as standard equipment for the job, a powerful portable radio which kept blasting away for a full afternoon.  Call me any ugly word you will, such as snobbish or elitist, it remains my firm and unshakeable opinion that such people are as close to the moronic line as it is possible to get and still function in a social order.

This is a stance I would never emulate — I do not sit in a superior place.  I have opinions but they carry no authority of their own unless others consider them and agree.

• Looking back, Harris could be remarkably pompous at times:

If some people seem to have more good luck than others, it is mostly because a lot of what we call bad luck is determined by the contour of the personality rather than a mere accident or chance.
No other nation I know of is so thoroughly capable of laughing at itself as the English, which is one of the truest tests of a genuine civilization. While the Germans, who are so publicly radiant with gemütlichkeit, have virtually no sense of humor about themselves, as their dark history testifies.

• Like most people, the parts I liked best were the ones that said things I already thought, thereby validating them, and me:

When we are young — say, eight years old — a year represents a full one eighth of our total experience, and even more than that,  for few of us remember back to our infancies.  It is an enormous amount of time in proportion to the little we have known.  By the time we hit forty, a year is only one fortieth of our total experience.  Objectively, it is the same twelve-month segment, but subjectively it is only a small fraction of our remembrance of things past. …  And each year, of course, the amount of experience we add is decreasingly smaller in proportion to the grand total.  So it is not entirely an illusion, or the faulty mechanism of a failing mind, that year by year time seems to increase its pace.

Aphorisms may be out-of-fashion now, but that is what Sydney J. Harris was known for, and that is what he got paid for.  He still has many fans.  That said, life is not nearly so black-and-white to me as it seemed to Harris.  There are few statements about our world and its inhabitants that I would dare make as definitively as he did, day after day, in his Strictly Personal column.

What I learned from reading Pieces of Eight is that I have learned what I needed to learn from Mr. Harris, and our styles differ more than I had imagined, and it is now time for me to thank him and move on.

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2 Responses to On Sydney J. Harris

  1. Rob says:

    Loved Harris’s stuff as a kid. Haven’t thought much about him lately. His “Things I Learned En Route To Looking Up Other Things” feature, which he did with some regularity, was a great way to toss out interesting and otherwise random tidbits. A friend (deceased now) interviewed him on his radio show in the 60s and pronounced him one of the oddest people he had ever met–quirky, stand-offish, almost as if he were “on something.” Quirks aside, I admire the breadth of scope and depth of thought that went into what he did, and that’s the part I took with me and hope to emulate.

  2. Don Banks says:

    You say………”This is a stance I would never emulate — I do not sit in a superior place. I have opinions but they carry no authority of their own unless others consider them and agree.” on one of Harris’ writings, but yet, you ‘sit in a superior place’ when you evaluate other writings. As in “What bothered me as I read Pieces of Eight is how often Harris adopted the fatherly, authoritative tone of the 1950s and 1960s and made pronouncements on what is good, what is bad, what is important and what can be dismissed” In my humble opinion, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the fatherly, authoritative advice of the ’50s and ’60s and there IS a ‘Good’ and a ‘Bad’…lessons those of us in 2017 could take a lesson from today.

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