"Always Plenty": Editor-Writer Bill Emerson's Speeches as a Memoir of a Rare Life and Times

By Sullivan, Christopher C. | Journalism History, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

"Always Plenty": Editor-Writer Bill Emerson's Speeches as a Memoir of a Rare Life and Times


Sullivan, Christopher C., Journalism History


This is the eleventh in a series of articles on archival collections of interest to mass communication historians. Readers of Journalism History are invited to suggest collections that they would like to see appear in future articles, and the editors would welcome volunteers to write such articles.

Too busy living it, Bill Emerson did not write his autobiography - but he still told his professional life story. The speeches of writer-editor Emerson uniquely sum up his experiences in one of the most tumultuous and pivotal periods of American journalism: the history-making coverage of the civil rights movement in the South in the 1950s and 1960s and the New York magazine world's transformation as newsweeklies battled and general-interest publications nurtured the New Journalism. He stood knee-deep, sometimes neck-deep, in these historic streams with insight and humor. "I became a connoisseur of mobs and rabble-rousers," he explained to one group, bringing it along as he had brought other audiences along with him in speeches that he delivered over thirty years from Little Rock to London.1

His talks have recently been archived as part of the William A. Emerson Jr. papers, a collection consisting of four linear feet (four boxes) that also includes many of his articles, reporting notes, correspondence, and other materials, in the Manuscript and Rare Book Library at Emory University in Atlanta. A review of the speeches offers an invaluable perspective on the crucial period during which he worked. Of the many themes that emerge in the speeches, three stand out: a quest for truth as the object of the best journalism a recognition and a welcoming of historic change; and a deep appreciation of the camaraderie that a wild and dangerous story brought out in those who scrambled to cover it.

Where to begin in summing up these scores of speeches? Should we start with Emerson's firsthand descriptions of the crossburnings, riots, or other flashpoints that he covered as a Newsweek correspondent? Should we let his words tell what he, as an Ivy League-educated southerner, learned about his own background and region as he moved from one flare-up to the next? In an interview a few months before his August 2009 death, the eighty-sixyear-old Emerson reflected on the radical developments on which he reported: "I was writing in motion, I was writing of things in motion, particularly ideas in motion," including his own ideas.2 We could move from his on-the-ground reporting days to his time as a senior Newsweek editor and then editor-in-chief of the Saturday Evening Post, assigning and cajoling some of the great writers of an era. This at tide will touch briefly on the New Journalism aspect of his editing career, a topic he taught for years in college classes, but a full treatment of his speech references to New Journalism authors that he edited and the thoughts he expressed about them will have to wait for another article.

So, where to begin? Perhaps it's best just to plunge in, letting one of the speeches place us at the start of this remarkable journalistic life.

"The day my class graduated from Harvard in 1948, I went to work for Collier's magazine in New York City. It happened this way Emerson told a historical group in 1 993, describing a long, convival Manhattan lunch meeting with the father of a friend. At one point, he said, the man

excused himself briefly. On his return, he told me that he had just arranged for me to talk to Bill Chenery, publisher of Collier's, that afternoon. As well as I could reconstruct it, he told Chenery that, like Halley's comet, he would only see me once in a lifetime and he damn well better hire me before I disappeared forever. I found Bill Chenery to be a delightful Virginia gentleman, and we really hit it off. The next thing I know is that I was calling Lucy and telling her that I had gone to work for Collier's and that we had to get married in six weeks.3

Lucy Kiser, who had said she could not accept his proposal until he had a job, became his wife of fifty-six years. …

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