Mark Danner

James Clarke Chace—In Memoriam

One of the last times I saw James Chace I was standing right here, at this very podium, and he was sitting right…there.

[Also see “Seeing the World: James Chace 1931-2004” published in the New York Times Magazine]

One of the last times I saw James Chace I was standing right here, at this very podium, and he was sitting right…there. I remember his presence vividly, the man in the white suit — it was June — hunched forward, his chin in his hand, and looking at me with that piercing gaze of his that seemed to push his face all the way forward: eyes, nose, everything. We all know that look. Indeed, I was surprised to see, even in the glamorously handsome pictures of him from twenty or twenty-five years ago — even fifty years ago — that he always had that look, and no doubt it was this that led people sometimes to describe him with bird-like metaphor: hawk-like, eagle-eyed, and so on. I, on the other hand, always thought of that ultimate Jamesian expression as the embodiment of his Yankee skepticism.

So there he was, staring at me as I talked from this podium, scrutinizing me — because, as I knew, immediately after I finished my talk he would come up to me, as indeed he did, and tell me what had been wrong with it: what I could have done better, what I could have said differently, how I could improve next time. And then, at the very end of this discourse, would come a very little bit of encouragement — not praise, for that was very rare, but always just a dollop of encouragement.


James Chace had a vast company of friends and many of them, though by no means all, have gathered here to honor him today. James was an artist of friendship. He also raised, as is well known, three beautiful, talented, accomplished daughters. It is less often noticed that he raised a great number of sons. He acquired these not in the usual way but by his own selection. Many of these sons are here today: Mark Uhlig, Michael Schwarz, Caleb Carr, among others. I was privileged and honored to be one of them.

James took me up twenty-three years ago. I was working at the New York Review of Books as a young editorial assistant — or, more accurately, as a “slave,”as James, with his unstinting and unforgiving accuracy, insisted on calling the job. He never let me forget that I was a slave, not an editorial assistant. James was then a prominent writer and editor, running around Central America, writing about the Nicaraguan contras and the Salvadoran war in articles for the New York Review, articles which would come to be collected in his fine book, Endless War.

As a New York Review slave, I would take down his corrections over the telephone, nothing more. I was really no more than a college kid — I had just graduated from Harvard — and he took me up. He began to take an interest in me, took me out for coffee, took me out for dinner. Talked to me about my life, about where I was going and what I was doing. And for the life of me, when I think of it now—he was then only a few years older than I am now—it seems to me absolutely extraordinary that he would have chosen me in this way and formed a life long friendship with me in which he was —how should I put this? — well, it is clear that he gave more than he received. He was a master of — what shall call it? — the “Chace debrief.”Whenever I saw him, he would sit me down and begin with, “Maaark,”— that long open New England “a”of his — “Maaaaaark, what have you been doing?”And I would be expected to give him a long and full account, not only of my career activities — of my writing and what I had and hadn’t done — but also, of course, of the amatory exploits that had occupied my last few weeks and few months; and the indeed the more intricate and baroque those were, the better he liked it, for he was an incredible gossip, and he vastly enjoyed hearing about these things. And as time went on, I struggled not to disappoint him, especially in this area. [laugher] So he altered my life materially, both in the obvious and the less ways, without a doubt. He pushed me — he always, always pushed me. He always encouraged me.

I remember very clearly one day coming in to see him at the New York Times. We both then worked at the Times, I at the Times Magazine and he at the Book Review. Institutions, large institutions — Foreign Affairs, the Times: how should I put it? He gave to them more than they gave to him. They didn’t treat him especially well. But if you talked about this to him, the elegance that strikes me as an absolutely essential part of James’ personality came out. He had little interest in recriminations—rehearsing the bad things that had happened to him. He had this inimitable gesture, this motion that… it’s hard for me to imitate it without being overly moved. If you’d press him — “James, what about the Times and what’s going on now with you and the editor of the Book Review and so on,”he would do this [audience laughs], which meant, “We shall not speak of this, mon vieux.”

Another wonderful thing about James, of course, is his slang. He loved contemporary slang and took it up every moment he could. He loved “dude!”and as a result I very quickly became “Little Dude.”He would mix this contemporary surfer and other slang with a kind of Parisian argot which he had picked up during his Parisian years in the Fifties and which he had never modernized. Thus he was the only man I ever knew who could put “Little Dude”and mon vieux or mon brave in the same sentence.

I remember very clearly one day walking into the Times Book Review to see him; the offices were then adjacent to the magazine, where, as I say, I then worked. It was an odd foreign land, the Book Review then, made up of mountains and mountains of books and, sauntering about among them, lots of trolls and mutants and other strange creatures who’d been there for decades and decades. James was hidden in a little cubicle from which he used to peep out and observe all the goings on. And I walked in to his cubicle, and he gazed intently at me and could see in an instant that I was having a terrible day at the magazine — which was, even on the best of days, not the most lovely of places ““ and he grabbed my forearms and intoned:”Go to Hispaniola! Go to Hispaniola!”He had this wonderful, fake oracular tone which I completely loved because it came from an true oracular place: the New England Prophet in his soul.

Anyway, “Go to Hispaniola!”meant, in James’ conception, that I would get out of the soul—destroying magazine, get on a plane, go to Port-au-Prince for a few days — the Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc”Duvalier was even then being overthrown — then head off to Santo Domingo, also for a few days, and then dash back to New York, there to write up a quick and brilliant piece telling about the vivid, extravagant politics of that Caribbean island. His oracular dispensation, not to be denied, would indeed get me out of the magazine’s editorial chair and on to a plane. And so indeed I went to Hispaniola! — but stayed weeks, not days, and wrote one piece after another, about Haiti’s so-called “transition to democracy”(as my first piece, in the New York Times Magazine was subtitled). And indeed I’m still writing about that elusive “transition”more than twenty years later, which was a source of enormous amusement to him. I became fascinated by, obsessed with, the story. But I realize now that if he had never said to me, if he had never leaned forward, grabbed me and intoned, “Go to Hispaniola!”in that mock-prophetic tone of his, my life would be nothing like it has become. I would still possibly be an editor sitting there in that cubicle. I realize now that with that intervention that wonderful man — that wonderful friend — changed everything that I was and everything that I became.

Time is short here, I know, but I’d like to read a few words of James’, because I feel that one of the great things that he gave me — perhaps the most valuable thing, apart from putting me on that plane — was a deep sense of and appreciation for what, indeed, the Chacean values are: a distrust in large systems; a distrust of big ideas; an appreciation of people; a love of the grain of human life as it’s lived; a love of particularity. That’s one of the reasons why I find it so funny to hear him referred to, as some of the obituaries have, as a “foreign affairs thinker.”I was looking on my bookshelf earlier and I found this book, which is one of my favorites of his books, although it isn’t the best known (certainly not as well known as Acheson). [Holding it up] It’s called Solvency: The Price of Survival: An Essay on American Foreign Policy. And this “essay on American foreign policy”— a subtitle chosen, in the Chacean way, to put off ninety-nine percent of the reading public — begins this way:

At times I think I live in a ruined city. Here some are protected and some are not. Those like me, who seem safe, have sought out apartments and houses like barracks, safe from bad surprises. The lines of demarcation between us and them are drawn, for they always have been, but they are no longer clear….

Not so long ago I returned to the place where I was born and reared, the Massachusetts mill town of Fall River, which I remembered as comprehensible, but bleak and without promise. Because the collapse of the textile industry had come a full ten years before the Great Depression of the 1930s, the city of about 100,000, had long suffered from an endemic form of despair….

The mill buildings are changed after thirty years. They no longer contain looms of weave cotton cloth and from the outside at least they no longer seem the dark, satanic emblems of the industrial revolution, but rather antique, ivied over. They had become romantic ruins….

A former high city official said to me without joy or sadness. “˜We should let Fall River fall into ruin and build a new city in the country’…

Amid all this quiet elegaic tragedy comes this bit of perfectly Jamesian humor — that “new city in the country”that will replace the old Fall River — that I greatly love. James will inevitably be thought, I suppose — in the essays and appreciations and other works about him — as, yes, a “foreign policy thinker.”But I think these haunting passages prove, at least to me, that he remained at the end what he he had been at the beginning of his life—what he was as a young man; which is to say, as “a foreign policy thinker”he remained in essence a novelist.


When a few hours ago, thinking of what I would say here to you today, I reached up and took down this book from the shelf — I hadn’t looked at it in many years ““ I found written on the flyleaf these words:

“To Mark, who knows or will know the price of survival…James.”

I was startled to read these words, for I don’t know that I ever even saw them before. I thought: What could he have been thinking twenty years ago when he wrote them? It occurs to me now, standing here before his hundreds of friends and his daughters and his many other sons, that perhaps he did know, because he was a man who took on so many younger people and gave them so much, that the “price of survival”for all of us was to live on, without his humor, without his counsel, without his faith — to live on without him but only with what he gave to all of us, which was so, so much. And I see him sitting there right now in his white suit, looking at me with that inimitable intent gaze — and for me he will always be there because he has made my life what it is.