A few years ago, an editor at The Oxford American telephoned to request that I write a piece for that journal about the Calder Willingham-Fred Chappell feud. I struggled to recall the brief episode wherein I corresponded with that screenwriter (The Graduate) and pop novelist (Eternal Fire) about some obscure detail. By an equally obscure complication, my friend George Garrett, revered poet, fiction writer, and essayist, had been a third party in the exchange.
“There’s nothing to write about,” I told the editor.
“Are you sure?”
As best I could remember, Mr. Willingham had got it into his head that I was one of these hypermodern, artsy writers who filled his pages with radical political slogans and graphic sex scenes. Without knowing my work, he accused me of lack of decorum. I thought this odd talk from the screenwriter who, in One-Eyed Jacks, had given the world Marlon Brando’s immortal line: “You scum-sucking pig!” When I relayed this thought, Mr. Willingham replied that sometimes writers have to resort to irony.
“There’s no real subject matter,” I told the editor. “It was just a couple of cranky old farts going on at each other. Do you remember Doc and Festus in the Gunsmoke TV series?”
“I wish you would write it...