IF E.J. KAHN JR. were writing this Silhouette of E.J. Kahn Jr., he would begin with an anecdote, probably a funny one. The article would be rich with vignettes--stories friends tell about Kahn, and stories Kahn tells about his friends. Kahn is above all a raconteur.
Kahn has been a staff writer for the New Yorker since three days after he graduated from Harvard College in 1937. He has written 13 books--none of which has sold particularly well--and countless articles for the New Yorker and several other well known magazines. Since October, Kahn has been in Cambridge, extensively researching a book about Harvard which will probably appear first as a series of articles in the New Yorker early in 1969.
A great many men have written a great many books about Harvard. The fourth floor of Lamont Library is flooded with them--ranging from dull historical tracts which always end up imitating Samuel Eliot Morrison to mildly funny accounts of what it is like to be a Harvard man. A heavy dose of mediocre anthologies and lousy college novels falls in between. William Bentinck-Smith, a classmate and friend of Kahn's, described the situation accurately more than a decade ago when he wrote: "In almost the same proportion as Harvard men are no different from other men, so are Harvard writers really no better than any other writers."
Kahn hopes to do better by combining in-depth reporting with the light, anecdotal style he often uses. He has certainly been doing a lot of reporting. Whenever a major story breaks on campus, Kahn gets there quickly and takes copious notes. He pops up at press conferences, classes, and cocktail parties. He has amassed more than 500 single-spaced pages of notes from his half year of interviewing, which ends next week.
HE HAS a passion for detail which is best exhibited in the "Reporter at Large" pieces he writes about foreign countries for the New Yorker. In a three-part study of Micronesia in June, 1966, Kahn carefully recounts the history of that island's chain of conquerors, and describes the conditions of the trust arrangement set up by the United Nations after World War II.
Kahn says that the "Reporter at Large" will serve in part as a model for the stuff he will turn out on Harvard. "Harvard is an institution unto itself, much like a foreign country," he explains. "But I find it much more difficult to be objective about Harvard than about a country I've never visited before."
Kahn, in fact, admits to a built-in bias in favor of Harvard. "I liked my 25th reunion, and I go to football games and yell my head off." Although he does not publicly discuss controversial questions about this University, it seems that he is in general agreement with the way Harvard administrators run the place. "I've found enough," he says, "to justify my original premise that Harvard was and still is a fine educational institution."
In his book about Harvard, Kahn can be expected to treat the University in its own terms, through the words and acts of its own people, with little regard for the University as a social force. He treated David Rockefeller, president of the Chase Manhattan Bank, in the same limited way in a two-part New Yorker profile in 1965. Kahn quoted President Pusey, Rockefeller's banking associates and several statesmen on Rockefeller, and Rockefeller himself on the value of hard work. He did not even approach the question of what it means to be David Rockefeller, billionaire banker. But if all the New Yorker's readers do not know Rockefeller, they know someone who knows him, and for them the lack of perspective is not too distressing. In the same way, Harvard people will lap by Kahn's upcoming New Yorker pieces.
In a vaguely funny article in last month's Holiday, Kahn described himself as a look-alike of Max Lerner if his hair is short, and a look-alike of Norman Mailer if his hair is long. He is a short man with a deep voice sometimes approaching a whisper. His features are cramped into the lower half of his face, leaving the upper half all forehead. When he interviewed me at dinner a few months ago, he smiled often, and his conversation was an anecdotal as his profile-writing. Keeping his notebook far over to the right of the table, he took notes as unobtrusively as possible, looking down only when he somehow knew it was time to turn to a blank sheet. If this was an effort to avoid distracting me, it was counter-productive. I spent the better part of dinner watching him write in his book.
WHEN KAHN was a Harvard undergraduate, he thought about going to law school. But as a senior he sold a short story to Coronet for $90, and, he recalls, "that decided me. I got an agent immediately, and later in my senior year I sold a short piece to the New Yorker." Three days after commencement, he was a member of their staff.
Except for the four years he served in the Army, Kahn has been writing for magazines ever since. To write for the New Yorker is actually to be a free-lance writer with office. The writer comes up with his own idea for a piece, the magazine agrees to pay the expenses for the research and keeps advancing the writer money while he is writing it. As a result, Kahn admits, he is usually in debt to the New Yorker. "I can't afford to take a year off like those professors can," he says. Because of this set-up, Kahn says he does not worry about the size of his audience for pieces or books. "I write for the editor of the New Yorker."
Kahn has two sons at Harvard. He says jokingly that he will try next year to deduct their college tuition as a business expense, and "on the theory that the Internal Revenue Service always compromises, maybe I'll get one of them." It is the kind of joke one might expect to see next year in the introduction to the newest book on Harvard.