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Lesson Of The Century

June 2024
1min read

I want my friends to do well. I want the people I don’t like to fail. When the people I don’t like succeed, I assume that they’re corrupt, or that they’ve cheated. I don’t want the bad guys to win the race.

I don’t like Mark Helprin. I once beat him in the 880. That’s what I tell people when his name comes up. We both went to the Scarborough Country Day School. The race is precious to me, because it breaks the form. In most every other contest, Mark has not just won but shown himself to be in an entirely different and superior class. When The New Yorker was turning down my stories, it was publishing his. And it goes on like that. I was pleased when he started writing speeches for Dole. There were suddenly a lot of new members in the I-hate-Mark-Helprin club.

So when I saw his essay in your February/March “Summing Up” column, I ground my teeth with angry pleasure. “He’s going to blow some famous wind at me,” I thought. “More documents for the hate file.”

But you know what? “The Lesson of the Century” is a terrific piece of work. If I owned a factory, I’d have that essay copied and posted on the walls. If I were a teacher, I’d read it to my class.

We seem to have concluded that there is no soul and that “man is nothing more than a very fancy machine,” Helprin writes. He condemns “man’s belief that he is the measure of all things; that by his engineering, war can be abolished, history ended, human happiness decreed.”

But I’m doing the text a disservice. Give yourself a treat. Read the essay. Please. It’s written by a person I don’t much like. And it’s splendid. Maybe this time the best man did win.

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