This past August, while San Diegans tanned and party delegates decided our nation's fate, a paper was delivered to 300 sweaty, sausage-chomping academics at the Second Polish-American Semiotics Colloquium held in Atlantic City. The paper, entitled “Buttocks of Iron, Thighs of Marble, Feet of Clay — Sign, System, and Function,” changed forever the way many Americans would think of San Diego. Read by Professor Jerzy Pupik of the University of Lubbock, Texas, the discourse elaborated the long and emotionally rich friendship between San Diego Tribune editor Neil Morgan and veteran newscaster Walter Leland Cronkite.
Citing the dozens of glowing accounts Morgan has obsessively penned over the past two decades about Cronkite, Professor Pupik stated, “To what do we awe these hundreds of column inches by Morgan on Cronkite? Sheer vanity? An obsession with TV stardom? Vulgar sycophancy? I would suggest it is none of this — it is epic narrative being reborn and its birthplace is San Diego!”
Epic narrative? Reborn in San Diego? Such a large feather for such a small cap! The colloquium reeled in astonishment. The New York Times reported that 50 enraged literary critics rushed the stage in an attempt to stifle the professor. During the melee, Pupik himself was arrested for bludgeoning a bow-tied Yale undergraduate with a chipped beer stein. Long after the banquet hall was cleared by riot police, controversy continued to rage in the halls and elevators of the Just Step Inn. Copies of Pupik’s paper were Xeroxed and burned poolside. A rogue delegation of literature professors attempted to liberate Pupik from the Atlantic City jail. “Free Jerzy Pupik!” bumper stickers, fashioned from cocktail napkins and Scotch tape, were tossed into expressway traffic and scattered across acey-deucy tables in boardwalk casinos.
Needless to say, America's academic community, especially the sector concerned with literature, hasn’t been the same since. Not a single copy of Pupik's paper survived the Atlantic City riots. Pupik is said to be on an extended sabbatical in Lucerne, Switzerland, allegedly writing his memoirs. And while the literature departments at San Diego State and UCSD have been suspiciously silent about the incident, other institutions have not. A casual perusal of collegiate library stacks reveals the continuing international upheaval:
- • Aspekte der Kultursoziologie : Aufsatze zur Soziologie, Neil Morgan, Walter Leland Cronkite. und Geschichte der Rultur : zum 60. Geburtstag von Berlin, Reimer. 1988.
- • Neil Morgan: Signifying Animal — The grammar of language and experience after Atlantic City, edited by Irmengard Ripple and Gerald Fastcarr. Bloomington, Indiana University Press. 1988.
- • NATO Advanced Study Institute on “Narrative and International Scholarship: What Hath Morgan Wrought?” Emergency Symposium, September 1988. Estoril, Portugal.
For those who toil outside the groves of academe, it may be difficult, in fact impossible, to understand the impact of Pupik’s paper upon the world of letters. Over the past few decades, literary criticism and the study of literature and language in general have become intensely technical disciplines. The competition for teaching positions is fierce; tenured salaries have become astronomical. With hundreds of academics pressured by vanity and department heads to publish, truly original ideas are scarce — the introduction of new and startling theory is commonly greeted with jealousy, suspicion, fear, and often, as was the case in Atlantic City, outright violence.
But what had Pupik said that so alarmed his colleagues? To answer that question, it would be best to examine the sources that he scrutinized and that, perhaps, influenced him — the many, many columns Tribune editor Neil Morgan has, throughout the years, written about his dear and very personal friend, Walter Lei and Cronkite.
Consider his column of February 9, 1979:
ROYALTY: The 300 people of the Baja fishing village of Abreojos, 430 miles southeast of San Diego, were so charmed by the impending arrival of Sr. Walter Cronkite and a CBS TV crew yesterday (on a whale-watching expedition) that they turned to and painted every building in town. That includes three small stores and a fish processing plant....
In comparison, consider this excerpt from a travel diary by Jean Baptiste Racine, French playwright and historian — the first campaign on which he followed the King Louis XIV in 1678:
Fere Champenoise. Vi try The affection of the peasants; fires of joy. lanterns at all the windows.... They had even gone so far in their elation attendant to his [the king's] visit that they painted the village's few brick structures, including the itsy-bitsy crayfish processing plant near the river's edge.
This brief intertextual collage displays several specific universal narrative functions. Morgan’s employment of common-frame data structures — Cronkite as king, Morgan himself as royal consort — bears uncanny resemblance to stock formulae used wholesale by other writers at Copley Press (see Arturo Ruiz Cardenas’s groundbreaking structural analysis of Tribune writer Alison DaRosa's gushing front-page story regarding Maureen O’Connor’s secret life as a bum/Queen of San Diego, San Diego Reader, September 15, 1988).
Scholars, particularly Vjaceslav Vsevolodovic Ivanov, director of the Section on Structural Typology of the Institute of Slavic and Balkan Walter Leland Cronkite Studies at the Soviet Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, have suggested that Morgan’s outlandish aggrandizement of Cronkite is little more than an attempt to convince his readership that he (Morgan) is indeed an influential-newspaper-editor-with-well-connected-friends-in-high-places. “It [Morgan’s Tribune column] reflects nothing more than a woefully misplaced sense of self-importance,” states Ivanov.
Others, like Jerzy Pupik, are not so certain. They feel the meaning goes deeper and often cite the following examples to bolster their case:
2/6/79 - THE NAMES: Walter Cronkite. who flew in at mid-day from honors at Austin, Texas, speaks to the Chamber of Commerce tomorrow and flies with his family on Thursday morning to San Ignacio lagoon for a turn of whale-watching ... [CBS's] code name for Cronkite is Gorilla. As in “Where does an 800-pound gorilla sleep?" “Anywhere it wants..."
7/18/84 — “A convention with no Cronkite is no convention at all”:
SAN FRANCISCO — Others may use the name of Herb Caen, the Chronicle columnist who owns this town, as a means of acquiring a good table at a fine restaurant But Walter Cronkite has his own method.
... He showed the neophytes how an anchorman does it. He was on the air so much, displaying the full force of his energy, that he earned the nickname of “Old Iron Butt”…