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Original Issue


Someday there will be a book called The Cantwell Papers. Its scholarly editor will make the usual acknowledgments to members of Robert Cantwell's family, friends and colleagues on The New Republic, TIME, Newsweek and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Acknowledgments will also be made to a number of trucking companies for carting notebooks from the state of Washington, where Bob was born and grew up, to various neighborhoods in New York City, where he lived for years, and eventually to Bethlehem, Pa., where he lives now. A still further acknowledgment will go to the cryptographers who forced the notebooks to yield up their secrets. They don't yield easily, as Rose Mary Mechem will attest.

Mechem worked with Cantwell on the Fort Riley piece that begins on page 106. A writer's notes are often used by members of our research staff in seeking to verify the facts of a story. The Riley notebook is an especially rich-looking source, bound in sober black buckram, 8½ inches wide and 11 inches long. It holds 142 sheets, of which 133 are covered with notes. They are in blue-black ink, the handwriting meticulous, even elegant—and to Mechem largely indecipherable. (A sample can be seen above.) She called on Bob to be his own cryptographer.

He obliged, as he always does, typing out the necessary notes and handing them over in good time. His typing is ragged but legible. Better than that, it is readable in the other sense of the word. Anything Bob Cantwell writes is readable, from the most lowly chore of the workaday journalist to the learned books listed as Required Reading for college courses in American literature. The same mild-eyed, soft-spoken courtesy that goes into the humdrum of leg-work and note-taking is translated by his talent into style. He wants to oblige his readers.

SI readers know him for his reporting on such subjects as the career of Bobby Fischer from boyhood chess at Erasmus High School in Brooklyn to grown-up world champion. For such funny pieces on the popular sports literature of bygone years as A Sneering Laugh with the Bases Loaded (April 23, 1962). For articles on wilderness trails and white-water canoeing. For a study of Sherlock Holmes as sportsman (March 19, 1973). Just last week we published his somber report on sport in war-weary Northern Ireland. A young woman editor tried to talk him out of researching that one on the grounds that he was too old to be dodging bombs and sniper fire in the slums of Belfast, but Bob had her overruled.

Fiction Bob wrote in the 1930s is in print again. His short stories and literary essays are often in the anthologies. Students write term papers about his place in the literature of social protest. Historians discuss his part in the Henry James boom of the 1940s. His books on Nathaniel Hawthorne and Alexander Wilson, the American naturalist, are cited in brainy footnotes and bibliographies. He pops up in memoirs as the friend of John Dos Passos and Edmund Wilson. And he sees no contradiction in his various careers, his several reputations. He likes them all. It amuses him to be on Required Reading lists, remembering Bernard Shaw's remark that to be used for instruction is to be cursed by the drudges who endure the instruction. Students might at least be thankful they don't have to read Bob in longhand.