Exit the Curmudgeon

Have you ever wondered what Sundays would be like without Andy Rooney on “60 Minutes,” inveighing against all manner of injustices and irritants, from the near-cosmic to the barely worth mentioning? If you have, and even if you haven’t, you are about to find out. On Sunday night, Mr. Rooney delivered his last philippic after 33 years as a regular contributor to the CBS newsmagazine.

The Day

Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.

Uncharacteristically, he acknowledged in his final essay, No. 1,097, that life had gone pretty well for him across his 92 years. As for his work, “I probably haven’t said anything here that you didn’t already know or have already thought.”

It is relatively rare for Mr. Rooney’s name to appear without “curmudgeon” lurking close by. This is unfortunate. The word, at least in its dictionary definition, is unduly harsh. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, this newspaper’s language bible, is typical. It describes a curmudgeon as “a surly, ill-mannered, bad-tempered person; a cantankerous fellow.” Its notion of cantankerous is “bad-tempered; quarrelsome.”

That’s not right. Just ask Jon Winokur, a writer and editor who knows a thing or two about curmudgeons. In 1987, he compiled a book called “The Portable Curmudgeon,” following it up over the years with several other anthologies on the same theme.

“I think the meaning has changed, and I don’t think dictionaries have caught up,” Mr. Winokur said by phone from Pacific Palisades, Calif. “It’s certainly softened,” he said, adding: “I think it’s used for a sort of avuncular person who grumbles and grouches. But we still like them. They do serve a purpose.”

The bad rap amounts to a “shooting-the-messenger syndrome,” Mr. Winokur said. He cited an interview with the historian Paul Fussell that he had done for his book. Mr. Fussell said he disliked the word “curmudgeon” because “it implies that there’s something wrong with social and cultural criticism.”

“Anybody who notices unpleasant facts in the have-a-nice-day world we live in is going to be designated a curmudgeon,” he said.

(That view parallels my own in regard to another word that tends to have a negative connotation: cynic. In my experience, a person labeled a cynic is, more often than not, a premature realist.)

Who are some of Mr. Winokur’s favorite curmudgeons? His list is ample, filled with many people long gone, like H. L. Mencken, Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman and Oscar Levant, who said of himself, “When I was young, I looked like Al Capone, but I lacked his compassion.”

Feel free to offer your preferred quotations from this bunch — there are so many — or to suggest other names for the lineup — there are so many of them, too.

For Mr. Winokur, Mencken is “the icon, the quintessential curmudgeon.” Indeed, you will never run out of Mencken observations, one of countless favorites for me being, “If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.”

Fran Lebowitz (“a true, true curmudgeon”) ranks high in Mr. Winokur’s estimation. And, for sure, his roster of “world-class curmudgeons” also includes Andy Rooney.

“I will miss him, although I think he has lost a couple of steps,” Mr. Winokur said. “At some point, I began thinking of him as the national reactionary, in a good way. A reactionary harkens back to an ideal world that probably never existed, but that’s besides the point. Like curmudgeons, they maintain a standard, or at least they remind us of a standard that we lost or are no longer living up to.”

He had wanted to include an interview with Mr. Rooney in his book, Mr. Winokur said, but “he wouldn’t do it, which in a way validates his curmudgeonly credentials, I guess.” Sounds like the approach taken by another of Mr. Winokur’s world-class curmudgeons, Groucho Marx. You know, not wanting to belong to a club that would have someone like him as a member.


For more local news, including Police Department “white shirts” taking on an enforcer role at the Occupy Wall Street protests, police-released videos of the weekend arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge, and school layoffs hitting the poorest and most struggling, see the N.Y./Region section.

Here’s what City Room is reading in other papers and blogs this morning.

The Transport Workers Union is going to court to try to stop the city from forcing bus drivers to transport Wall Street protesters arrested by the Police Department. [Daily News]

The Department of Homeland Security has warned financial companies to be vigilant against hackers joining the Occupy Wall Street protests. [New York Post]

A “SlutWalk” rally in Union Square protested the tactic of blaming the victims of sexual attacks because of their clothing. [DNA Info]

Local politicians are pushing a bill to curtail deportation of some jailed immigrants. [DNA Info]

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s girlfriend, Diana Taylor, says President Obama “has a lot to learn.” [DNA Info]

The relatively new — but problem-plagued — Bronx Hall of Justice has fallen into disrepair. [Daily News]

The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund is starting a second round of applications for government assistance. [NY1]

The Fire Department welcomed the first transgender firefighter in the city’s history. [New York Post]

A homeless teenager with a birth abnormality affecting his arms inspires Union Square commuters with his drums. [Daily News]

A man who defrauded charities claiming his (fictitious) son had died in the Sept. 11 attacks is leaving jail early. [Daily News]

A California man broke the record for swimming from Sandy Hook, N.J., to Battery Park. [CBS New York]

A drunken man was pulled out alive after tumbling to the tracks at a Union Square subway stop. [New York Post]

A Kings County Hospital staff psychiatrist claimed $515,700 in overtime in 2009, including a 96-hour shift. [New York Post]

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