Legacy of a newspaper moralist. McCabe's pithy words on everything from soap to sex

The Charles McCabe Reader: The Best and The Last of Charles McCabe Himself. San Francisco: Chronicle Books (870 Market Street, San Francisco, Calif. 94102). 368 pp. $14.95.

Step out of the bright California sunshine into the cool shadows of Gino & Carlo's on Green Street. The big fellow opening his mail at the bar is Charles McCabe, columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. He comes here before his noon meal to perch on a stool and gather observations for his columns.

Despite appearances, McCabe was one of the great moralists of our time. Comparisons to his heroes Montaigne and Samuel Johnson are legitimate. He was that good.

When he died last year, Charles McCabe had written his daily column, appropriately titled ''Himself,'' for over 20 years. This book is a collection of these columns. The title points to the traditions of which McCabe is a worthy bearer; predecessors include Socrates, as well as Montaigne and Johnson.

McCabe, on the face of it, was just a newspaper columnist. That he drew on the traditions of the familiar essay (Montaigne, Johnson, Hazlitt) does not change that. McCabe's richly literary sources combine with observations drawn from his own variegated past as well as from his buddies at Gino & Carlo's to produce a blend of commentary that is uniquely himself.

Before going to the Chronicle, McCabe worked in wire-service journalism and public relations, notably in Puerto Rico; at the Chronicle he spent five years writing a sports column, ''The Fearless Spectator,'' in which he revealed his thorough distaste for the fanatic religion of the American Male. Happiness, at that time, had eluded him; for happiness, as he points out over and over, has to do with one's work. Self-respect and whether one rises with joy in the morning depend on how one answers the question ''Do you love doing what you do for a living?'' McCabe died a happy man. The pleasure he took in writing ''Himself'' he passed on to his devoted readers.

Because his medium was newsprint and a daily ''essay'' of about 800 words, Charles McCabe has no reputation among critics, most of whom are professors and amok in ideology. I can remember his columns from the '70s, when I was teaching writing at Berkeley and was always looking for models of prose style to show my students. In an essay called ''Style,'' McCabe distinguishes between journalism and literature, with Shaw and Mencken being examples of the former. But he singles out Swift as a particular, higher type of stylist; Swift wrote out of passion, Shaw and Mencken out of intellectual convictions. Swift's style conceals itself. McCabe is like Swift in that regard. His greatness as a moralist comes from his passionate plainness; his writing is never merely clever or witty. It is solid, pithy, funny, and not infrequently profound.

McCabe could write about anything; his range was tremendous. He wrote essays on pockets (singling out the makers of Levi's for praise), Ivory soap (''It floats!''), and toothpicks.

He wrote about his youth in Harlem (''Being smug and righteous about the 'moral failure' of the poor is something I hope I have never been, and do indeed hope I shall never be''); women (he got married to a variety of women, and his opinions range from the romantic to the practical; i.e., as a guardian of life, a woman president makes a lot of sense); sex (he watched the sexual revolution with great misgivings and clung to the profoundly obvious: ''Promiscuity aside, and I do admit it performs a function in lonely societies, sex follows love, and babies follow sex''); friendship (not to be confused with, and superior to, love). He wrote great leads (''The lucidity and elegance of Evelyn Waugh's English prose style was just about matched by the murkiness and untidiness of his life''), and great endings (from an essay on Gene Tunney: ''WE know who beat Jack Dempsey. Twice.'').

At the core of McCabe's art were the profound Christian topics of self, the dignity of life, knowledge of the heart, marriage, character, prayer, evil, boredom. His ''Last Day of Your Life'' finds him confessing that, after a career of sharp observing of mankind, what saddens him most is that ''people don't know how good they are.''

A passionate man, McCabe knows that in moments of passion words fail us. Then feelings and words mock each other. But what McCabe called editing (we must ''edit our lives,'' he says, in ''Last Day of Your Life'') brings everything into focus. ''How we would edit our lives, bringing back from the bank of memory that which we really wished to remember, those quick moments which seemed to define the good. . . .''

The discipline of writing was for McCabe a part of this larger discipline of editing his own life. The spiritual connection is there for all to see. McCabe will not be forgotten. No doubt Johnson was there to meet him on the other side, and they went off arm in arm to find Montaigne.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.