Reporter's Book Takes Him Back To the '50s, When He Got His Start

DAVID HALBERSTAM'S "The Fifties" summarizes one of America's most eventful decades in a mere 800 pages, plus photographs. (See review, below.) If that doesn't sound very "mere," just ask the author and his editor at Villard Books, Doug Stumpf.

Mr. Halberstam had completed his manuscript, but perhaps another year of revising, editing, and trimming lay ahead last October, when the marketing people called and asked if the publishing date could be moved up to this spring. Villard needed a "big book" for the graduation and Father's Day seasons.

The writer said, in essence, "Why not?" The book was virtually done - though it was some 500 pages too long. The editor, Mr. Stumpf, doubtless shuddered.

What followed was a stint of unrelenting organizing and squeezing. "We worked on an incredibly fast schedule," Stumpf says. "But I'd much rather cut and have too much than get him to add more."

Stumpf mentions that Halberstam was good to work with, ready to make any needed changes but retaining "real firm control." The author reviewed the transitions required to patch over trimmed material and gave clear guidelines on which chunks of text were expendable. Even with careful attention to detail, however, the accelerated pace forced some shortcuts.

"We missed a whole stage of proofreading," the editor says. Correcting some glitches will just have to wait for the next edition.

The process of piecing together the history of a decade was a new experience for Halberstam. The motivation to take on the task came largely from his experience as a young reporter plunged into the initial confrontations of the civil rights movement in the South.

"During my early apprenticeship in the '50s, I could see that more was happening than conventional mythology would have it," he explained during a recent interview in Boston. And he always had in mind returning to that time and painting a larger picture of America in the midst of social and economic change.

"I wanted to go back and see. Industrially [the economy] was strong, with a higher level of efficiency. But some things pointed to trouble, like the great power of General Motors devoted to putting different skins on cars" instead of pushing for engineering breakthroughs, he says.

HALBERSTAM'S other books, such as "The Reckoning," a 1986 bestseller about the decline of American industry, were more specific in focus. They also relied more on reporting - on direct interviews with sources. "I did a lot more work in the library [this time] than for past books," he says. Plucking a metaphor from a pivotal '50s event, the Korean War, he adds that his new book may be over on the "other side of the DMZ" that separates a reporter from a historian.

The organizing tasks may have been more typical of those facing a historian. Halberstam recalls the 15 cartons of papers he accumulated in his New York City home and the six years of preparation.

But Halberstam says he always had the organization - from Jack Kerouac and the "beats" to civil rights to U-2 spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers - "down in my mind," assisted by "long reams of taped yellow paper."

Are the kinds of fast-paced marketing decisions that brought the book into print ahead of schedule unusual? "Actually, it happens a lot," Stumpf says. Modern technology, with its capacity to quickly re-edit, set in type, and correct text, makes such responsiveness possible, he says. "In the old days," he adds, "it would have been virtually impossible."

The publisher's strategy paid off. "The Fifties" has already climbed to the top of the Publisher's Weekly list of best-selling nonfiction.

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