Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Journalist, critic, and novelist Calvin Trillin was born on December 5, 1935, and raised in a middle-class neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri. Even now, after decades of living in Greenwich Village in New York City, he still regards Kansas City as his primary point of reference.

Trillin's mother and father (so tenderly recollected in his 1996 book, Messages from My Father) were second-generation grocers whose own parents had immigrated from Lithuania and the Ukraine, respectively. Trillin's father brought him up to aspire to greater things than being a grocer, yet it was his father's quiet messages and example that had the greatest effect on Trillin.

In 1953 Trillin did what his father had always planned for him and left for Yale, where he edited the Yale Daily News. He graduated in 1957. Trillin's first job was as a "floating" journalist with Time, writing on subjects as diverse as medicine and religion. In 1963 he moved to the New Yorker as a staff writer, and there he quickly established his reputation as a first-rate essayist and journalist. In 1978 he joined the Nation as a columnist; since 1990 he has also contributed light but scathing political verse to that magazine.

Trillin has written on a wide range of subjects in his columns, novels, plays, and poems: politics, murder, growing up, food, and American places. Some of his pieces in the Great Plains, for example, his essay on the small town of Protection, Kansas, which for a brief time flourished on the manufacture of concertina barbed wire for use in Vietnam and then reverted to its normal state of barely "holding its own" (U.S. Journal, 1971), are filled with Trillin's empathy for ordinary people. Others, like his explication of the sordid relationships behind brutal murders in Emporia, Kansas, in 1983, undermining its "frontporch" image (American Stories, 1991), are prime examples of tough investigative reporting. But Trillin is perhaps best known for his political commentary, which generally employs understated humor to lay bare hypocrisies and injustices and to bring inflated egos down to size. Like his father before him, Calvin Trillin has always "given good weight."

David J. Wishart University of Nebraska-Lincoln

"Trillin, Calvin (Marshall)." In Contemporary Authors, New Revision series, 67: 349–53. Detroit: Gale Research. 1981.

Trillin, Calvin. Messages from My Father. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1996.

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