When Paul Gray left the English faculty at Princeton for a job at TIME in 1972, he quickly discovered a gifted new writer: himself. He established a reputation as a brilliant book reviewer, covering everything from cookbooks to the Bible but focusing on the major novelists of the era Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Saul Bellow, Don DeLillo while not forgetting J.K. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, crime writer Scott Turow and even romance novelists like Nora Roberts. His cover subjects included John Updike, Toni Morrison and Tom Wolfe.
But in his 29 years with the magazine, Paul became much more than a book critic. He ranged over topics as diverse as eugenics, Joe DiMaggio, bird-watching, TV quiz shows, Pope John Paul II, education reform, Sigmund Freud and the vagaries of Jimmy Carter's presidency. To all of them he brought a thoughtful, judicious approach, writing with unfailing grace and wit.
Gray, who died on Sept. 11 at 70, may be best remembered by his colleagues as a master of a magazine genre known as the tone poem: a brief, evocative scene setter for a series of stories to follow. Nobody could more eloquently encapsulate the essence of a complex package than Paul. His prelude to TIME's coverage of the Challenger space-shuttle explosion in 1986, for example, movingly evoked the ordinary humanity of the seven victims in four short paragraphs. Unlike his other pieces, these mini-overtures were mostly unsigned, yet they were indelibly his. A journalistic maxim for writers fated to be anonymous goes, "Sign it with your style." And did he ever.
Born in Joliet, Ill., Paul grew up in Laurel, Miss., where his family relocated. By 14 he was a disc jockey at a Laurel radio station. Soon he began writing obituaries and covering drag races for the Laurel Leader-Call. After graduating from the University of Mississippi, he earned a Ph.D. at the University of Virginia, where he wrote his dissertation on James Joyce and met his future wife, Betsy.
His academic future seemed secure when he landed a teaching post at prestigious Princeton University. But after seven years there, he felt frustrated, restless. He wasn't sure teaching was right for him. As he liked to tell the tale, Betsy one day asked him, "If you could be anyone else in the world, who would you want to be?" After a moment's thought, he replied, "Woody Allen." Then, said Betsy, "you're definitely not in the right place."
Paul consulted the New Yorker writer John McPhee, who was also on the Princeton faculty, about switching to TIME, where McPhee had begun his career. McPhee told him, "There are no jobs at TIME until you get one."
He got one. It may not have brought him closer to Woody Allen, but he took great pride in it. Despite his scholarly credentials, there was never a hint of intellectual slumming in his outlook. He did, however, regularly re-read the classics Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Twain not only for their own sake but also to set a high bar for the contemporary writers he reviewed.
He was a conscientious worker, reading an average of three books a week. But often when he was busiest, he appeared to be doing nothing at all. He worked out his articles in his head while doing a crossword puzzle or casually flipping playing cards into an upside-down hat. Only when a piece had fallen into place did he sit down and write it out, and he rarely made revisions afterward.
He didn't need to. The quality of his writing was as consistent as it was high. What he said in a 1985 tribute to E.B. White could apply to himself: "He never let his standards or his audience down. He insisted that words, his own and others', should communicate rather than confuse. He had no patience with the sloppy or faddish."
Paul had a sensitive, moody side, but also a charming, fun-loving one. He always retained the Southern courtliness that was ingrained by his Mississippi upbringing, both in person and on the page. Penetrating and rigorous as his writing was, it was never cruel. Calling Stephen King "a master of postliterate prose" was about as tart as he got. His was a generous spirit.
It was a pleasure to be Paul's colleague, as I was fortunate enough to be for three decades. For part of that time, I was also his admiring and grateful editor. After all those years of working and lunching with him, sharing intramural catastrophes and triumphs and not a few laughs, I'm reminded of Wilbur the pig's summation at the end of Charlotte's Web: "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer." Amen.
Christopher Porterfield edited TIME's arts sections from 1972 to 2003, when he retired as executive editor; he continues to contribute to the magazine.