Interviews

Robert Giroux, The Art of Publishing No. 3

Interviewed by George Plimpton

Robert Giroux has been described as an editor, a publisher, and a lifelong common reader—in short, a bookman. After fifteen years at Harcourt Brace and Company, he has been associated with Farrar, Straus and Giroux since 1955 and has worked with some of the most esteemed writers of the day, including Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, Robert Lowell, Bernard Malamud, Flannery O’Connor, Susan Sontag, Jean Stafford, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Walker Percy, to name just a few. He is perhaps the only editor whose name is often bracketed with that of Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe) at Scribner.

   Giroux was born in Jersey City (where he now lives) in 1914. He attended Regis High School, the Jesuit academy on the Upper East Side of New York City, and spent his college years at Columbia University on a part-time scholarship. To supplement his income he wrote film criticism for The Nation (preceding James Agee, he likes to point out), did publicity for a downtown movie house on Fifth Avenue that featured French films and, for ten dollars a week plus two cartons, distributed samples of Phillip Morris cigarettes, then a new product. He tried to smoke up the two cartons, but disliked the product so much that he became a confirmed nonsmoker. At the same time he was the editor (along with John Berryman) of The Columbia Review. A sure sign of his eventual prowess as a bookman, he published Thomas Merton’s first prose and was able to solicit essays from R.P. Blackmur and Kenneth Burke. He graduated in 1936 and for four years worked at CBS in the sales/promotion department, where he proposed and helped with the publication of two booklets, Vienna and Munich Crisis, culled from the scripts of broadcasts by various celebrated CBS newsmen—William Shirer, Edward R. Murrow, and H. V. Kaltenborn—documenting the political crises leading to World War II.

   In 1940, Giroux took a job in publishing. He joined Harcourt Brace, to which he returned after three years of war service as an intelligence officer on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. In 1955, Roger Straus and John Farrar asked Giroux to join their company (formed in 1946) and nine years later made him a partner of the firm. Providentially enough, the first publication that bore the imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux was a book of poems, Robert Lowell’s For the Union Dead.

   He himself has written two books—A Book Known as Q, a consideration of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and A Deed of Death, about the murder of William Desmond Taylor.

   In the R. R. Bowker Memorial Lecture of 1981 (“The Education of an Editor”) he stated some of the more salient of his views about editing: “Many elements go into the regular editor’s making, starting with the accidents of background and schooling. But there are three qualities that cannot be taught, and without which a good editor cannot function— judgment, taste and empathy. Judgment is the ability to evaluate a manuscript and its author. Taste is subjective and difficult to define, but we all recognize it when we encounter it. Empathy is the capacity not only to perceive what the author’s aims are, but to help in achieving their realization to the fullest extent. The Pygmalion role, a desire to reshape the writer in the editor’s image, is anathema. . . . To the three basic qualities of judgment, taste, and empathy, all the rest will be added by time and experience, except (let me quickly add) that a little luck never hurts.”

   Giroux is very much a traditionalist, with a profound dislike for what he calls “ooks,” publications that are almost but not quite books (“You have trouble remembering them two weeks after they come out”), and is especially disparaging of so-called acquiring editors who often, in his mind, serve as talent scouts rather than editors. “Editors used to be known by their authors,” he has said memorably. “Now some of them are known by their restaurants.”

   It is difficult to get Giroux to talk about the present state of publishing, almost as if to lean on it hard would imply that he was just an old fogy mouthing off. Blessed with a warm and infectious laugh, and a remarkable memory, he is known for his storytelling. Better to talk about his writers. Seated in the Gramercy Park Tavern, coffee at hand after a pleasant lunch, he is doing just that. He is talking about Robert Lowell . . .  

 

ROBERT GIROUX

Lowell was a wonderful fellow, but his head was up in the clouds somewhere. He once said, Bob, I’ve got to open a checking account. Can you tell me how to do it? I asked, Don’t you have one? No, I don’t. So we went over to the Chase Bank at Union Square. He didn’t know what to do!  

INTERVIEWER

I remember a story about Lowell arriving at the Allen Tates unexpectedly. The house was full so he set up a pup tent on the lawn.  

GIROUX

There’s a memorable phrase of Marianne Moore’s about Allen Tate. T. S. Eliot or somebody asked her, What do you think of Allen Tate? And she said, That man is freckled with impropriety like a trout. Allen Tate was a Southern gentleman with impeccable manners. Who knows what she meant? She was a colorful talker, an original.  

INTERVIEWER

You published many books of Robert Lowell and John Berryman. Did you acquire their work around the same time?  

GIROUX

No, they were years apart. Berryman was my classmate in the thirties and I used his early stuff in the college literary magazine. After he won the Shakespeare Oldham prize at Cambridge, he started publishing books at New Directions, Viking, William Sloane, and elsewhere. I did not contract for his Homage to Mistress Bradstreet until 1956 after I read it in Partisan Review and learned his regular publisher was baffled by it. I published Lord Weary’s Castle in 1948 after Jean Stafford, Lowell’s wife, showed me the manuscript. Tabloid editors seem to have been much more literate in those days. Jean showed me the Daily News headline of their divorce: weary of lord lowell’s castle, jean ends boston adventure.  

INTERVIEWER

Did Lowell’s schizophrenia and Berryman’s drinking make them “difficult” authors?  

GIROUX

Both poets had problem mothers, who caused difficulties greater than their sons’ illnesses. When we contracted for Lord Weary, Mrs. Lowell phoned and asked, Is Bobby—she never called him Cal—any good? When I said first-rate, she asked, Will his books make money? It takes years to get established, I told her, and ordinarily poems made little money at the start. Her comment was, I thought so. But then Lord Weary had immediate success, including a big spread in Life with intelligent comments on poems like “Quaker Graveyard,” and later the book won a Pulitzer. In fact, his photo in Life was so attractive that a Hollywood agent asked if he would agree to a screen test. Lowell was amused but I advised him not to tell his mother about movie-star possibilities.  

INTERVIEWER

What was Berryman’s problem with his mother?  

GIROUX

Jill, as everyone called her, was a campus mother who haunted him daily, from his undergraduate days at John Jay Hall to his wintertime suicide in Minneapolis in 1972. She was so theatrical that when she phoned the news of his death, I didn’t at first understand what she meant. One of his suicide poems used the words “going in under the water,” so, instead of telling me he had killed himself, she said, Bob, John has gone in under the water. I yelled, For God’s sake, Jill, what do you mean?

At the university funeral service she had an unexpected request: I want you and Saul Bellow —his colleague on the faculty— and the university president to form a committee. Why? Because it was an accident. John did not commit suicide. But Jill, you told me yourself that he jumped off the bridge. Her idea was that we would take photos of the covered bridge and show the window on the side of the bridge that John opened for air. When he sat on the icy railing, he slipped. That was Jill’s new explanation. Fortunately Kate, his wife, said, It’s all right, Bob, it’s just that Jill has decided the children must not think it was suicide. Forget the committee.  

INTERVIEWER

When did you start in book publishing?  

GIROUX

Frank Morley, who had worked in London at Faber and Faber, was the new head of Harcourt Brace, and he hired me to start in 1940. The early years at Harcourt were wonderful. Almost my first assignment was Virginia Woolf’s novel Between the Acts. Being a neophyte, I was amazed when Mr. Brace handed me the British proofs, until I realized why—there was nothing to edit. I was honored to be involved, even mechanically, with an author whose work I admired. She had less than a year of life left. One of her previous books had been a collection of essays; George Davis, the editor of Mademoiselle, who had used her short pieces, berated me on the phone for not sending him early proofs. I asked how much they paid and he said, Twenty-five dollars an essay. I was so shocked that I blurted, That’s chicken feed. From now on it’s at least one hundred. Between the Acts is set in Sussex between 1914 and 1939. It is a brilliant novel and a neglected one. Soon after, Mr. Brace called me into his office and handed me Leonard Woolf’s letter reporting his wife’s suicide. She had been distraught about the war and the sight of Nazi planes overhead put her over the edge. One March morning she put on her boots, sweater, and heavy coat, and took her walking stick. When she reached the Ouse, which flowed not far from their house at Rodmill, she put heavy rocks in her pockets and walked into the river. He missed her at lunchtime, ran to the Ouse, and found her stick floating in the water.  

INTERVIEWER

Your reputation as a poetry editor in publishing is well-known. How did it start?  

GIROUX

At the top, with T. S. Eliot. I met him after the war and a tour of duty on an aircraft carrier (the Essex) in the Pacific. Frank Morley came into my office and said, Bob, Mr. Eliot wants to take you to lunch. The poet had arrived that morning on a Cunard liner (he preferred ships to airplanes) and had expected to lunch with Morley, who wasn’t free. Of course I was petrified but he easily put me at ease. We went across Madison Avenue to the old Ritz Carlton and, as we sat down, Eliot said, Mr. Giroux, tell me—as one editor to another—do you have much author trouble? Of course I laughed and then he laughed. That broke the ice, which completely melted when he asked me to call him Tom. This wasn’t easy at first—in 1948 he was the greatest living poet, had just won the Nobel Prize, and so on. But “one editor to another” gave me the courage to ask him whether he agreed that most editors were failed writers.  

INTERVIEWER

That was very brave of you to say to Eliot, an editor at Faber. How did he react?  

GIROUX

Well, he was a working editor and he had put me at ease. He answered thoughtfully, I suppose it’s true that most editors are failed writers—but so are most writers. And there was something about the way he said it that made me realize he considered himself among the failed writers, in the sense that he hadn’t done all he may have intended or wanted to do.  

INTERVIEWER

Did Eliot ever discuss his writing with you?  

GIROUX

Only to tell me he considered Four Quartets his best poem and the fourth section, “Little Gidding,” the best quartet and the Dantesque section, “In the uncertain hour before the morning,” with its feminine endings, his best verse. It is a great poem but I consider The Waste Land and “Lines for an Old Man” just as great.

I once made a practical suggestion about his readings, which he accepted. I think it was the first reading of his that I attended, a black-tie affair at the Metropolitan Museum, and he said, That wasn’t a very good audience. I said, Actually it was a very sophisticated audience but you never stopped at the end of one poem before beginning another. Give the audience a chance to recognize the final lines. Count to ten between poems.

I remember after the Met reading he said he needed a drink, and we went to the Oak Room at the Plaza. There was a George M. Cohan plaque over our table, and Eliot started singing “I’m a Yankee doodle dandy . . .” He followed that with other songs, including one that was new to me—“Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go with Friday on Saturday Night?” Tom never knew Cohan, but he had met his wife, the actress Ethel Levy, backstage in London. He told me his older brother Henry had taken him to musicals, which he relished. Mr. and Mrs. Roger Straus and I took him to the opening of My Fair Lady, and we went backstage afterwards to see his friend Rex Harrison, who had acted in London in The Cocktail Party. When Harrison asked how he liked the show, Eliot said, Bernard Shaw is greatly improved by music, and he began to sing, “Get Me to the Church on Time.”  

INTERVIEWER

Did you know Eliot’s first wife Vivien?  

GIROUX

No, but when I was publishing Eudora Welty she invited me to meet her friend Elizabeth Bowen, the novelist, who had known Vivien. At lunch Bowen talked about Vivien. Apparently it was horrible. Eliot had burdened himself with a wife who was going out of her mind. They were quite poor and he was working at Lloyds Bank; he wasn’t yet an editor. They had asked Bowen to dinner. Tom had signed up for some dreary evening lectures, and when he was ready to go off Vivien turned on him: Tom, I do not want you to go! But I’ve given my word and we need the money. In that case, Vivien said, I’ll go too and stand up and denounce you in public! Bowen said that the sweat broke out on his brow, so she managed to get Vivien into another room while Tom escaped to give his lecture. Strange story. I’m sure it was a life of horror. Because of his religion, he would not divorce Vivien, who belonged in a mental institution. Her brother signed the papers years later since Tom wouldn’t. It was killing him, you know, being her nurse and also working at a bank. Someone told me that the office he had when he worked at Lloyds was underneath the street. The ceiling was thick pieces of glass on the sidewalk so that he could look up and see the shadows of feet and so on above his head while he worked.  

INTERVIEWER

Did you know Eliot’s second wife Valerie before she married him?  

GIROUX

Yes, she was his secretary at Faber, but I didn’t know her well until after their marriage. It was the happiest time of his adult life. He wouldn’t let her out of his sight. Once we were vacationing in the Bahamas, and she asked me to keep him company on the beach while she had her hair done. Hours went by, and he was visibly distressed but said nothing. He became himself only on her return. My image of her as a devoted wife is her kneeling at his feet at the swimming pool and helping him with his slippers.  

INTERVIEWER

Was his marriage to Valerie a surprise to his friends?  

GIROUX

A complete surprise to everyone, because they had asked the few people involved to keep it secret. When the news broke I received dozens of calls. Marianne Moore, who I believe had a crush on Tom, was obviously upset at the news. She later told Elizabeth Bishop that on their first American visit the Eliots called on her in Brooklyn and when Valerie posed them for a photo she ordered him to put his arm around Marianne. Bishop asked, Was it a real hug? Marianne said, No, it was gingerly.

I had an interesting encounter with Marianne late in her life after she moved to her apartment off lower Fifth Avenue. She phoned me and said, I’m not feeling well, and I have a favor to ask—is there a safe in your office? Yes, Marianne, I said, “it’s enormous. What can I do? She said that she had promised Valerie copies of Tom’s letters for the edition of correspondence she was doing: Could you arrange that for me? I’d be delighted, I said. May I read them? Of course, of course. When can I pick them up? This morning—come over at noontime. When I arrived, Marianne was standing behind a winged chair wearing a beautiful red Chinese robe with a golden dragon—a stunning costume. Her two pigtails hung down to her heels. I had expected her to be bedridden and that a maid would hand me a packet of letters, and off I’d go. No maid. In front of her chair was a little Bonwit Teller shopping bag with several folders. Are your letters here, as well as Tom’s? I asked. Yes, everything, she said. Put them in your safe, and don’t let them out until you receive a handwritten letter from me. I count on you, Robert, to do exactly as I ask.  

INTERVIEWER

So you read the letters?  

GIROUX

Every scrap. She had even saved his envelopes. In the twenties they started in a formal way: “Dear Mr. Eliot,” and “My dear Miss Moore.” Finally he broke down to “Dear Marianne,” and beginning in lowercase with the next line wrote, “if I may.” Her reply avoided a salutation and began, “Since your last letter, San Tomas . . .” One February there was a sheet of yellow-pad paper with a hand-drawn heart pierced with an arrow and a block-letter inscription, “from an unknown admirer.”  

INTERVIEWER

What were the letters usually about?  

GIROUX

About poetry, his admiration of her work, the scheduling of her books, publishing details. One business letter of Marianne’s concerned a small royalty check, which she had pinned to the note: “Faber’s design of my new book is so beautiful that it must have been expensive to produce. I feel I must repay the firm for their generosity and I am returning the check.” His reply, enclosing the check, was immediate: “Never, never return a royalty check. You may be sure, Marianne, if you get one you’ve earned it. Cash it at once.”

I took her to the opening night of The Cocktail Party at his request, since he had to be in London. It was an audience of celebrities, including Ethel Barrymore and the Windsors. On leaving, Marianne and I got caught up in the Duke’s party and we heard him say, I’m told Eliot wrote this play in verse but I must admit you would never have known it, at which she poked me with her elbow. Do you know why he wrote those plays? Trying to make money for Valerie. He was never interested in money himself. I remember him in his last year saying to me, Bob, I’m so concerned about my young wife’s future. I don’t have a great estate to leave her. Before his marriage to her, he lived at Cheyney Walk with John Hayward and they shared expenses.  

INTERVIEWER

Wasn’t he paid by Faber and Faber?  

GIROUX

Not an awful lot. But now she’s so rich. She made the deal for Cats with Andrew Lloyd Weber, the composer, and the royalties must be in the millions. Tom’d be highly amused that his most minor poems have generated probably more money than all his other poetry.  

INTERVIEWER

There are no poems about Valerie, are there?  

GIROUX

There’s one poem, his worst in my opinion. One of the last things he did. He used it as a dedication for his play The Elder Statesman and it’s now in his Collected Poems, as it should be. It’s about their nearness in bed, their hearts beating in unison. It is so unlike his regular verse—no irony, no wit, but with lots of love, and somehow very nice.  

INTERVIEWER

Did you know E. M. Forster?  

GIROUX

He turned up at the Harcourt Brace office one day in 1947, just off a plane. It must’ve been springtime, May. I was eating a sandwich at my desk. The receptionist said, There’s a Mr. Forster who wants to see Mr. Brace, but he’s out to lunch. Mr. Forster? I said. Would you ask him his first name? She came back and said, Edward Morgan. Good God! I said. I’ll be right out.

He had never been in the United States. Harvard had invited him to do a lecture in a series they were doing. Very affable. I took him to lunch at the Marguery Hotel on Park Avenue. We sat out under the canopy, in a sort of courtyard. He was wearing a backpack, which he never took off. When I asked him about his bags, he touched the backpack and said, I travel light. I never check baggage if it can be avoided. He said, I have here in my pocket a ticket to the Grand Canyon, which calls for a ride on horseback down to the bottom and back up again. What do you think of the Grand Canyon? Oh, I’ve never seen it, I said. I’ve never been west of the Mississippi River. He was absolutely astounded.

Suddenly there was a terrific rumble of a train coming down under Park Avenue. I didn’t really notice it, but he sat up. Earthquake? I said. That’s the train coming into Grand Central Station. He was relieved. He talked about how he always wanted to visit America. Harcourt Brace gave him a big cocktail party at the Ritz Carlton. Forster had said, I must meet Mr. Lionel Trilling. Trilling had published a new book for New Directions, a little book about Forster, which sort of revived his reputation. When I introduced them, Forster said, This is the man who made me famous! Many years later the Trillings went to Kings College, Cambridge, to visit Forster. He put a little plate of cookies on the table. Dana, their son, took one. Then the boy took another one, and Forster chided him for this: Put that back, I can’t tolerate such conduct. The Trillings were very upset about this, and they left quite abruptly.

I almost lost Forster as an author. Harcourt Brace got a new president in the late 1940s, the late Spencer Scott, who not only looked like a banker but thought like one. His background was textbooks, which usually meant trouble. He once told me he considered textbook editing “more creative” than finding and developing new writers. He came into my office one day after his promotion looking unhappy, and laid on my desk a letter in English mandarin handwriting—which I recognized as E. M. Forster’s—and said, Tell me what I should do about this, and quickly left the room. Written on King’s College letterhead, it read,

My dear Mr. Scott:

I do not know who you are, because I’ve dealt only with Donald Brace since 1924 and more recently with Robert Giroux, but I cannot accept your suggestion of reducing my royalty on A Passage to India and Abinger Harvest to ten percent in order to keep them in print. The books have been selling steadily for over twenty years at a royalty of fifteen percent. If you feel that you cannot continue to reprint them under the original terms, I’ll arrange to transfer them to another publisher in America.

Faithfully yours,

E. M. Forster.

When I asked Scott why he hadn’t shown me his letter before he sent it to a longtime author of a world-famous book, he said, Oh, it was a form letter. Many of the authors agreed to the suggestion to keep their books in print. Fortunately, no other author of mine was on his mailing list. I rushed off a letter of apology, asking Forster to ignore the misunderstanding.  

INTERVIEWER

Would you say that Spencer Scott was a typical book publisher?  

GIROUX

I’d say he was a typical unimaginative, nonliterary publisher. One day he actually said, without laughing, Why don’t we just publish best-sellers? And my response was, All right, Spence, let’s do that. And yet, would you believe, he was responsible for the best-selling novel A Miracle on 34th Street.

I remember when George Orwell’s 1984 arrived at Harcourt Brace (Frank Morley had brought him onto our list with Animal Farm). I rushed it into galley proofs. Spence annoyed me by asking if Mr. Brace had read the manuscript. I said Frank Morley had made a two-book contract with Orwell, and the firm was already legally committed to the book. Besides, I said, it is a terrific book. A few days after the proofs arrived back, Spence stood in my doorway shaking his head, Bob, love and rats don’t mix. I said, What? The words were so unlike him that I realized he was quoting another reader and probably hadn’t read the proofs himself. I told him that it had already been sent to the Book of the Month Club and they’d chosen it as an A book. When it became a major selection, Spence at least had the grace to say, Well, I guess I was wrong about the Orwell!

That Orwell’s novel was disturbing in 1949 became clear when Harry Scherman, the book club’s founder, asked me to participate in a tandem telephone conversation. One of their judges, Henry Seidel Canby, had a suggestion about 1984. The other judges—Clifton Fadiman in California, J. P. Marquand in Nassau, Amy Loveman in New York—would be on the phone at a particular hour the next day. I remembered that Morley’s nickname for the worried judge was Namby-Canby, and was not surprised by his plaintive complaint in a high-pitched voice: Mr. Giroux, there’s so much suffering in the world now. Orwell’s torture scenes are unendurable. What are you suggesting? I asked. Do you think he will agree to omit the torture scenes? I doubt it, I said, because his thesis is that any ordinary man can be made to say that black is white under duress, or what is now called brainwashing. He’s writing not about the future, but about today. He wrote the novel last year and his title has simply reversed the digits. No one else in the tandem said a word. When I reached Orwell, he immediately cabled, I will not have the Book of the Month mucking up my book. If they want to publish their edition without those scenes, I will not object as long as your edition is exactly as I wrote it. I relayed this breath of fresh air to Harry Scherman, and of course, they published the text unchanged.  

INTERVIEWER

Who have been the thorns, the difficult ones?  

GIROUX

Before I went into the navy, Bill Saroyan was our biggest problem child at Harcourt. His plays, like The Time of Your Life, did not sell as well as his early stories had. His basic problem—no first novel. One morning his editor, Frank Morley, plunked his latest submission on my desk. Another headache from Bill—a scenario for an MGM movie. He insists we reproduce it exactly, in a spiral binding, with camera shots and all the other technical garbage. If we turn it down, which I’m afraid we must, he’ll leave Harcourt. It was The Human Comedy. After reading the script carefully, I told Morley it might have possibilities as a novel if the technical stuff was left out. He asked me to convey my dangerous analysis to Bill. I decided to transcribe the first scene, leaving out the technical instructions, using Bill’s words only and sent a short note: Isn’t this really your first novel? His return wire was: Your approach is all wrong. I’m airmailing a new version showing how it should be done. We got The Human Comedy in the bookstores before the movie was ready, a big best-seller and a Book of the Month. Mickey Rooney, as a Western Union messenger boy on a bicycle in wartime, made it a smash hit and the movie won an Oscar, which of course, upped sales. The most amusing aspect of it for me was the MGM ad, which proclaimed, “Based on the novel by William Saroyan.” Bill had just married Carol Marcus, a beautiful dolllike blond, whose two school friends—Oona O’Neil and Gloria Vanderbilt—had also married older husbands, Charles Chaplin and Leopold Stokowski. I had dinner with the Saroyans and their famous friends at their house on Long Island—I remember the stuffed moose heads on the library walls (they must have rented the place furnished), and noticed Bill’s Oscar serving as a doorstop.  

INTERVIEWER

How about Flannery O’Connor as a difficult author?  

GIROUX

Not difficult to handle, but her fiction baffled early reviewers like William Goyen, who called Wise Blood insane in his Times review. Robert Lowell brought her into my office while the book was under consideration at another publisher. I sensed her tremendous strength, creative and moral, and she impressed me as the rarest kind of young writer. She not only knew exactly what she wanted to write but was prepared to sacrifice everything to achieve it. A few weeks later her agent, Elizabeth McKee, said she’d broken with her editor because, in her words, He treated me like a slightly dim-witted campfire girl. As a result I not only inherited Wise Blood—which is still in print and was made into a movie by John Houston—but every book Flannery wrote thereafter. She lived in Georgia with her mother on a farm called Andalusia, outside Milledgeville, a charming town that served as the state capital during the Civil War. I once stayed at Andalusia overnight and learned a great deal about peacocks. Flannery had twenty in all sizes, vain creatures that preened and jockeyed for position as soon as they saw my camera. But as Flannery said, they have a lot to be proud of. Her aunt served a formal lunch in Milledgeville, in her antebellum mansion—it had a porch with high white pillars and a butler who wore white cotton gloves—and I could understand why Flannery was annoyed when reviewers wrote of her backwoods upbringing. Her mother, Regina, had been a Southern belle. At breakfast one day she said, Mr. Giroux, why don’t you get Flannery to write about nice people? I wanted to laugh but Flannery remained pokerfaced. I hadn’t the wit to say, Flannery often writes about nice people, including herself. When she died at thirty-nine, Thomas Merton wrote that instead of comparing her to good writers like Katherine Anne Porter or Faulkner, he thought of her as someone like Sophocles.  

INTERVIEWER

Perhaps an easier writer . . .  

GIROUX

Isaac Singer always wrote in Yiddish. He was so unsure of his English at the beginning that he was easy to edit and he learned fast. I was with him in Stockholm when he went to receive the Nobel Prize. The Swedes are a very lugubrious people—he had them rolling in the aisles. When he gave his Nobel lecture, he had one paragraph in Yiddish. At the end of it the secretary came up to us and said, You know this has been an historic occasion. I said, Yes, it must be the first time you’ve heard Yiddish. He said, Well, that’s true, but that isn’t what I mean . . . it’s the first time that the Swedish Academy has ever laughed. I remember Isaac gave a talk at the royal banquet where he stood on the staircase and said, There are a hundred reasons why I like to write for children, but I’ll only give you ten: Children do not read reviews. If a child likes a book, nothing will change his or her mind. If they don’t like it, nothing you say will convince them. Children like punctuation. They do not read Kafka. They do not read James Joyce . . .  

INTERVIEWER

Is it true you had a chance to be the first to publish J. D. Salinger?  

GIROUX

My experience with Salinger began when he was publishing those wonderful short stories in The New Yorker—“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and others. Everyone was talking about them. I wrote a letter to Salinger in care of William Shawn in which I said, Mr. Salinger, I am sure that every publisher in New York is asking about your first novel. I’d like to publish your stories, which are terrific. There are enough to make a book, and I’d like to publish that book right now. No answer. Well, many months later I was eating a sandwich at lunchtime—  

INTERVIEWER

That is a habit of yours, eating a sandwich at lunch.  

GIROUX

Occasionally, and the office was practically empty. The receptionist said, There’s a Mr. Salinger out here who wants to see you. I said, Salinger? Pierre Salinger? She said, No, he says it’s Jerome Salinger, Jerry Salinger.

He was six feet two or three, pitch-black hair, very black eyes, looked a little like Hamlet. He was sort of shy. He said, I can’t publish a book of short stories because I’ve almost finished this novel, and the novel has to come first. I smiled and said, You should be sitting here at my desk. You’re a born publisher because it’s true—short stories don’t sell as well as novels. Then he said, Bill Shawn has recommended you, and I’d like you to publish my novel. I said, What novel? He said, Oh, it isn’t finished. It’s about a kid in New York during the Christmas holidays. I said, Listen, you’ve made a contract, let’s shake hands. So we shook hands on it. About a year later, I was in the Oyster Bar eating oyster stew, reading something, and somebody tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around, and it was Jerry Salinger. He said, I didn’t want to disturb you, Bob, but I have wonderful news. I just finished the draft of my novel. I’ve just come from Bill Shawn’s. The New Yorker is going to devote an entire issue to it. After he’d left, I thought, Oh, my God, it’s going to be like the publication of John Hersey’s Hiroshima.

But it never appeared, and the New Yorker thing apparently fell through. A year later a messenger delivered the manuscript of The Catcher in the Rye to the office. It came from the Harold Ober Agency. I read it and, of course, I was absolutely riveted. I thought how lucky I was that this incredible book had come into my hands. I wrote a rave report and I turned it over to Eugene Reynal, my new boss.  

INTERVIEWER

Could you say something about him?  

GIROUX

He lived in Turtle Bay, quite socially prominent. I think he ran the New York Social Register. Terrible snob. He became my boss when Frank Morley went back to England after the war. I had to get on with him and I made sure that I did. He had gone to Harvard, and was at Oxford during the Evelyn Waugh–prewar period with brilliant people all around. I thought, This man has had one of the best educations possible, why hasn’t it done something for him? He was tactless; he offended people.

So I left the Catcher in the Rye manuscript with Reynal. No reply for much too long, maybe two weeks. I finally went to see him. I said, Gene, I’ve told you the story of Salinger visiting this office, and the fact that I shook hands with him. We have a gentleman’s contract at this point.

He said, Bob, I’m worried about that manuscript. I said, What are you worried about? He said, I think the guy’s crazy.  

INTERVIEWER

Talking about the kid, Holden Caulfield, or Salinger?  

GIROUX

Holden Caulfield. Gene said, The kid is disturbed. I said, Well, that’s all right. He is, but it’s a great novel. He said, Well, I felt that I had to show it to the textbook department. The textbook department? He said, Well, it’s about a kid in prep school isn’t it? I’m waiting for their reply. I said, It doesn’t matter what their reply is, Gene. We have a contract for the book. I felt like saying, You son of a bitch, this is the greatest insult to me that could ever be. The textbook people’s report came back, and it said, This book is not for us, try Random House.

So I went to Mr. Brace. I gave him the whole story. I said, I feel that I have to resign from the firm. I hadn’t got in touch with Salinger because I couldn’t bring myself to talk to him.  

INTERVIEWER

Did Brace ever read the book?  

GIROUX

He didn’t read the book. Mr. Brace was a wonderful man, but he had hired Reynal and would not overrule him.  

INTERVIEWER

Are you kidding?  

GIROUX

I’m afraid that’s true. That’s when I decided to leave Harcourt. Eventually, Jerry Salinger called me up: Bob, what’s gone wrong? Just like that. I said, I couldn’t bring myself to tell you that my boss has vetoed the book. I don’t have the power. He has to sign the contract, and he won’t do it, so I have to release it.

He said, It’s perfectly all right. You like the book. I’m glad you do. That’s all I wanted to know. I never had a chance to ask him why his book never appeared in The New Yorker. I suspect it turned out to be impracticable.  

INTERVIEWER

That’s a sad story.  

GIROUX

The commercial development of publishing has been so horrible in my opinion. You have editors now who just acquire books; you wonder if they ever read them! The fact is that they often don’t.  

INTERVIEWER

When did this all begin?  

GIROUX

In the postwar period, or maybe later. I don’t really know. Perhaps it’s always been so.  

INTERVIEWER

Perhaps it came with an emphasis on getting books from people who had distinguished themselves in the war or in politics.  

GIROUX

That’s not new to publishing. Lindbergh was famous in the twenties, and his book was a success. Of course, I’m always surprised that books by politicians are successful. Nixon’s book! Who the hell would want to read a book by Nixon? Yet they’re always successful. I realize that I’m just an old fogy in that sense. Book publishing to me should be done by failed writers—editors who recognize the real thing when they see it.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you go to poetry readings?  

GIROUX

Not as many as I used to. In the forties, I helped John Malcolm Brinnin get the first poetry reading at the Y with Eliot. It was standing-room only. From that point on, I arranged other poetry readings that Tom did, acting as his agent, without fee of course, and he was delighted because he was trying to build that nest egg for Valerie.  

INTERVIEWER

He was a good reader, Eliot?  

GIROUX

Wonderful. Wonderful diction and wonderful expressiveness. By expressive one means the ability to convey meaning. There’s a scene in The Waste Land where the line seems casual, “What are you thinking of? What thinking?” When I heard Eliot’s records before I knew him, he read it fast, high-pitched, with great intensity: What are you thinking? What?! What?! I realized the speaker is mad. It’s actually Vivien.

Many poets, as you know, are not good readers. Lowell was not a good reader. He had a monotone and a twangy way of reading. Elizabeth Bishop was terribly shy, and that worked against her. The best reader was Dylan Thomas, who read like a troubadour, a bard! One of my favorite readers was Jimmy Merrill. He had a new way of reading that just sort of laid the poem right out. He was detached and impersonal, and the diction was excellent. Some of Bishop’s poems I never fully understood until he read them aloud.

The person who started public readings was Carl Sandburg. He was a bit of a ham. His great hero was Walt Whitman, and his poetry was “real American verse.” I worked with him at Harcourt. He was writing a novel, but unfortunately he was not a novelist. MGM had put up a big advance—a hundred thousand dollars, which was unheard of in 1946, for a book called “Remembrance Rock.” It was a family epic that began with the Pilgrims and included 1776, 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, on and on. Journalism really, hardly a work of fiction at all. I went down to Flat Rock, in North Carolina, where he lived then.  

INTERVIEWER

Was it easy to work with him?  

GIROUX

Very easy. I realized that its MGM origins ruined it. It never became a movie. My job was just to get him to do his best under the circumstances. We actually became good friends. When I’d go traveling around the country with him, he played his guitar. Big hero in Chicago at Marshall Field’s department store. He used the central stairway, and he stood there in front of hundreds of people who came from all over the Midwest to hear him! As a matter of fact, Carl compiled a book called The American Songbag, a marvelous collection of folksongs, some of them not known before. One song he did that always impressed me was “Sam Hall,” a gallows song by a man about to be hanged. It goes, “My name it is Sam Hall, and I hate you one and all. Goddamn your eyes!” The scary way he did it was absolutely brilliant. The American Songbag was a great success. Carl was a poet-performer, and I think he had a great national influence.  

INTERVIEWER

Did he know Eliot?  

GIROUX

No, and he knew that I was working with Eliot. He’d gripe about his poetry, He uses too many foreign words. I said, Carl, so does your hero Walt Whitman! He said, Eliot doesn’t have a sense of humor. So I recited lines from Sweeney Agonistes: “Under the bam / Under the boo / Under the bamboo tree / Where the Gauguin maids / In the banyan shades / Wear palmleaf drapery.” Which made him laugh. Then one day at Harcourt, Eliot was in my office; we were working together. Somebody came and whispered, Carl Sandburg’s arrived. I said, Take him down to Mr. Harcourt’s office. Don’t tell him Eliot is here! I didn’t want them to meet.  

INTERVIEWER

Why not?  

GIROUX

Sandburg said he didn’t like Eliot’s poetry, and I thought it might be unpleasant, and I wasn’t sure what Eliot would do. It seemed unwise for them to meet. I went out for a drink or to the john at some point, and when I came back there was Sandburg sitting opposite Eliot at my desk. Eliot was grinning, looking sort of bemused. Carl Sandburg turned to me and said, Look at the suffering in that man’s face, Bob. Look at it! You can’t blame him for the people who ride on his coattails. And he got up and walked out of the office.  

INTERVIEWER

Wow!  

GIROUX

Eliot looked at me and said, Senile. But I think Carl was trying to be nice, to be polite. He was on good behavior, doing his best.  

INTERVIEWER

How did you happen to edit Kerouac’s first novel and not his famous second one?  

GIROUX

In 1948, when Jack Kerouac was twenty-six, Mark Van Doren, his teacher at Columbia, sent him to see me. He wanted me to look at the manuscript of a first novel. I read it and we had lunch—a very sober, neat-looking fellow then! We sort of hit it off. At that time he called himself Jean Louis Kerouac, his original French-Canadian name. He was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, of working-class parents and won an athletic scholarship to Horace Mann and then to Columbia, where his football coach was Lou Little, whom he despised. He served as a merchant seaman during the war and while at sea he said he decided to be a writer.

The manuscript of The Town and the City was influenced by Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and had an originality and energy of its own. I liked its honesty and lyricism. It got good reviews and a decent sale when it appeared in 1950. He was launched. Soon I met some of his Columbia friends like Allen Ginsberg, who then wore neat bow ties and was clean-shaven. Allen preferred Jack’s fantasy fiction, the unpublished Dr. Sax stories, more than Jack’s first novel.

At one point, Jack wanted me to meet his mother. Very few writers want you to meet their mothers! I think Mrs. Kerouac was worried about the kind of company he was beginning to keep. Anyway, I did meet her, a workingwoman who lived on Long Island and worked in a shoe factory. She was supporting her son. He had told me, I’m never going to work for anybody, Bob. I believe that this is the way things should be. I’m an artist. Yes, but you can’t live without money. I’m never going to work. I liked the mother very much, an honest, simple, nice person. She said to me, You know, you don’t look like a publisher. I said, Well, what do I look like? She said, A banker. Well, I’m not a banker. She turned to her son, Jack, you stick with him and keep away from those bums you’re hanging out with. She was referring to a clique of St. Louisians around Jack, one of who was brutally murdered at Columbia. Their mentor seemed to be William Burroughs, whose early novel Junk I turned down. It was submitted under a pseudonym. I hadn’t met Burroughs and couldn’t have published it if I had known him.

About a year later, Kerouac phoned one day in great excitement, saying he had just typed the last sentence of his new novel and wanted to come over right away. The word stoned was not yet in use but there was something hyped up and frantic about his condition, and I thought him drunk. He soon stood in my doorway with a big roll of paper under his arm, as fat as a kitchen paper-towel roll. He held one end and tossed it across my office like a long string of confetti, yelling, Here’s my new book! Instead of congratulating him and taking him to a bar to celebrate, I foolishly said, Jack, don’t you realize you’ll have to cut this up for the printer. We’ll need separate pages for editing too. He became red with rage and bellowed, The hell with editing! Not one word is to be changed. This book was dictated to me by the Holy Ghost! Over my protests he rolled up the paper and stormed out of the office and, I thought, out of my life.

Five years later, in 1957, On the Road was published by Viking, causing a literary sensation and launching the Beat Generation. A year before it appeared,  I ran into Malcolm Cowley, the literary consultant at Viking, and he said, I think it may be an important book if Jack finishes the rewriting. I said, You mean he’s changed it and is retyping it on regular paper? Of course, Cowley said. He had to cut it considerably and he’s been revising it for more than a year. He gave his agent, Sterling Lord, the original roll of paper. All the biographers claim I rejected On the Road, but the fact is that I never read it until Cowley sent me an advance set of proofs. Of course, I sent Jack a letter of congratulations, and in 1961, he sent me Big Sur and Visions of Gerard, both of which we published.

Drugs and alcohol seriously affected his health and he moved to Florida with his mother, who outlived him. In those last years, he reverted to the Catholicism of his childhood, sending me holy pictures at Easter and Christmas. From time to time he also wrote ecstatic or incoherent letters. I’ve deposited the Kerouac correspondence in the New York Public Library. They also have a letter that I never got. At the top Jack had scrawled, “Written when drunk to Giroux but never sent.” As the late Dr. Tim Healy, then the head of the library wrote me, He didn’t destroy it because it’s one of the best letters he ever wrote.  

INTERVIEWER

One last question. These warm and entrancing relationships with writers aside, is there an editor’s creed that you stand by—one fundamental position . . .?  

GIROUX

There’s that dictum set forth by Cyril Connolly in his book Enemies of Promise: It is the job of an author to write a masterpiece. Perhaps that could be amended to read, It is the writer’s job, if he cannot write a masterpiece, at least to avoid writing junk. And even more so, it is the publisher’s job, if he cannot find a masterpiece to print, at least to avoid publishing junk . . .