Issue 115, Summer 1990
Late in March, in the year I would turn thirty, he wrote me a letter about sea monsters. He and I had never met, and he addressed me, on the stationery of The Nation magazine, formally, with a colon after my name, and signed himself George G. Kirstein, over his title, Publisher.
He began and ended his letter by speaking of some poems of mine which The Nation had been publishing, to do with the sea. It was a subject that had occupied my imagination since childhood, and some of the writings of Conrad, first discovered in a book that was a present from my mother on, I think, my thirteenth birthday, in the coal-mining town far from the sea where we were living then, had wakened in me the craving to write. But my actual experience of the sea, apart from a couple of Atlantic crossings, was limited almost entirely to some sailing, in summer, with friends almost as inept as I was, on an old Dutch fishing boat, off the south coast of England. The dilapidation of the neglected vessel (she had been named Curlew at some wishful moment in the distant past) and our own lack of skill and knowledge, along with the miserable weather, the cold rains and fogs, and the complicated tides and currents of the south coast, impressed and greatly magnified the time and its details. They were not extensive but they were, and they remained, immediate, and they came to focus years of reading and daydreaming about the sea into the writing of the poems that had occasioned George’s letter. He said that the subject of the poems spoke to a prejudice of his own. “The sea is one of my passions and I have spent a considerable part of my life on it.”
He particularly wanted to say something about a poem of mine that recounted a sighting of a sea monster, a presence disputed among those who had seen it. I need hardly say that I had never beheld a sea monster, and my piece was a complete fiction. But according to George, the poem was “particularly real to me because I experienced it.” And his letter suddenly took on the ageless tone of innumerable sailing yarns. “I was bound for Halifax from Boston in my old forty-foot yawl and was off watch in the middle of the night. The boy at the wheel was drowsy because, as you know, the light on the binnacle has a hypnotic effect. Suddenly there was a loud intake of breath just ahead of the bow and the monster disappeared into the black ocean. What had happened, of course, was that we had nudged a sleeping blackfish, but the discussion has never ended as to whether it was the monster or whether we saw it.”
In the poem the “discussion,” after a long sighting in a familiar place in broad daylight, led to an ultimate doubt of the habitually accepted distinction between the waking world and the world of sleep — or whatever is the waking world’s obverse. It was not a doubt that George would ever have entertained or admitted, and it may have been one of the many possibilities that he closed off more and more curtly with age. By the time he wrote me he had long since evolved a bluff manner designed to repel, as a general rule, sustained speculation about any such matters. It was one of the outer reaches of an extreme reticence where feelings were concerned. A publisher who sends a letter to someone whose work he has been publishing, whether or not they may have corresponded before, is not, on the face of it, committing an act of dangerous self-exposure. But I realized later, and most of all since George’s death, how exceptional it must have been for him to do such a thing, including its introductory bit of personal history. Of course he wrote all the time to people he did not know, but seldom, I think, to artists or to poets even if he had published them, simply because he liked their work. He was shy about poetry, and he pretended to know nothing about it. But the truth was that he had majored in English at Harvard and had written his thesis on Hardy’s The Dynasts. Yet he had come to affect a plain downright businessman’s and man-of-action’s presumed ignorance —a sympathetic ignorance, to be sure — about a number of things. About the arts in general, and as a matter of course about “modern poetry.” With music he had gone further, and he flatly declared, as a kind of tic, that it made no sense to him, and that he could not tell one piece from another. And yet at Harvard he had sat for hours on end listening to Kirkpatrick practicing Bach.
If his writing to me as he did was in fact as eccentric for him as I suppose, I imagine that it was one of a considerable number of departures from habit which followed more or less naturally from the new phase in his life that had been marked by his buying and, indeed, taking over The Nation magazine only a matter of months before. I did not know much about the background of that decision, and for that matter seldom found it easy to elicit consecutive biographical information about George. I expected that he may have been somewhat more free with accounts of himself with some of his own contemporaries. There was, after all, a generation between us. I know that the business side of the decision was something that he approached with confidence based on an impressive variety of administrative and financial experience. I never knew—of course I never knew—how much money he had, and once I learned that he “had money” it seemed to me that I should not know any more about it than that. His own feelings about money were intricate, as I would come to realize. They included contempt and attachment in indeterminate shadings. “Money,” he told me once, much later on, “is something that everybody is neurotic about.” He liked to make it plain if, for example, the matter of some private expense was raised, that while he thought little of money or its hypnotically entangling effects, he had enough of it to live as he pleased, with no financial anxiety, and to own a forty-foot yacht and do things like buying The Nation magazine when the spirit moved him. And he told me more than once that he had not started out rich. His father, he said, had thought it would not be good for the boys to have too much at the beginning, and he started them out with $25,000 each and that was that. “And I did not put the rest together by trusting deadbeats,” he said to me years later, referring to my own foolishness in putting my savings in the custody of a glib welcher, a friend of friends, in California, and losing them as a result.
On one of George’s first jobs he had been in charge of the horses (he knew nothing about horses and I doubt whether he had ever been on one) for one of the big film companies, MGM I believe, that made westerns in Hollywood. He had been a floor manager at Bloomingdales for a while. He talked with some experience about the selling of garden furniture. He had worked long and devotedly in labor relations and had written a book about it, and during the war had served on the War Labor Relations Board under Roosevelt. For some years he had been executive director of the regional board of the Hospitalization Insurance Plan. All of his actual business enterprises, he once told me, had done very well for him. That was the way he put it, too, as though he had been, more than anything else, lucky. It had come to him naturally.