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Theological Notebook: The Passing of Robert Giroux

Robert Giroux has died, I read in The New York Times. That's getting to be near the end of the associates of Thomas Merton from his Columbia generation, following on the loss of Robert Lax not too long ago, who I had once conceived of hunting down on Patmos with Erik.

Robert Giroux, Editor, Publisher and Nurturer of Literary Giants, Is Dead at 94

EDIT: Added is a version of Giroux's relatively recent introduction to the latest issuing of Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain – the breakthrough best-selling spiritual autobiography that Giroux published – which The New York Times printed on October 11th, 1998, as I just saw added on this same story at the very impressive Father Louie blog.

Thomas Merton's Durable Mountain

September 6, 2008
Robert Giroux, Editor, Publisher and Nurturer of Literary Giants, Is Dead at 94

Robert Giroux, an editor and publisher who introduced and nurtured some of the major authors of the 20th century and ultimately added his name to one of the nation’s most distinguished publishing houses, died on Friday in Tinton Falls, N.J. He was 94.

He died in his sleep at Seabrook Village, an independent-living center, a niece, Kathleen Mulvehill, said.

If the flamboyant Roger Straus presented the public face of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, presiding over the business end, Mr. Giroux made his mark on the inside, as editor in chief, shaping the house’s book list and establishing himself as the gold standard of literary taste. The publisher Charles Scribner Jr., in his memoir, “In the Company of Writers” (1991), wrote, “Giroux is a great man of letters, a great editor and a great publisher.”

Mr. Giroux was T. S. Eliot’s American editor and published the American edition of George Orwell’s “1984,” accepting it despite the objection of his immediate superior, whose wife had found some of the novel’s passages distasteful.

He introduced a long roster of illustrious writers, publishing first books by, among others, Jean Stafford, Robert Lowell, Bernard Malamud, Flannery O’Connor, Randall Jarrell, William Gaddis, Jack Kerouac and Susan Sontag. He edited Virginia Woolf, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Carl Sandburg, Elizabeth Bishop, Katherine Anne Porter, Walker Percy, Donald Barthelme, Grace Paley, Derek Walcott and William Golding.

In one instance he persuaded William Saroyan to transform “The Human Comedy” (1943) from a film script into a novel by suggesting that he simply remove the camera directions from the manuscript. The novel sold well and became a book-club selection.

But to his lasting regret Mr. Giroux also saw two momentous books slip from his grasp, J. D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” and Kerouac’s “On the Road.”

Mr. Giroux was attracted to editing while a student at Columbia University, when he took an honors seminar with Raymond Weaver.

“Weaver was the first biographer of Herman Melville, and the first person to read the manuscript of ‘Billy Budd,’ in 1919,” Mr. Giroux told the poet Donald Hall in an interview for The New York Times Book Review in 1980. “This left a mark on me. I thought, ‘Imagine discovering a literary masterpiece.’ ”

How many masterpieces Mr. Giroux discovered will be for the future to decide. As he himself insisted, it can take decades for a book to become a classic. Still, one of the first books he edited is now on any list of the century’s best: “To the Finland Station,” Edmund Wilson’s 1940 masterwork on the rise of socialist thinking. Mr. Giroux judged the manuscript to be nearly flawless.

Born on April 8, 1914, in Jersey City, Mr. Giroux was the youngest of five children of Arthur J. Giroux, a foreman for a silk manufacturer, and Katharine Lyons Giroux, a grade-school teacher. He attended Regis High School in Manhattan but dropped out shortly before he was to graduate in June 1931, deciding instead to take a newspaper job with The Jersey Journal.

“It was the Depression, and jobs were hard to find,” Mr. Giroux told The Times in 1988, when Regis finally did give him his diploma. “If I didn’t take that one in April, I wouldn’t have gotten it at all.”

Despite his lack of high school credentials, he received a scholarship to Columbia University and set out to study journalism. But he was soon won over to literature by classes with Weaver and Mark Van Doren, the poet and critic. He went on to become editor in chief of The Columbia Review, the campus literary journal, publishing Thomas Merton and John Berryman, both fellow students then.

Graduating in 1936, Mr. Giroux set his course for a career in editing. But with publishing jobs scarce, he joined the public relations department at the Columbia Broadcasting System, waiting four years before he found his first editing job, in 1940, at Harcourt, Brace & Company.

Two years later, with the outbreak of World War II, he entered the Navy as an intelligence officer and served on the aircraft carrier Essex, reaching the rank of lieutenant commander — partly, he said later, because his hair was white, having turned so in his youth.

In 1952 he married Carmen de Arango, who worked at the United Nations. The marriage ended in divorce in 1969. In addition to Ms. Mulvehill, Mr. Giroux is survived by two other nieces.

After leaving the Navy, Mr. Giroux took an article he had written, about the rescue of a fighter pilot downed at the Battle of Truk Lagoon in the Pacific, to a Navy public information 0ffice in New York. There, he said, he found the officer in charge, Lt. j.g. Roger W. Straus Jr., sitting with his feet up on his desk. Lieutenant Straus said he liked the article and could get him $1,000 for it by selling it to a mass publication. “Rescue at Truk” ran in Colliers magazine and was widely anthologized.

Rejoining Harcourt, Mr. Giroux became executive editor in 1948. The company’s founders, Alfred Harcourt and Donald Brace, encouraged him to sign up books rejected by other publishers, like “Wise Blood,” by O’Connor, and “The Natural,” Malamud’s first novel.

But he also missed opportunities. Mr. Giroux had edited Kerouac’s first book, “The Town and the City,” but was unprepared later when Kerouac showed up at Harcourt, Brace with a manuscript written on sheets of onionskin and teletype paper pasted together and delivered in a roll about 120 feet long. When Mr. Giroux would not agree to the author’s demand that he make no changes in the manuscript, which consisted of a single sprawling paragraph, Kerouac stalked out, taking his book, “On the Road,” with him. Viking eventually published it to wide acclaim, and Mr. Giroux expressed his chagrin long afterward.

Mr. Giroux had also written to Mr. Salinger offering to publish his short stories, which had been appearing in The New Yorker. He got no response, until one day his secretary announced that a Mr. Salinger was there to see him. Mr. Giroux repeated his short-story offer. Mr. Salinger argued that his stories wouldn’t sell until he had published a novel, which he said he was working on. It was about a prep school student named Holden Caulfield, he said, on Christmas vacation in New York City. He assured Mr. Giroux that he would like it, and they shook hands on an agreement to publish it.

More than a year later, Mr. Salinger sent Mr. Giroux the manuscript of “The Catcher in the Rye.” Mr. Giroux was all set to publish it, certain it would be a winner. Then Harcourt’s textbook department intervened, saying “Catcher” wasn’t right for the house. Mr. Giroux retreated, forced to reject what turned out to be one of the great successes of the century.

Furious at the interference, Mr. Giroux began looking to move to another house, and in 1955 he joined Farrar, Straus & Company as editor in chief. Almost 20 of his writers at Harcourt eventually followed him, among them Eliot, Lowell, O’Connor and Malamud. It was a display of loyalty returned; Mr. Giroux was known for the care he lavished on his writers, whether visiting Stafford in the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic while she recovered from a breakdown or insisting that Eliot raise his fee for poetry readings.

Farrar, Straus — founded in 1946 by Mr. Straus and John C. Farrar — made Mr. Giroux a partner in 1964. He ultimately became chairman. The first book to bear his imprint was Lowell’s book of poems “For the Union Dead.”

But his relations with Mr. Straus were not without friction. Where Mr. Giroux was the man of letters, Mr. Straus was a hard-bargaining businessman and something of a showman, giving gossipy parties at his Upper East Side townhouse. In the late 1960s, as the company’s 25th anniversary approached, Mr. Giroux proposed an anthology in celebration. Mr. Straus approved and told him to edit the selections and to write a preface. But when Mr. Straus read what Mr. Giroux had written, he demurred. His wife, Dorothea, he said, objected to how Mr. Giroux had described him on their first meeting, at the naval office — as having his feet on his desk.

“But you did, Roger,” Mr. Giroux recalled saying.

“Dorothea doesn’t like it,” Mr. Straus replied.

Mr. Giroux, convinced that it was really Mr. Straus who didn’t like it, angrily canceled the project, which never appeared. Mr. Straus died in 2004; Mr. Farrar in 1974.

Mr. Giroux did write several books of his own, including “The Book Known as Q: A Consideration of Shakespeare’s Sonnets” (Atheneum, 1982) and “A Deed of Death: The Story Behind the Unsolved Murder of Hollywood Director William Desmond Taylor” (Knopf, 1990), each of which was reviewed respectfully.

From 1975 to 1982, Mr. Giroux was president of the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, an organization that fights movie censorship. Late in life he began a literary memoir but never completed it, saying he found it distasteful to write negatively about Mr. Straus.

His ambition to write might have prompted an exchange with Eliot, then in his late 50s, on the day they met in 1946, when Mr. Giroux, “just past 30,” as he recalled the moment in “The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes,” was an editor at Harcourt, Brace. “His most memorable remark of the day,” Mr. Giroux said, “occurred when I asked him if he agreed with the definition that most editors are failed writers, and he replied, ‘Perhaps, but so are most writers.’ ”

October 11, 1998
Thomas Merton's Durable Mountain

The Seven Storey Mountain'' was first published 50 years ago this month. As Thomas Merton revealed in his journals, he had begun to write his famous autobiography four years earlier, at the Trappist monastery in Kentucky to which he had journeyed in December 1941, at the age of 26, after resigning as a teacher of English literature at St. Bonaventure College in Olean, N.Y. ''In a certain sense,'' Merton wrote, ''one man was more responsible for 'The Seven Storey Mountain' than I was, even as he was the cause of all my other writing.'' This was Dom Frederic Dunne, the abbot who had received Merton as a postulant and accepted him, in March 1942, as a Trappist novice.

''I brought all the instincts of a writer with me into the monastery,'' Merton said, adding that the abbot ''encouraged me when I wanted to write poems and reflections and other things that came into my head in the novitiate.'' When Dom Frederic suggested that Merton write his life story, the novice was at first reluctant. After all, he had become a monk in order to leave his past life behind. Once he began to write, however, it poured out. ''I don't know what audience I might have been thinking of,'' he wrote. ''I suppose I put down what was in me, under the eyes of God who knows what is in me.'' He was soon ''trying to tone down'' his original draft for the Trappist censors, who had criticized it severely, especially the account of his years at Clare College, Cambridge University, during which he had become the father of an illegitimate child (killed with the mother, apparently, in the bombing of London). For this Merton was ''sent down'' -- expelled -- and he ultimately sailed for America and enrolled at Columbia College, where I met him in 1935.

The country was still in the Depression; the times were serious and so were most undergraduates. Among Merton's and my classmates were Ad Reinhardt, who became a famous painter; John Latouche, who became famous in the musical theater; Herman Wouk, who became a famous novelist, and John Berryman, who became a famous poet. I met Merton when he walked into the office of The Columbia Review, the college literary magazine, and showed me a story and several reviews, which I liked and accepted. He was stocky, blue-eyed, with thinning blond hair, and he was a lively talker, with a slight British accent. He was a junior and I was a senior. He told me of his interest in jazz, Harlem and the movies, enthusiasms I shared. We both admired Mark Van Doren as a teacher. We went to a couple of movies at the old Thalia, and of course in those leftist days words like religion, monasticism and theology never came up.

Several years later, when I was working at Harcourt Brace & Company as a junior editor, I was asked to evaluate a novel by Thomas James Merton, submitted by Naomi Burton of the Curtis Brown literary agency. The hero of ''The Straits of Dover'' was a Cambridge student who transfers to Columbia and gets involved with a stupid millionaire, a showgirl, a Hindu mystic and a left-winger in Greenwich Village. I agreed with the other editors that the author had talent but the story wobbled and got nowhere. Merton was an interesting writer but apparently not a novelist.

Then, in May or June 1941, I encountered Tom in Scribner's bookstore on Fifth Avenue. I had been browsing and felt someone touch my arm. It was Merton. ''Tom!'' I said. ''It's great to see you. I hope you're still writing.'' He said, ''Well, I've just been to The New Yorker and they want me to write about Gethsemani.'' I had no idea what this meant and said so. ''Oh, it's a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, where I've been making retreats.'' This revelation stunned me. I had had no idea that Merton had undergone a religious conversion or that he was interested in monasticism. ''Well, I hope to read what you write about it,'' I said. ''It will be something different for The New Yorker.'' ''Oh, no,'' he said, ''I would never think of writing about it.'' That told me a great deal. I now understood the extraordinary change that had occurred in Merton.

The partly approved text of ''The Seven Storey Mountain'' was sent to Naomi Burton late in 1946, and she sent it on to me at Harcourt Brace. I began reading the manuscript with growing excitement and took it home to finish it overnight. Though the text began badly, it quickly improved and I was certain that with cutting and minor editing it was publishable. It never occurred to me that it might be a best seller, though I was sure it would find an audience. The next day I phoned Naomi with (for that era) a good offer, which she accepted on the monastery's behalf. Merton, of course, did not receive one penny of his enormous royalties, because of his vow of poverty; the earnings all went to the community.

In books that become classics the opening words often seem to be inevitable, as if they could not possibly have been otherwise -- ''Call me Ishmael,'' ''Happy families are all alike,'' ''It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.'' After several tries, the opening of ''Mountain'' became: ''On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadows of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world.'' There remained the job of editorial polishing -- eliminating repetitions and longueurs. Merton was very cooperative about all these minor changes. ''Really, the 'Mountain' did need to be cut,'' he wrote a friend. ''The length was impossible. . . . When you hear your words read aloud in a refectory, it makes you wish you had never written at all.''

Then a crisis arose in the midst of the editing. Merton told Naomi that a final censor was refusing permission to publish! Unaware that the author had a contract, an elderly censor from another abbey objected to Merton's ''colloquial prose style,'' which he considered inappropriate for a monk. He urged that the book be put aside until Merton ''learned to write decent English.'' We felt that these anonymous censors would have suppressed St. Augustine's ''Confessions'' if given the chance. I advised Merton to appeal (in French) to the Abbot General in France, and to our relief the Abbot General concluded that an author's style was a personal matter. This cleared the air and the censor wisely reversed his opinion. At last the ''Mountain'' could be published.

When advance proofs arrived in the summer of 1948, I decided to send them to Evelyn Waugh, Clare Boothe Luce, Graham Greene and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. To my delight they all responded in laudatory terms, and we used the quotations on the book jacket and in advertisements. At this point the first printing was increased from 5,000 to 12,500. By November, a month after publication, the book had sold 12,951 copies, but in December it shot up to 31,028. From mid-December to after New Year's Day is usually the slowest period for orders, because bookstores are so well stocked by then. This new pattern of sales was significant -- the ''Mountain'' was a best seller! It's hard to believe now that The New York Times refused to put it on the weekly list, on the grounds that it was ''a religious book.'' Today, including paperback editions and translations, the total sale of ''The Seven Storey Mountain'' has reached the multiple millions, and it continues to sell year after year.

Why did the success of the ''Mountain'' go so far beyond my expectations? Publishers cannot create best sellers, though few readers (and fewer authors) believe it. There is always an element of mystery when it happens: why this book at this moment? I believe the most essential element is timing. The ''Mountain'' appeared at a time of great disillusion: we had won World War II but the cold war had started, and the public was looking for reassurance. Second, Merton's story was unusual. A well-educated and articulate young man withdraws -- why? -- into a monastery. And the tale was well told, with liveliness and eloquence. One sign of the book's impact was the resentment it inspired in certain quarters -- not only with hostile reviewers, but with fellow religious, who thought it inappropriate for any monk to write. I remember receiving hate mail saying, ''Tell this talking Trappist who took a vow of silence to shut up!'' Though silence is a traditional part of their lives, Trappists take no such vow. Maintaining silence (to increase contemplation) does not by itself rule out communication (which they do in sign language). I had a short answer for the hatemongers: ''Writing is a form of contemplation.''

The celebrity that followed the book's publication became a source of embarrassment to Tom. If he had expected to withdraw from the world, it did not happen. Instead, as his fame and writing increased, he heard from Boris Pasternak in Russia, Czeslaw Milosz in Poland, Abraham Joshua Heschel at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Canon A. M. Allchin at Canterbury. His horizons widened more and more. Two years before his death he wrote a preface to the Japanese edition of ''The Seven Storey Mountain,'' containing his second thoughts about the book almost 20 years after he had written it: ''Perhaps if I were to attempt this book today, it would be written differently. Who knows? But it was written when I was still quite young, and that is the way it remains. The story no longer belongs to me. . . .''

Thomas Merton died in 1968 while attending a conference of Eastern and Western monks in Bangkok. In 1998, on the 50th anniversary of ''Mountain,'' I think of Mark Van Doren's words, which Tom and I heard in his classroom: ''A classic is a book that remains in print.''

Robert Giroux is writing a memoir about his almost 60 years in publishing. This essay is adapted from his introduction to a new edition of ''The Seven Storey Mountain,'' published this month by Harcourt Brace.
Tags: books, literary, new york times, obituary, theological notebook, thomas merton, waugh, writing

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