Adventures in Editing: Ted Solotaroff's 'Commentary' Days
Yet I sensed that my years of struggle and rejection were not to be discounted. Nor was the desire to pass on what I had been granted by my mentors or the menschy editors who had given me a break. The question was how to join the ruthless economy of an editor to the empathy of a once-aspiring writer.
In the next three months I was swept along by a high, prolonged wave of opportunity. I had come to New York with a review under way of Karl Shapiro's In Defense of Ignorance, a prominent poet's demolition job of what was regarded as the "age of criticism." I thought I had done a good job of threading my way between what I felt to be right and opportune in Shapiro's attacks and their episodes of overkill. Norman said that I should go over it with Sherry.
She scanned the first paragraph. "So many words," she said. "So much 'on the one hand, on the other hand.'" She read on. "'Shapiro is a critic in spite of himself.' That begins to be interesting." She drew a diagonal line through the first two paragraphs, which I had rewritten about twenty times, trying to introduce the argument in a balanced way. "Let's start here and see if we can make this less ponderous."
"Wait a minute, you're amputating my approach."
"No, dear Ted. I'm taking down your scaffolding."
Well, what she proceeded to do was a revelation. What I had thought was a solid review turned out to have as much fat as a sixteen-ounce blue-plate special. My resentment at being told I was ponderous turned into gratitude once I began to see with her eye and fall into step with her pace. "Why the double adjectives here? Give me a good precise one." My overzealous development of a point--example, comment, further example, more comment, final example (what Sherry called "the graduate school schlep")--turned into an incisive statement and the best example, and moved on. She showed me how removing a transitional or topic sentence from the head of a paragraph could energize the line of discussion and more involve the reader. "This is how Lionel would do it," she would say, cutting a sentence to the quick or making two or even three related sentences into one to heighten the play of thought. She also eliminated most of the qualifying phrases I was habituated to from graduate school ("It is true that...onetheless"; "by and large"; "to be sure"). "Stuffy," she would grunt. Or, with that chuckle, "I don't like men who equivocate."
Much the same instruction came in a different way a month later. That past summer, Norman had asked me to write a full-length piece about Harry Golden, who had become a phenomenal success after publishing two collections of snippets from his one-man newspaper, The Carolina Israelite. I begged off, saying that I had to finish my dissertation, move my family to Seattle and get established in my first real faculty position. But since I had the famous young editor of the much-vaunted "new Commentary" on the line, so to speak, and my chutzpah on tap, I added that Golden's popularity was more significant than Golden himself, that he might think about getting Dwight Macdonald to look into Golden's reviews, much as Macdonald had done with "By Cozzens Possessed," his famous attack on another heavily inflated reception. Norman wrote back, saying that he liked the idea and would wait for me to tackle it.
Now it seemed I had to do so. Ironically enough, my dissertation's final chapter, which I was typing up at the time I changed careers, addressed the handful of reviews of The Bostonians along with personal responses from William and Alice and various friends and ill-wishers in Boston and Cambridge, where the novel was mildly notorious for a while. From Harry (as he was called in the family) James to Harry Golden in a single bound of 4-by-6 index cards. With Golden, it was all there for the processing: several hundred reviews provided by his publisher that documented the feast of Jewish acceptance and Golden's role as court jester to the Eisenhower Age. But with all those reviews to plow through, I had to write the piece in a few days to meet the deadline. The result was thirty pages or so of rapid prose, burdened by the ex-graduate student's habits of documentation.
"Why all the references?" Norman said. "No one is going to think you're making this up." This time he stepped in as editor. By the end of the day I received from his assistant a much smoother, quicker and punchier version of what I had turned in, retyped in Commentary columns and ready to go. A typewriter job by a master. Though improved almost everywhere, it still had my points, my continuity and mostly my language, except for one sentence of his own that Norman had stuck in: "To be on top is to be on top, which is a wonderful place to be."
As I restored my phrasing in a few places and added a few final touches, Norman's sentence began to rankle. It wasn't me, though it did rise from the context as something Golden had all but said. But it was also pure Norman. By then I was already familiar with his notion that in the intellectual world the "dirty little secret," in D.H. Lawrence's phrase, was not sex but success, a truth that only he and his great friend Norman Mailer fessed up to and openly acted upon. All the rest of us liberal intellectuals were closet glory-seekers held back by our phony modesty. It was my first example of Norman's need to be armed with a truth that almost no one else would publicly acknowledge believing.
I didn't imagine he would have resisted my cutting the sentence or that I would have lost points doing so. He didn't pull rank in that way. Meanwhile I was experiencing the euphoria of having my piece turned into the lead in the next issue and possibly one that would now be compared favorably to Dwight Macdonald's "By Cozzens Possessed." Grateful to Norman for the improvements, bowled over by his editorial deftness and speed, intoxicated by the anticipation of having "arrived" in the Commentary orbit of the New York literary-intellectual stratosphere, I left the sentence in, thus opening the way to taking as much liberty with the pieces I edited.
Toward the end of the '50s, The New Leader featured one of those symposiums on "whither the younger generation." Norman's contribution stood out. He attributed our values--prudence, responsibility, tastefulness, privacy, circumspection, caution--to the moral climate and cultural conditions of the times. The power and position of America as the leader of the free world and its present prosperity were more conducive to accommodation than criticism, he argued, and gave rise to a thoughtful, middle-class lifestyle that put great stock in the opportunities and responsibilities of the private life--a more strenuous arena than the political one that had preoccupied the preceding generation. Most notably, Norman demolished the "intellectual revisionism" as well as anticommunism of our ex-radical mentors (who had targeted the jejune and doctrinaire leftist pieties of possibility, whether of human nature or society) and their refusal to take a "sufficiently complicated view of reality." By the same token, for Norman the bohemianism of the recent past had become as dubious as Popular Front Stalinism.
All in all, it was a sharply pointed and coherent, if not novel, description of the life of many of us, who were entering our 30s to find that we had spent our 20s as earnest young husbands and fathers and graduate students. Most of my peers at Chicago, now junior faculty, were locked into difficult domestic arrangements that they had brought upon themselves by marrying much too young. Why had we done so? Partly from the example of the veterans who dominated campus life when we went to college and who set a tone of maturity and seriousness. To be married like so many of them would be to enter adulthood. That was the exterior and, to some extent, superficial reason for our choice. The interior reason typically boiled down to postadolescent insecurity and idealism, a potent recipe for misjudgment. Now, some years past the most desperate ones, our children in school, a junior faculty or executive position in hand, a bit of money in the bank to modestly refurbish our lives, we had reached the stability we had sacrificed so much for. The price was restlessness and a sense of sexual immaturity that was beginning to nag.
The piece that truly startled me was not Podhoretz's but a response to it, "Death in the Wilderness," by Harold Rosenberg, who attributed our precociously mature generational style to "ancestor camping." This was the first time I'd come upon the term "camp," and writing with the sharp epigrammatic wit and fresh insights he was known for, Rosenberg made it stick. (Susan Sontag's more notorious "Notes on 'Camp'" came several years later.) Rosenberg's point was that we were not truly a generation; we were the fretful tail end of the previous literary and intellectual generation, having embraced its resolutions of radicalism and bohemianism and modernism as our own without having wrestled with them. We were bringing up the rear, as it were, of what Rosenberg had famously named "the herd of independent minds."
What began to strike home was that our middle-class careerism and domesticity was a costume, what Rosenberg dubbed "The Solid Look." I'd already glimpsed it a bit in Lionel Trilling's example and influence as a tribune of "the educated class" (the middle class with liberal arts degrees and interests). Another of Rosenberg's ideas that I was ready for was that the conformity of our generation was likely on its way out, just as he, a late comer to the independent spirit of the 1920s, had been "swamped" and set on edge by the collectivist spirit of the 1930s. As he went on to say, "younger members of the present generation may be interested in the experience of being 'on edge,' since if my time calculations are correct that is where they are most likely to find themselves."
When I came to New York in the fall of 1960, that edginess was already apparent. I had only to go to the office each morning to sense it, for one of its main agents was Norman himself. He was no longer the spokesman of our sober, mature look, whose wistful suggestion for acting up was a midnight plunge in the Plaza Hotel fountain. No, that Norman was history. In the past year or two he had teamed up with Norman Mailer, the lead rebel, iconoclast and sensualist of the New York scene. The result was a hard-drinking, sexually liberated Norman who didn't seem to spend many evenings at home. Our editorial meetings were often punctuated by phone calls from Mailer, who appeared to have open access to Norman. We always knew it was "the other Norman"--as Sherry referred to him, with her droll roll of the eyes--because the butch side of Norman would emerge as he responded to Mailer's latest brainstorm or piece of gossip or plan for the night's revels.