Adventures in Editing: Ted Solotaroff's 'Commentary' Days
In New York at the dawn of the '60s, radicalism appeared to be mostly of the cafe type. The first political event I attended was a meeting called by some of the Paris Review circle to protest the city law that required entertainers to obtain a license, known as a "cabaret card," to perform in night clubs. Apparently the card of a popular comedian known as Lord Buckley had been revoked, and all of a sudden it became a burning issue. Norman took me along to the organizing meeting of the Citizens' Emergency Committee, which was held in a beer hall near George Plimpton's apartment on the Upper East Side. There were some fifty or sixty people sitting on folding chairs listening to speakers who were trying to dramatize the urgency and implications of the issue, while a list of twenty-one members who were being nominated for the policy committee was circulated. Among the names were Norman Podhoretz; Mark Lane, an outspoken State Assemblyman; Barney Rosset, the aggressively avant-garde publisher of Grove Press; Robert Silvers, then an editor at Harper's Magazine, who was chairing the meeting; Art D'Lugoff, whose Village Gate was to New York's nightclubs what the Village Voice was to its press; Jules Feiffer, the Hogarth of our age of anxiety; Plimpton, who was slipping among us, happily greeting and introducing; and several white-shoe lawyers and financiers. Philip Rahv, the lion of Partisan Review, was not there, and Norman Mailer was coming down from Rhode Island, which was why nothing very much happened for the next hour or so, as a series of speakers preached to the choir.
I was sitting with a small group of Norman's friends, one of whom was William Phillips, the vaunted other editor of PR (as I was learning to call Partisan Review). A slender man with a handsome head of silvery hair and a face that seemed both relaxed and as alert as a bird's, Phillips had lost his voice and was writing notes to communicate. One of those I passed along said, "This is like Waiting for Lefty and Mailer is Lefty." Another of his notes was intended for me: "I'd like you to write for us. Can I send you a few novels to review?" Could he ever! I felt like Kafka's K. when, after all that time of dreamily looking for signs, omens, directions and connections, he is suddenly summoned to The Castle.
Phillips's invitation made it a memorable event for me. Mailer never arrived, and in time I had to leave for Riverdale. I don't remember anything much coming of the Citizens' Emergency Committee, which was more like a New York celebrity turn than a response to a genuine political emergency. The real action was taking place a thousand miles away at lunch counters in the South. The Citizens' Emergency Committee was a sign of the times, a kind of false dawn of the decade to come.
The assignment I received from William Phillips was to write a fiction chronicle. I hadn't reviewed more than one book before and here were five, including The Glass Bees, by the distinguished and repellent proto-Nazi author Ernst Jünger. But that wasn't the problem; the problem was writing for Partisan Review. Whenever I had to write something for publication, I was nagged by a presence--"Look who thinks he's a writer!"--that would undermine whatever confidence I had gained from my previous assignment. Formerly the presence was a generalized one, but now it took on the form of Philip Rahv's stony scowl. There followed a week of writing the first paragraph or two over and over again, hoping for a pass through the mountains to suddenly open. The piece was due on a Monday, and finally around midnight on Sunday I reached the rock bottom of despair and then, having suffered enough, went through my usual routine of telling myself that no matter how bum a critic I was, I wasn't a quitter. Falling back on the boyhood pride that had gotten me through lots of fistfights and lopsided losses in basketball, I stayed up all night and on the dragging wings of nicotine and caffeine, I managed to scribble and revise ten pages, finishing the final version around eleven the following morning.
Reading it on the subway, I was surprised to find I had made an interesting point about Jünger, but without grabbing the reader the way a review by F.W. Dupee or one by Norman usually did. I doubted they would take it.
About an hour later, I handed it to a young woman sitting behind a barrier to the sacred precinct in a loft off Union Square. Crowded as the dark interior was with desks, filing cabinets and bookcases, it seemed as much like a cave as an office. I told her that Mr. Phillips was expecting it and turned to leave. "Wait a minute," a voice rumbled from within, and out of the darkness shambled a broad, dark bear of a man in a pink pinstriped shirt and slicked-down hair.
"I'm Philip Rahv," he said. "Who are you?"
Hardly the person I wanted to see at the moment, already in mental flight from the great opportunity I'd probably blown. Seven or eight years before, I had often stood across the street from this same building in a kind of compulsive reverie, a supplicant before his temple, hoping that I might actually see Isaac Rosenfeld or Delmore Schwartz, my two favorite priests, leave the building, or maybe even Rahv or Phillips, the keepers of the temple, and suddenly I would have the nerve to approach one or the other, tell him how much he and his work mattered to me, and he would take an interest, take me for a cup of coffee, and my empty writer's life would become inhabited by a major mentor and ally. Now the fantasy had come true, and I could hardly bear the reality.
I told him my name and began to explain why I'd written much more about Jünger's novel than the others.
"You're one of Norman's young men," he interrupted, dropping me without much interest into one of the many pigeonholes he kept in his mind. That's how it seemed I had come be regarded. And it rankled.
It roused me enough out of my grim daze to say, "I work at Commentary, but I try to be my own man. And I'm in my 30s"--which didn't much register with him. He led me to a desk within the gloom, told me to sit down in a chair on the other side, took the manuscript out of the envelope and began to read. About every minute or so, he'd come out with an "Ugh," the intonations of which progressed in my mind from skepticism to disapproval to disgust. "You really have blown it," I said to myself. "The chance you've been dreaming of for ten years and you've fucking blown it."