Emile Capouya, who died recently, was literary editor of The Nation from 1970 to 1976. His successor, Elizabeth Pochoda, recalls, “I always thought he was brilliant and unusually fearless about his opinions. My desk was filled with the most elaborately courteous rejection letters to contributors that managed, despite their politesse, to express ferociously firm opinions about the shortcomings of the work submitted.”&&&–The Editors
Emile (a&k&a Mike) Capouya was before and after his tenure as Nation literary editor one of the hard core of young intellectual editors and executives who brought trade book publishing up to European standards during the paperback revolution and lived on to oppose and be ground down by the invasion of the conglomerates.
His two names seemed to stand for the two sides of Capouya’s powerful integrity. Mike signified the immigrant American kid in the teenage stevedore and Merchant Marine who carried in his spirit the honed hardihood of the seafarer. Emile signified the European culture that was his birthright and that he cultivated at Columbia and Oxford and ever after: captain of the fencing team; translator of French, Italian, German, Dutch; editor of Ivo Andric, Primo Levi, Ismail Kadare and many other international writers; and the essayist whose prose style descended from that of the philosophes in its dignity, élan and thrust.
My favorite essay was “The Red Flag and the Black,” a beautifully lucid exposition of anarchism. Anarchism was where Mike and Emile, the ex-working stiff and the European-style intellectual, came together as intense collaborators. For all his dialectical agility and nuance, his black flag flew two simple principles that he had learned with his hands: People long to do better than they do, and they are naturally creative and cooperative. The categorical imperative of his politics was to act always in the spirit of the society we wish to bring about.
As an editor he followed the general counsel of the serious and the innovative: that a job was worth having as long as you were able to do your thing. He worked at many publishing houses and even headed a couple of them until the string of his independence again ran out. Unlike most of his peers, he wasn’t reverent about the modern tradition and regarded most contemporary authors of talent as “peacocks or clowns.” He reserved his notion of greatness for the moral visionaries, those with the prophetic instinct, such as Silone and Solzhenitsyn, who regarded themselves, in the latter’s words, as a second government.
Capouya’s own moral vision eventually found its form in a panoply of stories and reflections from his life. In the Sparrow Hills is a unique work, written as boldly and subtly as memoir prose gets. The winner of the prestigious Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy, it reminds me on every page of the words of Danton to his executioner that Emile Mike Capouya liked to quote: “Show them my head. It’s worth looking at.”