The last article Ted Solotaroff wrote for The Nation was a short tribute to Emile Capouya, an essayist, short story writer, book editor and, from 1970 to 1976, this magazine’s literary editor. When his article was published in 2005, Ted was immersed in writing a memoir about his own days as a literary editor and critic. “Adventures in Editing,” the second part of which will appear in the next issue of The Nation, is an edited version of that memoir, which was left unfinished when Ted died in August. “Adventures in Editing” concerns Ted’s first magazine gig: the years he worked under the tutelage of Norman Podhoretz at Commentary in the early 1960s. As Ted honed his editorial chops, befriended writers and clashed with his boss, he also gradually awakened to the conviction that would soon guide his work on the phenomenal little magazine New American Review: “Literature was too important a democratic resource to be left to the literati.” One can also see Ted fashioning what book editor Gerald Howard has called his “exquisitely calibrated openness to the new with old-school rigor.” We are especially grateful to Ted’s literary executor, Maura Spiegel, for her assistance in publishing this article; to his son Isaac Solotaroff for providing photographs of Ted; and to Adam Bright for research. –John Palattella
I began working at Commentary in September 1960, some nine months after Norman Podhoretz had taken over, invigorating the magazine and steering it in a less Jewish and more leftward direction. By leading off his first three issues with long excerpts from Growing Up Absurd by Paul Goodman, the surprise witness whose testimony would soon change the terms of the debate about American society from conformist to deformed, Norman made it clear that the magazine would hold its own as the suddenly prominent new voice of a new decade. It was a great place to be, and a vastly unexpected one for someone who had been about to begin teaching two sections of Factual Writing for Forestry Students at the University of Washington.
The first morning, I was shown into my office by Sherry Abel, the managing editor, a large, graceful, middle-aged woman with a droll air. “Norman wants you to read these,” she said, indicating a file folder on the desk with several manuscripts. ”They’re for the meeting this afternoon. After that you can look through those.” She nodded toward two stacks of manuscripts, their return envelopes attached to them like lepers’ bells. “They’re from what we call the slush pile. You’ll soon see why.”
And that was more or less that. No indoctrination, no getting-to-know-you, almost zero curiosity except for a sly glance. Welcome to the Big Time. As Sherry went out she asked me if I wanted the door open or closed.
“You men,” she said, a throaty chuckle trailing behind her.
I sat down at the desk and took it all in: an ample, spick-and-span office with its contemporary walnut desk and chair, new filing cabinet, spiffy Olympia typewriter and wide view of the Upper East Side. The Commentary quarters took up a floor of a new office building that housed the American Jewish Committee, the class act of the national Jewish organizations. I felt like I was being taken into one of those patrician German-Jewish families like the Lehmans or the Strauses, I who not too many years ago had been a waiter at a family dinner party that Senator Lehman had led with the quiet aplomb and tact of a most civilized aristocrat. I’d been so bowled over that my standing resentment of privilege had collapsed.
I floated on the exhilaration for a few minutes more, fending off the internal naysayer who wanted to know how appropriate a sense of confidence, even entitlement, was for someone who had never worked a day at a magazine, whose only credential for this highflying job was a review of a minor novel and two shaky, mostly guesswork pieces on Jewish-American writing. Even Podhoretz had been surprised that I’d taken his offer instead of going to the University of Washington and finishing my dissertation. But there it was: it didn’t feel like a gamble, or even a run of luck; it was beginning to feel like my destiny. The highflier I’d had inklings and flashes of being as a student and freshman English teacher and recently as a writer was apparently taking over, as was the dormant Jew I had begun cultivating.
Or was it only that, like clothes, the office makes the man? This one was a far cry from the little cubicle I’d left at the University of Chicago–the battered desk with the stuck drawer, the hard-on-the-ass chair, the clunky old Royal with its red-and-black ribbon, the piles of student themes, staff memos, syllabuses and the spillover of my dissertation on Henry James. The cubicle at Chicago I had been so proud to have earned as the only graduate student on the college English staff was now the objective correlative, as we used to say, of myself at the bottom of the academic ladder.
Poking around, I opened the top drawer of the desk. Staring at me were two crisp stacks of rejection slips:
We regret that your manuscript isn’t suitable for Commentary.
They were more courteous than the slips I’d received six or seven years ago. But the message was the same blank shrug. After leaving college and settling in New York, I had tried to lead a fiction writer’s life for several years and gotten nowhere. I’d lived from one rejection slip to the next, reduced to taking heart from a “Sorry” or “Try us again” scribbled occasionally at the bottom. After my labored stories came back from New World Writing and Partisan Review, I’d send them to Commentary before submitting them further down my prestige chain to Harper’s and The Atlantic. It was at New World Writing or Partisan Review that I had fantasized I would someday “arrive.”
I turned to the two sets of manuscripts. First, I read through those of the finalists, four or five of them, along with the comments of the other three editors, and added a comment of my own. One of them, a piece about how the control of medical policy and services was passing from the American Medical Association to government and the unions, was written in such clumsy, jargon-ridden prose that I thought it could have slipped in from the slush pile, and said so. Chutzpah had mostly gotten me here, so I went with it. Also, during the meeting at which Podhoretz had offered me the job, I had soon become aware that he liked people who were outspoken like himself and tended to walk all over those who weren’t.
I then turned to the unsolicited manuscripts and found two or three that were marginally promising, even to the point that a stronger writer seemed to be lurking on the outskirts of the story or essay. For the rest of the morning I wrote specific suggestions in the margins and then a carefully encouraging cover letter to the authors. To some of the others I attached shorter letters, explaining their manuscripts’ main problems. To the remaining ones, the hopeless, I said that perhaps they should try a different kind of magazine or journal–and signed my name.
That afternoon’s meeting moved along with a relaxed dispatch, with Norman keeping a surprisingly easy hand on the wheel. I’d expected him to run the magazine with the same hard-driving authority out of which he wrote and that he had occasionally summoned when sizing me up. But now he acted as though his opinion was worth no more than ours, and the discussion was much more collegial than most of those at the English staff meetings at the University of Chicago, where everyone was vying for position, even an adjunct like me who hardly had one. When the article on the change in medical governance came up, Norman read my comment about how badly it was written, tossed it my way and said, “We agree. But it’s an important piece. It just needs heavy editing. See what you can do.”
Clearly I was being tested, maybe even having my feet set on the road to the slaughterhouse. I’d thought that editing a magazine as consistently well written as Commentary was like umpiring, calling the pitches and occasionally dusting off home plate; working on “Medical Care and the Consumer” was more like do-it-yourself plumbing, water rippling all along the ceiling and I having barely a clue of how to locate or fix the leak.
There was no question of going to Norman for instruction or even a few tips; if he had wanted to give me any, he would already have done so. Nor did I feel I could ask Sherry for help. I had been brought in as an associate editor, I was being treated as one and I should know what to do. What I knew how to do was to help students with various bad habits and ignorances write better. But the author of “Medical Care and the Consumer” was hardly a freshman and hardly ignorant. He wrote like a bureaucrat but clearly knew what he was writing about, unlike myself. He was also an official of the American Jewish Committee and worked on the next floor.
Faute de mieux, I began to practice what I’d been teaching on the clogged syntax and denatured diction of Martin T. Price, as I’ll call him, though proceeding much more cautiously than I would with a student’s writing. The trick, I thought, was to boost the writing to high-level journalism while maintaining as best I could the author’s organization; the sentences that more or less worked, however dull; and, as much as I could, the authority of his voice. I spent most of the week in the office as well as evenings at home trying to carry out these mismatched tasks, often erasing and revising my own editing in the margin.
I finally decided I could do no more–or less–with Martin T. Price and brought the edited manuscript to Sherry. I asked her whether I should send it upstairs to the author or ask him to come to my office and go over it with him there. Also, could she look it over and see if it was OK?
Sherry, who always kept her office door open, was about twenty years older than Norman or I, less motherly than big-sisterly, less big sister than a still-vital woman who liked young men. Handsome and leggy, often wearing net stockings, she had long, dancing eyes, a repertory of smiles and giggles and an arty fringe of hazel-gray curls. Sister to the famous Trotskyist lawyer Albert Goldman, who had gone to prison with his clients, Sherry had been married to the playwright, critic, Village flâneur and provocateur par excellence Lionel Abel, who still hung around her, and she had spent a number of years in Paris, where she had been great friends with Henry Miller and Wambly Bald (the original of the priapic Van Norden in Tropic of Cancer).
On the other hand, she was all business. When I brought the marked-up manuscript to her she took it out of my hand, read a little and handed it back. “Ted,” she sighed, “this is barely legible, much less readable.”
“I thought you could tell me if I’m on the right track. I’ve still got his original version so I can transpose my changes before I send it to him or have him come in.”
“But everything will have to be retyped anyway, my dear. Give this to your assistant to do and then I’ll look it over.”
“But should it be retyped before the author sees my changes? Isn’t that pretty presumptuous? And what about my suggestions to him?”
“Commentary editors, dear Ted, are very presumptuous. It’s part of our role. It’s how we’ve managed to publish so many sociologists and rabbis. Also, the ones who write this badly are not as interested in our suggestions as they are in being published in our magazine.”
I had the piece retyped and gave it to her. She read the first page, glanced at the rest and said, “I’d say it’s about halfway to being a Commentary piece.”
“Halfway? There will hardly be anything of Price’s left.”
“Sure there will,” she said. “There will be his information and your presentation of it. As Norman likes to say, ‘Put it through your typewriter.’ And right away. We close the issue on Friday and Price’s piece is in it.”
“Without him seeing it?”
“Oh, he’ll see it in galleys, and I’m sure he’ll be very pleased by how good you’re going to make him sound.”
“But that’s completely rewriting it.”
“Of course it is. Just remember, Ted, that you don’t have to please the author. You have to please Norman and me.”
I did what she advised. I quickly looked over a couple of recent pieces on a topical social issue, picked up what seemed to be a basic Commentary tone and then ran my typewriter like a power mower through Price’s remaining verbiage and my cautious trims and borders. Much relieved as well as pleased by the skill I was discovering, I was still hard at work the next day when Sherry came into my office and asked where the piece was.
“I’m just about finished. I’ll have it to you by five o’clock.”
“But we’re closing the issue this afternoon.”
As she spoke, she noticed the piles of manuscripts on my desk and other piles on the chair and window ledge. “My, you have a lot of manuscripts. I’ll bet you have as many manuscripts as the rest of us put together. Haven’t you returned any yet?”
“Of course I have. These are mostly from people I’ve been corresponding with.”
“Corresponding with?” She took it in, turned it over and then said with mock gentleness, “Oh, dear Ted, you’ve made a discovery, haven’t you? You’ve discovered that behind every manuscript is a soul. But now you must make another discovery. You must discover that some souls are worth a hell of a lot more than others.”
The Price piece passed under her blue pencil pretty much as I’d rewritten it. “Not bad,” she said. “But you’re going to have to be faster and on time.”
I could see that unless I wanted to become the Miss Lonelyhearts of the unpublished, I would have to restrain my helping hand, and if I were going to prosper here, I’d have to be more hardheaded. If I was going to be a mensch as an editor, I first had to become an editor.
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.
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.”
His cruelty act finished, Rahv tossed the manuscript into a wire file on the desk and said, “Not bad. But too long.”
The drums of hell stopped banging, and my spirit returned to me. I said that I’d be glad to cut it. “How many pages should it run?”
“Nah, I’ll cut it,” he said, dismissive of the task.
I knew a bit about editing by now, and there suddenly were good things in the review I wanted to preserve. Also I had doubts about the editorial sensitivity of someone who would read something with its author sitting right there in the hot seat. “If you’d just mark the places where it needs a trim, I could take it from there.”
“No, I’ll do it,” he said, upping the overbearingness a notch. Well, at least some version of it would be in PR. My unease about his editing (Rahv’s manner reminded me of the line in a Joyce story about a woman who dealt with moral problems like a butcher deals with meat) along with my lingering resentment of the “Norman’s young men” comment made me want to just get out of there.
I stood up. So did he. “Come on,” he said. “I’ll take you to lunch. We’ll mark the occasion of your becoming one of our writers.”
My long-cherished hope sprang up and bloomed. Once again, he was Philip Rahv, not just the editor of PR but the author of the seminal “Paleface and Redskin,” the critic who wrote as sensitively about Henry James’s heroines (I’d cribbed a bit from his introduction to The Bostonians) as he did about Raskolnikov and Stavrogin and Ivan Karamazov, the one among the elders who had stood up squarely against Joe McCarthy, calling him a political bum.
I assumed he’d take me to Schwabens, a literary in-place in the Union Square area. But instead he led me into a coffee shop next door, where we sat at the counter. “Take the chopped liver,” he said. “It’s the specialty here.”
My stomach had been up all night and through the morning churning with the rest of me. “I think I’ll have some scrambled eggs,” I said.
He seemed insulted, as though he’d brought me to a famous steakhouse and I’d turned down the filet mignon for a hamburger.
“You’re making a mistake,” he grumbled. “The chopped liver is special here. You should try it.”
Some occasion, I thought ruefully. I stuck to my choice of eggs and tried to turn the prickly coffee shop gourmand back into the critic I admired. I told him how much I’d learned from his introduction to The Bostonians and that I had drawn upon it in my dissertation. He responded by ordering another cup of coffee. I settled for an Alka-Seltzer. “So what’s going on with Norman?” he asked with much more emphasis than curiosity.
I’d been at Commentary five or six months by now and was bored spitless by the question. So I asked him what he thought was going on with Norman, which probably was what his question was the opening for anyway. “He thinks he’s become a major radical. It’s like that joke about the rich man who buys a yacht and takes his mother out in it. She asks him who’s going to steer it. He says he is. ‘I’m a captain now, Mom,’ he tells her. She says, ‘By you you’re a captain. But by the captains are you a captain?'” Rahv then delivered himself of a long rap, the high points being that Norman was essentially an arriviste who was trying to turn himself outside in, that he had no basic ideological position that grasped the social forces today, that he was much more a “political swinger” than he was a radical. He needed to take Commentary in a new direction to make his mark, and what direction could he go but left? But it wasn’t all that left anyway, and it wouldn’t last. He was under the spell of that other “swinger,” Mailer, and that wouldn’t last either. Norman Podhoretz was too bourgeois.
Rahv’s tone, his stance, his linkage brooked little reply. If there was going to be a significant radicalism, he wound up saying, it would come from the campuses. He was teaching at Brandeis now, and he sensed an inchoate restlessness there. “It started with those Negro students, and if we get into a war with Cuba or Vietnam you’ll see it spread like wildfire.”
Soon after I’d started at Commentary, Norman Mailer gave a Saturday night party that ended with him drunk and stabbing his wife, and then staggering off into hiding. The following Monday the office became Mailer Central as Norman received reports about his friend’s whereabouts, state of mind, options. After sneaking into his wife’s hospital room to beg her not to press charges and the next day appearing on Mike Wallace’s talk show, Mailer was arrested, remanded to Bellevue and spent two weeks or so there.
Not long after his release he turned up at a party where I happened to be, and I met him for the first time. I expected him to be chastened by the experience. He entered the party with his entourage, his chest high, his expression exuberant, as though he had been spending his time on the expert slopes at Killington rather than in the city psychiatric ward. Wherever Mailer was became the party. The star of his entourage was the ex-middleweight Roger Donoghue, whose knockout punch had once killed a man. Lithe and ruggedly handsome, he drew my attention away even from Mailer. I thought of Sergius O’Shaugnessy, the narrator of The Deer Park and, more recently, the cocksman par excellence of “The Time of Her Time,” Mailer’s sensationally explicit account of a three-night stand in which the deft, cunning “messiah of the one-night stand” slowly boosts a smartass NYU student up the wall of her semifrigidity and finally over into the promised land.
At one point I was introduced to Mailer. Half smiling, half squinting, he gave me a measuring look, the affable observer who misses nothing. “You’ve got a pug’s nose,” he said. “You ever box?”
“Some,” I said. He asked me where; I told him mostly in the Navy. “Not competitively,” I said. “Mostly self-defense.”
“Is that how you got your nose?”
“Sort of. Actually, my nose is a long story,” I said, stumbling around, wondering if I should tell the story to him, deciding not to. “But, yes–I did get it broken the second time in a grudge bout in boot camp.”
He smiled. “You win?”
“Actually, I did. I was lucky the other guy quit. After three rounds I couldn’t hold my arms up anymore.”
He nodded. “I know how that feels.” Suddenly, he feinted with his hands and mine came up. “Quick hands,” he said.
It broke the ice–in me. He was that famous, that charismatic–I’d felt as shy as a girl despite what we were talking about. Still, I was relieved when someone else walked by and I could get out of Mailer’s magnetic field, where his words zinged and mine seemed to float as light and evanescent as soap bubbles.
About a year or so later, there came a surprise. I was leaving the building after work when I saw Mailer by himself, trying to hail a cab on Third Avenue during rush hour. I had to look twice to make sure it was him. He was wearing an overcoat and a watch cap pulled over his ears against the cold. He didn’t look chesty and keen at all; he looked boyishly oppressed, diminished without his entourage, his face pinched in the cold air.
David Segal was the friend of a young woman I had known during college in Ann Arbor in the early 1950s. A short, pudgy fellow who made up in aggressiveness what he lacked in size, he would go on to have a significant career as a book editor until his untimely death in his early 40s. But when I first knew him he was working in his father’s thread business. Married to the writer Lore Segal, he moved in Upper West Side literary circles, and our paths crossed one evening at a dinner party. He told me that he was trying to write his way out of the family business, and having spent a good part of my adolescence in my father’s plate-glass shop in Elizabeth, New Jersey, I was touched by his situation. He had published a review in Commonweal, and I asked him if he wanted to try to write something for Commentary. What did I have in mind? I suggested that he look around for a book that really interested him, and if it wasn’t already assigned, he could try a review.
I’d been doing this for some time now. Shortly after I’d come to Commentary, I’d had a conversation with Norman about recruiting writers for the magazine. It didn’t seem to me such a big deal; I said I knew of four or five people at the University of Chicago alone who could write for Commentary.
“You think you do, but you don’t,” said Norman. “You don’t realize how unusual you were for an academic.”
I said I wasn’t that unusual: I’d lucked into an opportunity my friends hadn’t had. “I’ll bet you a dinner that I can bring five writers you’ve never heard of into the magazine in the next year.”
“I don’t want to take your money,” he said. “I’ll bet you won’t bring three.”
We turned out to both be right. With one exception, the novelist Thomas Rogers, none of the former colleagues I had in mind sent in a review or piece that was lively enough to be accepted. A former fellow graduate student, Elizabeth Tornquist, who was turning to political journalism, also managed to crack the barrier. The others had fallen into one or another mode of scholarly dullness or pedagogical authority and, despite my suggestions, had trouble climbing out to address the common reader. My efforts to point their prose and sense of subject in a broader direction brought little joy to either party. “How dare you revise my formulation of an intellectual problem” was a fairly typical reaction.
I was still looking for my third winner. David Segal decided to write about contemporary cartoonists: Walt Kelly, Jules Feiffer, Shel Silverstein and Saul Steinberg. David could write: “Steinberg’s line is most venomous in his drawings of women; the book swarms with women who wear grotesque faces as if they were the scars of old victories.” But at the editorial meeting, his manuscript was judged to be all over the place and lacking a context. I worked on it with David, resubmitted it and was told it still wasn’t acceptable. Rather than expose either of us to another bruising bout of editing, I tightened up the prose some more; and since I had room in the next issue for it, I gave it to Sherry. Then I called David and told him the good news, adding that I’d done a bit of last-minute tinkering, which he could check out in the galleys.
He didn’t return the galleys, but when the issue appeared he phoned me. Expecting that he was calling to tell me how pleased he was to be in Commentary, I said as much, being pleased with myself that we’d brought it off.
“I hated every word of it,” he said. “Damn you, Ted, you took what I wrote and made it into something you wrote. You took away any pride I had in writing it. What would you feel like if the same thing had been done to you?”
When I put the receiver down a few moments later, his fury was still blazing into me. I’d tried to explain that the same thing had happened to me, that it had been a learning experience, that we could have revised the galleys. But my words sounded hollow. I tried to work up some anger of my own but was overtaken by shame. He was right. The review I’d published in PR had been cut by Rahv like a butcher cuts meat. I’d all but disowned it, and with it the desire to write for PR. I thought of the sentence that Norman had dropped into my Golden piece, which had introduced a small worm into the apple of gratification and gratitude. That was nothing compared with what I had done to Segal’s review, not to mention more extensive solo “typewriter” jobs.
I’d been editing freely for more than a year now. As Sherry had said, Commentary editors had to be presumptuous to publish perhaps half of our writers and maintain the minimum standard of terse, fluent, idiomatic, well-organized prose. Over time my initial concerns about the author’s stake in his work had shifted and hardened into my working understanding of “the Commentary piece”–a kind of intuition of what belonged in the magazine and what didn’t–from the piece as a whole down to a given sentence or metaphor. But was editing in this more or less arbitrary way all that different from the compromises that Richard Yates’s Frank Wheeler, in writing serviceable promotional copy, makes in Revolutionary Road? Was I becoming an intellectual organization man whose product was “the Commentary piece”?
The second part of this article will appear in next week’s issue.