Robert Giroux 1993

Robert Giroux

Thank you, Mr. Pennoyer.  I strongly approve of awards for writing.  Especially when the winners are as well chosen as tonight’s.  And I congratulate each of the recipients of this year’s Whiting Writers’ Awards.  I note that all ten have had their work published, or is about to be published, in book form, and I assume they know something about publishing.  But it might be useful if I recall some experiences of mine as an editor and book publisher for more than 50 years.

I started at Harcourt, Brace and Company in 1939, an inexperienced editor at a time when Virginia Woolf was still alive. During my first months on the job, Mr. Brace handed me the Hogarth Press proofs of her newest novel, Between the Acts.  There was nothing to edit, of course, and I realized that’s why it was assigned to me.  Nevertheless, I was thrilled to be involved, even mechanically, with this work of a writer I admired.  The novel’s portrayal of England between 1914 and 1919, the years of The Great War, was about characters who were staging a village pageant. 

This brilliant and neglected novel is one of her best, and I had no idea, especially in 1940, that it was prophetic.  When I also put through the press her book of essays, The Death of the Moth, the literary editor of Harper’s Bazaar scolded me on the telephone for taking so long to send him advance proofs.  I asked him what this glossy and fashionable magazine paid for full serial rights, and he said “$25 an essay.” I was so shocked that I said, “Not anymore, it’s now $100.”  And he angrily paid the new fee.

Leonard Woolf then wrote Donald Brace a charming note, saying, “The increase of 400% for Virginia’s essays is greatly appreciated.”

In 1941, Mr. Brace called me into his office and read me Woolf’s heart breaking account of his wife’s suicide.  She had filled her pockets with big stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse, which flowed near their house.  She was hardly in her grave when attacks on her work and reputation began to appear, predicting oblivion.  I remember an especially dismissive piece by Diana Trilling in The New York Times Book Review, a piece she must now regret.

Another memorable book in my first year was Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, a magisterial history of the intellectual roots of socialism, starting with Giovanni Vico’s cyclical theory of history, and tracing its influence on Jean Michele, Karl Marx, and Engles, up to the eve of Lenin’s return to Russia in 1917. 

When I read the manuscript Mr. Brace had put on my desk, I was sure it was a masterpiece.  I was so sure it was a masterpiece, that I believed the world would greet it with hosannas.  Instead, it received condescending reviews and sold less than 3,000 copies.  Many years later, it was reissue with success in the new Anchor Books paperback series.  And finally, in 1971, when FSG reprinted it in hardcover, it received a rave review on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, which said that none of the original readers understood the book’s importance when it came out. 

This is the most sobering of all publishing lessons.  Great books are often ahead of their time.  The trick is how to keep them—and their authors—afloat until the times catch up.  I had learned this disillusioning lesson long before I became an editor from one of my teachers at Columbia College, Raymond Weaver, the first biographer of Herman Melville. 

He discovered that when it was published in 1851, Moby Dick had been a flop.  Melville never fully recovered from this disaster.  He got a job at a New York customs office at Battery Park, and worked there for 20 years, walking each day to and from his brownstone house at 104 East 26th Street, not very far from this library. 

On his death in 1891, The Times missed the news.  His books were out of print, and he was practically unknown.  When Professor Weaver visited Melville’s granddaughter in the brownstone house around 1912, she showed him a small trunk full of papers, and Weaver was the first person to read the handwritten manuscript of Billy Budd, which Melville had finished only a few months before his death. 

It was published for the first time in 1924, the year from which the Melville revival dates.  Since Melville knew that Moby Dick was his masterpiece, and we know it, why didn’t the reading public of the 1850s recognize its great qualities?  The London Athenaeum called it “an absurd book” and said, “Mr. Melville has only himself to thank if his horrors are flung aside by the reader as so much trash belonging to the worst school of bedlam literature.”

I’d now like to recall some experiences with four other writers with whom I’ve worked.  Flannery O’Connor, Jack Kerouac, Elizabeth Bishop, and T.S. Eliot.  I’ll start with the last, who was, when I met him in 1946, the greatest living poet.  He was also an editor at the London firm of Faber and Faber, and he had just arrived from England by ocean liner that morning, expecting to lunch with my boss, Frank Mauley, who was not free.

Since I did not know this when Mauley introduced us, I was dumbfounded when Eliot said, “May I take you to lunch, Mr. Giroux?”  For me, it was an unnerving as the dinner invitation from the statue in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

In those days, Eliot really was monumental.  But he could not have found a more effective way of putting me at ease.  As we sat down at the restaurant, he said, “As one editor to another, Giroux, tell me, do you have much author trouble?” I could not help laughing, he laughed in return, and that was the beginning of a friendship of almost 20 years. 

Since he was both a writer and an editor, I asked whether he agreed with the belief that most editors are failed writers.  He did not answer at once, and then slowly said, “Yes.  I suppose that most editors are failed writers.  But so are most writers.” And there was something in the way he spoke that made me realize he was thinking of himself in the failed company, in the sense that, as a poet, he had not accomplished all that he may have wanted to.  Since he was at the height of his fame, it was a memorable moment. 

When, in 1955, I left Harcourt Brace to join the publishing house I’m associated with, he offered me, unasked, his next book.  It was a rare act of generosity and friendship, and he communicated this decision in a characteristic way: he did not tell me.  Instead, he cabled Donald Brace from London: “Bob tells me he is leaving, and I want you to know, I am offering him my next book.”  When Mr. Brace, whom I respected and loved, came into the office and handed me the cable, I was so surprised and moved that I could say nothing.  Mr. Brace then left my office without a word.

Eliot’s next work was a book of essays on poetry and poets, which we published at FSG.  In November 1948, when he received the Nobel Prize, I accompanied him to the airport for his flight to Stockholm via London.  A reporter who interviewed him, as we waited for the plane, asked, “Mr. Eliot, what book did you get the Nobel Prize for?”  “I believe it’s given for the entire corpus,” he replied.  And the reporter said, “When did you write that?”

Later, Eliot said to me, “It might be a good title for a murder mystery: The Entire Corpus.” I once heard Ben Huebsch, the venerable publisher at Viking, who had launched James Joyce on America, with the first edition worldwide of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, asked Eliot about his role in publishing Robert Graves’ The White Goddess at Faber and Faber.  Graves had claimed that the book had the divine protection of the goddess herself.  For example, a publisher in London, to whom he first sent the manuscript, declined it and died of heart failure the same month.

A second publisher in New York who also turned it down not long afterwards hanged himself dressed in women’s clothes, from a tree that Graves claimed was dedicated to the right goddess.  The third publisher, who was Eliot, accepted the book.  Within one year, he was awarded the Order of Merit, the Nobel Prize, and had a smash hit on Broadway, The Cocktail Party

Eliot confirmed all the details, and he said they were matters of record, but he was not aware of being influenced by the goddess.  He simply thought The White Goddess was a remarkable book. 

One evening, I took him to My Fair Lady, and we went backstage afterwards to meet his friend, Rex Harrison, who had starred in The Cocktail Party in London.  When Harrison asked Eliot what he thought of the show, he said, “Bernard Shaw is greatly improved by music” and started to sing “Just Get Me to the Church on Time.”

Though Eliot was sometimes reclusive, his friends knew him to be an amusing and delightful person.  I noticed that he never went to the movies, and I persuaded him to see Rashomon and Throne of Blood, two Japanese films he considered masterpieces, especially the second, which was based on Macbeth.

When I asked him why he did not go to the movies more often, he looked at me and said, “Because they interfere with my daydreams.”  When he died in 1964, I attended the memorial at Westminster Abbey.  Ezra Pound sat on the first choir stool.  Alec Guinness read from Four Quartets, and Stravinsky’s anthem “The Dove Descending Breaks the Air” was sung by the choir.  Eliot’s plaque in the Poets’ Corner of the Abbey bares these words: “The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” 

When I first met Mary Flannery O’Connor, I sensed behind her soft-spoken speech and clear eyed gaze a tremendous strength, creative and moral.  Robert Lowell had brought her along on a visit to my office, and told me she was writing Wise Blood.  Flannery impressed me as the rarest kind of young writer. She not only knew exactly what she wanted to write, she was also prepared to sacrifice everything to achieve it. 

Some month later, her literary agent, Elizabeth McKee, told me that Flannery had broken with her publisher because she resented being treated, as she said, “Like a slightly dimwitted campfire girl.”  As a result of this, I not only inherited Wise Blood, but every book she wrote thereafter.  When it was published in 1952, Wise Blood met with critical incomprehension.  One reviewer called it, “A study in insanity.”  But the book is still in print, a classic, and she is one of the few women writers in the library of America.

When FSG re-issued Wise Blood in 1962, she wrote a new preface defining the novel’s theme, free will, as “a mystery, and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen.”  Once, I visited Flannery and her mother at their farm in Millersville, Georgia, where I learned a great deal about peacocks, Flannery’s favorite bird.  She had 15 of them in all sizes, vain creatures that began to preen their feathers and jockey for position as soon as they saw my camera.  But as Flannery once said, “They really have a lot to be proud of.”

One day at lunch, her mother said, “Mr. Giroux, why don’t you get Flannery to write about nice people.” I almost laughed, but Flannery remained silent and poker faced, and I did not have the writ to say, “Flannery does write about nice people; she frequently writes about herself.” When she did at 39, Thomas Merton said he would not compare her with good writers like Katherine Anne Porter, Hemingway, and Sartre, but rather, because of her unique qualities, “Someone like Sophocles.  I writer her name with honor, for all the truth and all the craft with which she shows man’s fall and his dishonor.” 

She deserves tribute for her great intelligence, unsparing honesty, and the fecundity of her imagination.  Her wonderful letters that having been edited by Sally Fitzgerald reveal the final truth: Flannery is a genius whose work deservedly belongs in the pantheon of American writing.

Jack Kerouac was 26 in 1948 when Mark Van Dorn, another college teacher of mine, sent him to see me.  The name he used then was John Kerouac, the French-Canadian original being Jean-Louis.  He had been born in Lowell, Massachusetts of working class parents, and had won an athletic scholarship to Horace Mann High School in New York.  Four years later, he earned another said scholarship at Columbia, where he played on the college football team under the well-known coach Lou Little, whom he despised. 

During the war, Jack served as a merchant seaman, and he said it was while he was at sea that he decided to be a writer.  He brought me the manuscript of his first novel, The Town and the City, whose style was influenced by Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel.  Though it had an originality and energy of it’s own.  It was a portrait of the artist as a young man in Lowell, Massachusetts, and I liked its honestly and lyricism.  When we brought it out in 1950, it was met with good reviews and reasonable success.  He was launched. 

Soon I was meeting some of his Columbia friends, like Allen Ginsberg, who at that time was clean-shaven and wore bowties and said he preferred Jack’s fantasy fiction, the unpublished Doctor Sax stories over The Town and the City.  There was also a St. Louis clique around Jack, whose central figure was William Burroughs, whose early novel, Junk, written under a pseudonym, I turned down.

I realized that Jack’s development was bound to be involved with the new drug culture.  However, Jack and I got on well, perhaps because some of my ancestors were also French-Canadian.  He even took me to meet his mother at their Long Island home, and the widowed Mrs. Kerouac was a sturdy soul who worked in a shoe factory to support her writer son and the rest of the family.  And she amused me by saying, in a somewhat accusing tone, “You may be a publisher, but you look like a banker.” She said, “Jack, stick with him instead of those bums you hang out with.”

Let me tell you how I lost Jack’s second novel, On the Road, the one that made his reputation.  It was in 1952, two years after we had published The Town and the City, that he phoned one day, in great excitement, saying that he just typed the last sentence of his new novel, and wanted to see me right away.  Of course, I told him to bring it in.  The word “stoned” was not yet in use, but I realized that there was something strange about his condition.

He stood in my doorway with a big roll of paper under his arm.  Later, I learned that a friend who worked at the Associated Press had given him several rolls of the print out paper used on the Telex machines.  He held one end of the roll and tossed it across my office like an oversized stream of confetti, yelling, “Here’s my new book!”  Instead of congratulating him, as he expected, and taking him out to celebrate with more drinks, I foolishly said, “Jack, you realize, don’t you, that you’ll have to cut this up for the printer.  They only work with pages, and we’ll need pages for the editing as well.” 

He became red with rage and said, “The hell with editing, not one word of this manuscript is to be changed, this was dictated to me by the Holy Ghost!” Over my protests, he rolled up the paper and stormed out of the office, and I thought, out of my life. 

Five years later, in 1957, On the Road was published by Viking, causing a literary sensation and launching the Beat Generation.  Sometime before it appeared, I ran into Malcolm Cowley, the literary advisor at Viking, and he said, “I think it’s going to be an important book if Jack ever finishes the rewriting.” I said, “You mean, he’s changing it and retyping it on regular manuscript paper?”  “Of course!”  Cowley said.  “He cut it considerably, and he’s been revising it for more than two years.”  I think he gave Sterling Lord, his agent, that whole roll of paper.  Of course, when the book came out, I wrote Jack a letter of congratulation, but it wasn’t until 1961 that he sent me two manuscripts, Big Sur, and Visions of Gerard, both of which we published. 

Drugs and alcohol seriously affected his health, and he moved in with his mother, who outlived him, to Florida.  In those last years, he reverted to the Catholicism of his childhood, sending me holy pictures at Easter and Christmas, as well as ecstatic and somewhat incoherent letters every now and then.  I deposited them with the New York Public Library, which later sent me a copy of one three page letter, which some collector had send to them.  Jack had scrawled at the top, “Written when drunk to Giroux, but never sent.”

As the late Dr. Tim Healey of the library told me, “Kerouac didn’t destroy it because it was one of the best letters he ever wrote.”  He died in 1969. 

I met Elizabeth Bishop for the first time in 1957, when we drew up a contract for her translation of The Diary of Helena Morley, a Portuguese classic written by a 12-year-old girl in a diamond mining town in Brazil late in the last century.  We had to wait eight years for Elizabeth’s next book of poems, Questions of Travel, and it was worth it. 

While she was an undergraduate at Vassar in the 1930s, she discovered that the college librarian, Ms. Borden—a relative of the famous Lizzie—was a family friend of Marianne Moore’s whose poetry Elizabeth had just discovered.

When Ms. Borden proposed that they get together, Marianne Moore’s cautious suggestion was for Elizabeth to meet her on the right hand bench outside the reference room of the New York Public Library, apparently in case she needed a quick getaway.

Of course, they became fast friends.  Marianne and her domineering mother, a former schoolteacher, corrected Elizabeth’s early poems, forbidding her to use such words as “spit” and “guts,” until in 1930 she rebelled and refused to follow their many corrections of her ambitious war poem, “Roosters.”

She soon developed into one of the major poets of our century.  Richard Wilbur has called her poems, “inexhaustibly fresh.”

She started to write one of her most famous poems, “The Moose,” in 1956, promising her aunt, Grace, she would dedicate it to her when it was ready.  She sent her the finished poem sixteen years later. 

I have been at work for almost five years, selecting and editing her letters.  The book is now complete, and will be published next spring.  The title is One Art, after her famous poem, which begins, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” 

The letters cover 50 years, from 1928, when she was 17 and already a poet, to her death in 1979.  She is a great letter writer.  As Elizabeth Hardwick wrote, “Her letters will certainly be recognized as one of the treasures and glories of literature.  I don’t think anyone who has ever received one has felt anything except that some enormous treasure had come through the mail.” 

I discovered that she gave a seminar at Harvard in 1971 on letter writing as an art.  When she told her friend that the kind of letters and letter writers she had in mind for her class were “Mrs. Carlisle, Chekhov, my aunt Grace, Keats, a letter found in the street,” and so on.  For financial reasons, she had to start teaching rather late in life, at age 55. 

One Art: the Selected Letters of Elizabeth Bishop concludes with a letter written on the day she died.  It was addressed to John Frederick Nims, the editor of Poetry magazine.  He had written her about a poetry anthology he was compiling in which he planned to use footnotes to explain some of the words in her poems, and she replied as follows:

“I do think students get lazier and lazier and expect to have everything done for them.  You can see what a nasty teacher I must be.  One rather bright honor student who took my course told me her roommate argued against it, saying ‘Oh, don’t take her class, it’s awful.  She’ll want you to look up words in the dictionary.  It isn’t creative at all.’  In other words,” says Elizabeth, “it’s better not to know what you’re writing or reading.”  She concluded, “I think the teaching of literature now is deplorable.  And if you can get students to reading, you will have done a noble work.”  She signed and mailed this letter on October 6th, 1979, and died from a cerebral aneurysm later that day.

In closing, let me say that in addition to her genius, Elizabeth had two wonderful qualities: wit and good manners, which characterized her life.  Poet James Merrill has recorded a visit to her home at Oro Plato in Brazil, when she displayed both qualities with brilliance.  She was especially glad to see Merrill, because she had not been able to talk to speak English with anyone for months. 

Late one evening during his visit, he wrote, “A too recent sorrow had come to the surface and Elizabeth was in tears.  At that moment, a young Brazilian painter entered the room.  And when he saw Elizabeth weeping, he stopped in his tracks and was about to leave.  Elizabeth almost blithely made him feel at home.  Switching to Portuguese, ‘don’t be upset, Jose Alberto,’ I understood her to say, ‘I’m only crying in English.’” Thank you.


Robert Giroux (1914-2008), a native of Jersey City, was a graduate of Columbia University. In a career spanning over five decades, he edited some of the 20th century’s most important voices in poetry and fiction, including T.S. Eliot, Derek Walcott, and Nadine Gordimer. He also published works by Flannery O’Connor, Robert Lowell, and Hannah Arendt. In 1955, Giroux joined published Farrar, Straus; his name was added to the company’s masthead in 1964. He was awarded a Special Citation at the National Board of Review Awards 1989. In 2006, he was presented with the Philolexian Award for Distinguished Literary Achievement from Columbia University.​


Photo: Arthur W. Wang