That August I returned to the town in New Jersey where I had been born 50 years before. It looked much the same. Any town would, after five weeks.
There was a great deal of waiting mail—08540, 08540, 08540. Not for nothing does that begin and end with a zero, I reflected. Good to be home. Nice to lift up the edges and crawl in under the only zip code I’ve ever known. A zip that doesn’t flap. A zip that can be tied down. A zip with grommets at either end.
I opened a letter from a staff writer at a national travel magazine compiled and edited in Tennessee.
“I would appreciate it very much if you could answer some questions I have about New Jersey … I would like to know why a writer, who could live almost anywhere he wanted to, chooses to live in New Jersey.”
Is he kidding? I have just come home from Alaska, from a long drift on the Yukon River, where, virtually under doctor’s orders, I must go from time to time to recover from the sheer physiographic intensity of living in New Jersey—must go, to be reminded that there is at least one other state that is physically as varied but is sensibly spread out. New Jersey was bisected in 1664, when a boundary line was drawn from Little Egg Harbor to the Delaware River near the Water Gap so that this earth of majesty, this fortress built by Nature for herself, could be deeded by the Duke of York to Lord Berkeley and George Carteret. If you travel that line—the surveyors’ pylons still stand—you traverse the physiographic provinces of New Jersey. You cross the Coastal Plain. You cross the Triassic Lowlands, a successor basin. You cross the Blue Ridge, crystalline hills. Now before you is the centerpiece of a limestone valley that runs south from New Jersey to Alabama and-north from New Jersey into Canada—one valley, known to science as the Great Valley of the Appalachians and to local peoples here and there as Champlain, Shenandoah, Clinch River Valley, but in New Jersey by no special name, for in terrain so cornucopian one does not tend to notice a Shenandoah. A limestone valley is a white silo, a white barn, a sweep of ground so beautiful it should never end. You cross the broad valley. You rise now into the folded and faulted mountains, the eastern sinuous welt, the Deformed Appalachians themselves. You are still in New Jersey.
Are they aware of this in Tennessee? When you cross New Jersey, you cover four events: the violent upheaval of two sets of mountains several hundred million years apart; and, long after all that, the creation of the Atlantic Ocean; and, more recently, the laying on of the Coastal Plain by the trowel of the Mason. Do they know that in Tennessee? Tennessee is a one-event country: All you see there, east to west, are the Appalachians, slowly going away.
New Jersey has had the genius to build across its narrow center the most concentrated transportation slot in the world—with three or four railroads, seaports, highways and an international airport all compacted in effect into a tube, a conduit, which has acquired through time an ugliness sufficient to stop a Gorgon in her tracks. Through this supersluice continuously pass hundreds of thousands of people from Nebraska, Kansas, Illinois, Iowa, Texas, Tennessee, holding their breath. They are shot like peas to New York. If New Jersey has a secret, that is it.
I remember Fred Brown, who lived in the Pine Barrens of the New Jersey Coastal Plain, remarking years ago outside his shanty, “I never been nowheres where I liked it better than I do here. I like to walk where you can walk on level ground. Outside here, if I stand still, 15 or 20 quail, couple of coveys, will come out and go around. The gray fox don’t come in no nearer than the swamp there, but I’ve had the coons come in here, the deer will come up. Muskrats breed right here, and otters sometimes. I was to Tennessee once. They’re greedy, hungry, there, to Tennessee. They’ll pretty near take the back off your hand when you lay down money. I never been nowhere I liked better than here.”
It has somehow become 1978 and for 10 or 15 years I have been intending to attempt a piece of writing called “Six Princetons”—the school as it has variously appeared to someone who was born in Princeton and has lived in Princeton all his life. It would begin with the little kid who knew the location of every pool table and Hajoca urinal on the campus, the nine best ways to sneak into the gym, the gentlest method of removing a reunion costume from a sleeping drunk. Princeton through the eyes of a student in Princeton High School. Princeton from the 20-20 omnicomprehen- sive undergraduate perspective. Princeton from the point of view of a commuter absorbed with other worlds. (Once, in that era, I found myself saying to my wife, “What are all these young people doing on Nassau Street?”) The Princeton University library and campus studied from across the street by an incarcerated freelance who stares out an upstairs office window all through the day. (My next-door neighbor is the Swedish Massage Studio, a legitimate business which darkens at 5 p.m. Later in the evening, the Swedish Massage s unwanted customers see my light and come tapping on my door. When I open up, their faces fall. “Is this the Swedish Massage?” they say incredulously, their disappointment all too apparent at the sight of the hoar in the beard.) Princeton a fixed foot, as it appears after long stays elsewhere. Princeton as witnessed by a perennial, paradoxical “visiting professor” who is neither visiting nor a professor, but in spring semester after spring semester is given tonic by a roomful of writing students who yield as much as they receive.
“Six Princetons” will never be written, though, because new Princetons keep coming along. “Dear Parent: We are pleased to inform you that your daughter has succeeded you as an editor of the Nassau Literary Review, and, incidentally, that her room-board-tuition for the academic year 1978-79 has been raised quinque per centum to $2,500,000 “
As I write this, in 1983, one of my daughters is somewhere in India, another is believed to be in Egypt, another is skating on a north Italian pond, and the oldest is working as a writer in Pittstown, New Jersey. There is a moral in this tale.
My children have always thought me mildly eccentric for living my whole life in one town, yet there is no need to move away from Princeton to get a change of scene. You stay here all your life and you get a new town every five years.
When you are young and getting married, or your daughter is getting married and your own youth is silt in the river, you turn to Nature for instruction and example. And so Laura and I, one truly fine day, went a couple of hundred kilometers into Iceland’s interior for the ritual purpose of consulting Nature to see what we might learn.
Along the way we stopped at Geysir, where a great hole in the ground is the world s eponymous geyser. The old geyser is no longer forthcoming. It is full of water but not of action. It had literally been roped off. Close at hand was a young geyser. At five- to seven-minute intervals—no more than that—it swelled tumescently, let forth a series of heavy grunts, and into the sky shot a plume of flying steam. Meanwhile, the old geyser just sat there—boiling. We learned how—on special occasions—Icelanders make the old geyser do its thing. They throw soap into it, and it erupts.
Moving on, we passed a waterfall of the size of the American Niagara, and then we drove for an hour or two on the gravels of an outwash plain that was covered with rounded boulders and no vegetation, not so much as a clump of grass. Eventually, the car could go no farther, so we left it behind and proceeded north on foot. There was a stream to ford. Laura had running shoes, and I had boots. She got onto my back, and I carried her across. We then walked a couple of miles, also on rounded rocks, and up onto a high moraine, where, coming over the crest, we looked down into a lake back-dropped by cliffs of blue ice. This was the edge not of a valley glacier but of an ice cap covering nearly 500 square miles. Above the lake, the ice wall rose about 150 feet, and was sheer. There came sounds like high-powered-rifle shots, as huge bergs calved away from the ice cap and plunged into the water. There was no going farther. On the way down the moraine and back toward the river ford, I attempted to increase my credit line by mentioning that glacial rivers grow in the afternoon with the day’s melt from the sun, and this time we could expect a larger river when I carried her across it. But this time she was having none of me. Apparently, she had forded her last river on her father’s back. She took off her shoes and negotiated the stream.
My admired and beloved son-in-law is a professional writer. A professional writer, by definition, is a person clothed in self-denial who each and almost every day will plead with eloquent lamentation that he has a brutal burden on his mind and soul, will summon deep reserves of “discipline” as seriatim antidotes to any domestic chore, and, drawing the long sad face of the pale poet, will rise above his dread of his dreaded working chamber, excuse himself from the idle crowd, go into his writing sanctum, shut the door, shoot the bolt, and in lonely sacrifice turn on the tube and watch the Mets game.
Idaho Springs, Colorado, dawn. A white rented car. Alone, I toss my gear into the trunk and get going early. After a couple of miles, I note in the rear-view mirror that the back window is fogged over. “Condensation,” I tell myself. “Car dew. It will soon evaporate “I get up onto interstate 70 and head west. Now and again, I look in the mirror. Visibility zero. Evaporation has not yet kicked in. Twenty miles. Twenty-five. Climbing. Eventually, I realize that when I put my gear in the trunk I did not close the lid. I don’t know whatever else I was once. Now I’m a little, gray-bearded, absent-minded professor. With events like this one in mind, my daughter Jenny has long called me Lefty. I don’t think I’m going to recover. I don’t think I’m going to go backwards.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I collected material in Wyoming for a book about the geology there. Almost without exception, those journeys were made in the company of John David Love, of the United States Geological Survey, who had started life in 1913 on a solitary ranch in the center of the state and had long since achieved a reputation of preeminence among Rocky Mountain geologists. My intention was to try to present the natural history of his region through his eyes and his experience. It is not uncommon for a geologist to reflect in the style of his science the structure of his home terrain.
We had been making field trips together for a couple of years when he reached into a drawer in his office in Laramie and handed me a journal that had been started by his mother long before she was married—when she had first come to Wyoming. She had been born more than 100 years before I saw her manuscript, and needless to say I never met her, but, as I have noted elsewhere, the admiration and affection I came to feel toward her is probably matched by no one I’ve encountered in my professional life. This was not merely because she had the courage to venture as a young teacher into very distant country, or because she later educated her own bright children, or because she was more than equal to the considerable difficulties of ranch subsistence, but also because she recorded these things—in her journals and later writings—with such wit, insight, grace, irony, compassion, sarcasm, stylistic elegance and embracing humor that I could not resist her.
Her unpublished journal was a large gift to me, and with the permission of her son and daughter I used fragments from it to help recreate her family’s world. My work, though, did not include a hundredth part of what was there. My presentation could only suggest her. in years that have followed, two of her granddaughters have sifted through attics and other archives to discover packets of letters to and from her, various forms of writing by and about her and another journal. Their work in arranging, annotating, and editing what they found has not only been loving in nature but restrainedly skillful in accomplishment. In “Lady’s Choice,” they have elected to present her between 1905, when she began her first journal, and 1910, when she decided to marry John Galloway Love, a cowboy from Scotland who, in the Wind River Basin of Wyoming, had presented his credentials to her seemingly within moments of her arrival. The boundaries of this volume (another will follow) are deliberate and significant, for they enclose a young American woman of nearly a century ago in something like a complex of competing magnets. Self-possessed, cool, detached, she clearly knows that this is her time, and she takes it. As this chronological flow of journal entries, letters and poems progresses, she is not only wooed by the cowboy but also importuned by a Wyoming mother who sees the young schoolteacher as a match for her own son, and who attempts to assassinate the character of John Love by referring to him as a gossip. Possibly she helps to effectuate a marriage she hopes to prevent. Letters are arriving all the while from Wellesley friends who are now in places like medical school and Paris. She experiments with teaching jobs in other states, in one instance at a sort of nunnery in Wisconsin, with macabre, humorous results. Always, she is writing—an incidental skill that would later become an ambition. Always, as well, John Love is writing to her. Indirectly, she is being asked to choose between a very isolated family life and the realm of other possibilities easily within reach of (as someone puts it in a letter to John Love) “her combination of strength and the gentlest charm—welded by that flashing mind.”
Recently, when her granddaughters sent to me the annotated manuscript of this volume, I raced through the innumerable letters and the later journal that I had never seen, looking for that flashing mind and the person I felt I knew. When she described one of the faculty members at the school in Wisconsin as “a square prunes-and-prisms lady with a mouth like a. buttonhole,” I was reassured that I had found her.
Elsewhere, when a difficult woodstove at last began to function properly, she wrote, “The stove has developed a conscience.”
When she taught Latin and Greek for a time at Central High School in Pueblo, Colorado, and lived in the home of one Mrs. Butler, she wrote to John Love:
Mrs. Butler … is a little war-horse of a woman with a long, thin husband. I’m telling you about her, because she has been improving him for about 20 years, and it is beginning to tell on him.
Reading again the journal that she kept when she was 23, I found everywhere the sense of landscape that resembled her touch with people:
The dampness had brought out the darkness of the red soil, and the blackness of the green cedars. The sagebrush, too, along the way, was as black about the branches as if a fire had passed over the hills. The bluffs loomed dark and moody against the gray sky, but far away at the Big Bend the hills were the color of pale straw. The mountain looked yellowish green, softened by a sifting of snow. It is strange how the whole face of the country will be changed by a little dampness, like the face of a person intensified but softened by tears.
It should be said that while this lady’s choice was a classic dilemma, John Love’s side of it was something close to an all-or-nothing gamble. He was 35 years old when he fell in love with her. He lived in a place so far from community that he did not glimpse a woman for months at a time. He presented himself to her without guile, and she dealt in kind with him. For five years, he took no for an answer but never changed his question. When his letters developed closing salutations that were unacceptably intimate—for example, “Ever Yours”—and she verbally rapped his knuckles for it, thereafter he said, “Sincerely.” Abidingly, he carried within him the heart and the humor, not to mention the brain, of the Scots. He was a match for her. Evidently, she knew it.
As this volume ends, she accepts him, his ranch and a fufillable vision of their life together. Her granddaughters quote from something she wrote years later, describing an embroidered sampler that existed only in her imagination and depicted the ranch and its hands and her family and certain symbols of a time in the Wind River Basin.
I will wait impatiently for the sampler. Meanwhile, these distinct themes from her single life will more than do.
Incidental remarks at Columbia University, November 19, 1987, the day Robert Giroux receives the university’s Alexander Hamilton Award, highest honor given to an alumnus:
As everyone knows at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Roger Straus was born in a Guggenheim mine with a copper spoon in his mouth. It’s still lying around somewhere, and the only way to get his ear is to find the spoon and put it back.
What people don’t know is that a piece of wild country called Giroux Wash, Nev., was the scene of a gold strike at the end of the 19th century by the brothers E.L. Giroux and Joseph Giroux, whose 109 claims bore literary names like Vendetta, Victor Hugo and Jane Grey, not to mention the name of their discovery claim, which they simply called Giroux. The underlying rock was the Arcturus Formation. The Giroux brothers sank something called the Giroux Shaft—1,440 feet. They set up the Giroux Concentrator—500 pounds a day. Their Giroux Consolidated Mines not only brought forth deep royalties of gold but, in time, a billion dollars’ worth of copper.
Had these unclaimed ancestors appeared in Union Square, we would now be working for Giroux, Giroux & Giroux. As it happens, though, Bob has never heard of them—not before this moment. They were recently and inadvertently discovered for him by a Princeton University geologist who, with the backing of a Columbia University alumnus-entrepreneur, has been staking new gold claims in the general vicinity of Giroux Wash, where mineable assays exist in a form of deposit that could not have been detected by 19th-century prospectors. A claims-staking war is in progress right now, and the Princeton-Columbia forces seem to be winning. With Columbia supplying the seed money and Princeton the other essential component, fresh millions may soon be added to the Columbia endowment.
Aware of tonight’s event arid the Alexander Hamilton Award, the Princeton geologist, Ken Deffeyes, hiked into Giroux Wash a couple of weeks ago and picked up a rock. He brought it home, sliced it, lacquered it, labeled it, and has given it to me to give, with his congratulations, to Bob Giroux. It may or may not contain gold, but a rock, whatever it contains, seems an appropriate gift for an author to present to a publisher. Particularly, this rock. It is chalcedony, mother of flint, chert and jasper. Its lyrical, metaphorical family name is cryptocrystalline quartz.
As I deliver it with guileless affection, I wish to assure all Columbia College alumni, and especially Robert Giroux, that there is absolutely no truth to the rumor that Princeton, in honor of one of its sons, has established the Aaron Burr Award for Marksmanship.
Tom Eglin’s sense of humor, sharp enough in the first place, remarkably seemed to rise—to become increasingly rich in perception and range—in response to his besetting illness. I hope I won’t be misunderstood when I say that Tom was an easy patient to visit. He was wry. He was funny. He was anecdotal. He cheered you up. He told you stories. There was a basketball backboard in his bedroom with a berserk little ball. He counted up, with amusement, the shots you missed.
Mindful of our common Scottish backgrounds—his even closer in time than mine—he told me a story about taking his sons on a voyage among the isles of Scotland. An educational cruise it was, professors aboard, a ship called Argonaut, a captain who was not called Jason. As the boys sailed into the very waters of their heritage, they were seasick. This, as they had read, was “the land of the bens and the glens, where not even Sir Walter Scott could exaggerate the romantic beauty of that lake and mountain country penetrated by fjords that came in from seas that were starred with islands. The weather changes so abruptly there—closing in, lifting, closing in again—that all in an hour wind-driven rain may be followed by calm and hazy sunshine, which may then be lost in heavy mists that soon disappear into open skies over dark-blue seas. When the ocean is blue, the air is as pure as a lens, and the islands seem imminent and almost encroaching, although they are 10 or 15 miles away—Mull, for example, Scarba, Islay,Jura, the isles of the Sea. “With all that off the starboard rail, the boys were seasick; and when they were finished being seasick, they came down with flu and went into steerage in the hold. Telling the story with a slight blush and smile, Tom confessed annoyance. He said that he had been, in fact, profoundly irritated by his sons’ becoming sick, “because the trip, as you can imagine, was not inexpensive. “This was one Scottish father speaking to another directly from the heart.
When Bill Bradley came to Princeton, Tom was his freshman adviser, Tom’s mission being to guide this aimless youth toward some sort of utilitarian destiny. Evidently, Tom succeeded. It was the beginning of an enduring friendship, and Tom’s encouragement and generosity of counsel were prized by Bill from then to now. From time to time, our three paths crossed. When Bill was in college, and practicing by himself one summer in the Lawrenceville field house, he missed six jump shots in a row. He said to us, “You want to know something? That basket is about an inch and a half low.” Some days later, Tom got a stepladder, and he and I measured the basket. It was one and one-eighth inches too low. When Bill was an NBA basketball player, in the early 1970s, he occasionally went to Lawrenceville to practice alone. One day, feeding the ball back to him, I developed a grandiose fantasy. “Suppose I were somehow to get into a game with you in Madison Square Garden,” I said. “Could you get me a shot in the NBA?” “Of course,” he said, and he sketched out a certain baseline move by which a person 2 feet tall could score on Abdul-Jabbar. At that moment, out of nowhere, Tom appeared. Bradley told him to guard me, and the play worked. Tom and I reversed roles, and the play worked—the play being so ambiguous that I couldn’t stop it even though I knew what was going to happen. Now two people whose height added up to a single basketball player’s would forever be grateful to Bill for their one and only shot in the NBA.
Those are just a couple of reminiscences from one person who first knew Tom in college and later was his frequent tennis partner for 10 or 15 years, including a time when I most especially needed a friend, and in his quiet way, without a great deal actually said, he was right there. Comparable streams of remembrance surround each one of us at this time, all as different and particular as they would be analogous, all relating to this bright figure of quiet humor—this athlete, counselor, teacher—whose capacity for love and friendship were outsized.
I used to go to New Hampshire in the summertime with a stack of New Yorkers a foot and a half high. I would paddle straight over the lake until I was 27 yards out of earshot, and then I would lie down and go through those magazines like a drill bit, looking for things I particularly remembered, looking for things I’d missed on journeys during the year. Trillin in Provence fighting bulls in water—Taureaux Piscine! Mark Singer and the Puerto Rican rooster in the window of the Israeli locksmith shop on Seventh Avenue. Ackerman and the albatross, Iglauer and the salmon, Fraziers metaphysical bears. Barich up, in the eighth at Santa Anita, wearing our silks. Updike on the eighth, parring. Angell in the eighth, relieving.
Finished with the animals, I started on the vegetables, and once in a while I paddled ashore and called up The New Yorker library. Hello, Helen, in what issue did Whiteside tee up the American-latex tomato? Whose was the thing about the grass at Wimbledon? When was Kahn in the rice paddy? Helen Stark knew everything, but her line was often busy with calls from other canoes.
Speaking of libraries: A big open-stack academic or public library is no small pleasure to work in. You’re, say, trying to do a piece on something in Nevada, and you go down to C Floor, deep in the earth, and out to what a miner would call a remote working face. You find 10995.497S just where the card catalog and the online computer thought it would be, but that is only the initial nick. The book you knew about has led you to others you did not know about. To the ceiling the shelves are loaded with books about Nevada. You pull them down, one at a time, and sit on the floor and look them over until you are sitting on a pile 5 feet high, at which point you are late home for dinner and you get up and walk away. It’s an incomparable boon to research, all that; but it is also a reason why there are almost no large open-stack libraries left in the world.
I have worked for 20 years in the East Pyne building at Princeton, in a corridor dominated by the Department of Comparative Literature, where the Humanities Council (my employer) has a small inholding. Comp Lit has had two chairmen in its history at Princeton: Robert Fagles, whose translation of Homer is a work still in progress, and Robert Hollander, curator of Dante. As both are overly fond of saying, I am an interloper there, a fake professor, a portfolio without minister. For all that, the third floor of East Pyne is a superb place to work. By 6:30 p.m., it is essentially vacant. Only Roger Mudd and I are there—the unofficial, the visiting professors. Even the tenure track is quietly rusting. At 7:30 a.m., though, a lonely figure will be wandering the hall—the back arched, the head a little cocked, the lips in perpetual motion—mumbling about warriors armed in bronze. He understands bronze. Anyone with that much brass would understand bronze. Long ago I learned that if you hear Fagles coming, step into the corridor, and confront him with a question, he turns into an ambulatory checking department, a mine of antique material, the willing donor in an act of cerebral osmosis. For example, there came a time when my geological compositions became focused on a passage about the island of Cyprus. I heard him coming, stepped into the hall, and later went back to my machine and wrote: “In 2760 B.C., smelting began in Cyprus. Slag heaps developed in 40 places. “The Iliad” is populated with warriors armed in bronze. Bronze is copper hardened by adding some tin, and the copper would have come from Cyprus. (Copper was mined on Cyprus for nearly 2,000 years before Homer.) … The word ‘Cyprus’ means copper. Whether the island is named for the metal or the metal for the island is an etymology lost in time.”
When I bring Fagles fish from the Delaware River, as I sometimes do, he asks that they be gutted, finned, beheaded, and scaled, and wrapped in my work.
He was reputedly squeamish, a little shy, about gore in any form. He liked his cornflakes well done. When I was in the process of writing a piece about a woman who collected roadkills and skinned them out for a university but ate their bodies for her own nourishment and pleasure, his hovering image, to say the least, was never out of mind. He would be reader No. 1.I had not known of my subjects diet when I proposed the story to him. Now he would decide whether the piece would appear in his magazine. The pan-fried snakes and the weasels en brochette had to get past him.
I sent him the manuscript expecting it to remain in that state forever. After a while, he called. “Well,” he said, “I liked your story….” He broke off for a long pause. Then he said: “No. I didn’t like your story. I could hardly read it. But that woman is closer to the earth than I am. Her work is significant. I’m pleased to publish the piece.”
A year or two later, writing about Alaska, I mentioned the truly dreadful packaged food that I had eaten on a government expedition in the Brooks Range, including things like freeze-dried eggs and cold, pink-icinged pop tarts with raspberry filling. I also mentioned that the forest eskimos of the Kobuk Valley were especially fond of the fat that lies behind a caribou’s eye. I posed this question: “To a palate without bias—the palate of an open-minded Berber, the palate of a travelling Martian—which would be the more acceptable, a pink-icinged pop tart with raspberry filling (cold) or the fat gob behind a caribou’s eye?”
The editor of the piece was Robert Bingham, but there was, always, something known as “the Shawn proof.” In the margin beside that great philosophical question, he had written, in his small hand: “The pop tart.”
He was in the great line of leaders who see no succession. As he advanced in years, though, the question of what would happen next grew around him like a rind. Now and again, with craft, he reacted. In the 1970s, at least 10 years before he actually retired and 50 before he meant to retire, he called me (and many other writers) and said that he thought the time had come to spread some of his usual functions, strategically hinting that retirement was what he had in mind. He said that from then on I would not be conversing directly with him about editorial matters but should address myself instead to Mr. Bingham or Mr. Crow. Only at certain times, he said, would he be dealing directly with me, and those occasions would be, first, when I had an idea for a story and wished to propose it; second, when I had a completed manuscript to give to him; and third, when the story went to press.
He understood the disjunct kinship of creative work—every kind of creative work—and time. The most concise summation of it I’ve ever heard were seven words he said just before closing my first profile and sending it off to press. I was a new young writer, 1965, and he did not entrust new writers to any extent whatever to other editors. He got the new ones started by himself. So there we were— hours at a session—discussing reverse pivots and back-door plays and the role of the left-handed comma in the architectonics of basketball while The New Yorker hurtled toward its deadlines. I finally had to ask him, “How can you afford to use so much time and go into so many things in such detail when this whole enterprise is yours to keep together?”
He said, “It takes as long as it takes.”
As a part-time writing teacher, I have offered those words to a generation of students. If they are writers, they will never forget it.
I hope you don’t mind if I speak from notes. In an author-publisher relationship of nearly 30 years, this is the first opportunity I have had to get some words in edgewise, and I don’t want to let even one of them get away.
Last fall, after I was invited by Bob Moskin to join Tom Wolfe in speaking here at a Lotos Club dinner honoring Roger Straus, Roger Straus soon called me to say that this was entirely the club’s idea, “etcetera, etcetera, and so forth, and so on” and definitely not his idea. “In fact,” he said, “I told them I didn’t think you were very bright.” He said that he did not want me to feel any obligation whatsoever to him. There was no need for me to have to come all the way in from Princeton. Etcetera, etcetera. And so forth, and so on.
I said, “That’s not the issue, Roger. That’s not what we’re discussing. What I need to know is, Is it all right to say ‘Fuck you’ in the Lotos Club?”
He said, “I see the lines along which you are thinking. Of course it’s all right. Its perfectly all right. And, besides, you’re not a member.”
When I was quite young, I was inadvertently armored for a future with Roger Straus. My grandfather was a publisher. My uncle was a publisher. The house was the John C.Winston Book and Bible Company, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and they published the “Silver Chief” series, about a sled dog in the frozen north. That dog was my boyhood hero. One day, I was saddened to see in a newspaper that Jack O’Brien, the author of those books, had died. A couple of years passed. I went into high school. The publishing company became Holt, Rinehart & Winston, and my Uncle Bob’s office moved to New York. When I was visiting him there one day, a man arrived for an appointment, and Uncle Bob said, “John, meet Jack O’Brien, the author of ‘Silver Chief.’” I shook the author’s hand, which wasn’t very cold. After he had gone, I said, “Uncle Bob, I thought Jack O’Brien died.”
Uncle Bob said, “He did die. He died. Actually, we’ve had three or four Jack O’Briens. Let me tell you something, John Authors are a dime a dozen. The dog is immortal.”
I have now dealt with Roger Straus in all or parts of four decades without an agent. I have never had another publisher. When I signed up with Roger Straus, in 1965,1 was 6 feet 7 inches tall. The less than modest height of the man you see before you is a direct result of that relationship. We have done upwards of 20 books together, and contractual negotiations take place in private conversation between us. Like the lawyer who takes himself for a client, I have risked foolishness. I once asked Roger, “How much money am I losing as a result of not having an agent?” And he answered, “Oh, not a whole hell of a lot.”
One of the people I have most admired was a writer who knew how to fly and rented an airplane in which he attacked Simon and Schuster. I have long advised Roger to keep an eye on his window.
One time, when he was contracting to publish a hefty hardcover book with my name on it as author, I asked him for an advance, and he said, “Fuck you.” So help me, that is what he said.
Truth be told, though, the book was a “reader,” an amalgam of fragments of other books, for which he had long since paid advances. On an earlier occasion—in 1967—when we talked about publishing what was to be my fifth book but first collection of short miscellaneous pieces, I said to him, “This one isn’t going to make a nickel. Collections never do. I’m grateful to you just for publishing it. Don’t bother to pay me an advance.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “I’m your publisher. Of course, I will pay you an advance. I insist.” And he named a sum which, in present company, I am somewhat shy to reveal. Let us just say that it was in two figures.
In fact, it was $l,500. The book was published in 1968. It did not do well over the counter. It took 14 years to earn back the $1,500. Notice something, though: After aH those years, it was in print. Commercially, that book could not have been a bigger dog if its title were “Remainder.” In conglomerate publishing, it would have vanished three weeks after it was published. But somebody kept it in print, as he has kept all my books —marginal and otherwise, hardcover and soft—in print. When I cash Roger’s checks, I can hear the tellers giggling as I walk away, but even in my Scottish core I really don’t care. In 1991,in its 23rd year, that ancient collection of miscellaneous pieces sold 700 copies. A small figure. But for that book—for any trade book—23 years is an amazing longevity. Thanks entirely to its publisher. The dog is immortal.
Seventeen years ago, I began teaching a course in factual writing as a visiting professor at Princeton. To every group of students I have taught, Roger Straus has come and talked nonstop—”etcetera, etcetera, and so forth, and so on”—for three hours at a crack, with a cumulative rate of repetition of 4 percent. He repeatedly came to the course in a period when his health was inconvenienced by a good deal more than a cold. The students are prepared to interview him, but one question is always enough. “Could you tell us about Alexander Solzhenitsyn?” someone asks. And Roger says, “Eighteen years ago, when I first started having serious intercourse with the big A…,” and he’s off and running for three hours of free association.
I’ve given up on the attack plane. I have decided in the end to strafe him here with words, to embarrass him with words of an appropriate sort that he least knows how to handle, words that describe the invaluable in his gift and his giving as a publisher: care, for example, encouragement, counsel, anticipation, thoughtfulness, amenity and reassurance, loquacity and spirit, accommodation, reinforcement, vision, foresight, hindsight, sensibility, solicitude, affection, application, waggery, levity, boldness, courage, intrepidity, optimism, consolation, earthiness, ribaldry, decency, vulgarity, sorcery, alchemy, hoodoo, voodoo, conviviality, comicality, whimsicality, farcicality, fraternity and friendship, not to mention what I calculate to have been (over the years, and largely on the telephone) 1,000 hours of a dialogue too good to be printable.
Tom and I are here because Tom is the house eagle and I am the company mule. I say that with no false humility. I say it as plain fact. I would not know how to light a bonfire if someone handed me the match. I write about geology In a sense, I am selling rocks. In Union Square, I know a sucker who will buy them.