Patrick SamwayOctober 02, 2020

During the final days of Herbert Hoover’s Depression-ridden presidency, as millions of Americans were desperately seeking employment of any sort, John Berryman and Robert Giroux, both 18 years old in 1932, enrolled in Columbia College of Columbia University in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights. A few blocks north, Harlem was suffering from a devastating unemployment rate of 50 percent.

In spite of great social and political unrest, not only in New York but throughout the entire country, Columbia found itself protected by the rectilinear boundaries of 114th Street and 120th Street, and Broadway and Morningside Drive. It provided its incoming students a place of quiet refuge and heady elitism, inspired by the presence of such distinguished faculty members as Jacques Barzun, Irwin Edman, Douglas Moore, Lionel Trilling, Mark Van Doren and Raymond Weaver. Among all of them, Van Doren, known as a calm and steady mentor, stayed in touch with these two students more than did any other member of the faculty.

Poetry and the works of Shakespeare, beginning with reading and analyzing Shakespeare’s plays and poetry in Van Doren’s class, as well as editing and publishing essays and poetry in the Columbia Review, brought Berryman and Giroux into close contact. They took every one of Van Doren’s classes, including the American literature course in their junior year and the two-semester course on Shakespeare in the fall of 1935 and the spring of 1936. The class read 37 of the Bard’s plays, studied in chronological order, in addition to the two major narrative poems, the sonnets and “A Lover’s Complaint” and “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” This course aimed to transform the lives of the students and open up to them the comic heights and tragic depths of the human spirit.

After graduation from Columbia, John Berryman and Robert Giroux remained in contact with one another, as Berryman wrote poetry and pursued a career as an academic while Giroux slowly acquired a reputation as a distinguished editor.

The Poet and the Editor

After graduation, Berryman and Giroux remained in contact with one another, as Berryman wrote poetry and pursued a career as an academic while Giroux slowly acquired a reputation as a distinguished editor. Neither one expected the setbacks that eventually changed their lives. In March 1955, for example, Giroux, then editor in chief of Harcourt, Brace & Company, experienced the most trying time of his editorial career, which prompted him to leave that firm to join Farrar, Straus & Cudahy as vice president, where he shortly afterward became editor in chief. Giroux’s departure from Harcourt, Brace & Company caused him great personal and professional trauma, as he mentions in a letter dated March 27, 1955, to his friend, the historian and novelist Paul Horgan. Because Giroux was Catholic, he was not considered eligible material for the Harcourt, Brace & Company board of directors. “The firm,” he wrote, “was quite content to publish Catholic authors, yes; Catholic money was acceptable, yes, but a Catholic director? No.”

Furthermore, in his three-page letter dated April 2, 1955, to Jessamyn West, another of his authors (known for her collection of stories The Friendly Persuasion), Giroux mentioned that he felt the need to resign because of “bigotry and religious prejudice.” He was shocked at being given 24 hours to leave the premises. When he protested that there were a good many items of unfinished business that required his attention, he was informed that others in the firm would meet and review what needed to be done. In short, as he told me in the spring of 1997, Harcourt, Brace & Company afforded him one hour for 15 years of dedicated service.

Robert Giroux: “The firm was quite content to publish Catholic authors, yes; Catholic money was acceptable, yes, but a Catholic director? No.”

Literary Collaborations

In early April, Giroux wrote to his close friend and Columbia classmate Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O., at Gethsemani Abbey, Ky., deeply regretting the misunderstanding that occurred during his last weeks at Harcourt, Brace & Company, which resulted in the final corrections not being made in the first printing of Merton’s No Man Is an Island: “I am grateful to Harcourt, Brace for having released you from their contract,” he mentioned in welcoming Merton to Farrar, Straus & Cudahy.

Giroux’s unexpected, detailed letter to Berryman, written on April 27, 1955, reveals his desire to enlarge his stable of writers:

As you may have heard, I have left Harcourt, Brace after fifteen years to join this firm. I had thought my troubles were over when [Eugene] Reynal [vice-president and director in charge of the trade department] resigned last December, but this was a miscalculation; his leaving only confirmed the ascendency of the textbook people…. In any event, here I am loaded with honors (vice president, member of the board of directors, stockholder) and as excited as Alfred Harcourt and Donald Brace must have been when they left [Henry] Holt in 1919. I’ve known Roger Straus since we were in the Navy together; John Farrar and Sheila Cudahy are old friends.

I want to build up the American list in general (I think our European list has great distinction), and the poetry list in particular. I would like to start with Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. I can now sign contracts myself, and there will be none of the Harcourt, Brace ambivalence—editor proposing and management disposing. May I publish your poem…. We are going to do T. S. Eliot’s new play [“The Elder Statesman’] (he staggered me by cabling “I will come along with you”), and Cal [Robert] Lowell has agreed to publish the prose book he is working on [Life Studies, winner of a National Book Award]…. So come on, and join your friends. Will you wire me collect and tell me we can submit a contract for the Anne Bradstreet; I’ll offer you good terms.

Berryman’s poem is an imaginary monologue by Anne Bradstreet, an important Puritan known for her volume of poetry, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650), though sometimes the narrator’s voice is heard.

In addition, Giroux looked forward to his collaboration with Roger Straus, who came from a privileged background and could count on family financial resources (his mother was a Guggenheim and his father’s family owned Macy’s department store). Straus said that Giroux’s arrival in 1955 was “the single most important thing to happen to this company,” which would eventually be called Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Once relocated to his new office, Giroux spent a good deal of time communicating with the 17 authors who went with him to his new firm, including T. S. Eliot, Randall Jarrell, Jack Kerouac, Bernard Malamud, Jean Stafford, Peter Taylor and, eventually, Flannery O’Connor.

When Berryman wrote to Giroux on April 30, he expressed his concern about the fiasco at Harcourt, Brace & Company: “It seems to have been a combination, far from ordinary, of ingratitude and bigotry. They are bound to go straight downhill; which, if you feel vindictive, will be agreeable. It is specially pleasing that Eliot went with you. I really think you ought to be proud about this.” Berryman wanted very much to sign a contract with Farrar, Straus & Cudahy for the Bradstreet poem, but he was not sure how to do this, since he believed that he was under contract to Viking to publish a book on Shakespeare he had contemplated writing.

Berryman felt discouraged that the most important work he had done to date, the aforementioned poem, which had appeared in Partisan Review but not in book form, was both unreviewed and unavailable. “Viking didn’t refuse it,” he added. “They said they wanted to wait & see (two years ago). But I don’t want them to publish it and am not prepared to ask them to. I have no resentment against them anymore, but after what’s passed I just can’t see an amicable relation….”

As the future editor of Berryman’s works, Giroux would remain a loyal friend, never backing away from his commitments to Berryman.

As a result, Berryman felt no compulsion at that moment to deal with Viking or write the book on Shakespeare because he was uncertain what would become of it. “I can’t get on with anything else with any happiness, because I am not allowed to arrange to publish it. All this is peculiarly exasperating, as owing to my very demanding work here [at the University of Minnesota] this winter, I am finally recovering my energy and peace of mind, from the chaos of the last few years, and am wild to be writing.” He felt the best solution was to repay the $1,000 advance to Viking, but he lacked the financial resources to do so and did not envision having that much money at his disposal for a year, if then.

When Giroux replied on May 2, 1955, he took Berryman’s words as a renewed token of their friendship. Giroux pursued his desire to publish the Bradstreet poem as a book by offering explicit contractual considerations that would clear the way for Berryman to continue writing and having his works published by a longtime friend who was trying very hard to understand his pressures and problems. Berryman needed, above all, the discerning guidance that Giroux was offering:

First of all we will advance you one thousand dollars to obtain the release from your contract. We will advance an additional two hundred and fifty dollars so that there will be some further cash on hand. In return we should like to draw a contract for the Anne Bradstreet poem and the Shakespeare biography…. We would want to put the entire advance on general royalty, that is to say, it would be repaid by earnings from any book under the contract. I cannot recall the royalty rate which Viking offered you, but we will offer no less than they, and more if production estimates allow.

Giroux hoped his proposal would be in general agreeable. If it were, it would seem that the first step would be for Berryman to write Viking for a release. “Is it clear, beyond doubt,” he added, “that they want the $1,000 advance?”

Giroux counseled his friend to have their answer in writing. Once he had Viking’s letter and Berryman’s word to the foregoing agreement, then Giroux would send him a check. Giroux felt that it probably would be best that his name not appear in the negotiations for the time being. “They will doubtless ask who your publisher is to be,” he continued, “and they may also ask to negotiate with that publisher directly; but it is really none of their business and, as far as I am concerned, you do not have to say that another publisher is in the picture.” Giroux was glad that Berryman had recovered his energy and peace of mind. “It’s deplorable that the prohibitive clause in the Viking contract has been such a frustrating matter.”

John Berryman: "The two great things are to be clear and short; but rhythms matter too, and unexpectedness. You lead the reader briskly in one direction, then you spin him around, or you sing him a lullaby and then hit him on the head.”

‘To Rappel Words from Some Inner Abyss’

A re-energized Berryman revved up, ready to pick up his career as a poet, as explained in a letter to his mother dated May 1: “Courage is what writing chiefly takes, when one has not the habit. Just jump in. Draft, without thought of detail or order…. The two great things are to be clear and short; but rhythms matter too, and unexpectedness. You lead the reader briskly in one direction, then you spin him around, or you sing him a lullaby and then hit him on the head.” During these months, Berryman experienced inner peace and consolation, as evidenced in his reply to Giroux of May 5: “I am about evenly astonished and delighted. I can hardly believe it. I feel like a new man.”

Later, in writing hundreds of poems for his two-volume The Dream Songs, Berryman did not hesitate, as he had indicated to his mother, to rappel words from some inner abyss, all the while keenly aware that ordinary speech patterns never reveal the freshness and originality of an intended idea. As mentioned in the introduction to Berryman’s Henry’s Fate & Other Poems, the poet and astute critic William Meredith suggests that the poems in The Dream Songs give the impression of laughter in the face of humiliation, despair and death—with a dose, one might add, of whimsy and wit that accentuates Berryman’s self-indulgent, allusive, unconventional originality that often creates synergies resulting in polysemantic subjectivity.

Berryman accepted Giroux’s proposal. In a follow-up letter of May 24, he shared with Giroux the letter he had received from a senior editor at Viking, Marshall Best, indicating that Viking would have been pleased to publish Berryman’s books had they arrived on schedule. Because so much time had elapsed since they originally signed the contract, Best was willing to release Berryman from his contractual obligation once the advance had been returned.

Berryman went into high gear now that he understood that Giroux would give him the sure guidance he desperately needed: “So hurrah,” he continued in his letter:

I have got intoxicated with the Shakespeare again, since seeing daylight, and have an entirely new view of it; I plan a much more free operation than I did, a book in fact bearing hardly any relation to those stupid old lectures and that boring piece [“Shakespeare at Thirty”] in the Hudson [Review]. I am going to document it to the hilt, at the back, but I mean in the writing, and in the intellectual & emotional design. I think now I am going to spend the whole summer producing an entirely new draft of it. I can do this in about three months I believe.

In his telegram of June 3, Giroux said that he would both repay the Viking advance and draw up a contract for the Bradstreet poem and the book on Shakespeare, which unfortunately was never published.

As the future editor of John Berryman’s works, Robert Giroux would remain a loyal friend, never backing away from his commitments to Berryman.

During those past months, the communication between Giroux and Berryman had been clear, honest and straightforward. As the future editor of Berryman’s works, Giroux would remain a loyal friend, never backing away from his commitments to Berryman; his strength of character helped him to accept Berryman’s overwhelming personal difficulties of severe alcoholism and dependency on a variety of drugs. He encouraged Berryman to write poetry during both good periods and difficult ones—even when Berryman went through prolonged periods of hospitalization, which tended to become more and more frequent, creating for him a disturbing series of mentally uninhabitable spaces.

Giroux paid close attention to the unusually heavy revisions Berryman wanted in the late stages of the editorial process, realizing all the time that he was dealing with an exceptional poet.

Giroux sent Berryman the promised check and, in turn, received a signed contract. He agreed not to say anything publicly about the contract until he had received word concerning Berryman’s release from Viking. He also wanted, in addition to having Ben Shahn do the illustrations, that the notes for the Bradstreet poem be considered as an appendix, since they would make the poem longer and give the type of pedantry critics all too often relish. On July 9, Berryman wrote to his mother that he had just received the canceled contract from Viking and that all the arrangements with Farrar, Straus & Cudahy were complete.

Although saddened by the loss of such an original poet, the mourners at John Berryman's funeral could take comfort in Berryman’s remarkable literary achievements, including 13 books edited and published by Robert Giroux.

Notable Writers

Thus began a publishing friendship that lasted up to the time of Berryman’s suicide on Jan. 7, 1972, when he jumped off the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, which connects two parts of the University of Minnesota campus.

Over the ensuing years, Giroux became a consummate editor with a host of notable writers—including Djuna Barnes, E. M. Forster, William Gaddis, Herman Hesse, R. W. B. Lewis, Walker Percy, Carl Sandburg, William Saroyan, Mary Lee Settle, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Susan Sontag, Derek Walcott, Robert Penn Warren and Eudora Welty, to name but a few—to all of whom he granted his full attention. He thought in terms of the formation, rather than the education, of an editor, as exemplified in the editorial careers of Edward Garnett, who launched Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence and John Galsworthy in England, or Maxwell Perkins, who published F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe at Scribner’s.

Giroux believed editing lines is not necessarily the same as editing a book. “A book is a much more complicated entity, the relation and portions of its parts,” he wrote in his essay “The Education of an Editor,” “and its total impact could escape even a conscientious editor exclusively intent on vetting the book line by line. Perhaps that is why so many books today seem not to have been edited at all…. Editors used to be known by their authors; now some of them are known by their restaurants.”

During the Mass of Christian Burial for John Berryman at Saint Frances Cabrini Church in Minneapolis, with the Rev. Robert Hazel presiding, Giroux delivered a moving eulogy. Although saddened by the loss of such an original poet, the mourners could take comfort in Berryman’s remarkable literary achievements, including 13 books edited and published by Giroux, including Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956); 77 Dream Songs (1964), which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968), which won a National Book Award and a Bollingen Prize for Poetry.

To a great extent, Berryman’s Homage to Mistress Bradstreet relaunched Giroux’s career, and Giroux’s expertise as an editor encouraged Berryman to write and publish as he so devoutly wished. They formed a most impressive publishing friendship.

More: Books / Poetry

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