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James T. KeaneFebruary 27, 2024
Robert Giroux in an undated photo (Wikimedia Commons)

He edited Flannery O’Connor. Virginia Woolf, too. Bernard Malamud, William Gaddis, Jack Kerouac (for a while) and Walker Percy. Donald Barthelme. William Saroyan. Elizabeth Bishop. Katherine Anne Porter. Oh, and T.S. Eliot and John Berryman and Robert Lowell, too. And he had a rather distinguished cadre of external readers for his authors’ manuscripts. When a young Trappist monk and former college chum sent Robert Giroux his memoir in 1946, Giroux asked a few literary friends for advice. Who were they? Graham Greene, Claire Booth Luce, Archbishop Fulton Sheen and Evelyn Waugh.

That’s a lot of literary firepower, and I haven’t even named the monk in question yet: Thomas Merton. The book would become The Seven Storey Mountain, published in Great Britain (with Waugh as the editor!) as Elected Silence. It would remain on The New York Times’s best-seller list for over a year (The Times originally refused to include Mountain on the grounds that it was a “religious book”) and has sold more than four million copies since.

Robert Giroux: "As Merton’s publisher, I received hate mail from readers who complained that this talking Trappist who took a vow of silence should be made to shut up.”

In 1988, Giroux gave America a long firsthand account of his experience of editing and publishing The Seven Storey Mountain with Merton. The first draft, Giroux remembered, was more than 800 pages long. “The printed book came to 429 pages, a substantial book in any publisher’s eyes,” wrote Giroux, who obviously never met John Irving or Charles Taylor. His first task was to cut both the original beginning and the ending. “With the two most serious problems solved, there remained minor editorial polishing throughout—cutting out excess verbiage, repetitions, longueurs or dull patches,” he wrote.

“Why did the success of The Seven Storey Mountain go so far beyond my expectations as an editor and publisher? Why, despite its being banned from the lists, did it outsell all other nonfiction books in the same months? Though few readers believe it, publishers cannot create best sellers,” Giroux continued. “There is always an element of mystery when it happens: why this book at this moment?”

However, Giroux noted, the country was eager for a story that wasn’t about war; further, “the story Merton told was unusual: an articulate young man with an interesting background leaves the world and withdraws into a monastery.”

One sign of the book’s impact, Giroux observed, was “the resentment it inspired in certain quarters. Merton was criticized for having written the book, not only by hostile reviewers but by fellow religious who thought it inappropriate for a professed monk to write. As Merton’s publisher, I received hate mail from readers who complained that this talking Trappist who took a vow of silence should be made to shut up.”

Giroux had first met Merton when they were college students at Columbia—another friend was the poet John Berryman—and thus violated the first rule of acquisitions editors everywhere: Make your authors your friends; don’t make your friends your authors. But throughout Giroux’s long career, he was known for forming close relationships with his authors, even in difficult times, and for disdaining the high life of many of New York’s publishing titans. “Editors used to be known by their authors,” he once wrote. “Now some of them are known by their restaurants.”

Born in 1914 and raised in Jersey City, Giroux attended a Jesuit high school in New York City but dropped out his senior year—it was the Great Depression—to take a job at a New Jersey newspaper. He attended Columbia University on a scholarship, where one of his favorite professors was Mark Van Doren. After working for CBS for four years, he joined Harcourt, Brace and Company in 1940 as a junior editor. During World War II, he served on an aircraft carrier as an intelligence officer—and met fellow officer Roger Straus Jr.

Giroux had first met Merton at Columbia, and thus violated the first rule of acquisitions editors everywhere: Make your authors your friends; don’t make your friends your authors.

Giroux returned to Harcourt, Brace after the war, but left in 1955 for Farrar, Straus & Company, where he became a named partner in 1964. In 2014, Boris Kachka published a history of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, titled Hothouse, which was reviewed in America by deputy editor in chief Tim Reidy. Because Roger Straus Jr. (the son of Glady Guggenheim) was somewhat larger than life, the Don Draper of his time, Reidy noted, less of Giroux made it into the book than it should. But building on his earlier successes, Giroux soon established himself as a legend in book publishing—not just for his American list but for his international acquisitions. Of the seven Nobel Prize winners he edited, obituaries later noted, the only one born in the United States was T. S. Eliot. (Admit it, you forgot T. S. Eliot is actually from St. Louis.)

Giroux confessed to two notable acquisitions failures amid all those successes. The first was Harcourt, Brace’s decision to pass on a young author named J. D. Salinger who had been publishing short stories in The New Yorker: “Not for us,” someone from the textbook division wrote on the manuscript. The book was Catcher in the Rye. Giroux’s second miss came when Jack Kerouac, whose first novel, The Town and the City, Giroux had published, came in with an enormous manuscript written on a single roll of paper. “When Giroux told him they would need separate pages for editing, Kerouac reacted with indignation and stormed off,” wrote Reidy. “On The Road was published by Viking six years later.”

Another Columbia friend of Giroux who became a literary sensation was John Berryman. In 2020, former America literary editor Patrick Samway, S.J., wrote of the longtime friendship and publishing relationship between Berryman and Giroux. “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,” Samway wrote. “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.”

Samway himself published Flannery O’Connor And Robert Giroux in 2018. It provided “a detailed look at what it takes to be what Giroux called ‘a genuine editor’—not someone who acquires a book, or line-edits it, but helps the author to look at it as a whole and advise on structure, balance and pacing,” wrote Tim Reidy in his review for America. “An editor, Giroux believed, must have ‘judgment, taste and empathy.’”

With O’Connor, Reidy wrote, Giroux “was unusually patient, allowing O’Connor to make edits up until the very last moments of production, a habit that drives most editors batty. Giroux recognized in O’Connor a true artist with a unique voice, and did all he could to nurture it.”

Giroux died in 2008 at the age of 94. His obituary in The New York Times, written by longtime book review editor Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, quoted from Charles Scribner Jr.’s memoir in calling Giroux “a great man of letters, a great editor and a great publisher.” George Plimpton had a simpler epithet in The Paris Review, one meant as the highest compliment: “Robert Giroux has been described as an editor, a publisher, and a lifelong common reader—in short, a bookman.”

"Giroux recognized in O’Connor a true artist with a unique voice, and did all he could to nurture it."

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is four poems about Flannery O’Connor from Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s Andalusian Hours. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, big news from the Catholic Book Club: We are reading Come Forth: The Promise of Jesus’s Greatest Miracle, by James Martin, S.J. Click here to watch a livestream with Father Martin about the book or here to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

What’s all the fuss about Teilhard de Chardin?

Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

​​Who’s in hell? Hans Urs von Balthasar had thoughts.

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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