By Sheila Hill
“The length was impossible. The editor at Harcourt was, is, my old friend Bob Giroux…When you hear your words read aloud in a refectory, it makes you wish you had never written at all.’’ [i] Thomas Merton, OSB.
Literary editor and publisher Robert Giroux worked with some of the most influential talents of the twentieth century. During a career that spanned six decades, beginning at Harcourt Brace & Co. in 1939, and continuing with Farrar & Straus – where he later became partner - his roster of writers included Virginia Woolf, Jack Kerouac, Robert Lowell, Flannery O’Connor, and Thomas Merton. He edited and published Nobel laureates and Pulitzer prize writers, such as T.S. Eliot and John Berryman.
Born in New Jersey in 1914, Giroux was from a Roman Catholic family and attended the Jesuit academy St. Regis High School in New York. Although he dropped out of high school to work at the Jersey Journal, he nevertheless won a partial scholarship to Columbia University. It was there that he met many of the writers with whom he would eventually work.
Harcourt and FSG
Among the first works he published at Harcourt were Woolf’s Between the Acts, Kerouac’s The Town and the City, O’Connor’s Wise Blood, and Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith. When Giroux, a junior editor, asked senior editor Don Brace to review Merton’s autobiography, unsure of its commercial appeal, Brace responded, “I’ll read it in print. If you like, let’s do it” (Letters of Robert Giroux & Thomas Merton). This display of trust and confidence reflects the credibility and reputation that Giroux would enjoy throughout his career.
After 15 years with Harcourt, in 1955 Giroux moved to Farrar & Straus (FS). On his joining FS, Roger Straus Jr. said it was, “the best thing that ever happened to his house” (First Things 2014). As testimony to this, as well as to Giroux’s character, writers en masse followed him from Harcourt to FS (Washington Post). Flannery O’Connor broke a contract with another publishing firm to follow Giroux, and T.S. Eliot cabled Don Brace at Harcourt to tell him he was following Giroux with his next book.
In 1964 Giroux became Chairman of Farrar & Straus and his name was added to the company. Straus’ and Giroux’s individual strengths and styles complemented one another, resulting in a successful partnership that made Farrar, Straus & Giroux (FSG) a powerhouse in the world of highbrow literature. Straus was the public face of the company focused on public relations and business matters, while Giroux focused on the books and developing writers. As Julia Yost explains, “he implemented Straus’s vision for Farrar, Straus & Giroux: to chase not bestsellers but the best authors, to accrue prestige rather than millions” (First Things 2014).
Their partnership also contributed to building a community of writers that reflected Jewish and Catholic identity within the American literary landscape, as well as a style of confessional writing. With writers like Flannery O’Connor, John Berryman and Thomas Merton, Giroux cultivated a Catholic ethos in literature. “Giroux was a Catholic editor who had his foot in the secular and mainstream world” (First Things 2013).
Giroux’s editorial style has been described as brilliant and modest (Courtly Icon). But, he was also very tactful. He approached editing with a subtle hand, offering support, to ensure that an author’s voice and story shone. While his editing was attentive and precise, he was a cutter when needed. His style was balanced.
Giroux appreciated the aesthetic and was not afraid to take a creative risk, yet he was pragmatic at the same time. Of his style, Matt Schudel noted that he, “wielded the sharpest pencil and held the hands of temperamental authors” (Washington Post). As for holding hands, Giroux took time to build relationships with his writers. He was dedicated to developing young talent and he nurtured friendships. And, he was very much an advocate for his writers – good literature and friends mattered. When he would receive criticism for publishing Merton, a contemplative, Giroux responded by handing out cards he had printed saying, “Writing is a form of contemplation” (Letters of Robert Giroux & Thomas Merton).
In an interview with The Paris Review, Giroux described the most important elements of editing as judgement, taste and empathy. Giroux was well respected for his literary taste. When asked about his thoughts about publishing in an interview with Saturday Review Magazine, Giroux replied, “If it isn’t about what you like and believe in, you might as well manufacture sausages” (Washington Post).
While at Harcourt, Giroux reviewed and accepted The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. He felt strongly about this work and fought hard for it. Despite his efforts, however, the “powers that be” rejected it. Giroux later said of the loss, “It was the biggest blow of my publishing career” (The New York Times). Ironically, a few years later at FSG, Giroux had an opportunity to publish Jack Kerouac’s On the Road but he turned it down believing his bosses would reject it.
Another crisis at Harcourt developed over Merton’s autobiography. Merton was a Trappist monk and his writings for publication were subject to review by his community. The final Trappist censor refused permission for publication because it spoke to the Trappist way of life (The Seven Story Mountain). The problem being Merton was under contract.
Giroux recommended Merton appeal to the Abbot General in France. At the same time, Giroux himself worked tirelessly to negotiate permission. He held firm in his position defending Merton’s work and, in the end, Merton received approval to publish. The Seven Story Mountain is a literary classic, and it remains one of the most valuable works in Catholic spiritual theology, compared with St. Augustine’s Confessions.
The Person is the Publisher
Fr. Patrick Samway, a dear friend of Giroux’s, as well as editor of The Letters of Robert Giroux and Thomas Merton, described him as having a, “priestly character” without ego. Merton characterized him as strangely placid, and he was unlike the editable neurotics he hung around with” (Courtly Icon). Indeed, Giroux was at times a parent to his writers, and his lack of ego served him, and them, well. While Giroux worked with the most talented and remarkable writers of the twentieth century, some were at the same time very troubled.
As much as Giroux shared the joy of his writers’ success, he also endured their suffering, having lost colleagues and dear friends to tragic circumstances. Both Virginia Woolf and John Berryman committed suicide. In 1968, Thomas Merton, at only 48 years old, died accidentally while in Bangkok. Like Berryman, Jack Keruoac was an alcoholic, the addiction believed to have contributed to his death at age 47 in 1969. Robert Lowell was depressive – likely bipolar.
Robert Giroux died on September 5, 2008, at the age of 94. His work’s legacy speaks for itself. Mark Van Doren, Giroux’s professor and mentor from Columbia University, said that a literary classic “is a book that remains in print” (The Seven Story Mountain). Giroux had his hand in many classics. Reflecting on Thomas Merton hearing his words read aloud in a refectory, what stands out is the word “friend”. Robert Giroux was a classic. This is his legacy.