"A rare and difficult trick"
Whether lauding Oscar Wilde's ability to "praise amusingly" or reproving a biographer of Henri Rousseau as "the kind of writer whose answer to any textual problem is a quotation from Baudelaire," Phoebe-Lou Adams's brief book notices were the soul of wit. An Unbound anthology of brief reviews by The Atlantic's longtime staff writer.
Phoebe-Lou Adams's elegant and discerning commentaries on books have been appearing in the back pages of The Atlantic Monthly since 1952, taking the measure of new and reissued volumes of her choosing with a surpassing aplomb that was never compromised by her thrift with a phrase. Call them reviews, if you must. Faithful readers of her column know better: her byline has marked the spot where remarkable feats of worldly wit and nuance are performed in tight spaces that would be the downfall of a prose style any less resourceful and disarming. On the occasion of her retirement this month, we've assembled a sampler from the Adams oeuvre across a span of nearly fifty years, and asked her to share some reflections on her career at the magazine and her life in letters.
Phoebe-Lou Adams spoke with Atlantic Monthly staff editor Lucie Prinz at Adams's home in Thompson, Connecticut.
You took a roundabout route to get to The Atlantic Monthly. Where did you get your first experience as a book reviewer?
Well, I graduated from Radcliffe in 'thirty-nine with a degree in English Literature, which was worth about as much as a case of smallpox, in terms of employment. I moved through a couple of worthless jobs from which I was quickly fired. Then I was the librarian at The Hartford Retreat, an institution for disturbed adults which is now The Institute for Living. They published a little newsletter in-house and I reviewed books for it. Eventually I got a job at The Hartford Courant where I was also a sometime reviewer. At the Courant if you volunteered to do a review they gave you the book to read, you were paid a dollar for your review, and you didn't get to keep the book. Along the line I had done a bit of reviewing for The Atlantic, through the good offices of my former headmistress at Loomis-Chafee who was secretary to the editor, Ted Weeks.
In 1944 I was hired by The Atlantic as the assistant to Dudley Cloud, the managing editor. Meanwhile in the next office, The Atlantic's first reader was beavering very hard through piles of manuscripts and needed help. So I read manuscripts. Since I was at the absolute bottom of the totem pole, I also got the jobs that nobody else wanted -- for example, dealing with the people who walked through the front door offering to write a piece or something.
My instructions were very simple: one, get rid of them as quickly and as civilly as possible; two, never let a poet read aloud; and three, if it's a man with a beard, throw him out. So of course, my first customer was a man with a beard. It was a very neat beard of good quality and quite becoming. Everything about him was unmistakably "Harvard junior faculty." As a Radcliffe graduate, I saw Harvard as taking precedence over that beard. So I invited him in, gave him a chair, asked what he had in mind. Sure enough he began by saying,"I must confess, I am ex-Harvard faculty." He'd rehabilitated an old mill which was thought to have been founded by John Goff, one of the two regicides who condemned Charles I to death. The British ultimately chased both of them all around New England and never caught them. He was gratified that I knew who John Goff was. John Goff's mill was now in order and turning out cornmeal, and he wondered if perhaps The Atlantic would be interested in hearing about it. Struck me that we certainly would be. So I told him to send in the manuscript, and off he went. Then I realized that the first thing I had done at The Atlantic was disobey all the rules.
And you've continued to do that, I think.
Yes, and since there was no complaint then -- we published that manuscript and ultimately a couple of books by the man -- I decided obviously this was my kind of place. Eventually the manuscript reader left to get married, and I inherited the job. I was at it for years. The manuscripts were forwarded to our associate editor, Charlie Morton, and if he thought well of them they went on to Weeks, who held regular meetings at which everybody expressed their opinion about a story or article and if the opinion was favorable it was published. Weeks was very clever with those meetings. If everybody was on the fence or if no one was very enthusiastic, he'd say,"Well, we can get rid of this." And then there'd be several outcries of "Oh no!"
Was that his way of managing to get what he wanted in this democracy?
No, he didn't need approval. If he liked it he was going to publish it regardless. It was a way of finding out what we really thought. And the meetings were useful because they let everybody know what was going on all the time.
So you toiled in the manuscript venue for years -- and then?
Then while I still read manuscripts I occasionally wrote reviews. There was a column called "Books the Editors Like," which was supposed to be about books the editors had read. But "The Editors" was just me. Then we needed a poetry editor -- so I was poetry editor. And when we needed a travel writer I knew I was about to be a travel writer.