WHEN I became the ninth editor of the Atlantic in June of 1938, a dinner was given in my honor. Present were a number of our distinguished New England contributors including Robert Frost, such dear rivals as Fred Allen of Harper’s, and my two immediate predecessors, Bliss Perry and Ellery Sedgwick. I remember, as I entered the cocktail reception, hearing Bliss Perry remark: “Here comes the next victim,” and I remember his saying to me during the dinner — he sat on my right — “There are really only two rules of editing I can give you. The first: pay your contributors on acceptance — the money will never look bigger. The second is more personal: remember how vulnerable we all are to fatigue and indigestion; when you feel bilious, try to postpone to the next day your troublesome decisions.”
Early in my editorship I learned that editors work on a weekend-to-weekend basis. During the week they dictate letters; they talk on the telephone, and to those pregnant with manuscripts; and they attend what are called conferences —the surest device for killing time known to industry. I learned that an editor’s work week really begins on Friday afternoon, when with his secretary’s help he stuffs his brief case with all the things he ought to have attended to during the week. Beginning Friday night and continuing through Sunday he reads his prizes and makes his discoveries, blueprints the next issue and dreams up his big ideas for the future. No editor worth his salt can live without a minimum of contemplation and privacy.
By Monday morning he is at his peak: he has caught up with his reading; he feels confident of his decisions and eager to explore the new leads which came to him while he was not listening to the sermon Sunday morning. This will be one of those rare days when he has the world in his hand, when writers and agents say “yes” and when the telephone is like a voice from heaven. “Get me Senator X in Washington,” he says hy way of greeting his secretary. Then he begins leafing through the morning mail.
The Quill Club of Terre Haute will appreciate it if he will serve as one of three judges of its annual short-story contest. The Harvard Dames would like him to speak on a literary subject any Thursday evening in November. That nice, if persistent, couple he met at Breadloaf have a daughter, fresh from Smith, who wants an editorial job. She has typing but has purposely not learned shorthand since it might tie her down. “Would you like to read my series on the Orient?” asks a handwritten card. “Seven articles averaging 9000 words. Will come in for an appointment.”
My secretary has a way of saving the letters of abuse till the last. There is an anonymous post card reviling us for publishing a respectful article on Russian education. And what are these, these multigraphed letters on gray burlap paper, all identical? This is a Polish demonstration. “Dear Sir: I the undersigned wish to deny indignantly the unfair accusation in the September Atlantic that there is an organized Polish minority in the United States. . . .” One hundred and thirtynine of them by actual count.
All this while of eager assimilation the phone has been ringing: a conference with the advertisingdepartment has been set for eleven; it is now ten thirty. Senator X in Washington has not returned my call. And how many pinpricks do you need to deflate a balloon?
I sometimes wonder why we do it, and of course the truth is we couldn’t be paid to do anything else. Editing is in our blood, and all this attrition I have been talking about is simply the gristle in our meat. We edit because, God help us, we think it is important. If we were committed to Bedlam we would edit a handwritten sheet for our fellow inmates, and if Russia took over this country, we would edit underground. We think we were born to do this, and we believe that what we are doing is in the public good.
At rare intervals we are confirmed in this belief. There are turning points in the career of every magazine, and those editors who made the turn will never forget it. Sometimes you see the high point a long way ahead, just as we did in Boston when for eighteen months we built up the big blue issue which signalized our Centennial last November. Here was our dream book; it sold out on the Eastern seaboard in thirty-six hours, and for the only time in our history we went back on press. More often the turning point takes the editor, as it does the reader, by surprise. In the spring of 1927 my predecessor, Ellery Sedgwick, heard a New York lawyer saying publicly that A1 Smith, the Democratic candidate, could not be both a good Catholic and a good President. When Mr. Sedgwick, with the help of Father Duffy and Judge Proskauer, persuaded Al Smith to answer those charges, as he did in the article, “Catholic and Patriot,” we were reassured about an issue which is very alive in our thinking.
Such editing supercharges a magazine; it gives the sheet a new meaning for a generation of readers. In 1934 DeWitt Wallace had a fateful conversation with a garageman in Armonk Village, New York. The mechanic asked him if he had any idea of the murder that was being committed on our highways every day. Wallace went home and brooded, then got in touch with J. C. Furnas, who was told to spare no detail in arousing Americans to the horror of wild driving. I don’t know how many times the article was rewritten; I do know that “And Sudden Death” permanently changed the character of the Reader’s Digest and that four million reprints were requested in three months after publication.
Think of the audacity of Harold Ross in sending John Hersey to Hiroshima and then devoting an entire issue of the New Yorker to his findings. McCarthy was at the height of his intimidation when Max Ascoli had the courage to attack the China lobby in two resounding articles in the Reporter. Think of the urgency of Norman Cousins in flying over to Lambaréné to persuade Albert Schweitzer to speak out against the depravity of nuclear warfare. Think of the foresight of the editors of Look, particularly Dan Mitch, when two years ago, in 1956, they correctly forecast the Southern resistance and went out to meet it in their lead article, “The South Versus the Supreme Court.” My dear friend Fred Allen of Harper’s twice led the whole field with his infuriating exposure of corruption in labor relations: first in 1948 in the blazing article, “The Blast in Centralia, No. 5,” and four years later with Mary Heaton Vorse’s unsparing account of the longshoremen and how those pirates hold up the Port of New York. This is the courage, this is the vigilance which the country expects of magazine editors.
Last summer I wrote to thank the management of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company for their loyalty in advertising in the Atlantic uninterruptedly for fifty years. In his reply, Vice President Sanford B. Cousins said: “The Atlantic was one of the 52 magazines to carry our national advertising when it first appeared in 1908. Of them only 8 have survived the ravages of whatever diseases magazines suffer.” Eight survivors out of fifty-two. The old Life must have been one of the casualties, and the reason why the new Life is such a powerhouse is the decision, the turning point its editors took some years back when they determined that pictures simply were not enough; they had to have prose too. Significant that they made their pitch in history, the history of art, of culture, a retelling with pictures of the outline of history, which appealed as nothing else could have done so surely to the American zeal for self-improvement. There is a clearly discernible trend here. The success of American Heritage is in direct response to the rising interest in history which has swept through the nation since the war. Now that we have become a world power, people want to catch up with the past; what can we learn from studying our earlier crises? So too in science. The transformation of Scientific American under the lead of Gerard Piel from a journal of technology to a magazine with a broad approach to physics, biology, and scientific research paid off long before Sputnik. And when those two bellwethers, the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies’ Home Journal, discard fiction as their cover appeal and instead play up biography and adventures of the mind, you may be sure that a major change in American tastes has occurred.
The eager interest in the thoughtful, the scientific, the how-to-do-it material is traceable to what the census calls “professional and technical workers.” In number they have been rapidly increasing; so has their purchasing power, and so have their children in college. In the census age group of “65 and over” only 3.5 per cent have a college degree, whereas in the age group ready for college today, white and colored, 17 per cent, or five times as many, are taking degrees. In the next decade that number will increase astronomically. Here is the coming and dominant readership.
BEAUTY AND THE CRITIC
LADY DIANA COOPER, youngest daughter of the eighth Duke of Rutland, was turning people’s heads by the time she was fourteen. She was an exceptional beauty in a society famous for its looks; she was high-spirited and witty; she had entree; she loved to defy conventions and to attract attention; and wherever she went the spotlight sought her out. Her life, like that of her contemporaries, broke sharply into two parts: the first, the golden years prior to 1914; and the second, the retrieving and adjustment that followed after. Her book, THE RAINBOW COMES AND GOES (Houghton Mifflin, §5.00), bears the unmistakable impress of her personality; to it she has committed herself with candor, with great affection for those she loved, and with a minimum of self-pity for her generation, which suffered more grievous loss than any other in English history.
Lady Diana has a lively memory, and as is true of most memoirs, those episodes at the greatest distance shine most brightly. Her days with her grandfather, the old duke, in his huge, turreted castle, Belvoir, is an enchanting visit to the nineteenth century, with the army of servants, the Sunday inspection of the chapel, kennels, and stable, and the watchman beneath her window murmuring, “Past twelve o’clock. All’s well.” In London she was spoiled by her mother, intoxicated with the pleasure of growing up, flattered by the admiration of artists like Chaliapin. It was here that she had her forebodings that such happiness could not last, and it was here that her friendships with the Beerbohm Tree family, the Asquiths, Maurice Baring, and with Duff Cooper, who was to be her husband, were the governing force in her life. She was already a legend before Max Reinhardt brought her to America to act in The Miracle. She writes not as a stylist, but as a woman whose courage, whose love, and whose grief find a natural outlet in words.
No critic these past fifty years has had such an exquisite command of English as VIRGINIA WOOLF. We thought we had had the last of her graceful and penetrating essays, but in GRANITE AND RAINBOW (Harcourt, Brace, $3.75) we have a surprise collection of papers partly on the art of fiction, partly on biography, which have been exhumed from the Times Literary Supplement and various American reviews. For sheer dexterity I commend her early appraisal of Hemingway and her consummate summing up of Katherine Mansfield. But it is in the field of biography that I think her facility as a critic finds its happiest expression, and here her papers on Sterne and Eliza, De Quincey, Horace Walpole, Poe’s Helen, Walt Whitman, and, best of all, her poignant, devastating essay, “Money and Love,” an examination of The Life of Thomas Coutts, Banker, are enticements worth rereading. She interpolates these lives in her own light with a play of feeling and an irony and a “flood and foam of language” which come to a head in the final and compelling paragraph. You put down her book wishing there were a critic today who could write half so well.