Phoebe-Lou Adams Interview

A farewell toast to Phoebe-Lou Adams

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.

Photo of Phoebe-Lou Adams

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.

You began reviewing regularly in 1952. After a while you started working closely with Mr. Weeks. For a time you had side-by-side book review columns.

Yes, gradually we took to collaborating. So we became good friends.

You are famous for your strong opinions about books, but reading these earlier reviews I was struck by the fact that in the beginning your comments were not quite as, shall we say, pointed as they became later. Was that because as a young reviewer you were just more timid about such things?

I don’t think I was timid, I think possibly I was more amiable. But I was never in awe of the authors. At the beginning, I adopted the standard old formula for reviewing. What is this author attempting to do? How well has he done it? Was it worth doing? All I added was the question, Do you, yourself, know enough about this subject to be an accurate judge? And of course I always tried to remember this person had worked very hard and had probably done the best he could.

Not everybody passed muster, though. Here in its entirety is your 1970 review of a book called The Winged Cavalier: A Biography of James Graham of Montrose by one Theodore Mathieson. You said: " John Buchan wrote a fine biography of James Graham of Montrose. Maurice Walsh wrote a lively historical novel based on Montrose’s Highland campaign of 1644-1645. Both books came out thirty-odd years ago, which is a long time back, but not long enough to excuse Mr. Mathieson’s half-cooked haggis."

Several weeks after that was written the publisher sent out a repudiation letter. The books had been withdrawn because the publisher had discovered that it was full of plagiarisms from Buchan. The author’s excuse was that he had relied on Buchan; and so I felt that should be acknowledged, and so in a subsequent issue I apologized to the readers for shooting a dead duck.

I know everybody asks you how you choose the books you review. I know this isn’t your favorite question, but indulge us just this one time.

I turn them over, I riffle the pages, I smell the glue, and then I consider the reputation of the publishing house and the author’s reputation if any. Many books by unknown authors turn out to be wonderful.

You review books on a variety of subjects and you often choose books that other people might overlook. Is that because they are about something in which you have some very special interest or knowledge?

Well I have various interests. I love books about the North, about exploration, about ships (I’m not a good judge of sea novels because I love them all). But really part of it is about what else is being covered in the magazine and what is not likely to appear as a masterpiece in the New York Times Sunday edition.

Then there are your great favorites in literature. Rudyard Kipling is one of them. You’ve written a great many reviews of books by or about Kipling

Yes. He’s been a lifelong favorite. I first encountered Kipling when I must have been about eleven, and I had run out of other stuff to read. And here was this book with a dull green and black cover and a meaningless title, Kim. So I opened it up and read the first line, and I was hooked. You see, he’s interesting. A great many literary people don’t do anything but write — and there’s no action to it. Kipling ran about all over the world and did things and got into politics and squabbled with people and wrote the most charming, loving letters to his children so there’s a great deal of variety in the stuff written about Kipling. Same thing with Byron.

Your knowledge of the Civil War is very extensive. Has that come from your reading?

It’s been acquired over the years through reading and also some odd coincidences. Juvenile reading I think is very important to what one knows or what one pursues. When I was a kid I was very fond of a novel that must have come out around the early 1900s. It was called The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, by a then popular author named John Fox Jr., and was set in Kentucky and Tennessee during the Civil War. It contains some wonderful detail, which I suspect Fox had gotten from his seniors who fought in that war. Once I was in Crete having lunch in this little taverna up this mountainside, and there were a couple of American soldiers from the base there. One of them was from Kentucky. And we struck up a conversation and he said, " I bet you can’t tell me which side Kentucky was on in the Civil War," and I said, "Of course I can, Kentucky was neutral." He was much impressed.

You also wrote quite a few travel pieces for The Atlantic. One of your trips resulted in a "A Rough Map of Greece," which was serialized in 1963 and 1964 and was later published as a book. How did that come about?

I had read a lot of travel writing, but that was all the training I had. I think Weeks assigned those trips to me partly as a reward for good work and also because he wanted to have a variety of subject matter in the magazine. When he asked if I could go somewhere, I said "Yes, indeed." "Where would you like to go?" I said, "Greece." That was it.

And before that, in 1957, you had been dispatched to Cuba to get a story from Ernest Hemingway.

Well The Atlantic had been the first American magazine to publish Hemingway. So Weeks thought it was fairly proper that there should be a Hemingway in our centennial issue. We were sent word that Hemingway would receive a representative of The Atlantic. So I went down. This was just at the start of Castro’s campaign. I stayed in a very fine, comfortable, elegant, old-fashioned hotel — tile floors and splendid plumbing, with a great cage of beautiful birds in the lounge, and a good pianist who played in the restaurant every evening. I realized that I was going to have to wait around for a while because Hemingway was out fishing. I wandered around Havana and that area for almost three weeks with a very charming elderly professor who had been produced as my guide.

Eventually Hemingway turned up, and I was driven up to his farm (his finca) for tea. It was an absolutely lovely place, set up high, with a beautiful view. Outside of the house you could see Hemingway’s writing tower. It had a number of windows, each of which contained a cat. Hemingway and I sat down and carried on a sweet little tea-party conversation. I had expected him to have a Middle Western accent but he sounded just like a New Englander. He had a very soft voice and a way of speaking that warned you not always to take what he said literally.

He was married at that time to Mary?

Yes, and she was absolutely charming. While Hemingway went off to take a nap she walked me around the yard explaining where they had found the various orchids that ornamented their trees and told me about their countless acquisition of cats. I hardly knew how many cats they had, they just took in anything that turned up. The cats were not allowed in the house, so during dinner they all gathered on the doorstep outside the screen door, a nice breezy place, and they climbed it, they took turns - "plink, plink, plink, plink, plink, plop" — and then they’d repeat it. It was quite musical.

He sent us two stories about blindness for the centennial issue, but we made the mistake of thinking they were submitted as a unit. They weren’t, and he got quite cross because he wanted to be paid for both of them. Which of course we happily did and published both.

While book reviewing eventually became your main job at The Atlantic, you wrote articles now and then. In 1962, for a special issue called "Money and American Life" (which could have been subtitled "How We Spend Our Money") you were sent on the road.

I was sent to New York to endure the works at a beauty parlor, a very posh affair.

Your piece, "The Cost of Vanity," begins, "Despite variations in locality, price, and the shape of the chairs, there are only two kinds of beauty parlors. Type A assumes and openly proclaims that madam is a wreck, scarcely worth the trouble of salvage. It caters to those who feel guilty at spending money on vanity or who enjoy being abused. Since a masochistic puritan who also wishes to be beautiful is a contradiction beyond the scope of ordinary reason, these places can be disregarded. They are not beauty parlors at all, but temples of an esoteric and inexplicable cult. The true beauty parlor, type B, holds that madam is a splendid specimen sadly mishandled by other, less perceptive establishments. The management is happy to correct the errors of its predecessors for a fee that can range from the trivial to the titanic." So you went and you paid that fee.

Oh yes. The establishment had no idea that I was a journalist. They began massaging and scrubbing at the toenails and the fingernails and the hair ... the works. There were the most amiable compliments and encouragement all the way.

You also wrote an occasional piece of critical analysis about something other than a book. For example, the very popular Museum of Modern Art photo exhibition in 1955 called "The Family of Man." This was an exhibit of photographs that showed the various stages of a person’s life. It was a great hit, but you didn’t agree.

No, I thought it was rigged, and that the pictures had been retouched, and that all of them looked alike. Later when I was being photographed by a top-notch man he told me he had read that piece and was enthusiastic about it. He said that he didn’t realize that anybody who wasn’t a professional would realize that most of those photographs had been helped a bit. But the real point seemed to be ... well, today you call it "politically correct" — all people are wonderful, they’re admirable, and most of them seem to have been mistreated.

You often seem to see things with a clearer eye than many people.

I wouldn’t say it’s a clearer eye, it’s a certain cynical eye. Might as well stir people up a bit if you can.

Let’s talk for a minute about your two other non-literary passions — fishing and cats.

I grew up with cats on a sort of semi-farm in Warehouse Point, Connecticut. My father maintained a magnificent vegetable garden with chickens and a cow, and he raised and trained hunting dogs. All of this was supported by my father’s hard work as a machine-tool designing engineer. Of course, we had cats. I think my first real playmate was a cat. And I’ve always had cats and I don’t feel happy without a cat. Now I have Spooky who doesn’t like to show his face when I have guests. Now and then other cats come to visit me, but my most recent visitors have disappeared. There was a whole tribe of beautiful black cats that lived somewhere down the road. They’d congregate on the doorstep in the morning, professing to be poor, starved, neglected animals. I knew they were lying, but of course but I couldn’t resist giving them something. And then while I was off on a fishing trip, they all disappeared. Some local scoundrel had called the animal extermination league or something, and they vanished.

And how about fishing. Did you fish before you met Mr. Weeks, or did he instill that passion in you?

Well, he liked to think he did. But of course my father fished and I’d been fishing for years with no great success, because we didn’t have access to good enough water. So I was delighted to discover that Ted fished. Up until last year I fished for salmon in New Brunswick. Before that in Iceland. The fishing in Iceland is marvelous. You’d be taken out to a pool on the river and then you were on your own until they came to pick you up for lunch. The fish usually ran fifteen to twenty pounds, which is quite big enough to make an impressive fight of things. At one point we were not doing well and I went around to a high bank where we had been told not to go and sneaked up, dropped a fly right in the water. I was sure there were fish there. And I came up with a tuft of grass, so I tried again. That time I clearly had something solid on. But it was not behaving like a fish, at least not like a usual fish. So I crawled up and peered over that bank, and down in that pool there was salmon as long as the sofa you’re sitting on. I had hooked it in the back. It took the salmon a while to figure out there was some kind of an annoyance there and when it did it just flipped and that was the end of it.

Was that the biggest salmon you ever caught?

Caught! Nonsense, I didn’t catch it. Biggest salmon I ever saw.

I’m sure you hate a question of this sort, but you’re bound to be asked it now and then: how do you sum up all these long years you spent at The Atlantic Monthly?

Fun. It was fun, because on the whole it has always been a job that I liked to do with a great number of people whose company was very agreeable.

I’m sure that you will continue to be amused, outraged, and now and then surprised by the things you read. Will you go back to your old favorite subjects or do you intend to read about the latest thing. Cyberspace, for instance?

No, that’s one reason I’m quitting. I have no interest in cyberspace.