Contents | March 2002

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Flashbacks: "A Farewell Toast to Phoebe-Lou Adams" (August 2000)
Phoebe-Lou Adams, The Atlantic's inimitable book reviewer of forty-three years, left the magazine in August, 2000. At the time of her retirement, The Atlantic Online conducted an interview with her and compiled a sampling of her work. The Atlantic Monthly | March 2002
 
HOEBE-LOU ADAMS, who reviewed some 4,000 books for The Atlantic Monthly from 1952 to 2000, died on December 21, in Putnam, Connecticut, at the age of eighty-three.

Adams's reviews were not like other reviews: they were shorter and firmer, better informed and more briskly judgmental. Adams took delight in praising a work of original scholarship or stylistic freshness, whether it dealt with the weather, the Civil War, or Albanian antiquities. Books by better-known authors were treated without punctilio. Robert Manning, a former editor of this magazine, says of Adams, "She could pack more sound judgment, clarity, and wit into two paragraphs than most reviewers could into three or four pages. Her criticism could be withering, but her approval was golden, something an author could take to the bank." William Whitworth, another former editor of The Atlantic, says, "Phoebe was worldly and witty and she wrote beautifully. The range of her interests was continually surprising. Because she had good judgment and good taste, because she seemed to have read everything and been everywhere, and because she was fearless, she wrote with great authority."

Here, in its entirety, from 1972, is her review of The Green Flag, by Robert Kee: "Mr. Kee's history of Ireland is everything a history should be—well written, well organized, effectively documented, unsentimental, and thorough. It is also a tale of unremitting misjudgment and malice, and inspires the blackest pessimism." Here, in its entirety, from 1983, is a review of Truman Capote, by Marie Rudisill: "In the course of describing the peculiar upbringing of Truman Capote, his Aunt Marie complains that her nephew has for years refused to speak to her. This memoir is not likely to improve family relations." Here, from 1969, is an assessment of Oscar Wilde's literary criticism: "It is easy to damn a book amusingly. Wilde could praise amusingly, a rare and difficult trick."

Phoebe-Lou Adams was New England to the bone. Raised in Warehouse Point, Connecticut ("a farming town with a couple of gin mills"), she graduated in 1939 from Radcliffe College with an honors degree in English literature—which, she observed, "was worth about as much as a case of measles." For a while she was the librarian at the Hartford Retreat (now known as the Institute for Living); then she became a reporter for The Hartford Courant. She came to The Atlantic in 1945 as an editorial assistant, soon was asked to read manuscripts, and then became the poetry editor and a sometime travel writer. In 1952 she began writing her short monthly reviews, under various rubrics ("Books the Editors Like," "Editors' Choice," "Brief Reviews," and simply "PLA"). Her tenure here overlapped with that of four editors in chief. She became the second wife of her original boss, Edward Weeks, and they were married for the last eighteen years of his life.

PLA's presence in our offices was powerful. Hers was far from a wholly bookish life. Schooled in hunting and fishing by her parents, she continued to take salmon-fishing holidays in Iceland or New Brunswick until she was eighty. For her last twenty years she staunchly drove back and forth from her house in northeastern Connecticut to Boston to sort, read, and evaluate what the publishers had to offer. She had to choose every month from hundreds of forthcoming books and relied on primitive means of selection: "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."

In later years, as junior staff members came and went, she did not know every name on the masthead, but her office was distinguished by the ancient and cumbersome houseplants that thrived in it, and by the clouds of tobacco smoke that (through indulgence) continued to billow there. Erect in posture, style, and diction, Adams enjoyed her whiskey after hours. She sat upright in her chair, which her back seldom touched. The coatrack outside her door was always crowned by the hat of the day. The Editors' Choice was a commodious fur cap that transformed Phoebe-Lou Adams into a painting by Frans Hals.

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Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2002; ; Volume 289, No. 3; 11.