Zinsser on Friday

Men of Letters

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By William Zinsser

October 1, 2010


 

“He never achieved the top rank of recognition that was predicted for him after the publication of his first novel, The End of My Life,” said The New York Times in its obituary of the American writer Vance Bourjaily, who died a few weeks ago at the age of 87, “but he had a long and substantial career in letters of the sort that was far more prevalent a half-century ago than it is today.”

Along with his novels, Bourjaily wrote short stories, essays, and book reviews and was also an editor and a teacher. He spent 20 years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and five at the University of Arizona, and then he founded the creative writing program at Louisiana State University. He was also “a serious literary socialite,” the Times said, citing a comment in Esquire that “everyone came to Vance’s parties.” Everyone typically included Norman Mailer, James Jones, and William Styron. Bourjaily was, in short, a “man of letters.”

How quaint that term sounds today. The republic of letters has largely sputtered out. Little bookstores where writers once dropped in to chat were put out of business by big bookstores where the general populace dropped in to drink coffee: the republic of latte. Now Barnes & Noble itself is broke and is closing its popular New York branch near Lincoln Center; it will be replaced by a discount clothing store.

Men and women of letters were the willing workhorses of the literary enterprise; they saw that the caravan kept moving. They formed committees and juries and gave awards and held readings and signings and receptions and wrote critical essays for obscure quarterlies. But they were not ascetic drudges; alcohol was the solvent of their trade, and they never missed a literary event. Their universe was held together by a specific object (the book), sold in a specific place (the bookstore).

What gave men and women of letters their long reign was an aura of authority. They were a small aristocracy of unquestioned good taste and judgment. The Book-of-the-Month Club founded by Harry Scherman in 1926 was a novel marketing idea that had a major flaw. He knew that readers wouldn’t subscribe to buy new books unless they were assured that the books were worthy. Who would do that assuring? Men of letters!

Scherman formed a panel of judges consisting of five literary mandarins. Their “dean” was Henry Seidel Canby, editor of The Saturday Review of Literature. Two others were Christopher Morley, prolific novelist, poet, essayist, editor, and lecturer, and Dorothy Canfield, best-selling novelist and public-education reformer, whom Eleanor Roosevelt called “one of the 10 most influential women in the United States.” Two highly respected newspapermen completed the jury: William Allen White, editor of The Emporia (Kansas) Gazette, and the columnist Heywood Broun.

Harry Scherman pledged that he would not interfere with the judges’ choices. He kept his word, although their first selection, Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, a mystical exploration of “the secret country of the mind” as discerned by a woman walking through England’s “desolate and half-lit Chilterns,” almost sank the little boat before it left the shore. Readers loathed it.

Initially Canfield, a Vermonter, was suspicious of Scherman’s invitation to hitch her good name to a commercial scheme. “I didn’t like the sound of it very well,” she said, and she asked for time to think it over. A few days later she came to New York for a shopping trip. It was the first warm Saturday in April, bringing out half the population of the city—or so it seemed to Canfield. Fearful of being trampled on Fifth Avenue, she staggered into Brentano’s bookstore.

“I found myself in a peaceful isolation, as if I were in a country graveyard,” she recalled. “This was the only place where nobody was really appallingly anxious to buy something. I came home and decided that there was something wrong with relying entirely on bookstores to get books into the hands of American readers. I wrote down to the Book-of-the-Month Club and said I would try it for a year.” That year lasted a quarter of a century.

So began the steady march into American homes of authors who had never been there before: Ellen Glasgow, Elinor Wylie, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton, Carl Sandburg, Stephen Vincent Benet, Pearl S. Buck, Willa Cather, Thornton Wilder, George Santayana, Robert Frost, John Steinbeck. Even more striking is the number of foreign authors sent out by Scherman and his judges to a country that was still intellectually provincial. Some were English and thus only moderately strange: John Galsworthy, Virginia Woolf, H. G. Wells, A. E. Housman. But many were total strangers from Europe—Sigrid Undset, Thomas Mann, Ignazio Silone, Isak Dinesen, André Malraux, Stefan Zweig—bearing philosophical packages that were by no means easy to unwrap.

When the original judges died or retired, Scherman replaced them with other literary eminences, most famously Clifton Fadiman, who served as a judge for 55 years, from 1944 until his death in 1999. Together for more than 60 years, Scherman and his judges made America a nation of readers, steadily elevating the level of what those readers were willing to consume.

On today’s landscape I don’t see many men and women of letters; the apparatus that supported their world has collapsed. Down in Archer City, Texas, I see Larry McMurtry, author of novels (Lonesome Dove), articles, essays, book reviews, and screenplays, but also proprietor of Booked Up, one of America’s largest used-book stores, with more than 400,000 titles. In 2004, hurt by competition from on-line bookselling, McMurty wanted to close the store, but he changed his mind after an outpouring of public support. That’s a man of letters.

In Brooklyn I see Dave Eggers, who in 1998 founded the literary journal McSweeney’s and in 2005 started the quarterly DVD Wholphin, which shows outstanding short documentary films that would otherwise get little or no exposure.

With those publications Eggers is carrying on the role played by such earlier men and women of letters as George Plimpton, Harold Humes, and Peter Matthiessen, founders in 1953 of The Paris Review, which originated the wonderful author interviews and resulting books called Writers at Work, and Robert B. Silvers, Barbara Epstein, and Elizabeth Hardwick, who founded The New York Review of Books in 1963 to fill the vacuum caused by a three-month strike at New York’s daily newspapers. Their Review remains one of the ornaments of American intellectual life.

I’m not and never was a man of letters. That world always seemed a little too cozy. I can’t even get weepy over the decline of the little bookstore. Like many writers, I’m a one-person business. Above all I want people to read my books and to be able to find and obtain them easily and quickly.

That machinery now exists; the future has arrived. The problem is that nobody knows where it is going. Last week I asked my publisher if he could explain how my hard-cover royalties would be affected by the accelerating sales of e-books. I put to him what I thought was a pertinent question: “If you sell x copies of my book as an e-book, will you sell that many fewer copies in hard cover? Or will those be new sales?” He thought about it for a moment. Then he said: “We have absolutely no idea.”

William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.


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