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An Interview with Patrick Samway, author of “John Berryman and Robert Giroux”

Patrick Samway, S.J., professor emeritus of English at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia

Patrick Samway S.J., author of John Berryman and Robert Giroux: A Publishing Friendship (October 2020), kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his writing process and research. His previous books include The Letters of Robert Giroux and Thomas Merton and Flannery O’Connor and Robert Giroux, both published by the University of Notre Dame Press.

John Berryman and Robert Giroux traces the biographical relationships between these two extremely influential men and how they interacted with one another as famous poet and editor. When did you first get the idea to write this book?

My impetus to write this book stems from my friendship with Robert Giroux, whom I knew for 20-plus years. I dined with him frequently, knew some of his authors, and traveled with him to Massachusetts, Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Washington, D.C. In addition, I edited the Robert Giroux-Thomas Merton correspondence and wrote a book on Flannery O’Connor’s professional relationships with Giroux, the editor of all her published books. Thus, it was only natural that I write a similar book about Giroux and Berryman, but the nature of their relationship turned out to be more complex—and intriguingly so—than I first imagined. In short, these books form what I call my “Giroux trilogy.”

The book reveals a backstage look at the publishing process and the impact of Giroux’s editorial guidance on Berryman’s work. How did you conduct your research for the book?

Having known Robert Giroux when he lived in Jersey City, N.J., and then in his retirement in Tinton Falls, N.J., I felt honored that he granted me full access to his personal and professional files. Since Giroux edited Berryman’s books after he left Harcourt, Brace, my research focused on the Giroux and Berryman papers in the Farrar, Straus & Giroux Collection in the New York Public Library and in the Elmer L. Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota. Because of Berryman’s connection with Princeton University, I did research both in Princeton’s Department of Special Collections in the Firestone Library and in the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library. After Giroux’s death on September 5, 2008, Hugh James McKenna, the executor of the Giroux estate, found a box hidden in the back of Giroux’s bedroom closet that contained important private letters from Berryman that Giroux treasured. Giroux often talked about his authors during the hundreds of times we met. I taped a two-hour interview with him in 1997, during which he related much of his personal life in detail. Furthermore, Jonathan Montaldo videotaped Giroux for 16 hours a few years before this noted editor’s death. As I wrote this book, I felt I was on very solid ground.

Giroux (of Harcourt, Brace and Farrar, Straus & Giroux) published some of the most important voices of the 20th century, including T.S. Eliot, Paul Horgan, Jean Stafford, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Merton, Jack Kerouac, Flannery O’Connor, Seamus Heaney, William Golding, Elizabeth Bishop, Walker Percy, Bernard Malamud, and Peter Taylor. Did you discover any new information about Giroux while reading his letters?

I have spent hours and hours reading through Giroux’s correspondence with many of his authors during the time he was editor-in-chief at Harcourt, Brace and Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Four observations. I) In assessing, for example, the genius of Merton and O’Connor, Giroux wrote: “The aura of aloneness surrounding each of them was not an accident. It was their métier, in which they refined and deepened their very different talents in a short span of time. They both died at the height of their powers.” Giroux brought out the best in Merton, as seen in his suggestion tellingly in the revised opening of The Seven Storey Mountain. Who would have ever suspected that the original cloth edition of this autobiography would eventually exceed 600,000 copies? 2) Giroux’s suggested conclusion about O’Connor’s “Good Country People” implies that nothing of real importance has taken place during the course of the story—but the reader knows different. The repetition of the word “simple” returns the reader back to the larger context of the story, one filled with marvelously insightful bromides and formulaic trite expressions. 3) Giroux’s letters to T.S. Eliot reveal that he often served as Eliot’s travel agent rather than acting as a line-by-line editor. Giroux’s vacations with T.S. and Valerie Eliot to the Caribbean were the rewards of his exacting career. 4) In a letter in the archives of Jack Kerouac to Giroux in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, there is a letter Kerouac wrote to Giroux, but for some reason did not send, which says in effect there would have been no Kerouac without Giroux. I feel sure that most of Giroux’s authors felt the same way.

Among Berryman’s many honors are a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and a Bollingen Prize for Poetry. His most famous work is The Dream Songs. What did you learn about the troubled poet while writing this book?

Although I had read and admired Berryman’s Homage to Mistress Bradstreet while in graduate school, I was not at first all that familiar with the Dream Songs, because they seemed so elusive. But that changed one day when Robert Giroux interpreted a number of these poems in my presence. I learned that Berryman did not hesitate to search for words from some inner abyss, keenly aware that everyday speech patterns never reveal the freshness and originality of an intended idea. Moreover, while a few of the Dream Songs might be critiqued as assorted tidbits from the past or self-conscious verbal petroglyphs testing the limits of Berryman’s imagination, those that deal directly with his father reveal sustained, focused, reiterative, filial anger. Moreover, Giroux shared with me his startling views, based particularly on knowing Berryman’s mother, of how Berryman’s father actually died.

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

I set out to write a book on the professional relationship of Robert Giroux and John Berryman, but that soon changed, mainly because of their friendship dating back to their undergraduate days at Columbia College in New York in the early-1930s. As one of the editors of the Columbia Review, Giroux edited Berryman’s earliest poetry. Yet, when Giroux did not receive a scholarship to Cambridge University, as he should have, he harbored a life-long grudge, as he explained to me, upon learning that the scholarship was awarded to Berryman. Furthermore, Professor Mark Van Doren’s Shakespeare course greatly influenced both Giroux and Berryman. One of Berryman’s great desires was to write a magisterial work on Shakespeare, which he never accomplished. While working as a full-time editor, Giroux in his own competitive way completed a book on Shakespeare’s sonnets. Overshadowing all of this, however, was Giroux’s unquestionable personal friendship with Berryman; Giroux gave Berryman the support he desperately needed during prolonged stays of hospitalization and Berryman’s incredible addiction to alcohol and painkillers.

Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?

There are many such influences, but let me cite two. First, I dedicated John Berryman and Robert Giroux to Joseph Blotner, the biographer of William Faulkner. I was Professor Blotner’s graduate assistant at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill while he was writing his impressive Faulkner biography. More than anyone else, Blotner inspired me to engage in literary research and then publish the results. Second, Robert Giroux, who was one of the great American editors of all time. I worked closely with him when he edited my Walker Percy: A Life and also when I assembled a collection of Percy’s essays and interviews, entitled Signposts in a Strange Land. I could not have asked for two better mentors and friends.

Who would you like to read John Berryman and Robert Giroux and why?

I think this book is geared for a wide audience, particularly those interested in the poetry of John Berryman, the history of American poetry, and the close relationship that an extraordinary American editor had with a brilliant poet whose private life at times was most unfortunate. Berryman fused the roles of student-poet-teacher, all the while desperately seeking inner contentment and living with feelings of inferiority and relentless anxiety—in short, seeking a personal freedom beyond the distant horizon that he could not, and would not, ever reach. Giroux gave Berryman the freedom to live and write as he pleased, always encouraging him to become the best published poet he could possibly be. The expert critiques of Berryman’s poetry by Saul Bellow, Robert Fitzgerald, William Meredith, and Robert Lowell reinforced Giroux’s own judgment and insights.

What book are you working on next?

After having four books published since 2015 (three by the University of Notre Dame Press, and a fourth, a biography of William Byron, S.J., published by Saint Joseph’s University Press), I am working on two shorter projects. The first focuses on the poetry that Walker Percy wrote during his three years at Greenville High School in Mississippi (1930-33), just after the suicide of his father on July 9, 1929 and before and after the time of his mother committed suicide on April 2, 1932. The second is a detailed genealogical essay of the family of Flannery O’Connor with a focus on determining the exact relationship of O’Connor and an important relative, Mary Catherine (“Cousin Katie”) Flannery Semmes, who sometimes served as the O’Connor family benefactor.

This blog post is part of the Enriching Scholarly Communication and Connections through Notre Dame Press project and has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at www.neh.gov.

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