What do the following names have in common, besides their obvious amazing talent: Virginia Woolf, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Carl Sandburg, T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, Katherine Anne Porter, Walker Percy, Donald Barthelme, Grace Paley, Derek Walcott and William Golding? How about this list: George Orwell, Jean Stafford, Robert Lowell, Bernard Malamud, Flannery O’Connor, Randall Jarrell, William Gaddis, Jack Kerouac and Susan Sontag?
Robert Giroux, who passed away on Friday at age 94 was the editor for the first list and the publisher for the second. The man had a freakish connectedness in the literary world, having done everything from publishing Orwell’s 1984 to having the following conversation with T.S. Eliot (which I liberally steal from the NYT):
“His ambition to write might have prompted an exchange with Eliot, then in his late 50s, on the day they met in 1946, when Mr. Giroux, “just past 30,” as he recalled the moment in “The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes,” was an editor at Harcourt, Brace. “His most memorable remark of the day,” Mr. Giroux said, “occurred when I asked him if he agreed with the definition that most editors are failed writers, and he replied, ‘Perhaps, but so are most writers.’ ””
Giroux was a man who went from high-school drop out to publishing house luminary and did so with considerable skill and success. Anyone who loves great literature should take a moment and think about an extraordinary man whose talent and risk-taking produced some of the finest works ever published (and even wrote a book himself).