“Nobody in my family dates letters,” the narrator of “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” says, and the same may be said of its author, J. D. Salinger, and of many other writers and editors whose letters form part of the Lobrano Collection, recently acquired by the Morgan Library. Gustave S. Lobrano, known as Gus, was a fiction editor at The New Yorker from 1937 to 1956. He edited Salinger, Thurber, Perelman, Cheever, O’Hara, and many others. His papers were safeguarded by his daughter, Dorothy (Dotty) Lobrano Guth, who also worked at the magazine. (Full disclosure: we were colleagues on the copydesk in the eighties.) She handed them down to her daughter, Dorothy Jean (Jeanie) Guth, who placed them at the Morgan. They are currently in the care of Philip Palmer, the head of the Morgan’s department of literary and historical manuscripts.
The papers, not yet catalogued, are in three heavy archival boxes, organized by correspondent, and a valise of as-yet-unsorted items. There are thirteen Salinger letters, mostly typewritten and single-spaced, protected in Mylar sleeves. Like all things Salinger, the letters are extremely sensitive, falling in that gray area between the owner of the documents and the originator of the words, and making it necessary to get permission to quote from them when such permission has previously been denied (in court). As E. B. White wrote in a collection of his own correspondence (edited by Dotty, who was his goddaughter), “A man who publishes his letters becomes a nudist—nothing shields him from the world’s gaze except his bare skin,” and if we know anything about Salinger it’s that he would not have liked that.
In these letters to Gus, Jerry (as he signs himself) is at his most vulnerable as well as at his happiest. In the first letter, dated Thursday, October 20th (probably from the early fifties), he is on the lookout for indoor tennis courts in Manhattan where he and Gus and S.J. (presumably Perelman) can play. In a letter posted from Westport, Connecticut, on December 7th (probably 1951; he was waiting for “The Catcher in the Rye” to appear), he is worrying about a story that isn’t coming easily: “I sometimes wish (insincerely, of course) that I hadn’t started out three years ago with as good a story as A PERFECT DAY FOR BANANAFISH.” (Others put it more crudely: he killed off his best character too soon.) “It’s very childish, but I live in a terrible state of competition with myself,” he writes. “My ego gets more enormous every day. . . . Sometimes I’d like to give up writing altogether. It’s really a sick man’s profession. I’m even reaching the point where I can’t read any other writer unless he’s good and demented.”
In a handwritten letter dated Thursday, April 14th, (1955), Salinger announces, in the most diffident way possible, as if to come right out and say it would be to jinx it, that he got married. “The fact is, there was a sort of elopement around here recently, and I was one of the principals.” The bride was Claire Douglas, Salinger’s second wife and the mother of his children. He adds, “I can give out the worst kind of information about myself, not only without flinching, but, usually, grinning like a fool. But I can’t touch happy news. It leaves me non-plussed. It drives me underground.” Shades of Seymour.
The prominence of the Salinger file threatens to eclipse the rest of the collection, which is a deep source of editorial lore. Lobrano’s tenure at The New Yorker covered crucial years, spanning the Second World War and the McCarthy era, as well as the transition from Harold Ross, the founding editor, who died in 1951, to William Shawn, his successor. (Lobrano himself was a candidate for the job.) Katharine S. White hired Lobrano, a longtime friend of her husband’s, as a fiction editor at The New Yorker in 1937. Her hire letter came with a historic postscript: “Here is a scholarly document that I am sending you which [Wolcott] Gibbs wrote the other day. He got so much interested in looking at your editing (this is the first time he has ever been interested in training anybody, so that is a great thing for us) that he set down some rules for New Yorker editing. For heaven’s sake, don’t let anyone else see it. . . . Everyone around here is reading it with chortles and delight.” By now, Wolcott Gibbs’s “Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles” has been widely disseminated—first published in James Thurber’s “The Years with Ross,” it was quoted in Gardner Botsford’s memoir, “A Life of Privilege, Mostly”; as an appendix to Thomas Kunkel’s biography of Harold Ross, “Genius in Disguise”; in Thomas Vinciguerra’s “Cast of Characters,” about the writers and editors who were crucial to the magazine’s early development; and as a coda to a posthumous collection of Gibbs’s own work, “Backward Ran Sentences”—but it was Lobrano who originally inspired it.
One of Gibbs’s rules (No. 17) offers a lucid explanation for a tenet of New Yorker style that has puzzled writers (and some editors) for generations: “I almost forgot indirection which probably maddens Mr. Ross more than anything else in the world. He objects, that is, to important objects, or places or people being dragged into things in a secretive and underhanded manner. If, for instance, a profile has never told where a man lives, Ross protests against a sentence saying, ‘His Vermont house is full of valuable paintings.’ Should say ‘He has a house in Vermont and it is full, etc.’ Rather weird point, but it will come up from time to time.” And it does.
Another point of style can be traced directly to Ross. In a memo dated April 24, 1944 (Ross had a sense of history), and addressed to Messieurs Shawn, Lobrano, Whitaker (Rogers E. M. Whitaker, then a copy editor), and McDowell (perhaps the head of checking), he wrote, “After extensive consultation, it has been decided that we will go back to the English language and defy the strong current of present-day journalism by running [a] period after all initials, from F.B.I. on down to P.O.E. and B.L.G. We may lead the whole American press out of the forest of initials. This rule is to become effective at once.”
Writers’ complaints about house style are a robust theme of the correspondence. Salinger, in a letter dated January 14th and datelined Windsor, Vermont—he has just bought the house in Cornish, New Hampshire, where he will live for the rest of his life—is going over proofs of his story “Teddy,” published in 1953, and objects, mildly, to a proofreader’s change of “Brahman” to “Brahma.” (He accepted “Brahma,” and that is how the word appears in “Nine Stories.”) There is an exchange between Katharine White and Ross in 1949 about an English poet’s preference for the British spelling “grey” over The New Yorker’s American spelling “gray.” Mrs. White writes, “[Howard] Moss and I were discussing an odd poetry problem today. . . . Now grey is a more poetic word than gray—no doubt about it. Many writers prefer it as standard spelling, both in prose and poetry. . . . I guess I think the prose writers should be made to conform but I do stick at making a poet change grey to gray. . . . What think?” Ross’s response: “I’m astonished at your note on whether an English writer can use the grey spelling. My feeling is that of course he can, or an English prose writer (of standing) as far as that goes. I am totally unaware of any rule around the office that makes any writer spell gray grey, or any other word recognized by the dictionary, if he has any feeling about it. That goes for American writers, too.”
In a letter dated “Tuesday,” Gibbs lodges a more general complaint in a letter to Lobrano, who is now his editor: “I don’t think, by the way, that checkers and copy editors should be permitted to put sardonic little queries on proofs going out of your office. It has a rather exasperating effect on writers who [are], after all, the ones who are employed to make the jokes.” He goes on to describe a scene that dates the letter to sometime in 1954: “I went down to Princeton last weekend and had lunch with O’Hara.” John O’Hara was a gifted short-story writer, famous for the much anthologized “Appointment in Samara,” among others, as well as for drinking and for holding grudges. “He would really like very much to write for us again, because there is really no other place for his short stories, but his conditions, of course, are grotesque. He wants an apology, from somebody in authority, for Gill’s review of his book”—Brendan Gill, a staff writer who would go on to write “Here at The New Yorker,” gave an uncomplimentary review to “A Rage to Live,” in 1949—“and he wants what you might call a punitive payment for the pieces he might have written if we hadn’t annoyed him so. I asked him how much he thought this would amount to, and he said that, well, in a good year he had made as much as $10,000 from us and so, since he had lost five years, he felt that morally we owed him $50,000. He has a feeling that this may be a little excessive, but that it is a figure at which negotiations might start. Nothing was said about the station wagon I think he asked for once, or a private airplane with pilot . . . but perhaps it just slipped his mind. In any case, I felt that he wanted this intelligence passed along to you, and I do so. You might offer to pay him ten dollars, and shoot Gill.”
Lobrano became managing editor of fiction in 1941, when the Whites moved to Maine, and was a member of the magazine’s board of directors, so he was privy to The New Yorker’s pay rates. Thurber complained to him about being asked to recompense The New Yorker for a sixty-dollar overpayment; writers got paid by the word (still do), and the accounting department had calculated that the final word count on a certain Thurber story was less than the original word count. Thurber argued that he shouldn’t be penalized for making the piece shorter, because cutting is hard. Lobrano passed the message along to Ross.
Lobrano may have kept some things just because they amused him. For instance, he has a copy of a memo from Ross to White: “Mr. Lobrano mentioned that you were interested in an item he spotted in the paper about the invention of a small watermelon by some professors at a northern college. . . . I have a notion that the small watermelon may become a big economic proposition. I planted some watermelons in Connecticut one summer and they grew fine but hadn’t completed their growth until they were knocked off by frost, in the fall. If the small watermelon grows quicker than the normal one (and why not, because it hasn’t go[t] so far to go), then it can be grown in the northern season and the South’s monopoly on watermelons will be broken.”