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This article is taken from PN Review 258, Volume 47 Number 4, March - April 2021.

Intimate Distance: Robert Giroux & John Berryman Tony Roberts
‘Every good thing that comes is accompanied by trouble’ is a line attributed to the legendary editor of Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Wolfe, Max Perkins. It is particularly applicable to the dealings of another great editor, Robert Giroux, with his client John Berryman.

Readers are familiar with Berryman’s fêted yet frantic life – the brilliance, the destructive alcoholism, the manic depression, the periodic infatuation with suicide – and especially with the idiolect of his Dream Songs protagonist. We may not be as familiar with Giroux, whose talent took him from a modest background into the, then, country-club world of publishing, where he eventually became the third partner at Farrar, Straus, founded in 1946. With unfailing admiration, patience and encouragement, he was to edit over a dozen books by the poet.

The two met in Mark Van Doren’s Shakespeare class at Columbia University in the early 1930s. Van Doren, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet (‘the great teacher in my life’, according to Giroux), was admired for his ‘technique of pretending that you were his intellectual equal’. Berryman remained equally impressed: ‘It was the force of his example that made me a poet’. Giroux came under another influence also, that of biographer and editor Raymond Weaver who had helped pluck Melville from posthumous obscurity. Their serious commitment to study helped the two students cement a friendship, that and The Columbia Review, which Giroux co-edited and where Berryman published poems and reviews.

After Columbia, Berryman won a scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge, at which time he ...

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