Used book stores contain treasures. This is one of them. The name Saxe Commins rang a bell–one of a generation of great editors during the 30s, 40s, and 50s–and so for $2 I bought it. I just checked on Amazon to make sure it’s still available there, and yes, it is, so if you are interested in the work of an editor who worked closely with Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, and many others, I would recommend purchasing it.
Commins’ s wife Dorothy combined her own memories, Commins’s notes and letters, letters from many authors and publishers, and created a short book with deep insight into the hidden work of an author’s alter ego. Perhaps today such editors are scarce, but in Commins’s day, editorial work often included the closest, almost familial, kind of labor in giving birth to whatever an author was trying to say–and get it said well.
The major stories here are two: Commins’s engagement with the three Nobel Prize winners named above.
The O’Neill story is the most compelling. O’Neill was an established dramatist when Commins came along, but they soon became virtual best friends, someone O’Neill trusted implicitly. In the period leading up and through Long Day’s Journey into Night, Commins would travel to wherever O’Neill was living (he moved around a lot) and literally type his handwritten manuscripts, reviewing O’Neill’s words with him as he proceeded.
I’m not O’Neill’s greatest fan, but I thoroughly enjoyed insights into his work process. He often took notes, made character sketches, framed scenes, etc., in word counts up to 100,000 before deciding a play idea would not succeed. He sometimes wrote plays for his own private enjoyment. In the case of Long Day’s Journey into Night, he famously wrote a will forbidding it be published or performed until 25 years after his death. Commins and Random House were to ensure this.
But O’Neill’s disastrous marriage to a sometimes psychotic harridan self-named Carlotta Monterrey, detailed in horrifying depth here, enabled his will to be violated within two years after he was gone. The negative impact on Commins and Bennett Cerf was palpable. They declined to do what Carlotta insisted as executrix, so the play, O’Neill’s masterpiece, was brought out by Yale University Press. Commins, by this time, had long since been banned from contact with his good friend by Carlotta, who buried O’Neill with no family, friends, or supporters present.
The sickening intimacy with greatness manifested itself in the case of Sinclair Lewis, too. Here poor Lewis, world-renowned, considered himself the loneliest man on earth. And he was lonely, not just making it up. He’d move and invite friends to visit, but the visits inevitably came to an end, and that left the author facing the blank page by himself again and again. During one period, Commins not only edited Lewis’s work, but he also exchanged visits with him several times a week in the evening (they both lived in New York at the time). The point was to keep Red, as he was known, company and let him win at chess now and then. Commins couldn’t fix Red’s existential misery, but he was a good guy, a good friend.
Many other authors from W.H. Auden to Irwin Shaw to John O’Hara were touched by Commins’ blue pencil. They all had large egos, Auden’s the best of them, O’Hara the worst of them.
Then along came William Faulkner. I have read almost all of Faulkner’s work, taught it (even taught his grandson “The Bear), and know a lot about him, but the portrait of Faulkner here is as good as any I have read. Commins took Faulkner in on trips north, visited him in Mississippi, and basically was “family.” The featured piece in this book is Faulkner’s flop, in my opinion, A Fable. He apparently thought a) he was running out of gas but b) A Fable was the biggest and best book he had ever undertaken. Commins’s view on this isn’t clear, but of course, an editor of a work in progress is not going to take his author down a peg. To the contrary, he’ll try to push him up a peg, or several pegs, and that’s what Commins did for Faulkner, dealing with his alcoholism, his sartorial needs for receiving the Nobel Prize, and spreading manuscript all over his dining room so that he and Faulkner could debate where something fit, where it didn’t, and where it was lacking.
If you are intrigued by the behind the scenes of literary publishing and still revere its mid-century giants, this is a book worth reading. Editors often get a bad rap (though not as bad as agents) in part because they have to pass on so much work and sometimes make howling mistakes. Commins is not presented as error-free here, but he does come through as an exemplar of flexible support, sternness where necessary, and deep sympathy with writers wrestling with their demons. These days I would venture that no publishing house could afford to devote a senior editor so fully to its authors, Nobel-prize winning or not. More to the point, being bottom-line corporations, the remaining New York publishers would not, as a matter of principle, let intimacy and allegiance suck up so much staff time.
Well, things were different then. It’s nice to read about how things were, even though much of this book reveals the pain of the literary life as opposed to the fleeting moments of triumph.
The absolute killer coda to the entire book is Faulkner’s telegram of condolence to Commins’s wife when Commins died. It read in full: THE FINEST EPITAPH EVERYONE WHO EVER KNEW SAXE WILL HAVE TO SUBSCRIBE TO WHETHER HE WILL OR NOT QUOTE HE LOVED ME UNQUOTE BILL FAULKNER.
Commins was that kind of guy. He appears to have worked himself to death in support of others’ genius.