An important friendship helped to sustain a poet’s work.
Samway, a priest and literary scholar whose previous books focused on Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Thomas Merton, offers an intimate portrait of the relationship between editor Robert Giroux (1914-2008), who was a close friend of Samway’s, and poet John Berryman (1914-1972), whose work Giroux edited, promoted, and encouraged. The two met at Columbia University in 1932, where both were students of the famed professor and poet Mark Van Doren. Samway recounts each man’s career moves: Giroux, first at CBS, then as junior editor at Harcourt, and finally editor at Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, where he became chair; Berryman, studying at Cambridge, then taking short-term teaching stints at various colleges, delivering lectures, and achieving the fame that resulted in accolades, grants, and awards. Their personalities could not have been more different. Berryman described himself as “a disagreeable compound of arrogance, selfishness and impatience, scarcely relieved by some dashes of courtesy and honesty and a certain amount of industry.” Giroux was patient, steady, and, as his letters to Berryman attest, kind. Berryman was a womanizer and alcoholic, “plagued by incandescent outbursts and perilous bouts of depression,” which led to repeated hospitalizations and treatment with a hefty “cocktail of drugs.” He married three times, subjecting each wife to what one called the “nightmare” of living with him. Giroux, though briefly married, lived quietly with a man he had known since they were teenagers. Berryman was tormented by his father’s death, ruled an apparent suicide. “I feel I am a sort of human grenade whose pin has been withdrawn,” he wrote shortly before he jumped from a bridge at the age of 57. His anguished life dominates Samway’s cleareyed literary history, populated by a large cast of characters including Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Saul Bellow, and T.S. Eliot.
A perceptive, empathetic look at a confluence of artistic lives.
Pub Date: today
Page Count: 298
Publisher: Univ. of Notre Dame
Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2020