Henry James Would Approve: The TFT Review of Robert Gottlieb’s Lives and Letters
Robert Gottlieb, now eighty, served as one of the ultimate literary gatekeepers of our era. He was the editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster; president, publisher and editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf; editor of The New Yorker. He remains a quintessential critic in the classic sense to this day, and Lives and Letters, a new collection of his book reviews (as well as a movie-roundup, an overview of Scrutiny Magazine, and a delightful, short memoir-essay on The New York City Ballet), is sheer delight.
What makes Gottlieb “quintessential?” After I’d read the book several times, and was steeped in his observations of personalities as diverse as Charles Dickens and John Steinbeck, Isadora Duncan and Judy Garland, Mae West and Diana Vreeland, I sat back and marveled at the consistency of his point of view.
This is most evident in “The Art of Pleasing,” Gottlieb’s poignant and penetrating 2004 review of Margot Fonteyn: A Life, by dancer-turned-novelist Meredith Daneman. He begins by invoking his encyclopedic knowledge of ballet; sketches in the details of Fonteyn’s legendary career, invoking the prediction by Sadler’s Wells founder Ninette de Valois that “the child…has a great future ahead of her” and Lincoln Kirstein’s characterization of young Peggy as having “most embodied the art of pleasing” — and then, context established, Gottlieb lets us know unequivocally that “nothing can compare in comprehensiveness and frankness” to this book.
This accolade from the self-acknowledged editor of Fonteyn’s Autobiography lends the piece an immediate gravitas — which is, after all, the guidance a curious reader is seeking.
There is something Henry Jamesian about this. When an author first considers a subject, James might have declared, he must determine precisely where he is going to stand in relation to it. This is not to imply that the writer cannot subsequently make incremental movements to adjust or modify this position, moving in or out upon the action like a steadicam (that’s my metaphor, obviously), or up and down or from side to side, a soaring hawk one moment, a fly on the wall the next. But no matter where the author proceeds, however, he must always remain secure in his inward relationship to the subject matter. Whether in fact or fiction, essay or novel, James was the master at this rigorous control of emotional perspective.
This is how I felt after a run through Lives and Letters. I think the effect is generated by his long editorial discipline and his equally resolute authorial persona. He built a distinguished career in prestige trade publishing and quality long-form journalism, and he also wrote definitive biographies of Sarah Bernhardt and George Balanchine. Add to this roster his more than 150 dance reviews published in The New York Observer in its glory days under the visionary editorship of Peter Kaplan and you have the perfect dash of leavening to this recipe.
The other wonderful attribute you will notice as you leaf with pleasure through Lives and Letters is the way in which, over and over, Gottlieb masters the art of the lead sentence, that journalistic ploy/device/necessity that draws you in – more essential than ever nowadays in times of wavering attention. A few random examples: “Most famous stage actors tactfully fade away…Four men dominate the history of popular singing in the twentieth century…The stories of most great ballerinas, however different their temperaments, are basically the same…Nothing is stranger in the history of popular culture than the fate of the silent film stars…[and, one of my favorites] You don’t have to be a member of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute to figure out that when you title a memoir of your parents Them, you’re performing an act of distancing.”
The final piece in Lives and Letters is a review of Renata Adler’s 2000 memoir, Gone: The Last Days of “The New Yorker.” Gottlieb is able, even here, to take an ironic, arm’s length gaze at the “small world” (his term) he has inhabited for so many decades.
There was indeed an interlocking directorate that dominated New York – therefore, global – publishing at the turn of the millennium, not all that long ago; and there is no question that Robert Gottlieb inhabited its apex.
It is a gratifying tribute to his stature as a writer that he has produced such a magisterial book even now, in the thick of the digital swarm. In these times of cultural fragmentation and anarchistic content distribution, all of us who love the arts will appreciate and cherish Robert Gottlieb’s steady posture.
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