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Writers pay tribute to Roger W. Straus Jr.

June 06, 2004

Editor's Note: With the death of Roger W. Straus Jr. on May 25 at age 87, American publishing lost one of its most flamboyant and independent impresarios of the literary arts. When the history of American letters in the last half of the 20th century is written, the contribution of Roger Straus and the publishing firm he founded in 1946 -- which would ultimately be known as Farrar, Straus & Giroux -- will loom exceptionally large. The firm was home to such authors as Edmund Wilson, Philip Roth, Susan Sontag, Flannery O'Connor, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, Grace Paley and many others who are among the most important writers of the last 50 years. Authors, if they are lucky, sometimes are honored in their lifetime; rarely is public recognition extended to their publishers, the midwives of literature. Book Review asked some of Straus' authors -- and one former intern who went on to become one of Britain's most distinguished publishers and literary editors -- to comment on the man they knew.

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An affectionate aristocrat

By Adam Zagajewski

WHEN Roger and I met in the mid-1980s, I was, socially speaking, nobody: a penniless Polish exile poet living in a graceless Parisian suburb, Courbevoie. (In Courbevoie Napoleon's ashes returning to Paris stayed overnight before traveling to the Invalides; in Courbevoie Celine was born; in Courbevoie the body of Paul Celan was washed ashore.) Roger didn't pay any attention to my meager social situation; his humanity wouldn't allow it.

I hate talking about my underdog years -- I mention them here only to be able to define by contrast my impressions concerning Roger's magnanimity. He was a wonderfully free person; free in his conversations, free in his choices. His favorite conversation -- at least with me, or with me and my wife -- was a high-spirited literary gossip. Yes, gossip but having something regal about itself. Roger talked about famous contemporary writers in a way a prestigious coach would discuss virtues and weaknesses of his athletes -- with a touch of loving superiority, with a mix of an insider's admiration and indulgence. He spoke of them affectionately and yet somehow aristocratically. He was like a prince who adores his writers and yet savors the fact that his own fingers are not ink-stained.

He didn't discuss literary ideas but commanded something far better than a critical rationality: the intuition of a great publisher. He was a noble person and a noble publisher defending literary and spiritual values -- and yet he was highly successful. What a loss!

Adam Zagajewski is the author of the poetry collections

"Tremor," "Canvas" and "Mysticism for Beginners"

and a book of essays, "Two Cities."

Cultivating a new generation

By John McPhee

Roger always said that he wanted to publish authors not books. This principle contained not only an admirable loft but also a faint implication that if you had a dog you could bring it to the party. He once insisted on giving me a (Lord knows) modest advance after I had told him not to bother. The book took 13 years to earn back those few pennies, but my point is that it continued to be in print because he kept it there, and it is still in print -- 2004 is my 40th year with him. Annually, for decades, he drove down to Princeton to spend three hours talking to my writing students. Any opening question would draw a three-hour answer in a free association that found its way into most of the closets in publishing, and in words of all lengths. Year to year, the level of repetition stayed under 10%. There was a period in the 1980s or '90s when he insisted on coming even though he was under treatment for an abdominal cancer. While pouring out his humor, he from time to time tightened with pain at the far end of the table. After he died, I began hearing from those students, recollecting things he said and stories he told -- a stream of former students going back all the way to 1975, the year he first came to the class.

John McPhee is the author of more than 26

books (all published by FSG) and received

the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in

1999 for "Annals of the Former World."

Humanity and humor

By Robert McCrum

I think I can say that Roger Straus changed my life. When I met him in 1978 I was a callow English intern, ignorant of books and writers, with no job worth speaking of, and he ...? Well, Roger was already a legend: the ultimate literary publisher and the master of ceremonies at 19 Union Square West, a revel that included Susan Sontag, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Seamus Heaney, Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott and Mario Vargas Llosa.

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