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Editor Ken McCormick and Doubleday’s Women Writers

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The following guest post was written by Barbara Bair, curator of Literature, Culture, and the Arts, in the Library’s Manuscript Division. It explores the professional relationship of feminist authors and their editors, including Margaret Atwood and her editor Nan A. Talese. On December 17, from 7-8 pm EST, Atwood and Talese will be participating in a conversation for the Library’s new “Behind the Book” series. [Click here for details on how to watch the program.] Each program in the series offers a behind-the-scenes look into the world of the American publishing industry. 

Margaret Atwood, center, with Nan and Gay Talese. Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House.

The relationship of authors and their editors at publishing houses is an important one. Many feminist writers who became best-selling authors, or whose novels became the basis of films, had close mentorship from editors who were often intellectual celebrities in their own right. These editors possessed the foresight to evaluate talent and promote new work, both to those who needed convincing inside their own publishing houses, and publicly to readers.

Poet and master of feminist dystopia Margaret Atwood, whose The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments are best sellers that have spoken eerily to our times and become subject of award-winning mini-series adaptation, has enjoyed just such a relationship with editor Nan A. Talese. Talese is retiring this year after more than sixty highly influential years in publishing, during which she has mentored an array of award-winning authors and other rising editors in the industry. She began as a copy editor in 1959 but soon became the first woman to serve as literary editor at Random House, and she has run her own imprint at Doubleday since 1990. Her authors there include Mary Morris, Antonia Fraser, Dierdre Bair, Jennifer Egan, and many others in addition to Atwood.  Prior to mergers in the industry, editor Toni Morrison played a key role as a pioneering African American woman editor at Random House from 1967 to 1983, during which she backed women’s autobiographical writing and fiction, including work by Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, and Gayl Jones.  Morrison was herself one of the nation’s most acclaimed novelists and an outspoken champion of civil rights.  Her 1987 novel Beloved, a best seller, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was made into a 1998 film.

Like Talese and Morrison, Doubleday editor Kenneth McCormick (1906-1997) championed many writers, women and men, and maintained close relationships with the authors he shepherded for many years. The Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress is home to the Ken McCormick Collection of Doubleday and Company Papers. The collection includes his correspondence and insider notes about an impressive who’s who of authors, ranging from James Baldwin and Arna Bontemps, to Langston Hughes and Alex Haley, and white women who made regionalism, class status, gender bias, ethnic experience, or political activism their story.

Evaluation of Grace Paley’s short stories (The Little Disturbances of Man), 1956. Ken McCormick Papers, Manuscript Division.

McCormick started work at Doubleday as a mail clerk in 1930 and quickly moved up the editorial ranks. He was editor-in-chief at the publishing house from 1942 to 1971, and continued afterward as a senior consulting editor. Part therapist, part hand-holder and cajoler, McCormick was good at spotting new talent and supporting authors through writer’s block, disappointing book cover designs, or press interviews gone awry. He was also good at selling ideas to his own sales department, even when they were reluctant. He shepherded several women authors to bestselling status and subsidiary deals, and he continued to guide and help many who had become friends, even after they left Doubleday to go on to other publishers. Many Doubleday titles he championed were made into plays, films, musicals or other creative endeavors—to greater or lesser success, in his eyes and that of the authors.

Ken McCormick met Grace Paley (1922-2007) because their children were playmates and friends in Manhattan.  He took her under his wing as a writer and promoted the idea of assembling her short stories into the collection that became The Little Disturbances of Man (1959). Paley was initially a bit of a hard sell inside Doubleday. McCormick convinced the publishing house to provide a stipend to help pay for a “room of her own” for her to use to work on a novel. She drafted chapters, but never finished the book project. McCormick’s assessment was that “she simply was not a novelist,” and he described the outcome as a “heartbreaker” from his standpoint as an editor with high hopes.  Paley, who frequently figured women as the protagonists of her stories, was born in New York to Ukrainian immigrant parents and studied with W.H. Auden at the New School for Social Research. Shortly before she died in New England, she told the Vermont Woman newspaper that her utopian hopes for the future were for a world free of militarism and racism and greed, in which women would not have to struggle for opportunity.

Ellen Glasgow, 1930. New York World-Telegram and Sun Collection. Prints and Photographs Division.

Southern writer Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945) was a long-time Doubleday author until an unfortunate parody of her eccentricity by a publishing staff member came to her knowledge, and she switched to another press. Not always easy to deal with, she was shepherded at Doubleday by assistant editor Daniel Longwell. He worked with Edna Ferber before departing the publishing house in 1934, and went on to become a founder of LIFE magazine. Glasgow was prolific as a writer. Her Life and Gabriella (1916) championed a single mother, and the heroine of Barren Ground (1925) persists as an independent farmer after relationships fail. The Sheltered Life (1932) and Vein of Iron (1935) continued her theme of female independence. Glasgow meanwhile pressed Doubleday to do more to promote her work and bargained hard about her royalties, especially during the Great Depression. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for In This Our Life in 1942, which was soon adapted into a film starring Bette Davis, Hattie McDaniel, and Olivia de Havilland.

Between 1931 and 1973 Daphne Du Maurier (1907-1989) published seventeen novels with Doubleday. Many became feature films or made-for-television projects, including Jamaica Inn, Frenchman’s Creek, Rebecca (including a 1939 version with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier), My Cousin Rachel, and the supernatural thriller that began as a novella in a 1971 short story collection, Don’t Look Now. Ken McCormick said the novella continued to haunt him over time, and “was made into a very good, and scary, movie.” The 1973 film, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, was directed by Nicholas Roeg. Though the title of the collection—which comes from the opening line of the novella—was strongly disliked by Doubleday salespeople, the book ultimately sold over 40,000 copies. In pitching the story, McCormick said “Daphne Du Maurier is a master of taking the small believable instant and turning it into something that defies time and space in odd terms.” In Don’t Look Now, a couple on a trip attempting to recover from grief and loss find themselves in a very deep dystopia.

Movie poster for Rebecca, based on novel by Daphne Du Maurier. Copyright United Artists Corp. Lester Glassner Collection of Movie Posters, Prints and Photographs Division.
Edna Ferber, 1931. New York World-Telegram and Sun Collection. Prints and Photographs Division.

The ever-stylish Edna Ferber (1885-1968) was of German-Jewish heritage. She was raised in heartland Michigan and Wisconsin, and often made American regionalism her theme. She worked as a journalist before becoming a best-selling author for Doubleday. Her novels Giant, Ice Palace, and Cimarron were made into films, and Show Boat became a musical by composer Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. Her novel So Big, which she described in a 1960 letter to McCormick as “The story of a woman grubbing in a little mid-west truck garden,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1925. It was adapted into three film versions. She was thrilled that it continued to be read and sell. The popularity of Ice Palace (1958) was laughingly credited with helping to usher the state of Alaska into the union (1959). Her 1938 autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure, dealt with anti-Semitic prejudice and the dangers of fascism. McCormick and Ferber carried on a long, warm, and witty correspondence, and signed their letters with love.

Promotional sheet for Edna Ferber’s Great Son, 1945. Ken McCormick Papers, Manuscript Division.

Professor, political activist, novelist, short story writer, and poet Kay Boyle (1902-1992) published Being Geniuses Together, about life in literary circles in Paris, the novel The Underground Woman, and collected poems with Doubleday. Boyle was deeply involved in campus protest movements as a faculty member at San Francisco State College, and Ken McCormick helped steer the publication of her Testament for My Students and Other Poems (1970). The collection included tributes to Marianne Moore, James Baldwin, the Black Power movement, and the lost dogs of Phnom Penh. Its earliest poem, from 1925, was “In Defense of Homosexuality.” Boyle was blacklisted in the McCarthy era and lost her position as a foreign correspondent for The New Yorker. She opposed the Vietnam War and supported the 1969-1971 occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native American protestors. An edited 1972 peace anthology did not win backing after consideration at Doubleday, and was published by Dell.

“Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman” ad, Ladies Home Journal, 1959. Clipping from Edna Ferber file, Ken McCormick Papers, Manuscript Division.

It is said that behind every successful man, there is a woman.  Sometimes behind successful women, there is an editor with a keen eye for talent, possessing his or her own skill for coaxing, supporting, critiquing, and sometimes facing rough personal waters with their authors.