Robert Phelps featured in The American Scholar

April 28th, 2009

The American Scholar‘s Spring 2009 issue includes two features on Robert Phelps, who co-founded the Grove Press, edited numerous collections of the writings of Colette, Glenway Wescott, Ned Rorem, and others, was called “the best book reviewer in America” by Garry Wills, and struggled for 30 years to produce a second novel to follow his well-received 1958 debut, Heroes and Orators. The first, “Dawn of a Literary Friendship”, features the first dozen of over 200 letters exchanged between Phelps and the novelist James Salter between 1969 and Phelps’ death in 1989, an irresistable taste from what will be a future collection of their correspondence edited by John McIntyre.

Writing to Salter on Christmas Eve, 1969, Phelps gushes with admiration for Salter’s 1967 novel, A Sport and a Pastime (“my own favorite American novel of the ’60s”), his script for “Downhill Racer”, and his direction of the film, “Three”. Salter replied with praise for Phelps’ compilation of Colette’s autobiographical writings, Earthly Paradise: “I’ve given many copies away. Everything about it is beautiful. I love to pick it up.”

Salter was just hitting his stride as a writer. As Phelps struggled to create something original of his own, Salter slowly but steadily built up an oeuvre and a critical reputation as a writer who, in the words of Richard Ford, “writes American sentences better than anybody writing today.” Composer and diarist Ned Rorem has described Phelps’ letters as “witty, lewd, sage, generous, gossipy, aggressively self-effacing, montrously opinionated without bitchery, engrossed by the literary life in general while being always directed to a unique recipient, and generally weaving something extraordinary out of something ordinary.” As this first sample shows, the combination of Phelps’ and Salter’s talents and genuine mutual affective and admiration promises to represent one of the most interesting and enjoyable collections of American letters of the 20th century.

The second piece, “I wanted to Be Robert Phelps”, by Washington Post critic Michael Dirda, shows Phelps both as a man of tremendous erudition and enthusiasm for writers and artists of past and present. Phelps’ study and office in his Manhattan apartment was, in Dirda’s eyes,

… the perfect room. The wooden floors had been stained black, the walls completely lined with bookshelves. Curtains were always kept drawn, blocking out the day and night. A pole lamp stood next to a rather high-tech chrome and leather easy chair, while extension lights were clamped to the corners of bookcases. On a coffee table in the middle of the room there always lay page proofs, literary magazines, publishers’ catalogues. Instead of a sofa, a daybed butted up against the back of a freestanding bookcase and was covered with pillows embroidered with scenes from classical mythology (Becki’s handiwork). Near the music corner—lots of Stravinsky, Poulenc, and Ravel LPs—stood a long low set of white shelves on top of which rested more books, some heavy tumblers and a big bottle of Tanqueray gin.

Beneath the cultured lifestyle Dirda admired, however, Phelps struggled to with his own demons. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease for years, was prone to drinking at times, and agonized over his sexuality, which was one aspect of Heroes and Orators praised by critics such as Leslie Fiedler. And he constantly took himself to task for failing to produce “worthy books”. As he once wrote Salter,

As it is, for 20 years, I have only scrounged at making a living: a low standard of survival and hundreds of articles, reviews, flower arrangements of other people’s prose, etc. Not a good form of hell at all. This has become terribly clear to me in the past 6 weeks when I have been going through sheaves of old printed matter with a view to making our publisher a book called Following. I have been appalled by the waste, the thousands and thousands of irretrievable words on which nevertheless I worked long and hard and sometimes until 5 a.m. No. Somewhere I took a wrong turning. I should not have tried to earn my living with my typewriter. I should have become a surveyor, or an airline ticket salesman, or a cat burglar. As it is, I am far far beyond the point of no return and such powers as I once counted on—the ability to write to order and out of my own battiness, so to speak—are suddenly gone.

Instead of writing more novels, Phelps collected, annotated and edited. Colette’s writings. James Agee’s letters. Glenway Westcott’s miscellania. Ned Rorem’s first diaries. And The Literary Life; a Scrapbook Almanac of the Anglo-American Literary Scene From 1900 to 1950, which one reviewer called “a loving elegy, a larky swansong, a doting, dotty, but undaunted Souvenir Album for books, books, books, and for all the men and women who ever believed in making them.” And Dirda says of it, “I’ve since carried the book with me my whole life; it has been on my bedside table wherever I have lived. I have read it over and over.”

He also taught writing, mostly at the New School, and inspired dozens of his students. Dan Wakefield portrays Phelps as his primary influence in his memoir, New York in the Fifties, as does Derek Alger on the online magazine, Pif.

Perhaps Phelps just didn’t recognize–or value, at least–the talent he seems to have genuinely had, even though he admitted it in one of his early letters to Salter:

Scrapbooks, footnotes, almanacs, letters, diaries, questionnaires, marginalia, memos, alphabets…how I love them. Pasolini once called himself a “pasticheur.” I think I am an annotator. The story exists for the scribbled notes in the margin.

Certainly the warm spot Phelps’ pastiches of Colette and others continues to hold in the hearts of their readers suggests that his energies may have been better spent in creating them than in writing novels that might well have been forgotten as quickly as Heroes and Orators was.

2 Responses to “Robert Phelps featured in The American Scholar

  1. Levi Stahl Says:

    You and Dirda have convinced me: I’ve just ordered a copy of The Literary Life. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  2. Lincoln Hunter Says:

    Thanks to American Scholar and Neglected Books for keeping the name and story of Robert Phelps fresh in our memory. He was one of those people who love great fiction more than those who have the talent to make it. By virtue of that love he was, in a special way, more important.

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