In his essay “Cormac McCarthy Had a Remarkable Literary Career. It Could Never Happen Now,” which ran in the June 19 New York Times, professor Dan Sinykin recognized the role that editor Albert Erskine played in McCarthy’s life, and raised valid issues about publishing past and present. However, McCarthy’s publishing story was more complicated and nuanced than Sinykin indicated; simply contrasting the days of personal ownership by entrepreneur-publishers with the conglomerates controlling the largest houses today leaves out significant points and people.
In March 2008, I interviewed McCarthy for a biography I was researching about Bennett Cerf, cofounder of Random House, which published his first five novels. (Cerf and McCarthy had met, introduced by Erskine, who by then was Cerf’s favorite editor.) Cerf and his business partner, Donald Klopfer, had hired Erskine in 1947; at RH he’d already edited Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, James A. Michener, and Robert Penn Warren, before adding McCarthy in 1963. They worked together even after Erskine retired, and stayed close until Erskine’s death in 1993.
During my hour-long phone conversation with McCarthy, he said not once, but twice: “Other than my brother, Albert was the best human being I’ve ever known.” He was “a person of honesty and rectitude... warmth and decency,” who “saw humor in the absurdity of things.” McCarthy wanted Erskine to get the credit he deserved, credit that the equally private Erskine, like many fine editors, never sought. But deserving as Erskine was, others deserved recognition for their contributions, too.
McCarthy’s publishing story began with a young woman, not a seasoned editor. Maxine Groffsky’s job was at the bottom of the heap: reading “slush.” It was mostly a thankless task, but that day in May 1962 when she opened the package addressed to “Fiction Editor, Random House,” containing the manuscript of what would become The Orchard Keeper, she began to read, later scrawling a note to a colleague further up the totem pole to let them know it was worth a look. That colleague, Larry Bensky, was about the same age, but in the boys’ club of those days, already a junior editor. Bensky agreed about the writing and began to send encouragement, praise, and comments to McCarthy. On Aug. 22, 1963, he offered McCarthy a contract. By then, Erskine and either Cerf or Klopfer (Bensky didn’t say which) had read, and liked, the manuscript. But both Groffsky and Bensky soon left RH for Europe (she’d later work with the Paris Review, then become an agent; he’d go into radio). Bensky was one of Erskine’s fledglings, and the file passed to him.
“Albert’s style was to go through word by word,” McCarthy recalled. “He’d look up everything. If there were typos or questionable facts, or if he thought something was improbable, he’d comment. His editing was trying to fix mistakes, not fix what you’d written.”
Erskine’s first letter to McCarthy was delicate, cordial, and understanding, discussing how the novel began and its use of punctuation (or lack thereof, since it was clear McCarthy had modeled his on Faulkner’s). Letters gave way to phone calls, and eventually “a week at a time at Albert’s home, working together page by page.” Erskine’s wife, Marisa, an Italian contessa, would cook gourmet meals and charm the resident author. McCarthy also lauded a copy editor named Bert Krantz, whom Erskine “revered.” She read manuscripts “three times, and you couldn’t get anything past her.” Through five novels that did not make money, the three worked together. Erskine helped McCarthy get fellowships and foundation money. Cerf, who had absolute faith in Erskine, died after the second book; legend has it that by the fifth, Erskine had made clear to the powers above that he’d resign if told he could no longer publish this writer.
Erskine was retired and ill when the sixth novel was ready; McCarthy got an agent, Amanda Urban, who moved him to Knopf. He’d sent his first book to RH because he’d thought “they were the foremost literary publisher in America.” But at that point, McCarthy said, Urban told him that “Knopf was going to be the Random of the next foreseeable future.” It was “a very different time,” but it wasn’t simply the conglomeratized world of 1992 that made the difference in what happened next.
McCarthy, having been lucky with an editor, proved lucky again, with a publisher. Sonny Mehta, who’d come to Knopf in 1987, was that most unusual figure: a consummate reader, whose editorial and commercial instincts were both extremely acute. He disdained neither mass (he’d started in paperbacks) nor class (a bibliophile, he had superb taste). Those instincts combined in creative, adventurous acts. Willing to go where others feared to, he saw the potential for a wider audience in All the Pretty Horses. It became a bestseller. The rest, as they say, is history.
Gayle Feldman has been associated with PW since 1986. Her biography of Bennett Cerf will be published by Random House in late 2024/early 2025.