Tuesday, December 16, 2008
I was deeply saddened yesterday to learn, through my agent and friend Amy Rennert, that Carol Houck Smith, the long-time editor at W.W. Norton, had passed away. I met her only once, in 1998, when she escorted Gerald Stern to the National Book Awards, and sat with me and chatted, as if we were lifelong friends. As if I deserved to be there. I emailed with her just occasionally.
But you didn't have to be in her physical presence to feel her emanating goodness, to know that the world was a better place because she lived within it. She edited Andrea Barrett, Rita Dove, Stanley Kunitz, Ron Carlson, Rick Bass, Joan Silber. She was, wrote Andrea Barrett in a statement printed by the Washington Post, the sort of editor who did "the simplest (and hardest) task: she asked questions. Questions that presumed the characters created on the page were actual persons, the actions real and consequential, the meanings a matter of life and death." She was the sort who made you feel welcome at her table, who wrote, once, to say that she had "just finished The House of Mirth, if you can believe that. I needed a respite from this century."
Of the books that she edited, I hold as most special The Wild Braid, that magnificent end-of-life collage by Stanley Kunitz. It was so perfectly odd, so uncontained, a spill of garden, words, living, conversation, photographs, and a nearly final page that seems just rightly quotable, this day, in which so many of us are fondly remembering Carol Houck Smith:
When you look back on a lifetime and think of what has been given to the world by your presence, your fugitive presence, inevitably you think of your art, whatever it may be, as the gift you have made to the world in acknowledgment of the gift you have been given, which is the life itself. And I think the world tends to forget that this is the ultimate significance of the body of work each artist produces. That work is not an expression of the desire for praise or recognition, or prizes, but the deepest manifestation of your gratitude for the gift of life.