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Alan Jacobs

The Editor and the Exile

How the New Yorker's William Shawn gave a home to the brilliant autobiographer Ved Mehta.

1. Insofar as Ved Mehta's latest memoir has been noticed at all, it has been as an insider's story of the most tumultuous period in the history of the New Yorker—the magazine that may well be the most important and influential venture in the history of American periodical publishing. It has also been recognized as a tribute to the editorial genius of William Shawn, the New Yorker's second editor, whose firing in 1987 seemed to many to mark the end of a brilliant era of American writing. Indeed, Mehta's detailed account of what it was like to work with "Mr. Shawn"—which he did for more than 30 years—seems more honestly loving than Lillian Ross's recent memoir of Shawn, Here but Not Here, in which she announces that she conducted a decades-long affair with him and claims to have provoked in this famously shy man paroxysms of wildness and prodigies of animal sensuality. Ross's is a truly repellent book, in the worst tell-all style, self-dramatizing and self-congratulatory: "The True Story of Tristan and Isolde, Told by Herself," one is tempted to call it.

Mehta's less florid and more informative chronicle is, to my taste, far more interesting than Ross's. But I am clearly in the minority on this point: unlike most Americans, I have always found chronicles of illicit sexual escapades less enticing than descriptions of people doing work that they love. Lillian Ross has her finger on the people's pulse: though she worked as a writer and editor on the New Yorker for many years, she can scarcely be bothered to note that in her eagerness to describe yet another moment of ecstasy she and Shawn experienced: the work that Shawn did so well appears only as a torment from which Ross's love alone could rescue him. Mehta, on the other hand, retains some sense of dignity, and of the difference between the public and private realms.

But the story of William Shawn's New Yorker is neither the only nor the most important story here. Though far too few people know it, Ved Mehta has been engaged since the early seventies on an immense and fascinating project: a multivolume autobiography under the general title Continents of Exile. The real importance of Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorkerlies not in its appreciative but excessively reverent portrait of that great editor, but rather in its place as the eighth volume in Mehta's series, one of the truly remarkable literary enterprises of our time.1 By one of those happy accidents of timing in the publishing world, Yale University Press has just released A Ved Mehta Reader, offering selections both from his autobiographical writings and from other books. With the Yale volume and this latest memoir in hand, readers who are new to Mehta will possess a splendid introduction to his work.

2.Ved Mehta came to write for the New Yorker in 1959, some seven years after William Shawn assumed the duties of editing the magazine, which he had done upon the death of its founder, that capricious and imaginative figure Harold Ross. Mehta continued to work for the New Yorker as a staff writer even after Shawn was dismissed, producing a handful of pieces for Shawn's successor, Robert Gottlieb (though Gottlieb rejected more of Mehta's work than he accepted). But soon after Tina Brown of Vanity Fair replaced Gottlieb in 1992, she officially terminated several of the long-time staff writers, including Mehta.

Mehta, like many others, clearly thinks of Shawn's departure as the end of the New Yorker he had known. And after all, Shawn had worked for the magazine for 54 years: it is no wonder that his firing seemed so momentous. But for Mehta the departure of Shawn also marked the loss of his own literary "home"—a loss very important, as we shall see, for this exile from his native India.

Mehta was an integral part of the New Yorker during the most eventful years of its history—and by that I mean not just the end of the Shawn era, but also the sixties and seventies, when Shawn changed the magazine, or allowed it to change, in crucial ways. The most significant alterations involved the magazine's attitude toward politics. As Mehta points out (and as Thurber, Brendan Gill, and others had pointed out before him), Harold Ross had a terrific aversion to politics and refused to allow his magazine to be contaminated by the stuff: Ross's New Yorker was a magazine of wit and culture, and that was enough for him.

Little had changed when Mehta arrived on the scene, but then, in 1959 there were no American troops in Vietnam. It was Shawn's resolute disapproval of American involvement in the war, more than any other single factor, that led to the change, and therefore it should not be surprising that one of the key articles marking the magazine's metamorphosis was a sympathetic account of support for the Viet Cong in a Vietnamese village. It appeared in 1967 under the title "The Village of Ben Suc," and, as Mehta says, "it created a sensation."

The author of the piece was a recent Harvard graduate named Jonathan Schell, who, as a close friend and prep-school and college roommate of Shawn's son Wallace (himself now well-known as an actor), had enjoyed an "in" at the New Yorker since childhood. It appears that Shawn thought of Schell almost as another son: he sponsored Schell's career from "The Village of Ben Suc" on, and when it became clear a decade later that he had to begin thinking of a successor, it was Schell whom he designated as heir apparent.

That particular plan didn't work out—it soon became obvious that the young man wasn't cut out to be an editor, or the editor of the New Yorker anyway—but nevertheless, Schell did more than anyone else to establish the political tone that the magazine would achieve in the seventies: earnestly and immovably liberal, occasionally satirical toward the Right but never toward the Left, and fond of publishing long and sometimes excruciatingly boring articles in support of its political views.

Schell's book on the imminent danger of nuclear holocaust, The Fate of the Earth, remains the best example of these tendencies, though to be sure it was considerably more lively than his subsequent work for the magazine and elsewhere. There are many who feel that Shawn's inability to see that the magazine as it grew more political was also growing dull made it inevitable that, at some point, he be replaced.

Mehta notes some of these changes, but he clearly finds them unimportant in comparison with what remained constant, which, in his view, was the magazine's commitment to literary excellence, whatever the subject of a given piece happened to be. Early in his career with the magazine, after he discovered that Shawn and his staff were carefully comparing a new autobiographical essay of his with an earlier one to see if there were any inconsistencies between them, Mehta thought, "To lavish such attention on ephemera—and that in a magazine that most people browsed for its cartoons and advertisements—seemed like a kind of fanaticism." But it was a fanaticism that he soon came to love, for he learned that the magazine would spare no expense to ensure that any given article or story or poem in its pages was as perfect as it could possibly be—and would do anything in its power to encourage and support a writer who thought the same way.

This was for Mehta the real legacy of "Mr. Shawn's New Yorker": an unswerving commitment to literary quality, to standards that served as their own reward, whatever American society beyond the magazine's Forty-third Street offices might think: in that one place at least, "nothing was done for any reason other than that of striving for excellence."

In Mehta's view, this commitment evaporated almost instantaneously after the firing of Shawn. Of a brief and hurried note that Gottlieb sent his staff at the outset of his tenure as editor, Mehta (speaking for unnamed others) writes, "As we saw it, Gottlieb's note, lacking the elegance of feeling and language which was the mark of even the most fugitive sentence from Mr. Shawn's hand, was a harbinger of the new New Yorker."

This seems to me an absurdly overattentive reading of a mere memo, and, indeed, there is evidence that at least some of the magazine's notorious scrupulosity still could be found several years after Shawn's dismissal. For instance, the English novelist Julian Barnes, who wrote "Letter from London" for the New Yorker from 1990 through 1995 (thereby bridging the Gottlieb and Brown administrations), has provided a comical account of what it was like to work for the magazine in those years: "Writing for The New Yorker means, famously, being edited by The New Yorker: an immensely civilized, attentive and beneficial process which tends to drive you crazy." This editing, Barnes explains, comes in two sequential parts, beginning with the "style police," those "stern puritans who look at one of your sentences and instead of seeing, as you do, a joyful fusion of truth, beauty, rhythm and wit, discover only a doltish wreckage of capsized grammar."

But those writers who congratulate themselves upon surviving the mindfulness of the style police have a rude shock coming:

After your article has been clipped and styled (not always a gentle process: sometimes the whole poodle is thrown back at you), it is delivered to The New Yorker's fact-checking department. The operatives here are young, unsleeping, scrupulously polite and astoundingly pertinacious. They bug you to hell and then they save your ass. … They don't mind who they call in their lust for verification. They check with you, with your informants, with their computerized information system, with objective authorities; they check to your face and they check behind your back.

To the casual reader of the New Yorker, which is all I am these days, it may seem implausible that anyone under the Brown regime was "astoundingly pertinacious" about anything but advertising revenues, but Barnes's account has to be considered as a caution against Mehta's decline-and-fall narrative. (The jury is out on David Remnick, the current editor, who was appointed in July of this year after Brown's highly publicized departure—but since Remnick's work makes plausible Henry Louis Gates's description of him as "the Michael Jordan of journalism," there is some cause for hope.)

Mehta himself admits that his story may not be the most disinterested and fair-minded one imaginable: the book is an unabashedly extravagant love letter to William Shawn (in this sense only it's like Lillian Ross's book) and a hymn of gratitude for what Shawn did to turn him into a real writer. But that story leads, inevitably, to the other reason for the importance of this book.

3. That Ved Mehta ever came to write for the New Yorker is no less than a miracle. He was the fifth of eight children born to an Indian doctor, a public-health official, and his wife. As a doctor, Mr. Mehta was better off than most Indians, but the education of his son Ved posed problems that far exceeded his resources since at age four Ved had contracted meningitis and emerged from the illness totally blind. It soon became clear that Ved was an unusually gifted, resourceful, and stubborn child, but there were simply no schools for the blind in India, and no money to send Ved overseas. In the end, after years of struggle, Ved was accepted to only one of the many schools in America and England he had applied to: the Arkansas School for the Blind in Little Rock. Mr. Mehta scraped together the money to get Ved there and relied on grants and scholarships for the rest. From then on opportunities, sometimes extraordinary ones, came to Ved with regularity. He attended Pomona College in California, then Oxford University in England—fulfilling a dream of his Anglophile father—and finally Harvard, where he studied for a doctorate in history before abandoning those studies to write for the New Yorker.

Almost everyone who met Ved Mehta in those early years knew that both he and his story were extraordinary; at one point, while he was still an undergraduate, he met Norman Cousins, then editor of the Saturday Review, who suggested that he write an autobiography. This Mehta did: it was called Face to Face and was published when he was 21 years old. But never for a moment did he, in those days, think of himself as a writer: he had had one story to tell and had told it. It was time for him to pursue a scholarly career. When he did come to write a piece for the New Yorker, it was a personal essay about the first visit he had made to his homeland of India since his coming to Arkansas, and the discomfort he had felt upon returning—in some ways, then, a continuation of Face to Face, though, significantly, without reference to the fact of his blindness.

Mehta had by now grown very tired of being known as the poor little Indian blind boy. Indeed, he had always detested it: even as a small child he had insisted on playing a game the other children in his neighborhood in Delhi had played, which involved flying kites while running upon the roofs of houses, leaping across the gaps between them. And no one in his family had succeeded in keeping him from riding a bicycle around town, navigating by what he calls "facial vision." And here is where William Shawn comes in. For Shawn was willing to let Mehta be something other than blind, and then something other than Indian—in short, he released Mehta from the prison of being "exotic." Though Mehta's command of English was even at this stage imperfect, Shawn realized that here was an extraordinary intelligence and a determination to learn that could lead to great things. He let Mehta write on almost anything he was interested in—Indian history and culture, yes, but more often difficult and apparently arcane topics: theology after Bonhoeffer, the BBC Radio's Third Programme, contemporary philosophy of language, and so on. And on every piece, Shawn worked closely with Mehta to teach him that famous New Yorker style, the basic principles of which may be found in William Strunk and E. B. White's famous little handbook, The Elements of Style: economy, cleanliness, precision—to which description Mehta himself has added, in The Ved Mehta Reader, "honesty" and "unfailing courtesy to the reader."

Mehta became a master of this style, like E. B. White himself, and as his resources grew so did his ambition. He began to think that he had not, after all, exhausted his own story in Face to Face. The story of the "poor little blind Indian boy" was more complicated than he had originally known. For aside from the "exotic" peculiarities of his personal odyssey, it possessed considerable historical implications. For one thing, there were the remarkably different personalities and experiences of his mother and father: his mother, an exceptionally traditional Indian woman, comfortable with the limited role her culture had assigned her and highly uncomfortable with change and innovation; his father, a highly educated Anglophile, modern and cosmopolitan in outlook. Mamaji and Daddyji were volumes devoted to them, and were followed by Vedi, an account of his own early years, up to and including the attack of meningitis.

Shawn released Mehta from the prison of being "exotic"

But aside from this family story, so resonant for modern Indian culture and indeed for the whole postcolonial world, there was the fact that he had grown up in an India on the verge of independence, which, when it occurred in 1947, led immediately to the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. The most ambitious and brilliant of the volumes of Continents of Exile published so far, The Ledge Between the Streams, treats of this catastrophe and weaves within the historical narrative an account of the family's perilous fortunes and of Mehta's own mostly unsuccessful attempts to find an adequate education. At a pivotal point in this chronicle, Daddyji is taking his family from Rawalpindi into Kashmir to see the mountains. Along the way they stop at a town called Kohala and visit a place where two rivers converge:

We reached the waterside, and I took a long step, following Daddyji. I squatted down on the narrow ledge between the streams and put a hand in each stream. The right stream felt glacial, and I could scarcely keep my hand in it. The left stream was thick and soupy, and felt almost tepid. I remember thinking that, in their way, the two streams were as different as Daddyji and Mamaji.

What no one in the family knew, though people on a hilltop above them could see it plainly, was that a cataract of floodwaters was rushing toward the confluence and threatening to sweep the whole family away. They barely escaped, as, later, they barely escaped death in the strife that succeeded Partition, with Muslims fleeing India for Pakistan and Hindus (including the Mehtas) fleeing Pakistan for India. The "ledge between the streams" is a place of convergence but also of divergence and conflict: a place of choices, and a place above all of danger.

After this great book came others almost equally fascinating. Sound-Shadows of the New World describes Mehta's high-school years in Arkansas, where as a dark-skinned but Aryan person in the Deep South in the period just preceding the civil-rights movement he found himself in another historically complex and potentially explosive environment. That the key issue was skin color, while Ved and all his (white) classmates were blind, adds a piercing irony to the situation. Then the years at Pomona (The Stolen Light) and the time Up at Oxford—in the land that ruled India for three centuries and whose abrupt departure from the subcontinent precipitated Partition—before this new book about Shawn and the New Yorker.

I said earlier that Mehta abandoned graduate study in history at Harvard in order to write for William Shawn's magazine, but I did not say that he abandoned the study of history itself. Though Mehta himself does not put it in these terms, it seems clear to me that what Shawn gave to him above all—granting that he gave him much—was the ability to become a different kind of historian. When Mehta began to write the autobiographical essays which grew into books and then into the comprehensive architecture of Continents of Exile, Shawn felt the need to find a rubric to describe what Mehta was doing. Clearly, none of the old categories that the magazine used to describe its pieces—Notes & Comment, Talk of the Town, Profile—would do. So, Mehta relates,

After he published the Profile of my mother, he O.K.'d my writing a few pages about my experiences in an orphanage in Bombay, where I had spent three years, between the ages of five and eight. In the writing, the few pages grew into a whole book [Vedi]. He liked it so much that he wanted it to have its debut in The New Yorker, but there was no existing heading under which it could be accommodated. I finally suggested Personal History, and he inaugurated that as a new department and published my piece. For years thereafter, Personal History was used only for my autobiographical pieces, since he thought of personal history as an exception—not something The New Yorker should publish as a matter of course.

Somewhat later the brilliant autobiographical essays of John Updike, collected in book form as Self-Consciousness, would appear under the same rubric.

Mehta's suggestion was a brilliant stroke, as was Shawn's decision to accept it, for this is precisely what Mehta has been accomplishing in Continents of Exile: the writing of history in the genre of personal narrative. Having lived through an extraordinary set of events, and having met an extraordinary number of fascinating people—from Pandit Nehru to Karl Barth, and from Robert Lowell to Bertrand Russell, though he just missed meeting Greta Garbo—Mehta is in a peculiarly advantageous position to present us with history as something that people live in, not just live through.

But, of course, he has paid a price for the range of his experiences. In addition to the partial isolation, the always being marked as different that inevitably accompanies blindness, his peregrinations have ensured that he can never have a cultural home in any familiar sense: neither the India that could find no place for him, nor the England that he idealized despite its notorious insularity and mistrust of outsiders, nor the America that strives so successfully to ignore the history in which Mehta's life has been steeped, could be such a home.

Similarly, he has found no religion to ground him, neither the vague and nominal Hinduism of his youth nor the Christianity in which, later, he became professionally interested as a writer: Mehta notes that he is a man simply without religious belief or inclination, which means that that variety of habitation was unavailable to him as well. That is why the New Yorker was so important to him: as long as Shawn was there to support him—to provide him with an office, with readers for the many books he needed that were unavailable in Braille, with amanuenses, and with regular words of encouragement—it was the closest thing to a home that he was ever likely to find.

If a note of pity has been struck in the preceding paragraph, let it be known that I struck it and not Mehta: never was there a person less inclined to self-pity than he. But for us readers pity may be appropriate, as well as admiration: certainly, admiration for one who has never denied or hidden his blindness, but has never leaned on it either, who can narrate his development of "facial vision" as lucidly as he can explain ordinary language philosophy or describe the political heirs of Mohandas Gandhi. But also some pity for one who will always be an exile, who can imagine no homecoming, either in this world or the (to him unbelievable) next: all continents for Mehta are continents of exile. That his one failing as a writer is a lack of humor is therefore perhaps unsurprising.

But this exiled condition is not peculiar to Mehta. Increasingly the world is full of what, in the aftermath of World War II, were called Displaced Persons: refugees, suspended among various cultures and faiths, unable to return to their former worlds and uncomfortable with any visible alternatives. The problem takes different forms today, but has expanded its scope and receives its best description in Walker Percy's metaphor: displacement means being trapped in a deteriorating orbit with no clear way of achieving reentry. Ved Mehta is one of the most vibrant and comprehensive chroniclers of this increasingly prevalent condition, which is why there are few literary projects of our time more important and edifying than Continents of Exile. The decline of the New Yorker, however sad, is trivial in comparison.

Shawn released Mehta from the prison of being "exotic."

Alan Jacobs is associate professor of English at Wheaton College. His book What Became of Wystan: Change and Continuity in Auden's Poetry has just been published by the University of Arkansas Press.

1. Though Mehta clearly explains that the book is the latest installment in his autobiographical series, some reviewers seem not to have noticed this, and at least one of them has chastised Mehta for "talking too much about himself"!
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