The Paper Trail

As the wife of publisher Roger Straus, Dorothea Straus has been uniquely positioned to witness writers’ lives. She has visited them at home, vacationed with them, and treated them with a generosity that makes her literary portraits a study in tact and tempered revelation. THE PAPER TRAIL: A RECOLLECTION OF WRITERS is no tell-all expose, but her glimpses of the great—from Bernard Malamud to T. S. Eliot to Isaac Bashevis Singer—are studded with striking phrases. Describing Marxist college professors who cheerfully discourse on the apocalyptic end of capitalist civilization, she refers to them and their students (including herself) as having minds as “pie-bald as our saddle shoes.”

Such phrases recall both the manners and the intellectual fashions of another age, which Straus records faithfully and delicately. As in her other memoirs, her experience as an assimilated Jew informs many of her contacts with writers, Jewish and otherwise. Although she never mentions it, publishing seems to constitute for herself and her husband, a way of affirming a cosmopolitan identity even as writers like Malamud and Singer challenge them to examine their roots in Jewish culture.

As good as Straus’s recollections are, they read like half-told stories, with constant but brief references to “my husband” provoking questions about the role the redoubtable Roger Straus has played in making Farrar, Straus & Giroux one of the premier publishers of literature in postwar America. Dorothea Straus is careful not to comment on the firm’s living authors, even though she realizes that memories of an earlier past are all too easily erased. It is to be hoped that she will write another memoir bringing her account of literary life closer to the present and parting the veil, so to speak, about her nearer contemporaries.