Obituary: Catharine Carver

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The Independent Online
Catharine DeFrance Carver, publishers' editor: born Cambridge, Ohio 19 September 1921; died London 11 November 1997.

Catharine Carver was the greatest publishers' editor of her time, and surely the best loved, her passionate devotion to her tasks richly reciprocated in the affection of the many writers and scholars whose work she corrected, enhanced, and even transformed. The American critic Leslie Fiedler calls her the best editor he has ever known and perhaps the best that ever lived. The novelist Flannery O'Connor made her contracts with Harcourt, Brace conditional upon Carver's availability as editor, and during the mid-century decades many other American writers were deeply indebted to her criticism and advice, among them Saul Bellow, John Berryman, e.e. cummings, Bernard Malamud, Elizabeth Bishop, Lionel Trilling, Katharine Anne Porter, Hannah Arendt, and Peter Matthiessen. After she left her native America for Europe in the mid-1960s she played a similarly constructive role in the careers of numerous British writers and editors.

"Katy" Carver's fine eye for detail was supplemented by an extraordinary gift for the conceptualisation of sequence and structure, and she loved the creative excitement of editing fiction and the challenge of what she called "professional risk publishing". In the United States her work was always with commercial publishers: Reynal & Hitchcock; Harcourt, Brace; Lippincott; and Viking. But in Britain her longest stint was with the Oxford University Press.

Enthusiastic letters sent from America in advance of her arrival opened up a choice of editorial positions, and she initially opted for Chatto & Windus rather than OUP on the grounds that Chatto needed her more; two years later, however, she reversed that decision, explaining that though Chatto did indeed need her they seemed not to know it. When OUP moved all its operations to Oxford, Carver refused to go, preferring to find work elsewhere in London, initially at Victor Gollancz, later as a freelance with Yale University Press and a number of other publishers.

In the mid-1980s she spent much of her time in Paris, working with the master-translator Ralph Manheim and assisting with the final operations and eventual closure of the Trianon Press. Though she dealt skilfully with texts of every kind - she was once assigned to the Oxford Companion to Sport - she had a special affinity for biographies. She edited four of the original five volumes of Leon Edel's life of Henry James and was almost solely responsible, years later, for producing the one-volume revision and abridgement, making of it a model of compact coherence and narrative drive. She assisted Richard Ellmann with both his Joyce (1959) and his Wilde (1987), and saw the latter through its difficult and painful final stages. She was the editor also of biographies as various as Jon Stallworthy's Wilfred Owen (1974), Aileen Ward's Keats (1963), Avril Pyman's two-volume Aleksandr Blok (1979, 1980), Desmond Graham's Keith Douglas (1974), and my own Thomas Hardy (1982), and took a special pleasure in working on the memoirs of Sir Geoffrey Keynes and of Richard Hoggart, an especially loyal friend in her later years. Earlier, however, Dan Davin, the Secretary to the Delegates of the OUP, had strongly objected to her criticisms of his memoirs and demanded a more deferential replacement.

As an academic editor Catharine Carver was incomparable. An assignment became a complex commitment - to the manuscript itself, which she determinedly made the best of, to the subject, which she rapidly mastered, and to the author or editor, whom she promptly transformed into a friend to be variously assisted, encouraged, praised, and scolded. One's manuscript came promptly back, extensively decorated with her standard marginal signs of approval, disapproval, or interrogation and accompanied by pages of questions to be answered and suggestions to be attended to. Warm in her praise, sympathetic to difficulties, and imaginative to the point of inspiration in offering solutions, she was nevertheless stern in her demands for reorganisations, rewritings, and fuller expositions of topics or materials she judged to have been skimped. "Having said this much in praise," she would characteristically write, "I have to say too that there is still a lot of work to be done."

Jon Stallworthy, for whom Carver was the paragon of publishers' editors, recalls that she was dissatisfied with the brevity of his initial treatment of Wilfred Owen's first, pre-war, visit to France, brushed aside his protest that almost nothing was known about it, and insisted that something substantial must be said about so symbolic an episode.

Though so well-known by reputation in literary and publishing circles on both sides of the Atlantic, she was an intensely private person who spoke rarely of her past and tended to keep her friends in separate compartments. Her British friends knew almost nothing of her early life, but her birth certificate reveals that she was born Catherine DeFrance Carver in Cambridge, Ohio, in 1921 to Don Carver, "paymaster", and his wife Harriett. In 1943 she obtained a BA degree at Muskingum College in nearby New Concord, one of her classmates being John Glenn, later famous as an astronaut and US Senator. Just how she made her way to New York and its literary world remains mysterious, but she seems to have had that first job with Reynal & Hitchcock by 1945 and by the early 1950s she was working for Robert Giroux at Harcourt, Brace. She also became Assistant Editor of the Partisan Review, and I happened to meet her in New York in 1957, shortly after a naive submission of mine to Partisan had magically been rendered publishable by her revising hand.

I did not encounter her again until the mid-1970s when OUP assigned her to edit the early volumes of the Hardy Collected Letters, but the acquaintance then deepened rapidly into a friendship that - like her friendships with so many of those she had worked with - remained intact until the last of several strokes left her incapable of recognising any of the stream of visitors to her hospital bed.

Carver made a life-style of self-effacement. She always asked not to be thanked for the work she had done - an injunction that some understandably ignored - and in 1982 she declined the PEN/Roger Klein award for which her American friends had conspired to nominate her. To Leslie Fiedler, who had been particularly active on her behalf, she wrote gratefully but firmly: "I hate the exposure, and fear it, oddly, after my long sojourn underground." One recognises the emotion and its contexts without quite understanding its source. "I never worry," she once wrote, "about making what living I need, which is minimal," and indeed she regularly led what most would consider a meagre existence, living alone in under-furnished flats and eating adequately (one feared) only when being entertained by friends. But she led a rich life of the mind and the spirit - it was the art, theatre, and above all the music available to her in London that primarily determined her refusal to move to Oxford - and although her transatlantic migration of the 1960s seems primarily to have reflected a profound political revulsion at the Vietnam War it may also have been influenced by a romantic valuation of a Europe she had (I think) never visited.

France and Italy always retained their appeal for her, and in 1983 she gave up the Edith Grove flat in which she had been settled for some years, sold her books (many of them inscribed first editions), gave away her few household goods, and set off for the Continent and what became an unsettled existence of "visits, sub-lets, the condition of displacement". In 1985, while working on the revision of Edel's James, she reported from Amsterdam that during the past year she had briefly house-sat or lived in borrowed accommodation in no less than six countries. The need to earn at least a minimal income brought her back to England again and again, and her lack of a permanent address meant, as she often said, that she could most readily be found at work at seat G.10 in the Round Reading Room of the British Library, her "Great Good Place".

- Michael Millgate