Jonathan Galassi’s new novel, Muse, is built around a charming, if unlikely, premise: that an important American poet could become as famous as a pop star or a screen siren or an athlete. His heroine, Ida Perkins, created a sensation at age eighteen as a Bryn Mawr undergraduate with her first book of poems, Virgin Again (1949), and to the end of her days not only was admired by a coterie of editors, professors, bookstore clerks, and fellow writers but also appeared on Charlie Rose and Dick Cavett, modeled for a Blackglama ad (“What becomes a legend most?”), visited Eldridge Cleaver in Watts, dined with Babe Paley and Truman Capote at La Côte Basque, had her picture taken between “sunburned, shirtless Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell” in Maine by Elizabeth Hardwick, and had a highway named after her.
After her death, its anniversary, which was also her birthday, was made a national holiday by President Obama, who invited her circle to the White House to hear her poems read by Oprah Winfrey. Thanks to Ida, Galassi writes, poetry “found itself at the heart of American culture and society”; Ida “made poetry fans out of ordinary women and men.”
Here we are in the midst of fantasy, but a fantasy not far, as Galassi’s novel eloquently illustrates, from the one inhabited by people in the literature business. The main character of Muse is a self-effacing, nearly shlumpy editor named Paul Dukach who has fulfilled a dream harbored since his youth shelving books in a small-town bookstore to be an editor at the distinguished literary house of Purcell & Stern. He conceived this dream around the time he discovered the enthralling work of Ida Perkins, who is published by P&S’s scrappier yet, in some senses, more exalted rival, Impetus Press. The central place that Ida’s work occupies in his heart echoes his boss’s yearning to secure her as the most sought-after prize for his writerly stable. A world in which Ida Perkins appears on Dick Cavett might be remote to the average American, but it is not incommensurate with her status for editors at P&S and Impetus.
Galassi is well situated to document the manners of this particular subculture. He joined Farrar, Straus and Giroux (where the present reviewer was once employed and remains somewhat entangled) as the protégé of its founder, Roger Straus Jr., in 1986 and has run it himself since Straus’s death in 2004. Straus was a larger-than-life figure and reappears in Muse as Homer Stern, P&S’s founder and archimagos.1
Galassi renders the internal milieu of the old FSG with tender exactitude. Many of its minor characters are immediately recognizable. Roger Straus in particular is observed in all his magnificent plumage: profane, hilarious, high-minded, spontaneous, petty, formidable. Of Ida Perkins’s publisher, Sterling Wainwright, he moans, “God, I wish he’d roll over so I could put my hand on Ida Perkins’s thigh”;…
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