My husband, seeing my spirits spiral ever downward, insisted on some action. First, together, we wrote to Mrs. Bell asking her for copies of the judges’ comments. She sent Welty’s, Gardner’s, and added her own.
About Howe, she wrote: “Although Irving Howe must have read the manuscript and written Bill Goodman about it, that letter seems to have disappeared from the files. It may very well be that he simply told Bill on the phone how much he liked the novel, but it’s a pity I can’t include Howe’s remarks, since his name would undoubtedly carry considerable weight . . ..”
The judges’ words:
Eudora Welty: A PERPETUAL SURPRISE gave much pleasure. It was rewarding to read a novel about a foreign and unfamiliar land with such confidence in the author’s knowledge of and feeling for the people . . .. She is successful at it, deft and cheerful, amused and amusing, but not superficial and never condescending. The universal human character is often enough shining through. To its further credit the book is never falsely blown up into ‘significance’ higher than the story bears.
The book has the flow of life, that’s the best thing – movement, action, lively dialogue . . .. The characters are clearly seen; they’re conveyed with authority and, with good humor and affection, a fair share of irony.
John Gardner: A PERPETUAL SURPRISE is a wonderfully clean, smooth novella . . . a delight from end to end. When I try to think of exactly the right words for it I come up with chewing gum slogans – “zesty,” and so on – terrible misrepresentations of this fine and elegant piece. I recommend it highly. (I do not recommend chewing gum at all.) Klass likes storytelling, and this novella is well worth publishing.
Pearl K. Bell, editor and fiction critic of Commentary:
The star performer . . . is unquestionably A PERPETUAL SURPRISE, which is wonderfully touching and funny . . .. (Sheila Klass) writes beautifully, with a delicate, scrupulous sense of comedy, and she evokes the heat and dust and poverty of the region with insistent precision and power. This is a very winning piece of fiction.
I could not believe this last line. Which concluded a half page more of fulsome praise. Winning. How dare she?
Next, we wrote to each of the three judges, enclosing a copy of Harvard’s rejection letter, and asking if we might include their comments when offering the book elsewhere.
They were as one in their indignation over the injustice done, and they were equally generous with their permission.
Irving Howe wrote: I remember reading your manuscript with pleasure and thinking it ought to be published..
Eudora Welty’s note said: Of course I’ll be glad for you to send my comments on your book to the publishers if they can be useful to the publication of your good manuscript. Good luck!
John Gardner urged me to send the book to Godine.. . . an extremely honorable publisher of fine books. In fact, his books are probably the most elegant and carefully designed around, and seem right for a light, elegant novella such as yours . . .. It’s a greater honor to be published by Godine than by a special branch of Harvard Press. It also sounds as if you have Harvard’s strong support.
Suddenly emboldened by Gardner’s knowledgeability and confidence, I doused my face with cold water while my happy husband asked the long distance operator for the telephone number of David R. Godine. He’d loved my book. Had he not praised it again and again? And held it there in Boston forever? At last, I had him, Mr. Goodman, himself on the line.
Affable as always. Surprised to hear from me. Why was I calling? Oh, he squeaked, and then he laughed an uncomfortable little laugh which was followed by a long pause. He guessed I didn’t understand the intricacies of publishing but then writers rarely did. Godine was a “trade” house and would not be at all interested in my kind of novella. No, it was out of the question but he did wish me luck.
Fueled by rage now, I wrote a letter chronicling my mishap to Herbert Mitgang who did a column on books for the The New York Times. He ran the item and a few days later I received a postal card from Phil Zuckerman, editor and publisher of Apple-wood Press asking if he could see the manuscript. I sent it.
The response came very quickly.
“Apple-wood would like to publish your novella next November . . .. All three readers were impressed with the humanity of the story, the character of Robi, and the feeling for India which the book evoked. It is quiet fiction, quite unlike most I have seen.
I hope this finds you well and excited. Since you have never published with Apple-wood before, I thought I’d mention that our authors are very special. I hope soon you’ll be among us.”
And true to his words, a well-edited handsome edition appeared in November 1981 as promised.
The New Yorker reviewed it . . .. A delightful comic novel set in an industrial district north of Calcutta, where pollution has made the air flammable . . .. Each episode as in a picaresque novel or a folk tale, is an almost independent adventure while taken together they chart the (characters’) metamorphoses from daring beggars to clever pros.
The Library Journal said . . . Klass is quite wonderful: a writer who seems not at all self conscious; whose transparent, simple style reveals believable events and characters that readers will care about and remember. Pure joy. Recommended for most fiction collections.
Apple-wood had no money for advertising and there was not great distribution of the book. One did not see it on display in bookstores, but no matter; knowing it was in print, available, and in the libraries was sufficient, and I was and shall always be – very grateful.
The single problem that remained was that I still could not write. For more than two years, I had written no fiction though I was desperate to do it. Before, I had trusted myself at the typewriter, but now I was afraid to write anything. Harvard had undermined me so severely that I could not seek out my characters and the fictional world they inhabited. I was bereft, deserted. I simply did not believe I could write anything worthwhile.
I didn’t give up. I couldn’t. I sat at the typewriter day after day and kept noodling around until one day, desperately, unaccountably I shifted genres. I began a children’s story.
I had often told my children “Depression” stories and talked about my childhood, at bedtime or as we waited in Emergency Rooms or airports or train stations. Many family myths and much entertainment (at my expense) was derived from my “we were so poor” memories which I’d delivered orally and dramatically.
This time I started a novel, the story of a poor, ten year old girl in Brooklyn during the Depression whose wealthy Florida relatives offer to adopt her and her parents leave the choice up to her. I finished the book, Nobody Knows Me in Miami quickly, and it sold to Scribner’s.
I followed it up with a teenage novel, To See My Mother Dance, in which a girl seeks out her birthmother whom she does not know, with startling results, and I liked my protagonist so much I did a sequel, Alive and Starting Over. (I was regaining courage as I wrote. This was the first time I tried a sequel.) Scribner’s published both, and, afterwards, the books were reprinted in paperback. Since then juvenile and teenage fiction have been major interests of mine and are my great pleasure although I do write other sorts of things as well.
The Harvard debacle left me with many questions: How could I have allowed Harvard to nearly destroy me? I was a woman with a family, a career, a full life. Yet I lost two precious years – as well as the color of my hair (it turned white) – and a lot of weight, sleep, and gesundt because I answered Harvard’s ad. What was it about my life that had brought me to that point? Would I ever have tried this new genre, otherwise, and discovered my skill? What is it that drives the writer in me? Questions I still can’t answer.
I had thought that was all over and behind me when in October, 1987, seven years later, I read in a New York Times Book Review article by Carol Sternhell, “ . . . Harvard University Press initiated a Program in the Short Novel 10 years ago, but found nothing that met the rigorous standards of its panel of judges: Eudora Welty, John Gardner, and Irving Howe.”
“Ah, how soon they forget,” I wrote in a letter I fired off to Mitchell Levitas, the editor of the Times Book Review, reminding readers that Harvard got at least one book they wanted. My letter was printed immediately. One thing for certain The Harvard Short Novel Program had accomplished. It had honed my skills as a correspondent.
I’m a very old lady now. Periodically, when I think about Harvard University Press and how in their effort to save the short novel they casually and diffidently almost destroyed a novelist, I get furious. Even as I write this, the impulse rises strong within me to go back to Garden Street and toss a huge rock through their window.
Perhaps several. They certainly deserve them.