Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

The Human Touch

July 3, 1934
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The other day I got a glimpse of myself—as I was four or five years ago, when I was engaged in what is called “the lit’ry game.” Of course I am still in “the lit’ry game” to the extent that I read a good book now and then and read a bit of review and gossip but I do so rather for fun and general information than because I require this data in the business of making a living. Many of my acquaintances overlook the fact that even when I was reviewing for a living, I was reading more for fun than for profit.

Today I am not a different person from the one I was four or five years ago, but I think I may say that I am a modified person. I have interests today that I had not then, and interests then that I have not now. Still, I like to think that I have deepened myself by increasing the acreage of my interests, and perhaps also by discarding interests that now seem trivial. And the proof of that pudding will be in the realization four or five years hence that I was a pretty narrow and limited person at the present writing. In 1938, say, I hope I shall be able to look back with a touch of condescension on the H. S. of 1934.

The realization of the kind of person I must have been in 1928-30 came to me the other day at a luncheon attended by eight practitioners of the lit’ry game in New York, seven men and a woman, myself being the ninth. For an hour and a little over I heard talk which, five years ago, would have seemed mighty interesting and special and understandable talk, talk from the comprehension of which all those who didn’t matter would have been, and rightly, excluded. And as the ribbon of trivial gossip and trade palaver unfurled from the mouths of my fellow-lunchers, my eyes opened with amazement at the realization that this is the talk in which I must have myself engaged, with relish, some years ago, talk in the exclusive nature and content of which I must have preened myself on more than one occasion.


It seemed astonishing that persons so grown and mature and superior, as these were in comparison with the average man and the average woman, should find delight in, and extract a sense of superiority from, the retailing and bandying back and forth of such specialized information and gossip as was theirs. For a moment I thought I would be a participant in the talk, on the old terms, but as the talk narrowed down to what John Jones said to Frank Smith about a book on which such and such an advertising appropriation had been decided, I kept aloof, my eyes growing wider in astonishment. And this, I thought to myself, was what I once thought was literary conversation, bookish talk!

One young man, publicity representative of a New York publisher, was saying that a publisher was a fool to pay an advance for an unwritten book and that such and such an author—a person of considerable standing in the world of letters and thought—was a whining beggar. Even this group was embarrassed at these unsolicited eavesdroppings into the affairs of the speaker’s employer. Another young man was complaining because a certain novelist of consequence demanded $50 for a preface. There was a lot of talk about a certain person of no consequence and when I asked “Who is Mr. X?” I was abruptly dismissed with: “Oh, you don’t know Mr. X,” meaning that I could never hope to join their club. And there were airings of different opinions about slightly known books, slightly known to the general public, but nonetheless objects of gossip to this group.


One of the men, a publisher’s editor and a magazine reviewer, blinked like an old owl during most of the luncheon, when he wasn’t reading his own review in an advance copy of a weekly book periodical. And then there was talk of what another reviewer had written of a certain book to which the reviewer present had been unfavorable, and about a certain recent literary banquet and whether the entrepreneur who had organized it had made, or lost, money on it, and why was Ernest Hemingway writing what he was for a certain magazine and what was he getting for his chore. And much more of the same. And so on and so on.

And when it was about all over and we were preparing to rise, I turned to my nearest luncheon neighbor, one who heretofore had taken little part in the conversation, and said: “This has been almost as interesting as the conversation of a bunch of leather salesmen.” “Only worse,” he replied, “because these people will get together in the evening and say the same things all over again, without remembering to say: “Did I tell you that … ?”

A lawyer to whom I related my experience expressed the belief that I was being unfair to these lit’ry fellows; that if I wished to hear shop talk at its ingrown worse I ought to eavesdrop on the conversation of a group of young lawyers. I have since found no way either of verifying or contradicting this.

Recommended from JTA