If it seems to people in the world of publishing that Edward Weeks has been around forever, that's because he has. Now well into his 80s, he is one of the few survivors -- among the others are Alfred A. Knopf, Donald Klopfer, Helen Meyer, Nat Warthels and Helen Wolff -- of the most exciting period in American publishing history: the '20s and '30s, when most of the great houses that now dominate the industry were mere youngsters, struggling to establish their identities and to gain their shares of the growing market for serious books.
Among these survivors, Weeks is the only one whose career was spent not in New York, the center of the industry, but in Boston -- first as editor of the Atlantic Monthly Press, a period he recalled in "My Green Age," and then as editor of the Atlantic Monthly itself -- while continuing in a very active role with the press. It is this second period, which began in 1938 and ended in 1966, that is the subject of "Writers and Friends," a good-natured but haphazardly organized and over-long memoir.
The Atlantic, of which Weeks was the ninth editor, was a magazine in trouble in 1938. Founded in 1857, it had gone through all of the ups and downs characteristic of the magazine business; in the late '30s, with the effects of the Depression still evident, it was most distinctly in a down. Circulation and advertising were off, funds for paying contributors had shrunk, new blood was badly needed.
Weeks provided it. With his strong connections in the worlds of publishing, journalism, politics and academia, and with the energy of one who "worked so late at the office that I felt dizzy as I walked home through the Public Garden," he reversed the magazine's fortunes with some alacrity. An unabashed publicist, he used radio appearances and the lecture circuit not merely to supplement his modest salary but also to get people talking about his magazine. His efforts paid off, with an increase in circulation from 101,312 in 1939 to 153,982 in 1946.
That was a result of a canny editorial decision as well as of untiring promotion. Weeks decided as soon as the nation went to war that the magazine should put aside almost all frivolous things and concentrate on informed discussion of the complex and critical issues facing the country. Such discussion was precisely what a literate audience wanted; it turned to the Atlantic in impressive -- and very influential -- numbers. Further, it stayed with the magazine after the war had ended:
"In those good years we also purchased our buildings on Arlington and Marlborough Streets -- which we had been renting since 1939 -- at a cost of $400,000 . . . and as I stepped down in February 1966, our reserves in bonds and cash were close to half a million."
These years were fun as well as productive. Weeks, who called his monthly column "The Peripatetic Reviewer," was also a peripatetic editor. His travels on the lecture circuit put him in touch with writers around the country and the world, and he was quick to sign them up for the Atlantic. Not merely did he know just about everybody who was anybody; he also acquainted himself with just about everybody who was nobody but had the talent to be somebody. He lured established writers such as Barbara Ward and Walter Lippmann into the magazine and the press; he also recognized the raw talent of such as Edwin O'Connor and Jesse Hill Ford, and helped them fulfill their potential.
Famous names march through these pages in an exhausting procession, but not a self-serving one; Weeks spent his career among the notable, and of necessity their names must appear in his memoir. It is unfortunate, though, that they appear with so little life. Few anecdotes have any spark; most people make their appearances dutifully, as if to satisfy the record, and then the narrative proceeds in its relentlessly linear fashion to the next. And Weeks is so gentlemanly toward everyone that the book doesn't have a whiff of malice or mischief or gossip; it is a state memoir.
Whether out of fatigue or complacency, he is content to let his book march stolidly to its conclusion in a surprisingly, and disappointingly, pedestrian manner. "Writers and Friends" is an undistinguished work by a distinguished editor.