Terry Southern’s interview with the English novelist Henry Green (born Henry Yorke) has been an in-house favorite atThe Paris Review ever since it appeared in our nineteenth issue (Summer 1958). If Green was, in Southern’s borrowed description, a “writer’s writer’s writer,” theirs is an interviewer’s interview: an essay in dialogue form, with Southern playing the brash young Texas hipster and Green playing the Old Etonian toff—deliberately exaggerated versions of themselves. Despite, or because of, its exaggerations, this was the most revealing interview Green ever gave, and it remains a standard reference for students of his work.
At the time, however, the interview raised editorial questions (at least, one editorial question), as these letters show. They also show Southern lobbying, from his temporary home in Geneva, for The Paris Review’s humor prize, which he ended up winning. (Today that prize is named for him.) The anthology of beatnik writers mentioned in George Plimpton’s second letter seems never to have come to fruition; his “wavering” note to Southern has been lost. Censorship was a routine concern at the early Review. In issue 1, rather than risk the ire of U.S. customs officials, the editors had removed the wordshit from Southern’s story “The Accident” without his consent, and much to
We are grateful to Nile Southern for bringing these letters to our attention, and to the Southern and Plimpton estates for letting us print them here. Southern’s side of the correspondence will be included in Yours in Haste and Adoration:
Selected Letters of Terry Southern, to be published early next year.
Original spellings and punctuation have been preserved.
November 27, 1957
I’m delighted to hear from Bob that you have undertaken an interview with Henry Green. I meant to write you last spring that I had tea with him in London—with his wife, some others, and Christopher Logue, that frenetic poet whom you may remember from Paris and who worships Green and begged to be taken along. Well, he was, and there was Green in a double-breasted black business suit going under the name York (sic), talking like a businessman from Manchester, with an anecdote or two, terribly long—one, as I remember, about a seal two old ladies found on a beach near Brighton and nursed back to health in their bathtub, the point of the story being that in England alone could such a thing happen. Logue kept darting looks at the door, for Green, I guess, and making side remarks of incredible rudeness to York. When we left, Logue asked: “Jesus, who the fuck was that guy on the sofa.” “Henry Green,” I said. That left Logue speechless; I doubt if he’s recovered to this day.
But I had a fine time there. He (Green) talked at length of his stay with you in Switzerland and the drive to the South of France. I doubt he’ll remember me, but my best to him if you should remember to mention it.
Not much news. Alec got married, but I wasn’t here when it happened. They say down in the White Horse that it’ll be a disaster, that she wouldn’t put out in the courtship days and marriage seemed the only answer to the befuddled Alec.
Best to you, Terry, and your wife, and I hope to hear from you.
February 3, 1958
My Dear George:
Thanks so much for your clever and sensitive letter of November 27th, which has only just come to hand (so to speak) due to our fairly extensive Yule holiday. It was indeed, however, good to hear from you, doubly so to know that you are swinging in best form and spirit. All too deservingly!
Yes, it’s true I’ve a rather crackerjack interview with good Hank Yonge tucked away in the old jock-strap, and naturally I’m eager to see it get the sort of dignified dissemination its merit does warrant. My first thought all along has as you can understand been THE PARIS REVIEW with whose staff I’ve had such groovy dealings in the past and whose very escutcheon has come to be synonymous (to my mind at least) with aesthetic integrity, tough jaunty know-how, etc., etc.—so much so that I have in fact ignored the Vogue and Bazaar “hot-money” feelers about this copy and have, as I say, kept it tucked well down in the old jock-strap. Unfortunately a very real responsibility is incumbent upon me now to see that the thing does not get mutilated between now and the moment it is being quoted in Time and Newsweek. Perhaps you could make some suggestion as to how this assurance may obtain. Certainly it is not that I think for a moment we, you and I, cannot reach definite agreement on the final presentation, but rather that left on their own, your junior staffers might panic into some sort of tasteless compromise. A case in point:
When you begin to write something, do you begin with a certain situation in mind, or rather with a certaincharacter in mind?
Situation every time. I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service in the war. He was serving with me in the ranks and told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy liked most in the world. The reply was: “Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.” I saw the book in a flash.
Hot stuff, eh George? Well now you realize of course that the word “cunty” makes the reply, gives it bite, insight, etc. I mean to say it simply would not do to rephrase it, “Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, eating toast with fingers,” would it? Yet I suppose there are some staffers a bit leary about “spelling it out,” eh? Still crouching in the guilt-strewn shadow of Tr. Shandy, if you know what I mean.
Actually that is the only four-letter derivative used in the interview but I will need to hear your ideas about its representation, if, in fact, it is allowed to stand when he sees the final copy for approval. Any changes between
this and what is printed would have to be agreed upon. Can you understand
how it is incumbent upon me, having been the aggressor, so to speak, to see that this assurance does obtain? Certainly this agreement can be ease itself—it is simply the panic into tasteless compromise on the part of the faggots, nymphomaniacs, etc. hanging around the REVIEW offices that puts me off a bit.
Do let me know about this. Meanwhile I’m tied up for a couple of weeks in something else. My first love, glorifying the American middle-class Negro (to spite my Texas lyncher childhood) took superbly tangible form just the other day when I got a fat commission to do the British television adaptation of “Emperor Jones,” after a talk with a groovy director we met in London at Christmastime. After a complete rewriting, putting it in contemporary language and psychology, with plenty of bop, razor fights, hippy-dippy jive-talk, it looks like a swinging and ballsy production of the old skit is on slate. On verra.
What about the Review contest? I have a couple of nifties; with any luck they might fall into the “beat” tradition. Can you get my entries under the wire, George?
All the best,