By Mavis Clark
The New Yorker'sliterary style is distinctive. The tone is dependably good-humored and literate, a little "uptown," with an agreeable sense of urban angst -- sophisticated but not uppity. Over the years, the magazine has eased its formal grip on what language may be used with impunity, but its sure hold on usage has never diminished, thanks to Eleanor Lois Gould Packard, who graduated from Oberlin in 1938.
That Miss Gould would discover the path to The New Yorker seemed inevitable. She found her work in book publishing in Manhattan not especially gratifying, and was pleased when William Shawn offered her a position at the magazine on October 3, 1945, her 28th birthday.
Following a five-days-a-week routine established more than four decades ago, she packs a simple lunch and leaves the comfort of a spacious West Side apartment overlooking Central Park, to climb aboard a bus that takes her all the way down the park, and goes on to West 42rd Street. When she reaches her office, she spends her day at a large, well-worn desk between an always open door to her right and, to her left, a view of the Empire State Building, the New York Public Library, and Bryant Park. But she seldom looks in either direction, for, with pencil in hand, she spends her hours monitoring the text.
What does she look for? A former editor told a New York Times writer that "Miss Gould approaches every article as a messy room that needs tidying up." Miss Gould herself says, "I just try to make things right." Her influence as the guardian of the language continues unabated, even though some of the writers resent or simply ignore her comments and notes in the margins. She continues to query, suggest, and repair, undaunted.
In a letter sent to the Alumni Association several years ago, Rob Tiller '77, then an editorial assistant at The New Yorker, wrote:
"I met the other Oberlin grad on the staff for the first time, Eleanor Gould. She's the language expert at the magazine, on whom Shawn depends probably more than anyone. Bob Bingham introduced us; he told me privately that she knew more about the language than anyone alive. She's in her sixties, but sharp as she can be. She let me look through some of her edited galleys, and I was awed; the word changes were exquisite, the comments in the margins trenchant. She told me she'd always wanted to work for The New Yorker and had never tired of reading it for a living. On her desk was a letter from E. B. White; she laughed and said he occasionally wrote her to ask her a question about grammar."
A quiet, reserved, accomplished young woman when she arrived at Oberlin in 1934, she had long before discovered the power and the joy of words. Miss Gould noted on her college application that by the time she was five, in the first grade, "I won two books as prize for word recognition." By the fourth grade, she had attended four schools, and was reading four library books a day. Bright and attentive, she skipped the second half of the fifth grade. As a result, because her family later moved to another town, which didn't have mid-year promotions, she had to go through high school in three and a half years. She graduated with the highest average in the history of the school. To a question on the application form about her hobbies, she responded, "I read practically all the time when I'm not in school or writing. I like poetry, especially, and I play the piano with a great deal of enjoyment."
Another comment in her application essay is this: "I have a retentive memory, for facts in school, and for words, which encourages me to write both prose and verse. I have a passionate love for poetry and all books." She added that after graduation she would like to "do something along literary lines or succeed in becoming a French professor." In the end, she majored in English, graduating summa cum laude and with a Phi Beta Kappa key. The next step was a move to Manhattan, where she shared an apartment with Reba Rayburn '39.
Her decision to "do something along literary lines" was a blessing for The New Yorker's original editor, Harold Ross, and, later, for his successor, William Shawn, who had hired her to work on the copy desk, then swiftly promoted her to proofreader. There she undertook a version of her present roles as gatekeeper of grammar, style, correct usage, accuracy, good judgment, and clarity.
One of the longtime magazine editors, researchers, and contributors -- of fact, fiction, verse, and art -- Freddie Packard, not only deeply admired the staff newcomer but proposed marriage to her just a year after her arrival. Miss Gould became Mrs. Frederick Packard on December 7, 1946 -- but only to her nonwork friends, maintaining her maiden name at the office.
Yet another name, Mother, was added two years later, with the arrival of their daughter, Susan. Once the family was settled, the Packards frequently traveled to France [they were both fluent in French], Scotland, and Ireland in the summers, and also visited Morocco several times. Miss Gould continued her full-time editorial work at the office while doing freelance as an editor for Ved Mehta and Lillian Ross, among other writers, and assisting E. B. White with the revision of "The Elements of Style," where her con- tributions were acknowledged in the 2nd Edition and in successive ones.
Freddie Packard died in 1974 after a battle with ill health, two years before his planned retirement. Their daughter had by that time spent two years at Oberlin College, Class of 1969, before returning to New York, where she later graduated from New York University. Meanwhile, the senior Miss Gould continued with the work she relishes, and continues, in her spare time, to travel and to read voraciously. One of her aims is to give The New Yorker "a century of Packards." Freddie came to the magazine in 1929, when it was only four years old, and she was handed his last paycheck, by William Shawn, at the end of the week he died-- forty-five years later. She has only a bit more than three years to go, and hopes to stay on longer as well.
A cruel event was in store for her in 1991, when she awoke one morning totally deaf, with no remedy possible. Attendance at concerts and ballet, two of the loves of her life, have been lost to her, nor can she make use of the telephone. Instead she uses she uses a fax at home and in the office. She feels that she has the perfect job for a deaf person, and she has continued working as hard as ever. [She has worked on all twenty of the books by the blind Indian writer Ved Mehta, even though since she became deaf he and she have been able to communicate only through a third person.]
The galleys that pile up in her office used to include works of poetry and fiction, but, as the issues of the magazine grew in size, those categories were eventually withdrawn from her scrupulous attention. The fiction editors and some of the fiction writers, including John Updike, whose book reviews and other fact pieces she still works on, felt that her precision was out of key with their personal style, and Miss Gould agreed that her efforts were often vigorously ignored by the fiction department. However, most other authors and staff writers depend upon her to add logic and clarity to their work, including the theatre, cinema, music, and art departments, together, of course, with the long fact pieces, which constitute the bulk of the magazine.
In a note for the Alumni Class Directory, midway through her career, Miss Gould wrote, "Grateful to Oberlin every day for knowledge I can use in my work."
Imagine the legions of devoted readers of The New Yorker who would endorse that observation!