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It probably wasn’t noted from your pulpit either, but this past January 23 was an epoch-ending day in the history of aviation. The last commercial Boeing 747 to be manufactured—a 747-8, to be exact—was rolled out of the Everett, Washington, assembly plant and delivered to Atlas Air. One of the design beauties of the 747 is that it could serve equally well both as a massive passenger plane and as a hugely capacious cargo plane, its bulbous face and high cockpit allowing for a hinged front-end door to swallow large freight.
But it was as a jumbo passenger carrier—its wing-span longer than the entire first flight by the Wright brothers’ “whopper machine” at Kitty Hawk—that the plane arguably most changed aviation. Its 400-plus seats, depending on the variant model, greatly helped to democratize long-distance travel by making it more affordable to families.
But now, after more than fifty years of service, its powerful four engines (Pratt & Whitney and eventually also General Electric and Rolls Royce, if you share my interest in airplanes) have yielded to more efficient engines and other developments, and, while some 747s remain in passenger service, the “Queen of the Skies” has now largely been replaced by twin-engined wide-body jets for long-distance hauls.
A heartfelt Reformed Journal salute, then, to this marvel of aeronautical engineering. But at the moment, I am also remembering a smaller marvel occurring for me onboard, as I recall, a 747, returning some thirty years ago from an editorial trip to Europe.
Editors, if they have landed in the right profession, must, of course, deep down love authors. The iconic figure here for editors, who have their own romantic ideals, is the legendary Maxwell Perkins of Scribner’s, discoverer and tireless nurturer behind the scenes of the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe. And I, for one, look forward to seeing a new documentary, Turn Every Page, about the long, sometimes cantankerous, friendship between Pulitzer Prize biographer Robert Caro and equally renowned editor Robert Gottlieb, battling for five decades over editorial cuts and the role of the semicolon.
But, let it be admitted, whatever the love for authors “deep down,” the importuned editor, grown weary (and wary) in well-doing, has, “higher up,” also been known to go some lengths to avoid them! E. B. White, essayist nonpareil but also an editor at The New Yorker, would often, according to a Saturday Review account by his colleague James Thurber, slip out the building by the fire escape if a name he couldn’t place was phoned up by the receptionist. But once, claimed Thurber, White decided to go down to confront the stranger. “I’m White,’’ he announced. Whereupon, says Thurber, “the man rose, stared for a long moment at the audacious fellow in front of him, and then said, with grim certainty, ‘You are not E. B. White.’” Thurber goes on: “White admits that his hair leaped up, but it is my fond contention that his heart did, too. I like to think that he was a little disappointed when he realized, as he was bound to, that the man was wrong. I like to assume that he resumed his identity with a sigh.”
And then there is Mrs. Hawkins, salty editor in novelist Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington, a wacky send-up of life in a fictitious, near-bankrupt, London publishing firm. Her insufferable and unavoidable antagonist is would-be author Hector Bartlett, the pisseur de copie, as she dubs him, the French perhaps not delicate enough even for Dutch Reformed ears.
“Mrs. Hawkins,” he persists, “I take incalculable pains with my prose style.” And indeed he does, thinks Mrs. Hawkins. “The pains showed. His writings writhed and ached with twists and turns and tergiversations, inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity and long, Latin-based words.”
So having, in fact, just stayed for a week myself in London, quite possibly even in Kensington, I boarded my flight back home. Ah, the blessed peace of slipping anonymously into my aisle seat, two weeks of productive European editorial visits nicely behind me. Indeed, things were looking more and more blessed as the plane was filling up and the three seats beside me in the middle section remained empty, all the better for a nap. Finally, the doors were due to close.
Then came the announcement from the cockpit. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we apologize for the delay, but we are holding the plane for a family transferring from another flight. They are on the way, and we appreciate your understanding.” Well, I reassured myself, this is a big plane. Probably some empty seats I can’t see.
Down the aisle they came, my hopes receding before them, mother and father, shepherding a demure little girl and an already less demure younger brother. The girl was parked next to me and the boy on the other side of his intervening father. My memory isn’t clear but, this being a four-seat middle section, the mother must have gone to a nearby seat I hadn’t spotted.
At cruising altitude and after lunch and perhaps a movie, the games and books and papers came out, and, after some furtive glances, I slowly began to surmise that my neighbor one seat away was an academic on his way to a conference, perhaps even one I knew about. He had observed my reading, too, perhaps of a religious book we would be considering for co-publication—I did like to get an editorial start on the plane.
Eventually, a few words were exchanged. Yes, he and his young family were indeed on the way to a conference I knew about, at which, I was now learning, he would be delivering a paper in an area all too familiar to me, since I had only recently—and ambivalently—turned back a certain manuscript that seemed so excellent but. . .well, publishers often need to make hard choices based on openings in the program and envisioned readerships.
With my anonymity rapidly disappearing, my new friend exchanged seats with his daughter. What were the random chances, I began pondering—my seat mate, as I now like to remember, warmly joining the theological inquiry—of an American editor’s encountering, at such close proximity in a 400-plus passenger jet at 35,000 feet over the Atlantic, a European scholar whose manuscript he had ambivalently declined only a few weeks earlier? And all of this thanks to a considerate pilot’s last-minute gesture of grace!
And so it was decided (editors will notice here the adroit resort to the passive voice) that, given this hint of a providential directive, Eerdmans had better publish the book. The book, I am happy to say, went on to fine critical success and, though now in a reissue from another source, is still, some three decades later, resolutely in print.