Let me think about it,” Midge Decter said. It was early in 2014. I was looking for a senior editor, and had called Midge to get her opinion about who might be good. We discussed some people, but none of them seemed quite right. And so I asked, “What about coming to work at First Things for a few months so that we can find the right person?” “But I’m old,” she objected. “Yeah,” I replied, “but you’re the best.” The next day she called and said, “Sure, I’ll do it.”
Her stint working for me was not her first time at First Things. In the 1990s, she had had a position at the magazine under our founder, Richard John Neuhaus. By her account, RJN had offered the job by asking, “Midge, why don’t you come down and hang out with us?” Her affection for our founder and loyalty to our enterprise was boundless. As the magazine’s current editor, I often received her encouragement, which was always warm and rich with the offer of friendship.
Her standards were high. On her first morning at work, Midge came into my office, asking for an assignment. I gave her four manuscripts. She retreated to her office. At noon, she presented herself: “These aren’t very good. They’re not for us.” I told her, “They are the features for the next issue.” Sighing, she replied, “OK, I’ll work on them.” Which she did, blue-penciling the manuscripts and painstakingly making the not-so-good essays into something at least better, if not perfect.
On another occasion, I gave her a movie review, asking her opinion. A few minutes later, she reported back: “Not very interesting. This isn’t Robert Warshow.” I remember replying, “You’re right. But Midge, how can we publish movie reviews if they need to be as good as those written by the best movie critic of the twentieth century?” She smiled and allowed that the standard was perhaps unrealistic.
At manuscript meetings the staff sometimes speculated about whether or not a misshapen piece could be reworked and edited into something we could publish. Midge would shake her head, warning us, “There will be no happiness in this.”
As five o’clock approached, after the winter sun had set, Midge often stopped by my office before heading home. Plopping down on the mid-century modern leather couch by the window overlooking 21st Street, she sometimes ventured counsel.
“You can’t wait for someone to send you good material. Your first job as an editor is to find writers. Your second job is to tell them what to write. You’d be surprised, the best writers often don’t know what needs to be written. A good editor does.”
“If you feel like the content is going flat, pick a fight. That always brings life to a magazine of ideas.” Midge gave that advice with a youthful twinkle in her eyes.
At other times, Midge would blow off steam.
On academic writers: “If I read another manuscript about somebody talking about somebody talking about Kant, I’ll kill myself.”
Concerning a piece written by a non-native speaker: “Well, at least you can say that I tried to translate it into something that resembles English.”
I will demur from recounting her very funny observations about the foibles of famous writers and eminences in the conservative movement, as well as her wry comments about a well-known Jewish theologian with whom she had studied at Jewish Theological Seminary in her younger days.
Midge Decter was a courageous warrior. When any of us are feeling dispirited and are tempted to shy from important battles for the future of the West, we need to read (and re-read) “The Boys on the Beach.” (Take a look as well at her remembrance of Richard John Neuhaus, “Comrades in Arms.” The last line applies as much to her as to the wonderful conversationalist she so lovingly memorializes. And read “A Jew in Anti-Christian America,” an essay that is as good a rationale for First Things as any penned.)
Midge was a leader. On panels and at colloquia, she often cut through the fog of analysis to state the crucial principle, demanding that we refuse to compromise. One could not help but admire her penetrating mind and remarkable accomplishments as a writer, editor, and public intellectual.
As I came to know Midge, I benefited much from her wisdom. At some point a few years ago, I sketched for her my miserable forebodings about the direction of our culture. Midge agreed, but, smiling, observed that she was the great-grandmother of nine beautiful and marvelously entertaining little kids. “So,” she said, “God is still in his heaven.” The joyous bonds of love eclipse our political commitments and intellectual projects, important though they may be.
In Deuteronomy, Moses again and again exhorts the Israelites, “Choose life!” In my every encounter with Midge, her manner, so full of vitality and maternal warmth, urged me to do the same. May her memory be a blessing for others, as it already is for me.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
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