Reviewed by Ed Lengel
Sometimes editors can have just as great an influence on popular literature as authors or illustrators. Robert “Bob” Loomis, the iconic Random House editor whose work spanned seven decades–from the 1950s to the 2010s–and who died in 2020, had that kind of impact. When I received my first trade book contract in 2002 with Random House, I was stunned to find myself assigned to Loomis’s tutelage. His New York City office was festooned with gifts from bestselling popular historians like Robert Massie, Shelby Foote, and John Toland. Accurately described by one of his greatest authors, Maya Angelou, as being “as tender as he’s tough,” Bob also possessed a P.T. Barnum-esque flamboyance that scoffed at literary and scholarly conventions. When I asked him what he thought about Michael Bellesiles’ 2000 book, Arming America, which had been excoriated for apparently fraudulent research to the point that the author’s career never recovered, Bob said the only thing that mattered was that the book was a bestseller. Story, he said, was the primary ingredient for success in popular nonfiction; and he then told me I needed to learn how to write chapters that ended at the climax of a cavalry charge, leaving the reader breathless to turn the next page.
It should come as no surprise that Bob abandoned me after he read the first draft of my book and assigned me to a junior editor. Clearly, I would never write at the same level as his best. In the years that followed, though, I have thought often of Bob’s admonitions as I review the incredible corpus of important literature that he oversaw. Some of his authors, such as William Styron, wrote fiction or memoirs. And early in his career, Loomis was instrumental in urging Angelou, a young author on the rise, to write her fictionalized memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
The moment, as Loomis surely understood, was ripe. Caged Bird was conceived in the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, assassination in the spring of 1968, when an outpouring of anguish and rage by Black Americans left portions of many U.S. cities in flames. With King gone, the Civil Rights movement no longer had a clear leader–and arguably–wasn’t a movement any longer. Angelou, who had worked with King and now found herself adrift personally and artistically, was in a position, as Loomis recognized, to step forward and give some definition not just to the African American community’s grief, but to the Black experience in the United States. Angelou, who considered herself a poet foremost, demurred at first at the idea of writing a memoir, but Loomis convinced her to recognize that the genre was a powerful form of literature that at its best combined art with true experience.
Released in 1969, a year when all of American society was in ferment, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings recounts in episodic form the experiences of a young girl growing up in the rural Deep South community of Stamps, Arkansas. Symbolized as the “caged bird,” who endures racial and sexual injustice and oppression as opposed to the “free bird” of privilege, Maya experiences poverty, rape, and encounters with the Ku Klux Klan as she struggles to achieve pride and freedom by grasping toward artistic expression.
Encouraged by Loomis, who suggested that the memoir’s primary purpose was to impact contemporary readers, Angelou discarded conventional notions of narrative structure and chronology, deploying imagination to shape “reality” in new forms. While some reviewers claimed the book as just another form of autobiographical fiction, Angelou and Loomis could with justice counter that all memoirs are heavily fictionalized, whether intentionally or not, considering the vagaries of memory alone. A more accurate crudity, perhaps, would be to suggest that the approach was calculated to sell books, something that Caged Bird did very well—for it was an immediate and enduring bestseller—and which Loomis understood perhaps better than anyone who has ever worked in the trade publishing industry.
The best manifestation of Caged Bird’s importance, however, may be its impact on literature and society—a measure that to some degree makes its imaginary substance secondary if not irrelevant. The book’s brutally graphic—some have argued pornographic—descriptions of rape and other traumatic events is central to its purpose, which is to capture broadly not just Maya Angelou’s experience, but the inherently traumatic and violent nature of the Black experience in the United States. Over half a century since its publication, the book remains widely read. It has heavily influenced not just written but visual art; and in the 2020s it provided an otherwise-missing artistic inspiration to a new outpouring of popular rage after the murder of George Floyd. As such, it stands as a shining exemplar of the power of art in society.
Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.