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Veldt Adventure

Gardening at home in Massachusetts, author and editor Daniel Menaker ’63 says: “I’m almost as good a weed whacker as I am an editor. Weed whacking is like editing the landscape.”

Soon to spring up on the literary landscape is Menaker’s seventh book, The African Svelte: Ingenious Misspellings That Make Surprising Sense, a clever concoction of run-on chapters, each titled with a “svelte”—the author’s name for misspellings that, despite their inaccuracy, are, in their own way, plausible.

“Language is such a miracle,” says Menaker, who graduated with high honors in English literature, art history, and philosophy. “There are so many theories about how the human animal started speaking about things.”

Menaker’s journey to The African Svelte began when he was in fourth grade and his teacher asked the class whether anyone knew the names of the ships that had carried Christopher Columbus and his crew to America. A little girl raised her hand and answered confidently, “The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe”—incorrect but with a cadence closely resembling “the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María.”

Encouraged by his mother, Menaker wrote a letter to The New Yorker, which was published anonymously as a “Talk of the Town” piece. He shared his $50 honorarium with the little girl.

Years later, working at The New Yorker, he happened to read the sentence, “The zebras were grazing on the African svelte”; he found the “veldt” error to be so “svelte” that he started a list of this and other such misspellings, which, in the contexts they appear, make wacky yet undeniable sense. “Sveltes” including “ultraviolent radiation,” “end-trails,” the “windshield factor,” “the pillow of his community,” and “heart-rendering,” many of which are wittily enhanced by Roz Chast’s hilarious drawings in his book.

Menaker was fiction editor of The New Yorker magazine for two decades. He describes his early years with that publication as insecure, to say the least. Initially hired as a copy editor, he received several hints that he would do well to leave.

“They never threw me out,” he says. “They just asked me to find another job.” He found a couple, but both went out of business before he could accept their offers. With the stars apparently aligned for him to hang on, he did, mostly shunned by then-current New Yorker editor William Shawn.

“Little by little—although, I think, in a grudging way—Shawn accepted my presence,” says Menaker. “It’s an interesting story of hanging around when you’re not wanted and finally making a place for yourself.

“Fortunately, I somehow caught the attention of William Maxwell, a wonderful writer and fine editor, and he saw to it that I had the chance to become a fiction editor,” he adds. “But, for a few years, I was pretty much non grata. I just stayed on and eventually began to find some good writers and do some writing of my own.

Working at The New Yorker was “a dream job” for Menaker, who has seen the number of short fiction submissions grow over the years from 250 a week to more than 1,000. “We thought we had it hard,” Menaker says, “because we had to deal with so much. We’d get a story, and it would go around to the various editors, and we’d write out what we thought, then Shawn would make the final decision. But now they have to deal with the Internet, which has brought submissions to flood stage.” Still, even back then, we were always busy, always on our toes, encouraging writers, hoping we’d make discoveries. And we made a lot, especially after Shawn left.”

Shawn was followed by Robert Gottlieb, whose tastes were more closely aligned with Menaker’s. “The number of new fiction contributors went way up when Gottlieb came in,” Menaker says. “That’s when The New Yorker began to publish new and more modern writing, by the likes of Jennifer Egan and George Saunders.”

With the advent of Gottlieb’s successor, Tina Brown, the magazine underwent staffing changes that led to Menaker’s leaving The New Yorker and moving to Random House, where he became a successful book publisher.

“It’s dangerous ground to walk on,” says Menaker of the book-publishing industry, “especially now, with print under assault from electronic publications.”

Despite the perils of the book world, Menaker has published six books of his own, including a memoir, My Mistake, which includes many pages devoted to his time at Swarthmore. And he has never lost his love of words and his delight in the mischief and adventure they provide us.

“And so dusk has fallen on the African svelte,” he writes in the Afterword of his newest book. “Time to end this safari. Our quarry has been caught and is herewith released, back into the endless fields of our wonderful written language.”