Sally was one of the best editors I’ve ever known. I’m sure it’s not the first thing about her to spring to your mind, or the second or third thing either. But I want to memorialize Sally by talking about it because her way of editing was so remarkable, of a piece with how remarkable she was overall. It’s one of the many reasons I loved her.
In 1998 I was writing my dissertation on a topic in feminist philosophy, and Sally, who was unstintingly generous with her time, offered to read and comment on each chapter as I wrote it. In astonished gratitude I took her up on this, and between her and Margaret Walker, who directed the dissertation, I managed to draft the first two chapters in a reasonably creditable fashion.
But then came Chapter Three. I sent it to Margaret, who gently but firmly showed me that it was a mess. So I revised it painstakingly, several times, engaging the scholarly literature ever more deeply on the issues the chapter dealt with. But with each revision I got myself tangled into more knots, until I despaired of ever becoming a philosopher at all. I felt stupid and inadequate, and because I couldn’t bear to inflict the chapter on Margaret yet again, I sent it to Sally. I didn’t save the email she sent me two days later, but I’ll never forget the gist of it: “I don’t want to know so much about what Marcel Lieberman has to say. What do YOU have to say?”
That dislodged something. In the emails we exchanged just after, I was able to tell her exactly what I wanted to say, and she skillfully showed me how to structure the argument so that I would actually be saying it. I finished the chapter to Margaret’s satisfaction and the rest of the dissertation went more smoothly. Sally had freed me—freed my tongue and my fingers and my thoughts so that I could actually start doing philosophy instead of just reporting what others had done. I’ve always been grateful to her for liberating me from the tongue-tied tangle I got into.
At about that same time, Maureen MacGrogan, who had just left Routledge for Rowman & Littlefield, asked me to edit a book series in feminist philosophy for her, and I told her I’d do it if Sally was willing to be my coeditor. Sally agreed, and as we worked together on the series I began to see that the way she’d freed me had its roots in a kind of warm and deep interest in people. She really wanted to know what our authors were thinking. And because she cared about that, she could help them free up those thoughts—get the infelicities, tangents, and bad arguments out of the way so that their ideas could find their full expression.
Just as importantly, she never got in the way either. She never tried to impose her own ideas on our authors, or reshape their books in the way she thought they should go. Having been an editor myself all my adult life, I can tell you how hard it is not to do that. There is a tendency on the part of every editor to let her own shadow fall on her authors’ pages. But Sally didn’t seem to be tempted that way, or if she was, she resisted that temptation. Because she was more interested in what other people thought than in asserting her own importance, she could stand clear and listen to what they were trying to say.
After we moved away from New York I used to go and see Sally sometimes. I wish I could convey how exhilarating and exhausting it was to spend a weekend with her and Bill in their Bleecker Street apartment. It’s a place where the feast of reason and the flow of soul was an established way of life, and I would be warmly escorted to my place at that rich table the moment I came in the door. Bill would describe a conversation he’d just had with a colleague, or Sally would tell me about a book she was reading, and they’d ply me with questions about what I thought. Then something I’d say would remind Sally of a poem, and she would jump up, fetch it off the shelf, and read it to me. In between other things, she’d want to hear all about whatever it was I happened to be working on, and Bill would wander in and out. We’d talk about everything from a manuscript Sally and I were considering for the series, to an article Bill had just read in the LRB, to a remark I’d made casually on the phone to Sally some three months previously—and always, they’d press me to explain what I meant, ask questions that showed me I didn’t quite mean that, invite me to reconsider, tell me why they liked the way I put it. And all of it infused by Sally’s warm smile. On my way to bed at night, she or Bill would press into my hands an article or two and maybe a couple of books, and over breakfast the next morning they would ask me my opinion of them. It would go like that for the entire weekend, so that when the visit was over I would be replete to bursting with what I had taken in for the last three days. The same thing happened in miniature when Sally and I talked on the phone—I’d come away from those conversations feeling intellectually, emotionally, and imaginatively fed.
What nourished me was her interest—and the reason it did so, of course, is that she herself was such an impressive person. I think she was so good at fixing people’s messy third chapters because her own authorial voice was so sure and strong. You felt that if she thought you had something to say, you would be able to say it. If you pressed her, she would tell you what she thought about something, but her characteristic conversational mode was to ask you questions rather than lay down her own opinions. And that, I think, is what made her such a good editor—she was more interested in hearing your ideas than in getting you to see that she was right about something. I think it’s also, by the way, what makes a good philosopher, but that’s a conversation for another occasion.
Sally told wonderful stories about the people she knew, and here too what always struck me was how deep an interest she took in them. In all of our many conversations, on the phone or face to face, I remember her reproaching me only on the few occasions when I said something dismissive of someone. Then she’d pull me up sharply, and show me what it was about the person that should have been worth my attention. She’d do that with manuscripts too. When we’d talk over a series submission we had real doubts about, she’d point out its strengths—not in any Pollyannaish way that glossed over its failings, but in a way that let me see that there was something there after all that might become more visible if the clutter was removed. There weren’t too many manuscripts she thought were hopeless, but even when we had to write a letter of rejection she could always find a way to give the author some kind of confidence in her voice.
She had no patience with self-importance, and I think that too came out of her interest in people: if you think you are more important than those around you, you are going to miss a good deal of what’s important about them. After 9/11, I remember, she borrowed a phrase from her beloved Virginia Woolf to describe the puffed-up pundits and pronouncers who seemed to be everywhere just then: they were, she said, using their “loudspeaker voices.” She discouraged our authors in the series from using those voices, but she was especially vigilant about that when I was editing Hypatia and she and Joan Callahan guest edited the special issue on heterosexism—a topic about which, she thought, it was particularly easy to like one’s own views very much indeed.
I suppose, at bottom, her editing was of a piece with her ethic of care. Out of her own strength she saw what—or who—was there to be cared about, did what was necessary to help it along, and then stood back so it could be its best and fullest self. I learned so much from Sally, about writing and thinking and caring about things. And now she’s no longer there to help me see the world through her eyes, to ask me questions or think of me sometimes. I still look for her around every corner, and probably shall for years to come. She was inexpressibly dear to me.