Robert G. Hoyt, R.I.P.

Bob Hoyt, who died April 10 at eighty-one, was a distinctive writer and a brilliant editor. Distinctive because he had a voice of his own-succinct, witty, and precise. His writing voice was the opposite of his speaking voice—gravelly and sometimes inaudible-and his spoken words, which were discursive and agonistic. He loved a good argument, especially one he was sure he could win, if only...if only, you paid exacting attention to his point.

Writers counted themselves lucky to have Bob as an editor. Syntax, logic, cohesion, clarity, and solid content were the stern standards by which he judged anyone’s writing, from the most august to the lowly neophyte; in that he was indiscriminate. My first book review for him in 1968, and for the National Catholic Reporter, which he established in 1964, was of Red Flag/Black Flag, an analysis of the 1968 uprising of French students and workers, events I had witnessed from my student garret in Paris. He quickly convinced me, once I was back in New York, that movie reviews ought to be added to my repertoire. Bob was never the distant or impersonal editor; analysis and conclusion were as important as word choice and sentence structure. He actually convinced me I could be a "real" writer, and did everything possible to make me one.

His departure from NCR in 1970 was a sad day for me and many others: I canceled my subscription. We connected professionally again in 1981 when I went to work with him at Christianity & Crisis—an unexpected, but welcome, landing in the world of Protestant ethics and social action for two Catholics immersed in the opportunities and battles opened up by Vatican II. Bob was an ecumenist of penetrating and critical insight, and the issues that engaged a journal founded by Reinhold Niebuhr sharpened my Catholic outlook. At the same time, we continued with our own arguments: his immersion in the antiwar movement and the Berrigans’ trial in Harrisburg had made him ever more critical of U.S. foreign policy, had brought out all of his radical streak. I was simply an antiwar liberal. Neither of us was a pacifist so there was a lot of territory we shared in the early eighties without actually having to agree with one another. I left C & C in 1984 and Bob retired in 1985.

When I came to Commonweal in 1988, I asked Bob to join the staff. The part-time position of "senior writer" intellectually engaged him full-time, until he retired again in early 2002. His views, his presence, and his temperament sharpened us all for a good fight and made us a better magazine.

"Faithful Catholic" and "irrepressible and irascible human being" come to mind when I think of Bob’s prevailing outlook. These qualities joined his deep and authentic passion for clarity and accuracy, which was also a passion for being honest, for telling the truth. In a church that made Big Truth Claims, honest words and deeds too often fell short of those claims. On this we agreed. One Christmas, I gave Bob a copy of Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White’s fanciful and touching tale of Wilbur the pig, who could read and organize, and Charlotte the spider, who could write and spell. Assuming a transgendered reading—my taking on the persona of Wilbur and making Bob into Charlotte—I underlined the last sentences: "Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both." Bob was both. I am sorry he is not around to edit and rewrite these paragraphs. He would have been pleased to make me a better writer.

Published in the 2003-04-25 issue: 
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Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. 

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