Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Happy Story from Publishing 100 Years Ago

I’m attending bits and pieces of the Society for Textual Scholarship Conference at NYU this week (and giving a paper there tomorrow). Today’s plenary panel was terrific. Bob Scholes gave an engaging paper on advertising in modernist magazines. He compared Pound's injunctions for writing imagist poetry with advice for admen written at the same time: it would be hard to tell them apart. Full of lovely irony. My old friend Cliff Wulfman gave a really smart paper about all the technological challenges of digitizing literature.

But, in light of the dire news about publishing that’s been floating around these past months, I thought you might be especially interested in George Bornstein’s “The Colors of Modernism: Publishing Blacks, Jews, and Irish.” (Shouldn’t it be “the Irish?”) He offered a history of New York publishing houses in the early 20th century.

While we think of Viking and Knopf as powerhouses of publishing, these houses were founded by Jews who’d hit the glass ceiling in WASP-dominated Boston. These editors, according to Bornstein, moved to New York, but couldn’t afford to acquire the established texts. So, while Houghton Mifflin up in Boston was publishing new multi-volume sets of Longfellow and Emerson (this made me laugh out loud, but I was the only one), Ginsburg and Oppenheimer of Viking and the Knopfs set out to find avant-garde texts, texts by other Jews, by immigrants, and by African-Americans. Harcourt Brace was the only Gentile-run house to join this trend. They did so because they hired Joel Spingarn, a Jew, an early supporter of the NAACP and colleague there of DuBois, and a former professor of comp lit at Columbia. Professor Spingarn had been dismissed from his job at Columbia for defending a colleague’s dismissal (ah! academic freedom!) so, his former students hired him at Harcourt, eventually making him a full editorial partner.

First among these was B. W. Huebsch, the first American publisher of James Joyce. Bornstein showed us Huebsch’s device, a seven-branched menorah (it looked like a fancy Georgian candlestick to me, but I trust him), on the title page of Joyce's Exiles.

This paper was a really lovely cultural history. A rich celebration of how a group of artists, exiled from the mainstream, became the mainstream by banding together.

Harcourt’s big moneymaker was Keynes’ Economic Consequences of the Peace and it’s through Keynes that they got their entrée to Bloomsbury. Harcourt remains Woolf’s American publisher to this day.

Bornstein’s story emerges, I think, out of a desire to counter a narrative, common in the 1990s, of high modernism as politically right wing, elitist, and narrow.

But it’s too easy to turn the cosmopolitan story into a dream sequence that overlooks the broader truths of anti-Semitism, race riots, lynchings, and anti-immigration legislation of the time. Or the facts of rifts within even the cosmopolitan circles of artists. I would like to have heard more nuance there, but it mostly flickered behind the paper. He told us that Harcourt is to be commended for publishing Sandburg’s essay on the Chicago race riots without pausing long enough over the fact of that unrest. He saluted Knopf’s courage in publishing Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven without pausing long enough (though pause he did) over the opportunism of that white promoter of Harlem.

He ended with T. S. Eliot, whose politics I don't admire (duh!) but whose "The Waste Land" I adore. Boni and Liveright, the house that made their name with Toomer's Cane were Eliot's American publishers. And, Bornstein argues, that Eliot's appearance on the Boni and Liveright list emphasizes the polyglot nature of the poem: something that was supported by the list itself. That is, every title on their list was jazz-influenced, so the jazz and pop elements of the poem, the parts of the poem that celebrate immigration and cosmpolitanism, and cultural hybridity, are all familiar to anyone who's familiar with that house. This, he argues, helps account for Ralph Ellison's somewhat surprising over-praise of Eliot. There is a lot more to say about that: about Eliot's racism, about whether or not people know books in the context of their publisher, about Ellison's snobbery, and about the greatness of both Ellison and Eliot.

I do think this is, in the main, a really really good story for us to know. As we think about Kindle and digital rights management (DRM to you) and the death of the newspaper, it’s really thrilling, I think, to remember, too, that 100 years ago, there were people in New York who loved great writing and didn’t pause over creed or race or ethnicity to publish it and, in so doing, were able to serve both art and commerce. So, though I have my questions about the emphasis of this paper, I mostly found it very, very interesting and inspiring. And though I've ignored the women here, Bornstein did not: he continually referenced Lilian Hellman, Nella Larsen, and more as crucial players in this story.

As we sit here, trying to earn a living with our tweets and our blogs, shaking our heads at the ginormous advances offered to another idiotic memoir by a celebrity, it’s moving and encouraging, I think, to imagine Knopf, Huebsch, Ginsburg & Oppenheimer, Boni & Liveright, gutting it out, making money, and bringing us great, great art.

Bornstein’s paper is part of a forthcoming book from Yale University Press. A chapter of it appeared in the September 2005 issue of Modernism/modernity (which may be behind a firewall for you). He has a very sweet pro-Obama op-ed here.


Kathryn said...

Fun and informative post, Anne--thanks for it. Best, Kathryn Holland


I was wondering, which author is most responsible for altering the meaning of 'terrific' from the awful to the favorable state?