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Fellows Find: When Knopf Inc. published a master work by Fernando Ortiz: A strange hurricane

By Armando Chavez-Rivera

 

Cover of “Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar” by Fernando Ortiz.
Cover of “Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar” by Fernando Ortiz.

Armando Chávez-Rivera, an assistant professor at the University of Houston-Victoria, has published four books, among them Cuba per se. Cartas de la diáspora (2009), which summarizes extensive information about Cuban writers located off the island. He worked as a journalist for more than a decade in Latin America, with long stays in various countries in the region, and has published in magazines and popular journals. Currently his academic research is concentrated on Spanish-American literature while he maintains his work as a columnist for the Latin American Data Base, a unit of the Latin American and Iberian Institute of the University of New Mexico. His research at the Ransom Center was funded by the Alfred A. and Blanche W. Knopf Fellowship and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment. The Ransom Center is now accepting applications for 2013–2014 fellowships.

In the spring of 1947, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. published the first English translation of Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar (Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y del azúcar) by Fernando Ortiz. This inspired essay explores the island’s history, culture, and economy through references to its principle crops, and provides detailed information about the internal tensions within society and its relationship with the United States.

The Harry Ransom Center preserves the correspondence between Ortiz and the publishing house, as well as routine communications of the legendary team formed from Herbert Weinstock, editor, and Harriet de Onís, translator, who were responsible for the first English translations of other celebrated Latin-American writers like Alejo Carpentier.

Knopf Inc.’s growing interest in Latin America was rooted in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, and Blanche W. Knopf visited several countries in the region in 1942. Contrapunteo was the first important Cuban work published by Knopf Inc.

Ortiz’s book created a controversy among the editorial advisors; one of them undervalued it for being written in a supposedly “tropical” style, grandiloquent and almost impossible to translate. Nevertheless, Ortiz’s international prestige as an academic and his encyclopedic knowledge of culture, versed in ethnography, sociology, and anthropology, among other fields, tipped the scales in his favor.

The book received excellent reviews from the press, with praise for a translation that maintained the original language’s seductive blend of rigorous scientific knowledge, profusion of quotations, and sustained poetic prose. We now know the subsequent impact the volume had on terminology, coining terms like “transculturation,” to refer to the mutual exchange between cultures in contact.

Contrapunteo reviewed Cuba’s economic situation and its dependence on foreign markets and capital, primarily from the United States. The book found a way to state scientific knowledge without sacrificing literary elegance, while addressing political, cultural, and economic aspects of a region that the U.S. public knew little about or viewed stereotypically.

Ortiz’s works—as well as those by Knopf’s tireless collaborators in those years, Columbian Germán Arciniegas and Brazilian Gilberto Freyre—hinted at the brewing political upheavals that would yield uprisings, revolutions, and dictatorships, and focused on milestones such as the Cuban revolution and its radicalization to communism and confrontation with the United States.

In the course of my two-month stay at the Ransom Center, I followed this thread of analysis in the letters between Knopf Inc.’s editors, translators, and advisors from the 1940s and 1950s, as well as the subsequent reaction of the press and the markets. Knopf’s publications promoted a better understanding of the rest of the hemisphere by the United States and laid the groundwork for a favorable reception of Spanish American Boom literature.

I read the Knopf Inc. archive as if it was an intellectual, cultural, and societal “counterpoint.” Several books from the New York publisher showed the cultural change, literary renovation, and the approaching political explosion in neighboring countries. Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar was one of those rare books that, through its information and biting political reflections, was a strange hurricane of premonitions, bitter and sweet, for the Knopf editors and United States’ readers.

“By Their Books Shall Ye Know Them”

By Courtney Reed

The Ransom Center holds the Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. archive, which includes books published under the Borzoi imprint and books from Alfred A. and Blanche Knopf’s personal library. The Ransom Center’s Associate Director for Exhibitions and Fleur Cowles Executive Curator, Cathy Henderson, and Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian, Richard Oram, collaborated on The House of Knopf, which consists of collected documents from the Knopf, Inc. archive and is now part of the Dictionary of Literary Biography series.

Under the title heading, The Borzoi Credo, Alfred A. Knopf’s principles of publishing appeared in the November 1957 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Chief among his many standards in book production, Knopf stressed quality:

I believe that good books should be well made, and I try to give every book I publish a format that is distinctive and attractive.”

It comes as no surprise that a Borzoi book published by the house of Knopf would resemble the personalities and preserve the canon of its founders, Alfred A. and Blanche Wolf Knopf. In fact, Blanche, fond of the Russian wolfhounds’ aesthetic look, chose the Borzoi as the publishing house’s legendary colophon. Ironically, Blanche later owned a pair of borzois and grew to despise them, wishing she had chosen another dog for the Knopf imprint.

Known for their distinctive styles of dress and aggressive business demeanors, Alfred and Blanche burst into the publishing scene in 1915. And, style for style, Borzoi books, like the fashions of Alfred and Blanche, made a statement.

Favoring English tweed jackets and lemon-colored shirts, Alfred broke through the monochrome haze with his flamboyant style. Blanche preferred French haute couture, and was often found sheathed in classic Dior, oozing Parisian cool.

Knopf author Elizabeth Bowen, distinctly recalls her first encounter with Alfred Knopf in Portrait of a Publisher (1965). In the early 1930s, Alfred Knopf asked Bowen to meet him for lunch at the Savoy while on one of his trips to London. Already knowing Blanche well, Bowen recalls how she waltzed into the large foyer when it suddenly struck her that she had no idea what Alfred looked like. Trying to orient herself, Bowen put on her spectacles and circled the room:

“Then, my eye lit on a tie, some distance away. The sun glinted on it. The tie was not so much magenta as the dark-bright purple-crimson of a petunia, and it was worn with a shirt of a light green, just too blue to be almond, just not blue enough to be verdigris. Tie and shirt were at some height from the ground; their wearer stood leaning in a doorway or archway, a vantage-point some way away from the throng. He looked almost sleepy. With an onlooker’s great calmness, one might say indolence, he was considering everybody, including me.” Bowen’s instincts were correct; the colorful stranger was indeed Alfred A. Knopf.

Five short years after founding the Borzoi imprint, Alfred and Blanche had firmly established their high standards of book production, becoming formidable figures in American literary publishing.

The pair often used their striking Tudor house in Purchase, New York as a meeting place for entertaining Knopf authors. Known as “The Hovel,” Alfred and Blanche’s home was anything but. A 1928 Westchester County newspaper article entitled, “By Their Books Shall Ye Know Them,” highlights the most important room in the house: their library. Filled with exquisite books with fine German bindings and work of the world’s best typographers, their library held representatives from important presses.

The Knopf’s standards remained intact even during World War II when paper and other essentials were scarce. Books printed during that time enclosed a notice from the publisher assuring the purchaser that, despite the need to economize, Borzoi books would continue to use the highest quality cloths that could be procured and carry on exceptional typographical and binding design. In fact, the notice said that the slimmer models afforded easier readability and handling than their fatter fellows.

Alfred, ever the advocate of fine quality, staunchly resisted the introduction of inexpensive paperbacks following World War II. He finally gave in and established the Vintage paperback series in 1954, under the stipulation that even Knopf paperbacks uphold the same aesthetic values and employ his talented book designers, such as Warren Chappell.

Alfred and Blanche made sure to impart their personal signature upon every Borzoi book, so that each publication was a work of art in itself. Alfred and Blanche’s high standards in book production attracted many of their authors, including Willa Cather.

As Bowen put it, “part of the splendor of a Knopf book is that it does not revive or cling to an old tradition, it founds a new one. This is a beauty which is contemporary, a work through contrast, pure and clarified colour; angle, surface. A book of this kind is not only to be devoured by the eyes, but handled: it is a pleasure to the fingertips. It gains weight from the fine solidity of the paper; yet lightness from the set-out of the distinctive type on each spacious page.”

 

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New book sheds some light on "The House of Knopf"

By Richard Oram

We have read thousands of letters to and from Knopf authors, editorial reports, publicity materials, and sales accounts. Despite having lived in their “house,” read their personal letters, and viewed Alfred’s photographs, I don’t feel that I understand either of the Knopfs particularly well. Both were temperamental and rife with contradictions. This may explain why despite their importance in the history of publishing, the Knopfs have yet to be the subjects of a book-length biography, although there have been attempts, and several projects are currently underway.

Alfred and Blanche Knopf were both notoriously demanding of themselves, their editorial staff, and their authors. When Knopf, Inc. burst onto the American publishing scene in 1915, the couple were among the few Jewish publishers. Alfred was famously denied admittance to a lunchtime circle of publishers, whereupon he formed his own. Their status as outsiders may have something to do with their aggressive, take-no-prisoners business style. Or to put it another way, the Knopfs had ‘tude. And they had style. In a button-down world of publishing, Alfred stood out with his lavender shirts and strident ties; a London tailor once refused to make a shirt out of some brightly hued cloth the publisher had chosen. Blanche, attired in Parisian haute couture, lived near the edge, subsisting largely on salads and martinis. As a female publishing executive, she too was a pioneer with something to prove.

Yet the Knopfs had a softer, gentler side. By the 1920s, they had decided to live independent lives in separate apartments, but on weekends they generally retired to “The Hovel” up the Hudson, in Purchase, New York, to live an apparently tranquil country life. There they frequently entertained their friends and authors, who were often the same people. The Knopfs had a knack for engaging their best authors on a personal level, wining and dining them (Alfred was a noted gourmet and oenophile) and exuding charm. Blanche bought a trenchcoat for Albert Camus and gloves for Elizabeth Bowen. Alfred took snapshots and made home movies of the guests. The devotion of these authors and others, such as Carl Van Vechten and H. L. Mencken, radiates from their letters. As Alfred Knopf maintained, “a publishing house is known by the company it keeps,” and by that measure both the Knopfs were the greatest publishers of their day.

[Also, see earlier blog post about the friendship between Blanche Knopf and Albert Camus.]

 

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