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Fellows Find: Scholar explores connections between Langston Hughes and other black writers around the globe

Cover of Langston Hughes's "Not Without Laughter," published by Knopf.
Cover of Langston Hughes's "Not Without Laughter," published by Knopf.

Shane Graham, Associate Professor of English at Utah State University, is the author of South African Literature after the Truth Commission: Mapping Loss (2009), and the principal editor of Langston Hughes and the South African Drum Generation: The Correspondence (2010). He has published articles in Modern Fiction Studies, Theatre Research International, Studies in the Novel, and Research in African Literatures, and he serves as Reviews Editor for Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies. His work at the Ransom Center was funded by an Alfred A. and Blanche W. Knopf Fellowship.

An Alfred A. and Blanche W. Knopf Fellowship allowed me to spend a month at the Harry Ransom Center exploring the connections between African-American poet Langston Hughes and black writers throughout the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. I began this research some time ago at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, where the great majority of Langston Hughes’s papers are deposited. The Ransom Center holdings allowed me to expand and enrich my investigation into these transatlantic connections in innumerable ways.

For instance, the Knopf records and the Nancy Cunard papers contain correspondence with Hughes, typescripts of his poems, essays, and speeches, and media clippings about his books. Moreover, the Transcription Centre records include information about its parent organization, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), which established important links between African and diasporic writers. The Transcription Centre papers also contain records and reports from the important “Conference for African Writers of English Expression” held at Makerere College in Uganda in 1962, which the CCF co-organized and which Hughes attended as a guest of honor. These holdings provide small but important pieces to the jigsaw puzzle I am trying to complete sketching the transnational connections between Hughes and his many friends and correspondents.

Among other unexpected treasures I discovered were dozens of letters that Jamaican poet and novelist Claude McKay wrote to his agent and to Nancy Cunard in Paris, from a period when McKay himself was living in Marseille, Spain, and Morocco. While not proving an immediate link to Langston Hughes, these letters do establish McKay as an equally transnational figure and have prompted me to return to the Langston Hughes papers to investigate the two men’s relationship. I’m happy to report, then, that my time at the Ransom Center opened up an important new area to explore in my book-in-progress.

Ur-Knopf: An early Knopf book is reunited with larger Knopf library

June 1915. Gene Stratton-Porter and Pollyanna held their dull sway over the American best-seller lists. A young publisher on the make, who had been fired by his house for planning to poach one of its authors, had just decided to go into business for himself. With seed money from his father, Alfred A. Knopf set up shop in one cramped room at 220 West 42nd Street in Manhattan. The other partner in the firm was Blanche Wolf, well-to-do, cultured, fluent in French, and already engaged to Alfred. The first book published by the firm that fall was the French dramatist Émile Augier’s Four Plays. The Ransom Center owns the entire limited edition (two copies, bound in different shades of morocco leather) bound for Alfred, which he gave to his father (“Pater”) and Blanche (“V.V.”) in September 1915 (the trade edition went on sale the next month). Other than that, the firm’s very earliest productions are not represented in the couple’s huge personal library, now at the Ransom Center. Apparently the Knopfs were not sentimental about their roots.

So it came as a surprise when the Ransom Center was recently offered a copy of one of the very earliest Knopf imprints, Nicolai Gogol’s Taras Bulba, with the bookplate of Blanche Wolf, soon to be Blanche Knopf, and bearing an early bookplate from the firm’s library. Taras Bulba headed the first Knopf advertisement in Publisher’s Weekly of September 25, 1915, along with other Russian books. At the outset, the Knopf list included a large proportion of foreign authors, especially French and Russian ones, mainly because it was relatively easy to obtain their American rights. Within a few years, Knopf, Inc.’s Borzoi Books, as they were named because of Blanche’s short-lived attachment to the famously stupid dog breed, would catch the attention of the publishing world because of its superb literary taste and striking book designs.

When the book arrived, I held in my hand a bit of the Ur-Knopf, from the days before Alfred and Blanche were married, before the hallowed Borzoi Books name was on a book (though the dog himself had already made his first appearance as a logo), and before Alfred implemented his notion that a trade book could be beautifully designed (Taras Bulba is in truth a rather plain book). How or why the volume was removed from the Knopfs’ library remains a mystery. The book economy works in strange and mysterious ways, and we can only marvel that Blanche’s book has now been reunited with the rest of the library.

 

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“By Their Books Shall Ye Know Them”

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"

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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"Publishing isn't just about contacts; it's equally a matter of human relationships"

Albert Camus, taken by Alfred Knopf in Stockholm during the week in which Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize, December 1957.
Albert Camus, taken by Alfred Knopf in Stockholm during the week in which Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize, December 1957.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the French novelist and philosopher Albert Camus in a tragic car accident. Yet, as the online review The Daily Beast observes, he remains “the most widely read of all the postwar French writers and [is] hip enough to inspire a comic-book series.”

In addition to the manuscript of his novel The Misunderstanding and other items in the Carlton Lake Collection of French Literature, the Ransom Center holds several fascinating few folders of correspondence between Camus and the publisher Blanche Knopf, to which a couple of additional letters have recently been added.

Few of the firm’s authors were closer to Blanche Knopf than Albert Camus. After Blanche’s death, her husband Alfred recalled that “she became very, very friendly with Camus…They were frequently closeted in our room discussing and working over his book-in-progress. I think she had the right to feel that she was part of his work, and I don’t think she ever got over his death.”

The special nature of this publishing relationship is also apparent in Blanche’s 1960 memoir “Albert Camus in the Sun,” in which she writes, “That he was a writer, I knew. In short, I believed in him from the very beginning.” Blanche Knopf even gave him the trademark tan trench coat that the author wore in his most famous dustjacket photograph by Cartier-Bresson.

Blanche Knopf played a significantly larger role in shaping Camus’s career and promoting his reputation—and not merely in the English-speaking world—than has been recognized. Three weeks after V-E Day, Blanche swept into France (one journalist commented, “I knew the war was over when [she] turned up in Paris”) and almost immediately signed Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Camus. During her first meeting at the Ritz Hotel, she and Camus “talked about his writing, his future, his past, his plans, young writers in France, Pasternak, English writers, American writers, ourselves, everything, in these curious sessions we had together.”

The Stranger, translated by Stuart Gilbert, was published by Knopf on April 11, 1946. Camus was in New York at that time for his first and only trip to the United States, and the Knopfs threw a large party in his honor. The novel initially sold fewer than 10,000 copies and was in the short term only a modest success, although it’s now regarded as a classic of modern literature. He and his publishers had agreed that his second novel, The Plague, would be published in the United States before any of his earlier dramatic or philosophical works were translated. Later, Blanche put in a plea for intensive marketing of the novel, and her faith in The Plague was borne out: the hardback went on to sell 50,000 copies up to 1960. Camus was now able to go out and purchase a motorcycle.

In the middle years of their relationship, Blanche Knopf insisted on publishing translations of his more philosophical works, such as The Rebel, although they generally did not sell well in the United States. She desperately tried to steer the author, who was distracted by his theatrical pursuits, back to novel-writing—in particular The First Man, which was not published until forty years after his death. Near the end of his life, the firm published his short novel The Fall. It was in part due to active promotion by Blanche Knopf that Camus received his Nobel Prize in 1957. Alfred and Blanche Knopf accompanied him on a snowy train ride to see him accept the award and deliver a memorable speech.

As Alfred Knopf said, Blanche could be a “bulldog” when it came to advancing the case of authors she particularly admired. This was certainly the case with Camus, who may have owed much of his international success to her. Research in the Knopf archive shows that publishing isn’t just about contracts and balance sheets; it’s equally a matter of human relationships.