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Knopf, Blanche - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Blanche Knopf, Social and Economic Impact

alfred published american publishing

(1894-1966)
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Overview

A leading American publisher, Blanche Knopf played a key role in twentieth century publishing in America. By promoting the books of European, Hispanic, African-American, and feminist authors, Blanche Knopf fostered a new cultural and intellectual climate for American reading audiences.

Personal Life

Born on July 30, 1894, in New York City, Blanche Wolf was the only child born to Julius W. Wolf, a wealthy jeweler, and Bertha Samuels. She attended New York’s Gardner School and had her own French and German governesses, which provided Knopf with a good command of language and literature. Blanche met her future husband, Alfred A. Knopf in 1911 while vacationing with her parents on Long Island. They married in 1916 and two years later, they had a child, Alfred A. Knopf, Jr. who also became a publisher.

The Knopfs spent most of their lives running Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., the publishing business they had started in 1915. Blanche, the director and vice president of the company, quickly discovered that her life’s work would be difficult. When Blanche Knopf became a leader in the publishing industry, there were no female peers. She endured ongoing sexism from the male-dominated publishing industry and was openly discriminated against. She was denied membership to the Publisher’s Lunch Club and the Book Table, two powerful groups for male-only members of publishing houses to share their ideas. When Knopf was invited to speak on the future of women in the publishing industry at a women’s college, she rejected the offer because, she said, there was “no future worth mentioning.”

Fortunately, she had a flair for social interaction, and a love of negotiating and strategic bargaining. These qualities, along with being extremely intelligent, ensured her success in the highly competitive, male-dominated publishing era of the early twentieth century.

Though she was known to possess an explosive temper and a tough, war-like style in pursuing her business, she was also said to be one of the most generous and encouraging publishers toward young, gifted, but unknown writers. Knopf Inc. published paperbound editions of lesser-known writers, which was less of a financial risk for the publisher but gave the authors exposure.

Knopf received many awards for her efforts to publish European and South American writers. She was honored with the Order of the Southern Cross, and the French government made her Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in 1949, as well as Officer de la Legion d’Honneur in 1960.

Blanche Wolf Knopf died in New York City on June 4, 1966. She was active as an editor until she died, despite losing much of her eyesight in mid-career. Even though she was not able to read new manuscripts as she got older, she had others read the manuscripts to her, and made all the final choices of books to be published herself.

Career Details

Along with her husband, Blanche Knopf founded and began building the world-famous publishing house, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., in 1915. Indirectly, Knopf became one of the most formidable publishers of her day, specializing in new streams of ideas for the American reading public. She sought and discovered new talent in South America, Europe, and the United States. Blanche Wolf Knopf, indirectly, was able to challenge and alter the streams of American thought during the first half of the twentieth century.

Some of the earliest European books published by Knopf include four plays by Emile Augier, a book of short stories by Guy de Maupassant, and Gogol’s Taras Bulba. In 1916, they published W. H. Hudson’s Green Mansions, which turned out to be very profitable for both publisher and author—it was the company’s first best seller. The popularity of Green Mansions also made Blanche’s logo, a Bolzoi (Russian Wolfhound), the recognizable “Knopf” symbol. Beginning in 1920, Blanche Knopf made annual trips to Europe to scout out new material. In 1921, she became the vice president and director of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and during the following decades, published the works of Sigrid Undset, Thomas Mann, Kahlil Gibran, Knut Hamsun, Mikhail Sholokhov, Angela Thirkell, Elizabeth Bowen, Elinor Wylie, Allan Sollitoe, and Katherine Mansfield. She also published American authors. Among Knopf’s favorties were Dashiell Hammett, James M. Caine, William Shirer, Robert Nathan, and the works of Willa Cather, who was one of Blanche Knopf’s closest literary associates.

Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. also published literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes, in particular, was a favorite of Knopf’s, and the two became close friends. The publication of African-American writers introduced a new spectrum of thoughts and images.

When the work of the psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, became popular and very much sought after, it was Knopf who secured the rights and returned from Europe with his manuscript of Moses and Monotheism.

With the advent of World War II, travelling to Europe was no longer an option for Knopf. She then turned to focus on the writers of Latin America. By the mid-1930s, very few Latin writers had been published in the United States. Knopf traveled extensively throughout Central and South America and arranged for the work of such authors as, Jorge Amado, Eduardo Mallea, Gilberto Freyre, and Germán Arciniegas to be translated. Thus began the tradition of excellent, quality translations for which the Alfred A. Knopf publishing house became renowned.

After World War II, Knopf returned to Europe in search of new authors. She was a Francophile, and published many French authors such as Andre Gide and Jules Romain. She also introduced the American public to the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and published the seminal work of mid-twentieth century feminism: The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir—the book that dealt with the powerful and provocative issues of lesbianism, prostitution, and the nature of sex-role limitations. Blanche Knopf published, in effect, the major works of existentialism, Freudian psychoanalytic thinking, and European modernism in fiction.

Knopf was known for her high level involvement in the company and worked at all phases of publishing. She solicited authors, found translators, read manuscripts, designed books, and wrote advertising copy. Knopf books were noted for their variety of typefaces, colorful jackets, beautiful bindings, and the use of good paper. In particular, Blanche Knopf was extremely careful when choosing translators. For example, to ensure consistency, she had Helen T. Lowe Porter translate the complete works of Thomas Mann.

Chronology: Blanche Knopf

1894: Born.

1911: Met Alfred A. Knopf.

1915: Started Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. with Alfred A. Knopf.

1916: Married Alfred A. Knopf.

1921: Became director and vice president of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

1957: Named president of Alfred A. Knopf Inc.

1966: Died.

Social and Economic Impact

It is significant that Blanche Knopf chose to publish books from other countries and that she published so many new authors during a time in American life when the politics of the country had become quite conservative and cautious. She and her husband had built a publishing firm that published not just books, but books that changed lives, books that truly challenged the minds and imaginations of several generations of Americans.

She published The Second Sex at a time when America was most conspicuously conservative, puritanical, and aggressively anti-communist. It was not only a book about a new controversial resurrection of the feminist movement, it was also a book written by a woman who had been a communist and who was living with one. It also was a book that dealt probingly into male sexism and into the roots of the kind of puritanical thinking that dominated the American scene of that era. In short, like other books she had brought to America, Knopf delivered to the reading public an intellectual and cultural blockbuster, a book to change the way that people thought. She introduced ideas and issues that came to revolutionize American thinking and behavior. Her efforts were seen as both very controversial and emancipating.

Knotts, Don [next] [back] Knight, Philip - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Philip Knight

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