Biographer Laura Claridge gives well-deserved center stage to publis
In researching my history of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., The Art of Prestige: The Formative Years at Knopf, 1915–1929 (UMass Press, 2014), I read hundreds of documents written by Blanche, evidence of countless hours she spent competing for important acquisitions, negotiating contracts, requesting editorial revisions, making design choices, overseeing advertising plans, and every other minute facet in the life of a book, yet the letterhead omitted her name; Alfred named the firm for himself, emblazoning his identity on all correspondence.
In 1922, the company trademarked the term Borzoi Books, along with the emblem of a Russian wolfhound. Some readers notice the phrase “This is a Borzoi Book” on copyright pages and think it refers to a special Knopf imprint, but in fact every Knopf book is a Borzoi Book, and the term was used heavily in marketing promotions throughout the company’s early y
Claridge’s book left me with a tantalizing what-if. What if Blanche had used the sizable inheritance from her mother to strike out on her own? Would her firm have become the favored crown jewel, outpacing Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., in revenue, prizes, and laudatory reviews? Blanche lacked a college education, while Alfred’s first literary alliances were the result of his coursework at Columbia. Yet perhaps that was one of Blanche’s advantages: he was steeped in an old-world canon of male European authors, mirroring the priorities of the faculty, while she enthusiastically embraced modernism. Neither was she at a disadvantage in terms of professionalization. Alfred was fortunate enough to learn the ropes through apprenticeships with Frank Nelson Doubleday and Mitchell Kennerley, but Blanche soon caught up, rapidly completing her phase as Alfred’s apprentice. She easily learned the systematic details while mastering the aspects of successful publishing that can’t be taught (how to be fiercely competitive yet financially rational; how to manage talent; how to influence cultural tastes, not just react to them).
Of course, this is a decidedly twenty-first-century question; in American book publishing today, a majority of the professionals are women. Blanche Knopf would surely have excelled as a digital media magnate.
For a review of Clements’s book along with Claridge’s, please see the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Book Trailer for The Art of Prestige