In the late 1920s, when Charles Scribner, Jr. was but a boy, his father, the third successive Charles Scribner to head the family firm, took him on a tour of the Scribner printing plant. There, just a few blocks south of the Scribner offices and bookstore at 597 Fifth Avenue, sets of Henry James and Edith Wharton, and best-sellers by Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, not to mention the monthly Scribner’s Magazine, were printed and bound and shipped out of town. “It was so big,” remembers that boy, now almost seventy, “and there were so many people—It was an awesome experience for a child. It was a little frightening, too, to reflect that all this meant Scribners. I felt terribly diminished by the scope of the operation and the thought that I was expected to play some role in it. I was intensely aware that I was next in line.”

This note, struck early on in Mr. Scribner’s memoir, is characteristic of the book and of the man. Mr. Scribner tells his story with a becoming candor tinged with self-doubt and regret, and the story is a good one: a talented classics student (and wartime cryptanalyst) reluctantly turns down a fellowship at Princeton to take, at age twenty-five, the helm of a great American book house. His diffident father gives him no guidance, and the de facto head of the company, editor in chief Maxwell Perkins, is outraged by his lack of publishing know-how. (“[Perkins] once said to me, ‘You‘ve got to learn to like the books we do.’ And I said to myself, ‘Well, some day I‘ll do the books I like.’”) Soon his father and Perkins are gone and he is left to pilot the firm alone, and at a time (1946-1986) when all the ground rules for success in publishing are changing.

Mr. Scribner’s title, In the Company of Writers, suggests that his book is a collection of literary portraits. Indeed, it does contain a chapter called “My Life with Hemingway,” a nerve-wracking account of Mr. Scribner’s efforts not only to maintain but increase his most important writer’s trust in the house. (“Working with Hemingway was rather like being strapped in an electric chair. . . it would need just the flicking of a switch to ruin me. I might do something quite innocently that would be taken amiss and I would be in outer darkness forever.”) But readers coming to the book with hopes of new gossip about Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Rawlings, or James Jones will be keenly disappointed, for these and other top Scribner writers are treated perfunctorily and only in passing. It is instead primarily a record of the author’s tenure at Scribner’s—and an odd sort of report card to himself. He is painfully honest about missed opportunities (not joining the paperback revolution, not accepting Robert Giroux’s overture to continue Scribner’s tradition of literary publishing) and bad business moves (selling Scribner’s large share of what would one day become Bantam Books, taking over the troubled publisher Atheneum). He regrets having had to oversee, and not having had the savvy to avoid, the sale of the printing plant, the bookstores, the warehouse, and, in the end, the company itself. But he also gives himself high marks for his innovations in the area of reference books (“the books I like”), including his development of The Dictionary of Scientific Biography. One can read this memoir as a comedy, in which the naive hero, a would-be academic, bumbles as the head of a huge commercial venture not much to his liking, until, beefing up the reference-books division and surrounding himself with academics, he reconciles love and duty by recreating the company in his own image—then sells the company to Robert Maxwell at a tremendous profit. But if it is a comedy, it is a comedy with a dark side, for although Mr. Scribner calls the story’s ending a happy one, he also makes it clear that were he able to do it all over again—had he not been so “culpably ignorant” about his profession and had he found more joy in it earlier—Scribner’s today would be quite a different entity, still fiercely independent and with something more behind its name than a glorious past.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 6, on page 81
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