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Knopf and Atheneum: A Jewish Family Story

Tue, December 18, 8:30 to 10:00am, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Backbay 1 Complex


In his history of postwar American publishing, The Time of Their Lives (2008), Al Silverman remarks that he was surprised that he had to devote “so much attention to the relationships between fathers and sons.” But of course the major American publishers founded in the 20th century, in many cases by American Jews, were family businesses, and by the 1960s, the founders of those businesses were aging. No company had a more dramatic story of a thwarted inheritance than Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., in which the only son of the company’s married founders and owners, Alfred and Blanche Knopf, Alfred Knopf Jr., left to found his own company, Atheneum Books, in a move that was covered on the front page of the New York Times.

Atheneum’s founding has been discussed, briefly, in histories of American publishing, as a complex attempt by a son to assert independence from his parents, but no sustained study has considered the effect of this dynamic on the content of the books Atheneum published in its first five years in operation (1959-1964). This paper will argue that one of the main ways in which Atheneum attempted to distinguish itself from Knopf, Inc. was in its eagerness to publish a remarkably wide range of modern Jewish literature, including its first bestseller, Andre Schwartz-Bart’s The Last of the Just, several works of Israeli literature in translation (by Ephraim Kishon, Yoram Kaniuk, and Jacob Klein-Haparash), as well as a noticeably wide range of contemporary Jewish poetry by Americans and Europeans including books by Hyam Plutzik, Donald Finkel, John Hollander, and Ilse Aichinger.

While to some degree Atheneum’s commitment to publishing Jewish literature as part of its strategy to establish itself can be understood as a result of a growing postwar American market for Jewish-themed books, this paper will suggest that it is also a case that illustrates just how such a market emerged, and how that emergence depended on the choices made by publishing executives from Jewish backgrounds, like Knopf Jr., who were influenced by their feelings about their families.


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