On August 11, 1984, the American publisher Alfred A. Knopf, whose eponymous firm became synonymous with quality, sophistication and good taste in books, died at the age of 91. Today, a full century after Knopf opened the doors of his own publishing house, and though it is now just one division in the American branch of one of the world’s largest media conglomerates, Knopf retains the high literary and production standards that were set for it by its founder.
Alfred Abraham Knopf was born in New York on September 12, 1892. His father, Samuel Knopf, a Polish-born Jew, was a successful advertising executive and financial consultant. His mother, the former Ida Japhe, was also a European-born Jew. She worked as a teacher, and died – by suicide, her son believed – at age 33, when Alfred was four.
Alfred grew up in Manhattan and then Long Island, with the family moving regularly as his father grew more prosperous. In his memoirs, the son noted that “We observed only the Jewish Holy Days ” while adding that the dreariness of the Yom Kippur service at Temple Emanu-El was mitigated by the family tradition of breaking for lunch at the Plaza Hotel.
Knopf attended Columbia College, which he was expected to follow with law school. Studying history and literature, and working on a monthly student magazine, however, he found himself drawn to publishing. As part of an assignment to write an essay on a contemporary work of fiction, he approached the popular English novelist John Galsworthy, who introduced him to other authors when Knopf visited Britain and Europe after graduation.
On his return to New York, Knopf worked briefly in the advertising department of The New York Times, and then, with his father’s help, landed a job in 1912 in the accounting department at Doubleday, Page & Co (today Doubleday, an imprint of the same company that owns Knopf).
Birth of the blurb
At the time, it was unusual to find Jews in publishing, a gentleman’s pursuit, but a determined Alfred made it his business to learn every aspect of the trade, including production. During his 18 months at Doubleday, he took it upon himself to promote “Chance,” a new novel by Joseph Conrad, whom he thought deserved a bigger audience in the United States. Knopf approached a number of other well-known writers for what are today known as “blurbs” of praise for the book – a brazen undertaking for a publishing neophyte a century ago. “Chance” ended up selling an impressive 50,000 copies.
By 1915, Knopf was ready to open his own “firm,” as he always called it, with financial assistance from his father, and with the encouragement and assistance of his fiancée, Blanche Wolf. From the start and until her death in 1966, Blanche played a key editorial role at Knopf, particularly vis-à-vis writers in Europe, as she knew both French and German.
Alfred A. Knopf publishers acquired and translated the work of many foreign writers, from Latin America as well as Europe (Thomas Mann, Simone de Beauvoir, Jorge Amado), and also became the home of a number of African-American writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance cultural movement (Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen). American writers included Willa Cather, H.L. Mencken, Dashiell Hammett and later John Updike, to name a very few.
The company introduced a high production standard, in terms of paper, binding and design, and adopted the Borzoi-dog colophon, or publisher’s emblem, to distinguish its books. Authors were well served, even if not especially well paid, and many developed personal relationships with Alfred and Blanche, who were celebrated hosts, both in the city and after they moved to Purchase, New York.
In 1960, the year after the Knopfs’ son, Alfred, Jr., known as Pat, left to start his own publishing house, they merged the company with their friend Bennett Cerf’s Random House, then owned by RCA. The Knopf imprint was guaranteed editorial independence, and that largely remains the case today, when its parent company, Penguin-Random House, is a division of the German Bertelsmann.
Blanche Wolf Knopf died in June 1966, and Alfred retired as chairman of Knopf publishers in 1972. He died on this date in 1984 of congestive heart failure.