cover image Kurt Wolff: A Portrait in Essays and Letters

Kurt Wolff: A Portrait in Essays and Letters

Kurt Wolff. University of Chicago Press, $35 (252pp) ISBN 978-0-226-90551-8

Many of today's publishers could learn a great deal from Wolff (1887-1963), who was an eminent literary publisher in Germany until Hitler's arrival, later established Pantheon Books in Manhattan and still later published his own list, with wife Helen, through Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Wolff published scores of the notable writers of several generations, including Kafka, Franz Werfel, Robert Musil, Boris Pasternak, Gunter Grass, Rabindranath Tagore and Giuseppe di Lampedusa; and in this collection, edited by Dartmouth history professor Ermarth, he both writes about them and shares his correspondence with them. Wolff seems often quaintly and almost impossibly idealistic: ``Either you publish books you think people ought to read, or books you think people want to read. Publishers in the second category do not count in our scheme of things''; ``A publisher's relationship with his author must be like a love affair in which he asks nothing and has already forgiven every failing in advance.'' But somehow this seeming naivete, along with excellent taste and great probity, made his ventures into powerful and admirable houses. He was not infallible, reminding us that he may have missed the chance to publish Joyce's Ulysses and returned Decline of the West unread because he did not like Spengler's handwriting. But his was a model career that cannot fail to inspire those who still think of publishing as a calling. (Oct.)