Scribner, Charles, Jr.

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Scribner, Charles, Jr.

(b. 13 July 1921 in Quogue, Long Island, New York; d. 11 November 1995 in New York City), book publisher and head of the family publishing company Charles Scribner’s Sons for more than three decades.

Charles Scribner, Jr., was the younger of two children, and the only son, of Charles Scribner III, president of the publishing house of Scribners from 1932 to 1952, and Vera Gordon Bloodgood, a socialite and horsewoman. He came from a distinguished line of publishers: his great grandfather, the original Charles Scribner (1821–1871), founded the publishing house in 1846 that became Charles Scribner’s Sons, one of the preeminent literary publishers in nineteenth-century America. His grandfather, the second Charles Scribner (1854–1930), not only ran the publishing company for more than fifty years but also donated the funds to start Princeton University Press in 1906, becoming its first president.

Charles, Jr., grew up at “Dew Hollow,” the family home in Far Hills, New Jersey, and at the age of thirteen was sent to St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. He entered Princeton University in 1939, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year, and graduated in 1943, thereupon joining the U.S. Navy’s cryptanalysis group in Washington, D.C., where he served until 1946.

That same year he joined the family business, and his first task was dealing with the Scribner author Ernest Hemingway on an illustrated edition of A Farewell to Arms. Though Hemingway did not care for the illustrations, he got along well with the younger Scribner, establishing a relationship that was to enrich both of their careers.

Scribner married (Dorothy) Joan Sunderland on 16 July 1949. They had three sons, Charles, Blair, and John. After a brief stint back in Washington with the navy during the Korean War, Scribner was called back to the company on the sudden death of his father in 1952. Within a few months he was elected president.

When he began in 1946, the house that had made F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe household names was, in Scribner’s words, “high in reputation and low in performance and profitability.” Recognizing that publishing the fiction of first-time authors was risky, he saw that Scribners was losing an opportunity in the booming postwar educational market by not reissuing the classics of their standard authors. He undertook an ambitious program of reissuing older titles in quality paperback editions during the 1950s.

In the case of Hemingway, this meant that the house was able to reissue all of his titles under the Scribner imprint by the time The Old Man and the Sea appeared in 1952, contributing significantly to that writer’s financial security. After Hemingway’s death in 1961, Scribner supported the firm’s posthumous publication of his work. He was a trustee of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation and an honorary member of the Ernest Hemingway Society, and was often invited to speak to scholars and other groups about his years of working with Hemingway and the Hemingway heirs.

Scribner had been interested in the sciences since college, and he recognized the need for and potential profitability of a major reference program. He came up with the idea of publishing the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, the sixteen volumes of which Scribners released serially from 1970 to 1980. The success of this enterprise led to the firm’s publishing the five-volume Dictionary of the History of Ideas in 1973–1974. Scribner referred to these projects as “the most important single contribution I have made to Scribners as editor and publisher,” and they were the foundation of a significant scholarly reference publishing program. In 1976 he was awarded the Curtis Benjamin Award for Creative Publishing from the Association of American Publishers for the Dictionary of the History of Ideas. The Dictionary of Scientific Biography was awarded the American Library Association’s prestigious Dartmouth Medal in 1981.

The company faced a number of financial challenges in the late 1970s. In an effort to combine forces and share resources, Scribners merged with two publishers, Atheneum Publishers (in 1978) and Rawson, Wade (in 1982). In the aftermath of these acquisitions, Scribner, having become chairman of Scribner Book Companies (in 1977), felt somewhat beset with bank loans and debt, and the landmark Scribner Bookstore at Fifth Avenue and Forty-eighth Street, operating since 1913, was costing the Scribner family $500,000 a year. In 1984, in what he described as “a series of wrenching decisions,” Scribner sold both the store and the building. Recognizing that he would be forced to sell or be taken over by another company, Scribner in 1984 merged the family company with Macmillan Publishing Company. He retired as chairman of the Scribner Book Companies in 1986. When Robert Maxwell purchased Macmillan in 1988, the Scribner stock was worth thirty-six times what it had been at the time Scribner took over in 1952.

In the mid-1980s Scribner began to experience difficulties with his vision, rendering him unable to drive a car, or even to read and write for a time. It was determined that he was suffering from spatial, visual, simul agnosia, called the Holmes syndrome, caused by nerve degeneration in the brain, the symptoms of which are similar to a stroke. He was eventually able to cope with everyday tasks and resume his literary and scientific interests. In his last years Scribner published two books of autobiography. He died of pneumonia on 11 November 1995, in New York City, and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

Scribner was a devoted family man, a publisher with the sensibilities of a scholar and teacher, and an entertaining writer. He was awarded an honorary M.A. degree from Princeton in 1966 and an honorary Doctor of Literature degree from Bucknell University in 1983. He was elected president of Princeton University Press in 1957 (serving until 1968), having been a trustee of the press since 1949, and served as a trustee of both the university and its press from 1969 to 1979. He served as president of the American Book Publishers Council from 1966 to 1968 and in an advisory capacity on a number of committees, among them the Editorial Advisory Committee of The Writings of Albert Einstein. He was a member of the American Philosophical Society, and a vestryman and senior warden of St. Bartholomew’s (Episcopal) Church in New York City. He lived with his family in New Jersey and on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Scribner was often described as a gentleman and was recalled in a memorial after his death as a person of “un-shakeable integrity.” He believed strongly in the value of the arts, saying that they were important for “self-cultivation and spiritual enrichment.” He was interested in language and believed that clear writing had the power to “reshape the mind”; he loved learning and the life of the mind, and described his interest in the history of science as “an intellectual adventure.”

In 1967 the papers of Charles Scribner’s Sons were deeded to the Firestone Library at Princeton University to begin a publishing archive; in 1996 the library presented an exhibition celebrating the company’s 150th anniversary entitled “The Company of Writers: Charles Scribner’s Sons 1846–1996.” The booklet, produced by the library to accompany this exhibition, includes several memoirs of Charles Scribner, Jr., as well as a chronology of significant events in the history of the publishing company. Scribner’s two memoirs are In the Company of Writers: A Life in Publishing (1990) and In the Web of Ideas: The Education of a Publisher (1993). The first covers mainly the events in his life and his experiences as head of the family publishing house; the second is an intellectual autobiography. His other writings demonstrate the wide scope of his interests. His natural curiosity about Einstein and relativity led him to publish “Henri Poincaré and the Theory of Relativity” in the American Journal of Physics (1964). In reading Marcel Proust, he was struck by the number of scientific images the author used, and he wrote “Scientific Imagery in Proust,” published in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society in 1990. In addition to editing two Hemingway anthologies, he wrote a children’s book, The Devil’s Bridge (1978). His skill with German and French was good enough that he published a translation of Hänsel and Gretel; a book of satirical German essays, Doppelfinten, by Gabriel Laub (1977); and a book of French mathematical and logical puzzles, he Jardín du Sphinx, by Pierre Berloquin (1982), all done, as he said, “as exercises to help keep my reading knowledge green.” An obituary is in the New York Times (13 Nov. 1995).

Peter Coveney