Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
A leading American publisher, Blanche Knopf played a key role in twentieth century publishing in America. By promoting the books of European, Hispanic, African-American, and feminist authors, Blanche Knopf fostered a new cultural and intellectual climate for American reading audiences.
Born on July 30, 1894, in New York City, Blanche Wolf was the only child born to Julius W. Wolf, a wealthy jeweler, and Bertha Samuels. She attended New York's Gardner School and had her own French and German governesses, which provided Knopf with a good command of language and literature. Blanche met her future husband, Alfred A. Knopf in 1911 while vacationing with her parents on Long Island. They married in 1916 and two years later, they had a child, Alfred A. Knopf, Jr. who also became a publisher.
The Knopfs spent most of their lives running Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., the publishing business they had started in 1915. Blanche, the director and vice president of the company, quickly discovered that her life's work would be difficult. When Blanche Knopf became a leader in the publishing industry, there were no female peers. She endured ongoing sexism from the male-dominated publishing industry and was openly discriminated against. She was denied membership to the Publisher's Lunch Club and the Book Table, two powerful groups for male-only members of publishing houses to share their ideas. When Knopf was invited to speak on the future of women in the publishing industry at a women's college, she rejected the offer because, she said, there was "no future worth mentioning."
Fortunately, she had a flair for social interaction, and a love of negotiating and strategic bargaining. These qualities, along with being extremely intelligent, ensured her success in the highly competitive, male-dominated publishing era of the early twentieth century.
Though she was known to possess an explosive temper and a tough, war-like style in pursuing her business, she was also said to be one of the most generous and encouraging publishers toward young, gifted, but unknown writers. Knopf Inc. published paperbound editions of lesser-known writers, which was less of a financial risk for the publisher but gave the authors exposure.
Knopf received many awards for her efforts to publish European and South American writers. She was honored with the Order of the Southern Cross, and the French government made her Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur in 1949, as well as Officer de la Legion d'Honneur in 1960.
Blanche Wolf Knopf died in New York City on June 4, 1966. She was active as an editor until she died, despite losing much of her eyesight in mid-career. Even though she was not able to read new manuscripts as she got older, she had others read the manuscripts to her, and made all the final choices of books to be published herself.
Along with her husband, Blanche Knopf founded and began building the world-famous publishing house, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., in 1915. Indirectly, Knopf became one of the most formidable publishers of her day, specializing in new streams of ideas for the American reading public. She sought and discovered new talent in South America, Europe, and the United States. Blanche Wolf Knopf, indirectly, was able to challenge and alter the streams of American thought during the first half of the twentieth century.
Some of the earliest European books published by Knopf include four plays by Emile Augier, a book of short stories by Guy de Maupassant, and Gogol's Taras Bulba. In 1916, they published W. H. Hudson's Green Mansions, which turned out to be very profitable for both publisher and author—it was the company's first best seller. The popularity of Green Mansions also made Blanche's logo, a Bolzoi (Russian Wolfhound), the recognizable "Knopf" symbol. Beginning in 1920, Blanche Knopf made annual trips to Europe to scout out new material. In 1921, she became the vice president and director of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and during the following decades, published the works of Sigrid Undset, Thomas Mann, Kahlil Gibran, Knut Hamsun, Mikhail Sholokhov, Angela Thirkell, Elizabeth Bowen, Elinor Wylie, Allan Sollitoe, and Katherine Mansfield. She also published American authors. Among Knopf's favorties were Dashiell Hammett, James M. Caine, William Shirer, Robert Nathan, and the works of Willa Cather, who was one of Blanche Knopf's closest literary associates.
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. also published literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes, in particular, was a favorite of Knopf's, and the two became close friends. The publication of African-American writers introduced a new spectrum of thoughts and images.
When the work of the psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, became popular and very much sought after, it was Knopf who secured the rights and returned from Europe with his manuscript of Moses and Monotheism.
With the advent of World War II, travelling to Europe was no longer an option for Knopf. She then turned to focus on the writers of Latin America. By the mid-1930s, very few Latin writers had been published in the United States. Knopf traveled extensively throughout Central and South America and arranged for the work of such authors as, Jorge Amado, Eduardo Mallea, Gilberto Freyre, and Germán Arciniegas to be translated. Thus began the tradition of excellent, quality translations for which the Alfred A. Knopf publishing house became renowned.
After World War II, Knopf returned to Europe in search of new authors. She was a Francophile, and published many French authors such as Andre Gide and Jules Romain. She also introduced the American public to the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and published the seminal work of mid-twentieth century feminism: The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir—the book that dealt with the powerful and provocative issues of lesbianism, prostitution, and the nature of sex-role limitations. Blanche Knopf published, in effect, the major works of existentialism, Freudian psychoanalytic thinking, and European modernism in fiction.
Knopf was known for her high level involvement in the company and worked at all phases of publishing. She solicited authors, found translators, read manuscripts, designed books, and wrote advertising copy. Knopf books were noted for their variety of typefaces, colorful jackets, beautiful bindings, and the use of good paper. In particular, Blanche Knopf was extremely careful when choosing translators. For example, to ensure consistency, she had Helen T. Lowe-Porter translate the complete works of Thomas Mann.
Chronology: Blanche Knopf
1911: Met Alfred A. Knopf.
1915: Started Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. with Alfred A. Knopf.
1916: Married Alfred A. Knopf.
1921: Became director and vice president of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
1957: Named president of Alfred A. Knopf Inc.
Social and Economic Impact
It is significant that Blanche Knopf chose to publish books from other countries and that she published so many new authors during a time in American life when the politics of the country had become quite conservative and cautious. She and her husband had built a publishing firm that published not just books, but books that changed lives, books that truly challenged the minds and imaginations of several generations of Americans.
She published The Second Sex at a time when America was most conspicuously conservative, puritanical, and aggressively anti-communist. It was not only a book about a new controversial resurrection of the feminist movement, it was also a book written by a woman who had been a communist and who was living with one. It also was a book that dealt probingly into male sexism and into the roots of the kind of puritanical thinking that dominated the American scene of that era. In short, like other books she had brought to America, Knopf delivered to the reading public an intellectual and cultural blockbuster, a book to change the way that people thought. She introduced ideas and issues that came to revolutionize American thinking and behavior. Her efforts were seen as both very controversial and emancipating.
Sources of Information
Contact at: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
201 East 50th St.
New York, NY 10022
Business Phone: (212)751-2600
Current Biography Yearbook. New York: H.W.Wilson Co., 1957.
Fadiman, Clifton. Fifty Years: Being a Retrospective Collection. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965.
Flora, Peter. "Carl Van Vechten, Blanche Knopf, and the Harlem Renaissance." Library Chronicle of the University of Texas, 1992.
Kaufman, Stanley. "Album of the Knopfs." The American Scholar, 1987.
Lewis, Randolph. "Langston Hughes and Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1925-1935." Library Chronicle of the University of Texas, 1992.
Postgate, John. "Glimpses of the Blitz." History Today, 1993.
Blanche Wolf Knopf
Blanche Wolf Knopf
American publisher Blanche Wolf Knopf (1894-1966) shaped American literary tastes with her active interest in emerging literary trends and figures. Some of her notable successes included the publication of authors of the Harlem Renaissance, such as the poet Langston Hughes, as well as the promotion of European works by figures such as Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.
As an active partner in her husband's publishing company, Alfred A. Knopf, Blanche Wolf Knopf introduced the American reading public to the best of new European, Latin American, and African American literature. Her formidable publishing talents included not only a keen business sense and an eye for talent, but also a commitment to providing valuable personal and financial support to promising writers. Some of her most notable editorial relationships were with the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes and French feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir. Knopf's greatest publishing coup was bringing de Beauvoir's controversial work The Second Sex to Americans during the post-World War II years, when many were wary of radical thought.
Knopf was born Blanche Wolf in New York City on July 30, 1894. She came from a privileged Jewish family and received a quality education at the Gardner School in New York, which was supplemented by lessons from French and German governesses. Her schooling provided her with a command of European languages and literature that would be a crucial asset in her life's work. Knopf met her future husband while spending the summer of 1911 with her family on Long Island. She was married to Alfred A. Knopf on April 4, 1916, the year after Alfred Knopf had begun a publishing company with her support. In 1918, the Knopfs' only child, Alfred A. Knopf Jr., was born. The new mother soon hired a nurse to care for her son so she could join her husband in the publishing business.
Supported African American Writers
Knopf seemed to be born and bred for success in publishing. She had a natural ease in social and political interactions, a talent for negotiating, and a gift for spotting new cultural and literary trends as well as promising talent. She also gained a reputation as a loyal and understanding editor who provided encouragement for writers and worked to ensure them the best financial arrangements possible. By 1921, Knopf had become a director and vice president of the Alfred A. Knopf Company, although her titles did not reflect the professional partnership that existed between her and her husband.
One of the first important literary movements that Knopf turned her attention to was the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of African American literature in New York in the 1920s. Her work to publish black authors created an ongoing commitment to African American literature by the Alfred A. Knopf Company. Of particular note was her relationship with the poet Langston Hughes. The editor provided the poet with encouraging words and defended his business interests. The two developed a close and trusting friendship during which Hughes would seek out Knopf's advice in both publishing and personal matters.
Published Major European Authors
In 1920, Knopf journeyed to Europe to scout out new material. In the 1930s, she renewed her interests in European writing with a series of incredible successes. She arranged publishing deals with such notable authors as André Gide, Thomas Mann, Ilya Ehrenburg, and Mikhail Sholokhov. An even greater accomplishment was securing the rights to Sigmund Freud's final work, Moses and Monotheism. Her work during this decade earned her a reputation as a top international publisher.
The beginning of World War II made traveling to Europe difficult, but rather than slow her efforts, Knopf simply turned to a new arena—Latin American literature. Few works from Latin American writers had ever seen publication by American companies, and Knopf's interest was greatly appreciated by the authors and officials of those countries. She undertook numerous travels throughout Central and South America, securing contracts with authors such as Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre. She also arranged for numerous translations to be published, beginning a tradition of quality translations for which Alfred A. Knopf would become renowned. For her work to promote Latin American literature, Knopf received numerous honors from officials of the region. The country of Brazil named her a Cavaleiro of the Brazilian National Order of the Southern Cross in 1950 and again honored her in 1964 with the title of Oficial.
Promoted Controversial Feminist Work
After World War II, Knopf returned to her work of bringing great European works to American readers. Some of the influential French names she successfully brought to the Knopf company included the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialist novelist Albert Camus, and the feminist theorist Simone de Beauvoir. Each of these authors had a significant impact on the development of intellectual thought in America. Knopf undertook a daunting challenge in deciding to publish a translation of de Beauvoir's classic feminist tract, The Second Sex. Originally published in French in 1949, the book discussed a number of social and political issues that were likely to be criticized by an American public in the midst of a conservative, anti-communist climate. The Second Sex discussed women's experience in a number of areas, including sexual initiation, role restriction, prostitution, and lesbianism. But despite the difficulties she knew could be encountered, Knopf insisted on going through with publication of the book, maintaining that the work offered an enlightening interpretation of gender that was valuable for both men and women. Playing up the provocative title while minimizing the radical themes of the book, Knopf presented an appealing package that managed to earn acceptance in the marketplace. Her ability to recognize the intellectual and artistic merit of continental literature was praised by French literary circles, and she was made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 1949. She later received the title of Officer.
Despite her career of publishing successes and her international reputation as a talented scout of literature, Knopf encountered difficulties in professional circles in America because of her gender. While her husband was accepted into such prestigious organizations as the Publisher's Lunch Club and the Book Table, Knopf was never allowed to join the all-male groups. Although she was ignored by some American businessmen, her husband testified to her stature in the Alfred A. Knopf Company and the publishing community in his memoirs. She also received recognition near the end of her life when she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters from Franklin and Marshall College in 1962, at which time she was praised as "one of the most influential women of our time."
In her old age, Knopf suffered from failing eyesight. The handicap forced her to rely on others to read manuscripts and provide her with comments, but she still controlled the ultimate decision on whether to publish or not. She continued to work at Alfred A. Knopf until her death in New York City on June 4, 1966. Until the end of her life, she maintained her role as an important figure in shaping literary tastes, bringing new voices from around the world to the American public.
Englund, Sheryl A., "Publicity to Overawe the Public: Marketing The Second Sex, Library Chronicle of the University of Texas, Vol. 22, no. 4, 1992, pp. 102-21.
Fadiman, Clifton, editor, Fifty Years: Being a Retrospective Collection Drawn from Volumes Issued During the Last Half-Century by Alfred and Blanche Knopf, Knopf, 1965.
Flora, Peter, "Carl Van Vechten, Blanche Knopf, and the Harlem Renaissance," Library Chronicle of the University of Texas, Vol. 22, no. 4, 1992, pp. 64-83.
Kauffman, Stanley, "Album of the Knopfs," The American Scholar, summer, 1987, pp. 371-81. □
A leading U.S. publisher, Blanche Knopf (1894–1966) played a key role in twentieth century book publishing. By promoting books of controversial European authors, in English translation, and the books of U.S. minority groups (African American, Hispanic, and feminist authors), Blanche Knopf aggressively advocated a new cultural and intellectual climate for U.S. reading audiences, one that powerfully impacted, challenged, and changed their view of the world around them.
Born on July 20, 1894, in New York City, Blanche Wolf was an only child born to wealthy parents. As well as sending her to the elite Gardner School in New York, her parents provided the cultural and language training of her own French and German-speaking governesses.
Blanche grew up a keenly intelligent, aggressive, and demanding young woman, with high personal standards for intellectual excellence. At age twenty-two she married Alfred A. Knopf, whom she met at age seventeen and steadily dated thereafter. Alfred was a writer, editor, and a new publisher.
Together with her husband, Blanche Knopf founded and began building the publishing house Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, in 1915. By 1921, Blanche was director and vice president of the Knopf Publishing Corp.
Because she was perhaps the first woman of high position in a U.S. publishing firm, Blanche encountered sexism and personal censure in her professional life. She was openly denied membership to two powerful publisher's clubs—The Publisher's Lunch Club, and The Book Table, based on her sex. Despite certain closed doors, her flair for fluid social interaction, as well as a love for tough negotiating and strategic bargaining, proved great assets in difficult business situations. Without those personal qualities and her first-rate intelligence, she might have dismally failed in the highly competitive, male-dominated, publishing world of her day.
Blanche Knopf became one of the formidable publishers of her time, specializing in new material for the reading public. She sought out and discovered much new talent in Europe and Latin America and also began to publish the works of little known U.S. minority writers, like poet Langston Hughes and writers of the Harlem Renaissance. In publishing their works, Knopf provided a venue for many writers who had never before received much public attention. In doing so, she indirectly challenged contemporary U.S. thought.
Presenting to the public the words and ideas of African American and other minority writers, Knopf introduced a new world of expression to the literary mainstream—views of society by frequently suppressed minorities. She also introduced the new writings of Europeans in translated versions. Knopf introduced existentialism to the United States, publishing the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir. She also published other European giants such as Andre Gide, Thomas Mann, and the controversial psychiatrist, Dr. Sigmund Freud.
Publishing Simone de Beauvoir's work allowed Knopf to bring to U.S. readers one of the central works of mid-twentieth century feminism: The Second Sex. The book discussed the powerful and provocative issues of lesbianism, prostitution, and the nature of sex-role limitations, challenging the social conventions of the day.
Through her work Knopf assisted in the dissemination of ideas and issues that revolutionized thinking in the United States in the mid-twentieth century. Her efforts were regarded as controversial and, at the same time, emancipating because many of the books that caused such calamity in social circles were released at a time when the public was most conspicuously conservative in its sentiments (the late 1940s and 1950s).
Knopf and her husband continued to publish the best of foreign-language and minority writing, and the best of U.S. literature throughout their careers. They prided themselves on publishing books that were physically well-made, colorful—always with the hope that each book would challenge the ideas and imaginations of readers.
Blanche Knopf died in New York City on June 4, 1966. She continued to work as an editor until her death, despite losing much of her eyesight in middle age. Although not able to read new manuscripts in later life, she had many of them read aloud to her and retained the final say on what books were to be published.
Fadiman, Clifton. Fifty Years: Being a Retrospective Collection. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965.
Flora, Peter. "Carl Van Vechten, Blanche Knopf, and the Harlem Renaissance." Library Chronicle of the University of Texas vol. 22 (1992).
Kaufman, Stanley. "Album of the Knopfs." The American Scholar vol. 56 (Summer, 1987).
Lewis, Randolph. "Langston Hughes and Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1924–1935." Library Chronicle of the University of Texas vol. 22 (1992).
Postgate, John. "Glimpse of the Blitz." History Today vol. 43 (1993).