- “Dear Alfred”/“Dear Miss Cather”:Willa Cather and Alfred Knopf, 1920–1947
In her account of Willa Cather’s life and literary career, Edith Lewis, Cather’s long-time friend and companion, remarks:
Next to writing her novels, Willa Cather’s choice of Alfred Knopf as a publisher influenced her career, I think, more than any other action she ever took. It was not so much that with him she was able in a few years to achieve financial security…as that he gave her great encouragement and absolute liberty to write exactly as she chose—protected her in every way he could from outside pressures and interruptions—and made evident, not only to her but to the world in general, his great admiration and belief in her.(116-17)
Willa Cather and Alfred Knopf first met in early 1920, by which time Cather had already established herself as a writer of some note. Her latest novel, My Ántonia (1918), had been called by H. L. Mencken, one of the country’s most astute and demanding critics, not only the best book Cather had written but also “one of the best that any American has ever done, East or West, early or late” (O’Connor 88-89). Knopf, at the same time, was celebrating five years as head of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. He and his wife, Blanche, were establishing themselves as “superstars of their epoch, setting standards of quality and courage [in publishing] never before or since matched” (Targ 212). The relationship that grew out of that initial meeting lasted for over a quarter of a century; it would become one of the most fruitful and interesting author-publisher relationships in American literary history.1
What, then, brought author and publisher together? The son of a well-todo Long Island advertising man, Alfred Knopf entered Columbia University in the fall of 1908 with the intention of going on to earn a law degree from Harvard after graduation. At Columbia Alfred Knopf developed his interest in the publishing business. According to Knopf, Professor Joel Spingarn talked of making books in a way that Knopf had never previously considered; he [End Page 387] discussed books “from a bibliophile’s and collector’s point of view” (Memoirs 29). A 1912 trip to Europe following Knopf’s graduation from Columbia included a meeting with John Galsworthy, and after he returned to New York, he decided that he wanted to pursue a career in publishing instead of law.
While he was at Columbia Knopf also established a reputation as a flamboyant, “flashy” dresser, another trait that would distinguish him among others in the publishing profession. Columbia Professor Carl van Doren recalled that Knopf “was color on the campus” (3), and Carl van Vechten compared him to “a prince in a Persian miniature” (Fadiman xxvi). From the time he entered the publishing business, Knopf’s flamboyant sense of fashion was matched by a flamboyant business personality. Looking back on those early years, he said of himself, “I was young; I think I was ingenious; and I know I was brash, presumptuous, and shameless” (Memoirs 84). Although outside the office Knopf was a rather quiet man, in the office he was “full of chutzpah” (Fadiman 35). His energy and daring set him apart. One of his contemporaries, B. W. Huebsch, later declared that young Knopf “blew in” to the book publishing scene, “like young Lochinvar”; until then “book publishing was a business; he made it a career” (33). Upon his return from Europe in 1912, Knopf went to work for Doubleday, Page, and Company, whose offices were in Garden City, Long Island, beginning employment there in the accounting department at a salary of $8 a week. In the year and a half he spent at Doubleday, Knopf also worked in manufacturing, advertising, and sales, thus gaining valuable experience and a broad overview of the essential aspects of the business of publishing books.
Although Knopf did gain a great deal of experience while at Doubleday, after about eighteen months he “grew tired of making $12 a week” and, having been offered $25 a week at Kennerley Publishing Company, made a move there. He...