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The History of Scribner

The Snapdragon Inn


We've talked about the works that Maxwell Perkins edited, but we haven't mentioned much about the company he was loyal to and added to for his entire career. That company was Charles Scribner's Sons.

I found a link that published some excerpts from an address given by Charles Scribner III in 1978, which I thought would be interesting to share. Here are just a few bits of the larger excerpt, focusing on the founding of the company and then Maxwell Perkin's era. If you have time to read the entire excerpt it's really fascinating.

The history of Charles Scribners Sons begins in 1846 with the publishing partnership of Isaac Baker and Charles Scribner. The younger partner, Scribner, was a New Yorker of twenty-five, who had graduated from Princeton in the class of 1840.

At that time, to start an independent publishing company was something of an innovation. Most of the established houses had either grown out of printing plants, following the noble tradition of the sixteenth-century Plantin Press in Antwerp, or were offshoots of retail book shops. On the one hand, a printer might venture into publishing to provide work for his press; on the other, a bookseller might become a part-time publisher to supply extra books to sell in his store.

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In 1894 the firm capped the climax of fifteen years under C. S. II by moving into a stately, six-story building on Fifth Avenue and Twenty-first Street, designed by the renowned American Beaux-Arts architect Ernest Flagg, who was Scribners brother-in-law. On the ground floor was a magnificent bookstore, the prototype for the more famous store on Forty-eighth Street and Fifth Avenue. Scribners was to remain at Twenty-first and Fifth for nineteen years, until 1913, during which time a cornucopia of new authors was added to the house. This was truly a golden age of American book publishing. At the turn of the century Scribners had virtually cornered the market in American literature.

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The year 1913 marked a new chapter in the history of the firm. In that year another move was made up Fifth Avenue to the new and even larger Ernest Flagg building at Forty-eighth Street. This was the third headquarters since Charles IIs presidency and the scene of the last of the almost equal periods in his fifty years with the firm. Scribner had been fielding a whole new team of young editors, the most famous of whom was Maxwell Perkins, about whom a major biography has been published and whose letters to Fitzgerald and Hemingway have been published by us. These volumes provide one of the clearest windows into the world of editor-author relations. Another well-known Scribner editor, and a distinguished poet in his own right, was John Hall Wheelock. Those two men, Perkins and Wheelock, were both young Harvard graduates who invaded a then predominantly Princeton company and brought it great new success by their editorial intuition and skill.

In 1913 Charles Scribners only son, another Charles (III), graduated from Princeton and began his own career in publishing. He was a contemporary of Perkins and Wheelock, and his age gave him a ready grasp of the importance of the new writers who were beginning to appear on the scene. Another era in American literature was dawning and the firms enthusiasm for the new authors was to yield it a rich harvest. There was Alan Seeger, whose Poems came out in 1916, best remembered for his rendezvous with death. Four years later, F. Scott Fitzgerald heralded the Jazz Age with his first novel, This Side of Paradise. Stark Youngs The Flower in Drama appeared in 1923 and, in the following years, Ring Lardners How To Write Short Stories (1924), James Boyds Drums (1925, a year best remembered for The Great Gatsby), and John W. Thomason, Jr.s Fix Bayonets (also in 1925). In 1926 Ernest Hemingways The Torrents of Spring and The Sun Also Rises were both published. In view of Hemingways later achievements and his equally enduring loyalty to the firm, we shall always think of that as a year set apart. Thomas Wolfe, at the end of this glorious decade, made his debut with Look Homeward, Angel in 1929.

Around this time, the long career of Charles Scribner II was drawing to a close. In 1928, he turned over the presidency to his younger brother Arthur and continued on only as chairman of the board. Happily, he lived to see the first published volumes of the Dictionary of American Biography, a project which extended from 1928 to 1936 and a work to which he had given his utmost support: it was probably the most important project the firm had ever undertaken and was developed with the American Council of Learned Societies, which has subsequently collaborated with Scribners on other reference projects. In 1930 Charles II died, as did the loyal and patient Arthur in 1932, leaving Charles III to preside alone. He was only forty-one at the time.

It would be hard to think of a more difficult time in which to take over the management of a large publishing house. The Great Depression was in its worst stage, and the future must have appeared most uncertain for books. Yet the firm continued to look for fresh talent and take chances on new authors in a way that marks this as one of the most enterprising periods in all our history, an achievement that testifies to the aims and courage of C. S. III and to the devoted support that his associates, Max Perkins in particular, gave him. In the following years many important new works appeared, not only by already established authors such as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wolfe, but also by unknown writers who were later to become famous. Among these firsts by new authors were Marcia Davenports great biography of Mozart, published in 1932 and still in print; Nancy Hales The Young Die Good; Marjorie Kinnan Rawlingss South Moon Under in 1933, followed by her most famous novel, The Yearling, five years later; Hamilton Bassos Beauregard in 1933; Taylor Caldwells Dynasty of Death in 1938, and Christine Westons Be Thou the Bride in 1940. An extraordinary decade of debuts.

At the same time the 1930s also saw some sad losses. Thomas Wolfe was the most visible, a loss due primarily to his own self-proclaimed dependence on his editor, Max Perkins, which not surprisingly led to his feeling compelled to sever that editorial umbilical cord. Then, in 1937, Scribners Magazine folded after fifty glorious years of publication, a casualty of newer and slicker magazines and, supposedly, of the radio.

Right after the war, yet another Charles Scribner (IV or Jr.) joined the firm. It was to be the last year of Max Perkinss life, but he left behind two budding novelists, James Jones and Alan Paton.

In 1952 Charles III died very suddenly; he had just finished reading the manuscript of Hemingways short classic, The Old Man and the Sea, which was dedicated to him and Perkins. After his fathers death, Charles Scribner, Jr. moved back from Washington, where hed been sent as cryptoanalyst during the Korean War, and took the helm at the age of thirty-one. One of his first moves was to close the Scribner printing and warehousing plant, which had operated since 1908. It was a few blocks down the street and had been designed as a complete manufacturing unit, but new economic realities indicated that even a relatively large firm could not reasonably support its own printing plant.


Take some time to learn about one of the truly great American publishing houses and it's history. Have a great week and look out for pictures of the newly painted library to come soon!