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.
Further Reading on Blanche Wolf Knopf
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.