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Historian And Publisher
One of America's most distinguished publishers writes of his personal and professional friendship with the famed historian, Samuel Eliot Morison.
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
A new annual prize in history has been established by the American Heritage Publishing Company in honor of the distinguished American historian Samuel Eliot Morison, who died last spring. The prize will be $5,000; to be given for the best book on American history by an American author that sustains the tradition that good history is literature as well as high scholarship—a tradition admirably exemplified by the many works of Samuel Eliot Monson.
Established with the consent of the Monson family, the prize will be awarded by a panel of judges chaired by J. H. Plumb, Professor of Modern English History at the University of Cambridge, England, and Consulting Editor of American Heritage Publishing Company. Other members of the panel are Bernard Bailyn, Winthrop Professor of History, Harvard University; Henry Steele Commager, Simpson Lecturer, Amherst College; Edmund Morgan, Sterling Professor of History, Yale University; and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Schweitzer Professor of Humanities, City University of New York. The first award will be made in September, 1977, for a book published in 1976.
With this announcement we present a memoir by Alfred Knopf, one of America ‘s most distinguished publishers, of his personal and professional friendship with Samuel Eliot Morison.
Not very long ago I learned that my old friend Samuel Eliot Morison had suffered a severe stroke and was in the Massachusetts General Hospital. When I called his daughter, Wendy (Mrs. Brooks Beck), she confirmed that the stroke had, indeed, been massive and that no recovery could be looked for. Since it has always been my opinion that a massive, nonfatal stroke is about the unkindest ordeal the good Lord, whoever or wherever He maybe, can inflict upon one of His dearly beloved people, it was with relief that I read on the front page of the Sunday New York Times on May 16, 1976, the headline “Admiral Morison, 88, Historian, is Dead.”
How did I first become acquainted with Sam? Well, I only know that it was a very long Urne ago when, as a young and brash publisher, I would visit campuses and knock at the doors of historians whom I wanted to meet and publish. The only memory I retain of our first meeting was that he was in riding boots. I cannot date the time, but since in 1922 he had gone to Oxford, England, for three years, it was probably after 1925. By that time he was already committed to the Oxford University Press, which would publish his first history of the United States in 1927. In addition, since another publishing house. Houghton Mifflin, had published six years earlier his successful Maritime History of Massachusettes , there was little likelihood that I could expect to publish a book by him.
However, by 1934 I do know that we were meeting, sometimes for lunch, both in Boston and New York. I occasionally saw him at his home at Brimmer Street in Boston, the house in which he had been born. We met always in his second-floor librarystudy, and always he reached behind the middle of a shelf of books to withdraw a bottle of whiskey. I never saw much of, or got to know. Sam’s first wife. Elizabeth, to whom he was devoted, but I remember the day of her death in August, 1945. because their daughter, Wendy. was at that time on our editorial staflat Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., and was telephoned the shocking news that afternoon.
There had been, of course, times when I had seen Elizabeth. Wendy recently wrote me about a luncheon that Blanche—my first wife and longtime partner in the Knopf publishing house—and I gave for George Jean Nathan and several of the Morisons, including Sam, Elizabeth, and Wendy: “You treated us to elegant German wines, and I was absolutely mortified when my father declared that the second bottle of Berncastler (I think) … had gone bad, and asked me if he could finish my glass from the first bottle. You didn’t turn a hair, but I shot a dagger look at SEM, who got the point, and when the Trockenbecrcn auslese was served gave a little paean about it. …”
I remember that Sam was in naval uniform on that occasion. Our clear, mutual friend Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., the late distinguished Harvard historian, told me afterward that Sam had been very offended that I had asked him no questions about what he was doing in and for the Navy. As it was wartime, I thought such questions would be, at the very least, indiscreet, if not improper. What he was doing, of course, was gathering material at first hand for his naval history of World War II.
I think that it was sometime in 1945 that Sam finally gave me a chance to publish him. He offered me his plan fora new and definitive text, which he would prepare with an introduction and notes, of William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647 . I lost no time in agreeing to publish it. Our contract was executed on February 1, 1946, and he promised us the complete transcript by October of the following year. As this was the most important book we published for Sam, and as the job of getting the manuscript ready for the printer and Sam’s hopes for its sale were all unique, I will interrupt the chronology of my narrative to follow Bradford’s career with us.
Sam wrote me in early 1946: “I think you had better not make an announcement of it until next fall when I am out of the Navy and start work on it For one thing. I hate to be asked, ‘When are you going to get it done?’ And for another, some nosy people in the Navy might say, ‘Huh, Morison’s starting another work before he has got out any Naval history.’”