- Historic Sites
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
I replied, in part: … There is no possibility of any publisher’s being able to do for a book like the Bradford the things that you suggest. No remotest tie-in is possible between the book and the film “Plymouth Adventure,” which is based on an altogether different book. We pursued this matter a couple of months ago, and I took a great deal of my own time to deal with the top man at Life about the story that would tie your book in with the picture. Absolutely nothing came of this as was really to be expected. It is true that at Thanksgiving time the Pilgrims get free advertising, but nobody in his wildest dreams could translate that into sales of a $6.00 book of a rather special kind.
If Sam raised the question of advertising again, my files do not show it, and for the rest of his life we remained good and even closer friends. The inscription he wrote in my copy of Bradford reads, “For Alfred Knopf (who knew a good thing when he saw it)”—a reference, I am sure, to the fact that his Boston publishers had turned down this proposal, which I seized upon.
After Sam had finished his work on Bradford , he suggested that we publish a selection of his articles and essays that had appeared from time to time, mostly in historical periodicals. Of course, I was interested, so he sent me a complete list, from which a selection would be made. He hoped to appeal to a popular audience with this book and “would revise them all carefully and delete practically every footnote, bibliographical appendix, and the like … also a few topical allusions in addresses given at dinners, etc. I don’t imagine,” he went on, “you will much relish my review of [historian Charles A.] Beard [one of my oldest and dearest friends] but since I have been vigorously attacked for it by Beard’s friends and partisans, I should like an opportunity to print it among the other essays.” I did not protest, although I agreed with many mutual friends that “History Through a Beard,” a poor title to begin with, did not represent Samuel Eliot Morison at his best and did not deserve the kind of immortality that a hard-bound book inevitably involves.
Sam added, “I enclose some sample trials of individual prefaces for the articles. Priscilla thinks they sound too egotistical and self-advertising [by now he always gave great weight to Priscilla’s opinion of his work]; suggests that they be transposed to the third person as if written by you or someone else. He asked me to select those essays which I thought should be included and said that he would abide by my choice.
We had much trouble settling on a title for the book. He had only been able to think up Chips from an Historian’s Workshop , which he called a pretty corny title. But another might be, he said, By Land and By Sea , and this one we agreed upon. When we showed him our proposed copy for the wrapper, he wrote, “I think the front flap copy is pretty good, but I have made suggested revisions. The back flap copy I don’t like at all. It seems to me a great mistake to start off by giving all the degrees I have; it will simply frighten people off. I have rewritten the thing and put the degrees, etc, at the end, although I think you might well leave those out all together.” By Land and By Sea , published in September, 1953, sold quite well, and was taken by the History Book Club as a dividend.
During these years, I used to ask Sam for advice from time to time about a manuscript or an idea for one—and I got it. When I wrote him once about an idea for a naval history of the Civil War, he steered me to his assistant, Rear Admiral Bern Anderson USN (Ret.), whose book, By Sea and By River , we contracted for and published in 1962. On another occasion, when I had written him about a book we were being offered, he replied, “I would certainly advise you not to publish another life of Mad Anthony Wayne. We have six fulllength lives of Anthony Wayne in the library here, not counting pamphlets, commemorations and old stuff like Jared Sparks. … I doubt whether your man has anything new to draw upon, or whether the market can stand a new life of Mad Anthony every decade.”
Like most publishers, I send complimentary copies of our new books to friends, and especially historians, I believe likely to be interested in them. In many cases I receive no acknowledgement of such gifts, and most of those who do thank me have not yet read the book. But Sam was a great, almost unique, exception. Invariably he read the book or, at least, enough of it to judge it fairly. Thus, when in the summer of 1942 I sent him the fifth volume of Lawrence Gipson’s monumental study, The British Empire Before the American Revolution , he wrote me, “This is another distinguished addition to a great history. The present volume is particularly valuable as showing the interdependence of events in different parts of the world on the eve of the Seven Years’ War, which I have always maintained was the only really World war before the present conflict.”
Some years later, he wrote, “Now being an importunate book beggar, I will ask you for one or two more—by David Donald, an historian whom you discovered—and that fellow can write. I am currently reading his ‘Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War.’ It is balanced, thorough and a work of literature. Thanks to you also for letting him keep the footnotes. … I am writing to Donald shortly to express my appreciation and ask a few questions.”