- 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
Vistas was the last book by Sam that I had the privilege of publishing. While we had supped occasionally from this rich man’s table, Sam had settled down with Atlantic-Little Brown in Boston and Oxford in New York as his regular publishers. But we maintained our friendship and continued to stay in touch.
In October, 1964, Sam remarked in a letter to me, “At my last interview with [Supreme Court Justice] Felix Frankfurter, he said he was puzzled by the enhanced quality of [Professor Samuel F. ] Bemis’s second volume on J. Q. Adams over the first. ‘How did he learn to write so late in life?’ I replied that he didn’t—‘Alfred done it.’ ” Many people had asked me the same question. I had originally assumed that Bemis, who had edited most of the ten volumes in our series “The American Secretaries of State,” would be capable of editing his own prose, so I sent the first volume of his John Quincy Adams to the printer probably without having read it myself. But I dealt with the second volume differently, spending a week of evenings going over every page meticulously and, luckily, raising no objection from Bemis to my heavy revisions.
Sam’s letter continued: “So far as I know, none of my books has been edited. … My trouble is with the copy-readers of today. … The young girl graduates whom most publishers now employ as copy-readers give me more trouble than they are worth. One, just out of Smith, demanded that I include Mark Twain in my account of the Emerson-Thoreau group. Others bother me with pedantic mistakes such as putting accents on French words that have been anglicized. … I am losing money correcting in galleys the copy-readers’ errors.”
I replied to Sam: “I guess you and I, despite our many differences, belong fundamentally to the same school. … People simply don’t function the way they used to. Either they don’t know how or they don’t care. But I suppose the older generation always feels that way about those who are coming on. …”
Sam was one of the very few friends my colleagues had asked to speak at the big dinner we gave at the old Astor Hotel in New York on October 15, 1965, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of our firm. The next year Blanche died, and Sam’s letter to me, written from his summer home, Good Hope, in Maine, was a measure, I think, of what good friends we had become: “Deprived as we are here of New York papers, we only heard yesterday of your loss. We two feel very depressed and upset over the passing of your dear Blanche. She was your right hand as well as your wife. We have always treasured her visit to our garden here … and our meetings in New York were a joy. …”
In September, 1967, doctors decided that Priscilla quite definitely had a breast cancer, but since she and Sam both insisted that under no circumstances would she undergo a mastectomy (“she would rather die first”), she opted for cobalt treatments, which continued well into 1968. At the end of October, 1968, he wrote me, “Priscilla came through the summer very well and the doctors seem to think she is completely cured; but of course you can never tell about cancer.”
In mid-December Sam and Priscilla gave a reception for the physicians who had treated her, in gratitude for their efforts. About a hundred guests attended. In a letter, Sam wrote me that the year just ended and its predecessor had been very difficult. “But the joys outbalance the ills: Priscilla apparently cured, a glorious summer at Good Hope … a good start on the Discovery book. But for that Damocles Sword, our contentment would have been complete.”
The last time Helen, my new wife, and I saw Priscilla was October 15, 1969, when during a visit to Acadia National Park in Maine we went to lunch at Good Hope. There were just the four of us. Priscilla cooked some superb lobsters, and from my place at the small table at which we ate in the small living room, I could easily have reached over to the desk where Sam was working and where were spread manuscript pages of his new book. The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages , and the various works to which he was referring as he wrote. I am sorry that I did not take a photograph of this setting.
By the end of 1970, although Priscilla had suffered intermittent ill health, “the doctors,” wrote Sam, “gave us every reason to believe, despite her mysterious aches and pains, she had really shaken off the cancer.” In 1971, in the course of his research for The Southern Voyages , Sam was flown over Magellan’s route at the southern tip of South America. Priscilla accompanied him, and Life magazine sent along a photographer for a future article. This was to be the last and perhaps the most exciting of their many long journeys together. Priscilla, afterward, printed an account of their varied experiences on land and on sea, Our Magellan Expedition . But she was losing her long and courageous battle for health, and early on the morning of February 22, 1973, she died.
Sam had now completed what he regarded as his lifework and wanted only to do a suitable memorial to Priscilla. This took the form of Vita Nuova , a handsomely produced octavo of some four hundred pages, which he issued privately. He counted Helen and me among the friends to receive an inscribed copy and included in the book a reproduction, in full colors, of a snapshot I had taken of Priscilla that last time I had seen her. She was in one of the lovely gardens she had created on the grounds of Good Hope. She had told us that morning that Sam thought she was spending too much money but that she reminded him it was her money, not his, that she was spending.