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chapterposted on 12.04.2021, 15:11 by Lise Jaillant
When we think of US modernist presses, a series of images comes to mind: Horace Liveright, who issued T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land alongside bestselling novels and popular theater plays; Alfred Knopf and his wife Blanche, who promoted the new African American literature and original crime fiction by Dashiell Hammett; Ben Huebsch, who published Sherwood Anderson, James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence, but also radical political texts; Bennett Cerf, the founder of Random House, who successfully fought for the right to publish Joyce’s Ulysses in the United States. The new publishers were not the only ones to pay attention to modernism. Scribner’s, a well-established house, found a new impulse with Max Perkins, the legendary editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.
In the interwar period, modernism was available to a large audience of American readers in a wide range of formats. First editions were often followed by reprints in the Modern Library, a cheap series created by Liveright and Albert Boni. The vogue for expensive fine books reached a peak in the late 1920s, just before the financial crash. In 1928, texts by Virginia Woolf were published in limited editions (Orlando, under the Crosby Gaige imprint) but also cheap format (Mrs Dalloway, in the Modern Library).
This chapter will focus on the diversity of American modernist presses – from avant-garde imprints to long-established houses, from limited editions to inexpensive reprints. The period between the wars has been mythologized as a "golden age," in the words of publishing historian John Tebbel. This essay will scrap the gold to reveal a more nuanced picture of the publishing landscape. The new publishers that managed to survive and thrive shared many similarities with older, more established firms. In his 1933 obituary of Liveright, Bennett Cerf wrote that flamboyant but dysfunctional houses had no chance of surviving: publishing was a business, and the fun and excitement of discovering new authors would always compete against the necessity of making a profit.
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