Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Q&A with Charles Scribner III




Charles Scribner III is the author of the new family biography Scribners: Five Generations in Publishing. It focuses on his family's publishing house, Charles Scribner's Sons. Scribner is also an art historian; his other books include The Triumph of the Eucharist.


Q: What inspired you to write this family biography? 


A: I owe this book (which I never planned to write) to two key women: my longtime editor and former publishing colleague Michelle Rapkin, who told me I must write it, and my wife, Ritchie, whose love of Florida sunshine consigned me to two months in exile on Jupiter Island this past winter.


I gave myself the full 60 days to write it but finished in one manic month--January. 


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?  


A: I listened closely to my dad over the years and remembered (almost) everything.


I also had beside me the Scribners timeline published by the Princeton University Library (which houses our archives) for our sesquicentennial in 1996, and as an “oil sketch” my lecture published privately as a brief history in 1985.


But above all, I had at hand my iPhone with Google to answer the countless questions that popped up in the course of writing. Without that digital device, which spared me trips to libraries, it would have taken a year, not a month.


One thing that surprised me was how much our history owed to illness and early deaths: the founder CS would have been a lawyer but for his frail health. He died at 50: his eldest son took over at age 21 and died at 28; my great-grandfather took over at 25; my dad took over at age 30. No wonder his mantra was, “No rush, just do it immediately.”


Q: You describe The Great Gatsby as the publishing house's “most famous novel.” Can you say more about the relationship between the publishing house and Fitzgerald's novel?


A: First, our all-time bestseller would probably have flopped if given any of the titles proposed by the author Fitzgerald: Among the Ash-Heaps and Millionaires, Trimalchio in West Egg, Gold-Hatted Gatsby, The High-Bouncing Lover, and Under the Red, White and Blue--you get the idea.


Thank God his editor Max Perkins insisted on The Great Gatsby! (Fitzgerald never liked that brilliant title, but then he hated his first job in advertising.)  


The big revelation to me was how its postwar revival, its apotheosis into an American bestselling classic, owed its jump-start to a free paperback edition sent to our GIs in Europe at the end of World War II: that gained an estimated million new readers of a new generation, and the rest is history. 


Q: What do you see as your role in your family’s publishing legacy?


A: Professional son. I got my doctorate in art history and expected to have either an academic or museum career. Instead I ended up being a curator-editor of our classic authors, and then of our imprint, guiding it with my dad to a new corporate home in the ‘80s when it was clear the private family-ownership model was outdated.


Seneca wrote, “Fate leads the willing and drags the unwilling.” My dad and I were among the willing. Hemingway inscribed in his copy of The Old Man and the Sea: “D'abord il fault durer”--above all one must endure. Scribners is still publishing fine books. They don't all have happy endings, but this story does. 


Q: What are you working on now? 


A: Giving talks on Scribners and on my art book published six months ago: Sacred Muse: A Preface to Christian Art & Music. It's very short, an hour's reading, tops. It was written the previous winter in tropical exile--on my iPhone! Now I take a laptop with me, so who knows? 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Yes, I think the best words in my book are found in the epigraph by my father: “Reading is a means of thinking with another person's mind; it forces you to stretch your own....For learning purposes there is no substitute for one human mind meeting another on the page of a well-written book.”--Charles Scribner, Jr.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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