Michael Ermarth, editor   Kurt Wolff: A Portrait in Essays and Letters.
Translated from the German by Deborah Lucas Schneider.
University of Chicago Press, 223 pages, $24.95

reviewed by Martin Greenberg

Publishers aren’t often remembered; in most cases, why should they be? But Kurt Wolff, who died in 1963, is one of the exceptions. In this country he is remembered as the German émigré publisher who started Pantheon Books in 1942, during World War II, and made it into one of the most distinguished American publishing houses—“distinguished” here meaning that it published serious works of literature (mostly foreign) and no junk, a definition that eliminates most homegrown publishers. Nor did Pantheon have its publishing way smoothed for it by a rich man’s money. Houses supported by angels publish good books but suffer as a rule from some kind of artificiality, preciosity, lack of vigor; it is the price paid for being cut off from economic realities which in their own way reflect spiritual realities. Wolff had had money of his own when he began his publishing career, but Pantheon was launched with very reduced means.

Wolff did his own publishing, he didn’t rely on editors to do it for him. He listened to advisors, and of course he had (in time) a staff—to judge by the one member I knew, the highly cultivated, capable, extraordinarily kind Wolfgang Sauerländer, it must have been an unusual one. Wolff saw a role for himself in the U.S. as a pioneer of great European writing for the most part still unknown here. Pantheon, publishing mainly German writers at first, put out translations of Hermann Broch, Robert Musil, Stefan George, Friedrich Hölderlin, Adalbert Stifter, Charles Péguy, Paul Valéry, a volume of Marc Chagall lithographs, to mention only a few names. He scored a first success with a complete edition of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. With one of his rare American titles, Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea, he had his first best-seller.

A sharp nose for what is important as well as superior led to his publishing Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, which, altogether unexpectedly, sold in huge numbers. Pasternak asked Wolff worriedly if the Cold War was responsible for the clamor over Doctor Zhivago, if his novel was being misused for political ends. Of course it was being used politically, but, as Wolff wrote him, this was a secondary matter; what would prove primary was the novel’s superior literary quality (a quality which embraced political values). His last publishing triumph with Pantheon, before his retirement in 1960, was Lampedusa’s Leopard. Subsequently Pantheon was taken over by Random House and brought into the American big-corporation publishing world; inevitably it lost the individual character Wolffhad stamped it with.

The story of Pantheon Books belongs to American publishing history. However, Kurt Wolff has a place in literary history, thanks to his extraordinary record as a publisher in Germany in the second and third decades of this century. Turning away from an academic career, he threw himself into publishing with a passion at the age of twenty-one, in the years just before the outbreak of World War I. Publishing didn’t just mean a nice job to him, it meant, in that period which saw such a great outburst of the new and vital in German and European literature and art, a chance (as he wrote Rilke, a friend, not one of his writers, in 1917)

to become involved in what seemed to me important, timely, and genuine, to put my most fervent convictions to use, to join the struggle against the Moloch of human stupidity. Need it concern me that a great many publishers already existed—perhaps too many (although their activities seemed to me almost without exception unsatisfactory)? … After laboring in the profession myself for a few years, I was in a better position to appreciate the real value of my competitors’ work and saw more clearly the frightening number of my own mistakes, but I was able to maintain the conviction … that my publishing house could be a mirror of the age, giving the truest reflection of its heart and spirit … its hysteria and bizarre distortions, its longing for brotherhood and kindness … its hatred of philistines. The truest reflection—although still incomplete and imperfect, even more imperfect than the imperfect age itself.

The spirit of the times that was moving in the young writers whom he made it his business to publish was moving in him too, a spirit of rebellion against the reigning Wilhelmian ideas about art and literature and life, so complacent and mediocre—or to use his word, a word that needs to be revived, philistine. Wolff had taste and was eager to exercise it; he also had good judgment, a level head, natural charm—and modesty. So he was always a successful publisher in his many ventures as well as a superior one. In the first years of the Kurt Wolff Verlag he published Franz Kafka and Franz Werfel, Robert Walser and Karl Kraus, Max Brod and Carl Sternheim, Iwan Goll, Gottfried Benn, Georg Trakl, Georg Heym, Gustav Meyrink, and Heinrich Mann. His firm got labeled as the “House of Expressionism.” Expressionism is an inexact term, especially when applied to literary works, and Wolff tells us he always disliked it; with a writer like Kafka it is wildly off the mark. But the meaning lying behind its overt meaning, in those years in Germany, was “modern” —Wolff published the modern writers. That was why, I’m sure, Joyce wrote him in 1920 (signing himself unmodernly as “prof. James Joyce”) to offer him a novel (presumably A Portrait of the Artist, Wolff couldn’t remember forty years after) for translation. The name Joyce meant nothing in Europe in 1920, and Wolff’s comment on this long forgotten letter is amusing: “If I had any reaction at all on reading these lines … it was probably: Who is this idiotic ‘professor’ who has written from Trieste in bad German about an English book he wants me to publish in German?”

“As a general rule,” Wolff writes, “the books of great writers have not been published by giant companies” but “by small firms, that is to say by individual publishers.” If a publisher is to make a contribution to culture, which was always Wolff’s main ambition, before all else he needs luck, the luck of finding himself working in a fertile not a sterile time. After that he needs to be well read, not only in the literature of his own language but in others as well. And he needs an independent mind, one that can “distinguish between genuine and counterfeit, between what is original and what is imitation,” that can intuit “the meaningful currents of the times, those which will shape the future.” This makes my American head spin. I am used to hearing writers tell stories about the illiteracies and asininities of publishers and editors which are like nothing so much as the stories college English teachers tell about their freshman students.

And then there is Wolff’s attitude to the author. “A publisher’s relationship with his author must be like a love affair in which he asks nothing and has already forgiven every failing in advance: both small lapses and—as is always possible—unfaithfulness on a large scale.” Such a sympathetic attitude arises out of an encouraging nature and a veneration of literature. The stories he tells about the writers he published show a man who was generous, bold, and sometimes quite witty in the way he gave them support. Wolff greatly esteemed Karl Kraus, that Viennese despiser of everything second-rate. But Kraus couldn’t be persuaded to become one of Wolff’s authors. With his fastidiousness and pride, it was unbearable to him to have his name appear in the catalogue of the Kurt Wolff Verlag side by side with those of the firm’s writers whom he thought hacks, warmly though he felt toward Wolff. So matters stood for a year or so till Wolff hit on an original solution: he would set up a publishing house for Karl Kraus alone, one that published only his writings, the “Verlag der Schriften von Karl Kraus (Kurt Wolff).” Kraus accepted the arrangement and was so published for the better part of a decade, the only name appearing in that firm’s catalogue being his own.

Wolff’s arrangement with Franz Werfel also makes one smile. Here the suggestion came from Werfel. Werfel, even younger than the twenty-four-year-old Wolff, had already published a highly praised book of poems. (It’s a pity that the author of “Der Dicke Mann im Spiegel” [“The Fat Man in the Mirror”] gave up poetry to write novels.) Werfel’s businessman father thought poetry was a way to sit around cafés at night and sleep late in the morning. He had stopped hoping his son would come into the family business, but he insisted on his keeping regular hours and putting in a day’s work of some kind. So Werfel asked Wolff to give him a “position” (as a reader), complete with a contract, to satisfy his father. He agreed at once. Werfel came from Prague to the Kurt Wolff Verlag in Leipzig, where he was hardly ever seen in the office—you could find him at noon at Wilhelm’s Wine Bar, later on at the Café Merkur. Which, for Wolff, was as it should be, for Werfel’s business was to be “creative.”

In 1912, after having sent Werfel to Wolff (then a partner with Ernst Rowohlt), Max Brod showed him some things by Kafka. Kafka, then twenty-eight, had never had anything published, had never tried to have anything published. The publishers said fine, let him send us a manuscript and we’ll publish it. As Brod remarked, those were the days. But there was more to it than that; there was good literary judgment, literary conviction behind the ready acceptance. Fifty years later Wolff said: “Whoever had ears to hear could not resist the magical tone of Werfel’s early poems, could not help falling immediately under the spell of Kafka’s prose.” Kafka all his life was of two minds about being published, wanting and not wanting it. A venerator of literature like Wolff, he groaned over weaknesses he saw glaring out at him from his own writing. (But he also wrote: “If I set down a sentence at random, any sentence, for instance ‘He looked out of the window,’ right away it’s perfect.”) When Wolff met Kafka later that year, the writer was ill at ease and silent during the visit; on leaving, writes Wolff, “he said something that I have never heard from any author before or since, and that for this reason remained irrevocably linked in my mind with this unique figure: ‘I will always be much more grateful to you for returning my manuscripts than for publishing them.’”

Brod badgered the reluctant Kafka and got him to put together a selection of his short pieces which Brod then sent off to Wolff. The short pieces made a short book, so short it had to be published in huge-sized type, the wonderful Betrachtung (“Meditation”). I recollect Kafka saying somewhere that upon returning after quite some time to the Prague bookstore that stocked “Meditation,” he saw there were ten copies left of the original dozen. “I myself had bought one. Who was the mysterious person who bought the other?”

Kafka’s self-deprecating humor gives an accurate indication of how his work sold in his own lifetime. Yet here is how Wolff wrote to his little-known writer in 1921:

Our correspondence is infrequent and meager. None of the authors with whom we are associated approaches us so seldom with requests or questions as you do… . [T]he apparent lack of concern on the author’s part about how his books are faring does not shake the publisher’s belief and confidence in their outstanding quality. Among the writers we represent, there are two or three at most … whose work affects me so intensely and personally as yours.

Please do not take the visible success [i.e., lack of success] we have with your books as any indication of the effort that goes into selling them. You know as well as we do, that it is usually the best and most estimable works which find little or no echo immediately and must wait for one… . You would do me a great favor by allowing us to demonstrate this confidence to the public: let us publish more of your books.

Which Wolff faithfully did. What Kafka on his side had to say about Wolff is also interesting. In a letter (April 5, 1913) to his perennial fiancée, Felice Bauer, he encloses a letter from Wolff begging Kafka to send along “the bug story” and the first chapter of Amerika (first published separately as Der Heizer [“The Stoker”]), about which he had been told by Brod. Kafka comments on the letter with his usual self-deprecation:

You can see from the enclosed what a very nice publisher I have. He is a wonderful-looking man of about twenty-five whom God has given a lovely wife, several million marks, a liking for the publishing business and not much of a head for it.[1]

Whoever wants to publish Franz Kafka can’t have much of a head for business. How wonderful that Kurt Wolff was there in those years, with his poor head for business!


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  1. Wolff never saw this letter (I presume) because Kafka’s letters to Felice Bauer weren’t published till after Wolff’s death. The English translation (in Letters to Felice [Schocken]) misunderstands the last phrase ofwhat I have quoted. Go back to the text.