Remembering André Schiffrin
When Joe Aidlin, an old pal of former Nation editor Carey McWilliams, came to me many years ago with the idea that since the so-called experts were wrong so much of the time, someone ought to do a book called The Experts Speak, I called André Schiffrin, then the director of Pantheon Books. André immediately suggested that I enlist the witty writer and editor Christopher Cerf.
Thus we joined a distinguished club—Authors Published By André—that included Studs Terkel, Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Roy Medvedev, Gunnar Myrdal, Günter Grass, Ivan Illich, George Kennan and Sissela Bok.
Satire and humor are probably the last things most people in publishing think of when they think of André Schiffrin, who died on December 1. But he was, after all, the editor who agreed to publish Art Spiegelman’s book Maus after every major publisher in town had turned it down. Maus, which portrayed the main actors in the Holocaust as animals, went on to become the first graphic novel (also part memoir, part history) to win a Pulitzer Prize. André himself was the author of a book about graphic satire, Dr. Seuss & Co. Go to War.
The first time I encountered André was in the late 1950s, when he was a Yale undergrad who belonged to a group called The Pundits. It consisted of ten students who would have a lobster and champagne banquet on the steps of the Yale library on the first day of exams. The Pundits (who that year included Calvin Trillin, now The Nation’s Deadline Poet) stood on the steps of the library dressed in togas and said what were supposed to be funny things. The only line I remember was André’s: “The peasants may be penniless, but the czar is Nicholas.”
André famously took over Pantheon Books while still in his 20s. After twenty-eight years of successfully publishing books (left, liberal, democratic socialist and simply high quality) of social, cultural and political distinction, André was dramatically forced to resign after refusing his conglomerate bosses’ order to cut his list by two-thirds (and trim his staff) for what they told him were bottom-line reasons. His staff (including Tom Engelhardt, who would later become a Nation Institute blogger) quit with him, and—perhaps for the only time in publishing history—more than 200 authors and supporters picketed a major American publisher, Random House (then owned by S.I. Newhouse Jr.). I know because I was there, marching next to my Nation colleague Richard Lingeman, just behind Kurt Vonnegut (who was not one of André’s authors but was there, along with many other writers—including our own Barbara Ehrenreich—to show solidarity).
Not long thereafter, André founded the New Press, a bold experiment in nonprofit, relatively radical book publishing, joined by an amazing number of his former Pantheon authors. Its list gets stronger by the year. At last count, it numbered some fifty books a year, virtually all of them of social consequence.
Over the years, starting in 1968, when he wrote about student demonstrations at the Frankfurt Book Fair, André contributed articles and reviews to The Nation on subjects ranging from “The New China—No Turning Back” (1988), “Remembering Studs” and “Socialism Is No Longer a Dirty Word” to, yes, more than once, the conglomeratization of publishing—all of them ahead of the curve, and all of them informed by his nuanced and passionate politics.
André was a good friend of mine, of The Nation (where one of his daughters served as an intern), of literature, of letters, of democracy and socialism, of his authors and colleagues (including Nation alumni such as Phil Pochoda and Don Guttenplan, who now runs the magazine’s London bureau with his wife, Maria Margaronis). André was also an enemy of hypocrisy, cant, fascism, racism, pomposity and conglomerates. Especially publishing conglomerates.
We miss you, André, but your message continues to resonate in our hearts and in our pages.