Quality Lit: She Took Charge

Blanche Knopf at Blake’s Bookshop, London, summer 1946
Eric Harlow/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Blanche Knopf at Blake’s Bookshop, London, summer 1946

In the opening paragraph of The Lady with the Borzoi, Laura Claridge provides a highly compressed and useful explanation of why one might want to read a biography of Blanche Knopf, who profoundly and permanently influenced the American public’s ideas about, and taste in, literature. In the early years of the twentieth century, Blanche

began scouting for her fledgling publishing house quality French novels she’d get translated, such as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Prévost’s Manon Lescaut. Soon she would help Carl Van Vechten launch the literary side of the Harlem Renaissance, publishing works by Langston Hughes and Nella Larsen, while she also nurtured and often edited such significant authors as Willa Cather, Muriel Spark, and Elizabeth Bowen. Through Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald, she legitimized the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction…. She introduced to American readers international writers whom she met and had translated into English, among them Thomas Mann, Sigmund Freud, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir.

Born in 1894 and raised on the Upper East Side, Blanche Wolf came from a wealthy family with limited expectations for their daughter: they hoped only that she would find a husband who could accelerate their ascent (her father had been a farmworker in Germany; her maternal grandfather owned a slaughterhouse) into Jewish high society. The Wolfs saw no reason to send Blanche to college. But the Gardner School, an institution “aimed primarily at well-off Jewish girls,” introduced her to “an enchanted universe” where she developed a lifelong passion for nineteenth-century novels and French literature, language, and culture.

Increasingly bookish, contemptuous of the friends she had begun to view as frivolous and shallow, Blanche often read while walking her Boston terrier. She showed little interest in boys until, at seventeen, she met Alfred Knopf at a party on Long Island. Knopf, whose father, Sam, had emigrated from Poland and become the director of a small mercantile bank, was impressed by the fact that Blanche “read books constantly and he had never met a girl who did.” Blanche’s family had many reasons for opposing the marriage, among them the apparently well-grounded suspicion that Sam’s father had driven Sam’s mother to suicide. But the lure of a life in literature was too heady for Blanche to resist. “We decided we would get married and make books and publish them.”

By the afternoon of their wedding at New York’s St. Regis Hotel, in April 1916, Blanche and Alfred Knopf had been in business together for a year. The previous spring, the idealistic young couple had founded the company that, a century later, still bears Alfred’s name. Among the offerings on their initial list were books on Russian history and politics, a story collection by Guy de Maupassant, and Gogol’s Taras…

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