The House of Scribner

1996, the year of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Centennial, marked the 150th anniversary of Charles Scribners Sons.  This house had a reputation unequaled in the publishing of American literature, for the house of Scribner is also the house of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and Ring Lardner.

The following brief history is extracted from a lecture delivered at the Rowfant Club of Cleveland, 11 October 1978, by Charles Scribner III, an editor at Scribners and great-great grandson of the founder.

The history of Charles Scribners Sons begins in 1846 with the publishing partnership of Isaac Baker and Charles Scribner. The younger partner, Scribner, was a New Yorker of twenty-five, who had graduated from Princeton in the class of 1840.

At that time, to start an independent publishing company was something of an innovation. Most of the established houses had either grown out of printing plants, following the noble tradition of the sixteenth-century Plantin Press in Antwerp, or were offshoots of retail book shops. On the one hand, a printer might venture into publishing to provide work for his press; on the other, a bookseller might become a part-time publisher to supply extra books to sell in his store.

There were practical advantages to Scribners decision to be more specialized. Since the firm was able to start business without having to worry about the costs of keeping a manufacturing plant busy, it was possible to focus on the work of new authors, particularly American authors, without having to compete with others in publishing reprints of the best-selling writers from EnglandSir Walter Scott, Macaulay, and the Victorian poets. In short, the firm set out to originate works, to discover fresh talent.

According to modern tastes not all of the first titles of Baker and Scribner would be candidates for the best-seller list. There were lots of theological treatises, most of them almost impenetrable today. The first work to be published was an austere tome entitled The Puritans and Their Principles by Edwin Hall. The first bestseller was Napoleon and His Marshals by the Rev. J. T. Headley. By all accounts it was far from being a model of historical accuracybut then how many best-sellers are?

Isaac Baker died in 1850 leaving Charles Scribner alone. It was a period of growth, and there were several new projects that did a lot to put the new firm on the map. Over the years Scribner had been building up a fine list of books on religion. This program reached a high point around the time of the Civil War when he set out to publish an American version of the mammoth work of German biblical scholarship, Johann Peter Langes Biblical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures. Eventually completed in twenty-six large volumesfinanced at enormous costthe set was both a commercial and critical success. It was co-published in Britain by Clark of Edinburghsomething of a feather in the cap of the American firm, for Clark had already begun his own translation of Lange, which he then dropped in favor of Scribners edition. Publishing ties are often very old, and Scribners and T. and T. Clark of Edinburgh again collaborated on a revision of Hastings Dictionary of the Bible almost a hundred years later.

In 1865 Charles Scribner and Company took its first step into magazine publishing with the somewhat staid Hours at Home. It was presented as a quasi-religious magazine, one that would bring into every home the virtues by which Americans were supposed to live.

In 1870 a new company, Scribner & Company, was formed to publish a successor magazine entitled Scribners Monthly, an illustrated magazine for the people. The magazine thrived and was soon strong enough to attract young American writers. But the founder did not live to see its success, for Charles Scribner died of typhoid the next year, 1871, on a trip abroad. Behind him in the firm he left his eldest son, John Blair, and on this young manhe was only twenty at the timefell the whole job of carrying on the family interests in the business.

In 1873 Scribner & Company launched a famous childrens periodical, St. Nicholas, under the editorship of Mary Mapes Dodge, with the prolific Frank R. Stockton as assistant editor. Stockton is perhaps best remembered today for his short story The Lady or the Tiger?  The magazine brought many now-classic books to the publishing firm and established it permanently in the field of childrens literature.

A second important development at that time was the coming of age of the subscription book department, which began to undertake some very big things. In association with Messrs. Black of Edinburgh, Scribners brought out the first American edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (ninth edition); it sold some seventy thousand sets, four times as many as were sold in Britain. In later years the subscription department published library sets of the works of such well-known authors as Kipling, Stevenson, Henry James, and J. M. Barrie, to name just a few. Its successor, the reference book department, became the foremost American publisher of reference works such as the Dictionary of American Biography, the Dictionary of American History, and several other series.

In 1875, Charles Scribner II graduated from Princeton and at once joined his brother John Blair in the firm. There were two other partners at the time, Edward Seymour and Andrew Armstrong. But Seymour died in 1877 and the next year Armstrong sold the Scribners his share, intending to start up his own concern. That left the book publishing company wholly owned and controlled by the Scribner family. The name was now changed to Charles Scribners Sons, which the firm has retained ever since. The very next year, in 1879, John Blair died, leaving Charles II to manage the business. In 1881, one of the outside partners, Roswell Smith, bought up enough stock to acquire individual control of Scribner & Company, the magazine company. Charles II refused to retain minority interest and sold to Smith the remaining shares.

Thus, Scribners Monthly and the childrens magazine St. Nicholas passed entirely out of the hands of the Scribner family. The remaining owners were reincorporated as the Century Company; Scribners Monthly was by agreement renamed the Century Magazine. Charles Scribners Sons agreed to stay out of the magazine business for five years.

Within four years of taking over, Charles II had pruned the firm down drastically. In 1884, his younger brother, Arthur Hawley Scribner, having graduated from Princeton, came into the firm to help him. The two brothers formed a partnership that lasted almost fifty years. The firm soon benefited from Scribners initial pruning, for the remaining branches flowered as never before. Many of the American authors it introduced are still famous. There was H. C. Bunner, whose first book of poems, Airs from Arcady and Elsewhere, came out in 1884 in an edition of fifteen hundred copies. George Washington Cable had first appeared in print in Scribners Monthly with a short story, `Sieur George, in 1873. Six years later several of his stories were collected and published as the beloved Old Creole Days. Another cherished Southern connection was Thomas Nelson Page, whose book In Ole Virginia  (1887) was first of his many books about the South.

Henry Adams, whose History of the United States was published in 1889 in nine volumes, and his ironical letters to the firm offer a model for any difficult author to follow. Henry van Dyke started out on the Scribner list with a pamphlet entitled The National Sin of Literary Piracy in 1888. Van Dyke wrote another book a few years later that caused a rather awkward situation; the book was entitled Fishermans Luck and, to its publishers bad luck, the title contained a prominent and regrettable single-letter misprint that almost put Scribners instantly out of business and the author into an early grave.

Three famous childrens books of that period were Edward Egglestons Hoosier Schoolboy in 1883, Howard Pyles The Merry Adventure of Robin Hood, also in 1883, and Frances Hodgson Burnetts Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1886. Robert Louis Stevenson first appeared on the list in 1885 with A Childs Garden of Verses. A later edition of this book, with pictures by Jessie Willcox Smith, was one of the original titles in the Scribner Illustrated Classics.  These classics later became famous for their illustrations by Howard Pyle, N. C. Wyeth, and other members of the Brandywine school.

During the 1880s ideas for a new magazine were being thought out as Charles Scribner waited out the five-year moratorium on magazine publishing. In December 1886 the firm announced the new Scribners Magazine. Its original editor, from 1887 to 1914, was Edward L. Burlingame, son of the American diplomat Anson Burlingame and literary advisor to Scribners since 1879. Under him the magazine grew into something finer and more successful than the most hopeful would have dared to foresee. The magazine was really a double asset to Charles Scribners Sons: not only in itself, as a profitable magazine, but also as a net for new talent, authors like Edith Wharton who would follow their magazine debuts with many successful books.

In 1894 the firm capped the climax of fifteen years under C. S. II by moving into a stately, six-story building on Fifth Avenue and Twenty-first Street, designed by the renowned American Beaux-Arts architect Ernest Flagg, who was Scribners brother-in-law. On the ground floor was a magnificent bookstore, the prototype for the more famous store on Forty-eighth Street and Fifth Avenue. Scribners was to remain at Twenty-first and Fifth for nineteen years, until 1913, during which time a cornucopia of new authors was added to the house. This was truly a golden age of American book publishing. At the turn of the century Scribners had virtually cornered the market in American literature.

Among the authors was Theodore Roosevelt, whose The Rough Riders in 1899 was the first of his many successful books for Scribners. Another lasting association was begun in 1886 with the publication of a book on aesthetics, The Sense of Beauty, by a young philosophy teacher at Harvard, George Santayana. Almost forty years later Santayana produced a best-selling novel, The Last Puritan  (1935). It would be hard to think of another philosopher equally versatile in letters. Edith Whartons The Decoration of Houses (1897), written in collaboration with Ogden Codman, Jr., started an illustrious career.

Not long after, two other distinguished authors made their debut, Ernest Thompson Seton with Wild Animals I Have Known, published in 1898 and James Huneker, whose Mezzotints in Modern Music followed a year later. The turn of the century brought another cluster of famous first editions. John Fox, Jr.s Blue-grass and Rhododendron appeared in 1901; two years later Scribners published his novel The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, which is probably the best seller the house has ever had. A different sort of novelist, Henry James, appeared on the list with The Sacred Fount in 1901. Sadly, his greatest fame was to come long after his death, but James did live to see the great New York Edition of the novels and stories, which was published in 1910 and was reissued by us in its entirety in the 1950s.

The year 1913 marked a new chapter in the history of the firm. In that year another move was made up Fifth Avenue to the new and even larger Ernest Flagg building at Forty-eighth Street. This was the third headquarters since Charles IIs presidency and the scene of the last of the almost equal periods in his fifty years with the firm. Scribner had been fielding a whole new team of young editors, the most famous of whom was Maxwell Perkins, about whom a major biography has been published and whose letters to Fitzgerald and Hemingway have been published by us. These volumes provide one of the clearest windows into the world of editor-author relations. Another well-known Scribner editor, and a distinguished poet in his own right, was John Hall Wheelock. Those two men, Perkins and Wheelock, were both young Harvard graduates who invaded a then predominantly Princeton company and brought it great new success by their editorial intuition and skill.

In 1913 Charles Scribners only son, another Charles (III), graduated from Princeton and began his own career in publishing. He was a contemporary of Perkins and Wheelock, and his age gave him a ready grasp of the importance of the new writers who were beginning to appear on the scene. Another era in American literature was dawning and the firms enthusiasm for the new authors was to yield it a rich harvest. There was Alan Seeger, whose Poems came out in 1916, best remembered for his rendezvous with death. Four years later, F. Scott Fitzgerald heralded the Jazz Age with his first novel, This Side of Paradise. Stark Youngs The Flower in Drama appeared in 1923 and, in the following years, Ring Lardners How To Write Short Stories (1924), James Boyds Drums (1925, a year best remembered for The Great Gatsby), and John W. Thomason, Jr.s Fix Bayonets (also in 1925). In 1926 Ernest Hemingways The Torrents of Spring and The Sun Also Rises were both published. In view of Hemingways later achievements and his equally enduring loyalty to the firm, we shall always think of that as a year set apart. Thomas Wolfe, at the end of this glorious decade, made his debut with Look Homeward, Angel in 1929.

Around this time, the long career of Charles Scribner II was drawing to a close. In 1928, he turned over the presidency to his younger brother Arthur and continued on only as chairman of the board. Happily, he lived to see the first published volumes of the Dictionary of American Biography, a project which extended from 1928 to 1936 and a work to which he had given his utmost support: it was probably the most important project the firm had ever undertaken and was developed with the American Council of Learned Societies, which has subsequently collaborated with Scribners on other reference projects. In 1930 Charles II died, as did the loyal and patient Arthur in 1932, leaving Charles III to preside alone. He was only forty-one at the time.

It would be hard to think of a more difficult time in which to take over the management of a large publishing house. The Great Depression was in its worst stage, and the future must have appeared most uncertain for books. Yet the firm continued to look for fresh talent and take chances on new authors in a way that marks this as one of the most enterprising periods in all our historyan achievement that testifies to the aims and courage of C. S. III and to the devoted support that his associates, Max Perkins in particular, gave him. In the following years many important new works appeared, not only by already established authors such as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wolfe, but also by unknown writers who were later to become famous. Among these firsts by new authors were Marcia Davenports great biography of Mozart, published in 1932 and still in print; Nancy Hales The Young Die Good; Marjorie Kinnan Rawlingss South Moon Under in 1933, followed by her most famous novel, The Yearling, five years later; Hamilton Bassos Beauregard in 1933; Taylor Caldwells Dynasty of Death in 1938, and Christine Westons Be Thou the Bride in 1940. An extraordinary decade of debuts.

In the 1930s a separate childrens department was finally established; it became one of the most important branches of the firm. It was founded by the gifted Alice Dalgliesh, who in 1934 was already an experienced editor and, indeed, author in her own right. She proceeded to build one of the most distinguished lists of childrens books in American publishing.

At the same time the 1930s also saw some sad losses. Thomas Wolfe was the most visible, a loss due primarily to his own self-proclaimed dependence on his editor, Max Perkins, which not surprisingly led to his feeling compelled to sever that editorial umbilical cord. Then, in 1937, Scribners Magazine folded after fifty glorious years of publication, a casualty of newer and slicker magazines and, supposedly, of the radio.

Right after the war, yet another Charles Scribner (IV or Jr.) joined the firm. It was to be the last year of Max Perkinss life, but he left behind two budding novelists, James Jones and Alan Paton.

In 1952 Charles III died very suddenly; he had just finished reading the manuscript of Hemingways short classic, The Old Man and the Sea, which was dedicated to him and Perkins. After his fathers death, Charles Scribner, Jr. moved back from Washington, where hed been sent as cryptoanalyst during the Korean War, and took the helm at the age of thirty-one. One of his first moves was to close the Scribner printing and warehousing plant, which had operated since 1908. It was a few blocks down the street and had been designed as a complete manufacturing unit, but new economic realities indicated that even a relatively large firm could not reasonably support its own printing plant.

Now in a different spirit Scribner set out to recapture some of the past, the backlistyou might say the literary capitalmost of which had by this time been licensed to paperback and cheap hard-cover reprints. He wanted to bring these books back under the Scribner imprint. This move was soon to prove invaluable. He did not believe in paperbacks. But he soon changed his mind and invented the Scribner Library, a line of quality paperbacks, at which point he now had at his disposal an incredible list of classics to convert into paperbackThe Great Gatsby, Tender Is the Night, The Sun Also Rises, Ethan Frome, and so on. His industry colleagues credited him with uncanny foresight and patience in reverting all those licenses in preparation for Scribners new paperback line.

To restore some balance to the list, Scribner set out to develop fields of non-fiction: history, biography, how-to books; he hired a most gifted editor, Elinor Parker, who invented a new category in practical arts, the needle-point book, the first of which was Erica Wilsons Crewel Embroidery. But Charles Scribner, Jr.s own true love was for reference works, and these years saw the birth of works that have become the staple of every major school, college, and public library. He completed the Album of American History and began the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, a fifteen-year project sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies with a grant from the National Science Foundation. It has since become the model for multi-volume reference works of original scholarship. There followed the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, then the Dictionary of Foreign Policy and, with the American Council of Learned Societies, the Dictionary of the Middle Ages.

Fitzgerald Centenary Comments

This page updated December 4, 2003.
Copyright 2003, the Board of Trustees of the University of South Carolina.