A publishing giant's rags-to-riches story
The Temper of the West is an "American Dream" story in the fullest sense. William Jovanovich was born in a tent in a Colorado mining camp to parents who had recently come to America—his father from Montenegro, his mother from Poland. Vladimir, as he had been christened, could not speak English when he started school. While attending Denver's Manual Training High School, Jovanovich earned a tuition scholarship to the University of Colorado. He then went to Harvard on a graduate fellowship to study English and American literature.
The Second World War intervened while Jovanovich was at Harvard, and he spent the war years as an officer in the U.S. Navy. After the war, Jovanovich studied briefly at Columbia University, where he was writing a dissertation on Emerson. Dropping out because of a lack of funds, he became a college traveler for Harcourt, Brace, and Company in 1947. By 1954 he was president of the company, which in 1970 became Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. When Jovanovich retired in 1991, HBJ was one of the largest publishers in the world.
While at HBJ, Jovanovich edited Mary McCarthy, Diana Trilling, Charles A. Lindbergh, James Gould Cozzens, Milton Friedman, and Hannah Arendt, among others. But his friends and connections branched widely. Jovanovich's beautifully written memoir includes many encounters and relationships—some of them brief and contentious, many of them deep and enduring—with the likes of T. S. and Valerie Eliot, Marshal McLuhan, Groucho Marx, Jerzy Kosinski, Eugene McCarthy, Erich Maria Remarque, Dean Acheson, B. F. Skinner, and Robert Maxwell (whose attempt at a hostile takeover of HBJ was thwarted by Jovanovich at a cost that led to his withdrawal from the company three years later).
Jovanovich remained an ardent Serbian nationalist his entire life, and his memoir includes trenchant observations on the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. But his "obsession," as he described it in a Publishers Weekly interview, was "America, America. It's my subject and my object."
An American cultural force, William Jovanovich (1920–2001) was a thoughtful, passionate, well-read individual who built a publishing empire. He published ten books prior to his death, including a collection of essays on publishing titled Now, Barabbas and four novels. His last novel, The World's Last Night, published in 1990, told of a navy officer from Colorado who became an influential publisher. Jovanovich wrote The Temper of the West during his final illness.
"The Temper of the West is a memoir by a man who, as president of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, powerfully influenced the international literary scene from the end of World War II to the present. William Jovanovich's recollections of the people, places, and events of his time (and he knew an astonishing number of prominent people in literature and the arts and in public life) make for a fascinating story. But there is a good deal more to celebrate in this remarkable memoir. It is splendidly written, as one might expect from an outstanding editor who was also the author of ten books. Moreover, Jovanovich has done new and highly creative things with the memoir form. It is not presented in a linear, chronological form, but, rather, clustered around certain recurring themes throughout his life. It is richly anecdotal and marked by wit, humor, and passionate engagement. At the center of it all is the man, as fully realized and developed as the most dimensional characters in fiction, somebody well worth knowing whom we come to know very well."—George Garrett
"William Jovanovich was a wonder, and this book is a wonder. A great read for anyone interested in the publishing business and the life of a great American entrepreneur."—Patrick O'Connor
"The Temper of the West is a remarkable document, a compendium made up of forthright opinion, family history, and historical references stitched together with vivid portraits of a variety of literary personages—editors, publishers, writers. William Jovanovich was such a titanic figure in publishing that this book is bound to be of interest in many circles, literary in particular. A good storyteller, Jovanovich had an ear acute enough to pick up snippets of conversational exchange that on the printed page truly bring his subjects to life."—George Plimpton