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Books versus business

The Temper of the West: A Memoir; William Jovanovich; University of South Carolina Press: 322 pp., $29.95

February 29, 2004|Lee Siegel | Lee Siegel is a contributing writer to Book Review.

"The Temper of the West" is the vivid, idiosyncratic autobiography of William Jovanovich, who ran the publishing house of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich for 36 years until his departure in 1990, dying 11 years later at the age of 81. Jovanovich entered book publishing in 1947, at a time, he writes, when the heads of houses liked to call themselves "publishers" rather than chairmen or presidents. The predictable yet understandable response to a book like this is to use it as the occasion for a lament over the disappearance of old-time book publishing, where genteel editors cared more about line-editing than about socializing, and more about socializing with kindred, cultured or original people than about making money, etc. And that is what one feels upon finishing this cultured, original, sadly autumnal and sometimes self-important set of random reminiscences. Up to a point.

For one recalls that Jovanovich was also very much focused on the business side of publishing. "The Temper of the West" was composed by a reflective and fascinating man, who was born to impoverished immigrant parents in a Colorado mining camp, won a scholarship to Harvard, abandoned for lack of funds the dissertation on Ralph Waldo Emerson that he was working on at Columbia and took a job as textbook salesman at Harcourt Brace, rising to company president in seven years. There is a vast difference between Jovanovich, who seemed to hold all of Western literature in his head and, say, some corporate cipher shipped over from across the ocean to manage an American publishing house.

But though Jovanovich wrote several novels and had a strong philosophical bent, he was also a businessman with an equally strong practical bent, who bought up theme parks and insurance companies and turned HBJ into a conglomerate. Some people called him the George Steinbrenner of book publishing. "Aren't you very lucky," Jovanovich quotes his dear friend Hannah Arendt telling him, "to be intelligent and not define yourself as an intellectual." In other words, Jovanovich was as shrewd as he was reflective. The drama buried at the heart of this book is how a thinking man flourishes in the world of buying and selling. That is also the drama of books versus business.

Jovanovich apparently retained a lifelong love of Emerson. For Jovanovich, Emerson "used ideas rhetorically but also pragmatically, which is to say, he refused to separate philosophy from the everyday proceedings of men at work, at risk, men who by gaining material things find themselves on the cusp of hopefulness." Turning Harcourt Brace into the world's largest seller of textbooks must have been deeply satisfying to a self-made man who saw books as engines of personal and social transformation.

Yet Emerson also had a horror of mercantilism's rising tide, and one could say that his gestures to practical attitudes were mainly rhetorical. Jovanovich, however, has recast his intellectual hero in the mold of self-portraiture. Of his own character, Jovanovich says, "I took most positions not dogmatically but pragmatically." He describes with great relish and blunt, disarming vanity various business triumphs and instances of his managerial resourcefulness. Scattered throughout the book are also trite little epigrams, a la Sun Tzu, about leadership: "Power does not exactly equate to authority, for the office can be great but the occupant weak." This is the public Jovanovich, who mixed with presidents and chief executives and stockholding English lords, and published and befriended Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Charles Lindbergh, Milton Friedman, T.S. Eliot, Marshall McLuhan and many others.

But alongside the bookselling public man who edited and sold these authors was the bookish private man who read and understood them. The intriguing dimension of this book is the question of which one had the upper hand in Jovanovich's personality. The pragmatic, undogmatic man who wooed potential investors over fancy lunches was the same tactful man who published authors whose ideas were inimical to his values -- writers like Mary McCarthy, for instance, whose left-radical politics appalled her politically conservative publisher. A discriminating openness is the essential quality of a memorable book editor. But memorable writers are driven by a fanatical hunger and single-mindedness.

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