A Writer Looks Back at the Editor Who Shaped His Books

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Today more than ever, writers need sound guidance. Ashbel Green was the gold standard.

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Knopf

As the year ends, I'd like to add a personal tribute in memory of a remarkable person, my former book editor Ashbel Green. Tributes to Ash by Timothy Egan in his New York Times blog, and in the New York Observer, only begin to tell the story. I'd like to add one Knopf author's perspective.

Ashbel Green was a scholar as well as (Egan rightly notes) a gentleman -- not an author of academic papers, but a connoisseur of ideas. He not only followed and clipped seven newspapers every day, he visited campuses and even looked, in the Knopf tradition, for Ph.D. dissertations that could be commercially successful as books. There were fewer and fewer, he told me, but he still hoped to find young scholars who could reach a broad audience.

Ash had an unusual academic heritage. His ancestor and namesake was president of Princeton (then officially the College of New Jersey) from 1812 to 1822. The first Ashbel Green, also a gentleman and scholar but of a far more conservative cast, became a Presbyterian minister. In an age noted for undergraduate unrest, Green -- like so many of his counterparts 150 years later -- was ill-suited to deal with a rebellious and occasionally violent student body that had already defeated his predecessor. (I've written about Samuel Stanhope Smith here.) He resigned his presidency to lead a Philadelphia congregation and continue his theological writing.

Ash himself was a loyal and active Columbia graduate, but he had an ecumenical interest in Ivy League lore, perhaps motivated in part by his family history. He appreciated publishing heritage, too, contributing articles to the Encylopedia of New York City, including one on Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese-born poet and painter who has been one of Knopf's all-time best sellers -- originally published as fine literature, incidentally, on the recommendation of the noted poet and scholar Witter Bynner.

Avoidance of computers in favor of his old typewriter belied his great curiosity about science and technology. (His ancestor had been a mathematics tutor at Princeton before his theological studies and presidency.) He was the publisher of Daniel J. Kevles' The Physicists, still one of the standard histories of American research.

Another notable find was the engineering professor Henry Petroski; perhaps it was Ash's media conservatism that helped him recognize that a 448-page definitive history of the pencil could be a commercial as well as a scholarly success. It was followed by a row of other Knopf books by Professor Petroski on topics from bridges to bookshelves to paper clips.

And the two sides of Ash's family background came together in David F. Noble's outstanding The Religion of Technology. Ash had a real love of ideas that has become more difficult to find in the specialized discourse of academia. No editor did more to keep alive the ideal of a republic of letters that included the sciences along with the humanities. Working well beyond traditional retirement age, he retained a youthful outlook.

And as an editor, he had just the right touch, a sure instinct for places that needed cutting or improvement. Nobody did more to help me make the transition from university press acquisition editor (in fact, the editor who lost The Pencil to him) to independent writer.

Contrary to widespread talk, good editors are needed more than ever. And Ashbel Green's example remains a gold standard. 

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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