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ISSUE:  Spring 1993

Leonard and Virginia Wolf As Publishers: The Hogarth Press,
1917—41. By J. H. Willis, Jr. Virginia. $29. 95.

Although I have long found publishing to be a fascinating enterprise, intellectually stimulating and financially interesting, this is the first book about a publisher, outside of Bennett Cerf’s memoir At Random, that I can recall having read. My interest in Leonard and Virginia WoolfAs Publishers was aroused because of the central role the Woolfs played within the Bloomsbury circle of intellectuals, and in particular the part that The Hogarth Press, as Freud’s English publisher starting in the 1920’s, took in disseminating psychoanalytic ideas throughout the English-speaking world. I interviewed Leonard Woolf in 1965 in connection with his personal knowledge of Freud and relished each of the five volumes of Woolf’s autobiography, and he sent me some sales figures of Freud’s pre-World War II texts.

Willis’s book is extraordinarily conscientious, and one would think definitive. He has spent more than ten years reconstructing the records of The Hogarth Press from its inception in 1917 until Virginia Woolfs suicide in 1941; the documents managed to survive the Blitz. Initially, the Woolfs did their own printing and binding in their dining room; the first texts of The Hogarth Press were hand-set by themselves. Even when the publishing house was at its most thriving, the offices were housed in the basement of their flat; printers and authors were interviewed in their sitting room.

The Woolfs at first drew on friends and acquaintances to flesh-out their list of authors. Eventually The Hogarth Press had a small staff, but Leonard always kept a tight grip on the day-to-day operations. Virginia was the chief reader he relied upon for decisions about accepting fiction. Willis suggests, probably correctly, that one of the attractions of The Hogarth Press from Leonard’s point of view was that it was a means of keeping Virginia’s mental balance secure. The physical and mental labors functioned as an escape valve from her most imaginative creative efforts. Much as she might sometimes bemoan the time The Hogarth Press took up, the couple seemed to enjoy the work.

Intellectual historians have to be impressed how early on The Hogarth Press helped through their contracts with such writers as T. S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, E. M. Forster, Christopher Isherwood, Vita Sackville-West, John Maynard Keynes, Henry Green, Robert Graves, and Herbert Read. The Woolfs also commissioned translations of the works of Rainer Maria Rilke, Italo Svevo, Ivan Bunin, Maxim Gorky, and Anton Chekhov. Ironically, Virginia had not approved of the first few chapters of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and that rejection meant that The Hogarth Press forfeited the right to have the honor to introduce that modern classic; it took years for it to get into print, and the foreign printers in France introduced multiple errors into the text. Virginia seemed to grow more strongly antipathetic toward Ulysses as the years passed. Willis records how the Woolfs also rejected a translation of Andre Gidé’s Straight Is the Gate, Gertrude Stein’s Making of Americans, Ivy Compton-Burnett’s third novel, and an early story by Richard Hughes. It has been claimed that Saul Bellow and Jean-Paul Sartre also got rejection notices from The Hogarth Press. But the fact that such works got submitted to the Woolfs at all is testimony to how enlightened, compared to other publishers, they could be counted upon to be.

Even as late as 1965, when I met with Leonard Woolf myself, The Hogarth Press retained its wonderfully old-fashioned ramshackle appearance. I can never forget the narrow rickety stairs I climbed to reach Woolf s office; nor the special glow his face acquired, in the midst of our conversation, as he happened to glance over at something of Virginia’s he was overseeing for posthumous publication. Leonard had, even before Virginias death, taken an outside partner into the firm. According to Willis’s painstaking reconstruction of the financial records, The Hogarth Press was always modestly profitable. Virginia’s own books, and those of Freud and the psychoanalysts, were to be keystones to the business. At times Leonard, though not with me, exaggerated the risk he took in accepting Freud and the analysts as authors. In an era, even by 1965 standards, when publishing had become an overwhelmingly commercial undertaking, The Hogarth Press fulfilled the ideal of what a writer desires from a publishing house. (The Hogarth Press brought out the English edition of my first book in 1969, which also happened to be the year of Leonard’s death.) Any publisher who loves books was, then as now, a rarity, and The Hogarth Press deserves the kind of scrupulously careful treatment that Willis has accorded it.

The most successful publishers I have known, however, maintain that they are more or less at a loss at what it is that sells books. A central mystery would seem to lie at the heart of the publishing industry, not one of the world’s most profitable business undertakings. Leonard and Virginia never were out to make a financial killing through The Hogarth Press. I am surprised to find how meticulous Leonard was as a financial manager, and Willis demonstrates that Leonard was difficult, and downright authoritarian, with the tiny staff he struggled to retain.

Willis breaks his general chronology to accord a special chapter to “Freud and the Freudians,” but I found it not as novelly informative as I had hoped. Woolf had explained to me how hopelessly amateurish the analysts had been as businessmen, printing up thousands of copies of texts, out of megalomania, which remained unsold for years. Books, because of the way they were kept in Vienna, were bound to have gotten soiled, and Leonard said that for ages he got complaints from British booksellers about the quality of what he handed on to them. James Strachey, whom Freud had first picked as a translator while Strachey, and his wife Alix, were with him in treatment, was the younger brother of Lytton Strachey and well known to both the Woolfs. It was James Strachey who first brought the proposal to Leonard that he publish Freud in England.

Strachey’s translations have come in, partly at the hands of Bruno Bettelheim, for a good deal of recent criticism. Yet it is often forgotten how Strachey was functioning with an already preexisting confine of decision-making about how certain terms of Freud’s were to be rendered in English. Freud’s command of English was excellent, and I think he was lucky to have been perceptive enough to spot Strachey’s special talents. Even when Strachey invented a term like “cathexis,” Freud incorporated it into one of his own German texts. There is still to this day no comparable edition of Freud’s works in French, for example, and the latest German edition of Freud’s works relies on translations of Strachey’s notes to the English edtition. I have never seen any evidence pertaining to whether Strachey ever got monetary payment for what he undertook, but it surely did not explain, or adequately compensate for, the special labor of love that later went into what became the 24 volumes of his Standard Edition of Freud’s psychological writings. Had Strachey, shortly after Freud’s death in 1939, not volunteered to undertake the task, a committee would have been struck instead and the project inevitably postponed for years. As it was, Strachey, along with Alix and the cooperation of a few others, accomplished what has to be considered, I think, a special feat.

If Willis taught me nothing really new about the relationship between Freud and The Hogarth Press, he does succeed in putting that aspect of the history of the Woolf s publishing ventures into the context of their work as a whole. I had had no idea how Leonard, “in his lifetime obsession with details, prided himself on his book-keeping.” Literally “he kept his finger on every penny and every shilling. . . .” At the same time “Virginia, not Leonard the businessman, . . .handled the gritty matters of house hunting and lease signing for their various moves.”

Still Leonard was the first reader for whom Virginia wrote; she always needed his judgment and reassurance on the initial completion of one of her texts. With the freedom and independence provided by The Hogarth Press, she needed no one else to please. Leonard’s own political and social writings, part of his intense involvement, as editor and activist, in Socialist politics, bear testimony to his own creative capacities. I have long thought that Leonard, as the imaginative lesser of the two writers, has been unduly valued for what he brought to Virginia’s life. But Willis’s story of The Hogarth Press helps to keep straight not just the details of the collaboration between Leonard and Virginia, but amplifies an essential constituent to one of the 20th century’s most unusual marriages.

I cannot help wondering, given the advanced state of contemporary printing technology, whether even today two such people, “energetic consumers of books, readers with vast interests, professional reviewers and editors,” could not reproduce their publishing achievement. Leonard certainly said he thought it could ail happen again.



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