Morris Philipson, former director of the University of Chicago Press (from 1967 to 2000), passed away on November 3, 2011, at the age of 85. We asked some of Philipson’s friends and colleagues how they would remember Morris, and their thoughts follow below:
I worked at Chicago for ten years, from 1973 to 1983, half that time directly for Morris. He was brilliant, exacting, mercurial, funny, and loyal to the authors and people at the Press who held up his high standards. Like many others who went on to run other publishing companies, he taught me through example (mostly good) how to be a publisher. More than that, he shaped the Press’s publishing program in ways that few directors attempt or manage. Those were glory years: The Lisle Letters, which more timid publishers would have abandoned; Derrida, whom he apparently understood; Mythologies; the Verdi Edition, which he supported even if his taste didn’t run to high opera. The Chicago Manual of Style, Kate Turabian, the list goes on. He was willing to support his editors even when he was skeptical, a philosophy that led to the grand and enduring success of A River Runs Through It. The letter that Norman Maclean wrote to Knopf, who had turned it down (and that was reprinted in Harper’s in 1993) says it all. Morris’s death has brought back warm memories of my first publishing years and close colleagues who have stayed and moved on. We were fortunate to experience that remarkable era first hand.
—Wendy Strothman, The Strothman Agency
Morris Philipson’s death is a deep sadness for me.
Our relationship dates back to the early 1970’s when I joined Gallimard, and it went through different phases. For a long time, it was purely professional: Morris came regularly to the Frankfurt Book Fair, we saw each other in Paris, and he took a special interest in the authors I was publishing, such as Georges Duby, Jacques Le Goff, and Michel de Certeau.
He was very surprised to discover in me the historian of Les Lieux de mémoires (seven volumes), of which he was so fond that he planned to translate four volumes. Morris embarked on this adventure with ardor, with the help of his editor David Jordan. It created a real intellectual friendship between us.
My partner, who was American, played a large part in making our friendship stronger, because she also liked Morris the writer, whom I thus discovered.
His presence enriched my editor’s career. I owe him a lot and I will long miss his thoughtful friendship.
—Pierre Nora, editorial director at Editions Gallimard
How I will miss talking with Morris. His sharp wit, his extraordinary, affectionate knowledge of books—their insides, their outsides (he knew well how often people did indeed judge books by their covers), the minds of the authors, the minds of the readers. The hilarious anecdotes from the old days chez Knopf, and the canny insights into the works and private lives of famous contemporary authors. He spoke about the projects he was working on with such joy and erudition, and when I sounded him on my own books in progress he invariably gave me tactful but telling advice and a treasure trove of places to look for what I was seeking. I can vividly conjure up the long, happy summer evenings sitting with Morris and Susie in the delicate garden behind their elegant townhouse on Dorchester Road, or, later, sitting with Morris alone, in restaurants and theaters, with Susie a palpable invisible presence, so strongly missed. Yet always, even in the last weeks of his life, it was easy to make him burst out in a laugh. He was a true connoisseur of the literary life, indeed of life tout court.
—Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago
What Morris Philipson achieved for the Press over a thirty-three year career was simply monumental; I doubt anyone could repeat a success story of that kind these days. I feel privileged to have worked as an editor at the University of Chicago Press with so many smart and talented people in every department, and Morris was a key inspiration in setting the tone (with intelligence, a delightfully urbane wit, and a practical business savvy unusual in the field of scholarly publishing), as well as a very high bar of achievement.
—Gabriel Dotto, director, Michigan State University Press
In the forty or so years that I knew, worked with, and came to enjoy the friendship of Morris Philipson, I had much to thank him for. As chairman of the German Department at the University of Chicago for twelve years, I especially appreciated his interest in German works—both scholarly and imaginative—and their translation into English, but most of all his enthusiasm for the work of Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard is without doubt one of the key figures in European literature of the latter part of the twentieth century and Morris’s keen sense of this significance allowed us to play an important part in introducing his work to an American audience.
Beyond these more professional concerns, however, I deeply appreciated the convivial and stimulating evenings spent at his and Susan’s dinner table, and especially the chilled martini that always so thoughtfully awaited my arrival in their refrigerator! The loss of such a friend is sad indeed.
—Kenneth J. Northcott, translator
Morris was both my publisher and my good, good friend. I will always remember the commitment to excellence he inspired—no, demanded—at the University of Chicago Press, a commitment that endures. Morris and I met through our novels, and my relationship, through him, with the Press has been the most artistically and professionally rewarding of my book-writing life. As important to me, our personal friendship was long, only occasionally bristly, and always deeply satisfying.
—Jack Fuller, former editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune and former president of the Tribune Publishing Company
I always think of Morris as the Spirit of Chicago. He was Literature’s Lindbergh, a low-slung pioneering aircraft, equally well adapted for combat or reconnaissance. His transatlantic missions brought succor to beleaguered British editors and encouragement to starving British scholars. He was a great friend to Encounter magazine and the Times Literary Supplement and will be remembered fondly in both quarters.
—Ferdinand Mount, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, 1991–2001
Morris was determined that we make every effort to publish the very best books in the best possible way. He believed the University of Chicago had a tradition of doing so: we already had Kuhn, Melville, and Greene and Lattimore’s Complete Greek Tragedies. He believed anything brilliant was fair game, and would often ask me to seek paperback rights to works I never expected to be available to us: the play Angels in America just as it was becoming a hit, for example, or the early novels of Saul Bellow. We weren’t able to snag many of these, but did get rights (to my surprise) to works by Andre Malraux, Patrick White, Thomas Bernhard, Margaret Yourcenar, and Paul Scott. If Morris respected an author enough, he would ask if anything they had written was out of print: this worked with philosophers, critics and novelists like A. J. Ayer, George Steiner, Isak Dinesen, Jacques Barzun, Hannah Arendt, and, eventually, Anthony Powell. A Dance to the Music of Time—a roman a clef in twelve books, was one of Morris’s favorite catches. While other American publishers abandoned this tour de force in 1993 because its length made it so expensive to produce, Morris said some books were worth losing money on: it was our mission to keep Great Literature in print. And while we were at it, we should put the best art (Poussin) on the cover and use a metallic ink with a five-color printing process so that the covers would be worthy of the text. His excitement, throughout the process, was palpable and unforgettable: he took such pride and delight in producing fine books that none of it felt like work.
—Maggie Hivnor, paperback editor at the University of Chicago Press
I first met Morris Philipson a few years before I was hired as a “First Reader” at the University of Chicago Press in October 1974. He was a good twenty years my senior but we had much in common, not least our love of good books and the fact that we were both interested in the work of C. G. Jung. Morris had published his Columbia University doctoral thesis on Jung’s aesthetics (Outline of a Jungian Aesthetics; Northwestern University Press, 1963); I was in the process of writing mine on the influence of Kant’s metaphysics on the structure of Jung’s depth psychology. We had a lot to talk about.
The first words that come to mind in describing him begin with “superior.” He was a superior person with a refined and sophisticated intellect of the first quality. His judgment was exquisite and—as he has said—perfectly suited for scholarly publishing. He was a man of excellent taste in literature and philosophy.
Such a person can of course occasionally appear to be imperious, and there is no doubt that Morris was often unable to conceal his contempt for people he felt were beneath him. He did not brook mediocrity and was unwilling to compromise with those who didn’t measure up. But he made many more friends than enemies, most likely I think because he attracted—and was attracted to— people of similar discriminating qualities.
Morris’s legacy is incalculable. Without him I think it is safe to say that the University of Chicago Press would be just another run-of-the-mill university publisher struggling both with its finances and its identity and public image. Morris’s courage, integrity, intelligence, wit, energy, and charm elevated the Press, and by association, the University itself to a greater prominence than it would otherwise have achieved.
I saw him in action for over twenty-five years and I was his Man Friday on numerous occasions. Knowing I was automotively inclined, which he was not, Morris occasionally consulted me for help. On one occasion a certain mysterious light on the dashboard of his new Volvo prompted him to come to my office. He told me to drop whatever no doubt insignificant in his mind thing I was doing and to go down to his parking lot with his keys and to check it out. It turned out to be nothing more than an inadvertently switched on overdrive switch. He rewarded me with a nice glass of sherry before I returned to my desk.
I am not inclined to speak of some “Golden Age” or “Glory Years” of the University of Chicago Press or of publishing in general. Let the nostalgic journalists of our time do that. Morris Philipson’s legacy is that all of us at the Press are inspired and motivated to do better, to do our best, as a result of the model he set, and, to paraphrase him on the occasion of our centennial celebration in June 1992, we are succeeding “according to our own lights,” largely I might add, because of his leadership.
—David Brent, executive editor at the University of Chicago Press