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Donald E. Herdeck Dies; Published Third World Works

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page C11

Donald E. Herdeck, 80, whose small Washington publishing house brought worldwide attention to dozens of Third World writers, including two winners of the Nobel Prize for literature, died April 20 of congestive heart failure at his home in Pueblo, Colo.

A onetime State Department diplomat, Dr. Herdeck was on the faculty of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service when he decided that the easiest way to obtain the books he wanted to teach in his classes would be to publish them himself. He launched Three Continents Press in 1973 and found his greatest acclaim 15 years later when one of his authors, Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, was awarded the Nobel Prize.


Donald Herdeck's Three Continents Press published the works of two Nobel Prize winners. (Family Photo)

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Despite scant critical attention and little commercial demand, Dr. Herdeck had published Mahfouz's works in small editions since the 1970s. But the Nobel proved to be a mixed blessing for Three Continents, which had just one employee beside Dr. Herdeck.

The entire stock of Mahfouz's novels, translated into English from Arabic, sold out in one day, and it took weeks to reprint them. Dr. Herdeck received a call at home from an angry bookseller, who scolded him for being "a terrible businessman."

He recounted the conversation to The Washington Post's David Streitfeld: " 'Here you have this wonderful Nobel Prize winner, this wonderful author, and you don't have copies of his books! What's wrong with you?'

"Herdeck responded with something like this: 'And where have you been for the last 12 years, when we had thousands of these books sitting in our warehouse and they sold only in trickles? What was wrong with you?' "

In the 1980s, Dr. Herdeck published work by poet Derek Walcott of St. Lucia, years before he received the Nobel Prize in 1992. He published an anthology of writing from the Caribbean, as well as literature translated from Farsi, Arabic, Creole, Spanish, Afrikaans and other languages.

"We've done a collection of Fiji stories," he told The Post. "Two novels from Zimbabwe. We published the first Zulu novel ever in the United States. We've published people from every continent except Antarctica. We don't do anything there, but if the penguins learned to write, we would."

At its peak, Three Continents published 25 to 30 books a year, usually in editions of about 2,000 -- more than many university presses put out. At least one of his writers, Nigeria's Ken Saro-Wiwa, was executed by his country's military government for his dissident views.

In the 23 years that Dr. Herdeck ran his company, he published 300 titles -- and never turned a profit.

"He was idealistic in the sense that he launched a publishing company with very little money or security," said Brian Weinstein, an emeritus professor of political science at Howard University. "It wasn't his goal to make any political statements. He helped give a voice to that part of the world that was ignored, and he did it without condescension."

Dr. Herdeck was born Nov. 19, 1924, in Chicago and attended Drake University in Des Moines before serving as an Army infantryman in World War II. After the war, he received bachelor's and master's degrees in English from the University of Chicago. He traveled throughout Europe in the early 1950s, studying in Italy and France, then taught at Girard College in Philadelphia while taking graduate courses at the University of Pennsylvania.

He joined the Foreign Service in 1953 and spent about six years in Sicily and elsewhere in Italy before being posted in 1960 to the West African nation of Guinea, where he first read African fiction in earnest. After falling seriously ill with hepatitis and malaria, he left the State Department in 1963 and returned to his early interest in literature. He completed his doctoral dissertation -- one of the first examinations of anti-Semitism in the work of poet Ezra Pound -- and received his PhD from University of Pennsylvania in 1968.

After beginning his teaching career in Georgetown's English department in 1965, he switched to the School of Foreign Service and concentrated on the literature of the Third World. In the 1980s, he introduced a course called "Cultures in Conflict" that explored political turmoil in developing nations through the prism of literature and art.

"He always believed we needed to listen to people from cultures themselves, not the experts," said his wife, Margaret Herdeck. "That was his philosophy behind getting the press started."

Dr. Herdeck, who wrote several books on world literature, retired from teaching in 1987, after 22 years at Georgetown. In 1993, he moved Three Continents Press from its cramped quarters near Dupont Circle to Colorado Springs. He sold the company in 1996 and settled in Pueblo.

His marriages to Shirley Herdeck and Constance Herdeck ended in divorce.

Survivors include his third wife, of Pueblo, whom he married in 1971, a sister and two brothers.


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