IN THE COMPANY OF WRITERS

A Life in Publishing

By Charles Scribner Jr.

Based on the oral history by Joel R. Gardner

Scribners. 193 pp. $22.50

Charles Scribner Jr. had the good luck to be born into one of America's notable book-publishing families, but the bad luck to take control of its professional affairs at a time when Charles Scribner's Sons was dead in the water. Whether he ever brought it back up to speed has been a matter of argument in publishing circles for nearly four decades; "In the Company of Writers" is at least in part his attempt to make a case on his behalf, but as such it is something less than persuasive.

The title is misleading. Though the book includes, as do all publishing memoirs, the obligatory name-dropping chapter ("Writers and Friends," Scribner calls it) and though the book is written in the chummy, clubby prose favored by the authors of such memoirs, it is not really about writers, in whom Scribner's interest seems at most lukewarm. Rather it is about a man who from childhood felt burdened by the obligation to carry on the family business when he clearly preferred "the life of teaching and scholarship"; this aspect of Scribner's story is not without its poignant elements, but it also suggests why under his leadership the firm of Scribners never regained the prominence it had enjoyed in previous generations.

Part of the problem was that when Charlie Scribner took over the firm in the early 1950s it was in the waning hours of the Maxwell Perkins era; the great editor's most famous authors were over the hill or dead, Perkins himself was often lost in drink, yet the firm seemed incapable of imagining any role for itself save that of perpetuating his tradition. Young Scribner thought, perhaps wisely, that the house had to "break away from the Perkins tradition of pursuing novels and belles lettres exclusively"; but he and the editors working for him chose a strange way to do this.

To be sure, they did venture into some avenues of publishing previously unexplored by the firm; Scribner is deservedly proud of the 16-volume Dictionary of Scientific Biography, which he calls "the most important contribution I have made to Scribners as editor and publisher," and of other nonfiction undertakings as well. But his attitude toward the Perkins legacy was a curious mixture of repudiation and exploitation. On the one hand, he moved Scribners so far away from serious literary publishing that the house once revered for its contributions to 20th-century American letters quickly became the object of scorn and ridicule; yet on the other hand, he so blatantly traded on the backlist Perkins had assembled -- in particular the holy trinity of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Wolfe -- that many in the trade took this to be a confession of inability to match past successes.

In no regard was this more glaring than in the firm's handling of the work of Ernest Hemingway. That Scribner managed to make a handsome return for the author in his last years and for his heirs after his death certainly must be acknowledged; Charles Scribner takes credit for careful management of the paperback rights to Hemingway's work, and he does so with good reason. But in the years after Hemingway's suicide the firm brought out thick volumes of work the author himself had chosen not to publish; in so doing it raised legitimate questions about whether it was more interested in squeezing every available nickel from Hemingway's literary corpus than in protecting both his wishes and his reputation.

"A Moveable Feast," "Islands in the Stream," "The Nick Adams Stories," "The Garden of Eden": in varying degrees all of these books were cobbled up by editors from chunks or fragments of manuscript, then offered to the reading public as whole books. Far more troubling than these, though, was Scribner's willingness to collaborate with Mary Hemingway, the author's widow and executor, in publishing his letters against his written and stated wishes. Charles Scribner's defense of this is shameless:

"Hemingway left strict instructions that his letters should not be published. But, with Mary's approval, I published them -- and I think I did the right thing. To begin with, he had kidded my father about publishing his letters, so he had thought of such a thing. Second, I believe his letters show a side of him that nothing else does, and it is a very nice side. It is well known that Virgil left instructions for the 'Aeneid' to be burned after his death. Fortunately, not all literary executors obey such requests."

What we have here is a bit of shading the truth. Virgil wanted the "Aeneid" destroyed because it was unfinished; the Emperor Augustus countermanded his instructions in the larger interests of literature and history. But there was nothing unfinished or incomplete about Ernest Hemingway's letters; he merely expressed the specific desire that they go unpublished. His widow and publisher overrode that request for what gives every appearance of being rank commerce; Charles Scribner Jr. is no Augustus.