Columbians Ahead of Their Time
 Alfred Abraham Knopf
Alfred Abraham Knopf "I think that best-seller lists ought to be abolished by law. They're just another example of running with the crowd."

Alfred Abraham Knopf (1892–1984)
Columbia College 1912
LHD (hon.) 1959

Three years after leaving Columbia College, Alfred Knopf founded a publishing house that came to be renowned for good taste in both content and presentation. Originally intending to publish great European works in translation, Knopf soon began to showcase modern American writers, including James Baldwin, Dashiell Hammett, and Langston Hughes. Over time 26 Knopf authors—including Willa Cather, John Updike, John Cheever, Wallace Stevens, and Richard Hofstadter—won Pulitzer Prizes, more than any other American publishing house; Thomas Mann and T. S. Eliot are among the house's 16 Nobel laureates. Knopf closely supervised both his books' editorial content and commercial fortunes, and took care to publish books with subject matters that interested him—history, sociology, and music in particular. While many of the Knopf's books were not immediate best-sellers, their steady sales over time provided the company with a profitable back list. The quality of the writing was not their only hallmark; they were also hailed for their high design and production standards. In addition to running his company, Knopf also served as publisher of The American Mercury, the monthly magazine edited by H. L. Mencken, from 1924 to 1934. Disappointed by his son's decision to leave the business to start his own firm, Atheneum Publishers, Knopf sold the company in 1960 to Random House, owned by his friend and fellow Columbian Bennett Cerf.

Knopf enrolled at Columbia College in 1908, planning to become a lawyer. Although he said, "I looked back on Columbia as an ex-convict might look back on Sing Sing," his time at the college influenced his life's path. In his senior year, he became the advertising manager of the undergraduate magazine Columbia Monthly. He was also taught by literary scholar John Erskine, historian Carleton J. H. Hayes, and English professor Joel Spingarn. It was while a student of Spingarn's that Knopf began corresponding with British novelist John Galsworthy, whom he later met in the summer of 1912, during a trip to Europe. While in England that summer, Knopf was impressed by the materials and techniques used to print and bind British books. He returned home determined to become a publisher.

Read more about Knopf in the Columbia Encyclopedia.
Bennett Cerf

Fellow Columbian and publisher.

John Erskine


Write Columbia's History

Columbia's history, as seen by those who have studied, taught, and worked here.

Columbians have changed the world and how we see it.

C250 Celebrates | C250 Perspectives | C250 Forum | C250 Events | C250 To Go |
Contact C250 | Privacy Policy | About This Web Site | © Copyright 2004 Columbia University