Sheldon Meyer (1926-2006)
Niko Pfund, April 2007
A life well led is almost always stoked by passion. Sometimes these passions are private pursuits, directed inward: reading, writing, gardening, listening to jazz. Other passions are more conspicuous, and thus apparent to all. The life of Sheldon Meyer, Oxford University Press's legendary history editor who died on October 9, 2006, after a long illness, was one defined by passion, a life that seamlessly blended his personal, private interests with his professional, public persona.
Sheldon Meyer loved the past and the retelling of the past, in written form and through conversation (ideally at a table bedecked with fine food and drink). Whether in the form of a long-ago battle recounted with singular flair, the travails of black baseball players in the whites-only era, or the seminal contributions of an early jazz band now faded into obscurity, America's past was the landscape of Meyer's imagination, and his authors painted many a canvas with that landscape.
Sheldon Meyer was born on June 8, 1926, in Chicago, where he came of age. After being declared ineligible to serve in World War II because of his vision, he began his lifelong relationship with print as a copy boy at the New York Sun prior to heading off to college. He graduated from Princeton University both summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, majoring in history and American civilization, in 1949.
Meyer went straight into publishing after graduation, apprenticing first at the publishing house of Funk and Wagnalls, which was followed by a short stint at Grosset and Dunlap (where he was briefly in charge of the Tom Swift and Hardy Boys books). He joined Oxford University Press (OUP) in 1956, as an assistant editor. Over the next half-century, Sheldon Meyer's career trajectory ran parallel to OUP's preeminence as a history publisher. By the time of his retirement, Meyer was senior vice president, editorial, with that rarest of university press pulpits, his own publishing unit.
The best editors not only shape a list but also endow it, seeding the backlist with books of lasting, perennial value. Meyer's already sizable reputation as an editor became even more formidable upon the publication in 1988 of James M. McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. On the strength of its authoritative reach and its mellifluous writing as well as a New York Times Book Review cover (which described the book as "historical writing at its finest"), Battle Cry of Freedom became a national bestseller and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. It today remains the definitive book on the American Civil War.
Sheldon Meyer's publishing was characterized by an extraordinary ability to predict the future trajectories of a field of inquiry (whether African American history, environmental history, women's history, or ethnic history), including the move toward popular history, and to position himself and OUP so that the press was the default publisher for the brightest young scholars in these fields. While numbers can scarcely do justice to his influence, there are few more impressive statistics in the history of publishing than the half-dozen Pulitzer Prizes and the 17 Bancroft Prizes that Meyer's books accrued. And his roster of authors is unlikely ever to be matched. In history, there was Lawrence W. Levine, Albert J. Raboteau, John Blassingame, Nathan Irvin Huggins, A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., Louis R. Harlan, Edmund Wilson, Gerda Lerner, Sterling Stuckey, Joel Williamson, Charles Capper, Alice Kessler-Harris, Robert Dallek, John Demos, Brenda Stevenson, Harvard Sitkoff, Don Fehrenbacher, William Leuchtenburg, David Brion Davis, George Fredrickson, William Chafe, Carl Degler, David Hackett Fischer, Kenneth Jackson, David M. Kennedy, Joan Hedrick, Leonard Levy, Robert Middlekauff, James Patterson, Mark Neely, Donald Worster, and of course C. Vann Woodward and Samuel Eliot Morrison, to name just a few.
In music and culture, there was Erik Barnouw (and his majestic three-volume History of Broadcasting in the United States), Alec Wilder, Gary Giddins, Gunther Schuller, Martin Williams, Andrew Sarris, Gerald Bordman, Whitney Balliett, and Ted Gioia.
September 2006 marked the 50th anniversary of Meyer's career at OUP, and he continued doing what he loved until very near the end of his life, editing the second volumes of Ben Procter's biography of William Randolph Hearst and William Freehling's The Road to Disunion that year. As recently as August 2006, he read Freehling's final version of his manuscript and called to congratulate him on it and give his last-minute comments.
As in any profession, the esteem of one's peers is often the most telling barometer of accomplishment. It seems fitting to eulogize Sheldon with the words of Lewis Bateman, a widely respected editor for nearly 40 years, first at Princeton University Press, then the University of North Carolina Press, and now Cambridge University Press, words first offered upon Meyer's retirement in 1998: "You changed the landscape of scholarly publishing in the United States. Most editors at university presses waited until manuscripts arrived over the transom and found them at annual meetings. You actively sought them out on campuses. . . . When I joined Princeton University Press in 1972 . . . everywhere I went you had been there before me or anyone else. A few weeks ago, C. Vann Woodward . . . mentioned to me that you knew what everyone was working on. Few of my colleagues would admit it, but we are merely trying to replicate your efforts in our modest careers. We know what a wide net Oxford has cast as a result of your tenure as editor there. In short, if any of us accomplishes one-tenth of what you have done in your career, it will be a lot."
And since it hardly seems appropriate to conclude a tribute to an Oxford institution with the words of a Cambridge editor, the last word should go to that definitive "heldon author," Gary Giddins: "I have never felt professionally marginalized in the publishing world, and for that we have one man to thank. . . . Sheldon Meyer merits, at the very least, a flourish of saxophones, a melody by Jerome Kern and a high-kicking chorus-line salute."
Oxford University Press