Helen Wolff (1906-1994) – Publisher and Virtuosa of Communication
Completed research project
Quality trade book publishing houses were throughout the twentieth century ‘places of assembly’ (G. Hübinger), sites of crystallisation for liberal bourgeois society, for producing, discussing and pushing through interpretations and narratives. Even though they worked within nation-state frameworks and markets, they provided and organised manifold processes of transnational cultural transfer, mediating and translating concepts and traditions, especially in the Western hemisphere. As their economies were often still based on family structures, intergenerational and gender relationships played an important role, promising continuity and a compensation of the risks and insufficiencies that the book business entailed. How men and women met there, and how they administered and used the separation of the private and the public spheres for cultural production, translation and marketing, allows conclusions to be drawn on how society organised ‘masculine domination’ (P. Bourdieu) and produced its androcentric world views.
The project addresses the transnational and the gender dimensions of book publishing history, in a biographical case study on the German-European-American publisher Helen Wolff (1906-1994), wife of Franz Kafka’s publisher Kurt Wolff (1887-1963). Helen Wolff started off as a publisher’s lover and secretary in Germany in 1928, and became a publisher-wife and partner when, after their emigration to New York in 1941, Kurt Wolff founded Pantheon Books, the publishing house that established a reputation for translating ‘difficult’ European literature, and made its fortune publishing Dr Zhivago and the bestsellers by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Due to internal conflicts, the couple left Pantheon in 1960 and joined a big publishing corporation, Harcourt, Brace, with an imprint that stood for marketable high-quality translations: ‘A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book’. After her husband’s death, Helen Wolff continued the imprint for 30 years and ascended to become a publisher in her own right, opening the American book market for multiple German and European writers (Günter Grass, Max Frisch, Uwe Johnson, Italo Calvino, Georges Simenon and many more) and occupying a key position in the transatlantic literary networks. The project seeks to deconstruct the image of the influential publisher that is not least a product of Helen Wolff’s own autobiographical engineering, and to re-develop it through intersectional analysis.