Skip to main content
Return to Ransom Center Home Page
About the Center News Exhibitions and Events Research Collections

Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Records, 1873-1996
Series Descriptions

Series II. Alfred A. Knopf Personal
1874-1984, bulk 1953-84, boxes 501-685

Alfred A. Knopf Personal, 1874-1984, bulk 1953-84, boxes 501-685

This series consists of Alfred A. Knopf's personal files and papers, which were maintained at his office in New York City and at his home at Purchase, New York. It is made up of four subseries: A. Personal Correspondence, B. Office/Subject Files, C. Purchase Files, and D. Other Subjects and Interests. Sent to the Ransom Center over a period of years, the arrangement has been recreated from Knopf's personal file system, documented in folder 653.13, labeled "Files." Generally, the first two subseries consist of correspondence and subject files from Knopf's office, while the Purchase files were kept at his home and used for his memoirs. The last subseries consists of materials sent to the Ransom Center that were not originally present in either his office or home file systems.

These subseries must be used together to give the researcher an overall perspective of Knopf's life and achievements, since his personal and professional lives were tied so closely together. Further, because the files were created at different times and in different places, some overlap exists. For example, researchers interested in Knopf's relationship with the National Park Service will find files about conservation in all four subseries. Other subjects so scattered include travel, his publishing interests, author correspondence, and wine and food materials.

Consisting largely of correspondence, generally an original letter with a blue carbon of Knopf's response, the series also includes manuscript drafts, clippings, photographs, minutes, memoranda, diaries, programs, artwork, menus, awards, account books, slides, and other printed materials. While the date range of this series is very broad, the bulk of the files range from the 1950s to the 1980s. Only a very small number of items date from the nineteenth century, and they generally refer to Knopf family history.

All of these files were reviewed by Knopf before they were sent to The University of Texas. In some cases this is quite helpful, because Knopf made notes on the folder or added extra papers. For example, in Knopf's Office Files, on a folder titled "Americas Foundation Citation" (which gave Knopf an award in 1967), he wrote in part, "Sat on dais on Nixon's [whom Knopf detested] right. After shaking hands we did not exchange a word." However, it is also likely that he purged some materials at this time. Knopf was intensely private about his personal life, and did not save letters from his family and friends dealing with awkward issues. When his son Pat Knopf left the firm in 1959 to form Athenaeum, Knopf wrote his correspondents that he would give them the details in private, when they next met.

Scholars interested in Alfred Knopf's life should also examine the Ransom Center's Vertical Files, which hold ten drawers of ephemeral printed materials collected by Knopf.

Subseries A. Personal Correspondence, 1895-1984, bulk 1950-80, boxes 501-562

This subseries contains Alfred A. Knopf's personal correspondence. Although often created at his office, the bulk of this correspondence pertains to his personal interests, not matters of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. It has been divided into three sub-subseries: 1. Chronological Files, 2. Blanche Wolf Knopf correspondence, and 3. Manuscripts Removed from Books.

Sub-subseries 1. Chronological Files, 1911-84, bulk 1958-84, boxes 501-560

Although the chronological files, the largest sub-subseries, span the years 1911 to 1984, the bulk date from 1958 to 1984. Following Alfred Knopf's own arrangement, correspondence is filed by year and then alphabetized within each ye ar. While a small number of correspondents have their own files, most are contained within files grouped by letter. A few files labeled by subject, generally referring to specific events, can also be found. Occasionally a large amount of correspondence with an individual was pulled together by earlier Ransom Center catalogers; this arrangement has been maintained to make the correspondence easier for the researcher to read in its entirety, and is filed under the latest year of the correspondence.

The personal correspondence dating from 1911-1957 came to the Ransom Center at different times, and has been arranged chronologically. This early correspondence contains some of Knopf's earliest literary contacts, such as letters with Kay Boyle, Joseph Conrad, Clarence Day, Theodore Dreiser, W. A. Dwiggins, Joseph Hergesheimer, Vachel Lindsay, and others. Also present are the beginnings of what would become life-long literary friendships with such notables as Warren Chappell, Felix Frankfurter, and Carl Van Vechten. In addition, these early folders contain fragments of Knopf's editorial correspondence from the late 1910s and the 1920s. Since this correspondence is incomplete (consisting of only slightly more than two documents boxes), most folders in these boxes contain multiple years (e.g., box 502.4 contains the years 1941-1945). In these cases, all the correspondence in that folder has been alphabetized for ease of use.

A 26-year span of these files, dating from 1958 to 1984, was donated as a group. Within the rest of the chronological files is the bulk of Alfred A. Knopf's personal correspondence from 1958 to his death. His interest in such subjects as conservation, politics, Latin America, the American West, and fine wine is well documented. He was a voluminous letter writer, who sought out advice from noteworthy people and never hesitated to venture his own opinions on the topic at hand.

A strength of this sub-subseries lies in its correspondence with authors. Since Knopf's life was so interconnected with the firm he founded, many of his authors became friends as well. For example, Knopf's personal interest in the fields of history, sociology, and science led to close friendships in the academic community with such noted historians as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Samuel Eliot Morison. Further, authors like Jorge Amado and John Hersey, whose correspondence is scattered throughout this sub-subseries, corresponded with Knopf on both a personal and professional basis. Although much of this correspondence is routine, it nonetheless reveals the respect with which Knopf treated his authors and their strong loyalty to him. A good example of the way business and friendship overlapped for Knopf can be taken from the publication of John Hersey's WHITE LOTUS in 1965. After a particularly savage review by TIME, Knopf wrote Hersey a consoling letter, emphasizing that neither Hersey's literary reputation nor his sales would be hurt by the review (see file 517.4).

In addition, Knopf enjoyed corresponding with political figures, never hesitating to offer his suggestions or to critique his correspondent's recent performances, as letters to Senators Jacob Javits, Irving Ives, and many others attest. A prominent Republican until Watergate, Knopf refused to accept form responses from the legislators he knew, and often drew them into lengthy discourses by mail.

Other files of interest in this subseries are Knopf's extensive travel files, which contain correspondence, schedules, and often narrative accounts written by Knopf detailing his visit. In addition there are 25 folders of condolence letters, written in 1966 on the occasion of Blanche Knopf's death. Knopf used extracts of some of these letters when he dedicated a BORZOI QUARTERLY to his late wife. Other correspondence chronicles Knopf's interest in Latin America, attested to not only by his exchanges with great writers, translators, and publishers, but also by his many contacts within the diplomatic community, especially in Brazil. His contacts with other connoisseurs of fine food and wine, and his letters to the pioneers of the environmental movement are also represented.

Finally, there are many letters of complaint to hotels, restaurants, and stores that failed to meet Alfred Knopf's high standards. Most of the letters complain of inferior service that Knopf believed he received. These letters grew increasingly frequent and more severe as he aged. A particularly extensive file covers a six year long conflict with the Eastman Kodak Company over a roll of lost film (see file 503.13).

Sub-subseries 2. Blanche Wolf Knopf, 1912-23, box 561

A smaller group of files (5 folders) contains letters from Knopf's fiancée and wife, Blanche Wolf Knopf. Arrangement is chronological, with one file of undated letters. Dating from the earliest years of their relationship, the letters begin with short, slightly formal notes of thanks or replies to date requests and become increasingly warm and loving as time progresses. Blanche eventually begins to use nicknames in the letters, referring to Alfred as "Reuben" or "Monkey" and signing herself as "VV."

By the late 1910s and early 1920s, most of the letters were sent to Knopf while he traveled on business, and in many of them Blanche mentions the daily business of the new firm. This correspondence reveals how closely the two worked together in the early years of the firm.

Sub-subseries 3. Manuscripts Removed from Books, 1895-1983, bulk 1950-80, box 561-562

The last sub-subseries consists of manuscripts removed from books in Alfred A. Knopf's personal library. They are arranged by the call number of the book from which the letter was removed. Although the sub-subseries has a broad date range, most of the letters date from the 1950s to 1970s. The vast majority of this correspondence arrived with the book, originating from its author or publisher. The letters are generally very short, recommending the book to Knopf. Some of these letters are paired with Knopf's reply on his signature blue carbon paper. Some books that were published by Knopf contain internal memoranda referring in some way to the publication of that book. In a few cases, the correspondence is quite revealing. For example, Philip Unwin's book THE PUBLISHING UNWINS (call number CS 439 U55 1972) arrived with a letter from Unwin detailing the events in his life since the publication of his book. In another book, FRANCIS PARKMAN by Mason Wade (call number E 175.5 P28), a letter from Bernard DeVoto describes how Knopf can find much more information about western routes than are offered in the book. Name access is provided in the index of correspondents.

Subseries B. Office/Subject Files, 1894-1979, bulk 1940-65, boxes 563-595

These files, arranged alphabetically by subject, were originally maintained in Alfred Knopf's office. The range of subjects covered is extremely broad, representing Knopf's work in the publishing industry as well as his personal interests. Although the files span over 80 years, the bulk of the files date from the 1940s through the early 1960s. All files under the letter "D" were not found. In many cases a carbon copy of Knopf's correspondence was filed both chronologically in his correspondence files and also by subject.

The contents of these files vary enormously. While a very few contain only clippings, most have a wide range of materials, including correspondence, reports, flyers, and clippings. For example, a file labeled "Advertising" (see file 563.2) includes letters of complaint from Knopf to the NEW YORK TIMES regarding their advertising policies, general clippings about advertising, clippings of Knopf advertisements, and a chapbook detailing the history of advertising in the Knopf firm.

A strength of this subseries derives from the files related to the functioning of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. With correspondence, memoranda, internal reports, and staff records, these files offer a view of the inner workings of the company and Knopf's management style. Since the Ransom Center's holdings of General Correspondence files begins in 1946, the collection as a whole is augmented by the files in this subseries dating from the 1920s through the early 1940s. For example, correspondence and paperwork related to the purchase of the William Penn backlist in 1943 is located here. Other company related folders of significance include a file of correspondence with editor Angus Cameron, offering candid appraisals of writers and books, and Knopf's folders of memoranda to and from his staff from 1956 to 1977. While most of these files are labeled clearly, a few ambiguous labels do not show that they relate solely to the firm. The folder titled "Awards & Fellowships" contains flyers for literary contests Knopf ran in the early 1940s to attract authors.

Another topic found frequently in this subseries relates to the publishing world and books in general. There are files on other publishing companies, and others devoted to issues and trends in the industry over a period of fifty years. A series of folders also devoted to typography reflects the interest of a publisher known for his fine book design.

The large number of files containing reports, correspondence, and minutes from the publishing groups, charitable boards, committees, and social clubs to which Knopf belonged attests to his reputation in the literary, business, and philanthropic worlds. While his membership in such literary organizations as the American Book Publishers Council, the Book Table, and the International Publishers Association is not surprising, Knopf's range of interests outside publishing is remarkable. This subseries includes files from social clubs (Cosmos and Harmonie Clubs), historical associations (Institute of Early American History and Culture, the Massachusetts Historical Society), charitable groups (Arthritis Foundation, Arthur Farmer Memorial Fund), and fine wine and food societies (Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs, Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin).

Knopf's most consuming outside interest, and one that takes up nearly one quarter of this subseries, was the natural environment. Most of the files on this subject are arranged under the titles "Conservation" and "National Park Service," but they are also scattered elsewhere throughout the subseries. These files contain correspondence, clippings, news releases, bulletins, reports of nature societies, legislative materials, and board meeting minutes and reports (from organizations such as the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, on whose Board of Trustees Knopf served for many years). Further, Knopf's close association with the United States National Park Service is well documented. Over five document boxes of reports, minutes, and correspondence show his involvement with the organization, as a member of the advisory board and later chairman. A highlight from these files is Knopf's participation in the campaign to save the Dinosaur National Monument from 1950-57.

A small number of files in this subseries relate to Alfred A. Knopf personally. More travel files, covering daily activities, meetings, and impressions, can be found, including a report describing his first trip to Brazil (a country he would later visit regularly) in 1962. One folder of photographs contains early family portraits, and the papers relating to a few of Knopf's honorary doctorates can be found here. There are also files of papers he collected simply because the topic interested him, such as his files on censorship, civil rights, humor, and music.

These files are complemented by the Alphabetical Files (sub-subseries 4 of the Purchase Files subseries), which cover many of the same subjects for a later period, and that he kept at his home in Purchase to use in writing his memoir. However, it is very likely that Knopf also referred to these Office/Subject Files while he was writing his memoir.

Subseries C. Purchase Files, 1876-1985, boxes 595-673

These files were maintained at Knopf's home in Purchase, N.Y. As he grew older he retired to the country more often, and turned from running the company he founded to writing his memoir. The subseries is divided into five sub-subseries: 1. Memoir, 2. Diaries, 3. Interviews, 4. Alphabetical Files, and 5. Clippings and Reports. While the first two sub-subseries relate directly to his memoir, the other three served as reference sources for Knopf.

Sub-subseries 1. Memoirs, 1876-1985, boxes 595-620

a. Chronological Files, 1910-83, boxes 595-609
b. Memoir Drafts, 1892-1982, boxes 610-618
c. Willa Cather, 1946-85, box 618
d. H. L. Mencken, 1876-1981, boxes 618-620

The first sub-subseries of the Purchase Files pertain directly to the writing of Knopf's unpublished memoir. Fourteen boxes of Chronological Files contain correspondence, clippings, menus, programs, and other materials that Knopf gathered together and referred to as he was writing the narrative drafts. These files offer the most comprehensive survey of Knopf's life, especially his early years as a publisher. They consist of documents that date from the period about which he was writing and are augmented by contemporary lists, correspondence, and memoranda confirming dates, giving lists of books published, and offering reminders to Knopf of those years. A strength of these chronological files are the early letters he pulled from other sources, including files that were subsequently destroyed, or photocopied to keep in these files. The first file is labeled "1918 and Earlier" and each following year is represented by at least one folder, with the exception of 1968, for which no materials were found. Many of the later years he chronicled comprise more than one folder, and include correspondence that is duplicated in Knopf's personal correspondence files, a fact perhaps explainable by the fact that he was writing the memoir at the same time he was corresponding. By 1978 the amount of materials he saved dwindles considerably and consists only of files devoted to theater and music programs and to obituaries of his contemporaries. While not strong on personal materials, these later files do offer a comprehensive overview of the events Knopf considered important in his life.

The next group in the Memoir sub-subseries contains Knopf's multiple memoir drafts, which testify to the amount of work and revision he did. There are numerous drafts, the majority of which are incomplete. For ease of access, one complete draft can be found at the beginning of the subseries, from box 610.1 to 614.6, and the following incomplete drafts have been arranged numerically, with Knopf's general notes and handwritten drafts placed at the very end. In a very few cases, the drafts themselves contain correspondence, programs, or clippings to which he referred in the text.

Besides drafting his memoir, Knopf wrote about the memorable friendships he made as a publisher. Two such accounts are found in the memoir sub-subseries. One folder, 618.5, contains manuscript drafts recounting his relationship with Willa Cather, bolstered by copies of their correspondence and associated clippings. An additional twenty folders chronicle Knopf's close friendship and professional association with H. L. Mencken. The Mencken files can be broken down into two parts -- manuscript drafts and reference material. Seven files of drafts, interspersed with copied letters, reveal his relationship with Mencken in narrative form. The other files include correspondence with Mencken and other Mencken scholars (such as Betty Adler of the Enoch Pratt Free Library), as well as personal notes, clippings, and photographs. Of particular interest is the file labeled "Bawdy Humor/Anti-Semitism" where Knopf, himself a Jew, refutes charges of Mencken's anti-Semitism. For further information on Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and Mencken's AMERICAN MERCURY magazine, see series IX.

Sub-subseries 2. Diaries, 1919-1984, boxes 621-647

A large collection (23 document boxes) of Knopf's diaries and appointment books makes up the second sub-subseries in the Knopf Personal series. Arranged chronologically and dating from 1919 to the year of his death, the diaries detail Knopf's day-to-day activities. The earliest diaries are sporadic, and lack the years 1920-22, 1926-1929, and 1933. They tend to be filled with narrative descriptions of his activities and observations. Only in a few cases do the diaries contain his frank opinions and personal feelings. A typical extract reads as follows:

"November 28, 1923: Stopped at Willa Cather's today for a little to see the portrait Bakst just painted of her for the Omaha Public Library. It was pretty bad -- not a likeness -- & makes her look very melancholy, wch I've never yet seen her. She was charming & delightful & quite at home again. She said she really thought the reason why she couldn't work at Villa d'Orsay was that the people around weren't themselves working but rather waiting to see her work. She has nothing ready or in process but is just ready to start a book & when it will be finished she hasn't an idea," (see file 621.2).

By 1940, however, Knopf began keeping two appointment calendars and a pocket calendar -- these were less personal, with an emphasis on his meeting schedules and daily observations of the weather. The pocket calendars are filed separately from the other diaries and appointment books, due to special housing needs. As in other series, his travel diaries, covering his visits to Brazil, Europe, and the American West, offer useful insights into his literary contacts and friendships.

Sub-subseries 3. Interviews, 1964-78, box 643

Knopf maintained only one file of transcripts from interviews he granted in the later years of his life. Other publicity can be found throughout this series.

Sub-subseries 4. Alphabetical Files, 1897-1984, boxes 648-669

These Alphabetical Files complement the Office/Subject Files in subseries B. Although their date range is broader and runs slightly later, they are arranged alphabetically by subject, and generally contain the same types of materials. There is a great deal of overlap between these files and the Office Files, e.g., both include files on the environment, typography, food and wine, and politics. In addition, however, the Alphabetical Files contain a number of folders pulled from the firm. Of particular interest are the author files that Knopf saved to use for his memoir. Early editorial correspondence with writers such as Conrad Aiken, Thomas Beer, W. H. Hudson, and Ernest Newman is in this subseries. Also of interest is the file titled "Editorial Mistakes" (see file 656.6), which consists of the firm's documention and reader's reports on important books rejected by Knopf, including William Golding's LORD OF THE FLIES, John Knowles' A SEPARATE PEACE, Nabokov's LOLITA, and manuscripts by Mary Renault. This sub-subseries is also particularly strong in personal files, offering account books and records relating to dogs and cemetery plots. Also, a large file of family material, gathered by a biographer of Knopf, reveals information about his background. Finally, later files contain only clippings, illustrating Knopf's gradual withdrawal from activity as he aged.

Sub-subseries 5. Clippings and Reports, 1931-84, boxes 669-673

The last sub-subseries consists of almost four boxes of printed materials saved by Knopf. The sub-subseries is organized by letters of the alphabet, so a large range of subjects is covered in each file. They offer little insight into Knopf's life but further reflect his general interests in Latin America, conservation, politics, music, and universities. Although dominated by newspaper and magazine clippings, there are also reprints, programs, invitations, newsletters, and other printed items present.

Subseries D. Other Subjects and Interests, 1874-1985, boxes 673-685

Within this subseries are files and other loose materials that Knopf saved and donated to the Ransom Center but that were not a part of any existing file system. The range of materials found is very broad and although some of the materials are ephemeral in nature, such as a large collection of clippings about people and publishing, many of the files contain books and papers that reflect the interests in Knopf's daily life. Arranged alphabetically by subject or type of material, this subseries is the only one to contain a large number of non-textual materials. In addition to artwork, photographs, and portraits, a small collection of films (including "A Publisher is Known by the Company He Keeps"), dictaphone recordings, and phonograph records are present.

Many files relate directly to Knopf's home at Purchase and reflect his interest in fine dining. For example, within a large collection of wine and food related material, one finds Alfred Knopf's cellar books, which list in detail the wines kept and drunk at his home, and a notebook describing the meals at his house from 1940-51. An additional four folders of wine labels, most with dates and annotations on the back, confirms his passion for good wine. Other materials relating to his home in Purchase include guest books, gardening books, and an inventory of his library.

This subseries also features financial and personal documentation, such as account books, covering such expenses as home costs, investments, daily expenditures, club dues, and taxes, over a 40-year period. A file of personal documentation contains his draft records, ration cards, and driver's license. There is material relating to family members Samuel, Blanche, and Helen Knopf, as well as a folder of early internal documents from the firm. This subseries also contains the many awards and honors given to Knopf over his lifetime.

Finally, a number of folders contain writings by Knopf, dating from 1914 to 1984. While mainly consisting of articles, there are also personal tributes, a run of the BORZOI QUARTERLY, and a poem written for Blanche Knopf while they were courting. Additionally, a folder of material written by others and given to Knopf includes manuscripts by John Galsworthy, William Humphrey, Haldane Macfall, Thomas Mann, Rudolf Sauter, and H. M. Tomlinson.

Lists of Alfred Knopf's personal effects, pieces of art, and slide collection, materials which are held separately from the archive, can be found in Appendices I, III, and V. Ten file drawers of ephemeral material are described in Appendix II.

Other Series Descriptions
General Correspondence AA Knopf Personal Blanche W. Knopf Author and Book
Designer Files
Editor Files
Editorial Department Files Other Department Files London Office Files and AMERICAN MERCURY

Return to the Alfred A. Knopf Inc. Records Table of Contents

Return to Finding Aids

About the Center   |   News   |   Exhibitions & Events   |   Research   |   Collections

Home   |   E-mail   |   Mailing List   |   Giving Opportunities   |   Building News   |   Site Map


Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center The University of Texas at Austin
  Image map to select a home page Materials Usage Statement