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May 16, 2001:
Celebrating Sheldon Meyer '49, longtime history editor
Over his 40-year career, Meyer edited more than 50 books on American history

By Louis Jacobson '92

Anyone who glances at the cover of American Places: Encounters with History will find a photograph of Monticello and the cover line, "America's Leading Historians Talk About the Sites Where the Past Comes Alive for Them." Only when readers turn to the title page do they learn that the book is also "a celebration of Sheldon Meyer ['49]." The low-key approach is in character: Meyer, a longtime editor of history books for Oxford University Press, has spent his influential career out of the public spotlight.

In the late 1940s, "it was hard to do American history because very few people were teaching it," he recalled in an interview. That changed in a big way over the succeeding decades - due, in no small measure, to Meyer's efforts. From 1956 to 1996, Meyer edited 50 to 60 volumes of history per year, including subjects - such as jazz, sports, and African-American history - that had been ignored before Meyer started taking them seriously. Under his leadership, the British-based publisher became the leading light in American history, winning six Pulitzer Prizes and 17 Bancroft Prizes - a record.

Soon after Meyer retired, a group of his authors decided to publish a Festschrift - a German term for "festival writings" that refers to a volume of essays published by protÈgÈs to honor their mentor. Meyer is believed to be the first editor at a publishing house ever to be granted that honor. Moreover, unlike many Festschrifts, American Places was designed with a coherent theme in mind and a requirement that the essays be newly written.

A star-studded roster of 29 authors, including Princeton professors James M. McPherson and Sean Wilentz, answered historian William Leuchtenburg's call for essays. They submitted articles on an eclectic mix of subjects, including Fenway Park, Graceland, the Grand Canyon, Nassau Hall, and even cyberspace. Meyer says he knew nothing about the book's focus or contributors until he saw Oxford's new-releases catalog - only a few months before the Festschrift was published.

Meyer says he's pleased with the result, noting that it fits his model for a good work of history. "The author has to be someone who knows his subject, who's done the work, who's gone to the sources," he says. "The author has to be someone who brings ideas and interpretation to the subject. And the author has to be able to write intelligently, persuasively, and effectively. For history, writing a narrative is essential."

Like the authors he has worked with, Meyer - who continues to edit a handful of books a year for Oxford from his home in New York - also follows well-defined rules in his role as editor. One of the most important is not to upstage your author. "There are a lot of editors running around now, signing up people, and becoming stars themselves," Meyer says. "I totally believe that an editor has no business taking any credit. If you can help get the book published, that's the role you're supposed to play."

By Louis Jacobson '92

Louis Jacobson writes frequently about books.