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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
By Louis Jacobson '92
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.