Man of the Book: Reading a Life of Salman Schocken

By Mindy Aloff

Published December 12, 2003, issue of December 12, 2003.
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The Patron: A Life of Salman Schocken (1877-1959)

By Anthony David

Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt and Company), 352 pages, $30.

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You may have never heard of the publisher Salman Schocken, an intellectual’s businessman as well as a businessman’s intellectual; even some leading New York editors of the past 30 years know little about him. But if you’ve ever read “In Mr. Lublin’s Shop” by S.Y. Agnon — a writer whom Schocken essentially discovered, supported and promoted for the Nobel Prize in Literature — you’ve encountered a portrait of him. And if you ever bought a paperback edition of the works of Franz Kafka or Gershom Scholem in the United States in the 1950s or 1960s, you were directly affected by Schocken’s taste — at least, by a small dimension of it.

Schocken Books, the last of the publishing companies devoted to what is now called Judaica, was the comparatively reduced American outpost of Schocken’s publishing enterprise, which began magisterially with a rich and risk-taking array of German books in Weimar Berlin and continued with an extensive Hebrew publishing program in pre-World War II Palestine, where Schocken also owned the daily newspaper Ha’aretz and served as the head of administration for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His English-language publishing venture was founded last, in 1947, when Schocken was 70. Based in New York City (where it was supported primarily by Schocken’s luck in real-estate investment), its most important holdings were the copyrights to the complete works of Kafka. In the large map of New York publishing, though, Schocken Books has been considered a comparatively minor house, a niche or specialty publisher, and Schocken himself has rarely inspired curiosity outside a small circle of other Jewish émigrés.

This is likely to change with the appearance of Anthony David’s monumental new biography, “The Patron: A Life of Salman Schocken 1877-1959.” David’s absorbing chronicle covers not only Schocken’s extensive mercantile, publishing, bibliophilic, philanthropic and scholarly achievements; his cultural and intellectual ideals; his several exiles (from Germany to Palestine and then from Israel to the United States) and restless travels; his amazing literary instincts and steely business acumen, and his 50-year marriage in which he fathered five children, all of whom led reasonably good lives, but also his numerous extramarital affairs and his decision, at age 73, to leave his loveless union with his wife, Lilly, saying, “Now, I am a free man.”

David — a literary scholar and historian who has hitherto published extensively under the name Anthony David Skinner, notably on Gershom Scholem (one of Schocken’s major authors, going back to Germany in the 1930s) — offers in “The Patron” the story of a “merchant prince,” whose faith in the humanistic teachings of classical literature and philosophy and whose ultimate disabuse of that faith by the realities of totalitarianism are compared to the life education of Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Schocken, the second son of a poor, uneducated, yet kindly owner of a dry-goods store, was a self-made, largely self-educated native of Posen (at that time, a province in Poland). As a young man, as footloose and fancy free as poverty would allow, he carried his love for Goethe and Nietzsche, along with his belief in his own powers of reinvention, to Berlin, where he discovered that, although he had the soul of an artist, he didn’t possess the talent of one.

Schocken backtracked to the northern German city of Zwickau, where he embarked on the core of what became a vast fortune by joining his elder brother, Simon, in founding what became the first of the Schocken chain of department stores. His success in commerce was fueled by his zealous belief that quality merchandise was an aspect of more encompassing cultural ideals. “Sitting next to workers in Berlin rapturously taking in Gerhardt Hauptmann had tipped him off that institutions and large organizations could transit high culture to those otherwise cut off from it,” writes David.

During the era of the Weimar government, Schocken also founded the exemplary publishing house Schocken Verlag, which published Jewish and classic non-Jewish writers from the Middle Ages to the contemporary moment, in beautifully designed, reasonably priced editions. Simultaneously, he built up a consummate private collection of Hebrew books and incunabula, all of which he managed to get out intact from Nazi Germany to Palestine, where he settled in the mid-1930s, housing himself and his family in Jerusalem in a magnificent, Bauhaus-style villa and housing his 30,000 books in a companion library.

If Schocken’s idiosyncratic brand of Zionism and the Holocaust had driven him from his beloved Germany to Palestine, his ongoing unhappiness in Palestine drove him to Connecticut and Scarsdale. However, in his Hegelian views of historical pattern and his commitment to the classics of German thought, he never truly strayed from the Deutschland of his imagination. As a book collector, he owned such treasures as Einstein’s handwritten paper on the Theory of Relativity (eventually donated by Schocken to Hebrew University) and the manuscript of Heinrich Heine’s “Last Testament,” which he would carry during his travels in a cardboard tube. When in Jerusalem, he often retired to the privacy of his vast library in times of stress, preferring the enlightened voices of the past to the fragmentary and dark bulletins of the chaotic present. His greatest project was to re-engineer ancient Hebrew to serve as a Modernist language and to forge a contemporary Hebrew Niebelungenleid (which, in Palestine, he more or less oversaw). The project was entirely literary: To the end of his life, Schocken never mastered conversational Hebrew.

David makes it clear that, as a person, Schocken was not only self-made but also self-contradicting and, at times, self-destructively stubborn and rigid. Somewhere around 1940, when he realized that his boyhood vision of the triumph of humanism and commerce had been trumped by the triumph of the will, he confessed to being a broken man. His move to America in that year was not a reinvention of self, but rather an admission of failure, and although he continued to operate internationally as a publisher, he withdrew as a cultural presence. By the 1950s, he was a shell of the Schocken who had once been. Especially heartbreaking to read about are his closed-minded responses to the brilliant publishing suggestions of Hannah Arendt, who worked for a time for Schocken Books in New York, and his brusque treatment of T.S. Eliot, who ventured into Schocken’s office only to be more or less thrown out.

Still, history proved Schocken right in some very big ways: The classics he loved are still being read and the “common man” — and woman — still seeks out quality, well-designed merchandise that is also affordable. In this biography of his life, David displays authority in research, honest grace in literary tone, analytic brilliance and an insider’s feeling for all contentious parties. If Schocken was anything like the way he is portrayed in this biography, he was undoubtedly insufferable during arguments, but his actions and opinions helped to shape the world we now occupy.

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