Inventing the Borzoi : Alfred and Blanche Knopf and the rhetoric of prestige in modern American book publishing, 1915-1929

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Date

2010-05

Authors

Root, Amy Louise

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Abstract

Signified by an eye-catching wolfhound logo (the borzoi), the Alfred A. Knopf publishing company holds considerable prestige in the American book trade, having released works by twenty-one Nobel Prize winners, forty-nine Pulitzer Prize winners, and twenty-nine National Book Award winners to date. Founded in 1915, the firm developed a reputation for excellence in less than a decade, despite the fact that the husband-and-wife team at the helm—Alfred and Blanche Knopf—were young novices. At once a literary history and an analysis of a unique form of marketing rhetoric, Inventing the Borzoi traces the company’s status to the early acquisition of books written by noteworthy European authors, the use of distinctive design and production elements that gave Borzoi books an artisanal appearance, and marketing messages that touted Alfred Knopf himself as a new arbiter of literary standards for an audience that comprised not only consumers but also literary agents, authors, critics, booksellers, and other members of the trade. Synthesizing bibliographical research with Kenneth Burke’s theories of rhetoric and identity, this dissertation yields a multi-faceted account of the Knopf company’s first fourteen years, culminating at the cusp of the Great Depression. Burke’s notions of dramatism provide a useful means for exploring the Knopfs’ performance of a distinctive literary role. This study extends Burkean principles to a medium through which much complex language is transmitted—the book-publishing machine—uniting the philosophies of the father of modern rhetorical studies with the early history of a publishing firm whose success was largely built on the mastery of rhetorical strategies. Each chapter in this study concludes with an interpretation of Knopf history as illuminated by the pentad of Burkean dramatism: act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. The first comprehensive examination of the company’s rapidly achieved stature, this study argues that the Borzoi identity was shaped not only by conventional marketing motivations but also became a consistent extension of the way Alfred and Blanche perceived themselves.

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