October-16th-2006, 10:19 AM
Sheldon Meyer - R.I.P.
Sheldon Meyer, 80, Editor Changed Focus At Oxford University Press to Popular Culture
BY STEPHEN MILLER - Staff Reporter of the Sun
October 16, 2006
Sheldon Meyer, who died October 9 at 80, was for half a century an editor at Oxford University Press, where he turned the spotlight on American popular culture with hundreds of titles on topics such as jazz, black history, and women's history.
Among his more important books were "Battle Cry of Freedom" by James McPherson, "The Jazz Tradition" by Martin Williams, "Slave Religion" by Albert Raboteau, and the three-volume "History of Broadcasting in the United States" by Eric Barnouw. He also served, with C. Vann Woodward, as editor of "The Oxford History of the United States."
"It is doubtful that any other editor in the long history of publishing in the United States has had so large an impact on the field as has Sheldon Meyer on American studies, or so distinguished an array of authors," wrote historian William Leuchtenburg, who dedicated his book about the Roosevelt court, "The Supreme Court Reborn," to Meyer.
Books that Meyer edited garnered six Pulitzer prizes and 17 Bancroft prizes, surely some kind of record if anybody kept such records, while helping to legitimize new areas of study.
"His passion was American history and studies, particularly American culture," the historian Michael Kammen told the Cornell Chronicle in 2001. "Today those books flow out, but 25 years ago they were considered not respectable."
Meyer grew up in Chicago, was declared 4F during World War II for a vision problem, and worked briefly as a copyboy at The New York Sun before attending Princeton. He initially worked at Funk and Wagnalls and then Grosset and Dunlap, where he was initially hired, in 1955, to oversee the Tom Swift and Hardy Boys series, a rather jarring disharmony with his later career, which was devoted entirely to nonfiction.
In 1956, he got a job at Oxford University Press, a prestigious company that did not specialize in American history, jazz, sports, black and women's studies, or any of the things Meyer would make it famous for.
He published on topics he was passionate about, like history, sports, and music. At Meyer's inspiration, OUP published Robert Toll's "Blacking Up," the first book to take black minstrelsy seriously; "American Popular Song," the standard account of pop music in the first half of the 20th century; Whitney Balliett's "American Musicians"; Gerald Bordman's "American Musical Theatre"; Mr. Kammen's "The Lively Arts"; Andrew Sarris's "You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet"; and "Visions of Jazz" by the Sun's Gary Giddins.
Nat Hentoff wrote of Meyer's astonishingly extensive musical books, "I can say dispassionately that in the entire history of [jazz] music, there has never been, in any country, so diverse and durable a body of essential companions to the music as his list."
It was a stretch from the old OUP, where Oxford dons, dubbed "delegates," oversaw the oldest publisher in the world.
"‘I had some problems in the mid-60's," Meyer said in a story recounted by Mr. Giddins in his recent book, "Natural Selection" (2006, OUP). "The head of the press in England said he had begun to notice some odd books appearing in the Oxford list, and I said, ‘Well, I'm responsible for them.' Since he was a papyrologist — a guy working with old documents, old rolls of paper — he didn't have much connection with this world, to say the least. So I said to him, ‘Well, look, as long as these books are authoritative and make money, it seems to me they're appropriate for the press to publish.' Fortunately for the future of my career, that turned out to be correct."
Meyer was head of OUP's trade publications from the late 1960s. The success of "Battle Cry of Freedom" (1988), a rare Meyer-edited best seller, allowed him to set up a special publishing unit within OUP, the closest thing the company had to a personal imprint. In addition to coming with a rise in salary, the new job, to his great joy, entailed fewer administrative meetings.
Meyer formally retired in 1997 but continued as a consulting editor at OUP. In 1999, he and Woodward handed the editing of "The Oxford History of the United States" — a distinguished multivolume series originally edited by Richard Hofstadter — to David Kennedy of Stanford University, whose volumes have continued to garner excellent reviews.
Urbane and fond of conversation, Meyer liked to relax with lobster salad and Chablis at his Hunter Island summer home, where he and his wife sometimes golfed poorly, she said. For many years he had a single season ticket to the New York Giants, but when he couldn't purchase a second for his son, he opted instead for the Jets.
He continued to work with OUP as a consulting editor right up to the end. A few years ago, he told a Princeton alumni publication how to, or how not to, become a highly influential editor.
"There are a lot of editors running around now, signing up people, and becoming stars themselves," Meyer said. "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."