A Really Special Senior Moment -- Beacon Press Turns 150

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One year after Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was published and four years before California became a state, Beacon Press published its first book. On November 13, 2003, (a few months shy of Beacon's official anniversary, which is in January) over 150 authors, staff members, and friends attended a party in Boston to commemorate the independent press' sesquicentennial and its long history of publishing books about social justice issues including race, women's studies, gay and lesbian studies, religion, and democracy. "It's almost unheard of for a press to have been around as long as we have, except for the university presses," said Beacon's director Helene Atwan. "Compared with us, Random House is a puppy."

Beacon Press, which began as the Press of the American Unitarian Association (its name was officially changed to Beacon Press in 1902) was launched in 1854 when the American Unitarian Association (AUA) established a nonprofit publishing branch supported by the fundraising efforts of educator George Emerson, cousin of Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson. The need for a press freed from the constraints of profit-making was pointedly summed up by Samuel Kirkland Lothrop, president of the AUA during the late 19th century: "The publication of books that appeal to the higher instincts do not command as a rule a higher circulation and cannot, therefore, be handled by publishing houses that are primarily commercial."

Current director Atwan remarked on how the passing of a century and a half doesn’t at all affect the importance of having a nonprofit press. There is an essential difference between commercial presses and a nonprofit press, said Atwan. "I spent my first 20 years in publishing at [commercial] presses. [Beacon] has the mission to make a difference in the world and change minds and attitudes rather than make a profit. It influences everything we do. Obviously it affects the books that we publish, but it also affects the way we publish these books. A key part of what we look at is publicity as having a larger purpose than just selling books. [Beacon] is about putting ideas into the public."

In the mid-20th century Beacon Press signed philosophers Alfred North Whitehead and John Dewey, and the press was known for printing criticism of Joseph McCarthy and Joseph Stalin. During the civil rights movement Beacon published, among others, the seminal texts of Herbert Marcuse's One Dimensional Man, James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, and Mary Daly's Beyond God the Father. And, famously, in 1971 Beacon published The Pentagon Papers -- which 35 publishers turned down. Just before publication of The Papers, Richard Nixon called Beacon's director at the time, Gobin Stair, in an effort to convince him not to go forth with the publication. An additional volume of commentary and analysis on the Papers was edited by Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. More recent Beacon titles include Cornel West's Race Matters and Mary Oliver's Owls and Other Fantasies.

Though so much of Beacon's mission, which involves publishing works that promulgate "the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in society," hasn't changed throughout its history, Atwan talked about a new interpretation of the mission, which had until recently included mostly straightforward nonfiction titles: "We pored ourselves into looking at our mission in the most creative and inventive way. We still offer some straightforward nonfiction, but we also publish creative writing. There was no original fiction [published by Beacon] until the last decade. It's the same message, but packaged differently, like the Bluestreak series of writing by women of all colors. Through fiction and narrative nonfiction, ideas of the inherent dignity and worth of all people is sometimes more effectively conveyed than a polemic."

To help celebrate a 150 years of literary publishing, Beacon is offering promotions to booksellers. As Tom Hallock, associate publisher and director of marketing and sales, told BTW, "Beacon wouldn't have 150 years to celebrate if not for the support of independent booksellers." Hallock explained that the "promotion is meant to be flexible, enabling each store to promote the Beacon titles that are most likely to appeal to their customers. That selection might vary between a general independent in New England, a college store in the Midwest, or a women's bookstore on the West Coast -- we wanted to trust to local knowledge, so we didn't list specific titles on our materials."

The materials include an 11" x 16" easel card for window or tabletop use, with comments about Beacon Press from Howard Zinn, Edwidge Danticat, Daniel Ellsberg and Juliet Schor; and Beacon Press counter displays. Booksellers can display the materials however they like for a two-week period between January 5 - 30 and will then be eligible for a $100 Co-op Allowance. Materials and details can be obtained through an upcoming Advance Access offering; by contacting Tom Hallock via e-mail at [email protected]; or by contacting your local Houghton Mifflin rep (Houghton is Beacon Press' distributor). --Karen Schechner