Apr/May 2007

A Political Education: Coming of Age in Paris and New York

Christine Schwartz Hartley


About halfway into his memoir, André Schiffrin notes that after his father died in 1950, André and his mother lived on New York 's Upper East Side on only a few hundred dollars per year, well below the city's poverty line. Yet as the distinguished French-born editor of the New Press explains, he never felt lower-class: Back when his family lived in Paris, his mother had detailed the different layers of the French bourgeoisie, concluding that "[o]n top of them all were the intellectuals. That was us, and therefore there was never any question of our feeling underprivileged." Though Schiffrin may misremember the timing of this remark—he turned five the day the German army invaded Paris in 1940 and was just six when his family reached New York, perhaps too young to grasp such concepts—it contains everything he wants us to take away from A Political Education: Coming of Age in Paris and New York.

These are the memoirs of a twentieth-century, Continental-born intellectual, for whom most everything happens in the world of ideas. Consequently, there are hardly any sights, sounds, smells, or emotions here, unless they are related in some manner to Schiffrin's intellectual pursuits, where men seem to rule. Besides Hannah Arendt and other female writers he has published, the only women worth a nod are his mother; his girlfriend at Cambridge, who reappears in the epilogue as his wife of several decades and the mother of his two daughters; and the assistant who follows him to the New Press after he resigns from a thirty-year stint at Pantheon. Also unsurprisingly, this lifelong Socialist Democrat reformist, who first visited the New York Socialist Party headquarters at fifteen, occasionally launches into tirades about the superiority of publicly owned companies and national health services and the evils of globalization and publishing conglomerates.

At its best, however, Schiffrin's coming-of-age story acts as a springboard for a series of vivid and insightful vignettes about political developments in the United States (including the rise and long-term effects of McCarthyism), the evolution of the left, and his own political maturation. This last topic is capped by a fiery account of his 1989 showdown with Random House head Alberto Vitale, a former banker whose office "featured only a photograph of his yacht" and whose policies forced Schiffrin out of the job in which he had published the likes of Studs Terkel, Noam Chomsky, Eric Hobsbawm, Michel Foucault, Günter Grass, and Art Spiegelman.

Above all, these are the poignant memoirs of a precocious only child who fashioned himself after his famous father, Jacques, the first editor of the prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade and a close friend of André Gide and numerous other European intellectuals. It was Jacques who asked a very young André whether he should publish Curious George (yes!), who sent his fourteen-year-old son on a solo trip back to France to meet Gide with a fresh-off-the-press copy of Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms, and who defined their relationship as so rooted in the life of the mind that he neglected to tell André that he was dying of emphysema. Given the enormous expectations and rewards that came with Schiffrin père's love, it's no wonder that André never felt underprivileged or that A Political Education is bathed in his father's aura.

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