William B. Eerdmans Jr. passed away on November 13, 2020. This reflection is excerpted from an article originally posted at Eerdword.
I once saw an interview in which the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein remarked of Paderewski, probably the most publicly celebrated pianist of an earlier day, that he was not, in fact, a great pianist, but he was a great personality. It occurred to me then, and I have thought many times since, that what might be said of Bill Eerdmans is that he was a great publisher in so large a part precisely because he was a great personality.
To be sure—and to begin there—Bill’s command of his field was impressive and his singular publishing achievements were many and great. The Eerdmans publishing legacy is filled with enduring projects altogether bearing his stamp. Early in his career came the “revised”—in the end, brand-new—edition of The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE), inherited from his father and editorially undertaken by the prodigiously productive Geoffrey Bromiley.
And the forays into theological retrieval and ecumenical dialogue on several fronts, featuring, among others, the feisty duo of Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, such a tag team in our corporate ethos that our sales manager, to Bill’s delight, named her pair of office goldfish after them. And, speaking of theology, all those publications by and about that colossus who was Karl Barth, financially not always rewarding but intellectually satisfying beyond measure. And after Barth—and owing much, as I recall, to Bill’s friendship with Richard John Neuhaus—came Wolfhart Pannenberg, one of Barth’s greatest pupils.
There were over the years the many forays into social justice, most distinctively, and of enormous pride for Bill, into the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, where our own Dutch-Calvinist heritage gave us special purpose. This not only gained us high-profile authors like Allan Boesak and Desmond Tutu, but once brought about an unlikely meeting between Bill and Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
And might I mention our early ventures, spearheaded by Bill, in publishing books by and about C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, long before they became box-office celebrities—only a part of a more general program in religion and literature?
Whatever—and however—Bill stirred a number of publishing pots, and his interests extended fully into the machinery of the trade, all the way through to the printing and binding. He and I shared, with our production manager, an enthusiasm for the “French flap” on paperbacks, an extravagance that was probably never cost-effective but pleased his aesthetic soul and mine. And we shared a dislike for the five-and-a-quarter by eight-and-a-quarter-inch paperback, which required using the paper cross-grain, making the book stiff to open—and to keep open. The “snapper,” as we called it. Yes, long after most other publishers had relinquished their own printing works, we did retain our own sister plant, and it was not unusual for Bill to be next door, poking around and checking in on one of his pet projects moving through.
But along with his entrepreneurial grasp of publishing itself came the needed apprehension of the intellectual landscape he meant to traverse. He knew where he wanted to fly, and he had the requisite aerial view of the relevant terrain. Just as important, he knew what, closer up, he didn’t know. He didn’t posture and pretend. He was happy to defer to the experts, and they, in turn, were happy to defer to his publishing expertise—and to trust his publishing soul. Where scholarship was concerned, Bill had, as essayist E. B. White eulogized about Harold Ross, the fabled cofounder and first editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, “a thing that is at least as good as, and sometimes better than, knowledge: he had a sort of natural drive in the right direction, plus a complete respect for the work and ideas and opinions of others.”
These opinions could be diametrically opposed. Bill was insistent on open-forum publishing, provided that the work was serious and responsible. Being responsible implied certain theological limits, but these were more understood than stated—the accent was on being creative and cutting-edge. Still, as flexible and intellectually commodious as he was, he could, on very rare occasion, stiffen about something he thought had strayed theologically out of bounds. Once, at the last minute, he forfeited an advance and backed away from co-publishing a book by an important English scholar because he came to see it as denying the preexistence of the Son, the only time in his own career, the originating English publisher later joked, that he had had a book turned down because it was, in Bill’s grand assessment, “weak on the hypostatic union”!
But whatever Bill’s specific achievements and whatever his grasp of our publishing world, it was Bill the deeply committed but high-spirited publishing personality who somehow counted for most, in the books and authors he directly pursued and in the heady oxygen he provided for the rest of us. He knew his work, but he also thoroughly relished it, from restaurant idea to finished book, from dizzying first authorial encounter to plunk of the final product on his overburdened desk. He had irrepressible style, wool-jacketing and red-socking his way around the office; or slipping into an evening reception, hoping for some Dutch genever and maybe a good publishing idea or two that would surface only after dark; or fumbling around with a shrimp slider at his favorite nearby restaurant on the shores of what he called our “toy lake,” creating a ripple or two, let it be said, with the restaurant staff. He had an older-school publishing élan that had the rest of us romanticizing ourselves into the corridors of Knopf or of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
And he had an older-school inspiriting commitment to what, culturally and socially, he thought the publisher was meant to do. Not for Bill the idea that publishing should cater to the latest trends. The point was to lead, not follow. If this required a little tacking now and then to market winds, so be it, just so long as the ship wasn’t knocked off its proper course.
In his latter days in the office, one might encounter Bill on his way upstairs to the editorial department, manuscript under arm and banging away noisily with his cane, doing his best, as always, to make a strength of an infirmity. “Got a really good one,” he would announce as he passed, a little unsure, perhaps, but never, ever, we knew, without that everlasting hope.
Jon Pott is the former editor-in-chief of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
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