November 29, 2011

André Schiffrin Awarded Chevalier in the Order of the Legion of Honor of the French Republic


Two weeks ago, André Schiffrin, founder of The New Press, the former publisher of Pantheon Books, and the author of our A Political Eduction, was awarded the Chevalier in the Order of the Legion of Honor of France. Below is the award address given by the Ambassador of France in the United States, François Delattre, who delivered his remarks in New York on November 16. Established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the Legion of Honor is France’s highest decoration.

It is a true privilege to be with you tonight as we are gathered here to honor an outstanding ambassador for French culture and French literature, an exceptional individual who embodies the depth and breadth of French-American friendship.

I would like to welcome André Schiffrin’s family and friends who have joined us here this evening to express their support and admiration, with a particular word of welcome to your wife, Maria Elena de la Iglesia, to whom I would also like to pay tribute tonight.

Cher André Schiffrin, your father Jacques, a remarkable man and a Russian intellectual who emigrated to France, started the Éditions de la Pléiade in Paris in 1931 and joined Gallimard in 1933 to carry on that imprint, before founding the collection “La Bibliothèque de la Pléiade”—a magnificent collection, still very famous today.

But in 1940, a few months after the fall of France, your family was forced to leave the country, because of the anti-Jewish laws of the Vichy Regime. Your father, one of two Jews in the Gallimard firm, was dismissed on August 20, 1940, exactly a year to the day before you landed in New York City… You were six years old.

Then another story began: your father went to work with the German exile publisher Kurt Wolff, who had been the first editor to promote Kafka in Germany.

Together, they launched a firm called Pantheon Books and started publishing the exiled French writers, including for example Saint-Exupéry… and a few years later, you became the director of this prestigious firm, that has remained one of the most important in the United States for thirty years.

So it’s a real family story, and I am glad, through you, to pay tribute to your father too.

Tonight I am equally pleased to welcome your son-in-law, Joseph Stiglitz, the 2001 recipient of Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences as well as his wife Anya, the daughter of André and Maria Elena. A family affair continues!

Cher André Schiffrin, it is tempting to say that you are a French-American passeur—not only because you currently live half the year in Paris, the other half in New York.

This French word “passeur” is perhaps a little overused, but it’s true to say that, without you, many French writers wouldn’t be read in the US!

You published for example Michel Foucault, Marguerite Duras and Simone de Beauvoir… Your catalogue is impressive: under your reign, Pantheon Books was actually… a pantheon.

You’re a passeur, I said, but you’re above all a fighter.

I can even say: a knight, a word that is well suited to the rank of “chevalier de la Légion d’honneur,” isn’t it?

  • You’re a man, certainly, who has been fighting for rights and knowledge for a very long time:
  • you were one of the founders of the organization that became Students for a Democratic Society;
  • in 1968 you signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing not to pay taxes in protest against the Vietnam War;
  • and for many years you were a member of the board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Freedom to Publish Committee of the American Association of Publishers, and its anti-censorship committee, the Freedom to Read Committee.

Such a modern knight pedigree does not exclude academic and scholarly distinctions:

  • you served as a visiting lecturer at Yale University, from which you graduated summa cum laude, and you received a master’s degree with highest honors from Cambridge University in England;
  • you have written articles for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, The Nation… and numerous European magazines
  • and of course you are also the author of several books, among them: The Business of Books, translated in twenty-one countries; a memoir entitled A Political Education, and most recently Words and Money which continues your denunciation of the profit-driven business of books.

A passeur, a fighter, a knight and a major intellectual: you are all of this together… which could be considered as the perfect definition of a real publisher!

So, in 1990 you founded a non-profit publishing house, The New Press, after a split with Random House, the owner of Pantheon Books. Established as “a major alternative to the large, commercial publishers,” The New Press is proof, as you said, that a bookseller can operate “editorially in the public interest.”

Needless to say, we agree!

We agree so much that this spot, the French Cultural Services, will soon become a bookstore and a library, which sounds like a very strange challenge in today’s world!

But we like challenges, and we do like books, just like you. More than ever, books are the key to our future.

That’s why, Cher André Schiffrin, I am so pleased to confer on you the insignia of Chevalier in the Order of the Legion of Honor.

Since its foundation by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the Legion of Honor has been France’s highest distinction and one of the most coveted in the world.

So it is my privilege tonight, on behalf of the President of the French Republic, to bestow upon you the Legion of Honor in recognition of your commitment to French culture and French-American friendship and your extraordinary achievements in this regard.

André Schiffrin, au nom du Président de la République, et en vertu des pouvoirs qui nous sont conférés, nous vous faisons Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.

Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.