Arthur W. Wang, Founder of a Bold Publishing House, Is Dead at 87

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Arthur W. Wang, co-founder of the intrepid publishing house of Hill & Wang, which took a chance on the early work of Elie Wiesel and Roland Barthes and was known for its Dramabooks series and books on American history, died on Friday in Wellesley, Mass. He was 87. The cause was complications of Alzheimer's disease, Mr. Wang's wife, Mary-Ellen, said.

[Eric Foner recalled in an email to HNN that Mr. Wang published an extraordinary list of history books. "I always felt he loved to publish these books just to give him an excuse to talk about history," Foner told the NYT. Below is a list of the books in American History that Wang published when Foner served as a consulting editor in history (c. 1974-94).]

In 1959 Mr. Wang bought Mr. Wiesel's Holocaust memoir, "Night," which had been turned down by more than a dozen publishers. "At the time, people didn't want to hear about that period," Mr. Wiesel said yesterday in an interview from Jerusalem. "They said, 'Why should people read such morbid stuff?' " At first sales were slow, but it went on to sell millions of copies.

Hill & Wang was founded in 1956 by Mr. Wang, then editor of the A. A. Wyn publishing company, and Lawrence Hill, its sales manager. They bought backlist books from Wyn and started Dramabooks, with Eric Bentley as adviser, publishing plays in trade paperback, then a new format. The company prospered, and the series included Jean Cocteau, Arthur Kopit and Lanford Wilson.

Early on, Mr. Hill and Mr. Wang decided to concentrate on African-American books, by Langston Hughes and on anthologies of short stories and poetry. They sold well.

The poet and translator Richard Howard championed the French theorist Roland Barthes, then relatively unknown, and the company published him. It also published American historians like Stanley Kutler and William Cronon.

In 1971 Mr. Wang and Mr. Hill sold Hill & Wang to Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Mr. Hill died in 1988. Mr. Wang remained active in the company until 1998.

[This is a statement Eric Foner wrote in honor of Arthur Wang in 2001:]

Working for twenty years as advisory editor for Hill and Wang proved to be one of the most consistently interesting and intellectually challenging endeavors of my academic career. The job required me, in conjunction with Arthur Wang, to assess trends in the study of American history, identify and sign up promising young scholars, and edit manuscripts as they came in. I learned an immense amount about the publishing industry, and developed a more sympathetic outlook toward publishers’ travails with authors. I witnessed authors finding innumerable excuses for delaying writing almost interminably, and how established scholars can submit material that would shame a college freshman. But I also experienced the pleasure of working with talented and open-minded scholars who welcomed criticism and, more than not, produced excellent books.

Most of all, I had the pleasure of exchanging ideas with Arthur Wang. It was not until I began to work with editors at other publishing companies that I realized how unique was his combination of business savvy and sheer intellectual curiosity. I think that Arthur was in publishing largely so that he could spend his time reading about history and talking to historians. His judgment is impeccable and his ability to turn leaden prose into good writing remarkable. Arthur once remarked to me when I was trying to decide where to publish one of my own books, “there are two kinds of publishers – those interested in money and those interested in books.” Unfortunately, the former type is in the ascendancy nowadays. But Arthur Wang will always be one of the latter.

Partial List of US History Books Published by Wang (provided by Eric Foner):

Carol Berkin, First Generations: Women in Colonial America

Richard D. Brown, Modernization: The Transformation of American Life 1600-1865

Milton Cantor, The Divided Left: American Radicalism, 1900-1975

Catherine Clinton, The Other Civil War: American Women in the Nineteenth Century

Edward Countryman, The American Revolution

William Cronon, Changes in the Land

Pete Daniel, Standing at the Crossroads: Southern Life in the Twentieth Century

Roger Daniels, Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II

Steven Diner, A Very Different Age: Americans of the Progressive Era

Lynn Dumenil, The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s

David Farber, The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s

Marvin E. Frankel, Faith and Freedom: Religious Liberty in America

James Green, World of the Worker: Labor in Twentieth-Century America

Michael Hunt, Lyndon Johnson’s War

Julie Roy Jeffrey, Frontier Women

Paul Johnson, A Shopkeepers’ Millennium

Carl Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society

Peter Kolchin, American Slavery

Bruce Laurie, Artisans Into Workers: Labor in Nineteenth Century America

Melvyn Leffler, The Specter of Communism: The United States and the Origins of the

Cold War

Bruce Levine, Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of the Civil War

Robert G. McMath, Jr., American Populism

Gregory Nobles, American Frontiers

Emily Rosenberg, Spreading the American Dream

Rosalind Rosenberg, Divided Lives: American Women in the Twentieth Century

Fred Siegel, Troubled Journey: From Pearl Harbor to Ronald Reagan

Harvard Sitkoff, The Struggle for Black Equality

Anders Stephanson, Manifest Destiny

James B. Stewart, Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery

Alan Trachtenberg, Incorporation of America

Anthony F. C. Wallace, The Long, Bitter Trail: Andrew Johnson and the Indians

Ronald Walters, American Reformers

Harry Watson, Liberty and Power

Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River

Betty Wood, The Origins of American Slavery

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