Morris Philipson, former director of University of Chicago Press, 1926-2011

Morris Philipson, director emeritus of the University of Chicago Press and a leading figure in academic book publishing, died Thursday, Nov. 3. Philipson, 85, was a resident of Chicago.

He was a lion in the publishing world and served as director of the Press from 1967 to 2000. During his tenure — the longest of any director in the Press’s 119-year history — he raised the bar in academic publishing to unprecedented heights, promoting the intellectual revolutions in culture, scholarship and the arts that characterized the period.

His judgment and taste earned him a reputation for making bold choices that resulted in pioneering works that defined their fields.This vision was exemplified by such monumental projects as The Works of Giuseppe Verdi, The Lisle Letters and Yves Bonnefoy’s Mythologies.

Other outstanding publications included John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, a 1980 American Book Award winner that broke new ground in gender studies; several editions of the Chicago Manual of Style, the definitive reference for any writer; and Norman Maclean’s best-selling A River Runs Through It. Philipson was also an innovator in paperback publishing, expanding the Press’s commitment to reissuing classic works by provocative writers including André Malraux, Isak Dinesen, Anthony Powell and Paul Scott.

Philipson took great pride in establishing the Press as one of America’s leading publishers of translations, forging fruitful partnerships with French and German publishers in particular. Philipson and his editors introduced to an American audience works by Jacques Derrida, Paul Ricoeur, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Thomas Bernhard, among others. A translation of essays and letters by the German publisher Kurt Wolff, who as an émigré founded Pantheon Books, was for Philipson “an occasion to make conscious the fact that the character of a press is determined by the publisher making selections on the basis of his conceptions of art and serious thought,” he told Publishers Weekly in 1991.  

In recognition of his extraordinary contributions, the French government in 1984 awarded Philipson the Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for his service to French letters, and in 1982 he became the first director of a scholarly press to win PEN American Center’s Publisher Citation. Shortly before retiring in 2000 Philipson also received the Association of American Publishers’ Curtis Benjamin Award for Creative Publishing.

Philipson was born in New Haven, Conn., and received his AB (1949) and AM (1952) from the University of Chicago. Abroad, he pursued studies at the Sorbonne and as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Munich. He received a PhD in philosophy from Columbia University where, under the mentorship of Jacques Barzun, he concentrated on aesthetics. As an advocate for the pursuit of “the best that has been said and thought in the world,” he inspired the next generation by teaching courses in philosophy, cultural history and literature at the Julliard School of Music, Hunter College and the University of Chicago. Before returning to his alma mater to assume the directorship, he established his distinctive editorial style at Random House, Alfred A. Knopf and Basic Books during the golden age of New York publishing.

His passion for publishing was reflected not only in recognizing the potential in other authors, but in realizing his own literary aspirations.  He was the author of five acclaimed novels — Bourgeois Anonymous (Vanguard, 1965), The Wallpaper Fox (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976), A Man in Charge (Simon & Schuster, 1979), Secret Understandings (Simon & Schuster, 1983) and Somebody Else’s Life (Harper & Row, 1987) — as well as short stories and works of nonfiction.  

Novelist Cynthia Ozick praised his work as comprising “lucid and engaging prose, incisive social insight, high wit, ironic brilliance, narrative urgency, the puzzlement and poetry of human life.”

Philipson and his late wife, Susan, shared their love of books and ideas by making their home a salon, where they entertained a diverse spectrum of writers, thinkers and artists, including such luminaries as Hugh Trevor-Roper, Jack Fuller, Wendy Doniger and Bill Russo.

He is survived by his children Nicholas, Jenny and Alex.

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