Publishing Atrocity: The 1963 Edition of Human Action
This is the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most scurrilous incidents in academic publishing. The victim was Ludwig von Mises. The perpetrator was Yale University Press.
Yale University Press published the 1949 edition of Human Action. Sales were much higher than the editor had expected. It was a 900-page treatise on economics, written by an immigrant from Austria who was teaching at an undistinguished university. He was out of favor with the now-dominant Keynesian establishment. The book sold for $10, which in 1949 was the equivalent in today's money of $98. Who would have imagined that it would go through six printings?
In 1962, it went out of print. I remember attending a week-long evening seminar by Mises that summer. It was sponsored by Andrew Joseph Galambos. Attendees could not buy Human Action.
Mises wanted to revise the book. The replacement editor allowed this. But he would not allow Mises to see the page proofs in early 1963. Mises had asked to see them.
When the book appeared, it was a typesetting atrocity. The editor did not pay for a new typesetting job. Instead, he hired a typesetter to typeset revised sections. Then the man pasted over the old edition. The changes were made in bold face. They did not match the original edition. The result was an aesthetic disaster.
My edition has this title page. On the page is an addition. It is attached to the page by Scotch tape.
Here are sample pages. (Note: the PDFs do not convey the stark contrast between the bold-faced inserts and the original typesetting.)
In the May 5, 1964 issue of National Review, Henry Hazlitt wrote a detailed account of the incident. Its title told the story: "Mangling a Masterpiece." His assessment was entirely justified. "The new edition is a typographical disgrace."
It is full of misprints. On page 322 four lines are omitted. Page 468 is missing altogether. Page 469 is printed twice. On page 563 two paragraphs are transposed. On page 615 eight lines are wrong. The running heads that appeared at the top of each page of the 1949 edition are all gone.
In belated reparation, the Yale University Press has printed errata pages (though they are not bound in). But these make wholly inadequate amends for an inexcusable printing job. On page after page one finds some para - graphs printed in a comparatively light type, and others in a blacker, thicker type that can only be described as at least quasi-boldface. The reader will inevitably assume that this marked contrast is intentional, and that the author meant to give special emphasis to the passages printed in Accidental Bold. Such a misunderstanding cannot be fully removed by the notes on one errata sheet to the effect that the type contrast "has no significance whatsoever for the comprehension of the meaning of the text" and is "entirely due to the method applied in the printing."
In a footnote, Hazlitt listed 70 pages where this double-font problem was bothersome. He then asked these questions. "What possible human explanation can there be for this typographical botch, which would disgrace a third-rate commercial publisher? Who reads galley proofs? Who saw page proofs? Who let this mess pass?" It gets worse.
I asked Professor Mises what light he could throw on the matter. He was able to supply very little, because the publishers had been extraordinarily reticent. It appears that, in order to do as cheap a job as possible, the press had resorted to some mixture of photo-offset and reset never tried before. When Dr. Mises' asked for page proofs, they were denied "for mechanical reasons." When he protested, Chester Kerr, director of the press, replied on Jan. 22, 1963: "We are entirely willing to take responsibility for seeing that the new edition of Human Action is printed without error. I am confident that you will have no cause to regret not having seen page proofs." When the first copies were sent out to the distributors, the author did not receive one.
He ended his article with a series of questions.
A final question. Why, in a press that has shown itself capable of producing first-rate work, did this particular book go wrong? Do the present editors of the Yale University Press (who are not those who originally accepted the book) know that this is the most important work on general economic theory that has appeared in our generation? They know it is commercially profitable; they know it sold six printings and brought in revenues from translation and quotation. But if they had any idea of its true greatness, if they even had any real respect for its author and its readers, if they had any respect for their press' own reputation, would they have permitted such a slovenly edition to go out under its imprint?
This travesty was quite self-conscious. The editor knew exactly what he was doing. He was in control. Mises was not.
In her 1976 autobiography of her years with Mises, his widow provided an account of how deeply this hurt Mises.
I was with Lu during all those days of upset. No one else will know what he went through at that time, for he was not a man to show his feelings in public. Outsiders may have considered the misprinting of Human Action an episode in the life of a great man, accepted and forgotten. But it was not so. It was the only time in his life that he had sleeping problems, though he steadfastly refused to take any pills. He was angry. It was an ice-cold, quiet anger directed against what he felt was an unknown enemy at Yale University Press, menacing his great book, his creative strength, his very existence. He only recovered his composure after he signed a new contract with Regnery and saw the active interest that Henry Regnery took in bringing out a new edition of Human Action. And when I noticed that Lu's sleep was sound and regular as in former years, I knew he had regained his philosophical inner balance. But he never forgot this traumatic experience. Nor have I.
She quoted from a letter to a friend, which he sent in 1963.
If we were to assume that it was unintentional, we would imply that all the people who cooperated in the production of the volume are clumsy, inept, inefficient and negligent in the highest degree. Against such an assumption stands the fact that the Press published and still publishes books of normal quality. To a professor who complained to the Press about the poor appearance of the book and told them that their reputation will suffer, the Press answered (September 12) that its reputation does not depend on "this one instance" but "on the accumulative flow of high-quality work which comes from us steadily."
Thus the Press itself comes near to admitting that its failure to produce the new edition of Human Action as a book of normal American shape was the result of a purposeful design to prejudice both the circulation of the book and the reputation and the material interests of the author.
The present management of the Press regrets for political reasons the fact that their predecessors published my books. They are especially angry about the great success of Human Action. If they had any sense of propriety at all, they would openly tell the author that they do not want any longer to publish his books and that he is free to look for another publisher. When in the course of seeing the book through the various phases of publication, I noticed how the Press insidiously delayed from month to month the publication of the new edition of Human Action and how it muddled the printing process, I suggested this solution to them. But the Press does not want to lose the very lucrative rights to Human Action. While the Press, as it told the representative of a distributor who ordered copies of the book, loses money on about 90% of its publications, Human Action sold six printings and brought in revenues from translation and quotation. It was a very profitable job for the Press. . . .
The Press cannot help admitting (in a letter to my attorney on September 30) that "the general quality of the work is undeniably below our customary standard." But it stubbornly refuses to substitute a new normal-quality book for this scandalous botchery.
This was how establishment liberalism worked in 1963.
Mises escaped only when Regnery arranged to publish a third edition, completely typeset from scratch. It appeared in 1966. It is one of my prize possessions.
Today, ebooks, PDFs, and other technologies have broken the hold of traditional paper-based publishers. You can download the 1949 edition for free. But there was a time when they called the shots. Mises found out just how completely they called the shots at Yale University Press in 1963.