Meyer '49 brought American history to Oxford University Press
Sheldon Meyer '49, a renowned Oxford University Press (OUP) editor who over a 50-year career transformed the world's oldest publishing house into a leading purveyor of American cultural history, died Oct. 9 at his home in Manhattan. He was 80.
Since joining OUP, Meyer edited 17 works that received the Bancroft Prize — one of American history books' highest honors — and six that received the Pulitzer Prize. He was also the leading force behind the 11 books in the landmark Oxford History of the United States.
"He made Oxford into clearly the foremost publisher of scholarly and trade books in American history," said history professor emeritus James McPherson, who worked with Meyer on five books.
Meyer's interest in U.S. history can be traced to his time at Princeton in the 1940s. A history major with a certificate in American Studies, Meyer graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude.
Meyer joined OUP in 1956 after working at two smaller publishing firms. He progressed from assistant editor to executive editor for trade books, and then finally to senior vice president. Even well into his 70s, Meyer continued to work for the company as a contributing editor.
One of Meyer's most "rewarding" times, his wife Mary Meyer said, was his collaboration with McPherson. The publication of McPherson's Pulitzer prizewinning "Battle Cry of Freedom" — the sixth installment in the Oxford History of the United States Series — and the subsequent publication of four more of McPherson's books "cemented" a relationship that McPherson said he "always prized."
"[Meyer] had professional expertise sprouting from a great deal of experience, a sense of what made a good book and how to present material," McPherson said.
"His criticisms were always helpful, though there was more encouragement than discouragement."
Meyer had a passion for mainstream American culture, especially jazz and baseball. "He thought [popular culture] was a great thing," Mary Meyer said. "He grew up listening to jazz; it was not something he picked up from his family. He played the clarinet and also liked sports."
During the mid-1960s, Mary said, the head of OUP told Sheldon he noticed some "strange books" on the publishing list. Sheldon, adamant that the books, not the editor, should be in the spotlight, admitted that he was responsible for adding the books.
"He was happy that he got an ancient press to publish jazz books," Mary said. "The books did well in the market and he liked those books."
Sheldon's view prevailed, and by the 1980s and 90s, OUP was receiving accolades for creative publishing and for producing more American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers prize books than any other publishing firm.
"He thought it was great that he was doing something he loved," Mary said, "and have it be successful at the same time."
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