Fredric Warburg: The Anti-Fascist Publisher

Fredric John Warburg (November 27, 1898 - May 25, 1981) was an English publisher best known for his association with the British author George Orwell. During a career spanning a large part of the 20th century and ending in 1971, Warburg published Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) as well as Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and works by other leading figures such as Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka.  Other notable publications include the controversial The Third Eye by Lobsang Rampa in 1956, Pierre Boulle's classic The Bridge over the River KwaiAdolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, and William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960).

When Secker and Warburg opened in 1935, it quickly became known as being anti-fascist and anti-communist, not an altogether popular position at the time. When George Orwell, already well known as a journalist, essayist, and novelist, parted with his previous publisher for the insertion of a preface that apologized for Orwell's pro-socialism arguments, he presented his new manuscript to Warburg. He published Homage to Catalonia and everything else Orwell wrote, including Animal Farm and 1984, and the two grew to be friends. They were close enough, in fact, that Orwell wrote negative reviews of some books that Warburg published with no apparent friction in their relationship. Writing to his publisher about his progress on his latest book — he couldn't decide whether the title would be The Last Man in Europe or Nineteen Eighty-Four — Orwell signed off by saying, "I have just had Sartre's book on anti-Semitism [Portrait of the Anti-Semite], which you published, to review. I think Sartre is a bag of wind and I am going to give him a good boot."

As much as his professional and personal relationship with Orwell, though, Warburg is known for having successfully defended himself from a charge of obscenity for having published a novel called The Philanderer. The case was unusual in England at the time because it received an enormous amount of press, and because it charged Warburg personally. The attention was because the case was a trial by jury, rather than decided upon by a magistrate, as was the tradition in cases of its nature. Although they were likely to be found guilty by a magistrate, publishers indicted on an obscenity charge would likely pay a small fine and receive very little attention. A jury trial, on the other hand, was more winnable — but because the costs were higher, the penalties greater, and the public more likely to notice the proceedings, publishers rarely requested one. When questioned about The Philanderer before any formal charges had been made, Warburg had announced, quite unpleasantly he later admitted, that if he'd thought the book was obscene he wouldn't have published it — and that his firm would therefore "defend it with all the force at our command." Quietly submitting a guilty plea and accepting a slap on the wrist now that his firm had been charged seemed untenable.

In the month that passed before the trial began, Warburg suffered the "fearful consideration" of his colleagues, "an attitude utterly foreign to them in the normal course of business," and his wife's attempt to comfort him, which she did by assuring him the book in question was so dull that no jury would be able to finish reading it.

In fact, it was a stroke of luck that the judge assigned to the case, a Mr. Justice Stable, requested that the jury read the book in its entirety — rather than just considering the steamy excerpts given them by the prosecution — and called for a two-day recess to do so. When the jury reconvened, the judge sent them off to deliberate with a speech so inspiring that was used by a New York publisher as his Christmas card message months later. Reminding them that sex was essential to procreation, and that any blame assigned to it would therefore lie with the Creator, the judge asked the jury, "Are we to take our literary standards as being the level of something that is suitable for a 14-year-old schoolgirl? Or do we go even further back than that, and are we to be reduced to the sort of books one reads as a child in the nursery?"

The jury, unsurprisingly, responded by declaring Warburg not guilty. Although only two months later, a publisher in similar case — gone to trial following Warburg's example — received a £500 fine and a six-month prison sentence, the attention from Warburg's win and the judge's memorable speech helped inspire a change in Britain's obscenity laws.

Source: The Writers Almanac with Garrison Keillor, Sunday, November 27, 2011.