Celebrating a Century of Excellence: The University of North Carolina Press Turns 100, Part Four

2022 marks the one hundred year anniversary of the founding of the University of North Carolina Press.

This fourth blog post of a series of five is taken from an essay on the history of UNC Press written by Advancement Council member the Rev. David C. (Kirk) Brown, first delivered to the Pen and Plate Club of Asheville.

Read parts one, two, three, and five

The head of operations would be known as the Director. The history of the UNC Press could perhaps best be told from the perspective of its directors—the challenges each faced, and the contributions each made. Every one of the seven directors thus far has built upon the work of his or her predecessors, and every one has left an indelible mark. Each is deserving of an essay. For our purposes this evening, and in the interest of time, I have chosen to emphasize the founding of the UNC Press, so will focus mainly on the first two directors who helped chart the course for the Press’s first century.

Louis R. Wilson, who likely provided most of the vision for the founding, was named the first Director, and initially undertook much of the work himself: securing manuscripts, arranging contracts with printers, editing proofs, sending the manuscripts out for peer review, arranging for appropriate advertising, fulfilling orders, all while maintaining the financial records. His vast experience in growing the UNC library from 32,000 to 235,000 volumes must have given him some insight into this new venture. But to truly understand the craft, he traveled to established university presses in the East to learn the specifics of such publishing. This speaks to the ethos of collaboration that has long existed among university presses. Far from guarding trade secrets, presses have willingly worked with other presses to help.

The enduring obstacle for this fledgling press would be how to fund it. Again, a university press is driven first by quality of publication, not by profitability. As one Director would later quip, the Press should strive for “the publication of the maximum number of good books this side of bankruptcy.” Over the next few years, UNC Press was kept afloat by a patchwork of modest book sales, the publication of journals, a subsidy from the University, support from Howard Odum’s Institute for Research in Social Science, support from the Alumni Loyalty Fund, and key grants. Notable and noteworthy though they might have been among scholars, sales of books and journals alone would never suffice.

To illustrate how profit most assuredly was not the motive, consider the first monograph published by the UNC Press and authored by one of the founding members: a book about water molds in North America. It is a standing joke that no one can pronounce the title: The Saprolegnicaceae. That first year a total of three titles appeared, along with publication of several university journals. At the end of the second year ten titles were in print. By the end of the third, there were eighteen. Despite his own progressive thinking, Director Wilson steered a course of relative safety, especially in an age of growing social and political strife in North Carolina. The early 1920s saw a rise in Klan membership, the rise of anti-evolutionary protests against the perceived secularism of higher education, the suspicion of anything that smacked of socialism (including a newfangled Department of Sociology!), and a general disdain for liberal thinking. As the University had already become a lightning rod for conservative criticism, its Press had to be careful not to draw undue attention.

UNC Press’s most recent, no longer in use logo, utilized until Dec. 2021

In 1925, ordered by his doctors to take a medical leave of absence, Wilson turned the operation of the Press over to a young undergraduate library assistant, William Terry Couch. In essence he pointed the 23 year old to the file cabinet that held the Press records, then left him in charge. If Wilson had known little about publishing, Bill Couch knew absolutely nothing and had to learn on the job. But as he would demonstrate, whatever he lacked in experience he more than made up for in passion and energy.

Initially serving as Interim Director, Couch would later be named second Director in 1932 when Wilson left UNC to establish the Graduate Library School at the University of Chicago. Convinced that the UNC Press was squandering the opportunity to be bold and progressive, the scrappy young assistant director threw caution to the wind and forged ahead with an audacity that often left the Press’s board of governors both uneasy about unwanted scrutiny of critics, and struggling to keep up. Couch took the Press, which had been relatively timid thus far, into much greater regional and national prominence. Notes one scholar, “Conflict for him, as with other Modernists, was a positive good; it was not a threat to scholarship but rather its lifeblood. . . . What made the intellectual game worth playing was the chance to move to the cutting edge, to make the sparks fly.”

One story of those early years may serve to show how Couch was pressing the envelope. In 1927, only 25 years old and still serving as Assistant Director, Couch was summoned to the university president’s office where the board of governors had convened an emergency meeting. The issue at hand was a book about to go into circulation, Congaree Sketches, which was a collection of tales told by African Americans living in rural South Carolina. The book manuscript had already been duly reviewed and approved by the board. What had not been approved was the fiery introduction commissioned by Couch and written by Paul Green, recent recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for his play, In Abraham’s Bosom. The emotionally charged introduction proposed that racial harmony would only be achieved when there was a fundamental shift in attitude of Whites toward Blacks, a shift that could happen only with desegregation. The board of governors was convinced that such a beginning was too inflammatory and that the book should be pulled from production, the introduction rewritten, and only then released. Finally Couch spoke up, telling those assembled that 100 advance copies had already been sent to several prominent reviewers, literary figures, and bookstores. To recall those copies now would only bring more attention to the introduction. He persuaded the board to allow the book to move forward. They steeled themselves for the backlash sure to come. Instead, there were only accolades from across the country. Couch would always consider that moment to be a defining moment for the Press:

I did not know that the Press could allow the expression of unorthodox opinions and survive. I wanted to find out and there was only one way to find out: publish some unorthodox opinions and see what happened…. So far as I was concerned, the decision to have a press was a decision to exercise freedom of this kind; otherwise the whole affair was a fraud. I was willing to take my chances on the notion that Southerners were not essentially different from people elsewhere, that they could stand as much freedom of opinion as anybody could.

Couch’s decision helped launch a new trajectory for the UNC Press, now emboldened to publish works that challenged prevailing attitudes, even when they invited controversy. Following his lead, more and more books came to publication that allowed for more voices in the South to emerge. Nor were these books simply intended for the academy. There was a long-standing bias among university presses to publish research primarily for fellow scholars. Couch realized that there was also a broad base of readership among the public who wanted access to such scholarship. The UNC Press was among the first university presses to realize this, and the very first to embrace the idea of focusing attention on the surrounding region. Other presses would eventually follow their lead. Couch would later write:

Original thinking, writing, and publishing are as necessary to the development of a society as air, water, and food to the life of the individual….To serve their functions fully and completely, to escape stagnation, institutions engaged in higher education must do more than conserve and transmit knowledge inherited from the past. They must do this, but they must also stimulate invention, creation, discovery.

Of course, boldness had to be balanced with the reality of staying afloat. Finding ways to survive the severe fiscal constraints imposed during the Great Depression forced the Press to be creative in its list. When Couch was named Director in 1932 he set out to find a model that could ensure success, especially since funding sources were shrinking. Trade books about the region, some children’s books, and text books for public schools provided some relief. And reliance on Howard Odum’s Institute provided much of the material for publication, most of which was extremely critical of prevailing attitudes in the South. Books that earlier might have seemed too risky or taboo for this new southern press were now being published, with topics ranging from lynching, to racial and economic disparity, to sharecropping, to oppressive labor policies of industry. Indeed of the 450 titles issued during Couch’s tenure, 170 dealt chiefly with Southern topics. And among these were some of the seminal studies about race, authored by African Americans about the African American experience. John Hope Franklin, Rayford W. Logan, and other Black authors were among those published.

The Rev. David C. (Kirk) Brown is the recently retired chaplain of Christ School. Kirk received his A.B. from Davidson College, his M.A. from the University of Virginia, and his M.Div. from Virginia Theological Seminary. He is a life-long educator. Having taught German and English for 12 years at Virginia Episcopal School, he then attended seminary and was ordained an Episcopal priest. After serving three years at St. John’s Church in Roanoke, VA, he returned to school work, serving 24 years as Chaplain at Christ School and teaching religion. Kirk lives with his wife, Shelley, on a farm in Fletcher, NC.