A life in print
Retired University of Chicago Press editor T. David Brent, AB’70, AM’71, PhD’77, brought imagination and enthusiasm to scholarly publishing.
His first formative encounter with the publishing industry came when T. David Brent was seven years old. Drawing on more than half a decade of life experience, Brent used a manual typewriter to compose a memoir.
His father, the legendary Chicago bookseller Stuart Brent, EX’40, unspooled his son’s life story and submitted it to the Chicago Daily News, which printed it under the headline, “T. D. Brent, Author.”
How old was he again?
“Seven,” Brent says over coffee in the café at the University of Chicago Press, where he retired as executive editor at the end of 2016.
The publication of the young Brent’s article set typewriter keys to clacking in some hallowed offices. Letters soon began arriving.
“From Alfred A. Knopf, from the head of Macmillan, of Doubleday, of Random House, and all saying, ‘Dear T. D., we’ve read your piece in the Chicago Daily News. We want you to keep us in mind for your first book.’”
The warm reception did not inspire Brent, AB’70, AM’71, PhD’77, to become an author. Instead, he found himself attracted to the job titles of his new pen pals—editorial director, editor in chief, publisher. He became curious about what they did.
That curiosity idled in the back of Brent’s mind for years, until another unexpected encounter with a publisher. Brent’s father held a book-signing party in the mid-1970s for novelist and longtime University of Chicago Press director Morris Philipson, AB’49, AM’52. Introduced to the younger Brent, Philipson asked about his graduate work, which happened to be a dissertation on Carl Jung.
“Lo and behold, Morris had also written on Jung for his dissertation,” Brent says. The two arranged to meet and discuss their intellectual overlap.
Soon after, a job opened for an entry level “first reader” at the press and Philipson suggested to Stuart Brent that he encourage his son to apply. “I applied for it, and I got the job,” Brent says, “and the rest is 42 years of history.”
He was still a grad student then, but when he completed his degree, facing a meager job market for philosophy PhDs, he accepted an offer to become the psychology and anthropology acquisitions editor at the press, selecting among submitted manuscripts in those fields and soliciting others. Not long after, an editor’s departure allowed Brent to add philosophy to his portfolio.
As he established himself, Brent worked to define the publisher’s identity in those fields. His graduate studies incorporated all three, and “it just seemed natural to me when I got to the press that I would somehow try to combine these things—philosophy, anthropology, and psychology.”
He had come to see philosophy as the “intellectual precursor” to the other disciplines. Philosophers were the theorists, anthropologists and psychologists the experimentalists holding ideas up to empirical scrutiny.
Brent brought to the press influential titles that blended philosophical thought with anthropological and psychological field work, such as Vincent Crapanzano’s Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan (1980) and Gananath Obeyesekere’s Medusa’s Hair: An Essay on Personal Symbols and Religious Experience (1981). “I’ve always felt that the core was theoretically sophisticated ethnography,” Brent says. “There’s an element of storytelling, but not always just for its own sake. There’s got to be an analytic and theoretical edge to it.”
His ideas evolved under the direction of, among other graduate school mentors, historian and writer Mircea Eliade, a Divinity School professor and chair of the history of religions for nearly three decades. Eliade called this way of thinking “the new ’umanism,” with Brent fondly recreating how Eliade’s Romanian accent rendered the h silent. “If you wanted to understand other people, you had to get into their world,” Brent says. “You had to participate.”
Among Brent’s interests from his teenage years was listening to soul and blues music, a world with few barriers to entry for a Chicago kid of the 1960s and UChicago student of the 1970s, when artists and clubs proliferated. What might have remained a personal pastime merged with the professional while he was still a first reader at the press.
A manuscript called African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms (1979) fell to Brent. Almost immediately he recognized it as a “perfect embodiment” of Eliade’s new ’umanism.
“It couldn’t have been more than about 11 pages into the introduction,” Brent says, “when I realized that I was reading a work of greatness.”
He and author John Chernoff, who was still in Africa at the time, began a correspondence that forged a friendship and shaped an important part of Brent’s career. Chernoff sent recordings and Brent began to take the first steps toward developing an African studies category at the press.
Under that broad umbrella, and especially within African ethnomusicology, Brent came to discover, “everybody wants to read everything. … It’s borne out in the market for Africanist literature that, no matter what part of the huge continent you work in, you have a kind of interest in knowing what’s going on in every little tiny corner.”
Such is not the market for much of an academic publisher’s list. Academic publishers are, as the title of a 1999 Brent essay put it, “merchants in the temple of scholarship.” They must balance commercial interests with intellectual significance, leaving them “suspended, like a magic floating wand in a magnetic force field, between two principles vying for dominance.”
Another principle surpassed both for Brent: enthusiasm. He wrote about the importance of scholarly enthusiasm—“or love, or fun if you will”—in a 2012 essay on Chernoff’s book, and he considers it an essential quality in scholarly publishing as well, enabling a publisher to transcend the mere dissemination of information.
In retirement Brent still exudes his seven-year-old’s wonder for the publishing process. He remembers, as a 26-year-old junior editor, cold-calling University of Pennsylvania sociologist Philip Rieff, AB’46, AM’47, PhD’54, whose books with trade publishers had gone out of print. That led to a new 1979 press edition of Freud: The Mind of the Moralist.
A letter introducing himself to French philosopher Jacques Derrida and informing him of an upcoming trip to Paris was greeted with an invitation to meet. In addition to several Derrida translations, the press is home to a posthumous series of previously unpublished lectures dating to 1960.
Annual visits to the Frankfurt Book Fair, where publishers buy and sell foreign rights, and side excursions to Paris were memorable for both the intellectual company Brent kept there and the results for the press. On a single day in Paris he had breakfast with Derrida and lunch with his former dissertation director, the influential philosopher of hermeneutics Paul Ricoeur. Brent had convinced Ricoeur to retain the English language rights to his books, to the benefit of author and publisher alike. That night at a jazz club, Brent met Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango, whose music he knew through Chernoff and whose autobiography, Three Kilos of Coffee (1994), the press later published.
“I was always looking for books,” Brent says, “but I was also having a fantastic time.”
Sometimes the books came to Brent. Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions, brought a student’s dissertation to his attention. It became Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna (1995) and began a partnership with Jeffrey J. Kripal, PhD’93, now the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University.
Describing his own intellectual interests as “eccentric,” Kripal found an open mind and a fervent supporter in Brent. That encouragement stuck with Kripal when Brent candidly told him his 2007 book Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion had commercial potential that a trade publisher might better maximize. On the other hand, Brent cautioned, he might encounter more creative interference. “I stayed with David and the press,” Kripal says, “and I have never regretted that decision.”
Brent’s guiding influence, he says, “turned a small mishmash of books into a potential oeuvre.” When Kali’s Child generated harassment and calls for censorship from Hindu fundamentalists, Brent’s support never wavered.
Through controversy and the ongoing lonely labor of research and writing, he had a champion who envisioned the impact of his work even when Kripal could not see it himself. If it felt at times like an audience of one, Brent’s vision was sustaining, and it was validated in the heartening reception of Kripal’s books.
“We are not just talking changed minds,” Kripal says. “We are talking about something more akin to books becoming hauntings, possessions, zappings, real magic.”
As a summary of a career’s work in publishing, Brent wouldn’t change a word of that.
1978–85: Mircea Eliade, History of Religious Ideas, Volumes I–III
1979: John Miller Chernoff, African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms
1980: Vincent Crapanzano, Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan
1984–88: Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, Volumes I–III
1990: Leszek Kolakowski, Modernity on Endless Trial
1991: Michael Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing
1995: Jeffrey J. Kripal, Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna
2017: Ronald Aronson, We: Reviving Social Hope