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Arthur Rosenthal, publisher of academic books, dies at 93

Arthur J. Rosenthal, founder of Basic Books, led Harvard University Press in the 1970s and 1980s.

New York Times/File 1990

Arthur J. Rosenthal, founder of Basic Books, led Harvard University Press in the 1970s and 1980s.

NEW YORK — Arthur J. Rosenthal, who published intellectual masterworks in an era of fast-buck publishing and led Harvard University Press to solvency in the ’70s and ’80s, died Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by his son Jim.

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Mr. Rosenthal, who founded Basic Books in 1952, let his taste in nonfiction and his quasi indifference to profit margins guide him as a publisher. But it was an early connection to the society of psychoanalysts (his mother ran a salon for psychoanalytic debate in their Manhattan home when he was growing up) that led Mr. Rosenthal to his first publishing deal, the three-volume official biography of Dr. Sigmund Freud by a disciple, Dr. Ernest Jones.

Jones’s biography, “The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud,” became one of the basic texts of Freud scholarship. Jones “only expected sales of about 600 copies to other psychoanalysts,” Mr. Rosenthal told The New York Times in 1985. “We had world rights and no contract, just a handshake.”

The book became a mainstay of Basic Books. Mr. Rosenthal’s interests in psychology, sociology, current affairs, history, and philosophy led him to publish a library full of important social science volumes over the next decades, including early works by the behavioral scientists Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson.

In 1972, after selling Basic Books to Harper & Row for a reported $4 million, Mr. Rosenthal took his talents to the nonprofit Harvard Press, which had been faltering. There, his ability to bring what he called “borderline academic books” to a wider audience helped put the press in the black and served as a model for university presses elsewhere. He introduced new lists in science and technology, professionalized marketing, and began picking winners.

Among the titles published during Mr. Rosenthal’s tenure were Bernard Bailyn’s 1975 National Book Award winner, “The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson”; E.O. Wilson’s “On Human Nature” (1978), which received the Pulitzer Prize; Alfred D. Chandler Jr.’s “Visible Hand,” which received both the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes in 1978; Carol Gilligan’s “In a Different Voice” (1982), which sold over 500,000 copies and became a major text of the women’s movement; Thomas K. McCraw’s Pulitzer-winning “Prophets of Regulation” (1984); Jane Goodall’s “Chimpanzees of Gombe” (1986), an account of Goodall’s first 25 years working with chimps; and Eudora Welty’s “One Writer’s Beginnings” (1984), which spent 46 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.

“When a press like ours can publish a roaring bestseller,” Mr. Rosenthal said in 1986, “it helps all university presses, and it increases the bookstores’ recognition that we are not only handing out dead mackerel.”

He said he was proud to publish any book — whether profitable or not — that managed “to push our culture one grain of sand forward.”

John Leonard, a Nation columnist and former editor of The New York Times Book Review, described Mr. Rosenthal as an endangered species in a 1997 commentary about the corporatization of the publishing industry for the CBS News program “Sunday Morning”: “He prided himself on being able to publish any book he cared about.”

In the publishing world, Leonard added, “We used to be able to count on the Arthur Rosenthals.”

Arthur Jesse Rosenthal was born in Manhattan to Arthur and Grace Rosenthal. His father was a stockbroker and a member of the New York Stock Exchange. His mother, who was a patient in the 1920s of Dr. Otto Rank, an Austrian psychoanalyst who was one of Freud’s first pupils, pursued a lifelong interest in psychology.

After graduating from Yale in 1941, Mr. Rosenthal served four years in the Army as the chief of publications for General Douglas MacArthur, directing press and propaganda work in the Philippines and occupied Japan.

Before starting Basic Books, Mr. Rosenthal was a special assistant to James MacDonald, first US ambassador to Israel.

Besides his son Jim, Mr. Rosenthal’s leaves a daughter, Kathryn Goldman; a son, Paul; and eight grandchildren. Mr. Rosenthal’s two marriages ended in divorce.

Mr. Rosenthal, who retired from Harvard Press in 1990, was 70 when he started his last job, as publisher of Hill & Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

In an interview at the time, Mr. Rosenthal acknowledged that the business was becoming more difficult. But his enthusiasm was a constant.

“Something happens,” he said. “You get an idea. You meet an author. You can’t be depressed and be a good publisher.”

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