Submitted by The Proust Center at Jefferson Market Library
Did you know that Albert Boni, a resident of Greenwich Village, rescued the first English translation of Marcel Proust’s Sodom et Gomorrah?
Albert Boni’s literary roots are right here in Greenwich Village, beginning in 1913 with his Washington Square Bookshop at 135 MacDougal Street. His first publishing endeavor, the following year, was the Little Leather Library, which were small abridged classics and sold mainly through Woolworth’s. In 1917, with his publishing experience, Albert joined Horace Liveright in founding Modern Library. Desiring to have his own business, in 1923 Albert and his brother Charles opened their own publishing house, Albert and Charles Boni, Inc., in the basement of 19 Barrow Street.
During 1926 and early 1927 the first English translation of Marcel Proust’s Sodom et Gomorrah was in jeopardy. British experts on the 1857 Obscene Publications Act had warned the English publisher Chatto & Windus that they would risk a lawsuit if they translated Sodom et Gomorrah, Proust’s fourth volume of In Search of Lost Time, in which Proust wrote openly and unapologetically about homosexuality. It was three decades after Oscar Wilde’s trial in 1895. (Wilde was posthumously pardoned in 2017.)
Proust’s English translator, C. K. Scott Moncrieff, frustrated by the warnings, wrote his London publisher: “…whether it was worth going on with Proust? Could they publish without contravening England’s obscenity laws?” (Jean Findlay, Chasing Lost Time, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) The answer was, “No.” To secure continued publication, Moncrieff sold the American rights to Albert & Charles Boni, Inc. In 1927, Boni Inc. published Moncrieff’s translation, titled Cities of the Plain, in a two-volume limited edition set of 2,000.
Surprisingly, the brothers found themselves “sending copies by post to England to those clamoring for the next installment of Proust.” (Jean Findlay, Chasing Lost Time.)
August A. Imholtz Jr. is writing a biography on Albert Boni. Here is an excerpt: “One must ask, ‘What sort of man, then, was Albert Boni?’
He was a strong individualist who published many of the most creative American and European writers of the first half of the twentieth century, an entrepreneur who developed a new technology, micro-printing, and understood the optics, physics, and engineering principles underpinning it, a critic of the establishment, a socialist for much of his life, and a man who—with committed determination—sought to make the great library collections accessible to the common man, the common reader—first through the modest Little Leather Library, and finally in the vast Readex library collections that are indispensable for researchers today.”
New York Times Obituary