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The Raw Push and Pull Behind the Almanac

Clip of the letter From Oxford University Press confirming its commitment to publish Leopold's work

By Andy Radtke

To say A Sand County Almanac is 75 years old is not to tell the whole story. Many of the essays included in Aldo Leopold’s book were composed (and published) years before, while the majority (24 out of 41 essays) were written specifically for the Almanac.

In fact, a seven-year negotiation, from 1941 to 1948—between Leopold and a handful of publishers, and within Leopold’s own mind—ultimately shaped the final content of A Sand County Almanac. Facing significant pressure from publishers to tamp down the “ecological, philosophical” aspects and focus on a single thread of nature observations, Leopold held firm in his conviction that he couldn’t say what he wanted to say without both in strong measure. This conviction cost him at least one publishing contract. But it rewarded us all with a beautiful work of art, a diamond of science, and a world-altering call for a land ethic. 

In fairness, each publishing house (Knopf, MacMillan, Oxford University Press, William Sloan Associates, and University of Minnesota Press) were drawn to the high quality—the artfulness—of Leopold’s language and told him so repeatedly.

But the publishers in large, with the exception of Oxford University Press, had not yet grasped the new ethical ground Leopold exorted. As it turned out, they were correct in their assertion that the general public would not grasp it either, at least not until they all caught up in the early 1970s.

In that light we reread the preserved letters—the extensive back-and-forth between potential publishers and Leopold, new prospective publishers along the way, Leopold’s confidants like Albert Hochbaum, son Luna Leopold, eventual illustrator Charles Schwartz—and discover an epic story. 

From the first notion to publish a “nature” book, coming not from Leopold, but from an editor at Knopf in New York, through years of struggle to finish and arrange the work, the distractions of teaching, and fits and starts caused by WWII, to the agreement-to-publish from Oxford University Press exactly one week before Aldo’s sudden death, we encounter the human behind the writing. In a few letters on the heels of the tragedy, one in particular from Albert Hochbaum to Joe Hickey, we see shock, grief, and, finally, heartbreaking recognition of Leopold’s achievement. 

To give you a taste, we post a few samples below. Raw-history buffs can find the whole collection of 150 letters and more here in the UW-Madison Leopold Archives.

The first letter in the correspondence came from Knopf, and shows that the idea for the volume originated here. Throughout the seven-years Leopold worked to publish A Sand County Almanac, Knopf was by far the most persistent publishing house. Over the years, Leopold worked with three different Knopf editors and was ultimately rejected.

Also from the start, Leopold campaigned that his message of "ecology" was included, introducing the conflict that led to Knopf's ultimate rejection.

After more than two years, Leopold had not yet submitted a manuscript, yet Knopf persisted due to admiration for his stature and language.

Finally, after roughly 30 months, Leopold submitted a short set of essays. His original choice as illustrator, Albert Hochbaum, would eventually relinquish the job to Charles Schwartz.

By 1946, Leopold's slow progress continued—as did his insistence on retaining the "philosophical" side to the material. Leopold also demonstrates an open mind to structural criticism.

And Knopf's ecology-balking continued.

Enter Oxford University Press, through the doorway provided by Aldo's son Luna.

Oxford University Press acted quickly. Note the working title of the book.

Finally, acceptance.

Then shock and new uncertainty of publication (ultimately overcome by Leopold's colleagues and his son Luna, who ushered the Almanac to the finish line in 1949).

Perhaps Leopold's closest writing advisor and confidant, former student Albert Hochbaum writes the day after Leopold's death.