Doctor of Letters

Author and editor Max Hall '32C helps writers heal themselves

By John D. Thomas

Mix-Ups Aplenty: Excerpts from An Embarrassment of Misprints

In 1631, a British printer named Robert Barker published an edition of the Bible that contained a rather salacious misprint. In the Book of Exodus, the Seventh Commandment appeared without the word "not." Hence, the divine directive read, "Thou shalt commit adultery." The book went on to be known as "The Wicked Bible," and, needless to say, the mistake destroyed Barker's career. (Rumor has it the deletion was the result of a rival printer's subterfuge.)

"I suppose that's the most dreadful typo in history," says Emory alumnus Max Hall. His new book, An Embarrassment of Misprints, contains more than one hundred fifty such errors he has collected over the years. "Some people are bird watchers," Hall wrote in a 1993 Harvard Magazine article that served as the basis for his book. "I am a typo watcher." One of his favorites appeared in a Village Voice theater review of a revival of Harvey, Mary C. Chase's 1944 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a drunk and the giant imaginary hare only he can see. "The article said this man was followed around by a six-foot-tall white rabbi," says Hall, chuckling. "That's the kind I like."

An Embarrassment of Misprints is just the latest addition to Hall's long and distinguished career as a writer and editor. A native Atlantan, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Emory in 1932 with a degree in English literature. At Emory's sesquicentennial Commencement last spring, he received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree. "On December 14, 1934, I got married in the chapel of the theological school right behind the platform where I got my honorary degree," recalls Hall, now eighty-five years old. He and his wife Elizabeth, who died in 1974, had three children.

Retired and working as a freelance writer and editor, Hall lives in Cambridge, just up the Charles River from Harvard University, where he has worked in different capacities since 1960. That year he joined Harvard University Press as its first social science editor. He later became editorial adviser to the faculty at the Harvard Business School, where he edited two books that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in history--1978's The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business, by Alfred D. Chandler Jr., and 1985's The Prophets of Regulation, by Thomas K. McCraw. Hall says he was delighted to have been involved in projects that were so honored, but he is quick to qualify his role. "There's a danger of an editor being given too much credit for a book," he says. "I've always felt that it is the author's book. I am there to make suggestions, and if I can help, fine." Even so, Alfred Chandler believes Hall's input on his work was invaluable. "What I think is important for any historian, any writer, is the clarity of the prose, and I can assure you that Max was very much responsible for the final expressions that made for that clarity," he says. "I would say [he] was a tremendous help."

Hall's career as a writer and editor got its start at Boys' High School in Atlanta, where he worked on the school paper. In 1928, he entered Emory and would go on to be co-managing editor of the Wheel with his lifelong friend and future Emory trustee Henry Bowden. While attending college, Hall worked weekends and summers for the Atlanta Constitution. During the summer of 1931, he was on the sports desk, and his boss was famed Atlanta journalist Ralph McGill, a future Pulitzer Prize winner who was then the paper's sports editor.

One of Hall's favorite experiences from that time was when McGill assigned him to cover several home games of the Atlanta Crackers, the city's beloved double-A baseball team that played at Ponce de Leon Park. "I covered the first night double-header in the history of the league," Hall recalled in a recent letter. "It lasted till after midnight, creating an awkward problem for a morning paper. Over a special phone line, I dictated a play-by-play account that was set in type inning by inning and was used in the early editions. When the second game finally ended I dictated a brief new lead and dashed for a taxi in order to write my wrap-up story in the office."

After graduating from Emory in 1932, Hall spent a year teaching English at nearby Druid Hills High School. "I thought it would be good experience," he says. "I felt that I wrote a whole lot better than I talked, and I wanted to be a little more articulate. It was almost the hardest year of my life. I had all the students in the senior and junior classes--150 students. I had five classes a day, and I had to coach the baseball and football teams, too."

His foray into teaching lasted only one year, and in the summer of 1933 Hall returned to journalism, this time at the Hearst-owned Atlanta Georgian. He worked in various positions, including head of the sports copy desk, state news editor, and also as a groundbreaking radio columnist. "That was the heyday of radio, and the Atlanta Journal owned WSB, a powerful station," he says. "But they were short-sighted enough to print only the programs on their station, and that made a gap. So we went in big for radio and devoted four columns every day to it. I wrote a column and I criticized shows, just the way they do on television nowadays. This was something almost new at that time; it was kind of a pioneer radio page."

In 1937, Hall wanted to move to New York and was transferred to the Hearst-owned New York Mirror. He spent five years there, moving from the copy desk to the rewrite desk and finally ending up as the night news editor. In 1942, he accepted a position with the Associated Press (AP) in Washington, D.C. "It was just like heaven," he says of the move. "It really was great because I was reporting again instead of doing desk work."

Hall spent nine years with AP, including a four-year stint from 1945-49 as a special roving reporter covering labor issues. During his AP tenure, he received a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, where he studied from 1949-50. His main focus was American history, but he also took a number of courses dealing with labor issues because of his job at AP. During his year at Harvard, Hall became interested in Benjamin Franklin, which led to his first book, Benjamin Franklin & Polly Baker: The History of a Literary Deception, which was published in 1960. The book concerned an elaborate literary hoax perpetrated by the American statesman and inventor.

On April 15, 1747, a speech by a proto-feminist named Polly Baker appeared in the London newspaper, General Advertiser. Accused of fornication, Baker, who was the mother of five illegitimate children, told a panel of magistrates that she was merely following God's charge to "increase and multiply." She said that instead of being whipped, there should be "a statue erected in my memory." The speech caused a sensation and was quickly circulated through newspapers and magazines, first around London, then to Scotland, Ireland, and several cities in the colonies. (The speech was printed as fact as late as 1917 in the sociology textbook, A Social History of the American Family.)

Hall had come across an anecdote in a travel book that quoted Thomas Jefferson as saying that Franklin had confessed to writing Polly Baker's speech. Intrigued, Hall spent the better part of the next decade using his spare time to investigate the affair. In the preface to his book, Hall writes that Baker's speech "is an early fictional example of feminism. Her fervent appeal to Nature and Nature's God is an early expression of a sentiment that came to be taken very seriously in the last half of that century. Miss Baker herself became a heroine to the literary precursors of the French Revolution. They, in company with us all, showed the centuries-old propensity to believe what we want to believe, when we see it in print."

In 1951, Hall left AP to go to work for the federal government. He spent the next six years in several different positions, including being in charge of public information at the Office of Price Stabilization and working as the public affairs adviser in the Bureau of Economic Affairs in the State Department.

After working for the government, Hall accepted the position of editorial director of the New York Metropolitan Region Study in 1957. That project, which was put together by Harvard's Graduate School of Public Administration (now the Kennedy School of Government), entailed publishing ten books that examined, according to Hall, "the movement of people and industry in and out of the region and from one part of the region to the other." Topics included demographics, economics, government, labor, and transportation.

The series of books was published by Harvard University Press, and Hall's role in the study led to his being hired in 1960 as the Press' first social science editor. "I was in charge of books in history, economics, and government," says Hall of his job at the Press. "I helped to decide what we published, and I worked with the authors. I tried to help authors with their writing and that kind of thing. Publishers call these acquisitions editors; at that time we called them specialist editors."

Thirteen years after joining the press, Hall moved to the Harvard Business School to work as the editorial adviser to the faculty. "I was offered the job on the grounds that a lot of these darn good business scholars couldn't write very well and needed a lot of help," says Hall. "So I would take a manuscript or a part of a manuscript and criticize it and give my suggestions for improvement. Sometimes I would edit large sections to illustrate how they could improve their writing."

When Hall moved to the business school in 1973, he began devoting much of his spare time to a new literary project--a history of his former employer, Harvard University Press. The project took him more than a decade to research and write. In Harvard University Press: A History, published in 1986, Hall writes that, "The book publisher known as Harvard University Press began life under that name in 1913, but publishing and printing at Harvard were already in full career. They had been going on intermittently since the 1640s, for Harvard had owned and operated the first printing press in British North America."

One of the most interesting facets of the book, according to Hall, is the examination of the role and purpose of a university press, which he describes as "strange and puzzling." He believes the best example of this odd dynamic can be seen during the period of 1935 to 1943, when 1910 Emory College alumnus and future Pulitzer Prize winner Dumas Malone was the director of Harvard University Press. "One of the essential differences in how Harvard's administration viewed the Press and how a scholar like Dumas Malone viewed the Press," says Hall, "was that he thought of it as an educational institution that just happened to sell books, and President James Bryant Conant thought of it as a business that just happened to be in a University."

In 1979, at the age of 66, Hall retired from the regular Harvard University payroll. He continues to work as a freelance writer and editor, publishing frequently in Harvard Magazine, where he has been a contributing editor since 1979. One of his freelance projects for Harvard Magazine, a lengthy 1984 article on the Charles River, grew into the book, The Charles: The People's River, which was published in 1986.

Hall was first acquainted with the Charles, which zigs and zags eighty miles over twenty dams from Hopkinton to Boston, when he was just nine years old. In the preface of his book, he writes, "On my first trip outside Georgia, I spent four weeks visiting an aunt who lived near the present site of Boston University, in an apartment house facing the Charles River Basin. My diary says that I enjoyed the `Esplanard,' took a two-mile motorboat trip for ten cents, and walked halfway across the `great Harvard bridge' that led to the `Boston Tech College.' " Hall made crayon drawings of the river, which another aunt saved and which were reprinted in his book.

Even though the Charles has been the site for numerous historic accomplishments--the first telephone conversation was held over the river, and the nation's first college, Harvard, was founded just off its banks--Hall focuses his book on the river itself. He says that its lower sections "may be the best example anywhere of an urban river that has been radically reshaped and controlled in the service of the public. So far as I can discover, no other river passing through a densely populated coastal area has been transformed into a large, fresh-water metropolitan lake [the nine-mile-long Charles River Basin] whose level is lower than high tide in the harbor beyond."

Most recently, Hall spent a good deal of time poring over the manuscript and page proofs of his latest book, An Embarrassment of Misprints, which was scheduled to come out in October. His publisher, Bob Baron of Fulcrum Publishing, says about 150 people examined it before it went to press. Hall himself read it half a dozen times, and his daughter Judy, whom he describes as "an excellent editor and an excellent proofreader," twice gave it the once-over. Why all the concern? For all the meticulous checking that was done on the Harvard Magazine article on misprints that was the basis for the book, a typo managed to slip through.

"We took very special pains with that article," says Hall. "I read it several times, my daughter read it, and several people at the magazine read it. We were determined not to have any errors, but one occurred. Right in the middle of a sentence, the word `been' is in there twice. So it happened, and it was kind of embarrassing, but it was also kind of humorous."

If there is a mistake in his book on misprints, Hall expects some careful reader to find it and bring it to his attention. "I sure do," he says. "I don't want any errors to be in the book, but if there are any, then it just shows that it's almost impossible to publish a book without errors."

Editor's note: Max Hall is compiling material for a possible sequel to An Embarrassment of Misprints. If you come across any typographical errors you would like him to consider, please write to him in care of his publisher: Fulcrum Publishing, 350 Indiana Street, Suite 350, Golden, CO 80401-5093. Also, please forward a copy to Emory Magazine (1655 N. Decatur Road, Atlanta, GA 30322) and we'll try to publish them--just as long as they're not from our magazine.
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