Ivan R. Dee Publishing closed the doors on its Chicago offices the other week. At a time when the Washington Post has put Newsweek up for sale, the closing of Ivan R. Dee did not make headlines, but it should have. Ivan Dee has been one of the great editors of our time. Over and over, he showed how a small publishing house, willing to take chances, can outdo the corporate giants against which it must compete.
Ivan plans on continuing to edit books on a limited basis, but the closing of the publishing house bearing his name is an enormous loss. Ivan was a writer?s dream editor. He never failed to do the kind of line-by-line criticism that all too many senior editors now foist off on their assistants, but his great strength was that he grasped what your book was about–or should be about–and made you stay on course. Sales were, he knew, something to worry over, but that worry, he understood, only made sense if you had written a book good enough to make a difference.
I was lucky enough to do two Ivan Dee books. The first was the Dissent anthology, Culture in an Age of Money, a study of the Reagan years. The second was Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964?The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America. Ivan was no fan of the Reagan administration and a great admirer of the civil rights movement. When I came to Chicago to promote Like a Holy Crusade, he made sure that I would do an interview with Studs Terkel, who began his radio program that morning with an inspired choice, a recording of the legendary civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, singing ?This Little Light of Mine.? But Ivan did not let his political sympathies soften his editing. He was, if anything, extra insistent that there be no loose ends, nothing critics could pick apart, on Like a Holy Crusade.
The result was that Like a Holy Crusade ended up being a far better, more widely reviewed book than I thought possible. The writing I did after I wrote it was altogether different from the writing I did before I wrote it. Like most authors Ivan edited, I came out sounding a lot smarter than I am.
I have never forgotten what Ivan did for me, and then, as now, I know I?ll never be able to repay him for the care he took with my manuscript. But that was the pleasure of being in Ivan?s debt. He reminded you that for all the talk about writing being a lonely profession, it works best when it?s a collaborative process, when it is done with someone who has both your and your readers? interests at heart.