Photo by Manuela Hasse, London 2006

Karen Christensen, by William H. McNeill, 2012

Friend, helper, and publisher of my books since 2004, Karen Christensen was born with her twin brother on 26 September 1957 in Lafayette, Indiana, where her father, Earl Christensen, was a student of engineering at Purdue University. That makes her almost six months junior to my younger son, a fact I can scarcely believe since her varied and tumultuous career makes her far more experienced than he.

Her mother grew up on a farm in Iowa and was valedictorian of her high school class. Karen’s maternal grandparents were college graduates, and her grandfather, Harlan Harvey, taught high school math and farmed part time while his wife’s literary bend made her a voracious reader in her spare time from her housekeeping. Clearly it was from them that Karen inherited her unusual energy and literary flair.

After her father graduated from Purdue, he got a job at General Electric and was moved from place to place for the next few years wherever the company assigned him. But during Karen’s early schooling, the family lived in Minnesota where he had grown up. In summer, Karen visited her maternal grandparents in Iowa several times before her grandmother died when Karen was seven. That congenial connection ended three years later when she moved to California, where a computer company offered her father a job at a time when computers were still rare.

That stabilized the family’s economic base; but as Karen developed literary and intellectual interests of her own, she found herself increasingly out of sympathy with the other members of her family. School was so easy that as an adolescent it merely bored her.

The upshot was that, in 1972, she ran away from home at age 14, assumed a false name, and began to support herself by babysitting, house cleaning, and cooking while continuing her self-education by reading in every spare moment. Her parents made no great effort to persuade her to return, so for five years she lived on her own, enjoying her independence.

During those years, her parents divorced, and her father married another woman with three children. Karen had kept in limited contact with him before 1977, when he accepted a job in England and asked her to help look after his three adopted children and one of her own siblings who were to accompany him. He probably knew already that Karen wanted to get to England and become a student at Oxford, and may have hoped that helping her achieve that ambition might lead to reconciliation. At any rate, when they arrived in England, he hired a tutor to prepare her for the Oxford entrance exams. She was 19 years old by then, and remembers this gesture as one of his few acts of kindness to her.

But the gap between her self-education and years of English schooling was too great to bridge in a few weeks; so she was not accepted at Oxford; and the gap between Karen and her father widened again in 1979 when she decided to leave his young children and return to the United States to seek university training there.

She applied to Yale, Smith, and Santa Barbara, and when Santa Barbara granted her a scholarship, together with a stipend that covered her expenses, she accepted gladly. Yale and Smith were prepared to treat her as a freshman, but Santa Barbara allowed her to take extra courses and graduate just two years later in 1981 with a BA in Literature. In her senior year, she taught a class about letters and asked her students to edit collections of personal letters. This served her well after she returned to England, as will soon appear.

At Santa Barbara she met an Englishman named Calvin Wilkes who wanted to remain in the United States. When he learned of her wish to go to England, he proposed a marriage of convenience allowing him to stay while she emigrated to England as his wife, in 1981. A California divorce then erased him from her life as casually as he had entered it.

She expected to make a living by writing novels but found fiction more difficult than she anticipated and never wrote a novel she thought worth publishing. Instead, her life took a new turn when she began to live with a student of osteopathy named Andy Cotton. He expected her to support him; and after Tom, their first child, was born in 1985, Karen found a way to do so by answering an ad in the London Times for editorial help with T.S. Eliot’s letters. She was hired on the strength of her work at Santa Barbara for that job, which fitted her perfectly, and paid enough to keep her family going until 1988 when Faber and Faber published the first volume of his letters just in time for the centenary of Eliot’s birth.

This was Karen’s first triumph as an editor. Eliot’s widow owned his letters, and she was unwilling to see them made public. It took relentless pressure from Faber and Faber to allow Karen to complete the job she had been hired to do in spite of his widow’s opposition. No other volumes of Eliot’s letters appeared until recently when an expanded version of Karen’s work came out—with more to follow.

When that job ended, Karen faced a new financial crisis with a second child on the way. It was solved when an obscure English publisher, named Arlington Books, offered her advance royalties of 1500 pounds for a book on home ecology, published in 1989. Written at top speed, that book gave cheerful advice about how private- and personal actions could diminish, or even reverse, disastrous trends. The theme hit a sensitive nerve among reviewers, and Home Ecology sold so well that a third printing was needed within a few months.

But this second triumph met unexpected disaster when the McDonalds hamburger chain took exception to a single paragraph and hired lawyers to demand that the publisher withdraw it from the market and make public apology for what Karen wrote on pages. 45 and46, ”Why do people eat at McDonalds? …the fast-food restaurants that contribute to the destruction of tropical rain-forests (destroyed forever in order to raise beef for a couple of seasons, until the soil is utterly depleted) … and give us proverbially unhealthy food to boot.” The tone is unfriendly, but I wonder whether the charge of slander could have been sustained in court. But neither Karen nor Arlington Books could afford to find out; so the book was withdrawn; and its publication in the United States, in 1990, and of three similar books, the last of which was entitled The Armchair Environmentalist (Hachette, 2004), made no waves and buttered no parsnips for her.

Before that happened Karen’s daughter, Rachel, was born on 23 December 1988. Thereafter, her children’s schooling was happenstance. But as a devoted mother, she supplemented whatever they learned in school by reading aloud to them for an hour or longer each night, choosing books she herself enjoyed. She thus reproduced for them the energetic self-education she had created for herself as a child, more than compensating for deficiencies in their formal education and preparing them for success in college—when the time came. When one thinks of how hard she worked and how tired she must often have been, all those hours of reading aloud to her children must rank high among her achievements.

With two infants to tend, Karen had less time for Andy Cotton; and in 1990 they parted by mutual consent. Soon after their break-up, Karen met a new lover named Kirkpatrick Sale. He was the son of a professor at Cornell with a wife and two grown-up daughters, and was in England to promote a book he had just published entitled The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy (NY: Plume, 1990). Their love was passionate from the start, and when he returned to the United States he persuaded Karen to follow him, where she rented a summer cottage in upstate New York for herself and her children, safely insulated from his wife who worked as an editor in the city. While he travelled to promote his book, he saw Karen from time to time, and conducted a heated correspondence with her.

This was when my name first came to Karen’s attention, for I had reviewed The Conquest of Paradise rather unfavorably in the New York Times. My criticism rankled, and letters Sale wrote to Karen between the 1st and 16th of June, 1992 expressed his disdain for an “irredeemably conventional and square” professor who had agreed to debate with him at the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island. “I gave it to him pretty hard,” he wrote. “Then McNeill got up to rant against Indian societies as shiftless and improvident. (He said not a word about CC, knowing that he was out-classed there), which happily did not sit well with the crowd, and I had a little rebuttal pointing out that he was after all vice-Chair of the official US Quint Commission.” (Letter to Karen, 5 June 1992)

He prevailed because I bumbled in refuting him. My book, Plagues and Peoples (New York, 1976) had taught me that vulnerability to infectious diseases coming from Europe accounted for the destruction of the Amerindian populations that Sale blamed on the discoveries of Columbus. My hope, when joining the Commission, was that we could make clear to the American public that the huge die-off was a wholly unexpected phenomenon that surprised, embarrassed, and impoverished the Spaniards, and did not result from their cruelty and violence, however real that was.

I should have argued that America was not a paradise but a place, like any other, where local inhabitants killed one another wholesale, while Columbus was a man of his times, who killed only a few Indians, thus making it unhistorical and unjust to condemn him by our standards and for things he did not do. But I was full of my own ideas, so talked instead of the biological processes that are beneath human consciousness and therefore unrecorded. I had no written evidence to quote, so the audience accepted what Sale told them, and preferred to think that exposure to new infectious diseases had nothing much to do with what happened. It was an error I still regret, and it permitted Kirkpatrick Sale to rejoice in his victory.

But at least Karen’s attraction to him soon dissolved. They lived together in upstate New York for a while; where she came to feel he was domineering, editing her efforts to write about community and sustainability, altering her tone, and dashing cold water on her hopes and plans. But what disrupted their affair was an ultimatum from Sale’s wife when she discovered his attachment to Karen. His royalties were insufficient to maintain him, and since his lifestyle depended on his wife’s financial support, he promised to abandon his mistress. Nonetheless, Karen had to rebuff efforts he made to continue their relationship—an act which she regretted and deplored—and which he resented intensely.

Karen withdrew to Great Barrington, MA., distraught and penniless. She briefly became an unmarried welfare mom, but was rescued from that low point of her life when she got a job, in 1993, editing the Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology projected by Yale’s Human Relations Area Files. There she met David Levinson, an anthropologist, younger than Sale, but still eleven years her senior, and they married in 1994.

Her life thus regained stability and an order she had never experienced with Sale; and after the Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology was finished, she and David launched a new career by editing various encyclopedias for publishers like Scribners, Routledge, and Sage. Most were one volume, but some were as many as six. Altogether they edited 32 encyclopedias on subjects as diverse as homelessness, crime and punishment, religious freedom, marriage and family, health and illness.

Then Karen decided that working for others, and depending on fees for compiling new encyclopedias on subjects they did not choose, was less rewarding, both intellectually and financially, than publishing encyclopedias themselves. Accordingly they incorporated the Berkshire Publishing Group in 2000, and Karen became a business woman with employees, bank loans and a balance sheet to manage, while simultaneously raising her children and editing the five-volume Encyclopedia of World History.

David Levinson was small potatoes after her fiery fling with Sale, yet he was knowledgeable, kind to her children, and taught her a good deal about how to make an encyclopedia. Karen had been thinking about world history long before they struck out on their own, and this led to my first face-to-face encounter with her. On 16 January 1995, Robert Ferrell, a professor of American history at Indiana University, wrote to her as follows:  “Let me know when you get down to world history. Actually, the leading American expert, Bill McNeill, is right there in Connecticut, retired from the University of Chicago.”

Soon thereafter she wrote to me on 9 February:  “Robert Ferrell, whom I worked with on a Scribner’s project, suggested I write to you about a new project in world history I have undertaken for Gale Research in Detroit.” The letter ends:  “I should be delighted to drive to Colebrook to see you if you could find time for a visitor over the next week or two.” I replied two days later, suggesting she phone and arrange lunch with me and my wife. She had forgotten my debate with Sale, and did not connect the man Ferrell recommended with the ogre Sale had vanquished until long afterward. Nor did I have any inkling of that indirect encounter until writing this essay.

But I well remember meeting her for the first time. Her blond beauty was attractive; her manner and intelligence amazing. No shyness, yet perfect politeness, eager to learn, and quick to decide. We lunched in our dining room and talked at length, for I had serious reservations about the world chronologies Gale wished her to compile.

Karen did make a proposal for an Encyclopedia of World History to  “a big publisher we did not really want to work with” but when it became clear  “they didn’t want to spend much money” she withdrew it  “hoping we could find a way to do it ourselves and create something really special.” (Letter to me, 12 December 2001).

A week later, on 17 December, I wrote her:  “I am not favorably impressed by your list of possible articles. … Mind you I have not thought what kind of articles I might wish to see in such a work. Choosing appropriate entries seems absolutely critical.” But by 11 May 2002, my tone had changed. ”As always I am amazed at the intensity of your editorial output and find it hard to imagine how you contrive to find more or less competent writers to make so many encyclopedias so rapidly.”

Then, after discussing two articles I was writing for her, I remarked:  “I am pleased to learn that you are planning an Encyclopedia of World History on your own. Surely a risky venture but I don’t need to tell you that. And if you are wise and lucky it can be a landmark, shaping the larger view of the human past….I suggest the name of David Christian to you…. He has a book coming out … which treats of history from the big bang to the present … a man of real intellect and an agreeable human being as well. I have not met him yet, but he plans to visit me early this summer.”

When Karen began to commission articles for her world history encyclopedia, she told me, on 17 June 2003,  “the response has been terrific. Your involvement is a key part…. Many contributors are asking for more time than the 60 days we first suggested, but we’ll keep a tight rein on the dates because we wish to publish in time for a launch at the American Library Association conference in Boston in January 2005.”

Press on she did, and in fact had five massive volumes available on 31 October 2004 and contrived to present them to me at my birthday party in Colebrook. I was amazed for she had begun commissioning articles in June 2003 and somehow got 330 authors to meet deadlines, edited their handiwork, as well as gathered innumerable illustrations and 600 maps, designing five handsome volumes, and indexing 2,221 pages before sending them to a printer on 14 August 2004.

Needless to say, she did not work alone, but gathered thirty-seven gifted, hard-working temporary and part-time helpers to perform these tasks. Her husband and children joined the throng and she described herself as Project Director. This meant responsibility for everything. Her genius lay in choosing people of high capability (as well as selecting efficient corporate map-makers and a printer), keeping them happy through long hours of work, and assigning short-term goals along the way, without interfering or angering anyone.

That was not easy to do. She was both wise and lucky, and deserves personal credit for the success she wrought. For the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History was a success, intellectually and financially. As I wrote in the preface: ”The pioneering Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History is designed to help both experts and beginners to sample the best contemporary efforts to make sense of the human past by connecting particular and local history with larger patterns.” It also sold well enough to cover the costs of preparation, and brought Karen sufficient profits to help her produce a 5-volume Encyclopedia of China and several others afterwards.

My own part was marginal, though pervasive. David Christian surpassed me, writing a 56-page essay, This Fleeting World: An Overview of Human History, in which he undertook to introduce and unify the entire encyclopedia. He also wrote twelve articles, whereas I wrote only ten and a three-page preface. Karen published This Fleeting World as a separate work as soon as the encyclopedia was out; and that slender pamphlet became her bestseller for schools and remains so still. Nonetheless, I delight in my role as General Editor and only flinch a little when seeing my name where Karen’s ought to be—on the back of each volume.

My friendship with Karen remained close and supportive, but her own life suffered yet another upheaval in 2007 when she parted with David Levinson and found a new partner in Stephen Orlins. This time it was she who decided that spending the rest of her life with Levinson was unwelcome. They had worked together for thirteen years, and she learned much from him; but after the rush to publish their first independent encyclopedia, he relaxed and ceased to work on her projects. I thought at the time that his father’s death perhaps affected him. Maybe it was only that Karen no longer needed him. He was an active partner when first I met him; but after their divorce, he simply ceased editorial work at age 61, and now depends on a pension from Yale.

Stephen Orlins, with whom she found refuge soon thereafter, was a man of unusual energy and capability that matched her own, and is only eight years her senior. Raised in New York, and grandson of a Russian immigrant, he studied Chinese at Harvard and as a recent graduate of Harvard Law School began at the top by helping to arrange the resumption of diplomatic relations with China in the 1970s. Thereafter, he worked with Lehman Brothers until accepting the presidency of the National Committee on US–China Relations in 2005. It had been created by a group of businessmen and China experts in 1966. Being fluent in Chinese, Steve now commutes between New York, Washington, and Beijing, enjoying easy access to high officials of both countries.

Karen’s special commitment to China dates back to 2001 when Scribners offered her a fee to compile an Encyclopedia of Asia that was large enough to finance a trip to China for her and her children. They travelled widely, and her son Tom, in particular, was stimulated to study Chinese and in time became almost as fluent as Steve.

My ties with Karen tightened when she decided to prepare a second and enlarged edition of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History. This time, I took David Levinson’s place, reviewing articles in the first edition, deciding which needed to be replaced, and proposing additions. We worked at a relaxed pace, and there was time to expand to six volumes, add maps and illustrations, and improve its quality in general. I wrote twenty-nine articles, and we dropped David Christian’s This Fleeting World on the ground that it was more useful as a separate publication. Karen also decided to republish groups of articles dealing with closely connected themes in the hope of duplicating the success of This Fleeting World. Only a few thematic booklets have been issued so far, and none comes close to selling like Christian’s masterpiece. But I am glad to be able to say that the second edition continues to sell more copies than Karen’s other encyclopedias and more than pays for itself.

Preparing a ten-volume Encyclopedia of Sustainability was her most recent enterprise, and when the final volumes come out in 2012, she will have no further encyclopedic ambitions. But Sustainability will define a new subject for schools as her World History once did, and will surely spawn new projects for her in time to come.

What a career! What trials and tribulations, triumphs and accomplishments, kindnesses and love! What more, and what else, is there to say?

karen christensen's corona typewriter on t s eliot's desk

Thanks for stopping by! Please drop your address below so I can send you a letter every now and then, or send me an email. Warm regards, Karen.

We don’t spam! And it's super easy to unsubscribe any time.