Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Benjamin Sonnenberg papers, 1956-2010

Summary Information


Ben Sonnenberg, Jr., is a writer and editor best known for founding Grand Street, a New York literary quarterly, which he edited from 1981 until his retirement in 1989; the magazine continued for another fifteen years before it finally ceased publication in the fall of 2004. The bulk of the collection comprises correspondence between Ben Sonnenberg, Jr. and literary contributors associated with Grand Street. Some Grand Street administrative files and a small amount of personal material, including family letters and writings, are also included.

At a Glance

Call No.: MS#1457
Bib ID 6894663 View CLIO record
Creator(s) Sonnenberg, Ben
Title Benjamin Sonnenberg papers, 1956-2010
Physical Description 9 linear feet (20 document boxes)
Language(s) English .

This collection is located off-site. You will need to request this material at least three business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room.

Box 8, folders 8 through 10 are restricted until 2022.



This collection is arranged in three series.



The majority of the collection consists of personal and professional correspondence between Ben Sonnenberg, Jr., Grand Street contributors, and other writers associated with the New York literary scene. The correspondence is primarily literary in scope, with writers often responding to criticism of manuscripts and works in progress, as well as providing "updates" on work and home life. In addition to letters from contributors, the series includes letters from other editors-some amicable, others less so-which provide an incisive portrait of the New York literary culture in the mid-1990s.

Also included in the collection are administrative and financial records from Grand Street magazine, manuscripts of Sonnenberg's own work, and a small amount of family and personal correspondence. Overall, the material is in excellent condition, with the exception of newspaper clippings and magazine articles, many of which are acidic and have been either separated or photocopied to preserve their integrity.

  • Series I: Correspondence and Manuscripts, 1956- 2001

    This series consists of correspondence from the mid-1960s through the 1990s, with a strong emphasis the years immediately following Sonnenberg's retirement as editor of Grand Street magazine (1989-2000). In addition to written correspondence, materials include drafts and manuscripts of written work, photos, drawings, and other ephemera included with written letters. Of particular interest is correspondence with W.S. Merwin, James Salter, James Laughlin, Anne Carson, and Susan Minot, which spans multiple decades and provides a rich glimpse into their respective literary careers. This series is arranged alphabetically.

  • Series II: Grand Street Administrative Records, 1983- 2001

    Included in this series are administrative and financial records associated with Grand Street, charitable donations and letters from fans and contributors. The materials are arranged alphabetically.

  • Series III: Personal, 1969-2001

    Personal materials, including manuscripts of Sonnenberg's writings, and research materials, as well as photos and family correspondence comprise this small series. The materials are arranged alphabetically.

Using the Collection

Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Restrictions on Access

This collection is located off-site. You will need to request this material at least three business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room.

Box 8, folders 8 through 10 are restricted until 2022.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. The RBML maintains ownership of the physical material only. Copyright remains with the creator and his/her heirs. The responsibility to secure copyright permission rests with the patron.

Preferred Citation

Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Benjamin Sonnenberg papers; Box and Folder; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.

Related Materials

Ted Hughes, Letters to Ben Sonnenberg, 1961-2000 Emory University

The Sally Belfrage Papers, Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, New York University

Grand Street Records, Rare Book and Manuscript Library Butler Library, Columbia University

Ownership and Custodial History

Purchase, May 2002.

About the Finding Aid / Processing Information

Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Processing Information

Papers processed Katie Gradowski 07/01/2008.

Papers catalogued Lea Osborne 12/16/2008.

Revision Description

2009-01-22 File created

2009-04-20 xml document instance created by Lea Osborne

2013-10-24 xml document instance edited by Patrick Lawlor

2019-05-20 EAD was imported spring 2019 as part of the ArchivesSpace Phase II migration.

Subject Headings

The subject headings listed below are found in this collection. Links below allow searches at Columbia University through the Archival Collections Portal and through CLIO, the catalog for Columbia University Libraries, as well as ArchiveGRID, a catalog that allows users to search the holdings of multiple research libraries and archives.

All links open new windows.


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
Amen, Grover Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Carson, Anne, 1950- Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Danto, Arthur C., 1924-2013 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Hughes, Ted, 1930-1998 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Laughlin, James Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Literature -- Periodicals Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Little magazines -- Periodicals Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Mailer, Norman Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Merwin, W. S. (William Stanley), 1927- Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Minot, Susan Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Munro, Alice, 1931- Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
New York (State) -- Periodicals Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Powell, Padgett Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Said, Edward W Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Salter, James Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Sonnenberg, Benjamin, 1901-1978 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Sorel, Edward, 1929- Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID

History / Biographical Note

Biographical Note

Native New Yorker Ben Sonnenberg, Jr., is best known as the founder and editor of Grand Street, an influential literary and cultural magazine based in New York City in the mid-1980s and 1990s. Sonnenberg's exposure to the New York literary scene began early in his life: he was the son of Benjamin Sonnenberg, the famous press agent who transformed the family home at 19 Gramercy Place into a central hub for the city's business and literary circles. Sonnenberg both resisted and embraced his cosmopolitan upbringing, recalling his childhood as that of a "younger son in a family of great English furniture." In and out of private schools as a child, he eschewed college in favor of a rigorous program of reading and self-education, traveling abroad and establishing close relations with other writers including W.S. Merwin and Ted Hughes, both with whom he would correspond extensively over the next three decades. In 1963, Sonnenberg completed his first play, Jane Street, shortly before returning to New York to pursue his literary career.

In 1981, Sonnenberg invested his inheritance in founding Grand Street, a "little magazine" dedicated to literature, politics, and cultural criticism. Hailed in the tradition of The Dial and the Partisan Review, Grand Street quickly established itself as a major New York literary organ, with Sonnenberg hosting informal gatherings with friends and contributors at his apartment on Riverside Drive. As an editor, Sonnenberg was known for unprecedented generosity and trust in his writers, as well as his oft-spoken desire to enfranchise rising talent: "[I want] the money to go into their pockets," he frequently said of his contributors. Early contributors included writers like Susan Minot and Anne Carson, whose work he assiduously promoted in Grand Street and through private foundations; the magazine also regularly published works by Edward Said, Arthur Danto, Grover Amen, James Salter, Padgett Powell, James Laughlin, Alice Munro, Edward Sorel, and others.

Through the 1980s, Sonnenberg's work at Grand Street was increasingly inhibited by failing health. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of 34 and spent most of his adult life as a paraplegic, composing his correspondence and literary materials by dictation. Sonnenberg retired from the magazine in 1989; in 1991 he published his memoir, Lost Property: Memoirs and Confessions of a Bad Boy, a well-received account of his adolescence and his subsequent years abroad. Sonnenberg continues to write poetry and film criticism, with essays appearing in Raritan, The Nation, and other venues. He lives in New York with his wife, Dorothy Gallagher.