Image: Evergreen Review Issue No. 25, Courtesy of Barney Rosset, © Grove Press
"YOU TREAT GROVE AS IF it was a real publishing company!"
I'm sitting at a coffee shop in the Farragut neighborhood of Brooklyn with Fred Jordan, Barney Rosset's right hand man and managing editor of the Evergreen Review throughout the sixties, and his son Ken, publisher of the online magazine Reality Sandwich. I had sent them a draft of the introduction to my book on Grove Press, and they didn't like it. "If you take a publishing company to be a commercial enterprise, Grove never was," Fred complains. "It wasn't a business," his son interjects, "It was a project driven out of passion, which Barney completely self-identified with."
If Grove wasn't a business, what was it? "We just called it Grove. Because it was just its own thing," Ken replied. Jeanette Seaver had likened it to a family; Morrie Goldfischer had repeatedly used the term "team" to describe Grove's core group. Nat Sobel told me that Rosset compared the company more specifically to a football team, adding "I'm the quarterback, and I'm calling the signals." What about a rock band? "It's more like a band than anything else," Ken agreed. And then he added, "The relationship was not so much from one person to another. It was one person to Barney, and then Barney to everybody else." And Sobel confirmed, "If we had any personal relationship, it wasn't with each other, it was with Barney."
Grove Press, before Rosset decided to take the company public in 1967, is thus probably best described as what the sociologist Max Weber calls a "charismatic community," a small group of people who come together out of loyalty to a single, charismatic figure. From 1960 to 1970, Grove Press was run not by Rosset alone but by a cadre of men who were unwaveringly loyal to him, even as he made decisions that put the press at economic and legal risk. Weber claims that "charisma rejects as undignified all methodical rational acquisition, in fact, all rational economic conduct," and Rosset's impulsive decision-making style perfectly illustrates this quality, his very irrationality central to his appeal. On the other hand — and this also jibes with Weber's characterization of the charismatic leader — Rosset was lavishly, if unreliably, generous with his associates, going so far as to provide them with houses on his Hamptons estate.
In addition to Jordan and Seaver, this charismatic community included Sobel, who handled sales, and Goldfischer, who did promotion and publicity. Rosset met Sobel, a native New Yorker, during a late night poker game at a sales conference, and hired him as assistant sales manager under Jordan in 1960. Sobel had paid his way as an English major at City College by working at Berman Brothers paperback bookstore on the Upper West Side, where he had noticed the distinctiveness and popularity of the Evergreen imprint. After college, he spent a year in France and, upon returning to the United States, worked as a salesman for Dell's paperback division before Rosset hired him away. A one-man sales force from the early sixties until he hired Herman Graf to assist him in 1964, Sobel cemented the circuit of paperback and college bookstores that were Grove's most important outlet to countercultural readers. Sobel and Graf were well-known to and well-liked by the buyers for all these stores, where the arrival of the new Grove list was always eagerly anticipated. According t...read more