AUGUST 24, 2013
LOREN GLASS’S Counterculture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde is one of those books that makes you wonder why no one thought of writing it already. Grove Press and its charismatic owner, Barney Rosset, sit right at the center of postwar intellectual history. Glass notes early that if Rosset made a lot of impulsive bad decisions, he was guided steadily by a shrewd understanding of where American culture was headed. In the 1950s, Americans were beginning to go to college en masse, and when they got there they would seek out whatever was chic, daring, avant-garde, experimental — in a word, hip. Counterculture, the notion of seceding from the mainstream and dwelling in an autonomously created realm of liberated culture, was perhaps the most potent dream of the postwar age. Everybody wanted in. Against the mounting tide of a mass avant-garde, the old censorship codes could not long endure.
Rosset foresaw all this, or at least profited from it. Counterculture Colophon ably tells the story of how Grove Press trafficked in goods for the intellectual (or at least collegiate) part of the counterculture and came to occupy the Venn-diagram intersection of high modernism and porny lifestyle liberationism. This is what Glass calls “vulgar modernism,” an aesthetic that “sought both elite and populist modes of legitimation” and played off the ambiguity of sex in experimental writing. The explicitness of a work like Tropic of Cancer could be transgressive in good modernist style, but could also give you a hard-on. The fact that Grove was all about hard-ons — male sexual response, and women as the occasion of it — could be a problem, though this appears not to have occurred to Rosset until rather too late.
Grove Press started out in the early 1950s with a series of French discoveries — Beckett, Genet, and Robbe-Grillet, among others — at a point when the focus of the art world was shifting from Paris to New York. It thereafter showed an infallible instinct for grabbing onto every new item that entered the burgeoning hip culture: de Sade, modern jazz, Kerouac and the Beats, Zen and Japanese literature, the Theatres of Cruelty and of the Absurd. In a series of five case studies, Glass tells how Grove and its flagship magazine, the Evergreen Review, negotiated successive waves of radical culture. As the 1960s played out, Ionesco plays and UNESCO-approved works of world literature were succeeded by handbooks for the revolution and the accoutrements of sexual liberation. By the end of the decade, when counterculture intellectuals were insisting that film, not literature, was the art form suited to an electrified present, Grove got into film production, which eventually bled the company white.
Counterculture Colophon ends with Grove’s collapse, which was brought on by overreaching, hubris, worker discontent, and bad management. But Glass also paints a picture of Rosset as that characteristic modern figure, the revolutionary consumed by his own revolution. Having hastened the end of a century-old regime of censorship with a series of legal defenses for unimpeachably highbrow books, Rosset went further, creating the Evergreen Club to publish antique porn and high-end contemporary erotica such as The Story of O. Eventually, writes Glass, “the Evergreen Club abandoned any pretension to literary value and became a source for anything sexually explicit that Rosset could acquire,” and Rosset himself reveled in his public notoriety as a swinger. All this was calculated to appeal to a solidly male clientele. Those who harkened to Evergreen Review’s call to “join the underground” constituted the higher-brow version of the man who read Playboy: a 1966 advertising survey discovered that he was “a 39-year-old male, married, two children, a college graduate who holds a managerial position in business or industry, and has a median family income of $12,875.” (That’s about $92,000 in 2013.) It turns out that “Chuck,” the everysquare in a 1965 Evergreen Review spoof of Charles Atlas ads, painted a pretty realistic portrait of the Grove readership. But with the emergence of a feminist critique made possible by the very cultural revolution Rosset served, the masculine literati no longer enjoyed the privilege of guiltless consumption, and modernist experimentalism no longer provided a dignified alibi for it. In the 1970s, the Evergreen Review image of the hip intellectual soured. We might imagine Chuck a decade later, up to his ears in alimony, parted hair modishly grown out though thinning and combed-over on top, paunch swelling under a safari suit coat, leering at younger women who wish he would drop dead.
All the same, there’s something seductive about Grove’s historical moment. Its attraction is like the one that Mad Men holds for us now — the allure of a world in which we might catch our reflections but from which we are cut off. It’s a world furnished in Scandinavian blond wood, with Paul Klee prints and bullfight posters on the walls, Jacques Barzun and Carl Jung on the cover of Time, Bartók and Ornette on the hi-fi, Mailer on TV, and liquor at lunch. Our pleasures are not the same as theirs, and neither are our guilts. But pick up a Grove paperback and turn it over in your hands, breathe in its age, gaze at its coolly modern cover design, and a moving, sounding picture of the Cold War past, a hologram completed in the imagination, springs into life. The slightly odd title of Glass’s book, Counterculture Colophon, gets at this experience. A colophon is just a printer’s mark, a kind of literary branding. There’s not that much to say about the Grove colophon as such — three pen strokes in something like an inverted peace sign. But it’s not the mark itself that Glass’s title evokes, but rather the complex tactile sense-memory of which the colophon is a synecdoche.
Glass sometimes registers disappointment in the limitations of Grove’s critical vision, but there is clearly also an undertow of nostalgia in his writing. Even Counterculture Colophon’s cover, which mimics the look of a well worn Grove paperback, strains to go beyond merely informing us of the imprint’s history and toward a kind of time-travel fantasy. And why not? Along with Blue Note Records, Grove is perhaps the only purveyor of midcentury hip culture whose brand still, after all these years, powerfully conjures a whole era and worldview, even as both the brand and its era have faded away. When Chuck picked up a Grove book, he wanted not just a new book but also a new reality to go with it. A book collector nowadays, picking up the same book, wants that reality too.
Some of the best parts of Counterculture Colophon are those where Glass evokes something of this reality, and some of his best ideas are those that deal with Grove’s paradoxical attempts to render a culture of living presence in typography. In “Publishing Off Broadway,” the book’s second chapter, Glass notes how the publication of Waiting for Godot in 1954 scored Grove one of its biggest successes. Rosset followed up this success by publishing plays by Ionesco, Pinter, Brecht, and others, building a market of people who might want to read such challenging works in preparation for (or even instead of) seeing them performed. What’s interesting, though, is that the emerging radical culture whose needs Rosset so shrewdly anticipated was, above all, a presence culture: “Postwar experimental theater positioned itself in stark opposition to the culture industries and […] remained philosophically and politically committed to liveness, especially in the happenings and street theater of the 1960s.” Not just experimental theater, either: when Bob Dylan was called the “voice of a generation,” it meant that whatever message he conveyed on behalf of his generation was above all embodied, the words indissolubly linked to a voice, an utterance become an action or event — a Happening, as it was styled at the time — not (or not only) a textual object. This was also how Norman Mailer understood the hipster’s language, whose words he conceived in something of the same way Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa understood nouns, as “cross sections cut through actions,” traces of living process and raw experience.
Grove could cater to this taste for liveness by throwing its weight behind theater, the live art ne plus ultra, but as Glass points out, it needed to establish a reason not only to watch theater but also to read it. It did this in two ways: by suggesting that the difficulties of literary modernism demanded reading outside of the irreversible time of performance, just as score study might elucidate a musical composition, and by finding typographic analogs to performative nuance. A 1966 press release boasted that the deluxe Grove edition of The Bald Soprano “uses photos and type in a unique way to convey on paper the quality of a live performance” — a print evocation of orality that Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore would soon attempt in The Medium is the Massage, and which in turn would spawn the genre of the experimental paperback. (Jeffrey T. Schnapp and Adam Michaels’s The Electric Information Age Book: McLuhan/Agel/Fiore and the Experimental Paperback is an excellent study of this phenomenon.) Glass offers sensitive readings of Grove’s Pinter editions, in which silences are telegraphed by photos, and the paperback of Jack Gelber’s The Connection, whose noirish atmosphere was conveyed both by the book’s design and by a tie-in Blue Note recording of music from the play.
This is by no means the sole or even main focus of the book, though. Indeed, there is no single focus. Glass is a fox, not a hedgehog, and his book collects an assortment of notions to account for the various features of his topic. And quite right: the story of Grove might be wrapped up in the large and stately movements of cultural history, but it’s also a very particular story, inextricable from the contingencies of Rosset’s singular personality. Glass interviewed many of Grove’s main figures, including Rosset himself, and the book is much the richer for it. The introduction and last chapter narrate the story of the business these men built and the personal foibles and conflicts that, in the end, determined the success and failure of their enterprise. These chapters bracket the case studies, which are analytical rather than narrative and sample from critical approaches that other academic authors have developed to deal with the various issues at play in Grove’s development. To me, this wandering focus is a feature, not a bug — a way of doing justice to both the micro and macro of cultural history.
On the last page, Glass assesses Grove’s legacy: the “cultural revolution Grove helped to effect […] vastly expanded the range of voices that can be heard without radically challenging the larger socioeconomic order in which they are speaking.” A paragraph later he writes, “the Grove Press backlist is a renewable resource of dissidence and dissent that continues to energize new generations of radical artists and activists.” Is there a contradiction here? Only if you assume that radical artists and activists radically challenge the socioeconomic order. But such an assumption is no longer universally held. What Thomas Frank once called “the countercultural idea” has been remarkably durable and widespread — so powerful that it has only recently even registered as an idea at all, rather than as an obvious and eternal truth.
With the demythologization of counterculture, many of us are beginning to suspect that hip is just a pose, that hip businesses like Grove are businesses like any other, that there was never any clear distinction between “radical” culture and whatever mainstream it was supposed to confront, and that “subversion” and “resistance” are as much aesthetic as political qualities in radical art. I don’t exactly know who this “us” is, but I know there’s a lot of them, or us: if Glass has a Facebook wall, I’m guessing that in the last few years his friends have been strewing it with links to videos of comedians ranting about hipster douchebags and articles written by New York Times chin-strokers dissecting contemporary hipsterdom. Academics, journalists, and ordinary civilians are drunk on the sudden awareness that hip is a kind of game and that they can see through it. This is the cultural moment in which Counterculture Colophon appears, joining a number of other studies, such as Scott Saul’s Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t (2005), Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture (2008), and Michael Szalay’s Hip Figures (2012), that have seized a certain freedom that comes of denaturing and historicizing counterculture and its ideological/aesthetic operating system, hip.
The obvious question is, now what? If counterculture doesn’t really counter anything — or doesn’t counter things in the way we once thought — what is left to oppose the daily seepage of corporatocratic propaganda and consumerist hooey? Glass doesn’t ask that question, and no one else has found a good answer yet. But while we remain suspended in the anxiety of the open question, we can appreciate Counterculture Colophon for renewing the fragile beauty of a time when it seemed possible that art could define a new, free world.