FEBRUARY 2, 2012
IN THE PREFACE TO THIS REMARKABLE memoir, Richard Seaver claims that he had never intended to publish it. And indeed he died before he could complete it. We therefore owe a debt of gratitude to his wife Jeanette for culling down the 900 pages he left her to a manageable length. People outside of New York publishing circles might never have heard of Dick Seaver, though anyone who read Waiting for Godot or The Autobiography of Malcolm X or any number of the other classic postwar texts published by Grove Press during his tenure there is familiar with his work. This riveting account of those years will rectify any neglect, as Dick Seaver was to the post-WWII avant-garde what Maxwell Perkins was for modernism between the wars: an editor of genius.
Cultural mediators – publishers, editors, agents – don’t get much recognition in literary history, and their work goes unacknowledged in most literature classes, but without them the work of all the authors we idolize would never see the light of day. Between 1959 and 1970, Seaver and his mercurial boss at Grove, Barney Rosset, along with editors Donald Allen and Fred Jordan, revolutionized the publishing industry and created a veritable canon of countercultural reading: Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, Frantz Fanon, Jean Genet, Che Guevara, Eugene Ionesco, Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), Malcolm X, Henry Miller, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Harold Pinter, John Rechy, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Hubert Selby, Jr., and many, many others. And then there was the Evergreen Review, Grove’s house journal and one of the marquee magazines of the literary underground. At the height of the sixties, Grove Press was the communications center of the counterculture, the conduit through which radical writing flowed. Its colophon became inextricably identified with revolutionary thought, and its offices in downtown Manhattan became a social nexus for revolutionary activists.
But Seaver’s story starts in Paris, the focus of part one of his memoirs, and the source of much of the writing Grove published. He insists from the outset that he and his compatriots weren’t “trying to emulate” the legendary lost generation, but his many references to Hemingway and Joyce belie this claim. Indeed, he wrote his undergraduate thesis on the former and was in Paris to write a dissertation on the latter. At one point, unable to finish a glass of wine offered to him by a French farmer at whose home he is staying, he asks himself, “How would Hemingway have handled it?” And only a few pages later he calls Joyce “my hero.” The exiles of the interwar years haunt the early pages of this memoir, and it is clear that Seaver and the many Anglophone expatriates he meets in Paris aspired to achieve an analogous generational identity.
Nevertheless, as Seaver affirms, “Existentialism, not hedonism, was the order of the day” in 1950s Paris, and his meetings with Jean-Paul Sartre are high points in a narrative punctuated by innumerable encounters with the movers and shakers of the postwar Parisian scene. Through the South African Patrick Bowles, Seaver had met the Scotsman Alexander Trocchi, who was starting up an expat journal called Merlin. Trocchi and Seaver visit Sartre in his apartment in the hopes that they can arrange to share articles with Les Temps Modernes. Their success in this endeavor provides Merlin with the ultimate intellectual imprimatur, one which would also help launch the initial issue of the Evergreen Review a few years later.
There are many other fascinating accounts of Seaver’s encounters in Paris, including a hilarious drunken evening with Brendan Behan, who randomly showed up at Seaver’s apartment insisting he be introduced to Samuel Beckett, and a visit with Orson Welles, to whom he was introduced by an American woman who claimed to be one of Welles’ many secretaries. But the key contact that Seaver made during his Parisian sojourn was with the then little known Beckett, whose American reputation Seaver (along with Rosset) would be responsible for, and with whom he and his wife Jeannette would become close friends. In her foreword, Jeannette affirms that her husband was “a man of exceptional modesty,” and he amply illustrates this quality when he eschews “discovering” as “far too pretentious a word” to describe his “great good fortune of coming upon … a genius.” Seaver had seen copies of Molloy and Malone Meurt in the office window of Beckett’s French publisher, Editions de Minuit, and after reading them he would become dedicated to the author for the rest of his life, publishing an essay about and early pieces by him in Merlin, bringing out an edition of Watt in collaboration with Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press, and enthusiastically supporting Barney Rosset’s decision to acquire Waiting for Godot, whose legendary opening performance at the Théatre de Babylone Seaver attended.
Still, Seaver’s most culturally consequential encounters in Paris were not with authors but with young publishers. The eccentric and unreliable Girodias was an early financial supporter ofMerlin, and his Olympia Press would later become the source of many of Grove’s most important authors. And Seaver’s meeting with Barney Rosset over lunch in 1953 marked the beginning of a professional collaboration and personal friendship that would fundamentally shape postwar literary and cultural history. Both Rosset and Girodias, who themselves formed what Seaver diplomatically calls “a fragile friendship,” receive a chapter of their own.
Seaver and Rosset next meet for lunch at One Fifth Avenue in New York City, the setting for the second half of the memoir. After a stint in the Navy, Seaver had returned to the States and was working as a book club editor for George Braziller, but Rosset easily convinced him to “join the excitement” at Grove. For the next decade, the two men, along with Donald Allen, Fred Jordan, Nat Sobel, Morrie Goldfischer, Harry Braverman, and a host of other minor players, worked to transform the publishing industry and, in essence, foment a cultural revolution.
Seaver tells the story well: The trials of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Naked Lunch; the high jinx at the Frankfurt Book Fair; the co-awarding of the Formentor Prize to Borges and Beckett; the making of Beckett’s Film; the last-minute acquisition of The Autobiography of Malcolm X; the pseudonymous shenanigans behind The Story of O; Rosset’s ill-fated decision to take the company public in 1967; the massive infusion of cash from the unanticipated success of I Am Curious Yellow; and the precipitous collapse of the company after the strike and feminist takeover of 1970.
I’ve told some of this story already in these pages, and will tell more in my forthcoming book. Indeed, much of what Seaver covers is well known to historians of the Sixties. Some elements of Grove’s story, such as Rosset and Jordan’s trip to Bolivia in search of Che Guevara’s diary, are left out (indeed, Seaver’s co-workers get short shrift in this otherwise admirable narrative). But Seaver offers wonderful anecdotes – about Jean Genet’s insistence on being paid in cash, for instance, and about Rosset’s notoriously impulsive martini- and amphetamine-driven leadership style – that enrich the public record, enlivened by his own personal insights into personalities and events. One of the best of these involves Beckett’s visit to New York to make Film. Seaver had promised to take Beckett to a baseball game and, since the championship caliber Yankees were on the road, he had to settle for the hapless Mets. Sensitive to Beckett’s poor eyesight, Seaver gets them seats just down the left field line, close to home plate. Beckett watches intently, and is “especially impressed by the blue-suited umpires, who acted with such histrionic authority.” After the first game, which the Mets win, Beckett asks “Is it over then?” Seaver informs him that it’s a double header, to which Beckett responds, “So there’s a whole other game?…Then we should stay. We don’t want to leave until it’s over, do we?”
Many of Seaver’s most important insights are contained in his short chapter on “The Grove Method,” which explains how Rosset’s willful disregard for the bottom line enabled the company to acquire the authors who made it famous. As he opens, “we rarely had editorial meetings at Grove, and in my years there we had never done a P&L – a profit and loss statement – that showed at what point a book would make money, if ever.” Rather, “if the manuscript was good, the author serious, the writing (for nonfiction) at least acceptable, you signed it up.” The result was a level of authorial loyalty that hearkened back to an earlier era of publishing, and which meant that half of Grove’s yearly list was predetermined by its “house” authors, whose work formed the backlist that would enable Grove to survive into the seventies and beyond. It follows, of course, that Rosset’s fateful decision to go public in 1967 would make it increasingly difficult to run the company in this manner, and Seaver’s short chapter, “Grove Goes Public,” concludes tellingly: “I’ve been poor and (on paper) rich, and, believe me, poor is better.” Indeed, Seaver’s entire story illustrates that the best editors are not in it for the money. They’re in it for the books.
And, at least in Seaver’s case, for the excitement. Working for Grove in the sixties meant being a witness to history, and one of the most remarkable chapters in The Tender Hour of Twilight is Seaver’s account of his trip to the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968 along with Jean Genet, Terry Southern, and William Burroughs, all under contract to report on the event forEsquire magazine. Culling from Genet and Southern’s accounts for the magazine, Seaver gives the chapter a choral structure, alternating between his own journal from the turbulent four days, Genet’s phantasmagoric envisioning of the event in terms of the body and uniform parts of the Chicago Police, and Southern’s more straight-ahead factual narrative. Genet, who gets in bed with Seaver and his wife every morning to read his account of the prior day’s events, is the appropriate hero of this chapter (and, in his combination of literary, political and sexual dissidence, a representative Grove author). One of the loveliest scenes in the book comes when Allen Ginsberg, leading a crowd in chanting “Om,” espies Genet and prostrates himself before him, kisses his feet, and says, “I have read Our Lady of the Flowers … one of the great works of the century. And you, monsieur, are a great saint.”
Seaver concludes his story with the feminist takeover of the executive offices of Grove’s newly acquired building on the corner of Mercer and Bleecker Streets. Basking in the massive cash infusion from I Am Curious Yellow, Rosset had purchased and renovated the building, installing a massive arch in the shape of a letter “G” at the entrance and a private elevator for himself and the other executives. As Seaver affirms, “our greatest sin had been expanding too fast,” and Rosset no longer knew, or cared about, many of the people who worked for him. Hearing rumors of a unionization drive, Rosset recklessly decided to preemptively fire the employees suspected of organizing it, after which Robin Morgan, one of many part-time editors working under Seaver, organized the takeover, which marked not only the end of Grove Press as a prominent countercultural publisher but also a turning point in the cultural history of the United States. Seaver’s account of the chaotic conclusion to his time at Grove captures both the tragedy and the comedy of the company’s collapse, as Rosset was forced to call the police in order to assure that the Grove editorial files – as well as his private correspondence – didn’t go up in flames.
Seaver twice compares Rosset to Napoleon in these concluding chapters, and the comparison is apt insofar as the declining fortunes of the company can be understood as the disintegration of the tight charismatic community Rosset had built up around himself. Rosset’s impulsive seat-of-the-pants leadership style could work for a small company, but not for a large corporation, and he no longer commanded the loyalty of his many followers. Overextended and massively in debt, Rosset abandoned the building and fired most of his workforce, including his long-time sales manager Nat Sobel. A few months later, Morrie Goldfischer, his director of promotion and publicity, left for Playboy. Seaver, seeing the writing on the wall, left a few months after that.
He lived for another 40 years, all of which are summed up in a single-page epilogue written by his wife. This decision makes sense, not only because almost anything would be an anti-climax after the event-filled decade at Grove, but also because the fifties and sixties represent the decades in which Seaver’s life intersected most meaningfully with the cultural history the memoir narrates. More regrettable is the decision to neglect his early years growing up in suburban Connecticut. Unlike most of the men he worked with – left-wing urban Jews accustomed to being on the margins – Seaver was a classic WASP raised in a conservative family. He occasionally hints at how this family may have formed his sensibilities – most tellingly when he compares his father, who “carefully refrained from ever paying [him] a compliment,” to his first boss, George Braziller – but Seaver’s modesty shades into reticence when it comes to his upbringing. One is left with only a vague sense of how and why someone raised so conventionally would devote his career to subversive causes, including translating and collecting the works of the Marquis de Sade. Unlike Rosset, who is described as “irascible, a control freak, most of the time manic, prone to panic attacks,” Seaver himself was by all accounts a relatively conservative and traditional man, and one suspects that there are private elements of his character, and his past, that have been omitted here.
Nevertheless, The Tender Hour of Twilight is an indispensable text. Subtitled “A Memoir of Publishing’s Golden Age,” it is in fact much more than that: it is a chronicle of a transformational era the cultural consequences of which remain with us to this day.