All the Young Dudes
A posthumous memoir goes behind the scenes at the celebrated publisher of Burroughs, Lawrence, and Malcolm X.
Seaver sounds livid, still, as of the writing, decades later. And yet, in arbitration, the firings were undone. Then Grove distributed an anti-union information sheet—saying that unions "discriminated against blacks" and didn't fight for women’s rights; the Grove unionization vote failed, 86-34.
And then, after the editorial staff union vote failed, Grove fired half of its workers. As you do.
And just a year after moving into the fancy new building, they then downsized to a tiny rental. Grove shut down its (union!) warehouse, trading to Random House their perennial best-sellers (The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Games People Play) in exchange for distribution; a loser, wound-staunching deal of the worst kind.
In 1971, knowing he was pretty much the last one left to be fired, Seaver quit to run his own imprint at Viking. Rosy!
So what is unusual about this boy from a small town who joined the military is his devotion to not just the high literary and the pornographically scandalous, but to radical black activists and writers (for one, Grove published Frantz Fanon, and also The Autobiography of Malcolm X, after Doubleday, a few days after his murder, canceled the book) and, of course, that association with a hefty number of truly outrageous gays. But for all that, though he chased a few pretty and independent women in his youth and married apparently the prettiest and smartest of them all, women barely exist in his recounting.
His entire career, from the boys who start magazines to his days of shepherding manuscripts, is caught up with male writers. Of Marguerite Duras, he gives us two paragraphs; he did not like her, and found her a narcissist. Anaïs Nin gets a single reference, despite Seaver's slavishness toward awful old Henry Miller. Probably the greatest painter of the century, Joan Mitchell, the former wife of Barney Rosset, never quite appears. Simone de Beauvoir shows up most briefly, but just as someone who wronged Beckett.
And "sadly misguided" Robin Morgan, the Grove employee who was the ringleader of the feminist office occupation? She was the editor of the anthologies Sisterhood Is Powerful and Sisterhood Is Global; she was a co-founder of the Women’s Media Center; she was an editor-in-chief of Ms.; she was an advisory council member of the Global Fund for Women; she was a co-founder of the National Network of Rape Crisis Centers; she has lectured at schools from the University of Cairo to the Kennedy School at Harvard.
So what are we to make of Richard Seaver? This charming, handsome, adventurous fellow, a man of great empathy and wisdom, of broad and fantastic taste, an actual hero of literature, was also quite clearly, and from his own telling, the very face of institutional sexism in publishing. He was the gatekeeper who kept avant-garde publishing male. He is the one who read manuscripts and bought books by man after man. He is the model for all the men who fulfill this role today: men's men, who just don't relate to women, or their books, or their crazy concerns.
Oh, well. Perhaps that changed a bit, for Seaver, over time? (Or not; of the 15 blurbs accompanying the book’s press release, two are from women.) But the book stops here, though the real Richard Seaver story was just beginning. He hopped to run Penguin USA in 1975; hopped to Holt to be president in 1979; then, in 1989, went to Little, Brown for his own division, Arcade, which he and his wife bought out in 1993, going independent, where they gave Sean McDonald, no slouch at trading up himself, and the editor of this book, his first job. Seaver died in 2009, the same year that Arcade went bankrupt, with liabilities of $6.3 million against assets of $4.5 million. In mid-2010, Arcade's 500 or so titles were sold at auction, for $548,000. Among those books is Beckett's first novel.
Choire Sicha is a co-proprietor of the Awl.