The Golden Age of Publishing Wasn’t Golden for Everyone

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 9 2012 1:19 PM

All the Young Dudes

A posthumous memoir goes behind the scenes at the celebrated publisher of Burroughs, Lawrence, and Malcolm X.

The Tender Hour of Twilight
Jeannette and Richard Seaver.

Photograph by John Jonas Gruen © Macmillan.

Ooh, the fabled Golden Age of publishing! That era is sandwiched in the cultural imagination sometime between The Great Gatsby and James Franco's Amazon book deal. It smells like cigarette butts in a tumbler of whiskey and looks like an Instagram. From what I hear, it was just like Mad Men, but more literate, and there was even more sex (but you had to go to Frankfurt every year, so, eh). In The Tender Hour of Twilight (FSG), a posthumously published memoir by the onetime Grove Press editor Richard Seaver, we have a document that displays that age's actual, bona fide wonders—and reminds us things weren’t golden for everyone.

Richard Seaver was born in 1926, was 14 for Pearl Harbor, and joined the Navy at 17. They sent him to college as an officer and he graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, was discharged in 1946, taught at a private school in Connecticut (where he started a wrestling team) and then signed up for an American Field Service fellowship to France, taking a decommissioned troop transport ship with Hemingway's son, Patrick. He arrived in Europe just a few years after the conclusion of World War II, a time that is almost unimaginable to us these days.

Seaver was, one gathers, a foxy bro and a very nice dude who just loved writers. He became a writer himself in the most casual way imaginable; in his telling, he would just send back pieces to American newspapers about French things. And he loved the new authors: His doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne was on James Joyce, but his greatest enthusiasm was Samuel Beckett, well before Waiting for Godot.

In Paris, he joined for a while a new magazine, Merlin, briefly the heroes of the expat English-language literary set. They wrote essays on their enthusiasms, and opined on politics, and as always, someone was left to carry the heaviest load of actually producing the magazine, and others drifted off, or became drug addicts, and there were petty squabbles, like every magazine before or since, and no one had any money, and also, as is usually the case, the magazine summarily folded. All this against a country traumatized:

If any of us had come here with false illusions, romantically drawn by the towering figures of past generations, we soon lost them. Not only had Paris changed, so had the world. Politically and artistically, it seemed to us far more complex and challenging than the one in which those two disparate birds—the sovereignly solipsistic Joyce and the hedonistic Hemingway—had lived twenty or thirty years before. ... After World War I, our elders had mistakenly believed, with the world made safe for democracy now and forever, it was a time to play. Drink and dance the nights away. And Paris had indulged them. Not so our generation: rightly or wrongly, we felt we had awakened from one nightmare only to find another looming.

Still, there is nothing like a labor-of-love literary magazine to get out and meet people! People so met include: Ellsworth Kelly, Orson Welles, Jean-Paul Sartre, Beckett (his one true obsession), Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco, and then, after his return to America, on to John Rechy, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Hubert Selby. About this list, a few things stick out, so to speak. This was a stretch of time in which writerly homosexuals were celebrated, in a way they weren't before and haven't been since. What does that mean? Before, I suppose, it was socially too soon, and also the great city-clustering and mixing of classes of the post-Wars era had not begun; later, more recently, they were mostly dead. In a way, Seaver's is a memoir of what history may (or may certainly not) look back upon as the brief Gay Renaissance.

120109_BOOK_TheTenderHour

Seaver married a young, hot, talented French violinist and came back to America; eventually he landed at Grove Press, first as the managing editor. The year was 1959. Grove was a strange and magical animal. It supported its poetry with pornography; it published the avant-garde and then the Beats along with psychology and Far East mysticist hoo-ha. The house had been owned by Barney Rosset since 1951 and was already a winging cool enterprise, particularly since Rosset began the Evergreen Review in 1957. (Rosset has been talking of his own memoir for a few years now. He will be 90 years old this spring. It would be a lovely history of the period to have, though I expect we should read it more as a confection than perhaps the rigorous truth.) The Review was used to get writers to write for free, for the exposure; then, if they were of interest to Rosset and Seaver, they'd be funneled into book publishing at Grove, often with low advances. Rosset was rich, or sort-of rich, or not really rich, but who could tell.

At Grove Seaver had the astounding experiences of publishing Games People Play, the defining pop-psych text of a generation; of being the secret translator of Story of O; of at last bringing to America Lady Chatterley's Lover and Naked Lunch and Henry Miller and Jean Genet. Grove intended to shock, certainly; these choices for publication (and the subsequent obscenity trials) were the point. Grove's more seemingly noble mission was in its publishing of drama and literature, much of which sold dozens of copies for years on end. But someone had to do both these things: publish Beckett and Pinter and also rid America of book-banning.

And scandal as a business maneuver worked, though it had its hiccups. With upsetting the horses in mind, Grove went out with 25,000 copies of Lady Chatterley in 1959, lots of which were seized and detained for a year. Other publishers celebrated Grove’s eventual (and expensive) victory over the censors by bringing out cheapo paperbacks; all told, 6 million were said to be sold, but most of it went to people who didn't pay for the necessary legal work. Now our scandals are different; celebrity dirt pays more than smut. According to Nielsen BookScan (which tracks approximately 75 percent of U.S. retail sales, excluding Walmart/Sam's Club), Nicholson Baker's extremely filthy (and wonderful) House of Holes has sold 10,000 copies since its release in August. Even with a heavily moralistic faction of the country, there's no one left to shock ... with a book.

In 1962, Grove had sales of about $2 million but lost $400,000 due largely to legal bills. By 1964, they were making good money. By 1967, Grove had, unbelievably, insanely, gone public, and the firm built its own deluxe headquarters. (The book gives the address as "the corner of Bleecker and Houston streets"; it was at Mercer and Bleecker.) In 1970, the staff of more than 150 began organizing. That April, Barney Rosset fired some of the union organizers, by telegram. The following Monday morning, there was not only a picket line outside but an occupation, by a group of nine women, of the executive suite, led by Robin Morgan, who was among the pro-union forces and who had been fired. These were, Seaver concludes, "sadly misguided" women. They had a broadsheet of demands: "We were guilty of 'oppressive and exploitive practices against our own female employees.' Nonsense!’ " (Among the women’s demands: child care at work, though as The Grove Press Reader notes, some were "far-reaching," including that profits from Malcolm X's book be "diverted to the black community.") Under advice of counsel, Rosset called the police; the women departed. Outside at the pickets, Seaver went from person to person, from Aaron Asher (editor or publisher, at times, of Roth, Miller, Bellow) to the author Julius Lester, shaming them into dispersing.

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-founder of The Awl and the author of Very Recent History.

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