SEPTEMBER 7, 2011
The Fifties, from Beckett to Rechy
ON OCTOBER 4, 2009, I flew from Iowa City to New York to conduct interviews for a history of Grove Press. Everyone I contacted had agreed to meet with me except Barney Rosset. In a series of emails, his fifth wife Astrid Myers had firmly but politely resisted fixing a date, telling me that it all depended on how Barney was feeling. I had made all my travel arrangements, set to coincide with the 50th anniversary celebration of the publication of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, without knowing whether I’d be able to interview Rosset, the legendary owner of Grove Press – which had published Burroughs’s masterpiece along with an entire canon of post-war avant-garde literature – and editor of the Evergreen Review, the premiere underground magazine of the sixties counterculture. I was eager to meet the man who bought the fledgling reprint house for $3,000 in 1951, built it up into one of the most influential publishers of the post-war era, and then was summarily fired after selling it to Anne Getty for $2,000,000 in 1986. I checked into my room at the Chelsea hotel, called Astrid, and succeeded in scheduling an interview for the following day.
Taking my cue from the Mad Men-era photos I’d seen of Rosset with a martini, I bought a bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin at a liquor store around the corner from the East Village walk-up he shares with Astrid. Well into his eighties, Rosset remains spry and loquacious; though his body is bent over with age, his motions are animated and he speaks with assurance. He emerged from behind the glass brick partition separating the kitchen and living quarters from the long, narrow front room, and when he saw the blue bottle of gin it seemed, madeleine-like, to immediately evoke the past. Without preamble or introduction, he launched into a lengthy memory of shipping out from New York through the Panama Canal and around Australia to Bombay. His ultimate destination was China, where he’d received a commission, through his father’s government connections, as a Photographic Unit Commander for the Army Signal Corps. At the opening of the voyage he’d been given a blue plastic canteen, which he filled with gin instead of water. By the time he arrived in Bombay, the plastic had melted into the gin, turning it blue. He drank it anyway. It took over ten minutes for Rosset to mention Grove, and when he did it was in order to dismiss everything that had been written about it. “Something you have to understand about how Grove Press came about – nothing like what seems to be written down,” he said. “It’s really a big problem. People write about Grove – they think I came out of an egg or something.”
Barney Rosset did not come out of an egg. He was born and raised in Chicago, the only child of a wealthy Jewish father and an Irish Catholic mother, and he attended the progressive (and private) Francis Parker School, which he credits with instilling in him the passionate left-wing convictions he would maintain throughout his life. At Parker he made his first foray into radical publishing with a mimeographed newsletter called the Sommunist (a mash-up of communist and socialist), soon renamed Anti-Everything. His favorite writers were Nelson Algren and James Farrell. Chou En Lai was his hero. His greatest regret was, and still is, as he told me, that he was too young to fight in the Spanish Civil War.
After graduation, he went to Swarthmore, partly because its recruiter had been an ambulance driver for the Spanish Republicans and partly because he thought it was close to Vassar, where his girlfriend went. She dumped him, and he found solace in reading Tropic of Cancer, purchased under the counter from the Gotham Book Mart in New York City. “I didn’t even notice the obscenity,” Rosset claimed. “I noticed two things: one, he’d had a terrible breakup with a girlfriend. And that struck home to me.” But what also struck home was what he called “Henry’s anti-American stance. All Americans looked alike, talked alike, etc.”
As evidence, he gave me a copy of a paper he wrote at Swarthmore, “Henry Miller vs. ‘Our Way of Life.'” Written on the eve of America’s entry into WWII, when “drums are rolling” and “men are marching,” the paper openly wonders what in “our way of life” is worth fighting for. Noting that Miller, as an expatriate, might have a singular insight into this question, Rosset focuses on the author’s comparison between Paris, where Miller found “greater independence” and became “a completely self-sufficient being,” and New York, “a land of the dead” where he saw “only automatons.” Rosset approves of the critique, but takes exception to Miller’s individualism, arguing that “we must participate in action with our neighbors if we ever wish to achieve any of the freedom which Miller so covets.” He concludes that “perhaps our salvation lies in all of us becoming artists.”
Rosset gave me a copy of his paper, which he had once used as evidence in court that his interest in Miller was not pecuniary, in order to refute yet another argument: mine in an article for Critical Inquiry called “Redeeming Value: Obscenity and Anglo-American Modernism.” There I had argued that “the end of obscenity was also a triumph for modernist formulations of the literary, insofar as texts previously valued by an elite intelligentsia were finally being granted mainstream cachet.” Rosset disagreed. “This is based much more on aesthetics,” he argued, shaking his copy of my article in the air disdainfully, “to me it’s like quibbling between Catholicism and Protestantism…None of them really interest me.” He took another sip of the Bombay Sapphire. “I looked at Tropic of Cancer from a political, and social, point of view. And that carried on.” It seemed to me we were both right. Rosset wanted to make the freedoms Miller found in art available to everyone. With Paris as his primary resource, New York as his home base, and the booming American university population as his audience, Rosset’s signal achievement with Grove Press and the Evergreen Review would be to take the avant-garde into the mainstream, helping to usher in a cultural revolution whose consequences are with us still.
Rosset got a B- on his Henry Miller paper, and he lasted less than a year at Swarthmore. He decided to run off to Mexico, but only made it to Florida. He wandered back north and enrolled at the University of Chicago, before leaving again to attend UCLA, intending to study film, only to discover that they did not yet have a film department. In the fall of 1942 he enlisted. With a copy of Red Star Over China close at hand, Rosset ran the only American film crew in the region. The US Government’s surveillance of him dates from these years when, suspecting him of “disaffection,” military intelligence interviewed an informant who had been a classmate at the Francis Parker School. The informant characterizes Rosset as “a headstrong individual, completely lacking in the spirit of compromise, refusing at all lengths to give up on his version of a particular issue.” The informant continues, saying that Rosset “was very radical in his views; that his views were definitely ‘leftist’ in character,” and that he “was dissatisfied with the present organization of society and felt that the social organization that gives to people all the luxuries and comforts that he himself had and enjoyed is a corrupt one and should not exist.” The informant comments extensively on Rosset’s impulsiveness, noting that he “totally lacks sound judgment; he is incapable of appraising people, all of his impressions and judgments are based upon emotional reactions.”
Everyone I interviewed agreed with this appraisal. Fred Jordan, Rosset’s long-time associate and managing editor of the Evergreen Review throughout the sixties, called Rosset “extraordinarily impulsive,” adding that the company was “driven by Barney’s moment-by-moment impulses.” Jeanette Seaver, widow of Grove’s executive editor Richard Seaver, told me Rosset was “completely irrational all the way.” According to Herman Graf, who joined Grove as a salesman in the mid-sixties, Rosset “made most of his major decisions in seconds, and spent the rest of his life regretting them.” Purchasing Grove Press would not be one of those decisions.
Indeed, at Grove, Rosset’s impulsiveness was complemented by the loyalty he received from his associates, all of whom shared his convictions and tastes. The company was run not by Rosset alone, but by a tight cadre of mostly male, mostly Jewish employees. If Grove was a wheel, he was the hub; all relationships ran through him. But Rosset provided enormous latitude; job descriptions were vague and independence was valued. In return for this freedom, Rosset demanded, and received, unquestioning loyalty, and there were few employees at Grove who could say “no” to him. They alternated between managing his impulses and struggling to put his outlandish visions into practice without going bust. Rosset was a remarkable cultural entrepreneur, but a terrible businessman, and Grove didn’t post a significant profit until the late sixties, which he promptly squandered on ill-fated endeavors which almost destroyed the company.
After the war, Rosset returned to Chicago, joined the Communist Party, and hooked up with a Parker schoolmate, the painter Joan Mitchell, a key figure in Grove’s early history. Rosset followed Mitchell first to New York, where she introduced him to her circle of friends, the Abstract Expressionist painters who were in the process of stealing the idea of modern art from Paris, and then to France, where the two would marry. According to Rosset, witnessing Mitchell’s development as a painter transformed his understanding of the visual arts: “If I have any taste today, or any emotions about art…it’s all thanks to Joan.” When they returned to New York in 1951, they began to drift apart, but remained friendly; it was Mitchell who heard about Grove and encouraged Rosset to purchase it. In that same year, Roy Kuhlman, a painter on whom Mitchell had been an influence, came to the Grove offices to show Rosset some ideas for book cover design. Rosset was initially uninterested in his portfolio, but as Kuhlman was leaving he accidentally dropped a 12″ by 12″ piece of abstract art he intended to pitch as a record cover to Ahmet Ertegun. Rosset immediately saw what he wanted. Steven Brower and John Gall have called the collaboration between Rosset and Kuhlman, which lasted for twenty years, “a marriage of imagery and the written word that had not been seen before, or, perhaps, since.” Kuhlman was one of the first book designers to incorporate abstract expressionism into cover art, and his signature style, making ample use of “negative space,” provided a distinct look for Grove throughout the fifties and sixties.
At one point in our second interview, Rosset made a sweeping gesture with his hand and said, “All of Grove Press’s life was within about four blocks of here.” At first, he ran the company out of his apartment at 59 West 9th street. In 1953, he moved to a small suite of offices above an underwear store at 795 Broadway, across the street from Grace Church. By that time, the Abstract Expressionists had made the Museum of Modern Art into a major player in the international art scene, the Living Theater was radicalizing American drama, and the Beats were developing their “new vision” for an indigenous avant-garde. The American Century had arrived, and New York City was its capital. If Rosset himself is a product of pre-war Chicago, Grove Press could only have happened in post-war New York.
It could also only have happened in the fifties. Rosset purchased Grove at a transitional moment in the paperback revolution that was democratizing reading in the United States. Piggybacking on the distribution networks of mass-market magazines, most paperback books in the forties were reprints either of bestselling hardcovers or of out-of-copyright classics. Initially, Rosset pursued this route, developing his title list by reprinting classic texts such as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk and Henry James’s The Golden Bowl. But soon, inspired by vanguard presses like James Laughlin’s New Directions and Jason Epstein’s groundbreaking Doubleday imprint Anchor Books, Grove began publishing original avant-garde texts as inexpensive “quality” paperbacks. Following the example of Epstein, who promoted his imprint with the Anchor Review, Rosset launched the Evergreen Review in 1957, and in 1958 the “Evergreen Originals” imprint. Grove operated on a shoestring, paid small advances, and was almost always on the verge of going under. (During our second interview, Rosset claimed, “We only made money for a couple of years,” and then, after a pause, concluded, “We never made money really.” His current modest circumstances – one associate told me Astrid had sold her house to keep them afloat – confirm Rosset’s claims.)
Like the “new breed” of innovative Jewish publishers such as Alfred Knopf and Horace Liveright who preceded them, Rosset and his crew were committed to bringing the latest in European experimental literature to an American reading public. To achieve this goal, Grove needed to acquire contemporary authors. Toward this end, Rosset established fruitful relations with many of the major publishing houses in Paris, from whom Grove would acquire the work of many of the authors – Antonin Artaud, Regis Debray, Frantz Fanon, Eugene Ionesco, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Henry Miller, William Burroughs, Jean Genet, the Marquis de Sade, J.P. Donleavy, and Samuel Beckett – with whom it would become closely identified.
Samuel Beckett, virtually unknown in the United States at the time, would be Rosset’s most important Parisian acquisition. In the fifties alone, Grove published Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Murphy, Watt and the entire post-war trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, all masterpieces on which Beckett’s international reputation would be based, and which ensured Grove’s place in the lucrative college curricula of the paperback generation.
Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which would eventually sell over two million copies in paperback, anchored Grove’s identification with the emergent genre of avant-garde theater, a market they virtually cornered by the early sixties (when they became known as the “Off-Broadway of Publishing Houses.”). From the beginning, Rosset thought of the play as a book. He convinced Beckett not to publish the first act in Merlin (the journal run by Scots exile Alexander Trocchi), arguing in a letter to Beckett that “EN ATTENDANT GODOT should burst upon us as an entity in my opinion.” Initial sales of the cloth edition were – unsurprisingly, for an avant-garde play by a basically unknown author – modest. The entity that burst upon the American public was the $1 paperback Grove issued in 1956, the year of the play’s debut in the United States. After its failure at the Coconut Grove Theater in Miami – when the play was billed as “the laugh sensation of two continents” – Rosset wrote to reassure Beckett: “Certainly all is not lost – the printing of the inexpensive edition forges ahead.”
Meanwhile, in New York, producer Michael Myerberg made a public appeal in the pages of the New York Times for 70,000 intellectuals to come see the play. Not only did Myerberg agree to sell the cheap paperback in the lobby of the theater, he also arranged for symposia to be held with the actors. Myerberg wrote to Beckett that these discussions
were extremely well attended … A rather startling development here is that four-fifths of our audience are young – under 24, and even boys and girls 17 and 18 are storming the box office for the cheaper seats. At no time have we had cheap seats available at a performance.
Rosset, realizing early on that the student audience would be central to Godot’s success, convinced Dramatists Play Service to reduce the royalty rate for amateur productions, writing, “We are in close contact with the potential audiences for the play and we know that they consist in the main of university students who may well not be able to afford more than a minimum royalty … The whole successful history of this play is the strongest evidence of the necessity for allowing it to be played before very small groups who may also have very limited means.” Grove aggressively marketed the paperback to these “very small groups,” offering them on consignment to student productions and to every bookstore at any college or university where the play was being performed.
In reminiscences published in Conjunctions in 2009, Rosset credits two people with encouraging him to publish the Irish author: Sylvia Beach (a close friend of Joan Mitchell’s mother, Marion Strobel Mitchell, who edited Poetry magazine) and his New School professor Wallace Fowlie, author of Dionysus in Paris: A Guide to Contemporary French Theater. Fowlie called Waiting for Godot “a masterpiece of modern literature” and told Rosset frankly “you must publish it.” Rosset promptly informed Beckett that “what the Grove Press needed most in the world was Samuel Beckett.”
Rosset makes no mention in Conjunctions of Richard Seaver, who would be equally instrumental, if not in Grove’s initial acquisition of Beckett, then in managing the professional relations between them. Before Rosset became aware of Beckett, Seaver, a young UNC graduate working on his dissertation on James Joyce at the Sorbonne, had stumbled upon Molloy and Malone Meurt in the display window of the French publisher Éditions de Minuit. Knowing of Beckett’s work on Finnegans Wake, he bought both books, and after reading through Molloy in one sitting received “a shock of discovery” which marked the beginning of an extensive personal and professional relationship with the author and his work. Seaver mentioned Beckett’s name to Trocchi, who encouraged Seaver to write on Beckett for his fledgling journal. One of the first critical appraisals of the post-war work on which Beckett’s reputation would soon rest, “Samuel Beckett: An Introduction” appeared in the second issue of Merlin.
Seaver and Rosset first met in the fall of 1953, when Rosset returned to Paris with his new wife Loly to meet Beckett, with whom he had just concluded a contract, and Jerome Lindon of Editions de Minuit. In Paris Seaver and Rosset began a relationship that would become central to Grove’s operations once Seaver returned to the States. Rosset told me, “If I’d ever had a brother, I wish it would have been him,” and he spent years trying to convince Seaver to come work for Grove. The two men, though they became very close and were known around the office as the “dynamic duo,” were also quite different. Seaver was from a WASP family in Watertown Connecticut, clean-cut, athletic, and highly intelligent. He would complete his dissertation, with honors, at the Sorbonne. Rosset, more of an outsider, lacked Seaver’s discipline and focus; he attended four undergraduate institutions before receiving his BA from the New School in 1952. But the two men shared both literary enthusiasms and political convictions and, according to Seaver’s widow, Jeanette, it would be Seaver who recommended Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet to Rosset. Genet, in particular, would be crucial to Grove’s radical image, first with his politically explosive theater, and then with his homosexually explicit prose.
It would also be through Seaver that Rosset would come to know Maurice Girodias, the owner of Olympia Press. Girodias commissioned the more fluent of the Merlin collective as translators and then, ultimately, as writers for hire of English-language pornographic titles for his notorious Traveler’s Companion Series. He is a key figure for Grove, a pariah capitalist on the margins of modernism whose courage in publishing literature no one else would touch was matched by his unreliability in remunerating its authors. Jeanette Seaver told me he was a “thief” and a “scoundrel,” but also conceded that he was “a charming man.” When I asked Rosset about Girodias, he told me they had “a deep relationship, and a very important one.” Later he elaborated, telling me that Girodias “had a girlfriend, who became my girlfriend” after which Girodias wrote to him that “he and I were Mafia brothers, and we shared everything, including the same girl.” Rosset concluded, “I really loved him, but he double-crossed me.”
The parallels between their antecedents are noteworthy. They were born only three years apart, to wealthy Jewish fathers and Catholic mothers, though neither identified with either religion. When I asked Rosset whether he considered himself Jewish or Catholic, he responded with disdain: “I didn’t know which I disliked more … It made me a communist.” And Girodias would take on his mother’s last name in order to avoid being identified as a Jew during WWII. His father, Jack Kahane, was the founder and owner of Obelisk Press, original publisher of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, for which the young Maurice designed the cover. Thus both men forged an early link to Miller, who would be crucial to their careers after the war. Olympia’s combination of highbrow obscurantism and pulp pornography, and Girodias’s system of subsidizing the unprofitable former with the sales of the latter, provided the groundwork for Grove’s title list, as the relaxation of censorship in the United States would enable Rosset to cannibalize most of the Olympia catalog.
Few contrasting trajectories more effectively illustrate the shift in cultural dominance from Paris to New York during these years than Girodias’s and Rosset’s. In the fifties, Rosset was unknown while Girodias was a key player on the Parisian expatriate scene. One by one, Rosset would inherit Olympia authors such as Jean Genet, William Burroughs, and Henry Miller, at little expense, since Girodias had been notoriously informal when it came to contracts. By the end of the sixties, Rosset had built a publishing empire partly on the material he acquired from Olympia, while Girodias, who had declared bankruptcy and moved to New York, was desperate and impecunious, living in the Chelsea Hotel, mired in litigation with former authors, and reliant on handouts from Rosset to survive.
Two other men were central players in the development of Grove: Fred Jordan and Donald Allen. Jordan joined Grove in 1956 and would be Rosset’s right-hand man through the sixties. Initially hired to handle Grove’s sales network and business operations, Jordan would be central to the company’s expansion into the college market. Born in Vienna on November 9, 1925, his bar mitzvah was on Kristalnacht; it marked the end of his formal education. He fled to England, where he became the cultural programmer for a small cell of exiled Austrian Jews. Later in the war, he joined the British Army as a member of the Glasgow Highlanders and then came to the United States in 1949 with the intention of becoming a journalist. Though Rosset was initially put off by Jordan’s British accent, the two shared political sympathies and they worked well together. Rosset was impulsive and intuitive, Jordan analytical and deliberate; the pairing was crucial to the operations of the company. As a native speaker of German, Jordan was instrumental in acquiring authors not only from Germany but from across Eastern Europe, expanding the scope of the international connections secured in Paris by Seaver and Rosset. Jordan told me candidly, “Everything I learned, I learned from Barney.”
Rosset’s key partner in establishing connections with the emergent artistic scenes in both the post-war United States and the non-European world was Donald Allen, whom he met in a publishing class at Columbia University taught by the legendary Random House editor Saxe Commins. Allen co-edited the first two volumes of the Evergreen Review, as well as The New American Poetry, brought out by Grove in 1960 and widely heralded, both then and now, as a key event for post-war American literature. Allen was a consummate editor, translator, and networker. Like Rosset, he was in the Pacific during the war. Upon returning he went to graduate school at UC Berkeley, where he would become involved with the Berkeley Renaissance. A taciturn Midwesterner, gay, and something of a loner, Allen rarely showed up at the Grove offices. According to Rosset, “he couldn’t stand anybody getting near him, emotionally” and “he wouldn’t say hello to anybody” when he came to the office. Herman Graf, by contrast, called Allen, “brilliant, enigmatic, mysterious … and playful.” He was crucial to the operations of the press and the initial design of the Evergreen Review, which he saw as “a kind of quarterly sized magazine that would have a longer shelf-life than the ordinary magazine.” In those groundbreaking first two volumes, Rosset and Allen reinforced Grove’s reputation for obtaining the latest in European avant-garde literature, publishing Beckett’s early poetry and prose, Ionesco’s “There Is No Avant-Garde Theater,” Alain Robbe-Grillet’s “A Fresh Start for Fiction,” and Antonin Artaud’s “No More Masterpieces”; alongside these pioneers of the Parisian avant-garde were American poets such as Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Charles Olson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Creeley, and Denise Levertov, as well as early prose by Jack Kerouac. The Evergreen Review was also a prominent venue for Abstract Expressionism, including one issue with Jackson Pollock on the cover and a reminiscence by Clement Greenberg, and another featuring an interview with Franz Kline by Frank O’Hara. Something of a “quality paperback” itself in this early quarto form, the Evergreen Review would consolidate Grove’s position on the forefront of the avant-garde.
Allen would also be instrumental in Grove’s acquisition of world literature, both classical and modern. The two-part anthology of Japanese Literature he arranged with his friend from the war, Donald Keene, remains a classic in the field. Piggybacking on the vogue inaugurated by the Beats, Grove also reissued classic translations by Arthur Waley and popular works on Zen by D.T. Suzuki. And Allen saw the Latin American boom coming, hiring the poet Ben Belitt in the early fifties to translate Lorca’s A Poet in New York and the work of Pablo Neruda, and collaborating with Octavio Paz and Ramon Xirau on a Mexican issue of the Evergreen Review. According to Belitt, Allen had an “uncanny facility of sensing what are generally called ‘vogues’ or waves in the making, and later turn out to be total landslides of taste.” Allen would join Rosset on the committee that co-awarded the first International Publisher’s Prize to Jorge Luis Borges and Samuel Beckett, an event which is usually credited with inaugurating the Latin American Boom.
Finally, Allen would be instrumental in Grove’s acquisition of novelists Jack Kerouac and John Rechy. He had been interested in Kerouac since editing “Jazz of the Beat Generation,” Kerouac’s contribution to New American Library’s New World Writing. In July 1956, Allen wrote to Rosset that he was “feeling more and more strongly that Kerouac should be published,” and therefore had “asked Sterling Lord to let me look at the MSS and present them to you – for I think there is a real chance that his novels would do well enough in Evergreen editions to justify taking him on.” Grove would ultimately publish The Subterraneans, Dr. Sax, Satori in Paris, Lonesome Traveler, Pic, and Mexico City Blues, which, piggybacking on the monumental popularity of On the Road, cemented their association with the Beats.
Allen was even more important for Rechy, who would list him in his will as his literary executor. Rechy had considerable difficulty completing City of Night, his semi-autobiographical rendering of the life of a young hustler that would become Grove’s fastest-selling novel ever, affirming their commitment to the emergent genre of gay literature. Allen encouraged and assisted Rechy throughout the three-year process, publishing excerpts in the Evergreen Review, and nominating him for the Formentor Prize.
In the late fifties, Allen relocated to San Francisco, from where he would operate as Grove’s West Coast representative throughout the sixties. His West Coast connections would be crucial to the Evergreen Review’s legendary second issue on The San Francisco Scene, introduced by Kenneth Rexroth and featuring poetry by Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Jack Spicer, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and, most famously, the first nationally distributed appearance of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” (a mildly expurgated version, since Ferlinghetti’s Pocket Poets edition was still on trial for obscenity in San Francisco). Allen sent a copy to Grove, which Jordan read aloud to Rosset over lunch at the Cedar Tavern. After he finished, he looked up and said, “This is the most radical thing I’ve read in America since I’ve come here.” The San Francisco Scene issue was the first time most of these writers had appeared together in a nationally distributed publication; over the course of the sixties almost all of them were closely affiliated with Grove and its house journal.
It was a big hit in the Bay Area. Allen wrote to Rosset, “Evergreen Review No. 2 went on sale here last Thursday. It is stacked up all over town, even in the cigar stores on the change counter! Ferlinghetti decided (against the advice of his lawyer) to stock it too: he’s put it in the window and told me he sold 40 copies in the first two hours.” Jordan, who as sales manager had already been exploiting the imprint’s growing popularity in college towns, convinced Rosset they should capitalize on the success of ER 1:2 by organizing an “Evergreen Book Week” in coordination with Bay Area bookseller Fred Cody. The events scheduled for what would become a three-week long promotion was kicked off by a full-page ad in The Daily Californian headed “Cody’s Salutes Evergreen Books,” and announcing that “EVERGREEN BOOKS are a vital force on campus today.” The first week included performances of Ionesco’s Victims of Duty and The Lesson, a preview performance of Beckett’s Endgame, two radio shows, panel discussions with critics, editors, and English professors on both the Berkeley and Stanford campuses, and readings by Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Robert Duncan, illustrating how Grove worked not only to associate their imprint with the latest in experimental literature, but also to establish themselves as a force in the communities which produced and consumed this literature, communities which would soon become epicenters of student revolt. According to Rosset, the Bay Area “just adopted us, right from the beginning.”
These communities would in turn provide support for Grove’s highly publicized battles against censorship. Indeed, the idea to publish an unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was originally suggested to Rosset by UC Berkeley Professor Mark Schorer, whom Rosset confirmed was “a major figure in the beginning.” He would be instrumental in defending, legitimizing, and publicizing the text. A native Midwesterner with a PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Schorer had joined the English Department at Berkeley in 1945. A recipient of three Guggenheim fellowships and a widely respected critic and novelist informally known as the Lionel Trilling of the West Coast, Schorer was Rosset’s academic point man for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, providing him experts from whom to solicit testimony and writing the introduction to the Grove Press edition, originally published in the inaugural issue of the Evergreen Review.
In early 1954, Rosset wrote to Ephraim London, already well known for exonerating Roberto Rosselini’s The Miracle, for advice on Lady Chatterley’s Lover. London responded, “The Ulysses case suggests an approach.” Knowing the importance of expert opinion in that case, Schorer provided Rosset with a list of names, including Edmund Wilson, Jacques Barzun, Henry Steele Commager, and Archibald MacLeish. Barzun and Harvey Breit both provided testimonials that would appear in the flyleaf of the Grove hardcover, while MacLeish wrote a preface to supplement Schorer’s introduction. Such academic endorsement was crucial, and Schorer and Rosset were methodical in their preparations.
Obscenity, however, was not the only problem. There was no U.S. copyright registered to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, precisely because it had been deemed obscene. Rosset first wrote to Frieda Lawrence’s British agent Laurence Pollinger, affirming “LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER is no longer in copyright; however, in the happy (if not too likely) event that we can overcome censorship and proceed with publication, we will, as a courtesy, pay a standard royalty to the Lawrence estate.” Ominously, Pollinger responded, “I am not, I am afraid, prepared to agree to your statement that this novel is no longer in copyright in America … Of one thing I am absolutely certain, and that is that LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER is copyright in all the countries that signed the Berne convention.” Rosset also wrote to Alfred Knopf, who had in 1932 published an expurgated version of the novel, asking for reassurance that, if he succeeded in exonerating the book, he would be free to profit from it. Although Knopf reassured him that he would not claim copyright, Rosset, who told me Knopf was “terrible, insulting and demeaning,” remained anxious about Pollinger’s protestations, particularly after Frieda Lawrence died in 1956 and left Pollinger literary executor of the estate.
Rosset had originally retained London to handle the case, but he impulsively fired him during the preparation for the trial. According to Rosset, “We were in Boston with a bunch of Lawrence specialists, we were having lunch at Harvard, I disagreed with London on something … [H]e said, when you’re with me, do what I say. And I said you’re fired.” The young man he hired to replace him, Norman Mailer’s cousin Charles Rembar, had never argued a case in court. But Rembar was a quick study, and he recognized the importance of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Roth v. United States (1957), which defined obscenity as material lacking “redeeming social importance.” As Rembar meticulously documents in his 1968 book, The End of Obscenity, this language was central not only in the Lady Chatterley case, but also in cases involving Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and in the 1966 Supreme Court case exonerating Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. By 1968, the Supreme Court, partly through Rembar’s influence, had altered the definition of obscenity to material “utterly lacking redeeming social value,” effectively excluding print from prosecution. Rosset had originally intended to precipitate a Customs case, but the legal confrontation was ultimately with the Federal Post Office, meaning that it directly challenged the Comstock Act, which was almost a century old.
Three days after Frederick van Pelt Bryan’s landmark decision, the New American Library sent out a “Signet Gram” announcing its publication of “the unexpurgated and complete edition of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, under their exclusive license for paperbound reprints of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, granted by contract authorized by the author’s estate more than 10 years ago, still in full force and effect and just reconfirmed by the Lawrence estate and its literary executors.” No sooner had Rosset won the legal battle over obscenity than he found himself in a subsequent struggle over intellectual property. He brought suit against New American Library, not for copyright infringement, since the book was in the public domain, but for “seeking to mislead and deceive the public” with its avowals that its edition was “complete” and “authorized.” As Publishers Weekly affirmed, this was less a legal issue than a matter of “the ethics of the publishing industry.” Most industry insiders felt that Rossett’s assumption of the original risks gave him the right to profit from publication, at least initially, and acknowledged that, in the words of Publishers Weekly, “Grove’s performance in publishing its $6 hardbound edition of the book and in advertising and promoting it was in keeping with the book’s high literary standing,” and had been responsible for its legal exoneration. Grove settled with NAL in the fall of 1959, with both companies agreeing to acknowledge the legitimacy of each other’s versions. Despite the competition from this and other paperback versions, Lady Chatterley’s Lover would be Grove’s first bestseller.
Philip Larkin famously dated the beginning of sexual intercourse to the end of the Lady Chatterley ban and, more recently, Fred Kaplan has used Rosset’s campaign to situate 1959 at the crux of an epochal transformation. Whatever its larger historical significance, it surely marked a turning point in the fortunes of Grove Press. On the brink of a decade in which the geopolitical order would be transformed, flush with cash for the first time, and well connected to the international avant-garde, the West Coast scene, and the nascent counterculture in college towns across the country, Grove was positioned in the eye of the coming storm. At the nexus of an emergent international vanguard, Grove became a potent symbol of the counter-culture, increasingly drawing radical authors, readers, translators, professors, lawyers and activists into its expanding network.