The Magazine

Beats Go On

Publishing and profiting with the avant-garde.

Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Through the modernist upheaval in American cultural life, with its earliest significant traces in the 1930s and an inerasable mark on the society as we now know it, three publishing houses were most prominent in redefining aesthetic taste. All of the trio remain in business today. 

Barney Rosset at home, 1958

Barney Rosset at home, 1958

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The first, the New Directions Publishing Corporation, was founded in 1936 by steel company heir James “Jay” Laughlin. The second such effort, chronologically, is the subject of this odd, ephemeral volume. Grove Press was purchased by Barney Rosset, a footloose New York leftist, in 1951, soon after its creation. San Francisco-based City Lights Books, inaugurated with slender “pocket books” of poetry, emerged last. City Lights was created in 1953 by writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti and a now-forgotten partner, Peter D. Martin, who soon left the enterprise.

The publishing lists of these three businesses had some names in common, but all came to be identified with a single, loose network of authors then known as “underground” writers. For New Directions, the brightest star in its constellation was the poet and controversialist Ezra Pound. At City Lights, the pacesetter became the stridently nonconformist, if typically incoherent, versifier Allen Ginsberg. Both New Directions and City Lights published many additional personalities, as well as each other (New Directions issued Ferlinghetti, while City Lights printed Laughlin’s Selected Poems).

But Barney Rosset, Grove Press, and the Evergreen Review, a magazine produced quarterly and, eventually, monthly by Grove from 1957 to 1973, had a greater immediate impact on America. Identifying with the limited, if not psychologically incestuous, “underground” of the time, Evergreen’s second number, headed “The San Francisco Scene,” included Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg. Still, the destinies of the three publishing vessels were bound to be different.  

New Directions traded in many experimental American and foreign writers, but most of them were, in retrospect, surprisingly conventional stylists, such as Wallace Stevens, Tennessee Williams, James Agee, and Dylan Thomas. City Lights favored the friends of Ferlinghetti who were among the Beat Generation and its predecessors, led by the poet and essayist Kenneth Rexroth. Each publisher plows its original furrows, and City Lights has added a list of prose volumes that are ambitious, though paralyzed in the self-consciousness of their political correctness.   

Grove Press brought together the most impressive stable of authors. Its highest-magnitude figure, equal to Pound in brilliance, was Samuel Beckett, for whom Grove became the main, if not sole, American publisher. Yet Rosset turned numerous celebrities, including the philosophical sex writer and anarchist Henry Miller, into “Grove authors.” Grove published nearly Miller’s entire corpus after his work was rinsed of the charge of obscenity in a series of trials involving local booksellers across America in the early 1960s.   

Grove’s attractions were, nonetheless, not merely lascivious. Rosset published Richard Howard’s translation of André Breton’s 1928 Nadja, the surrealist “novel” wherein the author did nothing but wander the streets of Paris seeking mental stimulation of a rather abstract kind, in 1960, when the book was unknown outside France. In 1961, Grove brought out an English translation of the most profound Latin American exercise in self-reflection to appear in the past three-quarters of a century: The Labyrinth of Solitude by the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. Also in 1961, the International Publishers’ Prize was presented by a committee, including Grove and five European publishers, to Beckett and Jorge Luis Borges, as a shared award. Borges is cited in this book as crediting the 1961 prize with his global success.

Rosset and Grove were different from Laughlin and New Directions and Ferlinghetti and City Lights in further important ways. Both Laughlin and Ferlinghetti were parochial. Laughlin was concerned with supporting American cultural innovation, while Ferlinghetti, similarly, stood for the promotion of his San Francisco “city-state” and the Beat Generation. Yet Jack Kerouac, the archetypal Beat author, ended up alongside Beckett and Miller as an asset for Grove, which released most of his books, as it did those of the completely disordered William S. Burroughs.   

Rosset, having printed Henry Miller, went on to advertise bulky tomes by the Marquis de Sade and other contentious erotic items from France, exemplified by an English translation of the pseudonymous, sado-masochistic Story of O. Rosset likewise presented a full list, in English, of the radical homosexual works of the French author Jean Genet. Indeed, were it not for its parallel commitment to difficult, mainly French examples of the “new novel,” by writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras, Grove risked becoming a merchandiser of dirty books and little else. Of course, especially in the case of Robbe-Grillet, many such scribes were often mentioned but seldom fully read.  

As the 1960s and 1970s wore on, Grove’s output continued to diversify. With the radicalization of the civil rights movement and intensified protests against the Vietnam war, Grove emitted new variants in print. The most famous property in this line was The Autobiography of Malcolm X, appearing in 1965. The same year, Grove announced The Wretched of the Earth, by the black Caribbean psychiatrist Frantz Fanon. And as these two polemics infiltrated the curricula and dorm rooms of every American institution of higher education, it could be said that Grove had acquired a monopoly on black protest literature. Rosset published other African-American militants (LeRoi Jones, later Imamu Amiri Baraka, comes to mind), but none possessed the insurgency and charisma of Malcolm X and Fanon. Certainly, none sold so many books.

Grove Press became, simultaneously, a catalogue for serious avant-garde writers, a porno house, and a political agitation center. In this respect, it probably mirrored accurately the confused and often-baffling environment of the 1960s. With the arrival of the 1970s, Grove’s innovative literature component diminished, resting on Beckett and rarer translations of French, Latin American, and Asian authors. Its sexuality-related offerings became disapproved of by feminists. Grove Press was transformed into a leftist house par excellence. After Malcolm X and Fanon, it distributed selections from the writings of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who had been killed in Bolivia in 1967.  

Grove also added to its catalogue such paragons of the so-called counter-culture as Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, in 1971. But aside from its “black” list, the high-water mark had passed, in America, for Grove. The refined literary experimentation Grove once championed was ignored increasingly, as was its long and mainly tedious allegiance to the sexual revolution. Early in the 1970s, the radical left, too, lost much of its attraction.

Loren Glass, an associate professor of English at the University of Iowa, has written a lazy account of the Grove Press excitement, which was real in its moment. Glass overlooks any serious analysis of the writers Barney Rosset championed or even of the causes he publicized. It is Glass’s stated aim to explain how New York allegedly “siphoned cultural capital from Paris to New York in the 1950s and 1960s.” In this, Glass imitates explicitly the demagogy of the French critic Serge Guilbaut, author of the 1983 rant How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. But Glass fails in his goal, which is mainly rhetorical and perfunctory on his part.

Counterculture Colophon, doubtless unintentionally, undermines the impact of Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and their authors on America in the 1960s. But this was perhaps predictable. Much that was valuable in the Grove effort (especially involving French and Latin American writers) is no longer associated with the “counter-culture.” And much of the rest is forgotten. A more substantial and serious history of the American and international aesthetic convulsions of the mid-20th century remains to be written.

Stephen Schwartz is author of The Two Faces of Islam and The Other Islam