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COUNTER-CULTURE COLOPHON: GROVE PRESS, THE EVERGREEN REVIEW, AND THE INCORPORATION OF THE AVANT-GARDE by Loren Glass

Stanford University Press. 255 pages. $27.95/25.50. ISBN 978-0-8047-8416-0 

Reviewed by Jim Burns

 

Reviewing John Calder's The Garden of Eros recently, I referred to Barney Rosset as one of a trio of adventurous publishers (Calder, Rosset , Maurice Girodias) who, in the 1950s and 1960s, were responsible for introducing much new writing and helping to challenge the restrictive laws about what could be published.

Barney Rosset was born in 1922 in Chicago and was educated at a private progressive school which, he later claimed, helped develop the left-wing views he espoused. His father was Jewish and his mother from Irish-Catholic stock. As he grew up he read writers like Nelson Algren and James T. Farrell, and regretted that he was too young to fight in the Spanish Civil War. He was in the American army during the Second World war, serving in China, and was a member of the American Communist Party from 1946 to 1948. He left after a visit to Czechoslovakia (1948 was the year of the Communist coup in that country) which may have influenced his decision.

Mixing in avant-garde circles in New York he met the abstract expressionist painter Joan Mitchell, and went with her to France where they were married. The marriage didn't last too long, though they remained friends. Rosset didn't have to worry too much about money, and eventually inherited a substantial sum from his father, an investment banker. In 1951 he bought a struggling small publisher, Grove Press, and began to develop it to meet the demands of the new markets that were opening up. The 1950s saw a rapid expansion in the number of people attending universities and other institutions of higher education. New bookshops, often specialising in paperbacks, opened as publishers increasingly catered to a rising academic readership. Loren Glass says that Rosset's "instincts tended to be sound" as he built up Grove Press. Talking about the "obscure experimental dramatists," who Rosset encouraged in the 1950s, Glass points out that "he realised early that the market for their printed work would be in the expanding American university system." Glass adds that Rosset intuited that censorship would be challenged, and that he foresaw the rise of student activism and other forms of dissent.

Grove Press quickly picked up on new writing from Europe, and was soon publishing Samuel Beckett, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and others. It's essential to stress that Grove, despite its strong links to the New American Writing of the Fifties and Sixties, was never insular in its approach to publishing. In this connection, it's worth looking at Evergreen Review, which Rosset launched in 1957 as a kind of house magazine. The first issue had Jean-Paul Sartre, Beckett, Henri Michaux, and Michael Hamburger writing about Georg Buchner. It was significant that Sartre, in an interview reprinted from a Paris newspaper, talked extensively about the suppression of the Budapest uprising by Russian troops. It's perhaps not easy to understand just how important such matters were at the time, unless you can actually recall them.

If that first issue of Evergreen Review pointed to an interest in European culture and events, the second was firmly focused on the United States, or at least one part of it. And it was to have something of a significant influence in literary terms. Known as the San Francisco Scene issue, and appearing in 1957, it presented a survey of activity in and around the West Coast city. Kicking off with a typically trenchant essay by Kenneth Rexroth, looked on as a key figure among the many non-establishment writers in the area, it featured work by older poets like Robert Duncan, Josephine Miles, and William Everson, alongside Jack Spicer and James Broughton, and newcomers Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen. It could be argued that Ginsberg and Kerouac were only temporarily in San Francisco, but the work that was spotlighted in Evergreen Review did have California connections. Ginsberg's Howl had been performed publicly for the first time in San Francisco and was then published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Books, and Kerouac's brilliant October in the Railroad Earth came out of his time in California.

Loren Glass notes that "the humanities grew both in size and in cultural and social significance in the postwar era," and he offers a stimulating analysis of how students and their teachers became a kind of cultural elite who helped in the "canonisation of modernism in postwar American universities." There isn't the space to do more than summarise what he says, but it's worth referring to what he quotes from Fredric Jameson, who saw "this canonisation was explicitly ideological, representing a cultural containment and domestication of high modernism's subversive energies into an ideal of aesthetic autonomy." This then led to "generating a more accessible form of 'middlebrow late modernist literature and culture,'" which had, as its audience, academics and students and those who had moved on from the academic system but retained an interest in cultural matters.

Rosset was clearly aiming at the kind of readers described above, but it was still early days in terms of what could be safely published. He wanted to introduce Genet's work to American, but thought that The Thief's Journal would run into censorship problems so started with the plays. According to Glass, "the popularity of experimental theatre on college campuses created a large audience" for scripts of the plays. And, as the exclusive publisher of Genet, Beckett, Ionesco, Harold Pinter, Joe Orton, Fernando Arrabel, and others, in the United States, Grove gained a reputation as the "off Broadway of publishing houses."

A couple of interesting aspects relating to plays published by Grove are worth noting. Rolf Hochhuth's The Deputy was controversial when it was first performed because of its attack on the Vatican for its failure to intervene in the Holocaust. But it's now almost forgotten, a situation that Glass attributes to it never becoming part of the college curriculum. And Jack Gelber's The Connection, described by Glass as "a plotless play-within-a-play that centres on a group of addicts in an apartment as they wait for the dealer to arrive," is probably largely a note in histories of the "underground" in the Sixties.  It may have seemed unusual at the time, though its techniques of audience interruptions, musical interludes, and seeming improvisation, perhaps didn't surprise those with an awareness of theatrical history. I recall seeing the London production in 1961, and thinking it watchable, though English audiences generally disliked it. And I have to admit that my own visit to the play was influenced by the fact that two fine American jazz musicians, Jackie McLean and Freddie Redd, were in the cast.

Rosset had been testing the waters with regard to what could be openly published, and decided to make available an unabridged edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover. The book was initially seized by the postal authorities, but a court case with expert witnesses like Alfred Kazin and Malcolm Cowley was successful. Rosset then further challenged the existing censorship by publishing Henry Miller, who Glass says "posed a problem for mid-century arbiters of literary taste." He was, "not only too personal to be considered high modernism, he was also too popular," even if many of his books were still theoretically unavailable in America and Britain. But Rosset pressed on despite incurring financial costs while fighting legal battles that threatened to cripple Grove Press.

Grove then published William Burroughs' Naked Lunch (Girodias in Paris had initially brought it out as The Naked Lunch), John Rechy's City of Night, and Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn, all three of which had a strong homosexual content that was likely to arouse opposition to them. Discussing writers like Rechy and Selby, Glass refers to "vulgar modernism," an interesting phrase that might have warranted further investigation.

The term "underground" was often used in the Sixties, and at first it appeared to relate to the poets, novelists, film-makers, and others who were doing something new as an alternative to the establishment culture. But Glass says that "Grove almost single-handedly transformed the term 'underground' into a legitimate market niche for adults." An Evergreen Club had been started, and advertisements inviting people to "Join the Underground" were placed in a wide variety of publications. Evergreen Review was transformed from what was primarily a little magazine, albeit with a budget not often available to financially-strapped little magazines, into a large format, glossy publication that mixed sex with aspects of the way that American society was changing as rock music, hippies, black power, drugs, student activism, and opposition to the Vietnam War built up. It's a personal view, but as a subscriber to the magazine, and a minor contributor with a couple of poems, I regretted the change. I still have the first thirty or so issues, but disposed of most of the later ones. They did have some worthwhile things in them, but Bruce Cook had a point when, in his book The Beat Generation, he said, "accretions of bile and hostility seem to have swollen it so that it now resembles the ponderous monoliths of American life that are attacked with such mechanical regularity in its pages: it is the revolution institutionalised."

Glass is of the opinion that "by 1964 Grove had become central to the simultaneous popularisation and institutionalisation of modernism in the United States." That's probably true, and it also needs to be acknowledged that, around the same time, Grove's publishing policies were noticeably changing. The Evergreen Club eventually abandoned "any pretensions to literary values and became a source for anything sexually explicit that Rosset could acquire, including sex manuals, gay porn, stag films, and erotic art catalogues." I suppose it could be argued that publishing Victorian pornographic novels like A Man with a Maid and Harriett Marwood, Governess was performing a service by opening up the Victorian era to scrutiny in the way that Stephen Marcus did in his classic study, The Other Victorians, but I doubt that most readers were interested in the sociological aspects of 19th Century pornography.  And though scholars might have wanted to study the writings of the Marquis de Sade, it's unlikely that many buyers of the Grove Press editions of his work would have had that idea in mind.

I've not been totally fair to Rosset and Grove Press by suggesting a sudden switch to erotica to the exclusion of other material. Evergreen Review did continue to publish poetry and fiction of quality. And Grove brought out books by Frantz Fanon and Michael X, as well as items about Cuba. Visits to Cuba were supposedly banned by the State Department, but Rosset and Richard Seaver, a senior editor at Grove, went, as did the poet Leroi Jones, whose account of his visit soon appeared in Evergreen Review.

The political leanings of Grove attracted hostile attention, and there was an incident when a fragmentation grenade was thrown through a window at its New York offices. An anti-Castro group claimed responsibility, but Rosset suspected that the CIA had also been involved in some way, perhaps because Evergreen Review had printed favourable articles about Che Guevara. There is, incidentally, a reproduction of an Evergreen Review cover which refers to Castro and Guevara, but also lists Jack Kerouac and the poet Paul Blackburn as among the contributors. It wasn't that Kerouac, a conservative when it came to politics, was there because of his support for the Cuban revolution, but rather that his name indicated that the magazine still contained a mixture of material. And Kerouac was seen as linked to the "underground" that Grove claimed to encourage.

In many ways Grove had outgrown its original intentions of providing an alternative to established ideas, and it had become what might be called almost an alternative establishment. Rosset did continue to be controversial, as when he began to import films from Europe. I Am Curious, Yellow was the subject of an obscenity trial in New York, and Rosset vigorously promoted the film across America and paid local civil liberties lawyers to defend it when necessary. According to Glass, he was so passionate in his determination to have the film shown that, when in one town he couldn't find a cinema owner willing to take the risk of being prosecuted, he bought a cinema himself and screened the film.

By the early Seventies there were major financial worries affecting Grove and serious staff problems. Feminists were increasingly active in opposing Grove's promotion of pornography, even if it was claimed to be of some significance. Glass says: "The unfettered publication of what we might call the Sadean canon, including The Story of 0, the mass-market edition of which had sold more than 450,000 copies by the end of 1969, buttressed the feminist contention that pornography is ultimately about power." Feminists occupied the Grove offices, attempts were made to unionise the workforce, and there were other disruptions to the day-to-day business of the company. Some employees were fired, Evergreen Review was closed down, and Rosset eventually sold Grove and was, in his turn, fired by the new owners. I've provided a very basic summary of what happened, and Glass gives many more details. There is, for example, some evidence to show that the FBI played a part in encouraging a failing union which didn't even have any previous links to publishing to attempt an organising drive at Grove. The aim was clearly to disrupt Grove's business activities.

I don't want to end this review on a negative note by suggesting that Grove Press had become just a vehicle for pornography. It continued to publish a variety of material. And its record ought to be looked at as a whole, and not just from the point of view of its ventures into erotica. From a personal point of view I can testify about how important it was in the late-Fifties and early-Sixties to obtain each issue of Evergreen Review and many of the books that Grove published. I still have my copies of Kerouac's Doctor Sax and Mexico City Blues, Jack Gelber's The Connection, Alexander Trocchi's Cain's Book, Michael McClure's The New Book/A Book of Torture, and Pascal Pia's informative study of Baudelaire. And, of course, Donald Allen's anthology, The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, which still remains one of the key collections of the period. I think Allen ought to be given credit for the role he played in the early days of Grove Press and Evergreen Review (he was largely responsible for the famous San Francisco Scene issue), his awareness of the work of the avant-garde in Europe and America being of great value.

Loren Glass raises a number of interesting questions about the avant-garde and how it was incorporated into the established order of cultural activities. Is there any kind of recognisable avant-garde now if one thinks of an avant-garde as breaking new ground and also challenging existing frameworks? It seems to me that the old idea of an avant-garde has virtually disappeared. What was that idea? There's a fascinating essay by Isaac Rosenfeld, "On the Role of the Writer: and the Little Magazine" (it's in The Chicago Review Anthology, published in 1959), in which he talks about the decline of the avant-garde, and defines it, and the magazines where its work appeared, as "a small but vigorous and very vital, active, and conscious group which knew fairly well the sort of thing it stood for even if it had no specific programme and whether or not it had any political allegiance."

Rosenfeld saw the kind of group he described as disappearing. His comments were originally made in a talk he gave in 1956, and though there was something of a resurgence of little magazine and small press activity in the late-Fifties and early-Sixties, he fairly accurately predicted what happened later as "the canonisation of modernism in post-war American universities" led to "middlebrow late modernist literature and culture" which had little regard for an avant-garde and no need for its little magazines. This was, perhaps, something that Barney Rosset also intuited and which caused him to change the format and contents of Evergreen Review and the aims of Grove Press.

Counter-Culture Colophon is an informative and intriguing history of the rise and fall of Grove Press and its owner, Barney Rosset, and in telling it Loren Glass throws light on a period when literary and social tastes and attitudes were rapidly changing.