Grove Press/Evergreen and European Literature

barney-rosset-2005

Maarten van Gageldonk, Transatlantic Mediators: Grove Press, Evergreen Review and Postwar European Literature, 2016, 319pp, unpublished doctoral thesis

 

Transatlantic Mediators is the result of Maarten van Gageldonk’s research in the archives of Grove Press/Evergreen Review held at Syracuse University, New York, supplemented by wide-ranging reading and new interviews. This study is of Grove/Evergreen Review’s publication of foreign prose, poetry and drama from 1954 to 1973.

In 1951 American publisher Barney Rosset (1922-2012) took over the small, New York-based publishing house Grove Press and began to publish what would become a stream of highly influential literary, critical, sociological and biographical books. Rosset is widely considered the most important independent publisher of the post-war period. Van Gageldonk explains how the activities of Rosset, Grove Press and Evergreen Review were distinct yet often overlapping and in many respects inseparable. During the 1954-73 period Grove Press was on the cutting edge of avant-garde literature, publishing key texts by the Beats, French nouveau roman writers, European dramatists and other experimental and historically important writers

Van Gageldonk’s expertise in researching and evaluating periodical publications comes to the fore in his appreciation of Evergreen Review. Evergreen Review was founded in 1957 by Rosset to showcase Grove Press authors, as well as publish verse, prose and articles covering literary, artistic, social and political topics by non-house authors. It published excerpts of Grove volumes and introduced new writers in order to test reception. “Partly because of [its] eclecticism, the magazine was able to cater to a large and coherent group of young Americans, interested not only in cultural developments within the U.S., but also abroad. Evergreen Review’s ideal reader would have been in his or her early twenties, with a college education and left-leaning political views.”

Van Gageldonk uses statistical analysis to present a picture of how Evergreen Review changed over the years. He presents Evergreen Review’s sales and distribution figures to demonstrate its rise to the position of America’s most influential literary periodical and how it eventually lost its way. Once the censorship battles of the 1950s and 1960s were won, Evergreen Review was no longer the gatekeeper to clandestine avant-garde literature; it was just another counter-cultural publication. Evergreen Review changed format a number of times. When printing technology evolved, it became economic to publish on coated paper which allowed reproduction of photographs, first in half-tone then, later, in colour. The larger format, proliferation of advertisements and increased photographic illustration marked a gradual change in direction, highlighted by its retitling as Evergreen.  When the journal largely dropped poetry and translations of foreign-language texts – choosing instead to feature a mix of erotic stories, nude photography, radical social commentary and polemic – it came into competition with Playboy, a match it was unequal to. Evergreen ceased print publication in 1973.

Van Gageldonk considers Grove Press’s battles with various American censoring bodies over Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch, driven partly by idealism, partly by commercialism. Controversy over freedom-of-speech issues increased sales as well as earning Grove cultural cachet. In purely financial terms, Grove’s position on banned books was not quite justified by the costs of defending them against charges of obscenity – especially in the case of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, where pirated editions by rival publishers would compete for sales once the ban was lifted. Works deemed illegal were not covered by American copyright law, so competing houses eyed the breaking of fresh ground with the intention of launching their own editions as soon as new markets opened.

The author discusses aspects of Grove/Evergreen Review’s output in terms of Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of cultural production and Ulf Hannerz’s conception of creolization of culture through adaptation and interpretation of cultural material. A good example of the latter is Van Gageldonk’s discussion of the publication of texts by Alfred Jarry in a 1960 issue of Evergreen Review dedicated to ‘Pataphysics. At the time, Jarry was a writer obscure to English readers, known mostly by reputation, and little of his work had been translated. The presentation of Jarry was in a highly mediated form: a small selection of his texts in translation with works by others connected to the ‘Pataphysics movement. The editing was highly influenced by figures active in the Collège de ‘Pataphysique, Paris. In this example of creolization, Jarry’s texts was detached from their historical and cultural context and presented as harbingers of Surrealism and Absurdism. The presentation of Jarry as a forerunner of the counter-culture resistance to social conformity and as a debunker of scientific rationalism made him attractive to Grove American readers familiar with the Beats. Thus a relatively underappreciated historical author became pressed into service of a publisher keen to buttress its artistic credibility.

Grove’s stake in the success of the Theatre of the Absurd is clear if one studies its publishing list. In 1954 Grove published the English translation of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a gamble on an author little-known to Anglophones. Despite huge success in Paris, the play had not been performed in English due to concerns over possible infringement of obscenity and blasphemy laws. Van Gageldonk observes that Grove went on to corner the American market for European Absurdist drama, including in its list Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov, Harold Pinter and Václav Havel. Van Gageldonk explains the involvement Grove had in arranging productions and how the commercial rewards and – particularly – critical responses to debut stage productions in New York could make or break dramatists in America. “Comparing Ionesco and Adamov’s impact on the theatrical field first of all highlights the absolute dominance still held by the older New York drama critics, a position at the time still little eroded by a younger generation. When the three key New York drama critics walked out of Ping Pong, they reduced Adamov’s chances within the field to nil.” He points out how successful early productions of Ionesco established him as a major dramatist for American audiences while Adamov sank into obscurity.

In other chapters Van Gageldonk assesses Grove’s publication of literature from Russia, Eastern Bloc nations and Germany – a useful complement to the attention already given by other academics to Grove’s important ties to the French avant-garde. Even when dealing with highly theoretical matters in the methodological introduction, Van Gageldonk’s prose is clear and precise. Discussing Rosset, Grove, Evergreen Review and Rosset’s most important editors, Richard Seaver and Donald Allen, Van Gageldonk’s text is enjoyable and engaging, conveying the social and literary milieu as well as the substance of his subject. Transatlantic Mediators is an approachable, thoroughly researched and informative study of the contribution Grove/Evergreen Review made to literature in the mid-Twentieth Century. Let us hope it reaches a wider audience in the future.

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