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Counter-Culture Colophon: Grove Press and the Democratization of the Avant-Garde

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  1. 1. Loren Glass<br />University of Iowa<br />Counter-Culture Colophon:<br />Grove Press and the Democratization of the Avant-Garde<br />When Barney Rosset bought the fledgling reprint house Grove Press for $3000 in 1951, the publishing world was on the verge of what historian John Tebbel has called “The Great Change,” the era of conglomeration and consolidation during which book publishing, which had remained relatively insulated from the broader culture industry during the modern era, was gradually absorbed by it. Over the course of the sixties and seventies, most of the major publishing houses would be bought up by large publicly-owned corporations that would both capitalize and rationalize an industry that had remained something of a genteel backwater during the first half of the twentieth century. The book publishing world was an insular community of (mostly) men, based in New York City, all of whom knew each other and most of whom shared a commitment to literary culture that, they felt, distinguished their industry and their product from others. Many of these publishers, in particular the so-called “new breed” of second-generation Jewish immigrants such as Horace Liveright, Alfred Knopf, and Bennett Cerf, shared a sense of mission that led them both to take risks with unknown authors and to remain loyal to those authors once they had established themselves. Tebbel calls this earlier era the “Golden Age Between the Wars”, and under Rosset Grove was in many ways a holdover from it, an independent publisher modeled on a modernist disregard for the bottom line and using modernist standards of aesthetic evaluation. Like the “new breed” that preceded him, Rosset was committed to bringing the latest in European experimental literature to the attention of an American reading public, and this sense of mission trumped any simple profit motive. <br />Nevertheless, Grove marketed its titles aggressively, and I hope to prove that its promotional efforts were crucial to the process whereby the democratic distribution of experimental literature funneled the aesthetically subversive energies of the post-war avant-garde into the political ferment of the sixties. At the center of this process was the paperback book. The early fifties marked the tail-end of the so-called “paperback revolution,” during which most paperback books had been reprints either of bestselling hardcovers or of classics that were out of copyright. Indeed, Rosset initially expanded his title list by reprinting classic texts by authors such as Henry James and Herman Melville. But in the later fifties, following the lead of Samuel Epstein’s groundbreaking Doubleday imprint Anchor Books, Grove began publishing original avant-garde texts by authors such as Samuel Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet as inexpensive “quality” paperbacks. Using instantly recognizable Abstract Expressionist covers designed by Roy Kuhlman and deploying a variety of innovative promotional schemes, Grove marketed these Evergreen Originals, as they were called, to a principally academic audience of students and professors, establishing its colophon and the Evergreen imprint early with the baby boom generation that would swell the ranks of the counterculture. <br />Grove launched the Evergreen Originals imprint as an experiment analogous to the avant-garde literature on its title list. Thus, in a 1958 circular to booksellers, boldly headed “An experiment,” Grove notes the industry’s concern “over the shrinking market for new, original fiction” and attributes this shrinkage to “the wide gap between the prices of original hardbound fiction and paperback reprints.” They propose that their imprint will “bridge that gap,” and request that booksellers “display these books, talk about them, and report them to your local bestseller lists.” The first of four titles listed in the circular is Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans, which in fact would become a bestseller in the ensuing months. Thus, a mere six months later, Grove ran an ad in the New York Times Book Review trumpeting their Evergreen Original imprint as “an experiment in book publishing that worked!”, listing The Subterraneans’ “best sellerdom” as proof of their success, and offering new titles by Samuel Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet as the latest additions to the line.<br />Between issuing the circular and publishing the ad, Grove, in coordination with the now legendary Bay Area bookseller Fred Cody, organized of an “Evergreen Book Week” in Berkeley, CA. The series of events scheduled for what would end up being 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 events of the first week—which included performances of Eugene Ionesco’s Victims of Duty and The Lesson, a preview performance of Beckett’s Endgame, two radio shows, numerous panel discussions with critics, editors, and English professors on both the UC Berkeley and Stanford campuses, and readings by Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Robert Duncan—amply illustrate how Grove worked not only to associate their imprint with the latest in experimental literature, but also to establish themselves as a cultural force in the communities which both produced and consumed this literature in the United States. <br />Grove had already dedicated the second issue of the Evergreen Review to the “San Francisco Scene,” and the Cody’s salute was clearly designed to exploit and expand the West Coast connections they had established in composing that issue, which included the first serial publication of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Thus lectures and panel discussions included such topics as “The Art of Writing in the San Francisco Bay Area,” “Prose Writing in the San Francisco Bay Area,” and “The San Francisco Renaissance: Fact or Fraud?”, while all the readings were by authors who had been published in the special issue. By combining these readings and discussions with performances by Ionesco and Beckett, Grove helped to highlight the affinities between the European and American avant-gardes, and to encourage cross-fertilization between them. Furthermore, the inclusion of editors, publishers, and professors along with authors on the scheduled panel discussions encouraged participants, mostly faculty and students, to understand the avant-garde as a cultural network, not just a list of titles. Donald Allen, who translated Ionesco for Grove, co-edited the Evergreen Review with Rosset, edited Grove’s groundbreaking anthology The New American Poetry (1960), and would be Grove’s West Coast representative throughout the sixties, is a crucial figure in this regard, a consummate networker whose role in literary history is obscured by the famous poets whose work he edited and introduced. <br />In the East Bay, Cody’s Books was establishing itself as a crucial institutional node in this network. Like City Lights in San Francisco, it specialized in paperback books, and its customer base was the faculty and students at UC Berkeley. In an account of his “Evergreen Salute” printed in Publisher’s Weekly on May 19, 1958, Cody claims he had “felt for some time that Evergreen Books make a special appeal to the University public served by the bookstore.” For three weeks, Cody devoted his entire front window display to promoting Evergreen Books, which Grove had provided for him on consignment. And he emphasizes that his discussions with his customers not only about Evergreen books but also about the book industry more generally were a crucial component of the campaign. Thus he notes that “talk of what Grove was doing in the Evergreen Series led customers to discussion of other paperback lines and to a discussion of the ‘revolution’ in publishing brought about by paperbacks.” He also notes that “new respect was gained for the store which had made the effort to organize a special promotion.”<br />Cody’s somewhat crude display features the Evergreen Colophon as a sort of visual pun, emphasizing its similarity to an arrow pointing downward, thereby directing the eye to the titles on whose covers and bindings it prominently appears (see figures). But the colophon itself is only a small part of the visual language Grove deployed to generate brand identity and brand loyalty. As the prominent photos of Kerouac and Beckett affirm, Grove early on worked to acquire an identifiably experimental stable of authors and, as with Beckett, strived to publish all of that author’s work. Beckett’s photo is featured prominently in a majority of Grove’s advertisements over the course of the sixties. <br /> <br /> <br />However, as these displays and the contemporaneous advertisements reveal, it was the design of the books themselves, in particular the cover art, which made Grove and Evergreen into a recognizable brand of literature. Between 1951 and 1965, most of Grove’s covers were designed by Roy Kuhlman, whose aesthetic sensibilities had been forged by the Abstract Expressionist pioneers of the immediate post-war era. Rosset, whose first wife Joan Mitchell was one of the few women to become associated with this male-dominated school, shared Kuhlman’s aesthetic taste, and their loose collaboration over this crucial period would cement Grove’s identity as a counter-cultural force. Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger, co-authors of By Its Cover: Modern American Book Cover Design, claim Kuhlman has been “vastly underappreciated” as a book designer, noting that he “produced one of the most consistently distinctive bodies of work in the history of book cover design.” Steven Brower and John Gall agree, calling Rosset and Kuhlman’s collaboration “a marriage of imagery and the written word that had not been seen before, or, perhaps, since.”<br />Kuhlman did not read the books whose covers he designed. Rather, working from a brief description, he would subordinate textual content to experimental form, creating a consistent graphic language that both integrated a variety of literary genres and national origins and provided a visual context for the Evergreen colophon, which almost always constituted an element of the cover design in this line. Thus Kuhlman’s cover for The Subterraneans, prominently displayed in the Cody’s salute, tropes on the Bay Area location of the narrative with a recognizable silhouette of the Golden Gate Bridge, but then renders that silhouette as an abstract formal experiment in shape and color, distorting its symmetry and altering its hue. The off-balance green shades that bisect the bridge against the black background contrast with and foreground the blue lettering for the word “by” which links author and title and the colophon that takes the place of the artist’s signature in the bottom right corner, obliquely reminding us of the mediating role of the publisher in the production of the text (see fig).<br />Another title Grove frequently used in its early promotions for the Evergreen Originals imprint, and which can be clearly seen in the Cody’s display, was The Blind Owl, a novel chronicling the gradual descent into madness of a solitary male protagonist by the Persian writer and Sartrean acolyte Sadegh Hedayat. For this cover, Kuhlman sketched out an assemblage of asymmetric grids, filling in selected squares with daubs of purple and brown. As with The Subterraneans, the color scheme provides a visual framework for the display of both the authorial name, which appears in the upper right in brown, and the colophon, which appears amidst the gridwork in purple. The overall design, then, in its irregularities and asymmetries, tropes on the theme of insanity while also providing a syntax in which the colophon can figure as both an element in and source of the distinctive visual style. Similar strategies are evident in the two next illustrations from the same period, of Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy and Beckett’s Unnamable. All four of these covers represent the verbal experimentation of the texts in an abstract expressionist style that integrates both the colophon and the authorial name into its visual vocabulary. <br /> <br /> <br />Over the next five years, Grove would cement its reputation as an avant-garde publisher in its prominent campaign to publish a host of underground classics from the modernist era, including most famously D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, both of which provoked highly publicized obscenity trials which resulted in their legal exoneration and, ultimately, the so-called “end of obscenity” for the printed word. In order to capitalize on the notoriety and acclaim it received for waging these expensive battles, Grove launched a campaign in 1966 inviting readers to “Join the Underground” by subscribing to the Evergreen Review—whose format had been changed in 1964 from a quarterly quarto to a bi-monthly, and then monthly, folio size magazine with glossy covers and a wider diversity of advertisers, emphasizing book, record, tape, and poster clubs, as well as cars, cruises, clothes and alcoholic beverages—and by joining the Evergreen Club, which Rosset had started in that same year as a conduit for distributing Grove’s rapidly expanding catalogue of “adult” literature. <br />In the first months of 1966, full page ads inviting readers to “Join the Underground” appeared in venues such as The New York Times, Esquire, Ramparts, New Republic, Playboy, The New York Review of Books, and the Village Voice, and on posters throughout the New York City subway system. Grove also distributed tens of thousands of free stickers to subscribers which began to appear on public benches and in public bathrooms across the country. Their ad in the New York Times opens by provocatively specifying its target demographic: “If you’re over 21; if you’ve grown up with the underground writers of the fifties and sixties who’ve reshaped the literary landscape; if you want to share in the new freedoms that book and magazine publishers are winning in the courts, then keep reading. You’re one of us.” The ad proceeds to chronicle Grove’s literary and legal triumphs, from the court battles over Lawrence and Miller to their promotion and publication of Beckett and Robbe-Grillet. And it then confirms, “Grove’s growth paralleled the growth of a new generation of readers, and at the same time, freed a new band of contemporary writers. Both groups began turning to us in larger numbers, and out of the need to provide a forum for these emerging writers, we created a new magazine, Evergreen Review.” <br />In order to entice the audience expanded by its efforts to join the club and subscribe to the magazine, the ad offers a free copy of one of three titles: Eros Denied by Wayland Young, Games People Play by Eric Berne, and Naked Lunch by William Burroughs, which Grove describes as “an authentic literary masterpiece of the 20th century that has created more discussion, generated more controversy, and excited more censors than any other novel of recent times.” As a boldly experimental and wildly explicit novel originally published in Paris by an American author, Naked Lunch epitomizes the combination of avant-garde aesthetics and underground notoriety that constituted Grove’s fully established reputation in the mid-sixties. And while the “Join the Underground” campaign offers the hardcover free with subscription and membership, the most popular edition was surely the mass-market paperback, which included a text of the Massachusetts Supreme Court Decision and excerpts from the Boston obscenity trial. Grove issued this edition of Naked Lunch under their Black Cat imprint, which they had introduced in 1961 as “the new mass-market line with the liveliest look in the field.” <br />As with Evergreen Originals, Grove aggressively marketed this imprint to an academic audience. They featured it in their 1966 college catalog, claiming in their prefatory Note to Teachers: <br />The complete Evergreen-Black Cat list of inexpensive quality paperbacks in the fields of literature, philosophy, religion, history, and sociology will be found for the first time in this catalog. Many of the books have already been widely selected as texts and for collateral reading in leading junior colleges, technical schools, colleges, and universities. For example, more than 300,000 copies of the works of Samuel Beckett alone have been chose for classroom use in drama, religion, philosophy, and other courses. Other widely-adopted authors include Bertolt Brecht, Friedrich Durrenmatt, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, Alain Robbe-Grillet, E.E. Cummings, Alfred Kazin, Robert S. Lynd, Robert L. Heilbroner, and C. Wright Mills.” <br />This strategic blending of quality and mass-market paperback format can be taken as an indication of the increasing popularity and democratic accessibility of the avant-garde aesthetic that Grove had been promoting throughout the late fifties. Unlike the Evergreen originals, Black Cat covers tended to emphasize word over image, foregrounding author, title, and publisher as a more directly discursive package. For books such as Naked Lunch and Tropic of Cancer, this was surely because the explicitness of the content discouraged Grove from further provoking legal reaction with the type of provocative illustrations associated with mass-market paperbacks. Rather, these covers trumpet their faithfulness to the hardback text, already affiliated with Grove as the company which made it legally possible to publish them in the first place.<br /> <br />During this same period Grove would begin publishing paperback reprints of titles acquired from the left wing publisher Monthly Review Press, under both their Black Cat and Evergreen imprints. With these titles we see how Grove leveraged its avant-garde and underground reputation into the political arena, as it began to publish revolutionary handbooks and radical political theory associated with the burgeoning New Left. Kuhlman was doing less work for Grove at this point, and these covers are correlatively less abstract, though still innovative in their use of typographical and photographic design, and the colophons are more conventionally positioned. Significantly, the Evergreen colophon has now been encircled in such a way as to emphasize its similarity to a peace sign, by the mid sixties a widely familiar icon of the counterculture, providing a somewhat ironic counterpoint to the violent imagery and subject matter of these texts. <br /> <br /> <br /> <br />One final advertisement from the New York Times can illustrate how Grove worked to consolidate and combine these somewhat disparate elements of its image. In the March 19 edition of the Book Review from 1967, Grove placed a full page ad announcing “Guerilla Warfare: New Strategy of the Underground,” with a photo featuring a guitarist, a flautist, a filmmaker, and Regis Debray wearing a set of headphones. The opening paragraph of the ad copy reads:<br />There’s a new scene on the New Left. The culture wing is taking over with a battle style all its own. Like a small band of guerillas, they hit and run with slashing spontaneous poems, quick committed journalism, underground films, propaganda wrapped in folk-rock music, and savage satire unleashed from Off-Broadway launching sites.<br />Here the political and military connotations of the term “avant-garde” are rhetorically absorbed into its cultural meaning, establishing Grove Press and the Evergreen Review as the foco of the counterculture, the principal purveyor of revolutionary literature for the New Left. The prominence in these campaigns of Debray, who before joining Che Guevara in Bolivia had studied at the Ecole Normale Superieure, and Fanon, whose work was first published by Presence Africaine and introduced by Jean-Paul Sartre, further affirms the degree to which the network Grove had established to funnel the European avant-garde to the United States established the connections it would later exploit in acquiring its more politically oriented titles. <br />The American university remained a crucial node in this network, as a glance at Grove’s College Catalog from 1968 conveniently illustrates. Here are all the imprints discussed in this paper, from Evergreen originals to Black Cat handbooks, from signal representatives of the aesthetic avant-garde to revolutionary writers in the political vanguard, all contained within a single composite image. By 1968, Grove had consolidated its reputation as a countercultural colophon, and its title list would thereby become what S.E. Gontarski calls “a formidable countercanon,” providing “literary respectability for previously marginal literature.” The effects of this underappreciated publishing revolution remain with us today, as the classic titles Grove made available, from Waiting for Godot to The Wretched of the Earth, continue to appear on syllabi across the country. <br /> <br />