Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013

Reviewed by Jim Feast

Perhaps there’s a new academic field – I’m not up on these things – which concentrates on the esthetics of book design: layout of the page, colors on the cover, illustrations chosen, and so on. I mention this because Loren Glass in his new Counter-Culture Colophon: Grove Press, The Evergreen Review and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde spends a lot of time meticulously analyzing Grove book covers. Even so, the heart of and the real magnificence of this book is Glass’s combination of a detailed history of the press and, the more difficult task, a thoughtful evaluation of this publisher’s impact on American culture.

The most well known of these impacts is how Barney Rosset, with able lieutenants Fred Jordan and Richard Seaver, broke down the censorship rules, which had muzzled publishers. The story has often been told of how Grove in its spirited legal defense of Lady Chatterley, Tropic of Cancer, Naked Lunch, and other works more or less demolished all the legal barriers that had Puritanically controlled publishing and told adults what they could read. Not mentioned in this story is the fact, which Glass shows is of key explanatory value, that the battering rams Grove used were not books such as Ulysses, an earthy but decidedly high-brow work, but books Glass calls example of “vulgar modernism.” These were novels that honored the stylistic and topical concerns of high modernism, for instance, in Burroughs use of a fragmented, cut-up style of composition or in Henry Miller’s focus on the travails of being a writer, but that, due to their humor, absurdity and high quotient of x-rated scenes, were favorite reads of the general public. Glass puts it like this: “The principal authors Grove brought to the forefront in its battle against censorship – Lawrence, Miller, Burroughs, Genet, Rechy, Selby – received both critical and popular acclaim during the 1960s.” And something Glass doesn’t mention, but which a glance at book sales indicate, is that these authors, not taught in academia to the degree they used to be, still sell widely to the general public.

While Grove brought the avant-garde to a much wider readership – this is one of the major themes of Glass’s study – it did not do this solely through battening on writers who favored salacious material. Grove’s championing of Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter, and other not erotically inclined but equally audacious writers is proof of this. Here a confluence of other factors, along with Grove’s canny marketing, brought this group to the fore in sales and attention. For one, there was a new audience of being-educated, young people. “Subsidized by the GI Bill and the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) Americans entered college in unprecedented numbers in the postwar years. … undergraduate enrollment increased by almost 500 percent between 1945 and 1975. ” This new audience represents what may have been print’s last stand. Glass quotes Phillip Beidler to the effect that the 1960s, “was truly the last great moment of reading and writing in the West by an identifiable mass-cultural constituency  … [being] spiritually, the last great moment of America’s own faith in the Word as its basic article of political and educational reliance.”

Moreover, it was not accidental that all these writers, who each bested the next in terms of nihilism and a pessimistic view of the human future, were Europeans. Glass suggests that there was a latent element of American boosterism in the interest in these books. “Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, and Genet represent the long twilight of the European male modernist. … [There was] The sense that the [particularly European] West had exhausted its ethical authority … [in contrast to] America’s triumphant emergence from the war.”

So, it stands to reason if the establishment, represented by the European modernist tradition, is defunct, a new generation needs to come forward to take the reins, just as Grove’s young Turks had come forward to rewrite the rules of publishing. However, due not only to historical circumstances but (I think)  also to Rosset’s time in China, most of the sources for this new order were looked for either outside the U.S., in Mao’s People’s Republic or Che’s Cuba, or in non-white America, as in the writings of  Malcolm X. In a second evolution, following the creation of a mass readership for vulgar modernism, Grove now argued that revolution had to be by the book. Glass explains both how works such as Malcolm X Speaks “promised to provide readers with both empirical evidence of and practical guidelines for the development of revolutionary consciousness,” and how the new political booklist from the publisher combined seamlessly with the earlier cultural one. “Grove sought to merge literary and political understandings of the term ‘avant-garde’ in the belief that reading radical literature could instill both the practical knowledge and psychological transformation necessary to precipitate a revolution.”

Being first on the market with books on topics such as black power, Cuba, China, gay liberation, and Irish nationalism, it seemed there was only one area of revolutionary ferment which Grove overlooked, feminism. We’ll come back to that.

First, let’s return to the opening point about the esthetics of book design. Another interesting feature of Grove is how, at the time when film studies was originally becoming an academic field and when, moreover, there were no DVDs or video players so cinema had to be viewed in the movie theater or not at all, Grove invented a new form: the print film. These were books that contained the script, stills and director’s comments from individual significant films in an artifact that, Glass says, made up a “hybrid and transitional genre that provides a unique insight into the process whereby films were presented texts that needed to be read both closely and repeatedly and whose difficulty requires reading other supplemental material to be fully understood.”Analogously, Glass’s Colophon can be seen as the skillful creation of another hybrid, one that concurrently studies history, literary texts and book design. So, just as Grove invented a new breed of film books so Glass’s work, which is chock full of illustrations of Grove covers, which he penetratingly scrutinizes, invents a new form of cultural study.

But, as noted, Glass ends the book examining how the all-male upper crew of Grove management tended to overlook feminism, a neglect that came to a head when a group of dissident women, led by Robin Morgan, occupied Grove’s offices till they were expelled by the police that Grove staff called. Although there seemed little else the Grove executives could have done but call the cops if they wanted to continue operating, this event tarnished the press’s countercultural credentials and led to further complaints about its male chauvinism. Partially reacting to these events, Grove did begin publishing feminist authors, including Kathy Acker, who, Glass points out, “exemplifies the radical feminist appropriation of sexual idioms and attitudes previously reserved for male modernist authors.” He notes further that she represents an “ambiguous legacy,” in that “though her underground and avant-garde credentials are impeccable, they are also thoroughly integrated into the cultural field as a legitimate market.” In other words, once the censorship battles had been won repeatedly by Grove, and barriers against such books as those about, say, male hustlers or third world revolution had been downed, everything could be said, but, therefore, nothing was challenging. “Grove helped to affect a revolution that vastly expanded the range of voices that can be heard without radically challenging the larger socioeconomic order.”

Here, though, I can register a reservation about this tremendous book.  If Glass had gone further in history  — though this would have gone beyond the parameters of his examination — and looked at the small publishing company Rosset founded after he sold Grove, it would seem Rosset was still publishing books that came from unacceptable-to-the-mainstream, outlaw traditions that even now resists academic incorporation.

One type of renegade book would be those like Pia Pera’s Lo’s Diary, which attack a famed author, here Nabokov, from a feminist position. This rewriting of Lolita rated a savage, undeserved attack in the New York Times, in which the reviewer gave no evidence that he had read beyond the first chapter. (Believe it or not, the gist of the attack was the contention that nobody wanted to read about a main character that tortured guinea pigs!)

A second type of renegade book is a work like Alan Kaufman’s Jew Boy. Again, this is a book Rosset published that violates a principle that still governs academic and mainstream inclusion.  Recall Glass’s comments that academics and reviewers were always embarrassed by Henry Miller’s tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve as if good writing could never have too much feeling. But Kaufman combines this type of emotional openness with a penchant for discussing taboo subjects. One such subject is the Holocaust, whose horrors can be revealed in the standard treatment but whose wounds have to be shown slowly healing. Kaufman’s book, in violation of this principle, centers on a Holocaust survivor who did not make peace with her past, and who even passes on neuroses to her children. The wounds in this book never heal. This text, too, was neglected by the mainstream, as is to be expected for such a product of rebel intelligence.

The great contribution Glass makes is to show the heroic, humorous and vigorous fight Grove and Evergreen Review made to break down barriers and create new forms that introduced vulgar modernism, sex and politics into the relatively staid world of bookselling. We can say they won a major skirmish but the fight is not over. The establishment is different now. It doesn’t censor but rather ignores significant outsider voices. It no longer fears things like x-rated sex, but rather studiously avoids books, like Jew Boy, that are in your face for (what it considers) all the wrong reasons.