Rachel Marie Merritt
on Richard Seaver’s memoir of the Parisian
and American postwar avant-gardes.
The Tender Hour of Twilight: Paris in the ‘50s, New York in the ‘60s: A Memoir of Publishing’s Golden Age
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 2012. 480 pp.
In the preface to this remarkable memoir, Richard Seaver claims that he had never intended to publish it. And indeed he died before he could complete it. We therefore owe a debt of gratitude to his wife Jeanette for culling down the 900 pages he left her to a manageable length. People outside of New York publishing circles might never have heard of Dick Seaver, though anyone who read Waiting for Godot or The Autobiography of Malcolm X or any number of the other classic postwar texts published by Grove Press during his tenure there is familiar with his work. This riveting account of those years will rectify any neglect, as Dick Seaver was to the post-WWII avant-garde what Maxwell Perkins was for modernism between the wars: an editor of genius.
Cultural mediators — publishers, editors, agents — don’t get much recognition in literary history, and their work goes unacknowledged in most literature classes, but without them the work of all the authors we idolize would never see the light of day. Between 1959 and 1970, Seaver and his mercurial boss at Grove, Barney Rosset, along with editors Donald Allen and Fred Jordan, revolutionized the publishing industry and created a veritable canon of countercultural reading: Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, Frantz Fanon, Jean Genet, Che Guevara, Eugene Ionesco, Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), Malcolm X, Henry Miller, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Harold Pinter, John Rechy, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Hubert Selby, Jr., and many, many others. And then there was the Evergreen Review, Grove’s house journal and one of the marquee magazines of the literary underground. At the height of the sixties, Grove Press was the communications center of the counterculture, the conduit through which radical writing flowed. Its colophon became inextricably identified with revolutionary thought, and its offices in downtown Manhattan became a social nexus for revolutionary activists.
But Seaver’s story starts in Paris, the focus of part one of his memoirs, and the source of much of the writing Grove published. He insists from the outset that he and his compatriots weren’t “trying to emulate” the legendary lost generation, but his many references to Hemingway and Joyce belie this claim. Indeed, he wrote his undergraduate thesis on the former and was in Paris to write a dissertation on the latter. At one point, unable to finish a glass of wine offered to him by a French farmer at whose home he is staying, he asks himself, “How would Hemingway have handled it?” And only a few pages later he calls Joyce “my hero.” The exiles of the interwar years haunt the early pages of this memoir, and it is clear that Seaver and the many Anglophone expatriates he meets in Paris aspired to achieve an analogous generational identity.
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