Though he followed it by a decade or more, Richard Seaver, an eminent editor, publisher, and translator, belongs to what is now thought of as a better time in American publishing, a period from, say, 1920 to 1950, during which were founded a number of houses controlled by and responding to the tastes of individuals who were concerned with the quality of what they published as much as anything else. Writers might find a place to sleep, if necessary, in their offices, and some might be given a monthly stipend. Seaver had graduated from the University of North Carolina, taught Latin at a prep school in Connecticut, and then gone to Paris to study at the Sorbonne in the years just after the war. There he edited with some friends a short-lived literary magazine called Merlin, and on his own, reading him in the original French and being overwhelmed by the simplicity and terror, discovered the early Beckett, whom he then met, published, and remained good friends with for the rest of Beckett’s life.
In 1953, toward the end of the Korean War, he was called into the navy and served as engineering officer on a cruiser. When I first met him in Paris in 1961, he still looked like a naval officer, that is to say capable and tough. I once asked him, out of curiosity, what he had known about engineering.
“Nothing,” he said simply.
He started his publishing career working at George Braziller and soon afterward went to Grove Press where he remained for eleven years, from 1959 to 1970, years of great turbulence and importance. He became editor in chief.
Grove Press was founded in 1951 and bought by Barney Rosset the same year. It began publishing European avant-garde writers and political thinkers, Beckett among them. American literature, not uniquely, had for a long time been under moral constraints as exemplified by Dreiser’s realistic novel Sister Carrie being quickly withdrawn from circulation in 1900 by Doubleday when Mrs. Doubleday found it distasteful—the heroine lived in sin with a man and then repeated the offense. Books considered obscene could not be published in or brought into the United States. This included D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, written in 1928, privately printed in Florence, Italy, and banned in England and the US. Its theme, that the individual was fully realized only when both body and mind flourished, was not sensational but its sex scenes with their candor and the use of the forbidden word “fuck” kept the book underground.
There was an invisible fault line growing, however. Six years after Lady Chatterley, Henry Miller’s remarkable Tropic of Cancer was published in Paris by the Obelisk Press. Written in the Paris of the Depression years when luxurious brothels had their own guidebooks and a dinner with wine could be bought for a dollar, it is a view from beneath …