Naked Press: embrace the avant-garde

Naked Press: embrace the avant-garde

There was no one sitting in the “poet’s chair” in the poetry room at City Lights, so I did. The room was filling up for Loren Glass, an Associate Professor of English at the University of Iowa. He was there with his new book, COUNTERCULTURE COLOPHON: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde.

First of all, what’s a colophon? It is a “finishing stroke, a summit… an inscription placed at the end of a book.” The suggestion here is that Grove Press presided over the end of the avant-garde.

Loren Glass was introduced by Peter Maravelis, who noted that City Lights was similar to Grove Press when it came to censorship battles and leftwing politics. City Lights was founded in 1953 and Grove Press was bought by Barney Rosset in New York in 1951. He paid $3,000 for it. (It is worth noting that Playboy magazine was also started in 1953). Rosset died last year, but Glass managed to interview him a few years before. He said Barney’s fifth wife had resisted any interviews, and that Rosset disagreed with any description of Grove as a business — it was a project, a cause. The roots of Grove Press were in his life, and he didn’t want to give credit to others or to the historical period (from a 2009 interview). He sold it for $2,000,000 in 1986.

“Responsible for such landmark publications as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, Naked Lunch, Waiting for Godot, The Wretched of the Earth, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Grove Press was the most innovative publisher of the postwar era.” (City Lights website)

Rosset was born in Chicago in 1922, half-Irish and half-Jewish.  His father was a wealthy investment banker who gave him millions. He lost most of it in impetuous investments.

Grove Press cornered the market in experimental drama in the 1950s. Waiting for Godot sold 400 from a run of 1000 in the first year. Rosset published Genet, the Living Theater, Ionesco, Pinter, and Brecht. Much of this appealed to a younger audience who were literate and progressive and tired of repression. Henry Miller resisted being published by Grove, saying he didn’t want to be read by college students. “What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature.” He finally sold the rights to Tropic of Cancer for $50,000 in 1961. The book had been banned in the U.S. and Britain.

The longest chapter in Loren Glass’s book is on the obscenity trials that Rosset endured. As a result of these trials, there was an “end of obscenity” and censorship in the 1960’s. The courts decided that the public has the right to read what it wants, regardless of literary value. According to Glass, the 1966 court decision was the end of the underground because it was made legitimate. Grove had a campaign to “Join the Underground.”


Rosset wanted to take the avant-garde into the mainstream and was instrumental in setting that process in motion. It raises an interesting question with respect to the posers and composers who operate on the so-called margins: is there an underground or not? What is it these underground artists are living outside of? Are they riding into town and terrorizing everybody with their lack of punctuation? Are they stealing other people’s lines and crashing through open doors? Drinking and doing drugs like other people don’t?

With respect to the readers of Grove Press, 90 percent were male, with decent incomes and college degrees. The average reader was a 39-year-old male who was married with two kids. There was a lot of erotica, from the Marquis de Sade to Victorian and Edwardian erotic writings. Rosset worked with Eberhard and Phyllis Kronhausen, also known as Everhard and Syphilis, who founded the International Museum of Erotic Art in the late 1960‘s. There was a branch in San Francisco which opened in 1973. The Kronhausens helped Rosset get the distribution rights to a Swedish film called I am Curious (Yellow). He had to fight the censorship laws in court, but eventually the film was shown and he made millions off it.

Grove Press went public in 1967. At the time there were 1000 published titles and over 100 employees. Rosset had a private elevator in the building so he wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. He published Hugh Selby, Jr., the author of Last Exit to Brooklyn, but when Selby was asked if he had much contact with Barney he said: “No, no, never. I think I met him once, but I wouldn’t recognize him” (The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1990).

After publishing Che Guevara’s diaries in 1968, the Grove office in Greenwich Village was bombed by rightwing Cubans. Rosset thought they were assisted by the CIA. No one was hurt. Che had been dead for months.

Rosset and Grove Press had been tracked by the FBI since the early days. In 1970 there was a union strike and a feminist takeover. There are statements from employees who question the origins of the strike since their working conditions were good. The radical feminists were protesting what they took to be the exploitation of women through erotic art. It reminds me of a quote from Camille Paglia: “Leaving sex to the feminists is like letting your dog vacation at the taxidermist.”

On one occasion Valerie Solanas was waiting outside the offices of Grove Press with an ice-pick. She wanted to kill Rosset. Later she tried to kill Andy Warhol by shooting him point-blank several times (and only did two years in prison).

Rosset was eventually fired from Grove Press after it had become a corporation. The archives end on a dull thud with Kathy Acker.

Evergreen Review June 67Evergreen Review was founded by Rosset in 1957. It lasted until 1973 (in 1998 it was resurrected in an online version).  I spoke with V. Vale, who founded RE/Search Publications, about what Evergreen Review meant to him. He said he wouldn’t have become a William Burroughs fan without it — that’s where he came across The Job by Burroughs (interviews from the late 1960’s).

Tropic of Cancer was one of Rossett’s favorite books, but he also became known as a beat publisher. Evergreen Review No. 2 was entitled “SAN FRANCISCO SCENE.” It was published in 1957 and sold 40 copies in two hours at City Lights. By some miracle I have a copy. It includes the following:

Kenneth Rexroth: “San Francisco Letter”
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: “Dog and Other Poems”
Henry Miller: “Big Sur and the Good Life”
Michael McClure: “The Robe and Other Poems”
Jack Spicer: “Psychoanalysis and Other Poems”
Ralph J. Gleason: “San Francisco Jazz Scene”
Gary Snyder: “The Berry Feast”
Philip Whalen: “Five Poems”
Allen Ginsberg: “Howl”

Here is a quote from Rexroth:

“It is possible to ‘disaffiliate,’ disengage oneself from the Social Lie and still be good tempered about it, and it is possible to bite the butt of the eternal Colonel Blimp with the quiet, penetrating tenacity of an unperturbed bull dog. This is Ferlinghetti’s special talent and it is no mean one… Today we have to call it anarchism. A fellow over in Africa calls it ‘reverence for life.’

I also have an Evergreen Review from 1960 (Vol. 4, No. 11). Some of the contents:

Williams S. Burroughs: “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness”
Jack Kerouac: “Conclusion of the Railroad Earth”
Allen Ginsberg: “Sather Gate Illumination”
Terry Southern: “Red-Dirt Marijuana”
Jean-Paul Sartre: “The Theater” (an interview)
Antonin Artaud: “Letters from Rodez” (1945)

Here is a quote from Artaud (who was writing from a psychiatric hospital):

“It is no reason to take me for a madman so as to get rid of me and put me to sleep with electroshock so as to make me lose the medullary memory of my energy. All this is personal and does not interest you, I feel, because one reads the memoirs of dead poets, while one wouldn’t send a cup of coffee or a glass of opium to cheer up the living ones.”

I first encountered Evergreen Review in 1969 when I was 17 in Los Angeles. This was before computers and the internet, when erotic literature and art were harder to come by. It reminds me of Gide’s response to the writings of Lautreamont: “Here is something that excites me to the point of delirium. He leaps from the detestable to the excellent.”

A book dealer loaned me a copy of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, the Fall 1990 issue, called “GROVE PRESS NUMBER” with contributions by Don Allen, Samuel Beckett, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Fred Jordan, Michael McClure, John Rechy, Barney Rosset, Hubert Selby, Gilbert Sorrentino, and others. Among other things, I learned that McClure used to think of Beckett as “an absolute cynical monster.” The book is a rich source of information with letters, reviews, and interviews:

6a0120a5f2783b970c0168e7d7ed0f970c-320wi“… Grove ironically relied for its existence on the ‘archaic censorship rules’ that it fought, the abolition of which finally also swept away the uniqueness and thus the necessity of presses like Olympia and Grove. In addition, Grove Press could make inroads into the popular market only because the very idea of the avant-garde was in eclipse, that is, when experimentalism in art was already being accepted by growing numbers. If the notion of avant-garde art means anything, it is defined by its hostility to accepted artistic standards and values. The very success of Grove Press hastened the decline of the avant-garde by broadening the audience for, and hence increasing the public’s tolerance of, nontraditional art… blurring the distinctions between the established literary canon and the works of the counterculture.”

(S.E. Gontarski, “Dionysus in Publishing: Barney Rosset, Grove Press, and the Making of a Countercanon,” The Review of Contemporary Fiction)

This seems astute, but I think there will always be a need for presses like Grove — particularly when so many small presses are going out of business, and taking their independent point of view with them.

Steven Gray

Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).