Join the Underground: Loren Glass’ History of the Famous / Infamous Grove Press

Grove Press evokes intense nostalgia for a time in American life when books mattered profoundly. Grove was a part of the ‘50s “paperback” revolution that made books affordable and dramatically expanded readership. While post-‘60s subcultures tend to organize themselves around music, Loren Glass observes in his new book on Grove that “The paperback generation was the last generation to identify itself by what it read.”

For the New Left and the broader counter culture, “to be in the Movement, meant, at least partially, to be reading certain books, and many, if not most, of those books were published by Grove Press.” Grove was the hippest and most important publisher of books that broke sexual taboos, plotted revolution, and kept millions of young intellectuals across the United States in touch with avant-garde currents in literature, theater, film and revolutionary politics throughout the world.

Today, Grove Press and its owner and editor-in-chief, Barney Rosset, are best remembered for breaking down the last vestiges of American censorship in a series of landmark lawsuits that secured Grove’s right to publish sexually explicit literature including D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. The Lawrence and Miller victories allowed Grove to defend and publish William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, John Rechy’s City of Night , and the entire oeuvre of Jean Genet, essentially opening the door for what would become queer literature.

In addition to these serious books, Grove then paid its bills in large part by publishing just about the entire canon of 19th century British erotica in its Victorian Library series. The profits from the pornography supported the publication of even more serious literature and a wave of revolutionary titles from Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, revolutionary Latin American communists, and the domestic black power movement.

For those unfamiliar with Rosset and Grove’s role in the counter culture, the best place to begin is with the documentary Obscene: A Portrait of Barney Rosset and the Grove Press directed by Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O’Connor. Their film tells the story of Rosset’s life, and their extensive interviews with Rosset put his remarkable charisma and his importance to the counter culture of the ‘50s and ‘60s on screen. They show how deeply committed Rosset was to taboo breaking modernism. He was willing to go to court to defend his right to publish it, but his company also agreed to pay for the legal defense of the small booksellers who were on the front lines.

The costs of this almost put Grove out of business many times. Indeed, Rosset sacrificed his own personal fortune more than once in these legal battles, and it was only this fortitude to take on cases in municipal and state courts, and even the Supreme Court, that finally ended the censorship of books in the United States. However, Loren Glass’s book goes well beyond the hagiography that defines most accounts of Rosset, concentrating instead on what Grove was publishing, the impact it made, the minutia of institutional mechanics that made Grove’s such a key force in shaping what the counter culture read.

For Glass, Rosset’s real genius was to participate in a radical shift that moved Grove away from national traditions of British and American literature, shifted the paperback away from reprints and pulp titles, and instead used the inexpensive format to publish the most experimental work of late modernism being produced primarily in Paris.

Grove’s star author was Samuel Beckett, and Rosset managed to become his exclusive publisher in the States. Grove also encouraged him to translate his French work into English himself. With the success of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Grove Press became the publisher of the theater of the absurd in the States, printing plays by Eugene Ionescso, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, and Bertolt Brecht. This roster of world -enowned authors permanently established Grove as a serious literary press with unquestionable legitimacy.

The international character of Grove’s theater offerings lead directly to the emerging currents of world literature, and Grove brought out books by Latin American writers including Octavio Paz and Jorge Luis Borges, African writers like Amos Tutuola, and Donald Keene’s enormously influential anthologies of modern Japanese literature. Glass makes the point that this was not all merely because of Rosset. Grove press employed editors, translators, and academics of remarkable scope and taste, including Richard Seaver, Mark Shorer, and many others who were able to shape the radically changing literary landscape of the 1950s. As Glass puts it:

“Grove’s cultivation of an international title list coincided with its innovation of the quality paperback, a conjunction that affected the cultural understanding of both categories. On the one hand, world literature, while maintaining the scholarly imprimatur of its translators and introducers, would be inexpensive and accessible, and Grove’s translators explicitly targeted a broad English-speaking American public. On the other hand, Grove’s Evergreen Originals took on the worldly and cosmopolitan cast of the contents they frequently contained. Thus, over the course of the 1950s Grove established an identity as a source of affordable access to the latest developments in world literature” (37).

The doors thrown open in the ‘50s would lead to the revolutionary currents of the ‘60s. While other publishers were afraid to bring out works like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Grove took up the challenge posed by the shift from civil rights to black power. Editor and translator Richard Seaver puts it quite well: “Paris may have been our mistress, but the political realities of the time were our master.”

Grove would go on to publish works like Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Julius Lester’s Look Out Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama and Turner Brown Jr.’s Black Is, but the perspectives of all these authors could be traced back to the world texts of Frantz Fanon and his books Black Skin White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth, also published by Grove. Glass reminds us that even though Grove is most associated with breaking censorship taboos over explicit sexuality, the publisher had a huge impact on politics, going on to publish books like Régis Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution? which Newsweek called “a primer for Marxist insurrection” and of which Grove sold 70,000 copies.

Though there is a romantic desire to imagine that all these books were read by organic intellectuals engaged in struggles on the street, Glass emphasizes just how much all of Grove’s books were really sustained by college and high school curriculums. The vast majority of Grove’s reader’s first encountered the publisher on campus. By combing through Grove’s archives, Glass demonstrates that Grove marketed its titles to college professors and high school teachers, even suggesting courses that could be developed based primarily on Grove titles and creating study guides and other materials for classroom use. While in our own moment schools are seen more and more as mere instrumental training for the new working classes of the service and information economies, the history of Grove Press reminds us that what happens in classrooms and what students are reading can be integral to revolutions like those in sexual and racial politics that are still underway.

Grove’s heady mix of avant-garde literature, sex, and revolution was also circulated through the Evergreen Review. Begun in the late ‘50s as a serious literary venue that promoted Grove authors, by the late ‘60s it had become a glossy magazine that also featured political opinion, explicit pictorials and underground comix. Grove promoted the Evergreen Review in a campaign that urged readers to “Join the Underground”, but of course the underground turned out to be 90,000 readers who by and larger were male, middle-class liberals.

Glass foregrounds the irony, quoting from a 1966 article from Advertising Age that figured in Grove’s own marketing: “The average member of the ‘underground’ is a 39-year old male, married, two children, a college graduate who holds a managerial position in business or industry, and has a median family income of 12, 875” (131). One is reminded of that middle-class revolutionary John Waters quipping in the documentary Obscene that “I basically worked for Barney Rosset” as both a Grove reader and by taking part in the marketing campaign of the Evergyreen Review by posting the free stickers that urged people to ‘Join the Underground.’” But as Waters’s life and career make clear, the middle-class does produce revolutionaries.

With a roster of late modernist authors that were becoming standards in college curriculums and a taboo-breaking list of political and pornographic titles, one would have expected Grove to remain a viable publisher for decades as they simply collected the royalties on books like Waiting for Godot, The Story of O, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and they probably would have, had Rosset not really thought of himself as a filmmaker.

Rosset began making films as a young boy, trained as a cameraman in the Army Signal Corps in WWII, made films for the Army in China, and just after the war produced a very well received feature documentary, Strange Victory, about the ironic legacy of Jim Crow in the States after the country’s victory over fascism. Indeed, becoming a publisher was a very unexpected vocation for a man who was so devoted to film.

When Grove became flush with money from its growing library of erotic fiction, Rosset began investing in films and had a surprise hit by importing and distributing I Am Curious Yellow, a Swedish drama written and directed by Vilgot Sjöman that contained explicit sex scenes. While the film earned $14 million for Grove, it was to be a one hit wonder, but Rosset used the money to double the size of the company and create a film division that would all but bankrupt Grove. It might yet have survived even this had the times not simply gotten ahead of Rosset and the other editors who were still mired in the sexual politics of the ‘50s.

Glass argues that although Grove unleashed tremendous forces of sexual expression, revolutionary thought, and supported black power and the broader coalition of the New Left, nonetheless Rosset and his closest associates were deeply threatened by second wave feminism and totally unprepared for the development of the feminist critique of pornography on which Grove’s bottom line depended. The office politics at Grove largely reflected the sexism of the time, and all the senior editors were men.

Rosset himself was a notorious womanizer, and as the women who worked at Grove developed feminist consciousness, some of them wanted to transform this situation with the kind of revolutionary fervor that so many Grove books championed. Part of the problem was that Grove depended not just on pornography for its bottom line, but a pornography written by men that rarely imagined women as anything more than the objects of male fantasy. Glass formulates the irony well:

“Many of the books it published provided both philosophical and practical insight into revolutionary thought and action, but many of the attitudes held by its writers and editors were patently, even virulently, misogynist. In leveraging the former against the latter, the feminist attack on Grove represents both a dialectical reversal and a final rehearsal of the cultural revolution Grove inaugurated.”

This feminist critique coincided with Rosset’s decision to take Grove public, making all the employees even more insecure and touching off a drive for unionization, something Rosset might have expected given that almost all his employees were in one way or another a part of the energized counter culture of the late ‘60s.

All these developments erupted in 1970. Robin Morgan, an ex-grove employee, recruited nine other women and the occupied Rosset’s office in Grove. They issued a manifesto that tore the lid off the contradictions of the publishing house: “No more using of women’s bodies to rip off enormous profits for a few wealthy capitalist dirty old straight white men” and “No more mansions on Long Island for boss-man Rosset and his executive yes-men flunkies, segregated mansions built with extortionist profits from selling The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

Rosset had the women handcuffed and dragged out of the building by the police. So much for revolution. As a result, Grove never recovered either its credibility in the counter-culture or its finances. As Glass puts it, “Grove went from being a platform of the New Left to being a symbol of its disintegration” (202).

Counter-Culture Colophon is a fascinating account of the press, and Glass goes well beyond Rosset himself as the center of the story. It weaves together a history of the time through the roles of institutions including booksellers, translators, UNESCO, Universities, and the Courts. Glass shows how hundreds of individuals caught up with the Grove story helped shape the politics and everyday life in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

The story of Grove is really the story of a time when literature mattered hugely in the culture, and when getting access to ideas required immense sums of capital, distribution networks, and the courage to defend the right to read. As Glass so carefully demonstrates, the final revolution at Grove, and the press’s ultimate failure, is ironically a testament to its very success in provoking a critical discussion of sexuality and politics that finally left it behind—perhaps the greatest testament to its real and lasting achievement.