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The Evergreen Review: Populism, Pornography and ‘Vulgar Modernism’

James Baxter, University of Reading

Two years prior to the sensational American release of the unexpurgated Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1959, the Grove Press would publish the first issue of Evergreen Review as a signal of the publisher’s growing backlist of innovative literature. Led by the ‘iron whim’ of Barney Rosset and co-edited by Donald Allen (who would go on to oversee the publication of the seminal 1960 volume The New American Poetry 1945-1960), the review would become an unlikely vehicle in the somewhat awkward transition of American and European modernism into the primarily male subculture of transgressive sexual politics and corporate sponsorship typical of the American sixties.[1] As Loren Glass argues in his quintessential study, Counterculture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde (2013), Grove and Rosset would be responsible for the orchestration of a developing canon of ‘vulgar modernism’ in which hitherto unpublishable modernist curios would be defended for their elite critical cachet, before transitioning into popular and perverse bestsellers. Perhaps more than any individual Grove title, the Evergreen Review—particularly its glossy commercial iteration from 1964—provides an unparalleled glimpse into Rosset’s ‘vulgar’ aesthetic, acting as a melting-pot of erotica, comics, New Left commentary, as well as a venue for counterculture-adjacent late-modernists such as Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Mirroring the format of periodicals such as New Directions Anthology and New World Writing, Evergreen Review would begin life as a quarterly trade paperback, with an initial print run of 3000. Pointing to their comparatively high circulation, Beverly Gross alludes to the populist imperative of the ‘publishers periodicals,’ a special category of little magazine that ‘exist to be marketed.’[2] Thus, Evergreen Review would appear as alongside other ‘quality paperbacks’—including Grove’s line of ‘Evergreen Originals’ and the mass market ‘Black Cat’ imprint—reinforcing the publisher’s brand of popular avant-gardism. Notable for the quality of its writing, issue No. 1 (1957), nonetheless, serves as an exemplary case study in this regard. Opening with a long interview with Jean Paul Sartre, decrying the Soviet Union’s violent intervention in Hungary, the French philosopher’s call for a ‘popular front’ of ‘workers, small business men as well as intellectuals’ (21) prefigures the popular constellation of aesthetic vanguardism and political radicalism that would be celebrated by Grove at the height of its success. Elsewhere, an eclectic mix of writing by Henri Michaux (a formally inventive account of the writer’s experience taking mescaline), James Purdy, an interview with jazz drummer Baby Dodds, as well as early works by Samuel Beckett (Evergreen’s managing editor, Richard Seaver, would uphold Beckett as their ‘North Star’[3]) find the Grove review drawing from both the European tradition of engagé little magazines, as well as the post-war upswell of American avant-gardism: from jazz to the lifestyle revolutions of the early youth movement.

Above all, the inclusion of a long essay by UC Berkeley professor Mark Schorer defending the literary merits of Lady Chatterley’s Lover would bring the review into step with Rosset’s aspirations towards the dismantling of America’s obscenity laws. With the publisher’s desire that Grove and Evergreen complement each other, the review would publish Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ in No. 2’s (1957), in direct response to the obscenity case brought against Ferlinghetti, followed by Judge Frederick vanPelt Bryan’s ‘Court Opinion on the Postal Ban of Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ in No. 9 (Summer, 1959).[4] With the latter trumpeted as a ‘historic’ and ‘an important milestone in the struggle against censorship,’ Rosset would continue to cultivate publicity for the high-profile publication of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1962) as well as William Burroughs’ famously ‘unpublishable’ Naked Lunch (1964). Relying on the elite testimony of literary academics (and in the case of Miller’s novel, a university paper authored by Rosset himself), Grove would also welcome the attention generated by the pariah-status of formerly obscene texts. Caricatured as ‘the old smut peddler’ (29th August, 1969) in a profile for LIFE magazine, this would be immortalised in the front cover for The Saturday Evening Post (January 25th, 1969), depicting Rosset emerging from the sewer, with scattered copies of Evergreen lying about the manhole: the headline reads ‘how Barney Rosset publishes dirty books for fun and profit.’

Bolstered by Rosset’s first amendment absolutism, the Grove Press would undergo a vigorous marketing campaign to position their authors as subversive modernist icons. This would be galvanized by the increasingly popular reinvention of the Evergreen Review: taking on commercial advertising from No. 6 (Autumn, 1958) and changing to a bi-monthly periodical by No. 9. With No. 32 (June-July, 1964)—an issue that would famously be impounded by the District Attorney of Nassau County for its feature of nude photographs by Emil J. Cadoo—the review would transform into a glossy 8½” x 11” magazine, with business manager Fred Jordan promising readers ‘drawings, collages and many beautiful photographs (in colour as well) to add to its new visual excitement’.[5] Regarding Evergreen’s commercial transformation, Eugene Goodheart points to the magazine’s ‘concrete instance of an idea’; resembling Playboy in appearance, ‘one hefts the magazine, flips through the pages, feeling one is enjoying a pleasurable commodity’.[6] Moreover, as Glass argues convincingly, the ‘populist preoccupations’ of authors such as Miller and Burroughs, are symptomatic of the broader reconfiguration taking place in the Grove backlist towards a modernism notable for ‘its vernacular aspirations and for its erotic preoccupations’.[7] For readers of Evergreen, this popular fervour would be translated into the marketing slogan ‘for adults only’ (later to be replaced by the more ubiquitous clarion call to ‘join the underground’). Highlighting the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1959, as well as the introduction of Samuel Beckett for American audiences, the review would offer a blanket invitation to adventurous readers wishing ‘to share in the new freedoms that book and magazine publishers are winning in courts’.[8]

Following the commercialisation of the review, No. 34 (Nov-Dec, 1964) stands as an archetype for Rosset and Grove’s ‘vulgar modernist’ revolution. At once an impressive collection of late-modernist writing, the issue also presages much of the content for which Grove Press and Rosset himself would come under criticism—including further nude photographs by Emil J. Cadoo, calling back to the controversy and censorship of No. 32. Opening the issue, Hubert Selby Jr’s ‘The Queen is Dead,’ anticipates the Grove publication of Last Exit to Brooklyn (advertised in No. 34, alongside new novels by John Rechy, Alain Robbe-Grillet and William Burroughs). While Grove would not be brought to trial, the reputation of Selby Jr’s collection as a ‘dirty book’ would reliably generate attention and enthusiasm.[9] Elsewhere, the inclusion of George Bataille’s novella ‘Madame Edwarda’ (the only Bataille text published by Grove) marks an understudied publication in the dissemination of Bataille’s transgressive erotic fiction; alongside this, the publication of Samuel Beckett’s Play, a purgatorial tale of three tormented lovers, marks what S.E. Gontarski describes as ‘most accurate and complete text of Play available’.[10] However, maybe the most significant item of No. 34 can be found in the debut American publication of Susan Sontag’s seminal ‘Against Interpretation’. As Goodheart writes, Sontag’s essay qualifies as a prime representative of the Evergreen ‘sensibility’.[11] In this sense, Sontag’s call for a ‘erotics of art’ (93), implicitly situates the author as a surprising spokesperson for the otherwise male dominated avant-garde of the Grove magazine. Furthermore, Sontag’s vision of a formal sensuousness in art, the immediacy of which bypasses the hermeneutic function of literary criticism, may account for the many excesses of the Evergreen Review; through Sontag, one finds a textual analogue for Evergreen, in which pornographic visuality and vociferous titillation radically unsettle the boundaries of modernism’s post-war legacies.


Sources

[1] Loren Glass, Counterculture Colophon: Grove Press, Evergreen Review and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde, (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2013), p. 6.

[2] Beverly Gross, ‘Culture and Anarchy: Whatever Happened to Lit Magazines?’ in The Antioch Review, Vol. 29, No. 1, (Spring, 1969), p. 44.

[3] Richard Seaver, The Tender Hour of Twilight, (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux: New York, 2012), p. 432.

[4] ‘I wanted to tie Evergreen Review to Grove Press as much as possible, and it would turn out that the two entities strengthened each other in immeasurable ways.’ Barney Rosset, Rosset: My Life in Publishing and How I Fought Censorship, (O/R: New York, 2016), p. 101.

[5] Loren Glass, Counterculture Colophon: Grove Press, Evergreen Review and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde, (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2013), p. 121.

[6] Eugene Goodheart, ‘Eros, politics and pornography: a decade with Evergreen Review,’ in Pieces of Resistance, (Cambridge University Press: New York, 1987), p. 92.

[7] Loren Glass, Counterculture Colophon: Grove Press, Evergreen Review and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde, (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2013), p. 123.

[8] Quotations taken from a double page advertisement, printed on the inside cover and opposing page of No. 39 (Jan-Feb, 1966)

[9] See Hubert Selby Jr’s interview with S. E. Gontarski: ‘…Time magazine reviewed it and called it “Grove’s dirty book of the month.”’ ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn: An Interview with Hubert Selby,’ in Review of Contemporary Fiction, ‘Grove Press Number,’ Vol X, No. 3 (Fall, 1990), p. 113.

[10] S.E. Gontarski, ‘Beckett’s Play, in extenso,’ in Modern Drama, Vol. 42, No. 3, (Fall 1999), p. 450.

[11] Eugene Goodheart, ‘Eros, politics and pornography: a decade with Evergreen Review,’ in Pieces of Resistance, (Cambridge University Press: New York, 1987), p. 99.

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