January 30, 2014

Strange Victories: Grove Press archives on display

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A collage of Grove titles.

A collage of Grove titles.

Two years after the death of its legendary publisher Barney Rosset (who our publisher Dennis Johnson eulogized here on MobyLives), the archives of Grove Press have been opened up to the public in a new exhibit, “Strange Victories: 1951-1985,” at the Syracuse University Library.

“Strange Victories,” which opened earlier this month, puts on display the varied and incredibly cool archives of Grove, which, during the period in question, was not only a publishing house, but also ran a magazine (The Evergreen Review) and distributed films, including the sexually explicit Swedish hit “I Am Curious (Yellow),” in which—it’s really strange to remember—Martin Luther King, Jr. appeared, playing himself. It also, famously, published the vanguard in literary experimentation and fought a series of censorship trials.

Among the materials on display are correspondence between Rosset and the house’s authors, and lots of first editions: the Syracuse librarians made a short video about the exhibit, which pans over the copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Last Exit to Brooklyn, Naked Lunch, Tropic of Cancer, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Waiting for Godot, and books of the moment like IV-F: A Guide to Draft Exemption.

Rebecca Rego Barry, who visited the show on behalf of Fine Books & Collections, described a highlight:

A beautifully handwritten letter on blue stationery, written by Malcolm X to Alex Haley, his co-writer on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published by the Grove Press in 1965. Malcolm X begins his letter, “I have just completed my pilgrimage (Hajj).”

Susan Kline, project archivist at SUL, also drew attention to the petitions from authors and other individuals who defended Grove during the obscenity trials the press faced (even, you might say, dove headfirst into) during the ’50s and ‘60s.

But perhaps especially interesting are the more ordinary materials, like royalty statements, stock certificates, cover mock-ups, ads, and other office fodder (except for a photo of Rosset and Samuel Beckett hugging—that’s just plain adorable). All publishing houses are the sum of decisions—good, bad, bold, off the wall—and it’s in these papers that you can see some of those decisions being made. They also demonstrate the personalities at work, and the house’s collective personality.

For instance, the marketing taglines on a Grove paperback edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover shown in the video are a kind of confident and expansive claim-staking: they read “This is the Grove Press Edition, The First Unexpurgated Version Ever Published in America” and further down, on a fake sticker, “This and only this is the uncensored edition making today’s headlines.” This and only this? That’s three more words than I’d normally expect on a marketing sticker, and three simultaneously melodramatic, endearing, and effective words at that.

Or the Evergreen Review advert with Allen Ginsberg in a Stars-and-Stripes hat exhorting you to “Come Alive!” and join the Underground Generation, by purchasing copies of the Evergreen Review. It’s a beautiful bit of ’60s typography and photo overlay, but what made the biggest impression on me was the liveliness of the line that would normally read “Look for it wherever magazines are sold.” In this case, it reads “Holler Evergreen at your local newstand.” Grove Press: in other words, the publishing house that encouraged you to yell gnomic phrases at unsuspecting newsagents.

Here’e the exhibit trailer, if for some reason Syracuse in January is not your itinerary:

Strange Victories: Grove Press, 1951-1985 in the Special Collections Research Center at Syracuse University Library from Syracuse University EMC on Vimeo.

Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.

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