Syracuse University Magazine

Radical Approach

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During its heyday, Grove Press seemed to blast the status quo into oblivion every chance it had. Under the leadership of the mercurial Barney Rosset from 1951 to 1985, the Greenwich Village-based publishing house made freewheeling forays through its books and independent films into civil rights, the ’60s counterculture, the Black Power movement, leftist politics around the globe, avant-garde theater, foreign literature, and the sexual revolution. Rosset, brilliant to some and a “smut peddler” to others, championed free speech without fear as Grove gained notoriety for its high-profile legal bouts with government censors over the publication of such books as Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer. Grove made a fortune, lost a fortune, withstood protests, and even a bombing. Amid all that, it also worked with a handful of authors who were, or would become, Nobel Laureates.

Today, the Grove archive—complete with first editions, manuscripts, court transcripts, office memos, phone logs, correspondence, business transactions, news clippings, telegrams, art, you name it—resides in the SU Library Special Collections Research Center (SCRC). At an estimated 775 linear feet, it’s considered one of SCRC’s largest—and one of its most significant—collections. “The Grove Press Archive is truly remarkable,” says Sean Quimby, senior director of special collections. “It provides a unique window into the mid-20th century literary scene and documents the profound upheaval of the ’60s and the transformation of American culture.” 

In January, SCRC rolled out some of the collection’s most intriguing holdings for Strange Victories: Grove Press 1951-1985, an exhibition done in collaboration with the yearlong Ray Smith Symposium Positions of Dissent. The exhibition’s title plays off of Rosset’s Strange Victory (1948), a post-World War II film he produced about racial discrimination in America. “Basically, nearly everything Grove did was a struggle,” says Susan M. Kline, Grove Press project archivist. “When they managed to get something published, it was often a victory in some fashion.”

As curators of the exhibition, Kline and Lucy Mulroney, curator of special collections at SCRC, set out to show Grove was much more than a book publisher—it was a change agent in the world of culture and politics with an insatiable curiosity and diversity of interests fueled by a global network of translators, authors, activists, and other literary types. “Your understanding of a particular work can completely change when you get to look at all the correspondence, the work with translators, the publicity,” Mulroney says. 

Both Kline and Mulroney say one of the most revealing aspects of the correspondence is how it reflects Grove’s personal relationships with many authors. Rosset, for instance, had lifelong exchanges with Samuel Beckett and Japanese author Kenzaburo Ōe. In a 1965 handwritten letter, a young Ōe, who would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, tells Rosset about attending a seminar at Harvard, reading Huckleberry Finn and Invisible Man, and meeting author Norman Mailer in Boston. “I was introduced to Mr. Norman Mailer,” Ōe wrote, “but I was a ‘invisible man’ for Mr. Mailer, unfortunately….”  

As part of the exhibition’s opening, four former Grove staffers participated in a panel discussion, sharing their life and times with the publishing house and Rosset, who died in 2012. They cited Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (which sold more than two million copies) and The Autobiography of Malcolm X as the two most seminal books in the Grove catalog. “Publishing [Malcolm X] stands in my mind as a daring act,” said national sales manager Nat Sobel, recalling how Grove acquired author Alex Haley’s manuscript after Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965. They also recounted the tale of Rosset and editor Fred Jordan journeying to Bolivia to gather pages of Che Guevara’s diary after the revolutionary had been assassinated there in 1967. “We got a message to go to the small town of Cochabamba and find the manuscript,” Jordan said. “I got some pages there and put them in my satchel.” Those pages were translated and excerpted in the August 1968 issue of Grove’s literary magazine, Evergreen Review, which included a photo of Guevara’s corpse. In February 1968, Evergreen had published a tribute issue to Guevara, featuring a cover portrait by artist Paul Davis, which would become the iconic image of Guevara that endures today. But back then, after Grove turned the image into posters and plastered them around New York City bus and subway stations, an anti-Castro group launched a rocket into the Grove offices, fortunately in the middle of the night when no one was there. Never a dull moment. “When Barney wanted to publish something, making money was not even in the equation,” said Claudia Menza, an Evergreen editor. “Publishing was the equation. Whether he had the money or didn’t have the money, getting the work out there was what he was there to do, and nothing was going to stop him.” 

—Jay Cox







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