Richard Seaver: Publisher who fought against prudery and censorship

With the death of the celebrated American publisher Richard Seaver, a small literary mystery has been cleared up. In 1965, as editor at Grove Press – the avant garde publisher of everyone from Jack Kerouac to Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, Henry Miller and the Marquis de Sade – Seaver published that minor masterpiece of masochism, Story of O, by the pseudonymous "Pauline Réage" (who was revealed in 1994 to be the French editor and journalist Dominique Aury). Equally secret was the true identity of the translator, the poetically named "Sabine d'Estrée". Now his widow and business partner, Jeanette, has confirmed that Seaver translated this book of bondage from the French, as he did 50 other titles. In 1988 the couple founded the independent publishing house Arcade, whose proud boast was that they had "brought to the North American reading public works by 252 authors from 31 different countries," and in doing so defied provincialism, prudery, censorship and social and literary convention.

Born in Connecticut in 1926, Seaver was educated at the University of North Carolina, taught at a school briefly, then went to Paris on a Fulbright Scholarship in the early 1950s, where he wrote his dissertation on James Joyce. With other literary young people in Paris he founded an English-language quarterly magazine, Merlin, which published early work by Eugène Ionescu and Jean Genet. In 1952, Merlin carried an essay by Seaver praising a then-unknown expatriate Irish novelist and playwright, Samuel Beckett, which said his novels "merit the attention of anyone interested in this century's literature". This essay led to the future Nobel laureate's discovery by his American publisher, Barney Rosset (who had founded Grove Press in 1951), and, later still, to Rosset offering Seaver a job. When, in 1953, Seaver ran excerpts of Beckett's Watt and five Merlin readers cancelled their subscriptions, "we knew we were on the right track." He then tried to have something by Beckett in every number of the magazine.

While living in Paris, Seaver met Jeanette Medina, whom he married in 1953. He served two years in the US Navy before he and his wife went to live in New York – where in 1959 he was hired by Rosset, who said last month that "there was nobody more important" than Seaver at Grove.

Grove had already published the Beat poets, and I still have a fewnumbers of Grove's magazine, Evergreen Review, from which my generation of undergraduates learned about Beckett, Ionescu and Antonin Artaud. Soon after Seaver's arrival, he and Rosset taunted the establishment by publishing the US edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover. There was noformal federal government censorship in America, but the US Post Office declared the book obscene and it became an offence to send it through the mail. Grove went to court, and in 1960 a Federal Court of Appeals ruled on First Amendment grounds that graphic sexual content did not necessarily make a work obscene.

As editor-in-chief at Grove for a dozen years, Seaver was in the vanguard of several First Amendment literary battles. Following the Lady Chatterley victory, Grove published Henry Miller's raunchy, autobiographical Tropic of Cancer. This one went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled it not obscene because it had redeeming social value. Next, Seaver and Rosset gave the world William Burroughs's Naked Lunch, the science-fiction-influenced, semi-hallucinatory ravings of a gay junkie, and in 1966 the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts pronounced Naked Lunch kosher. This was a landmark decision, claimed Frederick Whiting, in his 2006 essay (in Twentieth Century Literature) "Monstrosity on Trial: The Case of Naked Lunch," as "the last instance of complete literary censorship in the US."

"We did almost a yearly bombshell," Seaver said in an interview published in Newsweek on 15 December 2008, just weeks before his death. "Barney loved – I won't say he loved the litigation, but he loved everything that went with it ... It was a very exciting, febrile time," though "we were not totally deaf to commerce." Newsweek reported that "Grove went to court to fight a ban on a Swedish film called I Am Curious (Yellow). The film – today considered unremarkable soft porn – made millions. Newly flush, Grove bought a six-storey building and installed air-conditioning, an executive elevator and a front door in the shape of a G."

In 1970 "Grove began to fall apart. Prompted by the success of Yellow, Rosset, who had always wanted to be a film-maker, bought foreign films as fast as he could find them. 'Barney was buying the entire output of Czechoslovakia, Poland, God knows, whatever,' Seaver said. 'None of them worked. Suddenly, all the money we'd made on Yellow was down the drain'."

In the same year, Rosset sacked some employees who were trying to unionise the firm, but one, Robin Morgan, a feminist activist, organised a sit-in, protesting that Grove "earned millions off the basic theme of humiliating, degrading and dehumanising women." Rosset was "in Denmark buying more films," so Seaver had to be the one to call the police. "We had always thought of ourselves as liberators, we all feltwe were working for a cause instead of a publishing house." This revealedthe cracks in Grove's ethos – it was a male preserve in the end, despiteits stand in favour of sexual freedom. By 1971 Grove was in debt, and in1985 it was sold to Ann Getty and Lord Weidenfeld.

Leaving Grove that year, Seaver went first to Viking, and then in 1979 became publisher of trade books at Holt, Rinehart and Winston, where I met him because his associate, Tom Wallace, published a revised edition of my G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles (1980). They were wonderful to work with. At Arcade, Seaver and his wife carried on the battle for literature, discovering writers such as Ismail Kadare, Amin Maalouf and Tim Parks. In 2004 Seaver joined Arcade as a plaintiff in an action against some US Treasury regulations that prohibited publication of The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature, and his declaration shows him as a serious thinker about the theory and practice of translation.

On the other hand, some obituary remarks (on National Public Radio) by John Irving, one of his authors, describe a late middle-aged (but "bigger and stronger") Seaver indulging Irving in his famous "wrestling room" in Sagaponack, while Jeanette cooked them "superb" meals.

Paul Levy

Richard Woodward Seaver, publisher and translator: born Watertown, Connecticut 31 December 1926; married 1953 Jeanette Medina (two sons, one daughter); died New York 5 January 2009.

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