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.

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
Life and Style
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Algo-Developer (BDD/TDD, ASP.NET, JavaScript, RX)

£45000 - £69999 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Algo-Develo...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, Apache Mahout, Python,R,AI)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

£50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone