January 20, 2012

Publishing’s golden age through the eyes of an industry legend

By Richard Seaver
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The name Richard Seaver may not be widely known outside of publishing, but this champion of cutting-edge literature, who died in 2009, was highly regarded as a purveyor of some of the most important writing of the second half of the 20th century. It began in the 1950s in Paris, where young Seaver went to live cheaply and study as a Fulbright Scholar and ended up consorting with all manner of literati. With some other young Turks, he started the literary magazine Merlin, introducing the English-speaking world to the work of a range of postwar European writers—not least of all, another expatriate by the name of Samuel Beckett. Back in New York in the ‘60s, Seaver worked for Barney Rosset’s daring Grove Press, where he played an important role in the censorship trials over Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s novels, and shepherded the publication of William Burroughs, John Rechy and Henry Selby, among many other wild and original writers.

Seaver’s arresting memoir, The Tender Hour of Twilight, bears the words “publishing’s golden age” in its subtitle, but perhaps “mercurial” would be a more apt adjective to describe the challenges this iconic editor weathered to bring controversial writing to the fore. Proving to be as fine a writer as he was an editor, Seaver recounts many charming anecdotes about his personal and professional lives—which, really, were inextricably linked. Being roused from his sleep by a drunken stranger named Brendan Behan banging on the door of his shabby Paris digs; tracking down the elusive, largely unknown Beckett; battling legal windmills with Rosset; courting a young French woman, Jeannette Medina, who would become his devoted wife and partner-in-literary-crime for over five decades (and editor of this posthumous volume)—Seaver conjures a magical time before publishing became engulfed by corporate interests, when a talented young man with a vision could make his mark.

Full disclosure: I had a passing acquaintance with Seaver when I worked at Holt, Rinehart and Winston under his stewardship, and I remember him as a refined gentleman whose unassuming demeanor belied the fact that he had brought to light some of the most unapologetically raw writing of the age. Like the man, The Tender Hour of Twilight is often self-deprecating and always civilized. It is a paean to a time that can never be replicated, a book that will appeal to anyone who savors  the literary life.


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