The first time I really made note of the Grove Press imprint was the spring of 1998. I was most of the way through my freshman year of college, and it wasn’t exactly going well. Not that my grades weren’t good, but I was essentially lost and without direction. In high school in the suburbs of Portland, Ore., I fancied myself an intellectual and a writer. I owned a copy of Sonic Youth’s Jet Set, Trash and No Star, which I used to convince myself I was a cut above the other grunge/skater kids who dug alternative rock. I worked for the school lit mag, and we convinced ourselves we were being subversive by titling it the Grrrowl, because Riot Grrrl. Really, I’d read Camus’s The Stranger and Kurt Vonnegut, and was convinced I knew all about literature. I felt disaffected, so I affected being an existentialist, which was a philosophy I didn’t really understand but sure sounded cool. I assumed that since I had real family drama in my past, I was somehow more legitimate or authentic than others.
I thought I was a writer, but I didn’t know anything about literature. I thought I was an artsy intellectual, but I preferred the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream to Sonic Youth, who, truth be told, seemed just like noise to me. And I did theater, which I also considered myself quite intellectual about, but I didn’t know anything about theater. I sneered privately at doing a stage version of Fame, in which I was cast as the gay kid, which I thought was kind of cool, except that for a play about the hard-hitting issues facing a group of young people in the arts, homosexuality was too hard hitting so (I kid you not) my character’s personal issue was recast as him being a eunuch. Which is why he doesn’t try to sleep with the Barbara Streisand-loving female lead. Because he has no balls, so why would he be attracted to girls?
Actually, I’ll give myself some intellectual credit for finding that stupid and ridiculous. But only so much. I actually only started doing theater in the first place because I wanted to impress a girl. And as for my theatrical intellectualism, it mostly extended to having heard about Rent before most of my show-tunes-loving fellow theater people, and you know I just knew it was cooler than Rogers and Hammerstein.
The long and the short of it was that, like most angsty suburban kids, I was incredibly self-centered and narcissistic. While it may be true that I had a bit more serious drama in my background, by the time I had morphed into this person, who wore tattered jeans, too much flannel, and alternated an ironic Spam-branded baseball cap with a Rastafarian cap I bought at the downtown Saturday Market, I was a complete poseur.
So when it came time to go to college, it was something of a wake-up call. My family was not entirely supportive (unsurprisingly) of me pursuing an education in the arts, which was all I cared about. And despite my self-centeredness, there was a creeping realization that maybe I was kind of full of it. I half-heartedly applied to Sarah Lawrence and Bard, because I vaguely thought they seemed cool. But I wasn’t accepted. My grades weren’t there, and my accomplishments outside of class were pretty minimal. I had been involved with some accomplished extra-curricular political science stuff, and the head of the political science department at a private college in Portland actually strongly suggested he could help get me a scholarship, but I was too in love with the idea of myself as an artsy intellectual to give it much thought. Instead, I settled for the path of least resistance: Several of the theater kids I knew were planning on heading to Southern Oregon University in Ashland, a few miles north of the California border. Ashland was home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which produced very high quality regional theater during their months-long summer season. SOU had no official link to the festival, but proximity alone seemed promising, and as I found out later, SOU’s theater program was actually quite good for preparing you for a professional career. Their BA is about as good as most schools’ BFA, and their BFA program was as challenging to get into as any private school’s. Few people were accepted, and the year I finally went, one of the eight students accepted had transferred from Julliard.
But I say “later” on purpose. I applied late to SOU, as the clock was ticking down on my senior year of high school. That summer I worked a construction job arranged by my uncle that paid ridiculously well for an eighteen-year-old. I was working six ten-hour days a week (at union pre-apprentice scale, with overtime), and otherwise spending my time with my still in high school girlfriend. As August rolled around, I half-heartedly decided to try to stick it out with her and dropped out of SOU. Instead I enrolled at the local community college. Needless to say our relationship didn’t last past her first week of school, and I found myself feeling lost and directionless as I started college. I would say it was a mistake made for love, but it wasn’t love. It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t go to college, but I really had no idea what I wanted to do. I was lost and directionless, stumbling awkwardly into adulthood. I had no idea what I was doing.
September found me in a sorry state. I was going to community college, which felt like failure. I was single, which made me feel incredibly lonely. I was living at home, when most of my friends were off in dorms, living on their own for the first time. I was utterly lost. My best friend from high school, who lived only a few doors down from me in the same cul-de-sac, was in the same boat. At night, I’d head over to his house. This was 1997, just before everyone had cell phones. After ten o’clock it was too late to call the house, so for lack of a better way to communicate, I’d walk across the front yard to one of the tiny windows to his basement bedroom, and tap the glass with my foot. He always claimed I scared the shit out of him when, a couple minutes later, he opened the front door, and led me, whispering, down the stairs, through the family room in the daylight basement, and into his large, isolated bedroom. He had his own TV, and maybe a bean-bag chair. In one corner was an In Utero-era cardboard cut-out of Nirvana he’d somehow acquired from a record store. Being too ironic for his own good, he’d taped up a picture of Ernest Borgnine’s face over Kurt Cobain’s, and his own father’s headshot (his dad, between jobs, had briefly pursued a career as an actor after scoring his SAG-card by accident during the filming of Mr. Holland’s Opus) replaced Dave Grohl. Over his bed hung a massive stadium-sized reproduction of the cover of the Clash’s London Calling cover, that I bought him for his birthday that year.
He was a writer, I was a writer, so naturally when together, we’d sit around watching TV. We both had an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture—mine paling in comparison to his, but still. We’d religiously watch re-runs on Nick at Night. Later that year, as I recall, Pop Up Video premiered, which was a source of endless fascination. On Sundays, we religiously watched Matt Pinfield on 120 Minutes, which we agreed was the best show on MTV. Over that year, Alternative Nation, the weeknight show featuring Billboard’s Modern Rock Chart toppers, evolved into a showcase for late-90s techno-craze, which we differed on substantially. He liked the Prodigy, I didn’t, and we both lamented that the heyday of Alternative rock was passing us by. Indeed, by ’98, we agreed that ’97 was a banner year, with the release of Beck’s Odelay and Radiohead’s OK Computer.
By October of 1997, I needed to get a job—it was one of my family’s requirements if I lived at home—and I lucked out when the strip-mall Barnes & Noble near my house hired me as a seasonal temp, a job that morphed into a permanent position. In fact, Barnes and Noble employed me at Christmas and during the summer until I was 21. But that year, my freshman year, I worked there for almost twelve months straight. At the time, it was still a semi-respectable job. Corporate dress policy rules required you wear a button-down, slacks, and a tie. Being a bookseller still seemed a respectable enough job. Until the launch of BN.com a year or two later, we were still rewarded for knowing the stock and helping connect customers to it. I had regulars who’d come in, asking for my help with finding books in any section. I got to know way more than anyone should about Self-Help, grew accustomed to retrieving the never-sold-and-increasingly-gross copies of Letters to Penthouse from the men’s room, and countless other sundry tasks of the bookseller. It didn’t pay great, but as far as minimum-wage jobs went, it was a good job.
As the fall wore on, I settled into a pattern. In the mornings, I’d get up, climb in my 1979 Datsun 210 hatchback (my first car), and drive up 185th Avenue a mile and some to where the local branch of Portland Community College was. I’d go to class, stop by the student union to study and do homework, then, in the early afternoon, after class was done, my friend from down the street (Brian) and our friend Marie—who we knew from high school but had never been too close to before—would head to the Shari’s Restaurant in the midst of the strip mall center of our little slice of Portland’s west-side suburbs. Shari’s was a chain of 24-hour family-style diners, most notable for being the place under-21s could go and sit around smoking until God knows what time of night. But in ’97, it was an excuse to meet up, talk about class or music or whatever, and then go on with our days. More often than not, afterward I’d head home, do a little more homework, then head off to work at Barnes and Noble. Given my student’s schedule, more often than not I closed the store, and around 11:30 or midnight, whenever I got out, I’d head home, park my car, let me my family know I was fine (another requirement of living under their roof) and then head down the block to Brian’s, to sit up into the late hours of the night, watching TV, talking about pop culture, doing our best to connect every alt-rock band, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon-style, to the Pixies, and whatever the hell else we did to while away the hours.
The real upside was that, working at Barnes and Noble, I started reading. Earnestly, and for the first time. Instead of just writing whatever crap I was writing—symbolism-laden, sentimental emo crap, most of which I can’t even make sense of anymore when I pull the yellowing copies, printed on dot-matrix paper, out of the old file folder I still carry around—I started reading, paying attention, asking questions. I won’t defend my taste or my thoughts on the work I responded to, but it was an opening of myself to the world in a way that’s made me the person I am now.
It really began maybe six or eight weeks before I got my job at Barnes & Noble. My soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend and I had swung by the attached Starbucks coffee (I still remember her ordering her “Grande, low-fat, no-whip, extra-hot with a dash of vanilla latte”), and I wanted to go into Barnes & Noble after we got our drinks. There was a book I’d been meaning to pick up since the spring, but hadn’t gotten around to because I was more interested in spending my evenings heading over to (I kid you not) the Dawson Creek green-park, a long stretch of riparian lawns that were publicly accessible by following the snaking private roads granting access to the Portland west-side’s burgeoning series of tech farms. In the no-man’s-land between the private security responsible for keeping us out of the fly-by-night offices of soon to be bankrupt dot-coms, and the truly public areas policed by actual cops, we’d park the car, find a secluded spot away from view of the road, and make-out like mad.
Anyway, there was a book I’d been meaning to buy since the spring, since I was still in high school. My senior year, I took AP English. I did quite well on the test, but the irony of the advanced placement course was that after the test, which took place a few months before the end of the school year, the class was essentially pointless. It was literally a test prep class, so once we were done, our teacher—a remarkably intelligent and crush-worthy strawberry blonde, provocatively named Mrs. Robinson—was left with nothing to do but ask us to do a “senior project” to use up our remaining time. It was a collaborative project, and I partnered with a hippie in my class whose name I sadly don’t recall. Anyway, us both being “alternative” and rebellious and whatnot, we decided to some piss-poor cultural anthropology project, the point of which was to compare Woodstock and Lollapalooza for their respectively equivalent selling-out and commercialization of their respective generations’ angst.
I honestly only recalled that abysmal piece of self-satisfied, half-assed scholasticism when I had to write this section you’re reading now. I’m sure the project was shallow and awful. Point is, while doing it, I came across an interesting tidbit I hadn’t known before: the term “Generation X,” which I proudly counted myself a member of by the slim-est of margins (having been born in 1979), came from a novel. By a guy name Douglas Coupland.
So back in May of 1997 I made a mental note to check out the book, which I didn’t follow up on until I no longer had sufficient occasion to spend my evenings finger-banging my 16-year-old girlfriend. So, as our relationship grew cold as she re-entered the world of high school and I failed to evolve into a more meaningful adult, I had no choice but to start reading. So I bought a copy of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X. Which sat, unread, until a few weeks later when we broke up.
The first few months at Barnes and Noble, I spent my time devouring Coupland’s opus—Shampoo Planet, Life After God, Mircroserfs—which I found fairly compelling and for some time thereafter claimed were my favorite books. Armed with my employee discount, I also pursued my ongoing infatuation with Existentialism. I read Camus’s other novels, The Plague and The Fall, and then went into his plays. Yes, I read Camus’s Caligula and tried to convince myself I liked it. I also dabbled in Sartre. After I read Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, I went on to Sartre’s more serious-sounding Existentialism is Humanism and, for some reason, Anti-Semite and Jew, which, I have to admit, is the one that stuck with me and I still reference. I tried Nausea, in the black-and-white New Directions paperback that seems sloppily designed, with Alvin Lustig’s collage-esque two-tone cover. I never made it through it. And like Camus, I discovered Sartre also wrote plays, and promptly bought the collection with No Exit in it, which, even though I still didn’t really understand Existentialism, struck me as almost pedagogically didactic. I did my best to convince myself I liked it, and that year I went to see a local theater company—the Imago Theater, founded by a pair of highly trained Lecoqian artists—produce their version of it, which was, performance- and scenography-wise, a watershed piece for me, but that’s another story.
Simone de Beauvoir was also on my radar, but I really didn’t read her for another two years, until I arrived at the University of Oregon. Which is maybe a shame, and maybe not; I probably wasn’t ready to realize she was the best of the post-war French Existentialists. But that, too, is another story.
The point is, I floundered about with my Existentialists and my Coupland and a couple more Vonneguts (I added Cat’s Cradle to the library otherwise consisting of Slaughterhouse Five and Welcome to the Monkeyhouse, then, half-way through Breakfast of Champions realized I got the shtick and quit) for the first half of the year. Then one payday at work (when I spent too much of my paycheck on books), I picked up a copy of Waiting for Godot.
The story of why is vague and uninteresting, for all that it eventually came to mean for me. I was taking a world literature course at the community college (it was literally English 101, 102, 103) with a surprisingly smart and not-burnt professor, a graduate of Portland’s uber-progressive Reed College, whose classes were slowly opening my eyes. She got me to read Toni Morrison for the first time, one of several things I thank her for, but one day she made an off-hand comment about post-war literature about “the failure of communication,” like the theater of the absurd, like Samuel Beckett.
Well, I was a wannabe intellectual writer, and I liked theater. Beckett wasn’t actually on the syllabus, nor was he included in our Norton anthology (that I recall, or perhaps Endgame was but I wasn’t going to read a textbook for fun), but one day, I went to work and picked up a copy of Waiting for Godot, got my employee discount 20% off, and took it home.
If I recall correctly, I read it on a lazy Sunday. I finished it, and was transfixed. I read it again. Then I called Brian down the street and told him, “I just read this play, and you have to read it. This is what made Christopher Durang and David Ives possible.”
You have to understand, we were still mainly in a high school mindset. Sure, we’d read some Shakespeare, and had Ibsen and Chekhov shoved down our throats, but for subversive minded young theater people who knew nothing else, Christopher Durang and David Ives were where it was at. Ives was great for sheer wit—we had no idea who the fuck Phillip Glass was, but everyone loved doing Phillip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread. I loved The Philadelphia most of all Ives’s plays, even though I didn’t live on the east coast, and didn’t entirely get its concept of waking up in a “Philadelphia,” a psychic space in which you get the most absurd things, but not the basic things you want.
And Durang? He was a god. The Nature and Purpose of the Universe, with its satire of proper suburban values and witty dialogue was the sine qua non of epater le bourgeoisie art for us (a pair of terms I doubt we knew, NB).
But of course, both writers pale against Beckett, to whom they both owe a huge amount. Ives and Durang are winkingly subversive in commercial theater; Beckett was the real deal. It was the first time I understood what the hell the avant-garde was supposed to be about. It was the most empowering thing I have ever read. Six months later, I was a theater arts student at Southern Oregon University, and Beckett was why. My family didn’t have to understand; I wasn’t worried about it. I understood. Beckett taught me art was capable of something greater than I’d understood before—and that theater could do something distinct from film, distinct from a novel, distinct from a poem or a painting or an installation. Beckett opened the door, and he’s been opening the door ever since.
But that, too, is a slightly different story. The story here is about a tangible object, about how my response to that book—the physical, mass-produced thing itself—opened up a world for me that I’ve been dealing with ever since.
The copy of Godot I bought was the common copy available in the Nineties. It was blue, and the title was in a bubbly, sans-serif typeface with the letters slightly over-lapping one another, borrowed—I believe—from the iconic Eighties production of the play, starring Robin Williams and Steve Martin and directed by Mike Nichols, which went up at Lincoln Center. Soon thereafter, Grove Press would replace this edition—hundreds of copies of which can be found on the shelves of any used bookstore around the country—with a uniform, stylized design edition that comported with the company’s standardization of Beckett’s work in the late Nineties. There were lots of lines crossing the covers, and a uniform, harsh font for the spine and covers, so that Beckett’s work could be a “library” of matching editions. Before they even completed it, they switched to a new design concept, the one you can find today: bi-colored spines, simple minimalist covers, and solid, Helvetica-esque uniform fonts.
But again, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Waiting for Godot was the first time I noticed Grove Press, who published the book. It was the first time I noticed the colophon—the little publisher’s symbol at the bottom of the spine. I didn’t get what it was at the time. When I encountered Grove, it was through the contemporary colophon, a sort of stick figure in angled relief, to give it depth. A single vertical line, with two upwardly extended lines at an angle starting halfway up. It looks like an excited stick-figure person with extended arms, making the “Y” from the YMCA dance. But cast in relief, as though we’re looking at the stick figure angled to the figure’s left; it has depth, but no width. It was only later, when I started encountering Grove Press books in used bookstores, and saw the original Sixties colophon, and the designation of “Evergreen Paperback” that I understood it was a stylized tree, and made the connection between “tree” and “grove.” But again I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’m not the first person to note that I encountered literature through impulsively picking up books with the Grove Press colophon. But it is true. After I read Godot, I immediately went to Endgame and the association was born. It helped that I also wanted to like the Beats. Christmas ’96 my brother-in-law saw fit to buy me a copy of On the Road as a gift. Because much like Existentialists, I thought “Beatniks” were cool, because I didn’t know the difference between “Beat” and “Beatnik.” I knew nothing, and I didn’t like On the Road, a book I still have never finished.
But I knew something about the Beats, that Kerouac and Ginsberg and Burroughs were a trio who collectively did something. So once I had the Grove colophon in mind, and saw it on the spine of Naked Lunch, I bought a copy. And I loved it. To this day, I think Burroughs was the best of them—that, in fact, he had nothing much in common with Kerouac or Ginsberg, whose work I also never really liked. And the Grove colophon inspired me to buy, as my second Kerouac book, The Subterraneans, which, though I’m only a spotty Kerouac reader, contains at least a dozen examples of Kerouac putting most other American novelists to shame.
But I’m almost getting ahead of myself. At first, the Grove colophon mostly occupied me in the theater section of Barnes and Noble. I quickly found Eugene Ionesco, and started reading his plays, which were then available in four separate, matching Grove Press editions. Ionesco never really captivated me as a playwright—The Chairs and The Bald Soprano are pretty thin stuff compared to Krapp’s Last Tape—but it was Ionesco who really introduced me to the term “the theater of the absurd,” and that was where my little romance with a logo took another term.
I got the name Martin Esslin from the pull quotes on the back of an Ionesco edition, and some Yahoo-ing (I suspect, this being pre-Google) revealed Esslin’s The Theater of the Absurd. At this point, though, I was spending too much on books at Barnes and Noble, so as summer 1998 rolled around, I started heading to downtown Portland with my paycheck.
Powell’s Books in downtown Portland is justifiably world famous. It claims to be the biggest bookstore in the world (a claim Amazon.com, who I later worked for and which has no actual physical presence, also slyly claimed), and I believe it. New Yorkers who idealize the Strand know nothing. The Strand is, at best, a pathetic shadow of Powell’s. The Strand trades in remaindered copies of books. Its selection sucks. Even basic if somewhat obscure classics are not on hand. Powell’s, in comparison, is brilliantly curated: it has an exhaustive selection of used, remaindered, and new books. It has just about everything. And that’s where I really dived deep.
In 1998, Powell’s was undergoing a renovation. For years, it had been a musty used bookstore occupying an entire block in Portland’s west-side downtown at 10th Avenue and Burnside, the major thoroughfare that, on the west-side of the Willamette River, divides the north and south ends of the city. When I was young, the west side was still a fairly dingy area. There was a BDSM sex shop called Spartacus across the street from Powell’s, on a triangular block formed by the grid pattern of the city angling to the west on the south side of Burnside. A couple blocks southwest was what came to be known later as the “Gay Triangle,” Portland’s ‘80s and ‘90s gay district, a sad block or two of bars and nightclubs between Burnside and Stark Street. When I was in college, before we were of drinking age, my friends and I frequently went down to this tiny district to go to a place called the Roxy, a 24-hour diner where we could sit around drinking bottomless cups of coffee and chain smoking along with Portland’s hookers and queens. It was a beautiful, happy place, half a block from the Joyce Hotel, the only hotel I’ve seen in my adult life that publicly advertised hourly rates.
Good God, I keep getting dragged off topic! The Portland of my late teen years was already being radically transformed from the city of my youth. I’m writing about Powell’s Books in the late 1990s, as it was being renovated. (The reason I mention this is that, briefly, certain sections, including the theater section, were located in a space across the street from the same store.) But where the hell was Powell’s Books?
Today it’s in a neighborhood widely known across the country as the “Pearl District.” But in 1998, there was no Pearl District. On the west side of the river, north of Burnside, the closer you got to the river was closer to what we all sort of called “Chinatown.” But “Chinatown” when I was young wasn’t much of a Chinatown—it mostly consisted of a traditional Chinese gate where 4th Avenue crossed Burnside, with the next storefront clearly labelled “Adult Bookstore.” In neon lights.
Around 8th Street are the north-side park blocks, a strip of greenspace that, when I was young, was overrun with junkies, homeless Vietnam vets, and the expelled mentally ill of Dammasch State Hospital, the Salem, Oregon sanitarium that was closed in 1995, made famous in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And east of the park blocks—the area between 9th Avenue and I-405, a trenched out highway the slashes north through the city just past 14th Avenue–were blocks and blocks of industrial space. Warehouses, essentially, stretching north up towards the train station, a decrepit building overrun with junkies and hobos in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Gentrification happened fast. When I started college in ’97, this stretch of Portland was already an artist haven. But by ’98, when I started doing First Thursday Art Walks, it was already overrun with kitschy functional art that appealed more to bourgeois commercial tastes than a supposedly independent artistic aesthetic. Today, it’s nothing but fake loft apartments (many of the warehouses were torn down and replaced with buildings aping NYC’s Lower East Side). And brewpubs serving craft beers to yuppies. Craft brewing, which exploded in my homeland of the Pacific Northwest, mostly was a matter of burly dudes from blue color backgrounds concluding that they could do better than MGD in their own garages. And that’s exactly what they did. When Jonathan Larson penned the songs for rent, he included an homage to “hand crafted beers made in microbreweries” in his paean to East Village bohemia, “La Vie Boheme.” Today in New York, where bars in Manhattan charge $7 or $8 a pint for such brew, the hipsters have helped make PBR—the lowest of the low, when I was in college—the only domestic beer in the US with annual growth.
But the existence of the Pearl District is just one of the many signs of the massive wave of development that’s transformed the city of my youth. Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, filmed around the city in 1989, is time capsule of the city I remember from my childhood. The opening scenes, where the crew led by Matt Dillon’s character rob a drugstore, took place in downtown only a few blocks from where my grandfather worked in the Pittock Building in downtown. The house Dillon’s character’s mother lives in—a tiny rectangular block of a house built after the Second World War, separated from its cookie-cutter neighbors by a long-slung cyclone fence—is in the same neighborhood my great-grandmother lived in until she was moved to a home following a stroke. Whenever I catch that movie on TV, it makes me weepy.
The blue-collar, working class city of my youth is gone. In some ways, it’s good. Portland is widely recognized as one of the greenest cities in the world. But it only achieved that through a relentless de-industrialization of the city, on the one hand pushing the few jobs remaining in that sector north in Vancouver, Washington and beyond, where they continue the same old rapacious rate of pollution and environmental destruction, and on the other, pushing out the working class families who’d previously called the city home, as once decrepit old houses in the tiny urban core became sought after residences for newly wealthy white-collar workers, whose salaries were paid by the corporations buying up farmland on the periphery of the city. Hence the bizarre mechanism of Portland’s mass transit infrastructure: the MAX light rail, a truly innovative transit solution, was built more to facilitate the commutes of workers from the city to the outskirts (at least on the west-side line) than the reverse. The amount of time and effort it takes to commute from the house I lived in in high school to the city has dramatically increased since I was a teenager. It used to be a direct express bus that shot down Sunset Highway. Today it requires travelling several more miles to where 185th Street crosses the MAX line, then taking a local train.
But I’m ahead of myself. In 1998, particularly over the summer when I wasn’t taking class, I spent a lot of time at Powell’s, a massive bookstore with a huge collection of fiction and plays. And used copies were cheaper. That’s when I became acquainted with Roy Kuhlman’s iconic covers for Grove books from the Fifties and Sixties.
But now we’re on a different story altogether. These days the story of Grove Press is easily enough discovered: in 2013, Loren Glass published his landmark historical survey Counterculture Colophon, a fairly obsessive study, and in 2007 the documentary Obscene, about Barney Rosset’s lengthy career challenging censorship was released. But in the late 1990s, it was a scattershot process. I remember the interstitial essays, tracking the company’s fortunes by the decade, in Grove Press’s 50th anniversary anthology, which I scored a free copy of in 2001 through Barnes and Noble, was instrumental. As were some other books I came across later—Samuel Beckett’s various biographies, most notably Damned to Fame, and James Campbell’s Paris Interzone, a recounting of the experience of Africa-American expatriate artists in Paris in the post-war period. But in 1998, I knew virtually nothing.
The story basically runs like this: in 1953, a guy named Barney Rosset, who was the scion of a Chicago banking fortune, bought a tiny boutique publishing house called Grove Press, with all of three titles in its catalogue. The company was so named because of its original address, on Grove Street in the West Village. Rosset was an idealist, leftist in attitude if somewhat lacking in militancy, and concerned about social issues in the US. After the war, his first effort was producing a documentary about the double-handed treatment of African Americans in the US military during the war.
At Grove Press he quickly set about publishing the sort of books he thought were important: namely, long-banned works like D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic cycle, none of which had been published in unexpurgated editions in the US at that point, and wouldn’t be for some years.
In practice, the only way to get the books in English was in Paris, where a second-generation publisher named Maurice Girodias was doing brisk trade in publishing English language books that were unavailable in English-speaking countries. From his father, Girodias had inherited an affinity for the likes of Miller and other stalwarts of pre-war Modernism, but having more business sense, Girodias relied on a variety of erotic and pornographic titles, published under the euphemistic imprint of “Travelers Companions,” to keep up a flashy lifestyle. Rosset encountered Girodias seeking out Miller, whose work had animated Rosset since his student days. But Girodias proved useful in a far different way: It was Girodias who put them in contact with the crew around the Paris based English language lit mag Merlin.
Merlin was the brain-child of Alexander Trocchi, a Scottish…well, he was a writer, but that doesn’t cover the half of it. Trocchi, perhaps more than anyone in post-war period, truly embraced the notion of what it meant to be a bohemian. Films like Kill Your Darlings occasionally remind us of just how outside the bounds of society bohemian artists could really be. The core of the Beats had not just one slaying on their hands, but two: Lucien Carr’s killing of David Kammerer, and William S. Burroughs’s drug- and alcohol-induced “accidental” killing of his second wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City in 1951.
Trocchi was no different. In the early ‘50s, he was pushing his monied English girlfriend to support an ambitious lit mag meant to highlight the things he and his friends cared about. Later he’d spiral down with drug addiction, recounted in the Story of Young Adam, before resurfacing as a leading America-based exponent of the Situationist International in the ‘60s. But the important part of the story has fairly little to do with that, or Trocchi himself, in fact.
In Paris in the early ‘50s, Trocchi gathered a like-minded bunch of folk around him to launch Merlin. Among them was Richard Seaver, an American grad student finishing his thesis abroad. One day, passing the offices of Editions du Minuit, the French publisher that emerged from the Resistance underground (bankrolled by the success of The Silence of the Sea), whose front window featured a pair of novels published by an Irishman writing in French: Samuel Beckett’s Molloy and Malone Meurt, the first two parts of what became, with L’Innomable shortly thereafter, the famous prose trilogy. Seaver bought copies, read them, and—sufficiently impressed—wrote to the semi-reclusive author more than twenty years his senior. As the story goes, one day a man stopped by Merlin’s offices, in a former banana warehouse, and dropped off a manuscript. The man, the youngsters realized after the fact, was Beckett himself, and the manuscript was his last work, as yet unpublished, written in his native tongue: Watt.
Stories recount the crew staying up late into the night, taking turns reading the manuscript out loud and laughing maniacally. (It is very funny.) They then decided this Beckett fellow might be the future, and turned to Girodias for money to help publish a Merlin-imprinted edition of the novel. Girodias was game, more or less, particularly since the crew around Merlin were ready contributors (under pen names, of course) to his porno “Travellers Companion” series, which always needed fluent English speakers to turn out purple prose. And Merlin crowd also featured a young Englishman named Austryn Wainhouse, who was busily translating the entire oeuvre of the Marquis de Sade into English.
Rosset made good use of the hook-up. Seaver was soon to return to New York, where he’d spend the next couple decades as a lead acquisitions editor for Grove, responsible for introducing most of the post-war French literary scene to America. His contributions included not just Beckett but Jean Genet, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, and countless others of slightly less note.
In the US, Rosset made the acquaintance of a reputedly quiet and reserved fellow named Don Allen, who was mainly into poetry. Publishing poetry wasn’t much more profitable then than now, but Allen was instrumental in connecting Grove to the explosion of experimental writing in the US, particularly on the west coast. Linking up with Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights in San Francisco, Grove became a major publisher of the Beats and the Black Mountain Poets. Through their literary magazine The Evergreen Review, Grove brought (in expurgated form) Allen Ginsberg’s Howl into print (the heavy lifting of publishing the controversial unexpurgated version fell to Ferlinghetti). Kerouac followed Ginsberg, and together they brought Burroughs, who, by the late ‘50s was in sorry state in Tangiers, fully enthralled in heroin addiction, alone save for various rent-boys, and on the verge of being kicked out of yet another country.
Naked Lunch was actually the third and last of Grove’s epic anti-censorship campaigns. The first was publishing Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s in unexpurgated form. The trial nearly bankrupted them, so Rosset reputedly decided to go for broke and publish two novels that would meet similar challenges: First was Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, which, unlike Tropic of Cancer, had never, even edited, appeared in English. The trial was epic and costly and eventually won by Grove in 1961. (It is not, however, the basis for the “Miller Test,” despite the occasional claim to the contrary; the Miller Test, which established the tri-fold criteria of prurient interest, violation of community standards, and lack of academic value as the basis for legal suppression, involved a pornographer named Miller.) Hot on the heels of Tropic of Capricorn, in 1962 Grove released Burroughs’s Naked Lunch.
A sort of satire of capitalism and controlling apparatuses through the lens and frame of drug-addiction (if you can make that much sense of it), Naked Lunch was a discordant, seemingly randomly assembled text filled with transgressive homosexual and pedophilic sex, a nightmare dystopia written in the argot of a junkie. It was a shot across the bow of the sinking ship of legal censorship in the United States, and another costly series of trials later, Grove and Rosset had both succeeded in dismantling the last vestiges of legal repressive censorship in the US as well as producing a couple unlikely cause celebre bestsellers.
The ‘60s were Grove’s heyday. With a steady roll of avant-garde European literature to publish, an explosion of experimental playwriting on both continents, the support of UNESCO in bringing foreign literary traditions to the US, and an explosion of radical theory, Grove was doing well enough. They published the works of Franz Fanon and other anti-colonial activist; a perennial bestseller later in the decade was Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X. Queer literature became a mainstay of the catalogue, led by John Rechy’s City of Night.
This was the world I dove into at Powell’s. Searching out that colophon—in the old editions just a straight on stick-figure minimalist representation of a tree—I came across countless writers.
The big thing I discovered was Grove’s Nine Plays of the Modern Theater, a collection edited by Harold Clurman, one of the co-founders of the influential Group Theatre in the 1930s, and later the long-time theater critic of The Nation. Clurman’s anthology was a revelation. It featured Beckett, Ionesco, and Genet, along with Friedrich Durrenmatt, Bertolt Brecht, David Mamet, and Slawomir Mrozek.
Mind you, I never owned a copy myself. I bought at least a half-dozen as gifts over the years, for friends outside of the theater who I wanted to “get” what I was into. But I took note of the names and, in the used copy stacks at Powell’s, picked up used copies of each writer’s oeuvre.
It’s true, I didn’t know who David Mamet was until I saw that collection. American Buffalo struck me, even at the time, as so much affectation, and after suffering through the film of Glengarry Glen Ross I decided I didn’t care for Mamet in the least, which was to lead, later, to no amount of conflict with my fellow theater students. Durrenmatt was all right but didn’t really catch my fancy. But Mrozek? Oh hell yes.
Tango was the text included in the Grove anthology, and I quickly procured a copy at Powell’s of the original published script.
But here again, ahead of myself!
Let’s go back to the summer of 1998. I was down at Powell’s every two weeks to buy books. My nightstand was a stack of books: Beckett’s prose (since I was done with the plays), Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, Genet’s The Balcony, The Blacks, and The Screens, and Duras’s Four Novels, which I bought because Grove published it and they didn’t publish The Lover.
Can you imagine the mind-fuck that was? That summer I started reading in earnest, and by the end of the summer I was in Ashland at SOU, finally, with a solid box of books I lugged with me. A collection of Vaclav Havel’s plays (Grove edition) was one of the to-be-read pieces, I recall.
When I went to SOU, I lucked out and scored a room in Suzanne Holmes. Holmes was the oldest dorm on campus, a beautiful Victorian building consisting of two three-story wings, with each floor alternating sex. I had a roommate, a frat-y seeming dude from Minnesota’s nether regions. He’d played high school football and was a nice enough guy, but he and I had nothing in common. I once came in on him seemingly intimate with a girl and politely excused myself, only to have his friend from a couple doors down—with whom he’d shortly move in, leaving me the room to myself—to tell me I had to go in because he wanted to get rid of the chick, who he didn’t like.
Once he was gone, I was in heaven. Unlike most dorm rooms (in my experience), Suzanne Holmes didn’t have built-ins. Instead, the bed, the wardrobe, the shelves were all free-standing. Once my roomie left, housing services removed them. For only a couple hundred more a term, I was on my own, in a spacious room. I bought an arm-chair from the local Salvation Army, and a hideous 1970s vintage lamp. The base, which consisted of yellow glass that seemed to bubbled into boils, enclosing a trio of “candle-style” lights) was attached to a yellowing lampshade that couldn’t be removed due to a stripped screw. I loved it. With my extra space, I created a little reading nook. I’d started smoking, and the armchair’s arms each ended in an exposed-wood nub, perfect place to set something.
You could still smoke in dorm rooms back then, to one arm would end with the ashtray. The other would be my coffee cup. Before college, I was a mocha drinker—sweet coffee drinks, basically. But my family sent me off with a coffeepot and a couple bags of Starbucks French Roast that I lived on. On weekend mornings, I’d wake up, hung-over, put a pot of coffee on, open the door to my room, and sit down in my chair, with my reading lamp on, and watch the walk of shame file past in the hallway.
I went to college with only a handful of books. Christmas break 1998 I went home, worked a few weeks at Barnes and Noble, and blew most of what I made at Powell’s. It was after I got back that I had a copy of Antonin Artaud’s The Theater of Cruelty, which made me, I’m sure, even more insufferable.
In 1999 I transferred out of SOU. The theater program was good but I was well on my way to being a pretentious ass. I wanted more “intellectual” options, and had heard about this thing called “Comparative Literature.” I quit an ambitious, well-organized program that would have given me countless professional tools for a program that…well, I won’t bash it. Good artists could come out of the University of Oregon’s theater program, and it was far more intellectual-based: less professional training and more willing to give me space to fuck around and explore ideas. I had a few fantastic professors there. One, Grant McKierney, was the emeritus professor and was passionate about Eastern European, particularly Lithuanian, theater. I remember borrowing VHS tapes of performances by the likes of Eimuntas Nekrosius from him, which he’d occasionally play in class, which was my earliest exposure to post-dramatic theater.
Some books I picked up just because Grove published them. I didn’t really read poetry, but I took a collection of e.e. cummings because of it, and picked up Pablo Neruda, too. And though I was a theory, literature, and theater snob, my forays beyond those narrow categories were mainly inspired by that abstracted tree colophon, too. One of my favorite books is Tarquin Hall’s To the Elephant Graveyard, a nonfiction account of hunting down a rogue elephant in the Indian state of Assam in the 1990s. It’s hard to explain, but it’s great, and for a book about hunting elephants (which the author likewise finds abhorrent), it truly stuns you with how amazing those creatures are.
Then there was Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude, a socio-artistic essay on the heart of sole of Mexico. Frantz Fanon I would have read in an inevitable class on post-colonialism studying Comp Lit, but Black Skin, White Masks left an indelible mark on me before I ever knew who Edward Said or Gayatri Spivak were. Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart, which has blown my mind and torn my heart every time I read it, wasn’t originally a Grove book, but in the 1990s they had the good sense to take up the publication rights, and later (in 2012) published another collection of Malan’s writings. But even he—the cantankerous, cynical South African who produced the most lacerating self-examination I can imagine—says he’s a one-hit wonder. But of course, he’s also famous for helping earn a massive settlement for the family of Solomon Linda, one of the most famous—and wronged—one-hit-wonders of all time, the poor Zulu musician who, in 1939, penned “Mbube,” better known as “Wimoweh,” the basis for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and who never got a penny of his considerable royalties.
How many others can I count, how many stories to tell? There was the truly bizarre copy of Witold Gombrowicz’s play The Marriage I picked up at a used bookstore, where some romantic seller had bother to type up (and I mean, on a typewriter) a note to fold over the introduction, imploring the reader not to ruin the experience of reading the text by reading the introduction, first. There were Grove books I never finished, like a collections of Miguel de Unamuno’s novels. There were books I had for years but never touched until they became suddenly useful, like John Lukacs’s Budapest, which proved a fantastic background read before I visited that city.
There was Aime Cesaire’s A Season in the Congo, the plays of David Mamet, David Rabe, and David Hare, none of which I liked but all of which I read. There was chancing across a collection of Jean-Claude van Italie’s texts for Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater, which opened up experimental American drama of the Sixties to me, along with John Tytell’s history of the Living Theater or Ruth Branden’s Surreal Lives, which helped expand my understanding of Surrealism. There were travelogues like Milton Osborne’s The Mekong and Jonah Blank’s Arrow of the Blue Skinned God.
And there were more greats. Kenzaburo Oe? Amazing. True, The Silent Cry, the best novel of his I ever read, wasn’t by Grove, but I knew him because I picked up Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, which was. And Kathy Acker, whose radical texts of the 1980s I wound up discussing years later with the director of the Belarus Free Theater at McSorley’s after a show, who’d been moved by the one short text of hers he’d been able to get a copy of.
Indeed, Grove published a lot of radical everything, except feminism. Acker’s an undeniably important voice, but she was a very late addition to the roster, one that came after (long after) it mattered.
Rosset’s fortunes really turned by the late 1960s, and in no small part, it was due to feminism—or more specifically, his failure to respect it and make it part of his mission. His greatest triumphs—particularly when it came to censorship—were in bringing sexual content into print, most of which was marked by savage misogyny (like Lawrence and Miller). Perhaps the most notable novel by a woman he published in the company’s early history was The Story of O, by Pauline Reage, the pen name of Anne Declos, a BDSM erotica novel that makes Fifty Shades of Gray pale in comparison (while simultaneously demonstrating that expose to a concept does nothing to improve the public’s perception of it, BDSM remaining a poorly understood and oft-maligned thing).
By the late ‘60s, Rosset was in too deep. A bad real estate investment in an office building was threatening the company at the same time a foray into film was proving a financial disaster. Rosset had always been interested in film—his first efforts were as a documentarian, before he turned to publishing. At one point, he wanted to produce a series of experimental movies by the writers his company was so famous for, but the only one ever produced was Beckett’s Film, the last screen appearance of an aged Buster Keaton. But in 196X, Rosset got sucked in: he made a tidy profit off bringing an artsy Swedish soft-core film, I Am Curious (Yellow) to the US at the height of the Sexual Revolution he’d done so much to help initiate. He dived in to a costly distribution scheme, but none of the other films he chose had the same earning potential.
Then the radicalism he’d done so much to foster at Grove turned on him, when, in 1970, increasingly radicalized feminists on his own staff locked themselves into the office during an ongoing unionization conflict (unions being something Rosset, like so many capitalist radicals, just wasn’t radical enough to embrace), demanding among other things the repatriation of profits from books like The Autobiography of Malcolm X to black communities, and threatening the company’s collection of valuable original manuscripts unless their demands were met. Rosset was caught in a devil’s snare. The radicals were calling him a bourgeois exploiter, profiting off the misery of others, with the company’s successful publication of Alex Haley’s bestselling The Autobiography of Malcolm X as exhibit number 1. Here were wealthy white men, intellectuals and Jews, profiting off the exploitation of the third world, African-Americans, and women. Which wasn’t exactly true: As exploitative as the content actually was, it wasn’t making Rosset rich. In fact, Grove’s finances were in constant disarray, such that he was forced to sell his last remaining asset: A huge stretch of waterfront property in the Hamptons, today worth tens of millions, just to keep the company afloat.
Rosset was humiliated, his own radical credentials challenged and exposed for their failings, and the company’s fortunes never exactly recovered. By the late 197os he was forced to sell a stake to the British company Weidenfeld’s, which was mostly interested in the earning potential of Grove’s backlist. Rosset arranged to keep himself in charge, but his ideas proving no less sustainable under the partnership than they were before, he was eventually forced out. The ‘80s were a period of stagnation for the company, which was eventually, in 1991 sold to Morgan Entrekin. Entrekin was the publishing world’s bad-boy wunderkind of the 1980s, a bona-fide member of the Brat Pack. He discovered Bret Easton Ellis. Jay McInerny based a character in Bring Lights, Big City on him. Years later, when I was working at Amazon in the late-Aughts, I was talking with a co-worker of mine at Amazon.com (they were all veterans of the New York publishing world) about Entrekin. He told me, “Yeah, he guest lectured a class on publishing I took at the New School. We all went out for drinks afterward, and he went home with one of my classmates.”
By the time I left university and moved to Seattle in 2003, I’d exhausted much of the blacklist, but the passion had never subsided. Having ensconced myself at a strange little paper called The Seattle Sinner as a book critic, I immediately went to the seasonal catalogs of the companies whose books I most wanted to read (since my book buying budget was reduced anyway): New Directions, FSG, Grove Press. And that’s where I found, in the early part of 2004, a listing for Pedro Lemebel’s My Tender Matador. Lemebel, a queer Chilean novelist, was right up my alley, and when I wrote Grove for a review copy, I figured I’d bulk up the proposal, and wrote to New Directions as well, for a copy of By Night in Chile, the first translated novel by Roberto Bolaño, that I’d read about in the Times around the same time.
Because, after all, they were both Chilean.