Were it not for Richard Seaver, it's quite possible we wouldn't know the likes of Henry Miller (both Tropics), Eugene Ionesco, William Burroughs, Samuel Beckett, D.H. Laurence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover," Jean Genet, or "The Story of O," to name a few literary titans and tomes. In fact, Seaver was not only largely responsible for bringing an end to literary censorship in America; he was also instrumental in shaping our modern literary sensibilities at a time when America's moral and artistic compass was vastly different from what it is today.
Seaver's recently published memoir, "The Tender Hour of Twilight: Paris in the '50s, New York in the '60s: A Memoir of Publishing's Golden Age," was edited by his wife Jeannette several years after his death in 2009 at the age of 83. True to its name, it chronicles Seaver's life as one of our most maverick publishers, editors, and translators.
"The things that we take for granted today were definitely not taken for granted then," said Seaver's widow Jeannette in a phone interview. "People went to jail, books were not accepted by bookstores, post offices wouldn't accept to receive and transport them. It was very serious."
Seaver moved to Paris as a young adult in search of Hemingway's moveable feast and was immediately swept up in the post-war, avant-garde literary world. These were the intellectually-rich Parisian heydays when Jean-Paul Sartre literally rubbed elbows in cafes with brilliant writers who were either unknown or banned in their own countries. Seaver got involved with the literary magazine "Merlin" (Sartre was a huge fan) and discovered his calling: to bring the works of these writers into the publishing mainstream in America.
This, however, was a tall order. After returning to the States and joining Barney Rosset at Grove Press, Seaver faced tremendous literary censorship and cultural resistance. "We came to America at the height of the McCarthy era," said Jeannette Seaver. "Dick (Seaver) and Barney were on the barricades for censorship and freedom to publish. They would go from state to state with their attorneys. There were very long and very costly legal battles on all fronts, but they did make all the difference."
Seaver was, in many ways, an embodiment of a bygone era when art trumped profit. Risk-taking, said Jeannette, was "the engine that drove him. He and Barney were very courageous. They lost a lot of money. It was a secondary issue for them. They were carrying the banner for freedom. They truly believed that if you really see the quintessence of a work and you think it's important, you just do it and God be with you. It doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be successful and make money, you could even get in trouble, but you do it anyway. One of Dick's virtues was recognizing literary voices and helping them be heard without fear of the obvious."
One such obvious fear was the wrath that came with rattling the status quo, but his commitment to support controversial material that had literary integrity was steadfast. Seaver, in short, walked his talk.
"That's one reason he translated and championed Marquis de Sade," Jeannette Seaver added. "Not so much for the content, but because De Sade was an aristocrat who was breaking the rules, who was confronting the Establishment -- his fellow aristocrats, who had enormous prejudice -- and then he was punished his entire life. His opus was written from behind bars. Personally I'm not interested in some of his content, but there's no denying that he was a very good writer and a very prominent figure of his time."
Seaver himself abandoned writing for many years after discovering Samuel Beckett ("He felt that Beckett was Shakespeare of our time and that he could never compare to him as a writer," said Jeannette), only to pick the pen back up much later in life. The result is his sweeping memoir -- a tribute to the enduring value of pursuing one's passion in life, come what may.