January 2013 | Rebecca Rego Barry

First Major Exhibit of the Grove Press Archive Opens in Syracuse

A great new exhibit of 'bad books' just opened at Syracuse University's Special Collections Research Center. Strange Victories: Grove Press, 1951-1985 traces the history of the infamous indie publisher on Grove Street in New York's Greenwich Village. Led by Barney Rosset, who died in February of last year, the Grove Press became known for taking on radical--and often salacious--book and film projects. It was Grove that went to trial to win the right to publish an unexpurgated Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1959, and then followed it up with Sartre's Anti-Semite and Jew in 1960, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer in 1961, and Burroughs' Naked Lunch in 1962.

StrangeVictories2.jpgWhat's on view is a selection from the press' archive, including business correspondence, first editions, and art. Grove's earliest big success was Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1954), represented in the exhibit by a fragment of a signed, typed letter from Beckett to Rosset in 1953, discussing the upcoming publication, as well as a fantastic black-and-white photo of the two men. Editions of Games People Play (1964), The Story of O (1966), and Robert Frank's seminal photobook, The Americans (1959), show off its products well. The mocked-up cover artwork for Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book (distributed by Grove, 1971) is certainly a piece of publishing history worth eyeing.   

For many, the highlight of this exhibit will be a beautifully handwritten letter on blue stationery. Written by Malcolm X to Alex Haley, his co-writer on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published by the Grove Press in 1965. Malcolm X begins his letter, "I have just completed my pilgrimage (Hajj)."

StrangeVictories12.jpgA photo of Che Guevara's corpse is another surprising sight. It was Grove that bravely published Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War (1968) after another publisher backed out. Even better, Rosset traveled to Bolivia to acquire the secret manuscript, and the Grove offices were later attacked with a grenade by Cuban exiles in retaliation for the book's publication. Now that's avant-garde publishing at its best.

The South American trip and the office bombing were two of the amazing stories shared during a one-hour panel discussion prior to the exhibit's opening last week. The Syracuse University Library hosted a panel of "Grove alumni," moderated by Professor Loren Glass, author of the forthcoming book, Counter-Culture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde. The alumni included Fred Jordan, Judith Schmidt Douw, Nat Sobel, and Claudia Menza. All offered wonderful stories of life with Rosset, who, by all accounts, was a real character, committed to pushing boundaries and furthering change with his infamous press. The panelists recalled Rosset's editorial mission as, "If he liked it, be published it." Claudia Menza, an editor at the Evergreen Review for more than a decade, added, "Making money was not in the equation. Publishing was the equation." Grove became a magnet for the kind of writing that was cutting edge and socially conscious. Nat Sobel, Grove's longtime sales and marketing manager, said, "To be at Grove Press in the 1960s was to be at the center of things."

Strange Victories celebrates the indie publisher's lasting effect on culture. It's an important collection for Syracuse University, rich in treasures for book historians if this exhibition of highlights is any indication. The exhibition's curators are Susan M. Kline, Grove Press project archivist, and Lucy Mulroney, curator of rare books and manuscripts. It is open through June 22. 

Images courtesy of the SCRC, Syracuse University Library.