A publisher’s lifelong battle against censorship
Richard Seaver’s name might be unfamiliar to the casual reader, but his talent for recognizing vital new voices helped define midcentury American letters. He was a founder of Merlin, a short-lived but influential avant-garde literary magazine in 1950s Paris. Its influence owed much to Seaver’s early support of writers like Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco, the Romanian-French playwright whose works he translated into English. Seaver later became a senior editor at Barney Rosset’s Grove Press during its defining censorship battles, starting with the 1959Lady Chatterley case. Now we have his account of the era, The Tender Hour of Twilight—a book his wife Jeannette Seaver pulled together after her husband’s death in 2009, from 900 pages he left behind. The result is lively and gratifying, particularly in the absence of a memoir from Rosset, who died in February.
In 1952, Seaver was fresh out of the University of North Carolina and a stint in the Navy, and had literary ambitions but no contacts in the publishing world. Undaunted, he and several other young writers launched Merlin. Despite his uncommonly fine eye as an editor and the many literary notables who held his judgment in high regard, Seaver is an unassuming guide. He offers readers insights about many of these figures, like Irish poet Brendan Behan, who emerges in these pages as unruly and unwelcome from the first time Seaver met him. Behan immediately takes up residence in Seaver’s apartment for several days, using it as a base from which to stalk Samuel Beckett. Seaver’s relationship with fellow Merlin founder Alex Trocchi will be painfully familiar to anyone who has witnessed the travails of addiction. Trocchi was a talented, enterprising young writer when Seaver knew him in Paris. But several years later in New York, when Trocchi was under contract for a novel with Grove Press, Seaver’s dealings with him were dismal, driven by Trocchi’s continuing need for money to buy drugs. Trocchi finally exited the stage dressed in several layers of clothes stolen from George Plimpton’s closet and headed to Canada, where he met Leonard Cohen, in the days when Cohen was better known as a poet and novelist than a songwriter.