One Hot Book: Richard Seaver & The Public Burning’s Wild Ride

The publication of Robert Coover’s audacious 1977 novel, The Public Burning, almost never happened. The book uses the circumstances surrounding the 1953 execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (sentenced to death for allegedly providing the Soviet Union with details of America’s atomic weapons program) as a medium for exploring rites and wrongs in the United States in the middle of the twentieth century. In it Coover wields a motley assortment of techniques—from rowdy burlesque to opéra bouffe to surreal stagecraft—to check the pulse and measure of feral American energy. Coover also names names, as it were, peopling The Public Burning with hundreds of real men and women—many very much alive when the book was completed. (Its cast of characters, real and fictitious, includes Dwight D. Eisenhower, Joseph McCarthy, the Marx Brothers, Walter Winchell, Betty Crocker, and the infamously debauched character of Uncle Sam.) The reader’s docent through this antic terrain is one Richard M. Nixon. Surprisingly, Nixon turns out to be an astute and perceptive observer of the novel’s individuals and incidents. But he is also depicted participating in some outrageous sexual escapades that terrified the legal legions of the publishing industry, who feared the real Nixon, or any of the other genuine folks populating the book, would sue for libel, and win. (Coover himself has said that the “real” people he inserted in his book were constructs of the media.) And so, one by one, publishers shunned an important work by a respected author. Only one editor, Richard Seaver, had the guts—and wisdom—to accept the challenge posed by The Public Burning. After Seaver died in January 2009, the Humanist asked Robert Coover to write an article about Seaver’s role in persevering to publication. We are gratified that he consented. (Incidentally, Nixon never sued. Perhaps he understood when the book was published—post-Watergate, post-resignation—that he had no reputation to defend. The Public Burning, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award, is still in print.)

There had never been a book quite like this one; legal precedents were few. Many publishers had eagerly sought the book, which had achieved a certain backroom notoriety, then dropped it when the house and corporate lawyers stepped in. Knopf had actually signed contracts, paid an advance, completed the editing, and assembled an outside legal team that concluded there were possible problems but the book could and should be published, only to have the Random House president cancel its publication by fiat after a golf date with a more cautious lawyer friend. And so it went around town, a pattern of enthusiastic demand and panicky withdrawal, more than a year of it. Editors were usually excluded from these in-house decisions; the book was dying in executive boardrooms. It seemed to me that if it were ever to break through into print, it would need a committed editor who would battle for it, and I returned from my home on the shores of the English Channel in the late summer of the 1976 bicentennial year in search of one. I had known and admired Richard Seaver from my unpublished days as a freelancer at Grove Press in the early 1960s. He was already by then a legend in the book world: one of the founding fathers of the literary magazine Merlin, a Joycean scholar and translator of Samuel Beckett, one of Beckett’s earliest and most influential advocates, and the groundbreaking editor at Grove Press who, together with publisher Barney Rosset and fellow editor Fred Jordan, successfully fought the banning in the United States of authors such as D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and William Burroughs. I found him at the time a knowledgeable cosmopolite, receptive to good writing, quietly determined, rather severe yet congenial. He had fought the fights with courage and integrity and he loved literature and I knew I wanted him to be the one to shepherd The Public Burning into its public life. He was perhaps the only one who could.

But another publisher and editor had already asked for it: Roger Straus of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and his editor Aaron Asher, whom I had known in his youth as the Meridian Books editor for Saul Bellow’s celebrated but short-lived literary review, The Noble Savage, wherein had appeared my first story in print. We had just arrived back in the States that summer of ’76 and, after spending a few days on Cape Cod with the recently released but unsorted FBI files on the Rosenberg case, we were on our way to a little teaching and reading gig at Goddard College’s summer program in upstate Vermont, stopping off en route for an overnight visit to our friends Jonathan and Georgia Baumbach at their summer cottage in Northwood, New Hampshire. While we were having breakfast the next morning with the Baumbachs, together with Charles and Helen Simic, and Russell and Mary Banks, also summering in the neighborhood, the phone rang. It was my literary agent Georges Borchardt, calling with the celebratory news that Roger Straus was taking the book and he wanted me to come to New York immediately after the Goddard reading to sign contracts. Georges said he asked Straus if he was absolutely sure about this before he called to tell me, there having been so many disappointments over the past year, and Straus said he was 95 percent sure. Georges said that wasn’t good enough, so Straus hesitated a moment, then said, all right, he was 100 percent sure. So was Aaron Asher. They loved the book. They wanted it. Without reservations. After I hung up and explained the call, Jon said it was time to get out the champagne. Not until we’ve actually signed contracts, I said. The phone rang again. See? I laughed. There’s Georges calling back to say they’ve changed their minds. It was not a joke. It was indeed Georges calling, in some shock, to say that Farrar Straus was backing out. Some outside lawyer had just called and told Straus he could lose his company with this book and he was withdrawing the offer.

From a Goddard payphone, I called Dick Seaver at Viking, who had read the book and wanted it, but who had heard a lot of dark rumors about threats of lawsuits and last-minute discoveries of actionable elements no one had noticed before that had caused the Knopf turn-about. No, nothing but cold feet and chicken hearts, I told him, detailing the history for him as best I knew it. So he went to bat for the book, eventually got the approval of his publisher Tom Guinzburg, with contracts signed before the house lawyer Jim Grossman came back off holiday. When he did, he was not a happy man. Enraged at what had happened, Grossman laid it on the line: I must take all living persons out of the book or change their names. He was a good man, bright, lively, in his 70s, loyal to the company and to the memory of its founders, whom he felt had been betrayed by Guinzburg’s decision, and I found myself liking him. But when I tried to explain why his request was impossible, he got tough and told me I was facing probable criminal charges, and if there was a judgment against the book, he promised he would strip me and all my family of everything we own: “I’ll take the shoes right off your kids’ feet!” A funny way to put it, but he wasn’t being funny. At my agent’s suggestion, I called upon Martin Garbus, the well-known lawyer who had fought other free-expression cases, to help me with this one.

Meanwhile, Dick and I began, in and around my semester teaching job, the month-long editing process. I had already been through this with two other editors, but we started again. Some of it together in New York, some by typed mail, some orally by cassette tape, the technology of the day. It was a rewarding time. Rapport was early established. Dick was a thoughtful and careful reader, relaxed and good-humored. He pointed out the things Grossman was likely to object to, but made no demands himself, and he often helped me to see where judicious cuts might improve the pace, easing me through the anxious tenacity that had gripped me in the face of all the legal efforts to eviscerate the text. When in New York we took a break or had a meal together, conversations were a pleasure; Dick carried a lot of literary history around in him, though he said little unless asked. Beckett was the writer most important to me at the time; I had a lot of questions. The very day the revisions were done at last, Jim Grossman’s own list of requested changes finally arrived. Fifty single-spaced legal pages. Item one, yet again: remove all living persons.

So, in December, on the eve of our return to England, six of us sat down in a Viking-Penguin conference room: Dick and Jeannette Seaver, the two lawyers, Georges and I, with Tom Guinzburg off in Stockholm where Viking author Saul Bellow was receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature. The meeting did not go well. Grossman set about taking the book apart, line by line, trying to bully me into making his entire list of requested changes. When after three or four hours of this we had not relented, he informed us that it was quite possible he would recommend that Viking not publish the book. This triggered a certain amount of alarm, as we had been assured that this meeting was only advisory and publication had been guaranteed. Dick was not in the room then, so I went looking for him, found him in his office. He shrugged calmly and said: I don’t listen to lawyers. At breakfast the next morning, Marty Garbus said we should look ahead to incorporation as there was now a strong likelihood we would have to publish the book ourselves. He counseled: no further changes. That afternoon, Dick and I pressed on through our final editing session together, working hard as though this book might actually happen, but sharing the feeling it might all be in vain.

A month of silence followed on our return to England that dark midwinter of ’77. Of course, in those days phones were expensive and mail was slow: silence was not an uncommon experience. I whiled the time building a model train layout with my son, writing an essay on Gabriel Garcia Márquez for the final issue of American Review, and composing an introduction for the Fiction Collective’s magazine, Statements 2, on the topic, not surprisingly, of the multinational corporate takeover of publishing in America and what I dubbed the dictatorship of the marketplace: “In America, art—like everything else (knowledge, condoms, religion, etc.)—is a product… No need for censorship: trust the general banality of the marketplace.” And so on. Still seething. Eventually, Dick called to say he’d had to “take a lot of buffeting,” but slowly Grossman’s list of demanded changes was being pared down. Garbus wrote that Grossman had been trying until the last moment to get Dick and Pat Nixon cut from the book, but that one had finally been put to rest. There were five main issues remaining. Then there were three: one of Nixon’s high school girlfriends; the litigious McCarthy lawyer Roy Cohn (he was suing NBC for a massive sum for their portrayal of him in Tail-Gunner Joe); and the Rosenberg sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol. I was able to make some minor adjustments with regard to the first two, and came to an amicable and supportive arrangement with the sons who were in the middle of a legal battle themselves. Dick was under a lot of pressure, I knew, but he didn’t pass that pressure on to me, and I was confident that he would stand by the book, as he’d stood by so many writers before me. Until that time we’d been calling it by several titles, from my working title of The Public Burning of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg: An Historical Romance to Sam Slick, Sam Slick’s Circus Days, and The Sam Slick Show. Dick proposed shortening my original title to The Public Burning and it stuck.

Though we still weren’t certain Viking would release the book, we completed the long-distance copyediting in March, and meanwhile Dick, quietly pressing on with the production, was keeping news of the book buttoned up. The rare copies of the typescript were kept under lock and key. Not even the people at Viking Penguin were allowed to see it. Salesmen were obliged to push the book without being permitted to read it. All this to diminish the possibility of injunctions against distribution. There was a general assumption that while the book had been passing earlier from the legal staffs of one publisher’s multinational parent corporation to another, copies might have been made that were even now circulating among the hundreds of living persons named in the book, some of whom must surely be preparing their lawsuits. In short, there was a lot of fear. Galleys, also severely rationed, arrived in May and Dick called, asking for a few more changes, most of which I was able to make. Dick had just shown the book to the Book-of-the-Month Club and said: “They just shit their pants, they simply shit their pants!” They wouldn’t risk it, but the Literary Guild, more continent, did. In the Frost-Nixon interviews that month on television, Nixon explained why he decided not to take Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to court for their book, All the President’s Men, but hinted that he would indeed use Pat as an excuse if he did get litigious, resulting in more publisher requests that I remove several scenes. Ignored. Instead of sending Dick the corrected galleys, I kept them and typed up a series of letters with all the corrections, some twenty-eight single-spaced pages in all. This in order to keep the galleys so that, if all else failed, I would at least have one copy of the book set in type.

Then the phone calls began—reporters looking for headlines, chasing rumors of pending legal action against Viking and the threat of criminal charges. I was told I should sign the house and everything else over to my wife or even someone outside the family so as not to lose it all when the lawsuits began; didn’t do that. In June, Herbert Mitgang’s provocative piece on The Public Burning appeared in the New York Times, setting off more alarm bells at Viking. They canceled all advertising. Dick was disappointed, but I wasn’t. For me, the book was out of my hands, the show was over. I packed everything up on this day—notes, manuscript copies, books, etc.—and stowed it all away. I would not revisit any of it until I turned it over to the archive collection at the Houghton Library at Harvard University a couple of decades later. Frustrating Viking’s announced plans for a reading tour, I organized instead a quiet autumn escape to an undisclosed location in Spain. I was at last back into new writing (a rough draft of a piece called “Spanking the Maid,” some new theater ideas, a few paragraphs of something tentatively called “The Party”) and planned to stay there.

I received my first hard copies on the first of August, well ahead of the announced publication date. The book, so ably shepherded, existed, whatever might happen next. It could be held in the hand. It had weight. Moreover, it was by then so voluminously scattered in bookstores across the country, copies sent individually wrapped in brown paper, an injunction would be ineffectual. We celebrated with a few nice bottles of wine. As the book was unwrapped and began to appear, it was vigorously attacked and vigorously defended, the positive and negative reviews alike assuming political and “moral” (but rarely literary) positions. Well, it was not a quick read; easier just to jump into the fray and sound off. At church one Sunday in Nebraska, my parents had to face friends and fellow citizens who had seen that morning in the Omaha World-Herald a headline over George Will’s syndicated column: “A Sick Fantasy—Robert Coover’s Novel Violates the Ethics of Literature.” I was never quite forgiven for that. I came to the last page of the tattered pocket notebook in which I had been logging the prepublication drama and brought it to an end with the remark: “How to blow a decade…”

In Barcelona that fall, we lived on the same street where Garcia Márquez had spent some time not long before, and in this quiet corner of a very unquiet and celebrative city (Franco had died, Catalanismo was rampant, the city’s renaissance had begun), I got on with other work, notably “The Party,” which had now become Gerald’s Party. I kept an unlisted phone, refused all interviews, and largely ignored what was happening in New York, though Dick called from time to time to bring the news. The book made the New York Times bestseller list the first week of October, and that same week the publishers mysteriously withdrew all support for it, he told me, even calling in copies, posters, other publicity. Dick couldn’t explain this, but it seemed likely the publishers either feared a costly lawsuit should the book show any signs of making money or reaching a large audience, or they got a phone call threatening one, meaning its hardback life was suddenly all but over by company action. The book was effectively banned in all government libraries and was refused, even as a gift, at many public libraries. It was one of the five nominees for the National Book Award that year, but I chose not to attend the ceremonies. It was also named “Worst Book of the Year” by American Statesman, probably even more of an honor. The U.S. government tried to prevent me from accepting an invitation to the first conference of a new American literature organization in Poland a few months later (without telling me, they simply wrote to the sponsors to say that I was unable to attend), and as late as 1984 blocked my invited visit to China, when, along with many others in the Reagan era, including prominent opposition politicians, I was apparently blacklisted. Several invitations from European universities that year were also canceled for, seemingly, the same reason. The First Amendment is an ideal, not a given.

But the much-feared legal assault on the book did not happen, thereby, indirectly, setting new precedents for what was possible not only in fiction but in other media as well. (Robert Coover has himself turned up as a character in others’ fictions; don’t know him.) Viking Penguin was impressed enough by Marty Garbus that they hired him as their new house lawyer. Dick Seaver soon moved on to Holt, Rinehart, and Winston as trade division publisher and president, and launched, with Jeannette, their own Arcade Publishing house. The corporate takeover of the book industry, including its distribution system, continued, small presses like Arcade arising in passionate resistance, though the entire publishing enterprise was looking increasingly in the new digital era like a romantic attachment to a vanishing past. If the dominant medium is changing, however, the issues remain the same. There is creative human expression, and there is the suppression of it. And the ceaseless struggle against this suppression. Richard Seaver’s legacy, for which The Public Burning was a passing beneficiary: he fought, ever, the good fight.

Tags: , , , ,