Monday, February 24, 2014

Remembering Richard Grossman

From the desk of David R. Godine: 

Back in the seventies, when I was starting Godine and thinking of what would be required to be a publisher, there were plenty of role models and small houses around to provide examples. Walker and Company, Horizon Press, Atheneum, Holiday House, Capra, Black Sparrow, among many others, were all active and competing successfully for both reviews and space on booksellers' shelves. Even the larger houses that had been absorbed or bought outright--Knopf, Pantheon, Little Brown--managed to maintain their own character, almost always a reflection and under the benign dictatorship of a single visionary editor.

Two of my favorites were The Eakins Press with Leslie Katz at the helm and Grossman Publishers, which followed the lead of its founder Richard Grossman. Leslie died in the eighties, although his press carries on. But Dick Grossman, who had his roots at the Simon and Schuster, the house that spun off the trio that revitalized Knopf, Bob Gottlieb, Nina Bourne, and Tony Schulte, died just last month. Like Leslie, he published a general trade list, conspicuously to the left of other houses and willing to take risks on books like Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed, an unlikely bestseller that had been rejected by at least a dozen houses (one of which thought it would be of interest only to insurance adjusters) before Dick stepped up to the plate. But he also was loyal to poets  like Louis Zukovsky, to photographers, musicians (his edition of The Blues Line, edited by Eric Sackheim, is easily the most beautiful tribute to blues lyrics ever published), to artists, and to investigative reporters of any stripe. His editions of Japanese and  Far Eastern poetry, initiated with Mushinsha and printed letterpress in Japan, were among the most handsome productions on the trade market. And they still hold up.

He surrounded himself with talented and loyal people, among them his supportive partner, the soft spoken Michael Loeb, who I got the impression was signing most of the checks out of his own pocket. His first wife, Elizabeth Heiden I never knew, but his last two were both women of singular accomplishment and intelligence; Jill Kneerim, presently an agent here in Boston, brought us his book on Emerson, and Ann Arensberg is an excellent  and sensitive novelist.

Like most people I harbored the illusion that publishers lived lives of unfettered luxury. Visiting both Dick and Michael at Grossman and Leslie Katz and Harvey Simmons at Eakins quickly dispelled the notion. They were both working out of offices that would make the average corporate bathroom look palatial. And what they wanted to talk about were not profits, or the size of the press runs, or the reviews and sales figures they anticipated, but the books themselves. They lived for their books. And they made you believe they were worth living for.

Dick, who really was the last refuge of the grasshopper mind, left publishing after selling his publishing house to Viking in 1968. I couldn't believe it. He wanted to start a new career as a psychotherapist. I still can't believe it. But evidently he was happy in this and it provided him plenty of scope for a mind that never stopped working or asking Big Questions. His hero was (naturally) Emerson and he could quote the Concord sage line for line. Even in his eighties. I last saw him at a celebration for his book at The Concord Inn. He was as sharp and as focussed as ever, still believing, with Emerson, "Give me health and a day, and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous."

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