Richard Seaver’s exemplary literary life has been beautifully captured in his just-published chronicle The Tender Hour of Twilight: Paris in the ’50s, New York in the ’60s: A Memoir of Publishing’s Golden Age.
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While his memoir has been published posthumously (he died in 2009), we spoke to Jeannette Seaver, the distinguished author’s widow, who was also the editor responsible for the scrupulous abridgement of Seaver’s substantial original manuscript. Mrs. Seaver provided a unique and intimate perspective on her late husband’s life and work, and on the labor of love that was the editing of his manuscript, as well as the challenges he faced publishing avant-garde manuscripts throughout his career in professional publishing.
Your husband’s original manuscript was over 900 pages. What was your experience editing that much personal material down to book length?
It took me three passes over the course of a year and a half, and it was an extremely meticulous process. Dick really wanted to have the book focus on authors rather than publishing in general. So, starting from that point, I had to make decisions that were very difficult to make. All the things about his family had to go. He also talked about his close friends, which didn’t make it into the final book either. It was hard. After a while, you wonder if you made the right decisions.
Was editing this book an emotional challenge for you?
Oh, enormously so. Dick was my mentor in publishing, and we shared other intellectual and literary endeavors. For me, I felt a certain affinity with him, and I communed with him on a different level, constantly thinking if he would approve of the changes I was making.
In the book’s dedication, your husband thanks you for your “resistance to my resistance.” What did he mean by that?
When he was very young, he wrote a great deal. Upon reading Beckett and meeting Beckett, the muse fell silent because he didn’t feel that his writing would be of interest to anyone. So as Dick was engaged in other life endeavors, I consistently encouraged him not to be resistant to anything really.
Why do you suppose Richard’s discovery of Samuel Beckett, in your words, “stopped him short”?
He [Beckett] was so odd and profoundly so, yet he was extraordinary. Dick so admired the mind behind the writing. My sense at the time was that Dick felt that he was writing in same sense of the absurd as Beckett was and therefore, there was no room for his writing because their styles were the same. Anything that he would write he felt would be third rate compared to Beckett.
Is there anything about your late husband that people would be surprised to learn?
At the memorial a lot of people talked about his wrestling. He was a champion wrestler and very much a sports person, which didn’t fit the persona of an avant-garde publisher!
What is the biggest difference between the publishing world when Richard was at Grove Press to the book biz of today?
There’s a huge difference. Dick would read a manuscript and he would feel that it should really be printed in America. There were no P and L’s [profit and loss statements] then, no sales projections—he gave carte blanche based on literary merit. And Dick published not necessarily commercial books, many were complicated books and highly literary at that.
The change in publishing is all about quick, quick, quick, and big names, and if it’s not selling, the author, along with the editor, is out. It may all turn out to be wonderful for some, but it’s very different.
Is there anything about your life with Richard in Paris that you would change? Any regrets about that time?
No, nothing, it was a very exciting time. We were discovering writing, art and friendship. It was a rich time in Paris, and we enjoyed a particularly exciting, charmed life both in Paris and New York. Dick and I were madly in love with each other.
Were there any manuscripts that Richard fawned over that you had mixed feelings about?
When he discovered Last Exit to Brooklyn, I was very young and not as well versed as I am today. I found it shocking, disturbing really, and it took several readings of mine to understand its power.
I remember Dick had to translate the letters of the Marquis De Sade, and I had to ask him what he found so fascinating about it. Dick was a pure, noble fellow, and he felt Sade had been dealt a bad card—misrepresented—and that he was against his own sort, the aristocrat, at the mercy of the hypocrisy and the injustice of it all. Dick really convinced me to appreciate it, and I take my hat off to him for taking that position.
What was your opinion of the much-debated, so-called “pornographic” books like Tropic of Cancer and Lady Chatterley’s Lover and others like it that Richard fought so hard to publish?
Well, I’m a rather prude person. I just smiled and trusted Dick in his judgment!
What do you personally want readers to take away from reading this book?
I’m hoping that Dick will come across as someone who was a romantic about literature and writers. I hope readers will share in the wonderful, magical days of publishing and discovering new writers and living the wonderful life that was Dick, in pursuit of literature, fun and friendship. I hope they become informed about that precious time in history, and that they become charmed by the voice that was Dick. It’s very touching.
Jim Piechota is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.