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Oppositional Aesthetics/Oppositional Ideologies:
A Brief Cultural History of
Alternative Publishing in the U.S.
Robert L. McLaughlin

This movement of the subversive commercial publishers successfully challenged the aesthetic shortsightedness and the prevailing economic status quo of the established commercial publishers.  But, as with the fine presses, they did so at the risk of commercial failure.  While Huebsch's Viking Press and Knopf flourished, Liveright, who subsidized his firm's losses from his own fortune, was wiped out in the 1929 Stock Market Crash, and Harcourt was forced out of his firm after disagreements with his partners.

A fourth alternative publishing movement, overlapping and reacting against the subversive commercial publisher movement, was connected with literary modernism, especially the expatriate presses of the years following World War I.  Among the most important of these were Robert McAlmon's Contact Editions, Bill Beard's Three Mountains Press, Harry and Caresse Crosby's Black Sun Press, and Gertrude Stein's Plain Editions, all in Paris, and their domestic cousin, James Laughlin's New Directions in New York.  These presses were part of a larger expatriate movement in which artists and intellectuals acted out their rebellion against the standards and values of the American status quo by taking advantage of a strong dollar and leaving the U.S. for Europe:

The insistent refrain of criticism, both native and expatriate, was that America lacked taste, was crude, vulgar, pretentious; that it crushed the sensitive soul, rewarded the unscrupulous and the thickskinned, drove its artists and writers into retreats on the margins of its prosperous cities and towns.

For this the Puritan was blamed: first for having overrated morality and suppressed art; then (in his historic role as pioneer) for having exalted ambition and suppressed a normal life; and finally (as a modern businessman), for having made both morality and art servants of financial success. (Hoffman 53)

Europe, and especially France, seemed to offer an alternative to America's Puritanism:

It was often not so much the art of the French but their attitude toward it that impressed the American visitors.  They admired, for one thing, the preoccupation of the French artist with the life of art, the search for le mot juste, what appeared to them to be the artist's neglect of more mundane matters. (Hoffman 52)

The resulting artistic community in Paris formed a sort of cultural critical mass in which writers challenged, influenced, supported, and nourished one another in their production of ground-breaking literature.  These modernist writers, reacting to almost a century of revolution in scientific thought and to the seemingly senseless carnage of World War I, attempted in a variety of ways to reform the fundamental means by which the human consciousness encounters, organizes, and makes sense of the real.  Consequently, much of their work took pride in its unconventionality and inaccessibility, and, naturally, little of it was received gladly by the U.S. commercial publishers.  Thus many of these writers formed their own small presses to publish their own work and the work of their friends.  They frequently took for granted that their work would be rejected by commercial publishers.  Caresse Crosby recalled,"Ever since I had had my first work accepted by one of the little English magazines and Harry had begun to write sonnets under my guidance at Etretat, we knew that some day we must see our poems in printit did not occur to us to submit them to a publishing housethe simplest way was to print the book!" (Crosby 156).  And in announcing the establishment of Contact Editions, Robert McAlmon wrote,"we will bring out books by various writers who seem not likely to be published by other publishers for commercial or legislative reasons" (McAlmon 184).


Compared with the rebellions of the expatriate presses, the subversions of Huebsch, Knopf, Liveright, and Harcourt, while still significant, seem more modest.  Indeed, these commercial publishers were part of the economic and cultural status quo against which the expatriates were rebelling.  And the subversive commercial publishers, while more daring than their old established competitors, were more interested in the social representationalism of the realists and the naturalists than in the aesthetic experiments of the avant-garde.  They shared with the U.S. literary establishment a suspicion of the modernists' seeming courting of unpopularity and a bias against the books from abroad.  McAlmon writes,"reviewers in America were ruthless against them.  They would not comment on them as books; they were always mentioned as expatriate and Paris publications even when the authors never saw Paris" (186).  Indeed, when it came to the expatriates, the young subversive publishers behaved very much like their older competitors.  Huebsch rejected Gertrude Stein's Making of Americans (McAlmon 198), and Knopf turned down T. S. Eliot's first collection of poems because a volume of Ezra Pound's poetry had not sold well (Dennison 28).  In a repeated pattern, the U.S. commercial publishers would agree to publish the modernists only after they had already been published by noncommercial publishers and so had become critically established and less financially risky.  The best example of this is Ernest Hemingway.  Hemingway's first two books were brought out by expatriate presses: Contact Editions published Three Stories and Ten Poems and Three Mountains Press published in our time.  Only then did Liveright publish an expanded volume, In Our Time, and only after Hemingway maneuvered to get out of his contract with Liveright did Maxwell Perkins bring him into the Scribner's fold.  Expatriate presses (and their American cousin, New Directions) published Pound, Stein, William Carlos Williams, Archibald MacLeish, Djuna Barnes, Kay Boyle, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and Marcel Proust.

After World War II the publishing industry soared economically for two main reasons.  First, during the war years, the U.S. government bought large numbers of books, regardless of title, author, or critical reception, to distribute to overseas military personnel; most publishers ended the war in strong financial shape.  Second, thanks to the G.I. Bill, higher education in the United States grew enormously in the years following the war, as did the market for textbooks.  Publishers scrambled to obtain a part of this market, enlarging their educational divisions and initiating paperback series of popular backlist books.  This growing financial success marked a change in the ownership and operation of many publishers.  Up until this time, as we have seen, most publishers were family owned and directed by one or two individuals with strong personalities.  As the worth of firms grew, it became more difficult to pass them on to heirs in the family who would be responsible for the estate tax on a multimillion dollar company.  Thus in the 1950s and 1960s many previously privately owned publishers went public, issuing stock for the first time, and larger firms began acquiring or merging with smaller firms.  This trend of mergers and take-overs accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s.  As the cost of manufacturing books continued to grow and the stakes needed to acquire potential best-sellers increased, many independent firms felt the need for a benevolent parent company that could supply capital.  Large multinational corporations saw acquiring publishing companies as a chance to  gain additional profit and to diversify their activities.  As a result, by the 1990s there were fewer large commercial publishers and in general more emphasis on selling as many copies as possible.  The economic conditions thus created were less supportive, if not more hostile, to the publication of serious literature than ever before.

In the past one publisher's or editor's taste or vision could ensure that a firm would publish some quality books, but in the age of acquisitions and mergers this vision is lost in economic considerations.  As Bennett Cerf wrote of Random House going public,"Instead of working for yourself and doing what you damn please, willing to risk a loss on something you want to do, if you're any kind of honest man, you feel a real responsibility to your stockholders" (Cerf 278).  Parent companies usually want their newly acquired and often eccentrically run publishing divisions to be"financially rational structures" (Whiteside 90), complete with long-term profit planning and predictable growth.  Thomas Guinzburg, president of Viking at the time of its merger with Penguin, spoke about the demands of the parent company to reduce overhead by cutting staff and advertising and raising book prices:


You can do all these things in response to pressures.  But the pressures don't stop when you respond that way.  Pretty soon, you start concentrating your attention on publishing books you know will be successful.  Instead of really putting yourself behind people who might be fine writers but not writers to support really profitably, you begin to go after several of a hundred successful names.  That's what can happen to a publisher under pressure, and if the publisher is saying that to himself, you can be sure he's saying it to his editorial staff.  And the editors begin to respond to that pressure.  They even find the character of their lunches changing; instead of talking over the structural problems of an author's book, they're making contracts at lunch. (qtd. in Whiteside 148-49).

As one assessment of the publishing industry warns:

Publishers and major editors have become so involved with businessmen, lawyers, literary agents, and key decision makers in subsidiary rights that they are in danger of losing touch with the world of the creative intellect.  To the extent that they are segregatedor self-segregatedfrom intellectual and cultural circles, they are more likely to let their general cultural responsibilities remain on the back burner, while the front burner is occupied by immediate business considerations and calculations. (Coser, Kadushin, and Powell 32)

Another commonplace in the age of acquisitions and mergers is the publisher's position in relation to larger multimedia conglomerates.  To the huge entertainment conglomerates that own or do business with most commercial publishers, books are not important in themselves; rather,"books, movies, and television programs can be regarded as integrated components of a total commodity" (Whiteside 65).  It is not unusual for a combination of producers, editors, and agents to develop a concept and then design a package including a novelist, a screenwriter, a director, and stars and a timetable for how long before the movie premiere the novel will come out, when the paperback will appear, how both will be promoted, etc. (Whiteside 64-88).  For example, Michael Crichton's sexual harassment novel, Disclosure, was announced as part of a movie deal, including director and cast, in the summer of 1993, before Crichton had even begun typing.  Publishers have thus become more concerned with the potential for subsidiary rightsmoney received in return for book-club rights, paperback rights, foreign publication rights, audio-tape rights, movie and television rights, sequel rightsthan in the book itself.  Books that promise a publishing profit without any subsidiary-rights sales may not be published or published with very little promotion.  William Targ, former editor-in-chief at Putnam's, reports that after the take-over by MCA,"I discovered, for the first time in my publishing career . . . that there was to be no place for [interesting new writers] at Putnam unless there was a substantial sale of subsidiary rights to their work up front"  (qtd. in Whiteside 153).

The economic conditions that have allowed the publishing industry to flourish have been bad not only for serious literature but for society in general.  The various mergers and acquisitions have resulted in fewer large publishing firms and, more important, many publishing firms owned by a small number of corporate parents.  This has resulted in a uniformity of mission and of product.  The Authors Guild, among others, has argued that this conglomeratization and standardization has had debilitating effects on literature:"for many authors of artistically meritorious works lacking immediate commercial appeal it jeopardizes or diminishes their bargaining power with publishers and their opportunity to be published" (Whiteside 11).  Going farther, E. L. Doctorow argues,"the concentration into fewer and fewer hands of the production and distribution of literary works is by its nature constricting to free speech and the effective exchange of ideas and the diversity of opinion" (qtd. in Wiener 750).  With all the commercial publishers trying to publish the same kind of books for the same kind of audience, what André Schiffrin, the former head of Pantheon Books and founder of the New Press, calls"intellectual redlining" occurs (Goodrich 46-47); entire communities of potential readers, Asian Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, are ignored.


Since World War II the alternative publishing movement has also grown dramatically, partly in reaction to the economic conditions of commercial publishing  and partly due to two opportunities.  Because the commercial publishing industry has grown in a way that in general discourages the publication of serious literature, many individuals or small groups have reacted as other have reacted before them by founding their own small publishing houses to bring out the kind of novels, poems, stories, and plays they found missing in the commercial marketplace.  Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Books, John Martin's Black Sparrow Press, Daniel Halpern's Ecco Press, and David R. Godine are all publishing houses founded in the last 40 years that have been self-consciously devoted to the uncommercial in literature.  They have been responsible for introducing or keeping in print such authors as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Edward Dahlberg, Charles Bukowski, Paul Bowles, Robert Creeley, Czeslaw Milosz, Eugenio Montale, Louise Bogan, Italo Calvino, José Donoso, and William Gass.  This reaction was heightened in the context of the political unrest of the 1960s, when many writers regarded commercial publishers as servants of the Establishment's capitalist imperialism.  For example, Gwendolyn Brooks, after being introduced to ideas about black self-determination, severed her long-time relationship with Harper and Row and has since brought out her new books with black-owned presses.  And the underground press, in some instances consisting of little more than a typewriter and a mimeograph machine, provided outlets for the political and artistic expressions of thousands whose subject matter, stylistic innovations, youth, gender, or ethnic background would have been a basis for rejection by commercial publishers.

The first opportunity that aided this growth was the advance in publishing technology.  Before World War II, one of the biggest expenses for an independent publisher was having its books set in type and printed.  The wide-spread adoption of offset printing in the 1950s and 1960s reduced the costs of printing enormously (Gabriel 66).  Even more important, the personal computer revolution of the 1980s resulted in desk-top publishing, where typesetting the book, designing the page, and printing the copy can all be done by one person, cheaply and with professional results.

The second opportunity was the signing by President Lyndon Johnson of the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965.  This act committed the U.S. government in a much more formal way than ever before to public support of the arts for the public good.  In declaring its purpose, the Act asserted among other things that funding the arts is

an appropriate matter of concern to the Federal Government; . . . that democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens and that it must therefore foster and support a form of education designed to make men masters of their technology and not its unthinking servant; . . . that the practice of art and the study of the humanities requires constant dedication and devotion and that, while no government can call a great artist or scholar into existence, it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent. . . .


to foster institutional creativity and excellence; to preserve the artistic birthright of present and future generations of Americans by supporting survival of the best of all art forms that reflect the American heritage in its full range of cultural and ethnic diversity; to ensure that all Americans have a true opportunity to make an informed, educated choice to have the arts of high quality touch their lives; and with responsiveness to the needs of the field, to provide leadership on behalf of the arts. (U.S. Government Manual 673)

This law was a landmark recognition on the part of the government that the arts are too important to be kept at the mercy of the commercial marketplace.  Previously, alternative publishers either had to sell enough books, by means of bookstores, subscriptions, or direct-mail purchases, to keep afloat financially or have some outside subsidization, a patron or a family fortune to draw on, as the Crosbys at Black Sun and Laughlin at New Directions had.  As we have seen, most alternative publishers eventually succumbed to market pressures.  The Arts and Humanities Act gave noncommercial publishers another choice: to be declared not-for-profit and apply for NEA and foundation support.  The result of this law has been the founding and flourishing of a number of nonprofit literary presses.  These presses, including Dalkey Archive Press, Fiction Collective 2, Semiotexte, Sun & Moon Press, Copper Canyon Press, Coffee House Press, Story Line Press, Marlboro Press, the Feminist Press and many others, offer literature that would in most cases otherwise not be available to the reading public.

This historical and cultural analysis has tried to show that commercial publishing in this country has in general supported and advanced serious literature only when economic conditions made it profitable to do so, that alternative publishing movements have repeatedly arisen to respond to the failures of the commercial publishing industry, and that these alternative publishing movements have been self-consciously grounded in rebellions against both the limited aesthetic visions and the economic ideologies of the commercial publishing industry.  It can be argued that such a general overview has left out much and that there are surely exceptions that call into question these conclusions.  This is probably true, but one might wish that there were more exceptions, especially more unambiguous exceptions.  Look at the Maxwell Perkins era of Scribner's: despite the conservatism of the firm's publisher, Perkins gathered a group of innovative serious novelists, including the most influential stylists of the time: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Ring Lardner, and James Jones.  Yet when Charles Scribner, Jr., took over the firm, he blamed its financial lassitude on Perkins:"For years we tried to publish in the Perkins mode, but it was impossible to make a trade publishing house succeed with talented novelists alone.  What we needed was a much broader variety of books.  We had been too much enthralled by high literature.  It wasn't until we decided to break away from the Perkins tradition of pursuing novels and belles lettres exclusively that we began to publish more successfully" (45).5 Compare Scribner's ideas with the credo of James Laughlin's New Directions:

1) to keep in print important works . . . of the literary revolution . . . ; 2) to circulate English translations of important modern works in other languages . . . ; 3) to search out new writers, both experimentalists . . . and others . . . ; 4) to publish works from all literary camps, no matter how contrary, and even to stir up controversy for the sake of the animating stimulus. (qtd. in Dana xvi-xvii)

Perhaps this contrast in publishing philosophies best illustrates the recurring conflict between the commercial publishing industry and the various alternative publishing movements: the one thinks literature is important to make a buck; the other thinks literature is important to change the world.6


5  And how the mighty have fallen: Scribner's 1952 Fall list consisted of 33 hardcover books, of which nine were novels (including Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Kurt Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano, John Clellon Holmes's Go, and one mystery), three were volumes of poetry, and one was a collection of plays (Publishers Weekly 20 Sept. 1952).  Scribner's 1972 Fall list consisted of 109 hardcover books, of which 20 were novels, two were volumes of poetry, and two were collections of short stories (Publishers Weekly 28 Aug. 1972).  Several years after their acquisition by Macmillan, Scribner's 1992 Fall list consisted of 23 hardcover books, eight of which were novels: D. M. Thomas's Kennedy-assassination novel, Flying into Love, and seven mysteries (Publishers Weekly 17 Aug. 1992).

6  I would like to thank John O'Brien for initiating my interest in this topic and for supporting my research and Cindy Renaud for assisting me in my research. Back


Works Cited

Cerf, Bennett.  At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf.  New York: Random House, 1977.

Coser, Lewis A., Charles Kadushin, and Walter W. Powell.  Books: The Culture and Commerce of Publishing.  New York: Basic Books, 1982.

Crosby, Caresse.  The Passionate Years.  1953.  New York: Ecco Press, 1979.

Dana, Robert, ed.  Against the Grain: Interviews with Maverick American Publishers.  Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1986.

Dennison, Sally.  [Alternative] Literary Publishing: Five Modern Histories.  Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1986.

Gabriel, Michael R. "The Astonishing Growth of Small Publishers: 1958-1988."  Journal of Popular Culture 24.3 (Winter 1990): 61-68.

Gilmer, Walker.  Horace Liveright: Publisher of the Twenties.  New York: David Lewis, 1970.

Goodrich, Chris. "The New Press: It's Here, It's Austere, Get Used to It."  Lingua Franca 3.4 (May-June 1993): 45-51.

Hoffman, Frederick J.  The Twenties: American Writing in the Postwar Decade.  Rev. ed.  New York: Free Press, 1965.

Jones, Malcolm. "The New Publishers' Row."  Newsweek 21 Feb. 1994: 64-65.

Lingeman, Richard.  Theodore Dreiser: At the Gates of the City, 1871-1907.  New York: Putnam's, 1986.

Madison, Charles A.  Book Publishing in America.  New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966.

Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman.  London: Oxford UP, 1941.

McAlmon, Robert.  McAlmon and the Lost Generation: A Self-Portrait.  Ed. Robert E. Knoll.  Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1962.

One Hundred and Fifty Years of Publishing: 1837-1987.  Boston: Little, Brown, 1987.

Scribner, Charles, Jr.  In the Company of Writers: A Life in Publishing.  New York: Scribner's, 1990.

Sheehan, Donald.  This Was Publishing: A Chronicle of the Book Trade in the Gilded Age.  Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1952.

Sowell, Thomas. "Culture: End Tax Support of All That Arts and Craftiness."  Bloomington-Normal Pantagraph 10 Feb. 1995: A5.

Sukenick, Ronald. "The N.E.A. and the Avant-Garde."  Nation 11 October 1993: 400-01.

Tebbel, John.  A History of Book Publishing in the United States.  4 vols.  New York: R. R. Bowker, 1972-81.

The United States Government Manual: 1992-1993.  Washington: Office of the Federal Register, 1992.

Whiteside, Thomas.  The Blockbuster Complex: Conglomerates, Show Business, and Book Publishing.  Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1981.

Wiener, Jon.  "Murdered Ink."  Nation 31 May 1993: 743-50.

Wiley: One Hundred and Seventy-Five Years of Publishing.  New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1982.


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