The Beauty of Independent Publishingby Phong Bui
Encounters: My Life in Publishing
(George Braziller, Inc., 2015)
Along with James Laughlin of New Directions (founded in 1936) and Barney Rosset of Grove Press and Evergreen Review (1951 and 1957, respectively), George Braziller, of George Braziller Inc. (1955), who turns 100 this month, is one of the monumental figures in the history of American publishing. He is known for his strong-mindedness as a publisher and for his deep cultural and sociopolitical curiosity. Braziller has published books like La Question, the autobiography of Henri Alleg, the French-Algerian journalist and editor of a daily paper banned by French authorities in September 1965, who was arrested and tortured by French paratroopers during the Algerian War. And he published 365 Days, the young doctor Ronald Glasser’s chronicle of his tour of duty during the Vietnam War, famous for its account of a burn ward in a U.S. Army hospital at Camp Zama in Japan. Meanwhile he also brought to print the works of various international authors including Jean-Paul Sartre, Nathalie Sarraute, and Claude Simon of France; David Malouf of Australia; Janet Frame of New Zealand; Kathleen Raine of Great Britain; Carlo Emilio Gadda from Italy; Orhan Pamuk from Turkey; and Buchi Emecheta from Nigeria.
I first learned of Braziller’s books in art school through The Great American Artist series—Lloyd Goodrich on Albert Pinkham Ryder, Frank O’Hara on Jackson Pollock, Thomas Hess on De Kooning, among others—and the Masters of World Architecture series with Vincent Scully, Jr. on Frank Lloyd Wright, Ada Louise Huxtable on Pier Luigi Nervi, and Arthur Drexler on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. I treasure both series as I treasure Meyer Schapiro’s five volumes covering everything from Romanesque, Late Antique, Early Christian, and Medieval art, to art in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as the theory and philosophy of art. George Braziller, Inc. also published an exquisite three volumes of Great Drawings of the Louvre Museum, the precious facsimiles of the Morgan Beatus manuscript, Joan Miró’s A Toute Epreuve, Henri Matisse: Jazz, Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, and countless other treasures.
This is a long-awaited memoir, which must have been written in spurts of inspiration after Braziller handed his publishing crown to his two sons, Michael and Joel Braziller, in 2011 at the age of ninety-five. The result is clear prose with a haiku-like economy of expression. It’s generous and funny, yet revelatory and immensely readable. Beyond the requisite melodrama, gossip, and grand insight into the other worldly personas of various literary and cultural circles—a gratifying feature of the popular memoir—Encounters is an essentially original and inspiring read for those seeking an individual path in publishing outside conventional commercial models.
I was taken by the diffident youth, as described in his preface that mellifluously flows into “Part One: The Early Years,” which provides a brief history of the Braziller family. Both parents, Joseph and Rebecca, were Russian Jews who emigrated to the U.S. in 1890, like many others fleeing religious persecution and famine during that period. The family settled in Brownsville, where George, the youngest of seven children, was born on February 12, 1916, just after his father’s death. His childhood reminiscences of the hardships of the First World War and the Great Depression are balanced by those of his admirable mother—who alone managed to support her children and instill enough confidence in the young Braziller to sustain him through odd jobs—his first political interaction with the Spanish Civil War, the meeting of his future wife Marsha Nash, and his eventual founding of the Book Find Club. “Part II: The War” paints a colorful narrative of a reluctant soldier, a pacifist whose experience of the Second World War only strengthened his lifelong resolve as an anti-war activist. In February of 2003, Braziller published the memorable collection, Cry Out: Poets Protest the (Iraq) War, based on a reading in Manchester, Vermont called “A Poetry Reading in Honor of the Right to Protest as a Patriotic and Historical Tradition,” a protest of the Iraq war with eleven contemporary poets including Julia Alvarez, Donald Hall, Jamaica Kincaid, Galway Kinnell, and Grace Paley. The book also includes poems by Langston Hughes, Pablo Neruda, and Walt Whitman.
It was “Part Three: Publishing,” however, that I relished most. His career in publishing began on his thirty-ninth birthday, in 1955, as he learned the nuts and bolts of the business with enthusiasm, met people in the trade magazine Publishers Weekly, reached out to the editors of the New York Times Book Review along with book distributors and buyers, and attended the Frankfurt Book Fair to meet European publishers—Collins from England, Gallimard from France, Einaudi from Italy, among others—all in an effort to, as he wrote, “make my face familiar everywhere.” Equally productive were his multiple trips to Europe in May 1968 and intermittent trips thereafter, to meet writers such as André Malraux, Claude Mauriac, and countless others. (In one interview Braziller noted that he missed the chance to meet Samuel Beckett because Barney Rosset arrived to Paris first.) The rest is a rich history that sifts through various memories of encounters with Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe, and Picasso, to vivid descriptions of working relationships with the editors, authors, and artists he published. This social history is intermingled with personal vignettes like his visit to the house where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis, or his successful coaxing of Eugene Power, the businessman/inventor of microfilm, to keep the Caxton manuscript (volume one of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated and printed in 1480 by William Caxton, England’s first printer) in England.
The last two pages are dedicated to his favorite philosopher Denis Diderot, “a freethinker and atheist,” as Braziller aspired to be, which include a heartwarming commentary on a photograph of himself at the age of twelve, looking as though he is “expecting to be asked something.” He would supply his answer in abundance as he learned to embrace life with a sense of adventure. To this day his sense of adventure inspires.
PHONG BUI is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.