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Censorship-Fighting Editor Richard Seaver

While at Grove Press in New York, Richard Seaver, left, and publisher Barney Rosset worked on books such as William F. Burroughs's "Naked Lunch."
While at Grove Press in New York, Richard Seaver, left, and publisher Barney Rosset worked on books such as William F. Burroughs's "Naked Lunch." (Courtesy Of Arcade Publishing)

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By Alexander F. Remington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 8, 2009

Richard Seaver, 82, a publisher, translator and editor of controversial works of fiction who fought censorship statutes and helped bring author Samuel Beckett to wider attention in the English-speaking world, died Jan. 6 at his home in Manhattan, N.Y., after a heart attack.

Mr. Seaver was a top editor at Grove Press in New York in the late 1950s and 1960s when the company, led by publisher Barney Rosset, began publishing books with sexually explicit content that challenged censorship laws.

Such titles included William F. Burroughs's "Naked Lunch," with its raw depictions of drug use and homosexuality; Henry Miller's semi-autobiographical chronicles of lust "Tropic of Cancer" and "Tropic of Capricorn"; and the French erotic novel "The Story of O," written by an author using a pseudonym. Mr. Seaver translated "O" under a different name, according to the New York Times.

In an interview yesterday, Rosset said, "There was nobody more important" at Grove than Mr. Seaver. In introducing many controversial works to a broad audience, the company put itself on the front lines of First Amendment battles.

In 1960, a federal court of appeals ruled that graphic depiction of sex alone did not constitute obscenity, with regard to Grove's publication a year earlier of D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover." The book, written in the 1920s, was in limited circulation before Grove made it widely available.

Emboldened, the company pressed forth with other titles, including "Tropic of Cancer." The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1964 that the book was not obscene because it had social value. And in 1966 the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts cleared "Naked Lunch" of obscenity charges.

"Naked Lunch" proved "the last instance of complete literary censorship in the U.S.," Frederick Whiting wrote in his essay "Monstrosity on Trial."

"It was a very exciting, febrile time," Mr. Seaver told Newsweek. "We almost did a yearly bombshell. Barney loved -- I won't say he loved the litigation, but he loved everything that went with it."

Mr. Seaver first caught Rosset's attention in the early 1950s, when Mr. Seaver was working in Paris for a small literary magazine, Merlin.

Through what he called "fortuitous contiguity," Mr. Seaver found two novels by Beckett, at the time a relatively obscure Irish expatriate who wrote in French. Mr. Seaver later wrote of the works, "The simplicity, the beauty, yes, and the terror of the words shook me as little had before or has since."

In a 1952 essay, Mr. Seaver said that the books "merit the attention of anyone interested in this century's literature." It was one of the first essays in English about Beckett's fiction. Rosset subsequently published several works by Beckett, including the play that would make him famous, "Waiting for Godot."

Mr. Seaver displayed a taste for controversy before he met Rosset. When he excerpted Beckett's "Watt" in a 1953 issue of Merlin, five readers canceled their subscriptions. "We knew we were on the right track," he wrote in the introduction to "A Samuel Beckett Reader." "Thereafter, virtually every issue of Merlin contained something by Beckett."

Richard Woodward Seaver was born Dec. 31, 1926, in Watertown, Conn. He attended the University of North Carolina and taught high school before landing in Paris, where he met Jeanette Medina, whom he married in 1953.

After leaving Grove Press in 1971, he went to Viking and helped publish Octavio Paz and others. He was hired in 1979 to be publisher of trade books for Holt, Rinehart and Winston. An official at the company that owned the publishing firm told the New York Times that Mr. Seaver would "add a touch of class to a house currently steeped in commercialism."

In 1988, Mr. Seaver and his wife started Arcade Publishing to help spotlight lesser-known writers around the world. In the course of his career, Mr. Seaver translated more than 50 books from French, including works by Beckett, the Marquis de Sade and Andre Breton.

In addition to his wife, survivors include three children, Nathalie Seaver of Los Angeles, Alexander Seaver of New Canaan, Conn., and Nicholas Seaver of Crestone, Colo; a sister; and four grandchildren.


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