A Brief History of the Evergreen Review by Ken Jordan
From the introduction to the first Evergreen Review Reader
In 1957 a gray-suited calm dominated the cultural landscape of the United States. Often the fifties are recalled, a kind of never-never land of unprecedented material prosperity, the reassuring, fatherly sobriety of the Cold War. Of course, this nostalgic vision of easygoing stability looks around the presence of Joseph McCarthy and the balance of terror, and of a repressive, reactionary hypocrisy that ruled much of the public discourse. But there were voices of dissent to be heard-every so often, from far and disparate outposts.
Along the margins of acceptability a new culture was beginning to take shape. In jazz, Charlie Parker was altering the old forms of this African-American art with his distinctive style of bebop. Parker's sound was a challenge to the orthodoxy of Eisenhower's America, and his music became the soundtrack to a new way of seeing and hearing- over a decade before Bob Dylan: something is happening here, and you don't know what it is. Parker took a committed, and intransigent, position in his music-and paid dearly for it. In the visual arts, the New York School painters-Pollock, de Kooning, and Kline among them-were making similar statements, and suffered similar consequences.
Among writers, an allied movement was under way. A band of bohemian, disaffected young poets in San Francisco was attracting attention with public readings of their work. The Beat writers, as they came to be known, wanted to reclaim poetry from the academics who had dominated literature for a generation; they wanted their writing to give voice to the unspoken and the unspeakable. They wanted to lift the mask of decorum not only from the face of poetry, but from that of the "acceptable," "establishment" culture itself.
Meanwhile in Europe, a dark, angry, so-called Literature of the Absurd was beginning to make its appearance. Beckett, lonesco, Genet, and Trocchi seemed as shocking and incomprehensible over there in the fifties as their anti-authoritarian peers did in this country. They refused to speak using the accepted terms of the debate. Finally it was clear that the ground rules were changing.
Evergreen Review was unique in bringing these two strands of postwar writing - two columns of attack forces in the effort to transform the culture - together under one set of covers. While not the first magazine to publish the Beats, Evergreen was certainly among the first, and it was definitely the most important. And while Evergreen was among the first magazines to publish the European avant-garde in the United States, it was not the only magazine to do so. But Evergreen's greatest accomplishment was that it brought these two columns together, and added to the mix voices from Africa, South America, and Japan-alongside political commentary, sexy comics, and a healthy taste for the subversive. It not only helped to define the literary avant-garde of the fifties and sixties; it helped create an audience for this new kind of writing. Evergreen Review was the matrix of a new cultural alignment.
Evergreen was founded in 1957 by Barney Rosset, publisher of Grove Press, as a quarterly in a trade paperback format, not so unlike other literary quarterlies. From the start, however, it did not fit easily in that company. The first issue featured an essay by Jean-Paul Sartre and an interview with the great New Orleans jazz drummer Baby Dodds. It also included a story of Samuel Beckett's, "Dante and the Lobster," the first of his many appearances in Evergreen's pages; these continued through the last issue published.
The second issue was a landmark. A banner across the cover declared "San Francisco Scene," and inside held the first collection of work by the new Beat writers-including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Jack Kerouac (before the publication of On the Road), and Allen Ginsberg, whose "Howl" had already been published as a pamphlet by Ferlinghetti's press, City Lights, and was confiscated by customs officials and faced trial for obscenity in San Francisco. The issue brought the Beats and Evergreen Review to the forefront of the American stage.
Subsequent issues presented some of the best and most provocative literary writing of the time: William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch was excerpted side by side with C. Wright Mills and a section from Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd; Edward Albee's first play, "Zoo Story, appeared next to Camus' appeal against capital punishment; a portion of Jean Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers ran in the same number as an essay by Octavio Paz. LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), John Rechy, Robert Coover, Frank O'Hara, Richard Brautigan, Hubert Selby, Jr., Kenneth Koch, and Terry Southern were among those who appeared regularly. Evergreen published writing that was literally counter to the culture, and if it was sexy, so much the better. In the context of the time, sex was politics, and the powers-that-be made the suppression of sexuality a political issue. The court battles that Grove Press fought for the legal publication of Lady Chatterly's Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Naked Lunch, and for the legal distribution of the film I Am Curious: Yellow, spilled onto the pages of Evergreen Review, and, in 1964, an issue of Evergreen itself was confiscated in New York State by the Nassau County District Attorney on obscenity charges.
As the fifties turned into the sixties, and the Beat scene grew into the counterculture, Evergreen grew as well, always one step ahead of the pack. Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman, and the Fugs shared pages with Kerouac, Mailer, Beckett, and Burroughs, and essays propounding psychedelia and Black Power appeared between cartoons by Tomi Ungerer, Kliban, and Sin6. Michael O'Donoghue (later of National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live fame) became a regular contributor and created the classic commix satire "Phoebe Zeit-Geist." Politics, sex, and art always went together. The Hon. Gerald R. Ford denounced the magazine on the floor of Congress for printing a lampoon of Richard Nixon beside the photo of a nude. In 1968 Evergreen Review #51, featuring "The Spirit of Che" and with a Paul Davis portrait of Che Guevera on the cover so inflamed anti-Castro Cubans that they bombed the Evergreen offices.
All this was done on a shoestring budget by a tiny staff. Barney Rosset started the magazine with editor Don Allen and Fred Jordan, who was nominally the business manager in its early days. Richard Seaver joined the editorial team with the ninth issue, and Don Allen stepped back to become a contributing editor. Publication increased from quarterly to bimonthly to, in the late sixties, monthly, and the format changed from trade paperback to a full-sized, glossy magazine attaining a subscription base of some 40,000 copies and a newsstand circulation of 100,000. The final issue, number 96, came out in 1973.