Can the Once Avant Garde and Erotic Evergreen Magazine Still Excite Modern Readers?

Until it folded in 1973, Barney Rosset’s Evergreen Review mixed erotica and cutting-edge writing with incendiary results. Now it’s back, with literary bad boy Dale Peck in charge.

From 1957 to 1972, the Evergreen Review landed every other month in mailboxes like a bomb, busting long-held ideas about literature, decency, and taste. It was a magazine that allowed many Americans to discover for the first time work by the likes of Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, William S. Burroughs, Jean-Paul Sartre, and other figures of the post World War II literary avant-garde.

If it is impossible to imagine literature being labeled obscene in our time, it is largely because of the Evergreen Review and its founder, Barney Rosset. A hard-drinking, hard-living literary force of nature who conceived of the magazine as companion to his publishing house, Grove Press, Rosset considered it his life’s mission “to find the most original outlandish texts being written by writers who were not necessarily appreciated but who he believed to be really worth reading and to do whatever it took to make sure they were read,” according to Lois Oppenheim who recently published a volume of letters between Beckett and Rosset.

In 1964, an issue of Evergreen that contained writings from Norman Mailer and Eugene Ionesco was confiscated by the Nassau County district attorney on the grounds that it contained “bizarre and sexually provocative poses” in one story. But it was just one skirmish in an ongoing battle against government censors, one that Rosset waged in the open, courting controversy and the ire of the authorities. And it was a battle he ultimately won, suing the federal government to permit work from D.H Lawrence, Henry Miller, and others to be distributed in the United States.

Now, after a nearly half-century hiatus, Evergreen Review is being revived. At a time when college kids prefer Snapchat to short stories, and “anything goes” has been going on for seemingly forever, the legendary magazine is being relaunched this week as an online-only publication run by John Oakes, founder of the experimental publishing upstart OR Books and a Rosset acolyte who published Rosset’s posthumous autobiography last year.

So how does it feel to inherit the legacy of your hero, one of the most important figures in American publishing of the last century?

“My hope is that what we do will serve to turn people’s attention to what made Evergreen interesting in the first place, and then maybe we can pick up a bit of that history and a lot of that spirit,” Oakes said in an interview. “I know it’s always a bad idea to start a literary magazine. But in this case Evergreen had such an amazing role in the reshaping of American culture. This is a magazine that introduced to a generation of readers writers who were previously unknown, it’s a magazine that at one point had a quarter of a million subscribers. You talk to anyone who was in college from the early ’60s through the early ’70s, and they will tell you Evergreen Review is what people read.”

After Rosset died in 2012 at the age of 89, the remaining members of the magazine’s board of directors contemplated what to do with the magazine’s legacy. There had been a website up for over a decade, but it served mostly as a place for Rosset’s screeds on politics or the state of literary publishing. In 2014, Baruney's widow, Astrid Rosset, approached Oakes, who responded with a plan to take it over, not by recreating what Rosset did during the Evergreen heyday—the loosening of obscenity laws alone would render that impossible—but to make it once again a place for experimental writing that wouldn’t otherwise be seen in the United States.

The erotic art that graced several Evergreen covers won’t reappear, in other words, (“That’s not really a driving passion of mine,” Oakes says). But the proto-punk ’zine zeitgeist will.

“It would make better copy if I would say we are going to do what they did,” Oakes said, referring to Rosset and his band of merry publishing pranksters. “But it seems to us that the commitment of Evergreen to alternative culture, to exploring interesting and maybe even iconoclastic writers and innovators, there is still room for that. It is an interesting time to be doing this, especially with our new leader in Washington.”

Soon after it was agreed upon by the board that Oakes would take over, he sent out an email to friends and acquaintances announcing his newest project. One of those on the missive was Dale Peck, a novelist and critic whose reviews of new novels were so savage that during a National Book Awards ceremony in 2002, emcee Steve Martin warned the audience to wait until all the nominees were named before cheering: “If anyone applauds before everyone has been announced, they will be reviewed by Dale Peck.”

Peck, whose first book of criticism was called Hatchet Jobs and featured him on the cover holding an axe, insists he has mellowed since then, and he volunteered to edit the new Evergreen, pushing Oakes to do one thing first: Change the name. Oakes demurred.

“There is just no way we can live up to it,” Peck said, sitting in a coffee shop near his Brooklyn home and wearing (apparently without irony) a dress shirt covered in tiny red and black shark prints.

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“The Evergreen Review in the ’50s and ’60s was unmatchable in terms of the stuff they were putting out there,” Peck said. “I am taking inspiration from not trying to recreate it.”

He hopes the new Evergreen creates a sense of community among its readers and writers in the way that some of the other literary successes of the last decade have done, magazines like N+1 or McSweeney’s, but without the kind of clubbiness or the insistence on a particular aesthetic.

“I want the magazine to be something between a community and a place where lone wolves hang out,” Peck said. “I have a preference for experimental literature, but for genuinely experimental literature as opposed to literature that says it is experimental but it is really just repeating someone else’s experiment from 70 years ago. All good literature is experimental, at least in the sense that it invents its own terms.”

Peck added that he didn’t know how long he would last as an editor of a literary magazine, although he insisted that his reputation for literary savagery was undeserved. He liked what he liked and that was it. “Barney pushed people’s buttons,” he said. “I certainly don’t mind pushing buttons.”

Peck says that editing a magazine will force him to keep up with what younger writers are doing, something that is difficult to do the older one gets, but he hopes that the magazine also resurfaces the work of writers in their fifties, sixties, and seventies who have seen their own profile sink with time, writers like Gary Indiana, who has a story in the first issue and who, despite appearing in the publications of smaller and smaller presses over the last several years “is literally one of the greatest American writers. I mean it. I am not using hyperbole there.”

Mostly, however, the magazine’s table of contents will not be filled with marquee literary names: “We are committed to and interested in writers that you haven’t heard of,” said Oakes. “You are not going to find Phillip Roth or Elena Ferrante in there.”

What readers will find is an excerpt from a novel by Jade Sharma, an Indian-American writer whose novel Problems was praised in The New York Times for highlighting a “vulgarity [that] is deeply and powerfully feminist”; another story by Yoko Tawada, a 56-year-old Japanese writer living in Germany; and an essay by Jeffrey Renard Allen about Black Lives Matter in the age of Trump.

“There is just one quote in Barney’s autobiography about why he started the Evergreen Review,” Peck pointed out. “He said, ‘There just seemed to be a need for it.’ That’s kind of my feeling. I feel like there is something that is not being said. I do not know that I would be able to articulate it abstractly 100 percent ahead of time. It is something I hope to discover.”