Of Mice and Magnanimity

Pascal Covici was a Romanian Jewish immigrant who came to the U.S. as a twelve-year-old with his family just before the start of the 20th century. In the 1920s, he became a bookseller and editor, and by the 1930s was running a high quality small publishing house called Covici-Friede. He was sometimes the target of self appointed guardians of public virtue, as when he was the first publisher in the U.S. of Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, the first ‘above ground’ book to deal openly and sympathetically with lesbianism, and when he published books that were a great deal better, but heavily laced with profanity and obscenity by the standards of the time. Covici-Friede, always on an insecure financial footing at the best of times, disappeared after 1939, but how the firm failed, and what Covici did afterwards remain a story of permanent interest.

Covici was for years the publisher and friend of John Steinbeck. He ‘discovered’ Steinbeck, but the early years of his discovery were ruinous. Steinbeck apparently came to him with one of his first books in the early 1930s, and Covici thought it good, but told Steinbeck it would never sell. He chose, however, to publish it anyway. He was right; the book got some friendly reviews, but had very poor sales, so that Covici lost money. Steinbeck came to him with another book, and Covici again told him that it was good but would not sell, nonetheless publishing it anyway, and losing even more money. There may even have been a third such expensive plunge. Finally, at the end of the 1930s, Steinbeck came up with Of Mice and Men.

Mice was a huge success, but too late; Covici went broke. However, he moved to Viking Press. A much larger publisher. as an editor, taking Steinbeck with him. Hence he was still responsible for the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, and later Steinbeck novels, stories, and journalism as well. Steinbeck became both a critical and popular success from then on, with the cinematic Grapes, starring Henry Fonda, becoming and still remaining the iconic film about the Great Depression. It has been widely held that there was some decline in the quality of Steinbeck’s later work, but he still won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature. He also became personally friendly with Lyndon Johnson, and was a hawk on the Vietnam War, in which his son fought, thus falling out of favour with his liberal former admirers, much as they had turned against John Dos Passos and James T. Farrell in in their own later politically incorrect years.

Steinbeck’s books, at least Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and Cannery Row remain assigned readings on many high school and college courses in American literature, and have retained some popularity among general readers as well. But I have an additional reason for memorializing Pascal Covici, beyond his dogged resolution in bringing Steinbeck to the world. The failure of his publishing house gave him less freedom and opportunities to cultivate promising new writers in the way he had with Steinbeck, but he moved on to launch a great internal enterprise at Viking of a different kind. I don’t know whether it was entirely his own idea, or whether he had been influenced by the example on the other side of the Atlantic provided by Allen Lane, who was quickly moving from the original narrow range of his green paperback Penguin reprints to other lines issued in different colours, like the more scholarly pale blue Pelicans, But in any case, Covici created something entirely different of his own. He began the publication of a long series of thick reprints of 600-700 pages, also released in relatively inexpensive paperbacks, generally called ‘Portables’. Most were devoted to a single notable writer or scholar, like The Portable Swift or The Portable Voltaire. A few were more wide-ranging anthologies, like The Portable Elizabethan Reader.

For me, and I am sure for many of my close contemporaries in age, the ‘Portables’ made up a large proportion of my real liberal education in my undergraduate and graduate years. They were at least as important as even the best courses my friends and I took in literature, philosophy, and history, many of the introductory survey courses in all of these once being almost identical at all Canadian universities. These courses sometimes assigned a ‘Portable’ or two, but in my own case, and I think that of many other young people of the period from about the end of World war II to the early 1960s, we read several more of them, sometimes re-read favourite ones, and were also frequently be led on to additional works by the same authors. Each book was edited by a distinguished scholar in his own right, providing useful assistance, but no overwhelming scholarly apparatus, and contained one or two large pieces, either complete plays or novellas or long extracts from novels or philosophical studies, and shorter stories, essays, and poems.

I have now forgotten a great deal of what was in these books, even some of my favourites of the time, but I have no doubt at all that they changed my overall understanding, reasoning, and taste. I was not all that fond of the Elizabethans, and may not have finished that particular collection, but otherwise, I read the complete volumes with fascination and great pleasure. Not necessarily in this order, I recall reading all of the following: The Portable Plato; The Portable Chaucer; The Portable Voltaire; The Portable Milton; The Portable Defoe; The Portable Swift; The Portable Nietzsche; The Portable Thomas Mann, and The Portable Mencken; perhaps one or two more that I can’t recall. I still have some scattered around my bookshelves. Pulling down my long-treasured Portable Swift, 600 pages, edited by Carl Van Doren, which I bought over half a century ago, I find that the green-and-red soft cardboard jacket lists its price as $1.25 ($1.45 in Canada). The inside cover has a summary bio of Swift at the top, and of Carl Van Doren at the bottom, and the facing page outlines the scope and purpose of the whole series.

Covici died in 1964, but Penguin, which swallowed Viking many years ago now, keeps at least some Portables in print today, which are unchanged in content, but have brighter and glossier covers, and now cost about twenty times as much in our cheaper dollars. The older I get, the more I have come to realize how much all of us who want to read and learn and understand owe to good publishers and editors, and I wonder how many suitably apprenticed and gifted ones are still appearing today. The fine ones of the past sometimes came from modest origins, like Covici himself, often from impecunious but cultivated European Jewish immigrants to England, the U. S. and Canada. Others have been drawn from monied old families, but even these ones usually did their work in small quality houses. Some of the latter are still being born, but are more easily drowned out than ever before, not only by the increasing concentration of a few giant octopuses like Penguin and HarperCollins, but also by the mixed blessing of e-books and Kindle readers.

I didn’t really appreciate the thought and care that had gone into Covici’s Portables when I was in my teens and twenties, despite the admiring blurbs on their jackets from scholars and newspaper reviewers, and I would guess most other young readers little pondered these matters either. Perhaps many readers never do think much about such things. In my own case, I happened to work for some years in bookstores and for university libraries, which eventually drove home to me what a fine thing had been done for me and for the world by Pascal Covici.

He was no model of how to be a profitable publisher, that role better filled by Michael Korda at Simon & Schuster, But he was a model of another virtue required of a civilized society, of magananimity. Covici was magnanimous both in the generosity and courage he displayed in bringing out a new writer like Steinbeck, and in the vision he showed in revivifying great old ones in his Portables. Jack McClelland showed a similar magnanimity in launching Canadian writers and reprinting valuable older ones, but I was more impressed by Covici, who gave fresh life to the literature and thought of a larger world. I hope our e-book age can still produce some new version of him. Perhaps some young contributor or reader of The Prince Arthur Herald will qualify. He or she might also, like Covici, respond to being given a lemon by thinking of a way to make another new kind of lemonade.

PAH Eleventh 2013 Article    08/08/2013

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