James MacGibbon

Looking back over more than fifty years of publishing, I count myself lucky to have begun by working for Constant Huntington, chairman of Putnam, a Bostonian of soldierly appearance, blessed with an air of extraordinary propriety, but a man of paradox. He was a self-confessed snob who enjoyed moving in what he called ‘the great world’, by which he meant the narrow orbit of country houses and fashionable quasi-literary circles where he believed the best writers were to be met. I never quite found my way there, but when I met Harold Nicolson he seemed the epitome of what Constant wanted for me. At the same time, Constant was a publisher whose policy was truly radical and whose achievements were never fully recognised by his contemporaries. He delighted in flouting convention – an inclination that I am sure was fostered by his wife, the anonymous author of Madame Solario.

I arrived at Putnam the week before the publication of All Quiet on the Western Front, that historic best-seller, one of the few that are still read fifty years on. It was a radical book in its day, and my first political eye-opener was the opposition it met: W.H. Smith refused to sell it at first, and all the national newspapers rejected a full-page advertisement designed by E. McKnight Kauffer, showing a helmeted skeleton with a fixed bayonet. Smiths overcame their moral objections when they realised they were losing out on a novel that was to sell 320,000 copies in its first year. The sexual content was the usual reason for ‘not allowing your daughter to read it’, but I am inclined to believe now that it was not so much the sex as its outspoken message against war that caused the fuss. It was the first successful book – Barbusse’s Le Feu had been published in England but not widely read – to come down fair and square against slaughters like the Somme and Passchendale.

Putnam also published Marie Stopes, the great pioneer of sex education and birth control, at a time when her books were considered improper, to be sold only under the counter – as they were most profitably by W.H. Smith. The Times refused to advertise them. Up to the 1940s they sold by the hundreds of thousand: today they seem naive, and sometimes comically romantic, and may well be virtually out of print. Marie Stopes had to face unremitting, often crude attacks. After the war we met regularly to discuss her sales, usually in some dark little-frequented restaurant where her persecutors would not track her down. I was incredulous when she declared, ‘I am the only person who can save India,’ but her early missionary work must certainly have had its effect on the Indian Government’s current propagation of birth control.

Her books were all grist to Constant’s radical mill, and he gleefully took on Bottom Dogs by the American writer Edward Dahlberg: a book so shocking that it was published in a limited edition of 500 copies with gilt tops at 15 shillings – double the normal price of novels. But when Arnold Bennett, then at the height of his fame as a critic, wrote that ‘it took you by the scruff of the neck and shook you,’ a quick reprint at seven-and-six was ordered. Not even Joynson-Hicks, the Home Secretary, would have dared to argue with Bennett.

One welcome change in the publishing scene is the new attitude to obscene libel. In the late Thirties the morbid Joynson-Hicks was for ever having books seized by the Police – Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover were but two of the kind of thing he was after. David Low portrayed him as a funeral mute with thick crêpe on his hat. Even that little classic The Specialist was a cause of some anxiety at Putnam, and a sigh of relief went up when the Times Literary Supplement dubbed it ‘innocently Rabelaisian’. We may or may not be through with the restrictions of obscene libel, but political censorship, so often unofficial, strikes me as being as prevalent as ever. Readers of the correspondence columns of the London Review have recently learned something about the ‘institutional’ censorship evident today in the press and on the BBC.

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[*] Victor Gollancz: A Biography by Ruth Dudley Edwards. Gollancz, 782 pp., £20, 15 January, 0 575 03175 1.