Columns » Penny Post by Andrei Codrescu

Black Sparrow Flies No More


One of the great independent publishers is no more. For 36 years, Black Sparrow Press published some of America's best writers in elegant editions that stayed in print. Some of these writers, like Charles Bukowski, were famous and made money for the press. Others were practitioners of poetry or fiction whose audience was limited by the difficulty of their texts and by their uncompromising allegiance to art instead of commercialism. Whatever money came in from the more accessible writers went to support the difficult ones. The result is a long shelf that contains some of the most brilliant names of our culture: Robert Creeley, Charles Reznikoff, John Fante, Ed Sanders, Eileen Myles, Wanda Coleman, Tom Clark, Robert Duncan, Clayton Eshleman and many more. The list is a who's who of poets, essayists and novelists, including some out-of-print classics, such as Theodore Dreiser and Wyndham Lewis, whose books were lovingly resurrected.

But more than the list itself, Black Sparrow was a kind of publisher that has long disappeared from the harried, product-oriented book industry. Living writers, once published by Black Sparrow, were certain to find here a home for their next book. The press cultivated writers, not just books. Such attention to the development of writers over the entirety of their careers honored literature itself. Insistent and respectful attention caused writers to flourish and to dare. Black Sparrow authors were the envy of all the practitioners of the art who did not have that good fortune. Most American authors, except a handful of the best-selling, move from publisher to publisher, book after book, in search of an elusive success that is disheartening to writers and detrimental to culture.

Black Sparrow published and sheltered its authors in beautiful editions that are a pleasure to hold in the hand. Hardbacks and paperbacks were made to last, on fine acid-free paper, with utmost care to typography and design. One can open a Black Sparrow book and inhale it deeply: it smells like books used to, fresh and textured. Simply to be seen with a Black Sparrow book was a sign of taste and discrimination.

The only publisher I can think of who came close to Black Sparrow was the French house of Gallimard which, decades ago, paid that kind of loving attention to writers and produced beautiful books. Gallimard has long since abandoned such high-mindedness for the pursuit of profit, and is now no different than any American commercial house.

The grand enterprise of Black Sparrow Press rested on the solid good taste of one man, John Martin, who loved literature and listened well to the advice of the great writers he published. And then he sent out the shocking announcement: he had sold to a division of Harper-Collins, a commercial publisher. Black Sparrow is no more. I can hear not just the wail of his orphaned writers, but the sigh of grief of an entire literature. For John Martin, now 71 years old, 36 years of service is enough. One can understand, but the loss is immense.

Add a comment