For seven years (1919–1926), Thomas Seltzer was one of New York City’s most influential small publishers: a compact engine of the coming modern movement. Born in Russia in 1875, he was a proponent of progressive politics and experimental writing, founding editor of The Masses, and the first editor in chief of the Modern Library. At Thomas Seltzer Inc. he translated Tolstoy and Gorky, edited Chekhov and Turgenev, and published Henry James and Stefan Zweig. Most important, he championed D. H. Lawrence at a crucial period in his literary development, publishing the first U.S. editions of The Rainbow, Women in Love, Sons and Lovers, Aaron’s Rod—twenty titles in all. Lawrence trusted him, enjoyed his intelligence and can-do spirit, and became warm friends to both him and his wife, Adele, who was very much a partner in Seltzer’s business.
Lawrence’s letters to the Seltzers—here numbering 135—were posted from Sicily and Mexico, often together with affectionate postscripts from Lawrence’s wife, Frieda. There is much here about Lawrence’s reading (“Ulysses wearied me: so like a schoolmaster with dirt & stuff in his head: sometimes good though: but too mental”) and about Mexico and the Mexican people (“Mazatlan is very like the South Seas Isles in quality, as remote & soft & senusuous . . . and the natives very like islanders . . . the Pacific blue-black in the eyes & hair, fathomless, timeless”). But these are personal letters only in the margins: most are strictly business, artist to publisher, and concerned with the content, marketing, and design of Lawrence’s books.
It was a beautiful partnership—at least until 1924, when Seltzer was dragged before the courts for publishing Schnitzler’s sexually candid Casanova’s Homecoming. Defending himself against the Comstock Laws nearly bankrupted him, and as his financial situation darkened and he caved under legal pressures, his relationship with Lawrence became sadly strained. In the end, Lawrence moved to Knopf, with some regret: “It was neither your fault nor mine. It’s just that neither of us is in line with modern business. I don’t intend to be, but you can’t be. It’s not really in your nature; you’re not tough enough. I can afford not to succeed—but you, being in business, needed to. Which makes me very sorry things went as they did. . . . Why didn’t they turn out nicer?”
Illustrated with 34 pages of black-and-white photographs, and with a biographical essay by Alexandra Lee Levin and Lawrence L. Levin, a Seltzer/Lawrence bibliography, and detailed editor’s notes.
When D. H. Lawrence wrote that God created Seltzer a little publisher, he was being critical of Seltzer’s pretensions but also suggesting, by implication, the value of littleness—which is to say, the values of personal taste and judgment. Seltzer’s career stands as an instructive illustration of the individual element in publishing in the 1920s, and of the strengths and weaknesses of being little.
—G. Thomas Tanselle