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  • Book LoversHarry and Caresse Crosby and Black Sun Press

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[End Page 74]

We intend to lead a mad and extravagant life.

—Harry Crosby, 1929

Between 1920 and 1939, independent American publishers flourished in Paris. Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company produced James Joyce's magnum opus Ulysses; Bill Bird's Three Mountains Press published the early work of Ernest Hemingway, Mina Loy, William Carlos Williams, and Ford Madox Ford; and shipping heiress Nancy Cunard handprinted limited editions of experimental poetry by Becket, Pound, and Richard Aldington for Hours Press. Even Gertrude Stein was bitten by the publishing bug. Her imprint, Plain Editions, put out "an edition of first editions of all the work not yet published by Gertrude Stein." At least eight other notable expatriate presses were publishing the best in early twentieth-century Modernist writing, work either overlooked or ignored by a conservative American market.

Harry Crosby, a dashing World War I veteran from Boston, and Polly Jacob Crosby, a former debutante from an established New York family, had several reasons for entering the crowded publishing field. After four years of marriage, two of which they had spent living in Paris among literary circles, they were outgrowing their agenda of self-amusement. They wanted to go beyond their rakish reputations and establish themselves as professionals. For Harry to have an occupation would mollify his parents, who were grudgingly financing the couple's lavish lifestyle. The Crosbys had a mutual love of poetry, spending several hours a day reading and writing it in bed. After failing to place their poems in magazines, they decided the best way to get published was do it themselves. They considered books to be objects of art, with too few publishers attentive to the importance of quality materials. The couple had an eye for fine paper from Japan and Holland, along with excellent ink, typography, bindings, and original artwork. In 1927, Editions Narcisse, named for their black whippet, Narcisse Noir, was founded.

The Crosbys combed the Left Bank for a printer with a handpress who could make books as beautiful as ones already in their personal library: the exquisite Brussels edition of Heloise and Abelard and a Bodley Head [End Page 75]

opposite: Harry and Caresse Crosby and Narcisse Noir, Black Sun Press, circa 1928. Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

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Black Sun Press advertisement. Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

edition of John Donne's poems stood out as models of what they hoped to produce. In a grimy shop around the corner from the expatriates' favorite café, Les Deux Magots, they found Roger Lescaret, a printer of business cards and wedding and birth announcements. With sheer enthusiasm and a good deal of money, they convinced him to become their printer. In offices upstairs in Lescaret's shop, cluttered with proofs, manuscripts, bindings, and pictures and drenched in the smell of fresh ink, the Crosbys found their vocation, dividing their workday between reading and writing poetry and attending to the logistics of a press. Editions Narcisse's first publication was a Shakespearean-looking volume of Harry's Sonnets for Caresse. A book of Polly's poetry followed, but [End Page 76] before publication, the couple decided that her name was too unpoetic and didn't suit her artistic personality. At thirty-two, Polly changed her name to Caresse Crosby, scandalizing her family in Boston.

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Harry and Caresse Crosby on their wedding day, 1922. Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

In 1928, they rechristened the venture Black Sun Press after Harry's worship of the sun and his favorite color (he was now wearing almost [End Page 77] exclusively black suits with a silk flower in the buttonhole). Over the next two years, they broadened their list to include new writers such as Pound, Joyce, and Hemingway and good friends Kay Boyle and Hart Crane. They reprinted Harry's favorite authors—Wilde, Poe, and Sterne—while also continuing to publish their own poetry and several volumes of Harry's diaries. The...


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