Discovery, a Paperback Magazine (1953-1955)

Covers of Discovery numbers 1, 2, and 3
During my annual pilgrimage to the Montana Valley Book Store, I decided to dig around in the anthologies section, a section I’ve always avoided before. I’ll admit to a bias for original sources over compilations, and I’ve rarely found a good reason to overcome it. But it was hot outside and cool in the basement where the paperbacks are shelved, and so I dawdled a little longer.

There were the predictable copies of classic story collections aimed at high school and other such forgettable fare. But there were also dozens of copies of Ted Solotaroff’s landmark paperback magazine series, New American Review, and a few of New World Writing, and a handful of copies of Discovery, all in attractive Mondrian-esque covers. I’m sure I’ve ignored plenty of copies of Discovery over the years, but since I am focusing on short fiction this year, I was curious to see if there was anything interesting to be found.

The cover of Discovery no. 1 proclaimed, “This is the first issue of a challenging new periodical devoted to outstanding short stories, poems and essays by some of today’s most talented writers. All the selections are published here for the first time.” Of the various names displayed on the front, most were familiar: Norman Mailer, William Styron, Hortense Calisher, Chandler Brossard. But of the dozen on the back, most were unknown to me: Julia Savarese; Arnold Grisman; P. Alelyunas; U. S. D. Quincey. Every issue I thumbed through had a fair number of unrecognized names, so I added a few of the less beat-up copies to my stack.

When I got them home and investigated further, I learned that I’d pretty much bought all the issues of Discovery that had ever been published: six. Perhaps inspired by New World Writing, which had begun the year before, Pocket Books had hired novelist Vance Bourjaily and critic John W. Aldridge as editors for what they confidently predicted would “at last fulfill the terms of the American writer’s perennial vision of a magazine: large audience, fair pay, and the freedom to write as he pleases.”

You know this was doomed.

Discovery would be a fist in the face of the Establishment. Its editors rejected “the cynical portrait of the American reader as a juvenile oaf;” rejected “the timorous assumptions that pressure groups can put an honest magazine out of business;” rejected “the kind of practicality which dictates that the contents of a large-circulation magazine must be inoffensively general….” In short, they rejected “the accumulated experience of a magazine-publishing trade….”

And in keeping with that spirit, Discovery no. 1 opens with a quintessential tale of rejecting the norms of society. In “Rockabye Baby,” by the unknown Arnold Grisman, the narrator goes to bed for a couple of days to get over a cold and then decides to stay there for good. His parents plea with him to get up, but he refuses. They try bribery, then badgering with a full case of relatives, and finally try simply ignoring him. But this beatnik Oblomov comes to realize that bed is the only place he can be himself:

I just lie here and it’s quiet and peaceful, only sometimes I wonder why I decided to stay in bed. I didn’t have any ideas like that when I got out of the Army, I thought I’d go out and get a job like anybody else. It wasn’t until I’d been in bed a couple of days that I realized how much trouble it is earning a living, all the running and pushing and shoving. And for what? To get old and tired and worried like my old man?

Ironically, the author of this dropout manifesto went on to become a senior executive in the J. Walter Thompson Agency, one of the biggest advertising firms on Madison Avenue.

Fortunately, things soon pick up from this forgettable start. Mailer contributes “The Dead Gook,” a grim and violent account of combat in the Philippines much in the flavor of The Naked and the Dead, and the first issue ends with William Styron’s short novel of military brutality, The Long March. A long selection (could it be otherwise?) from Marguerite Young’s massive novel, Miss Macintosh, My Darling also appears, along with “Happy Ending”, a rare short story by poet and novelist Kenneth Fearing. Later issues featured similar rare excursions into short fiction by poets Mary Swenson and Muriel Rukeyser as well as by critics Anatole Broyard and Roger Shattuck.

Covers of Discovery numbers 4,5, and 6

Although Discovery was never quite so revolutionary as Bourjaily claimed in his prefaces (Aldridge left after the first issue), there are some noteworthy contrarian pieces to be found. Discovery no. 2 includes the first story by outsider poet and novelist Gil Orlovitz, and other issues debuted the work of Gilbert Rogin, James Leo Herlihy, and Harold Brodkey. Discovery no. 3 includes the first excerpt from Alan Harrington’s satire of conformity, The Revelations of Doctor Modesto. Well back in Discovery no. 6, you find “The Perfectionist,” a terrific story by Joseph Slotkin that proves that any attempt to ignore the old truth that a new car begins to depreciate the moment it’s driven off the lot can only lead to madness:

There ought to be something in the world that could be kept safe and inviolate….

… And maybe if he and this machine kept moving, nothing could harm them–they could move like planets in their orbits, like meteors—

… Even dust could not settle o them, if they moved fast enough, away, and if anyone or even anything got in the way, they would go faster….

… Faster, and if this machine, that was a part of him now, got hungry, it could feed from his own blood, he felt it—

Slotkin published about a dozen stories, some in SF magazines, a few in literary magazines, then died in the 1960s, his work essentially forgotten. I am very tempted to attempt to search for the rest of his ouevre.

My favorite piece comes from Discovery no. 3. “Elegy on the Passing of Shepheard’s Hotel,” an uncategorizable piece by architecture critic Allan Temko, pictures the last moments of the famed Cairo hotel, which burned down in 1952:

Hello, there, this is the first speaking rather casually among the pillars of the lobby. Hello, Hello, I’m sitting on a sofa admiring these potted plants rather posh what, these potted plants. If anyone asks my name, tell them I’m the fire, I’m the fire. If anyone asks my name, I’m the fire. Hello hello. Hello what smashing carpets. If anyone asks my name, I’m the fire. Hello stucco, hello walls, hello plaster, hello floors. If anyone asks my name, tell them I’m the fire, the fire, the rather goodlooking chap on the sofa, old soul. Hello hello old soul hello old soul hello. Hello old soul here’s my card. I’m the fire and I’m in town my clothes are linen and my hat’s bamboo hello old soul here’s a drink for you. I’m the fire crepe-de-Chine hello old soul have a drink again.

I’d carry the quote on longer, but I suspect this is the sort of thing one either loves at first sight or hates outright. It’s unlike anything else I’m aware that Temko wrote and the closest thing to experimental fiction in the whole series.

By Discovery no. 6, Pocket Books tossed in the towel. Bourjaily’s preface claimed that it was only “the closing of our first series,” but if there’s a second series, it’s coming on the same train as Godot. The goal of publishing a ground-breaking literary magazine seems to have been doomed from the start. Bourjaily blamed the failure on three fundamental shortcomings: infrequency—it only came out twice a year; irregularity (an oxymoron for a periodical?)—twice a year didn’t mean every six months, apparently; and production—it was tough to be timely when it took six months after the manuscripts were ready to get the new issue to the shelves. Though Bourjaily was willing to admit, “We have failed; there is a phrase that no man likes to write,” he noted the successes, too: 70 stories, 89 poems, and a dozen pieces of non-fiction; seventeen writers published for the first time; sales as high as 150,000 copies for an issue.

I’d suggest that someone try collecting the best of Discovery into an anthology … but I’m afraid it would only end up on the same kind of shelf where I found my copies in the first place.

Discovery: An American Review, edited by Vance Bourjaily
New York: Cardinal Editions by Pocket Books, 1953-1955