"...previous American publishers, agents, and literary folk had readily and constantly declined to have anything to do with me. Seymour Lawrence, however, seemed to exude confidence, and following taking freshly squeezed glasses of orange juice together in this flowery lounge of the Hotel Lancaster, he carried the considerable MS [first draft of A Singular Man] away to his room for the night. And I dared to think, My God, this man actually thinks and verily believes I can write books. In the morning, as he returned the MS to me, then simply and unhesitatingly said, 'I want to publish it.' And this was then my first encounter with this intrepid gentleman, possessed of a directness and elegance of behavior I had only rarely previously encountered in the publishing world."
J.P. Donleavy from Seymour Lawrence Publisher:
An Independent Imprint Dedicated to Excellence
After graduating from Harvard in 1948, Lawrence took a job as a salesman for Van Nostrand Company, the leading publisher of college textbooks. In 1950 he became a special assistant to the editor of Atlantic Monthly and by 1952 had worked his way up to associate editor at Atlantic Monthly Press, Boston, an imprint in association with Little, Brown & Co. By 1955, he had become director of Atlantic.
J.P. and Lawrence first met in 1961. They had been corresponding regarding J.P.'s work in progress A Fairy Tale of New York for which Lawrence and Atlantic in association with Little, Brown & Co. had offered an advance. When J.P. decided to publish A Singular Man instead as his second novel, Lawrence, who was determined to be J.P.'s publisher, substituted A Singular Man in the advance contract. However conflicts arose between Lawrence and the board of directors at Atlantic Monthly Press/Little, Brown along with the editor of The Atlantic. The sexual content of the manuscript was said to be obscene and likely to bring on litigation if the book were to be published. The details of this battle are chronicled in Lawrence's "Adventures with J.P. Donleavy or How I lost my job and made my way to greater glory" first appearing in the Fall, 1990 issue of The Paris Review. (Read Lawrence's "Adventures with J.P. Donleavy").
The ordeal of getting A Singular Man published caused a rift between Lawrence and upper management at Atlantic Monthly Press/Little, Brown. The owner of The Atlantic considered J.P.'s work disgusting and immoral. Lawrence's entire list came under attack and he was pressured to resign.
Soon, Lawrence made arrangements to strike out on his own and establish an independent imprint dedicated to writers and writing. Months went by and he became discouraged and plagued with doubt as to whether his new venture would work out. J.P. phoned Lawrence and encouraged him saying, “All you need to be a publisher is one room, one desk, one phone, and one author. I’ll be that author.” J.P. then gave Lawrence The Ginger Man to publish, which, in association with Delacorte/Dell, came out in 1965 (the first complete and unexpurgated edition published in the U.S.) to great success.
In the years that followed, Seymour Lawrence built a remarkable list of important authors, including: Thomas Berger, Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut, William Styron, Jim Harrison, Katherine Anne Porter, William Saroyan, Frank Conroy and winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature – Miguel Angel Asturias, Camilo Jose Cela, Pablo Neruda and George Seferis.
Lawrence was something of an anomaly in the publishing scene, surviving as an independent for more than 25 years despite the mergers and consolidation cutbacks all around him. However, in 1983, after a 17-year association with Delacorte/Dell, his imprint was dropped by the troubled management at Doubleday, Dell’s owner.
From Dell, Lawrence took his imprint to E.P. Dutton, then to Houghton Mifflin in 1988 where he stayed until his untimely death in 1994 from complications after a heart attack. J.P.’s last Seymour Lawrence-published book, his autobiography The History of The Ginger Man, came out that same year.
Lawrence was described by his authors as a publisher who was passionately committed to writers and writing, but who was not always tolerant of “misguided reviewers” or the publishing bureaucracy. Individual testaments to Lawrence can be found in the privately published book Seymour Lawrence An Independent Imprint Dedicated To Excellence. J.P.’s piece is especially poignant.
Seymour Lawrence’s legacy lives on in the work of his many fine authors and in special collections at major universities: “The Seymour Lawrence Papers” at the University of Maryland, “The Seymour Lawrence Publishing Files re: Kurt Vonnegut” at the University of Delaware and "The Seymour Lawrence Publishing Collection” at the University of Mississippi. Lawrence’s extensive art collection is housed in The Seymour Lawrence Gallery of American Art, Oxford, Mississippi.