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From the Ashes: The Phoenix Quarterly

“Are you willing to be sponged out, erased, cancelled,
made nothing?
Are you willing to be made nothing?
dipped into oblivion?

If not, you will never really change…”

— “Phoenix,”  D.H. Lawrence

The Phoenix
Woodstock, New York: Maverick Press
xAP2 P556

Like the legendary phoenix, some books can be born again, rising from the ashes (or dusty shelves) to symbolize renewal and resurrection. Like the phoenix, books can live for centuries before dying, and then awakening once more to begin a new cycle.

The phoenix in this story is first born with Blanche and James Cooney.

1930s. Greenwich Village, New York. She was seventeen; an art student and a first generation Russian-Romanian Jewish New Yorker. He was ten years her senior; an Irish-American writer, former Catholic and expelled member of the Communist Party. An unlikely pair, but passionate in their radical and anarchist tendencies. They married and escaped from New York City to find a new life. Their goal: to forge a community of self-sufficient artists and intellectuals dedicated to the political philosophy of pacifism.

Blanche and Jimmy, West Whately, 1945, photo from In My Own Sweet Time: An Autobiography

Blanche and James Cooney found their first glimpse of hope in upstate New York, on a blossoming art commune owned by Hervey White. White had bought the property outside of Woodstock in 1905, and by the time the Cooney’s arrived,  the farm — or “The Maverick” as it was called — was already a well-known intellectual meeting place with minimalistic houses and music halls. Very quickly, the Cooney’s developed their own niche in the community. With White’s hand press and type, Blanche and James started a printing press in order to produce a pacifist journal. Just like that, The Phoenix was born.

The title of the quarterly was inspired by D. H. Lawrence and his poem “Phoenix.” James believed that Lawrence was the man to turn to in the times of peril, for although he is dead, “his words are not dead. His word are most vividly, magically alive, gleaming in the darkness of our tomb like stars by which to chart our course.” Lawrence had adapted the emblem of the phoenix and used it in many of his publications. For their own phoenix design — which features prominently on every cover — The Cooneys employed yet another Maverick resident, artist Tom Penning. For the first issue, a call for submissions went out in a New York paper and, before long, The Phoenix became “a rallying point for emigres from a world gone mad.” One of the first writers to show interest was Henry Miller. Living in Paris at the time, Miller penned James Cooney,

Dear Mr. Cooney,

A friend of mine sent me a clipping recently from a N.Y. paper announcing the birth of a new magazine to be called The Phoenix. No doubt the first number is already set up. But if not, and if in this first number you would care to have something from me about Lawrence, I should be glad to contribute. I intend to finish next year a very long book on Lawrence. I have now some 300 or more pages finished, and, if you are interested, would send you a fragment or two… As you have probably never heard of me – I have been living in and publishing from Paris the last seven years – I enclose a few announcements gotten out by my fool publisher. All three of my books are banned in America and England – but one of them, Black Spring, is now about to be published in French, by Stock…

Sincerely yours,

Henry Miller
And luck to you! With your venture!

In exchange to have his banned works published, Miller vowed to introduce Cooney to his “staunch and stalwart friends;” those who were rich and influential: editors, publishers, critics; as well as lists of possible subscribers. His friends included essayist and writer of erotica, Anaïs Nin, and Miller’s “patron of the arts” in Paris, Michael Fraenkel. So pleased with the first issue of The Phoenix, Fraenkel wrote to James, “Sending copies to Jung, Keyserling, Brill and others interested in my work, so you see the magazine will be going to important people in many countries —.” The Phoenix and Maverick Press became the first American publisher for Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, and with their contacts it reached international fame. Other contributors included Kay Boyle, Jean Giono, Robert Duncan, Rayner Heppenstall, Thomas McGrath, J.C. Crews, and William Everson.

Back in Woodstock, things were far more simple. In her autobiography, In My Own Sweet Time, Blanche recalls how,“only the press was powered, and only Jimmy ran it. All the work in the print shop that led to the climax of the press run was manual, handmaiden labor; each step important but without the tension and triumph of the crucial process. I learned to set type in the composing stick… The print shop was a gathering place, a clubhouse, a forum. The press hums in a golden hive, pollen gathered far away from the Maverick; the baby sleeps in her basket, lulled by the rhythm… There’s the smell of ink, coffee’s always on, soup simmers on a hot plate; we’re camping in the shop now. Not just anyone can help, we’re selective even though it’s free and volunteer labor; we learn to weed the casual from the committed, and among the committed, the careless from the precise.”

This selectiveness carried through to the contributors as well. The Phoenix was militantly pacifist, so when Nin and Miller dismayed the Cooneys with their soft stance on war, Miller was dropped as the European editor from the masthead. His replacement was Derek Savage, a poet and conscientious objector from England.

Eight issues were published between 1938 and 1940, with the first two volumes entirely handset and printed by the Cooneys and their volunteers in Woodstock. However, with the onslaught of World War II and France’s fall to the Third Reich, the pacifist quarterly entered a long period of silence. The press was put on hold for thirty years, during which the Cooneys had expanded their family and moved to a farm in West Whately, Massachusetts. Disillusioned once again with war — this time, Vietnam — James Cooney picked up where he left off and The Phoenix was resurrected in a new print shop: the Morning Star Press.

The last few years of The Phoenix were difficult. In 1981, James had suffered a stroke that left him crippled with aphasia, which Blanche had called “cruel punishment for a man whose tongue was so fluent, so outrageous, to be suddenly silenced.” It was a slow recovery to health, but his passion allowed him to produce three more volumes before the publication eventually went under. Volume 8 (1980/82) was comprised entirely of letters Henry Miller had written to the Cooneys during the formative years of The Phoenix. The last volume (1983/84) was simply a “trophy of Jimmy’s tenacity.”

From 1938 – 1984 The Phoenix and the Cooneys represented a rare bridge between two of the richest radical movements in American history — the socialist movement of the 1930s and the peace movement of the 1960s. It was a pioneering publication that was willing to put into print material mainstream media would consider countercultural, radical and revolutionary. The legacy is now resurrected with these books. In the words of D.H. Lawrence,

“…The phoenix renews her youth
only when she is burnt, burnt alive, burnt down
to hot and flocculent ash.
Then the small stirring of a new small bub in the nest
with strands of down like floating ash
shows that she is renewing her youth like the eagle,
immortal bird.”

Contributed by Lyuba Basin, Rare Books Curator. From the Brewster Ghiselin Donation.

Suggested reading:
In my Own Sweet Time: An Autobiography
Cooney, Blanche
Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 1993

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