Before I learned about his utopian philosophy of expat writing or his scrappy resistance to publishing-market forces, I knew David Applefield as the marketer of the HAPPY CAP—the world’s first mess-free way to cover a toothpaste tube. This was, of course, completely by chance.
I was thumbing through his papers in the Amherst College archives as The Common’s inaugural holder of the David Applefield ’78 Fellowship, an Amherst College student internship endowed in Applefield’s honor by his friends and family. Tucked among sheets of poetry, reviews of Applefield’s two novels, and other literary artifacts, I was surprised to find a series of letters typed on the official stationery of “A.R.A. Industries.”
No longer must the housewife rage … over contorted tubes, hair-plagued caps that have rolled behind the toilet, gooey globs of hieroglyphic Crest and Colgate that gut the sink and counter, and dentrifice-like rock formations that form at the mouth of the open tube.
HAPPY CAP, a refreshing way to approach your mornings—a relaxing way to retire every evening.
The letters were signed by Jerome Applefield—David Applefield’s father and inventor of the HAPPY CAP—but a first-draft manuscript of these idiosyncratic marketing materials disclosed that his son was their true author. The HAPPY CAP project was as quaint as it was ambitious: the father-son pair handled the manufacturing, sales, and distribution of the product, which was portrayed as a powerful peacemaker in petty household conflicts. The junior Applefield’s prose—witty, energetic, and truly unconventional for commercial marketing—gave life to a seemingly mundane product, and landed the pair a feature in several local newspapers.
Invention and marketing were not even the young creator’s full-time job. David Applefield was, at the time, a senior English major at Amherst College—a budding writer famous (or perhaps infamous) among his teachers and peers for his tendency to break boundaries. For example, in his senior thesis, Applefield attempted to push the limits of “poetry” to the extent that neither the English department nor the fine art or philosophy departments had any idea what to do with it: his friend and classmate David Whitman called it “a wild pastiche of stuff.” It was a rejection Applefield lamented, with collegiate irony, in his contributor biography in The Review, a student-run Amherst College literary magazine: “David Applefield ’78 is an English major who can’t get his thesis approved.”
But the disappointment in this statement belies a hint of pride—Applefield had once again evaded categorization.
As I moved through Applefield’s four-decade literary career, I continually rediscovered his distinctive ethos—a mix of lighthearted irreverence and imagination, undergirded by an earnest love for writing and creating new things. Spanning five continents and amid the rapid globalization of the late twentieth century, Applefield’s eclectic editorial philosophy held up an artistic mirror to the dissolution and rearranging of national borders as he attempted to use literature to redefine “home.”
Frank was the throughgoing tether and testament to this editorial philosophy. Six years after the HAPPY CAP, Applefield founded the literary magazine as a graduate student at Northeastern University. When he finished his MA and began an expatriate life in Paris, Applefield took the journal with him. The publication blossomed into his singular, undefinable, entrepreneurial brainchild. Through its twenty years, as Applefield traveled, moved through teaching posts, worked with both governments and NGOs to spread American literary culture throughout francophone Africa, and wrote widely—two novels, two travel guides, and innumerable poems, blog posts, and newspaper articles—Frank continued to release biannual issues from Paris, holding open a cosmopolitan space where literary creatives could play and share their art freely.
As an editor, Applefield prioritized young writers—the “uncooked,” as he put it—or pieces that may not have been accepted by any other English-language publication. Applefield self-identified as a “cultural guerilla,” staging encounters between his unassuming American readers and writers from cultures that, at the time, didn’t make the cut for mainstream book reviews or newscasts. With each of these choices, Applefield mounted a surprise attack on ethnocentric expectations, tearing down the traditional veil of editorial convention to reveal a dazzling cosmos of global creativity.
It feels right that I should come to know this publication through the Applefield Papers rather than the magazine itself. These thousands of manuscripts, correspondences from the hopeful and frustrated, and editorial proofs scribbled with a messy blend of French and English demand an openness to surprise, a tolerance for being overwhelmed and lost. The excess of the archives—all thirty-two crates—is an artifact of Applefield’s inexhaustible excitement for the pieces and writers he worked with as the editor of Frank, which began publishing in 1983 and ceased in 2003. Applefield saved manuscripts he rejected on the first read as carefully and lovingly as those he spent months perfecting. I thumb past a poem from canonical beat poet William Burroughs to find a booklet by Rykardo Rodriguez-Rios—a Peruvian poet of whom no other record exists, whose poetry (I read on the back cover of this proto-zine) was pasted together, published, and distributed by hand in South and Central America. I pull out piles, clumsily straighten pages, and flip through until I’m not sure whether or not I’ve heard of the authors whose names flash by. Suddenly there is a feverishly marked-up Kerouac manuscript, a sponsorship letter from Absolut Vodka, and I rest, briefly, among familiar words.
In his archive, I can inhabit firsthand the “peculiar inertia” that Applefield sought to generate in his own life. This inertia was crucial as a creative method, and for more broadly upsetting the provincialism that Applefield saw as too common among Americans in the eighties and nineties. But it would be inaccurate to visualize Applefield collecting these manuscripts passively, sitting at an office desk and waiting for hopeful Frank contributors to send in their work. Applefield was not one to sit still in any context (if that was not already clear from his cosmopolitan lifestyle), but especially when it came to finding new literary gems, Applefield truly went out with “a polka dotted butterfly net … trapping stuff like crazy.” He wrote this in 2003, in reference to his writing process, but the description could very well have applied, also, in 1985, when he smuggled a thick file folder of poetry manuscripts out of East Berlin. The enclosed work came from the Prenzlauer Berg—a subversive, lively bohemia of artists opposed to the repressive regime in force at the time, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.
Beginning with Frank’s fifth issue, Applefield consolidated his collector’s impulse and “guerilla” instincts into a “Foreign Dossier.” In each magazine issue, this section featured writers from a culture particularly unfamiliar to his mostly upper-class, American readership, an editorial impulse that resonates with The Common’s portfolios highlighting underrepresented languages, writers, and places. These dossiers represented Turkey, the Caribbean, and North Carolina, for example, and involved Applefield’s close collaboration with translators and magazine editors in the target culture. Frequently, Applefield’s travels also provided inspiration for the dossiers. After attending the first Nordic Poetry Festival, for instance, in 1985, Applefield became enamored with the region’s underappreciated literary culture, and earnestly coordinated a Scandinavian dossier for the next Frank.
Applefield’s focus on cultural exchange became particularly salient in the later part of his career, post-9/11. “As America’s international reputation flutters and the consequences of its external policies deepen,” Applefield wrote in an editorial note at the start of The Literary Review’s 2003 expat writing issue, “it is particularly important to observe and document how American citizens living outside the United States redefine their personal relationships to their indigenous culture and country.” As an expat himself, Applefield was part of a group of writers who suddenly found themselves in a unique position to disseminate a more open, global ethic, pushing back against Islamophobia and reactionary isolationism.
As one might guess from its eclecticism, Frank’s marketability was a perennial challenge. The magazine’s title intentionally sharing an etymology with “freedom,” Frank was originally conceived as a venue for direct artistic encounters, allowing boundary-breaking (perhaps thesis-troubled) and eclectic writers like himself to bypass the “trap of rejection generated by market pressures.” This was a dream nurtured by countless literary avant-gardists in Paris over the years—but Applefield possessed the rare admixture of romanticism and pragmatism needed to see it through.
By 1986, Frank’s third year in print, in an industry-journal essay, Applefield was already imploring his fellow small-press publishers to realize the necessary and even energizing nature of a business ethic. As he weaved narratives for prospective sponsors, making the avant-garde appear profitable, Applefield would always maintain that marketing could complement and coexist with artistic integrity. In the archives, there are the endless flurries of letters from Applefield to unsuspecting bookstores, repeated entreaties to foreign governments to endow funds for Frank’s dossiers, and corporate ads dressed up as literary puns (a personal favorite: The Call of the Wild, by Jack London, and sponsored by France Telecom).
Frank’s survival was, in a business sense, a completely miraculous “tale of creative entrepreneurship,” as The New York Times put it in 1995. Behind Applefield’s inexhaustible financial efforts was a deep conviction in the values Frank represented: open borders, liberation from market pressures, writer-to-writer encounters unfettered by nationalism and convention. It was simultaneously an experiment in literary utopia and a model for a globalized world. With Applefield’s immigration to France, he commiserated with the breakdown of the old world order, and created a life where writing and literature were the locus of “home”: “Travel to all the ends of the earth and you are left with nothing more than the solitude of your own heart—or pen, in this instance.”
Applefield’s two novels, Once Removed (1997) and On a Flying Fish (2004), also testify to the richness of his reflections on the intersections of writing, identity, and home. The former builds off his own family’s history of dislocation: Applefield’s mother was a Holocaust survivor, and his father’s family were Ukrainian Jews who fled in 1898. In Once Removed, a Holocaust survivor’s diary reconstructs the family’s past lives in Europe while its author dies in an American hospital bed. On a Flying Fish took the intratextual impulse of Once Removed to the extreme, telling the story of a young writer trying to build an independent identity by writing a novel.
This narrator, Applefield’s alter ego, never actually gets his work published. It is within the inertia of the writing process itself that he finds himself. As he gathers ideas and flounders in the liminal spaces of solo travel, the manuscript is always there to ground him (or deliver him over to imagination), to spark conversations with strangers, and to act as his mirror.
Though Frank’s editorial vision was always political, Applefield became more directly connected to global issues later in his career. Beginning in 1996, he started to participate in media training seminars in francophone Africa and the Middle East that were sponsored by the U.S. State Department and NGOs looking to cultivate press freedom amid widespread authoritarianism. Applefield’s natural charisma and the communication and marketing skills he cultivated at Frank also led him into work with the Financial Times in francophone Africa, where he helped reporters coordinate country-specific “Special Reports” on topics from malaria prevention to women’s economic advancement.
Earlier, Applefield had paid the bills by writing Paris travel guides geared toward new residents, like himself. (Topics included how to navigate the notoriously labyrinthine bureaucracy of French government.) This communications work was likewise a financial boost, but it also carried Applefield into a new stage of his literary career, one where he more explicitly crusaded for the progressive power of storytelling. With his founding of Kiwai Media—a combination book-publishing house and marketing and communications firm—in 2009, Applefield established a vanguard for this vision.
Although Applefield tried to decenter American points of view throughout his career, it’s hard to know whether this era of his commercial work succeeded in doing that. While he saw postcolonial Africa as a continent of “so much hope and potential,” the Financial Times serves the global business community, which does not necessarily coincide with the interests of the majority of African people. Similarly, the State Department, however humanitarian its actions may be in any given instance, fundamentally serves American interests and its economy.
Nevertheless, Applefield’s work stands out amid the violent protectionism of the post-9/11 era, insofar as it attempted to displace Americans’ xenophobia and Islamophobia with empathy. This is also the throughline between Frank and Kiwai. In the Frank years, and as he was writing his two novels, Applefield was immersed in avant-gardism, exploring global literature to understand how writing could mediate globalization’s disruptions. After he ceased publishing Frank in 2003, Kiwai was the culmination of these reflections. On the company website’s “Soul” page, which is still functional, Applefield wrote about Kiwai as a hub for uniting creativity and commerce: “At Kiwai Media we embrace the imagination in all forms. Great stories. Powerful memoirs. Exciting inventions. Value-based solutions to global—and local—challenges.” Although loftier and more corporate, Kiwai’s vision was not dissimilar to Frank’s: to use artistic expression to create empathetic resonances between people from disparate, perhaps even antagonistic, backgrounds.
Two books published by Kiwai exemplify the characteristically atypical variety of work Applefield defined as “value-based media.” UQ11, a novel by Jean Lamore, constitutes one pole. In a highly experimental narrative that Applefield compared to “discovering [James] Joyce in 1925,” Lamore uses fantastical creatures like angels and wood nymphs to dramatize a tragedy of mass deforestation and the loss of hope that infests a dying Earth. On the other side is Choosing the Hero, a memoir by K. Riva Levinson in which she reflects on her close work with former Liberian president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Though Applefield’s concerns about American nationalism had been building since 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 brought his political convictions to a breaking point. After thirty-five years of living in Paris, Applefield returned to his home state of New Jersey in 2019 to fulfill what his college friend David Whitman told me was a lifelong dream: running for Congress. Applefield’s natural curiosity, combined with the entrepreneurialism that Frank had cultivated in him, made him a talented “retail politician.” Never having lost his youthful instinct to push against the grain, Applefield specifically chose to live in one of the state’s only solidly red districts, and ran as a Democrat.
Any momentum he might have built up was, however, shattered by COVID isolation. “Talking to people was the part of politics he really liked,” Whitman told me. Denied the exhilaration of persuading his constituency—his political “readership,” perhaps—with compelling stories about his platform, Applefield lost some enthusiasm for his campaign and suffered a defeat in the primary. Just one day later, Applefield unexpectedly died of a heart attack.
Before he heralded the HAPPY CAP and springboarded into building his cosmopolitan utopia, Applefield was writing poetry—a lot of it. In the first box of his archive, I found a thick stack of blue-on-cream typewritten poems from his undergraduate career, some of them published, but most just written for classes or pleasure.
In Issue V of Literary Review, the student-run Amherst College literary magazine where Applefield once worked as an editor, he published a poem about the farm museum just down the road from campus (see left). The verses are strung out like a web, pulling taut around the nexus of a single word: “Gone.” With a collage of unexpected and evocative nouns, Applefield reconstructs the farming culture that once coursed through the valley where Amherst is located. The first and last stanzas have the thumping rhythm of a chant, conjuring the ghostly characters of this forgotten drama. Toward the middle, we repose in a prose intermission. It is not just time’s “fresh dung” but the “new phrases” invented by historians that bury all the “mothers before dawn,” the human dimension of this history. In a quizzical and slightly irreverent final line, Applefield rests in the gap between the historical narrative and the past lives of this place.
And yet the mere cadence of his words—the way Applefield arranged these eclectic historical details to echo, hit the roofs of our mouths, and make our fingers feel sticky with “sap” and scabs—does something to fill this left-behind space.
The reason literature itself was the model of “home” for Applefield is that it can contain multiplicity, the tessellations of place that globalization has created. This is true even if you are not an expat exchanging birthday cards with “a lad selling dyed batik fabric in the parched zoo grounds of Niamey, Niger,” or sharing a drink in Prague with “a wild roller-derby star from Santa Monica.” I can almost hear Applefield’s irreverent smile: “Life isn’t either/or, it’s and/and.”
Sam Spratford is a senior at Amherst College, the Applefield Fellow at The Common, and co-editor-in-chief of The Amherst Student.They are passionate about exploring social issues in their writing, and will pursue impact-driven journalism after graduating.