Barney Rosset, one of the most important publishers in American history, passed away Tuesday. Rosset bought Grove Press in 1951 for $3,000 and managed it for 35 years, steering the publishing house through some of the nation's key literary publications and legal trials, including Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch.
A short list of only some of the authors who had key works published by Grove Press: Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Genet, Eugène Ionesco, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Samuel Beckett, Allen Ginsberg, D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Malcolm X, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz and Kenzaburo Oe.
The Los Angeles Times writes, "In 1959, [Rosset] published Lady Chatterley's Lover, which had been banned by the postmaster general for promoting 'indecent and lascivious thoughts,' but in 1960 a federal appeals court found that its frank descriptions of sexual intercourse did not violate anti-pornography laws. In 1961, Rosset published Tropic of Cancer, which was blocked by more than 60 court cases in 21 states. In a landmark 1964 ruling, however, the U.S. Supreme Court held that it had 'redeeming social value' and was thus not obscene."
Rosset had first read Tropic of Cancer (which was initially published in Paris, but not in the U.S.) 21 years earlier as a freshman in college. He is quoted in Wall Street Journal: 'The district attorney said, 'Do you realize that members of the grand jury have children who are buying that book at newsstands right near their school?'' Rosset recalled. "And I looked at him and said, 'If that's true and they buy it and read it all the way through, you as parents are to be commended.'"
Rosset discussed those two trials in one of several interviews done with the Paris Review in the mid-90's:
When did you first read Lady Chatterley’s Lover?
When I was already at Grove. I didn’t know much about that book, and actually it didn’t interest me that much—only in terms of how it might help us to publish Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. It seemed to me that D. H. Lawrence was a more respected figure than Miller, that he had a higher hit on the ratings scale, so he would be easier to present as “literature” in the courts.
What did you think of the book?
I didn’t really like it. It affronted me in certain odd ways. It was written from a very class-conscious point of view, which didn’t particularly appeal to me. Lawrence’s blood-and-thunder thing really did not excite me either—he regarded sex and death as mythological. The book was also about industrialization, which he detested.
Wasn’t the use of the word fuck a major issue?
Well, there was a very graphic description of sex in the book. It wouldn’t be considered graphic now, but at the time it was. When he talked about his prick he called it John Thomas. It was like a detached person: What does John Thomas want today? Oh, well he wants you . . .! Ultimately it’s a good book. I like it better now than I did then. I mean, politically I did not go for it, but it was there, and it had to be published. And it led to Tropic of Cancer. Henry Miller did not have the kind of reputation that Lawrence did. He was thought of as a sort of bum, an early Kerouac.
The full interview can be read here.
Newsweek reported in a 2008 article, appropriately titled "The Most Dangerous Man in Publishing" (I think it was Newsweek; the story is in the Daily Beast blender now):
When "Tropic" was finally published, the lawsuits crashed down in waves. Rosset and Miller themselves were charged in Brooklyn for selling and conspiring to sell an "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent, sadistic, masochistic, and disgusting book." In Chicago, when a prosecutor accused Rosset of being motivated only by greed, Rosset pulled out a college term paper he'd written on Miller and began to read it aloud. Finally, in 1964, the Supreme Court ruled—without briefs or arguments—that "Tropic of Cancer" was not obscene because it had social value.
As usual, Rosset was already charging ahead. Burroughs's "Naked Lunch," with incendiary portrayals of homosexuality and drug use, came next. The assault on conventional morals continued with books by John Rechy, Hubert Selby Jr., Jean Genet, and Pauline Réage, whose sadomasochistic "Story of O" had scandalized even Paris...
Grove was also the publishing house for Evergreen Review, a literary which included works by Albert Camus, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bertolt Brecht, and LeRoi Jones- and that was just in one issue (see: Wikipedia). From humble beginnings, it's circulation eventually rose to well over 100,000.
Rosset told the Paris Review what happened when Samuel Beckett and William Burroughs got together: "There is a famous anecdote about a meeting between Burroughs and Beckett, which took place in Maurice Girodias’s restaurant. I remember sitting next to Sam, while Burroughs, who worshiped Beckett, was explaining to him how you do cut-ups. Beckett said to Bill, That’s not writing, that’s plumbing."
Rosset bought the publishing rights to Beckett's Waiting for Godot (another book facing obscenity concerns in the U.S. due to its language) in 1953 for a $150 advance and 2.5% royalty and it went on to sell more than two million copies after it was produced on Broadway. Rosset purchased the play on the recommendation of Sylvia Beach, owner of Shakespeare and Co. in Paris.
Rosset tells the story of another encounter: "I discovered [Jean] Genet at the Gotham Book Mart in 1940. I have a beautiful blue leather edition of Our Lady of the Flowers done by a French publisher in English. But Genet was impossible. He was a thief and a scoundrel and a crook. We met him in Montmartre. We were forewarned that Genet was a kleptomaniac. That night Loly was wearing very lovely earrings. We ate at a restaurant at the top of Montmartre, and Genet took us to the window. He said, Can you see the view, and all the things going on down there? The whole time Loly has her hands over her ears because Genet was trying to get the earrings off! But not a word was spoken about it. Jean Genet was a thief, but he was a real thief. He was a thief from the inside out. Like Sartre said, he was a saintly thief."
Rosset had an opportunity to meet countless writers and artists in his day (including painter Joan Mitchell, who he was married to for a few years and was responsible for Rosset buying Grove Press in the first place)
Rosset said of Jack Kerouac, in the alcoholic writer's later days, "The last years of his life he sort of fell to pieces, and he became very angry at his book publishers, who we weren’t by then. Thank God. I think Farrar, Straus took him on. He also had become violently anti-Semitic. He used to call me at my home in East Hampton and tell me how he hated the Jews. He’d complain about Roger Straus, or about his other publishers. To him they were all Jews . . . the Jews were after him." (Rosset was of Jewish-Irish lineage.)
Of Abbie Hoffman: "Abbie brought us Steal This Book because, though Random House had been publishing him and were happy to have him as an author, they wouldn’t publish Steal This Book. I made a point to never look at that book. I never opened it. To me, if Random House wouldn’t publish it, that was enough—we would do it."
Among famous books that Rosset turned down: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
In 1968, Grove had its office bombed by anti-Castro Cubans. Grove had published books by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Louisa Thomas wrote in Newsweek, "Around the time Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol, she was spotted lurking near Rosset's office with an ice pick."
Even a Supreme Court justice was published by Grove. Thomas wrote in her 2008 article, "William O. Douglas, the Supreme Court justice, excerpted his memoirs in the April 1970 issue [of Evergreen Review]—and so had to recuse himself when Grove went to court to fight a ban on a Swedish film called I Am Curious (Yellow). The film—today considered unremarkable soft porn—made millions."
Not everyone was happy with was happy with Grove's erotica, though. The Washington Post reported in its obituary for Rosset, "In 1970, radical feminists including Robin Morgan protested that Grove 'earned millions off the basic theme of humiliating, degrading and dehumanizing women,' and they demanded a number of concessions from the company. They took over Grove’s New York office until Mr. Rosset had Seaver call the police to have them removed."
Poor subsequent film investments and other problems led to Grove's eventual sale to Ann Getty (yes, from that Getty family) and George Weidenfeld in 1985. The new owners surprised Rosset by forcing him out of the company a year later.
In 2008 Obscene, a documentary, was produced, telling the story of Barney Rosset and Grove Press. The film featured commentary by John Waters, Gore Vidal and Amiri Baraka, among others.
In later years, he continued publishing books and even wrote a blog. He was 89 when he passed this week from heart complications.
A truly phenomenal career in publishing.
Lest you think that Barney Rosset's publishing and filmmaking battles for freedom of speech were quaint relics of a primitive times, take a look at the heavyhanded automated censorship policies now being conducted by Apple, Facebook and Google (via Adsense and YouTube). Who needs the FBI or small town police to arrest publishers when you have faceless technicians in California (or quite possibly, Morocco) ready to take on the same task, ready to ensure that no one exposes a nipple, witnesses a gay kiss or a hears a song by the Buzzcocks?
In conclusion, what better way to remember Barney Rosset than to read one of the books he published. A short list: