Farewell to a Publishing Maverick: Barney Rosset
Barney Rosset, one of the most influential publishing figures you never heard of, died last month, aged 89.
Rosset is probably best known for the ground-breaking legal battle he fought to print uncensored versions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1959, to pave the way for publishing a banned book he was passionate about, and thought the censors would be far tougher on: Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.
He was a self-confessed ‘maverick’ who published what he liked – and lived a long and colourful life.
He dropped acid with Timothy Leary, introduced Samuel Beckett to William Burroughs (he discovered the latter when Allen Ginsberg brought him the manuscript for The Naked Lunch), rejected J.R.R. Tolkein (‘I couldn’t understand a word of it’), flew to Bolivia to beat the CIA to discovering Che Guevara’s diaries, and played piano and drank lemonade with Jack Kerouac and his mother.
In 1951, Rosset bought the fledgling publishing company Grove Press, which had three paperback books on its list. ‘I was doing nothing at the time and thought, This might be interesting,’ he told The Paris Review in 1997. He took the company’s entire inventory to his New York apartment in three suitcases.
Personal freedom was at the core of Rosset’s philosophy. ‘When I grew up in Chicago, communism was my idea of personal freedom. Especially freedom to make love.’ He joined the party, but abandoned it in disgust after he met with reality while visiting Czechoslovakia in 1948.
Writers came to Grove because ‘it championed their work in a hostile environment’, though it often paid low advances.
Rosset said Lady Chatterley’s Lover didn’t much interest him as a novel. He published it as part of a long-term strategy to publish Tropic of Cancer, which he’d loved since he discovered a French edition while at college. He decided that as D.H. Lawrence was a more respected figure than Miller, he ‘would be easier to present as “literature” in the courts’.
‘We prepared very carefully. We decided the best thing to do was send the book through the mail so it would be seized by the post office … The post is a federal government agency, and if they arrest you, you go the federal court. That way you don’t have to defend the book in some small town.’
Grove won the case on appeal, on the basis that the novel has ‘literary merit’. ‘I still don’t like that idea,’ he reflected in 1997. ‘It seems like a compromise to me. But without my really noticing it at the time, that’s what the defense became, and we won.’
Rosset battled to convince Miller to let him publish Tropic of Cancer. ‘He was afraid … He wasn’t such a great crusader,’ he said. ‘He wrote me a letter in which he said: now people come to Paris to buy the book, and they bring it back, and each book that gets into the United States is read by fifty people. What happens if you publish it and we actually win the case? In five years they’ll assign it in college courses and no one will want to read it!’
Eventually, he persuaded him, with help from Miller’s French publisher, Olympia Press. After fighting multiple post-publication obscenity trials in the US, he also won out against the censors – and in the process, changed the law and the publishing culture.
Rosset published Samuel Beckett, after all the established publishers declined Waiting for Godot – which went on to sell well over two million copies. He published Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, after Doubleday gave it up following Malcolm’s assassination. He published Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, even though Grove had to make deals with distributors and give them an extra ten percent – because people did steal it. ‘To me, if Random House wouldn’t publish it, that was enough – we would do it.’
And of course, Grove published the Beats – Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs. ‘To me,’ he said, ‘it was writing that came out of Henry Miller. Of course, Miller didn’t recognize them … But the writers – Kerouac especially, and Ginsberg – they had the same free spirit as Miller. They were a way of living, like Miller was.’
A New York Times tribute published after Rosset’s death reflected: ‘If you were a literary young man at the time and wanted to impress the kind of soulful-eyed girl who wore black turtlenecks and smoked Gauloises, there was no better way than to have a stack of Grove books in your dorm room: some Beckett, Burroughs, Robbe-Grillet, Céline. You didn’t necessarily have to have read them. They just had to be visible.’
‘The whole thing was not for real,’ Rosset mused in 1997. ‘It was an unreal time.’
To hook into current debates about freedom of speech and censorship, you can watch the recent Wheeler Centre event Gagging for Freedom, with Jonathan Green, Bernard Keane, Leslie Cannold and James Allan.