Barney Rosset paid $3,000 for Grove Press in 1951. Then he used the company to help tear down American obscenity laws of the 1950s and '60s.
Barney Rosset paid $3,000 for Grove Press in 1951. Then he used the company to help tear down American obscenity laws of the 1950s and '60s. Rosset Archives/AP
A literary legend has died — not an author, but the publisher behind some of the greatest and most controversial writers of the 20th century.
Barney Rosset gave American readers their first taste of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, as well as uncensored classics by Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence. To do that, Rosset fought literally hundreds of court cases and was largely responsible for breaking down U.S. obscenity laws in the 1950s and '60s.
Rosset was the son of a wealthy Chicago banker. During World War II, he served as a photographer, and afterward tried his hand at filmmaking. Then, in 1951, he bought a nearly defunct publishing company called Grove Press.
"Grove Press was three titles and maybe a hundred copies of each, enough to fit in a suitcase," Rosset told NPR in 2009. "No financial records, no nothing."
Rosset published Waiting for Godot in 1954 because, as he told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1991, no other American publisher was interested in Beckett.
"When I started publishing, I most definitely would have liked to have published Hemingway and Faulkner and Fitzgerald," he said, "but they were already published."
In 1957, Rosset launched The Evergreen Review, which became one of the most important magazines of 1960s counterculture. Two years later, he found himself waging a legal battle over the frank sexuality of D.H. Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover. Rosset took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, where he won a First Amendment victory. But that was just part of a calculated strategy to publish another banned book: Henry Miller's 1934 autobiographical novel, Tropic of Cancer.
"To do Lady Chatterley's Lover before Tropic of Cancer would be more acceptable because D.H. Lawrence was a famous writer and revered at many levels," Rosset said in 2009. "Lady Chatterley would be more feasible to make a battle plan for, and we did exactly that."
Rosset frequently landed in court to battle obscenity charges over books. He also fought for the popular Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow). Though the success of that film helped pay many of his legal bills, Claudia Menza, a former managing editor at Grove, says Rosset was never about making money.
"Barney didn't publish erotica because he thought it would help us monetarily," she says. "He published it because he liked it. That's the way he published everything. He did it because he liked it."
Over the years, Grove Press published John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces and Eric Berne's popular look at transactional analysis, Games People Play. Rosset published The Autobiography of Malcolm X after Doubleday dropped it, and a who's who of 20th century playwrights. Grove Press' place in American literary history is considerable, says Stan Gontarski, an English professor at Florida State University.
"It nourished other writers," Gontarski says. "It nourished the intellectual climate of the United States. It produced a whole host of editors that went on to work for other presses, to found their own presses. It had a profound impact in a broad cultural venue."
But Rosset was never a very good businessman, and Grove was often in financial trouble. He was forced to sell in 1985, and though he continued publishing online, Rosset told NPR in 2009 that the loss of Grove Press and his shortcomings as a businessman still haunted him.
"I think we published a lot of good books. A lot," he said. "But I ultimately goofed terribly."
Barney Rosset died Tuesday night in New York, just a few months shy of his 90th birthday.