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Barney Rosset has been at the center of some of the most important developments in modern American literary history. He was the first to publish Samuel Beckett in this country. He went to court to publish D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller. His Grove Press and Evergreen Review were essential vehicles for American writing from the mid-1950s through the 1970s.

Jon Kalish has this profile of a publishing legend.

JON KALISH: Barney Rosset was the son of a wealthy Chicago banker. He served as a photographer in World War II and afterwards tried his hand at filmmaking. In 1948, he produced a documentary titled "Strange Victory" about the racial and religious discrimination returning GIs faced at home.

(Soundbite of movie, "Strange Victory")

Unidentified Man: As a negro in the south, you go to a separate school, you used a separate entrance to the movies. In most states in the south, you won't go to the polls.

KALISH: Rosset also tried his hand at writing, but that didn't work out. So, in 1951, he bought a nearly defunct publishing company named Grove Press.

Mr. BARNEY ROSSET (Filmmaker, "Strange Victory"): Grove Press was three titles and maybe 100 copies of each, enough to fit in a suitcase. No financial records, no nothing. There was no business.

KALISH: Rosset knew nothing about the business of publishing but one of the first books Grove put out in 1954 became one of its most important, "Waiting for Godot" by Samuel Beckett.

Mr. ROSSET: He had been published in England. I think it gets forgotten. He had written a novel, "Murphy," and these two other books, which had been published in England and they had been lost. Beckett was very bitter about that so he turned to France cause they took him. And I turned to him because he was available. That's a very key thing. Nobody else wanted him in this country.

KALISH: In fact, it wasn't until "Waiting for Godot" opened on Broadway two years after Rosset published the play that sales took off. Over the years Grove did have a couple of bestsellers, including "A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole and Eric Berne's look at transactional analysis, "Games People Play."

Grove championed the avant-garde and politically inflammatory. It published "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" after Doubleday dropped it. And Grove published a who's who of 20th century playwrights, including Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and David Mamet. New York newspaper writer Jerry Tallmer says Grove's output went hand-in-hand with an explosion of activity off-Broadway.

Mr. JERRY TALLMER (New York Newspaper Writer): All these damn plays that were coming up like mushrooms out of nowhere, Barney published them all. Every week there'd be a new beautiful paperback edition of some great playwright's newest play.

KALISH: In 1957 Grove Press got into magazine publishing. The Evergreen Review became one of the most important magazines of the counterculture, says writer and musician Ed Sanders, who was captivated by the poems he read in its pages.

Mr. ED SANDERS (Writer, Musician): These things you read when you are a kid are like reading Genesis and Exodus for a person who wants to be a minister. You know, I wanted to be a poet, and so reading these were like sacred preparation texts for a whole life.

Mr. ROSSET: Hello, I'm Barney Rosset. On today's Evergreen Review, we're presenting a modern poet who talks to you. His name is Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

KALISH: The poets who so wowed a young Ed Sanders in a magazine could also be heard on the Evergreen Review radio show.

Mr. ROSSET: I read the papers every day and hear humanity amiss in the sad plethora of print. I see where Walden Pond has been drained to make an amusement park.

KALESH: Two years after launching The Evergreen Review, Barney Rosset stepped into the national headlines. American publishers had shunned D.H. Lawrence's novel, "Lady Chatterley's Lover" because of its frank sexuality. Rosset decided that Grove would publish it. After the postal service impounded more than 100 copies of the book, Rosset went to court claiming it was protected under the First Amendment. He won, but that was only part of his strategy. His real goal, Rosset says, was to publish another banned book: Henry Miller's 1934 autobiographical novel, "Tropic of Cancer."

Mr. ROSSET: I thought that for me 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. And "Lady Chatterley" would be more feasible to make a battle plan for, and we did exactly that.

KALISH: Rosset's battle took him all the way to the Supreme Court where he prevailed. But Grove wound up back in court facing obscenity charges for trying to distribute the Swedish film, "I Am Curious (Yellow)." Rosset won again with a First Amendment defense. The film went on to become an art house hit, earning $6 million in 1969 alone. Grove's mix of graphic sex and radical politics was never about making money, says Claudia Menza, a former managing editor at the publishing house.

Ms. CLAUDIA MENZA (Former Managing Editor, Grove Press): Barney didn't publish erotica because he thought it would help us monetarily. He published it because he liked it. That's the way he published everything. He did it because he liked it.

KALISH: But Barney Rosset and Grove Press couldn't stay out of trouble. They became the targets of a CIA investigation after publishing a book by Kim Philby, a British intelligence officer who turned out to be a Soviet spy.

Grove's office was bombed after the Evergreen Review published excerpts of Che Guevara's diary. Rosset says there were death threats, gunshots fired at his home and break-ins at Grove. In the 1970s, feminists protested Grove's portrayals of women, and Rosset says this most liberal of publishing houses became the target of a mysterious unionization effort.

Mr. ROSSET: Grove Press was closed most of the time after that started. Our business just dissolved.

KALISH: Rosset was forced to sell Grove in 1985. But by then, says Stan Gontarski, a professor at Florida State University who is writing a biography of Rosset, Grove's place in American literary history was already assured.

Professor STAN GONTARSKI (Florida State University): It nourished other writers, 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.

KALISH: Today, Barney Rosset is 86 and moving slowly. Despite all of his accomplishments and the accolades they've earned, Rosset focuses on the loss of Grove Press and his shortcomings as a businessman when asked to assess his legacy as a publisher.

Mr. ROSSET: I think we published a lot of good books. A lot. But I ultimately goofed terribly.

KALISH: Barney Rosset still publishes the Evergreen Review online. Rosset has finished an autobiography called "The Subject Is Left-Handed." The title comes from his FBI file.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

SIMON: And you can watch a film clip in which Barney Rosset explains how he came to publish "Waiting for Godot." Come to our Web site, NPR.org.

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