AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
A literary legend has died. Not an author but the publisher behind some of the most famous and controversial writers of the 20th century.
Barney Rosset gave American readers their first taste of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." He also published uncensored versions of classics by Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence that had been considered scandalous. To do that, Rosset fought literally hundreds of court cases that helped to break down U.S. obscenity laws in the 1950s and '60s.
Barney Rosset died last night in New York City, just a few months shy of his 90th birthday. Jon Kalish has this appreciation.
JON KALISH, BYLINE: Barney Rosset was the son of a wealthy Chicago banker. During World War II, he served as a photographer and afterwards tried his hand at filmmaking. Then, in 1951, he bought a nearly defunct publishing company named Grove Press.
BARNEY ROSSET: Grove Press was three titles and maybe 100 copies of each. Enough to fit in a suitcase. No financial records, no nothing.
KALISH: Rosset published "Waiting for Godot" in 1954 because no other American publisher was interested in Samuel Beckett, as he told WHYY's FRESH AIR in 1991.
ROSSET: When I started publishing, I most definitely would have liked to have published Hemingway and Faulkner and Fitzgerald, but they were already published.
KALISH: In 1957, Rosset launched the Evergreen Review, which became one of the most important magazines of the 1960s counterculture. Two years later, he found himself waging a legal battle over D.H. Lawrence's novel "Lady Chatterley's Lover" because of its frank sexuality.
Rosset went 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."
ROSSET: To do "Lady Chatterley's Lover" before "Tropic of Cancer" would be more acceptable because D.H. Lawrence was a famous writer and revered on many levels and "Lady Chatterley" would be more feasible to make a battle plan for. And we did exactly that.
KALISH: Rosset landed in court hundreds of times battling obscenity charges over books and the popular Swedish film, "I Am Curious Yellow." Again, Rosset prevailed and though the success of that film helped pay many of his legal bills, Rosset was never about making money, says Claudia Menza, a former managing editor at Grove.
CLAUDIA MENZA: 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: Over the years, Grove Press published John Kennedy Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces" and Eric Burns' 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, a professor at Florida State University.
STAN GONTARSKI: 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: But Barney 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 three years ago that the loss of Grove Press and his shortcomings as a businessman still haunted him.
ROSSET: I think we published a lot of good books - a lot. But I ultimately goofed terribly.
KALISH: For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.