Rosset: My Life in Publishing and How I Fought Censorship

By Barney Rosset

Arcade Publishing

Reviewed by Robert Fleming

Barney Rosset. Remember the name? As a publisher, he was a maverick and renegade, who battled the status quo of American literature and film by challenging obscenity laws in conservative courts. Rosset widened the consciousness of the straight-laced Puritan culture, moving readers and viewers into the outer realms of sexual expression and cultural mischief.

Those who loved literature and avant-garde film mourned greatly when Rosset died in 2012 after a double-heart-valve replacement.  For a writer, I count Barney Rosset and his groundbreaking Grove Press to be a part of my creative foundation, skirting the traditional boundaries of fiction and non-fiction. He made a lasting impression on me.

Two recent books about the outlaw publisher, Rosset, have come on line. His memoir, Rosset: My Life in Publishing and How I Fought Censorship and Michael Rosenthal’s Barney: Grove Press and Barney Rosset – America’s Maverick Publisher and His Battle Against Censorship, provides a multi-faceted view of the man who “was unquestionably the most daring and arguably the most significant American book publishers of the Twentieth Century.”

For my money, I trust the words of Rosset in his memoir. But, the publisher started My Life in Publishing in 1987, in the confused lull of two years after the wealthy Ann Getty assumed control of Grove Press. The feisty Getty fired Rosset for being reckless with his editorial choices. In his late 60s, he recorded large sections of the manuscript, writing and re-writing portions of it, hiring staffers to research the facts of his life.

Things took a turn for the worse when Rosset’s agent sold the manuscript to Algonquin Press in 2007 and the new publishing house enlisted celebrated novelist Brad Morrow to whip the project into shape. The former publisher felt his reputation had suffered from the opening of a new documentary, Obscene, released that year, depicting him as a demented pornographer rather than a noble warrior against censorship.

Rosset fell into bad health and died in 2012 before he could get control of his memoir. His estate gave his papers to the rare books and archives at Columbia University. Rosset’s manuscript was snatched from Algonquin and presented to OR books. OR Books retained Christopher O’Brien, a freelance editor, to augment the project with additional information from the Columbia archives.

Needless to say, one of the staffers who worked with Rosset, complained the final OR book did not resemble the book of his illustrious life. “I worked on the book at different times,” he told an interviewer. “For ten years. The book Barney envisioned was nothing like it is.”

If there are problems with the final OR product, then the Arcade book by Michael Rosenthal, the former Campbell Professor in the Humanities at Columbia, where he taught for almost four decades, presents the flawed, larger-than-life man behind the crusader myth.

Of Rosset, Rosenthal writes in the introduction: “A man with a joyous, fully-fleshed sense of his own importance, he believed his mission as a publisher was to serve as “protector and guardian” of the creative spirit, dedicated to opposing anything that might restrict the liberty of writers.”

Born in 1922 in Chicago, Rosset was the only child of his family. His father was a wealthy banker, who lavished attention on him. He attended the progressive Francis Parker School, where his rebellious spirit bloomed. It is said in high school that he published a mimeographed journal, “The Anti-Everything,” showing a streak of ornery behavior already existed. Later, he joined the ranks of the left-wing American Student Union.

With a restless mind, Rosset studied at four colleges, including Swarthmore and UCLA, finally earning a degree at New York’s New School for Social Research in 1952. However, he was a freshman in 1940 when he acquired a banned copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, which American censors saw as taboo and banished it from national bookshelves. Rosset’s copy had been smuggled in from Paris, a book that had been published since 1934.

“The sex didn’t really get me,” Rosset later said. “What really got me was the anti-American feeling that Miller had. He was not happy living in this country, and he was extremely endowed with the ability to say why.”

In the fall of 1942, Rosset joined the ranks of the army infantry, much to the relief of his father. He attempted to be a good soldier but found it difficult to submit to the military discipline. He transferred to the Army Signal Corps as an officer in a company stationed in China.

Following the war, Rosset moved to New York City where he met his first wife, Joan Mitchell, a painter. It was Mitchell who provided him with the entry to the Greenwich Village art scene. In 1951, a friend of Mitchell told Rosset about Grove Press, a small company that published several books, including Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man. He purchased it for $3,000, from businessmen John Bascomb and Robert Phelps. They had exhausted their funds and stopped publishing.

In his first celebrated victories, Rosset fought vigorously to publish an unexpurgated version of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and battled for the right to publish Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in the courts.

In the foreword of Rosset’s book My Life In Publishing, he wrote about the crusade to promote freedom of expression: “Perhaps to the mainstream that’s all there was to D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover – just fuck, fuck, fuck. I saw the publication of Lawrence’s masterwork somewhat differently – as a major victory against ignorance and censorship.”

According to Rosset, the evolution of Grove Press was sluggish at first but gained speed by the hiring in 1959 of Richard Seaver, a former staffer for the publisher George Braziller.  In the twelve years on the job, Seaver worked on manuscripts of many major European writers including Alain Robbe-Grillet, Eugene Ionesco, Marguerite Duras, and the Marquis de Sade.

Of special interest, one book, The Autography of Malcolm X, was the effort of Harry Braverman, another Grove Press editor. It was a major book coup published by the publisher in 1965. “We heard Malcolm was shot over the radio,” Rosset remembered, thinking about how much pleasure he’d got from reading Richard Wright. “The next day we learned that Doubleday had his autobiography under contract, but didn’t want to publish it. Doubleday said he was afraid for his employees.”

Rosset convinced the agent to offer the book, then signed it up, and got Alex Haley to put the final seasonings on the manuscript.  The book was a bestseller upon publication. When asked by a young black teen about whether Malcolm’s book was the most important book ever published, Rosset replied, “You’re asking me to choose between my children. I can’t.”

Not only did Rosset publish Malcolm X’s memoirs, he published Frantz Fanon, a native of Martinique, a psychiatrist who fought in the Free French Army and later wrote two books proposing an end to colonialism, The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks. Rosset also introduced readers to groundbreaking works by Samuel Beckett, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Chester Himes, Tom Stoppard, Kenzaburo Oe, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Jean Genet. Censors howled at Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in 1961 but were disappointed at his publishing Victorian porn, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, John Rechy’s City of Night, and Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. Legal battles accompanied several of his books.

Rosset was a rabble-rouser. His publication of Che Guevara’s works and endorsement of Fidel Castro’s regime compelled a plot by nine Cuban anti-Castro reserve officers to fire a rocket-propelled grenade into the second-floor window of Grove Press. The publisher took it in stride.

Constantly sued, Rosset got death threats. He was proud of the furor caused by his books and his legal push to distribute the sexually-frank Swedish film, “I Am Curious (Yellow). He paid no attention to the 1969 Life Magazine article about him, “The Old Smut Peddler,” and a Saturday Evening Post ran a cover of him climbing out of a sewer.

In 1957, Rosset started a literary journal, Evergreen Review, which featured many of the heroes of the counterculture such as the Beats, Ginsberg, Beckett, Mailer, Burroughs, Kenneth Tynan, Nat Hentoff, June Jordan, Bobby Seale, Charles Bukowski, and Pauline Reage. The publication, originally a quarterly, soon became a monthly but ceased publishing in 1973.

With bad debt, mediocre investments, and staff upheaval, Rosset sold Grove Press in 1985 to Ann Getty, the oil heiress, and George Weidenfeld, a British publisher. He convinced them to a deal that would let him still call the shots. But the owners fired him a year later, citing his recklessness. He sued but the matter was settled out of court.

Following his departure to Grove, Rosset published Evergreen Review online and launched a line of suppressed 19th Century erotic book and newer titles. The backlist of Grove Press was purchased by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1993. The imprint is currently Grove/Atlantic.

Included in Rosset’s book are excerpts from the files of FBI, who kept a close surveillance on the publisher, who printed books and writings from the resistance to the Vietnam War, Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, U.S. involvement in South American politics, Kim Philby, and the CIA. In fact, he sued the CIA for release of all information involving Rosset and the Grove Press.  

There is some debate as to who wrote Rosset’s book and that his true story has not been served in these pages. Still, there is enough of Rosset in his so-called memoir to qualify as a first down payment in solving the mystery of the man who created Grove Press.

With the second book, Rosenthal dishes on Rosset’s erratic work habits, his sexual escapades in wedlock and out, his business miscues, his cultural and political campaign as moral warrior. His anecdotes are plentiful and sometimes damning. Hopefully, this will not be the only book focusing on the complex, complicated life of Barney Rosset.

The world didn’t ignore Rosset’s achievements. He was awarded the French title, Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1999. In 2008, he received the lifetime achievement Literarian Award from the National Book Foundation.

Let Barney Rosset have the last say about Grove Press. “Was Grove controversial? The word is too pale for the tempests at Grove, whether lawsuits, death-threats, grenade attacks by Cubans or occupation of the premises by enraged feminists. Say rather that it was a valve for pressurized cultural energies, a breach in the dam of American Puritanism – a whiplashing live cable of Zeitgeist.”

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