Publishing Pioneer Barney Rosset Dies At 89

Feb 22, 2012
Originally published on February 22, 2012 5:29 pm

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.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.