Barney Rosset, born in Chicago in 1922 to a Russian Jewish father and Irish Catholic mother, bought Grove Press in 1951 and became America’s most significant avant-garde publisher in the second half of the twentieth century displaying a determined independent streak.
Grove Press, and its seminal literary magazine, Evergreen Review, helped shape modern culture through its catalogue and legal challenges to publish banned literary works. Rosset’s ethos that a publisher should be free to publish anything drew upon his rebellious Irish ancestry and a progressive education at Parker High School. My Life In Publishing shows that Rosset was interested in radical politics as much as sex and that he had an inquisitive mind. His War years were spent in India and Shanghai with the Field Photographic Unit, and he later made films, inspired by the French New Wave, with his Evergreen Theater. He commissioned scripts by Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter, Robbe-Grillet and Duras, making films with Beckett and Norman Mailer, and got into trouble with US Customs by importing and showing the Swedish film, I Am Curious (Yellow), eventually winning several court cases and grossing a foreign film profit second only to La Dolce Vita in 1969. Evergreen published translations from Cahiers du Cinéma and Grove published a cultural history of underground film by Parker Tyler.
Returning to Chicago in 1947 he fell in with abstract expressionist and former Parker student, Joan Mitchell. Together they went to New York and Paris, and became integral parts of the Cedar Tavern scene in Greenwich Village with Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Frank O’Hara, a future Grove author. Mitchell emerges as a fascinating figure in her own right enlarging the range of abstract expressionism. She was a life long friend and contributor providing cover art to many books before moving to Paris in 1959, where she became a close friend of Beckett.
Rosset’s approach was to obtain critical support for each of his books. This began with John Berryman supporting his first book, Matthew Lewis’ gothic novel, The Monk. Rosset fearlessly published three banned books, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer and The Autobiography of Malcolm X with extensive critical and legal support. The legal successes were major victories against censorship and very much part of the counterculture of the Sixties and Seventies. He was adept at finding fellow editors and allowing them to develop. A good example is Donald Allen who edited Evergreen Review 2, San Francisco Scene in 1957, featuring Ferlinghetti, Robert Duncan, McClure, Spicer, Snyder, Kerouac and Whalen, and the all-embracing New American Poetry anthology in 1960. Rosset published Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, seeing the Dr. Benway character as comic genius and reading the book as an abstract painting, after several others had declined. When Chicago Review banned an excerpt he mounted a legal challenge getting Norman Mailer and a host of critics to appear for the defence case. He was also prepared to enter dangerous situations, such as his attempt to locate Che Guevara’s diaries in Bolivia, which led to his offices being bombed by Cuban exiles in July 1968.
Rosset worked closely with international publishers, such as John Calder in London and Maurice Girodias in Paris. Sylvia Beach, owner of Shakespeare and Co., introduced him to Samuel Beckett. His unswerving dedication to publishing what he wanted combined with great critical awareness and a wide internationalism saw him publish Artaud, Behan, Genet, Ionesco, Lorca, Neruda, Paz, Pinter in the early years, and subsequently Brecht, Orton, Borges, Stoppard, Kenaburō Ōe, Havel, Mamet, and much more Beckett. He emerges as an impatient, unpredictable, passionate, spiky and intractable figure with a feverish desire to challenge accepted views and authorises. This is an inspiring account of a difficult figure, shows the importance of alternative publishing, and will surely be the basis for subsequent biographies and feature in critical studies of those he published.
David Caddy 12th December 2016