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Barney Rosset on Barney Rosset

Barney Rosset
Barney Rosset is the greatest American publisher of the twentieth century; the most influential cultural figure you haven't heard of! Under Rosset, Grove Press and Evergreen Review fought and won decisive court battles, defeated legal censorship, and opened American life to new and dangerous currents of freedom.

In this essay Rosset reminisces about the highs and lows (but mainly the highs) of independent publishing in 1960s America.

While still taking courses at the New School in New York (1951), I took over three abandoned reprints from a stillborn press called Grove and slowly embarked on a legal and literary trench war - from the campaigns for Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Naked Lunch all the way to putting the iconographic portrait of Che Guevara on the cover of the Evergreen Review.

Was Grove controversial? The word is too pale for the tempests at Grove. Say rather that Grove was a valve for pressurized cultural energies, a breach in the dam of American Puritanism - a whip-lashing live cable of zeitgeist. One has to reach back to early Elizabethan Theatre to find a parallel in terms of enraptured audience, outraged authority, political daring, exploding passion, and the perennial threat of censorship. The writers: Beckett, Selby, Genet, Brecht, Robbe-Grillet, de Sade, Casement, Behan, Borges, Pinter, Ionesco, Fanon, Neruda, Kerouac, Baraka, Paz, Tutola, Oe, Malcolm X, Mamet, Stoppard, Burroughs, Miller! Not to mention my comrades-in-arms at Grove, with Dick Seaver, Fred Jordan, and Don Allen in the front row.

Somewhat rashly, I also made and lost fortunes in film distribution, waging cultural war on behalf of I Am Curious (Yellow) the landmark Swedish film, and Titcut Follies (Frederick Wiseman's masterpiece, which takes place in a prison for the criminally insane in Massachusetts). I endured hilarious but costly fiascos with Godard and Norman Mailer (Beyond the Law). I rode the gales of the '60s. My private life sometimes mirrored the fiction I published. Kitten in Robert Gover's best-selling novel The One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding for instance, resembled my girlfriend at the time - the woman whose photograph we used on the cover of the book. This meshing of life and art is one that I could never escape.

Allen Ginsberg with Rosset
Mine was an intimate school of publishing based on fascination with authors and their works. This led to close friendship with many writers. Grove Press was an extension of my personality, and of my co-conspirators, Allen, Jordan, and Seaver, seasoned by the interests and tenures of the talented editors, lawyers, friends and wives who joined the march at various times.

Psychoanalysis, Asia, Sex, Revolution, Irish Independence, Theatre of the Absurd - none of these were elements in some marketing strategy but rather facets of the humanistic breadth of our interest.

How we came to publish The Autobiography of Malcolm X (written with Alex Haley of later Roots fame) is a good illustration of how I looked upon my role as a publisher. Doubleday had bought the book, set it in type, in galleys, and then Malcolm was assassinated at a public meeting. At that point Mr. Doubleday said he didn't want his store windows smashed and he didn't want his receptionists' faces smashed and he turned back the book.

But we accepted the risks, took it on, and published it very successfully, and Malcolm X's widow was paid considerable royalties. This book became the handbook, the bible, of the militant wing of the civil rights movement. Malcolm X created a whole new language, and shaped a new, proud black attitude in his eloquent call to arms. I'm proud that I published it.

At its peak Grove was a self-contained mini-conglomerate with a seven story building on Mercer Street, a publishing operation for hardcovers, quality and mass market paperbacks, an education department, a book club, a movie division, a theatre, a high-powered sales department, its own giant computer, and last but not least, a 1930s bar elegantly appointed in the Warner Brothers Art Deco look. I had always wanted to own a bar. Our beautiful Black Circle Bar on 11th Street taught me the hard way that it's cheaper to drink in somebody else's bar.

Barney Rosset, July 2008
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