If you grew up interested in literature—and a world bigger than the one into which you were born—you owe a debt to Barney Rosset. Rosset, who ran the Grove Press for 35 years, died on February 21 at age 89, thus ending the career of a man whose first publication was a mimeographed high school ’zine called The Anti-Everything.
In 1951 Rosset acquired the fledgling Grove Press and turned it into a colorful publishing outlet during a period known for being as gray as an organization man’s overcoat. Grove Press specialized in importing contemporary European writing—stuff like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers—at a time when such fare was more exotic and harder to find than French cuisine and Italian wines.
And often illegal. Especially in the 1950s and ’60s, Rosset and Grove braved lawsuits, death threats, and angry postmasters general to sell American audiences forbidden texts such as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and much more. He also brought the then-scandalous 1967 Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow) to U.S. audiences.
If such works no longer cause paroxysms of puritanism and prosecutions, that is due to Rosset. But those who thought Rosset was just a smut peddler (as Life magazine once dubbed him) missed the real appeal of the Grove Press.
In a pre-Internet, pre-everything-at-your-fingertips-world, books weren’t just frigates to take you lands away (as Emily Dickinson would have it); they were battleships and aircraft carriers capable of rescuing you from whatever isolated bunker you called home. I say that not as someone who grew up long ago and far away: I’m talking about New Jersey in the 1970s and ’80s, just 50 miles outside of Manhattan. I could see New York across the Raritan Bay, but for most of my childhood the nearest bookstore was miles away and about as big as a one-car garage.
From the start, Grove and its various imprints (Black Cat, Evergreen, et al.) mainstreamed all sorts of foreign, forbidden, and fancy writing that just didn’t show up elsewhere. Every bit as much as Julia Child, Rosset broadened and cultivated American palates, helping to create or enlarge the audiences of writers such as Beckett, Alain Robbe-Grillet, “Pauline Reage,” and all the Beats.
For kids interested in Literature (with a capital L), Grove Press was a well-worn path in the bad old days before book superstores and online vendors brought all the world’s goods to your doorstep. In grammar school, you waited once a marking period for the Scholastic Books catalog to pick a couple of selections that never showed up in your hometown library or on drugstore shelves. In high school, you might have started subscribing to The Village Voice (a buck an issue, easy enough to scrounge or steal). And slowly you learned of the existence of publishers like Grove and New Directions, which would mail you serious books from their catalogs.
From a free speech point of view, virtually no one was more important in blowing away the genteel fog of censorship that choked America like 1960s smog choked the skies of Los Angeles. Largely because of Rosset and Grove, we now enjoy what should have always been our birthright: a generally unfettered First Amendment. His court cases fighting for the right to publish such tame-to-us-now tomes as Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch made it that much easier for all who came later to say what they meant and mean what they said.
The dream of publishing Tropic of Cancer, a novel originally written in 1934, was the reason Rosset bought Grove. He fought off more than 60 legal actions seeking bans in 21 states. In 1964 the U.S. Supreme Court let him off the hook, and Rosset sold 100,000 hardcover and 1 million paperback copies that first year. There were other blockbuster successes, often of a high-end literary bent, including 2.5 million copies of Waiting for Godot, plus an author stable that included Nobel Prize winners Harold Pinter and Kenzaburo Oe.
Like all good left-leaning publishers (it seems), Rosset came from money and privilege; he dropped out of better schools than most of us can dream of getting into. Just as predictably, he was anti-union when it came to his business, calling the cops on feminist organizers in 1970. Among the demands were such pie-in-the-sky requests as on-site child care. After a union vote eventually failed, Grove canned half of its workers, which isn’t exactly what you would expect from the house that published Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X. The self-righteous politics of the one-time Communist Party member periodically got Rosset in trouble—as in 1968, when opponents of Fidel Castro lobbed a grenade into his offices for publishing the recently killed Che Guevara’s Bolivian Diary. Despite his hard-left politics, no one around Rosset was surprised when he took Grove Press public in the late 1960s and built a deluxe headquarters for the operation in Greenwich Village.
None of those contradictions matters as much as the books he published, the minds that he blew, and especially the legacy of free speech he leaves behind. They don’t make ’em like Rosset and Grove Press anymore. Thanks to him, they don’t have to.
Nick Gillespie, editor in chief of reason online and reason.tv, is co-author, with Matt Welch, of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America (PublicAffairs).