Barney Rossett, the founder of the hugely influential Grove Press, is dead at age 89.
From The New York Times obit:
Over a long career Mr. Rosset championed Beat poets, French Surrealists, German Expressionists and dramatists of the absurd, helping to bring them all to prominence. Besides publishing Beckett, he brought early exposure to European writers like Eugène Ionesco and Jean Genet and gave intellectual ammunition to the New Left by publishing Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”
Most of all, beginning in high school, when he published a mimeographed journal titled “The Anti-Everything,” Mr. Rosset, slightly built and sometimes irascible, savored a fight.
He defied censors in the 1960s by publishing D. H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” ultimately winning legal victories that opened the door to sexually provocative language and subject matter in literature published in the United States. He did the same thing on movie screens by importing the sexually frank Swedish film “I Am Curious (Yellow).”
If you grew up interested in literature and writing and a world bigger than the one you were immediately born into, you owe a debt to Rossett and people like him that's bigger than the one the federal government owes to the future. And I say that not as someone who grew up long ago and far away: I'm talking Jersey in the '70s and '80s, just 50 miles outside of Manhattan. In a pre-Internet, pre-everything-at-your-fingertips-world, books weren't just frigates (as Emily Dickinson would have it), they were battleships and aircraft carriers, capable of completely rescuing you from whatever isolated bunker you called home.
Starting in the very early 1950s, Grove and its various imprints (Black Cat, Evergreen, et al.) mainstreamed all sorts of foreign, forbidden, and exotic writing that just didn't show up elsewhere. Every bit as much as Julia Child, he broadened and cultivated the palate of Americans, helping to introduce or grow the audiences of writers such as Samuel Beckett, Alain Robbe-Grillet, "Pauline Reage," and all the Beats.
For kids interested in Literature (with a capital L), it 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 for the Scholastic Books catalog to pick a couple of selections that never showed up in your hometown library or 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, who would even mail you adult books from their catalogs.
From a free-speech POV, virtually no one was more important in blowing away the genteel fog of censorship that choked American expression like a 1960s smog alert in Los Angeles. Largely because of Rossett and Grove, we now enjoy what should have always been our birthright: a generally unfettered First Amendment. His court cases to publish such tame-to-us-now tomes as Lady Chatterley's Lover, 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 say.
Like all good left-leaning publishers (it seems), Rossett came from money and privilege (he dropped out of better schools than most of us can dream of getting into) and was anti-union when it came to his business (naturally). And he could be self-righteous and beyond deluded (IMO) in his politics (he was half-Irish and half-Jewish, so he had an understandable penchant for being wrong all of the time).
None of that matters even a bit as much as the books he published, the changes he wrought, and the legacy he leaves behind. They don't make 'em like Rossett and Grove Press anymore. Thanks to him, they don't have to. Which is pretty damn terrific.
Hat tip: Alan Vanneman
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