Thursday, February 23, 2012

Barney Rosset (1922-2012)

Yesterday, the publishing industry came to a brief pause for shock and sadness at the mention of four words: "Barney Rosset is dead."

The newest publishing intern, still smelling like Wellesley and sipping her mocha-coconut frappuccino at the corner of Broadway and 54th, may say, "Barney who?"  But those who have been around for more than a couple of minutes--especially those whose college education was fueled by by the names Beckett, Burroughs, and Ionesco--knew one of the brightest lights in the book world had flickered out.  True, the bulb may have been dim for a number of years, but back in the 1950s and 1960s, Barney blazed.  Oh, how he blazed bright.

In 1951, Rosset bought a fledgling literary publishing company called Grove Press.  At the time, Grove had published only three books: The Confidence Man, The Verse in English of Richard Crashaw, and The Selected Writings of the Ingenious Mrs. Aphra Behn.  In an interview with The Paris Review, he said, "I was doing nothing at the time and thought, This might be interesting.  I think I paid fifteen hundred dollars for half—which included the inventory.  I took the inventory to my apartment on Ninth Street, all of it, in three suitcases."

Rosset's ownership of the fledgling press was an act that reverberated and gathered speed, like a rubber ball going down a staircase, until it landed in my own lap six months ago.  Grove was struggling when Rosset came on the scene but under his watch it would go on to publish the works of writers considered iconoclasts in their day but who are now regarded as central figures in our culture--names like Samuel Beckett, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Malcolm X, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Leroi Jones, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Joe Orton, Hebert Selby Jr., Kenzaburo Oe, Kathy Acker, and David Mamet.  As the introduction to his interview in The Paris Review states: "Attracted to books that in some way—through their form or content—challenged the status quo, Rosset published writers other presses passed up because they were too far out, too experimental, or violated the prevailing mores of the day."

He also kicked those prevailing mores in the balls.  Anti-obscenity laws of the fifties made it illegal to publish the unsanitized texts of books like D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (among others).  Rosset set out to deliberately defy those laws by publishing those two books and, through a series of landmark court cases, gave us all the freedom to enjoy one of Miller's characters shooting "hot bolts" into a woman's nether-regions* and turning her ovaries "incandescent."

In a 2008 Newsweek article called "The Most Dangerous Man in Publishing," Louisa Thomas wrote: "The story of Rosset's life is essentially one of creative destruction. He found writers who wanted to break new paths, and then he picked up a sledgehammer to help them whale away at the existing order."

As one of the newest members of the Grove family, I realize any rhapsodic tribute I may write about Rosset is a little like admiring a dusty-framed oil painting of a great-great-grandfather which has always hung in the second-floor hallway of the mansion (or, in Rosset's case, maybe it's more accurate to call it a portrait in Day-Glo spray paint across a brick wall).  But I can tell you this: even though I never met the man, his lasting effect on literature was felt on that day last September when I got the email from my agent saying Grove was interested in my novel and I shouted to my wife, "Grove!  It's Grove!"  Just ask her about the elevated, carnival-pitch excitement in my voice and you'll have some idea of the outstanding reputation Rosset helped establish.

Throughout the day yesterday as news spread about his death of complications from heart surgery, tributes from friends and fans lit up social media with words like "legendary" and "maverick" and "giant" and "hero."  Rosset once told the New York Times, "All my life I followed the things that I liked — people, things, books — and when things were offered to me, I published them.  I never did anything I really didn't like."

In a tribute yesterday in the New York Times, Douglas Martin wrote: "In 2008 the National Book Foundation honored him as 'a tenacious champion for writers who were struggling to be read in America.'  Other mentions were less lofty.  Life magazine in 1969 titled an article about him 'The Old Smut Peddler.'  That same year a cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post showed him climbing out of a sewer."

In his memoir The Tender Hour of Twilight (just published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux), editor Richard Seaver recalls the first time he met Rosset in Paris before going to work for him:
Barney was a slight, intense, wired-up young man, whom I judged to be in his early thirties, although his receding hairline made him look older. He was wearing thick horn-rimmed glasses, and when he laughed--which he did often, though nervously, as if he weren't quite sure a laugh was appropriate to the remark--he looked strangely equine, baring both gums.
Seaver also recalls his wife's high opinion of his new boss:
True, he was opinionated. True, he sought and savored the limelight. True, he could be irascible, shoot from the hip, court trouble unnecessarily. But, boy, did he have guts! He also had brains. And what other publishing house was even remotely as exciting as Grove?
Rosset sold Grove in 1985 to Ann Getty, the oil heiress, and George Weidenfeld, a British publisher.  Part of the deal was that he would remain in charge, but he was fired a year later.  He sued, contending that the dismissal had violated the sales contract.  The dispute was settled out of court.  Grove's backlist was acquired by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1993, bringing us to what we know today as Grove/Atlantic.

Rosset has been gone from Grove for years and now he is gone from us all for good.  But the words for which he fought so hard remain:
I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am. Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God. This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants of God, Man, Destiny, Time, Beauty.
          --Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

*Miller, of course, repeatedly used a much stronger "c" word in Tropic of Cancer.


  1. Really nice, thoughtful tribute, David. His passing makes me think a lot about the ways publishing is just never going to be the same, and the movers and the shakers who made it cool in the first place. Thanks for that.

  2. Sounds like he was quite a remarkable man who made a difference in many lives. Thank you for sharing this tribute to him David.