Ask any of the people who worked with the late Barney Rosset, founder of Grove Press and the Evergreen Review, who died February 21, and you’ll hear words like dynamic, passionate, freethinker, risk taker, and more than a little bit self-destructive. Rosset bought Grove Press in 1951 and ran it, his way, until he was forced to sell the company in 1985. In the process, Rosset changed publishing and American culture, creating a standard and spirit of fearlessly creative publishing that continues to inspire.
The list of his publishing accomplishments is imposing. His determination to publish such erotic literary masterpieces as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in a time of cultural repression and legal intimidation was heroic. Rosset challenged American obscenity laws, and his victories in those cases reshaped the notion of what a publisher could do. In the process, Grove Press and Rosset’s Evergreen Review (launched in 1957 as a literary quarterly, it grew to become a slick glossy monthly with a million-copy circulation) became synonymous with the growth of the counterculture, and published many of the most notable writers of the beat generation, from Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to LeRoi Jones and William Burroughs..
John Oakes, copublisher of OR Books, told PW he got to know Rosset while he was still in college and sent Rosset a letter with questions about Samuel Beckett’s work. Rosset got Beckett to respond, and Oakes said he got an A on the paper. Years later Rosset offered him a job in publishing at Grove Press. “Barney wasn’t open to other approaches—he had his approach,” Oakes said. “Whatever is perceived as popular or accepted is not necessarily the case. It takes a force to make a new work available and to make the culture aware of something different,” Oakes added. “And it won’t make you turn into the devil,” he said, laughing, “or maybe it will, but you’ll have a lot of fun reading it.”
The writers Rosset introduced to the American literary landscape of the time make up a who’s who of modern literature and include Nobel Literature prize winners Samuel Beckett, Octavio Paz, and Kenzaburo Oe; Jean Genet; Eugene Ionesco; Jorge Luis Borges; D.H. Lawrence; and Henry Miller—the list is even longer and more distinguished. He was determined to “go from his gut instinct,” according to Seven Stories Press publisher Dan Simon, who worked with Rosset on a long-running effort to copublish his long anticipated but never delivered memoir.
“He wasn’t a go-along kind of guy,” said Simon, who told PW that he had joined with Rosset and several small houses in the early 1990s in an attempt to buy back Grove Press from Ann Getty and George Weidenfeld, who had forced Rosset out in 1985. Simon brought up his passionate determination to publish what he thought needed to be published, no matter its commercial prospects. “He wasn’t always right, but he wasn’t held back by reasonable considerations—and that’s how it should be,” Simon said, though he emphasized that Rosset was “drawn to people of genius.”
One such writer was poet, novelist, radical political activist and essayist Amiri Baraka, known as LeRoi Jones at the time. Among other works, Grove Press published Baraka’s short story collection Tales (1969); his second book of poetry, The Dead Lecturer (1963); and his Joycean novel, The System of Dante’s Hell (1965). “Barney was energetic and dynamic in his own way,” Baraka told PW. “He was trying to find out everything about everything. He was really dynamic about overlooked books, books he felt had been lost.”
Baraka said he got know Rosset and Grove Press editor Don Allen in “downtown New York in the late 1950s-1960s. It was a tight community in an anti-academic sense. I knew Allen—he was good and very influential poetry editor—and we all hung around the Cedar Tavern Bar. It was a clubby place where all the painters—Franz Kline, de Kooning, those guys—would hang out. So it was pretty easy to spot people.” Baraka said Rosset “wanted to get away from the old super-established literary formulas and look for what had been spurned—new American things and the old things that started them. No one put together the past and the present like Grove Press and it was one of the most exciting publishing companies that I ever knew.”
Noted publishing and intellectual property lawyer Martin Garbus called Rosset “a one-man war both against censorship of the arts and for the publication of what was new, exciting and good. It’s hard today to remember the state of publishing and the culture in the late ’50s and early ’60s.”
Of course Garbus and others we spoke with also emphasized his chaotic lifestyle: “his private life was consistent with his love of freedom in the culture.”
“He was financially challenged the last 15 years or so of his life,” said Charlie Winton, now publisher of Counterpoint Press. “Barney was famous for selling 300% of everything he owned,” Winton said. “But Barney was the guy if you were in independent publishing,” said Winton, who worked to help Rosset in the late 1990s, when he was CEO of PGW/Avalon, by acquiring Fox Rock Press and Blue Moon Books, Rosset’s last publishing imprints. “Passionate instincts, that’s what Barney was all about."
Winton said, “Barney’s constant financial high-wire act was a kind of schtick—he didn’t make the best financial decisions but he had a great publishing run. He had that charismatic thing happening and you entered a social dynamic with him that was fun and naughty.”
Grove Press sold a lot of copies of works by Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, and the rest, including foreign erotic/pornographic films like I Am Curious Yellow, which initially brought in an enormous amount of revenue. But his obsession with foreign films and a succession of overall poor business decisions led to the downfall of Grove and Evergreen Review by 1985.
In 1993, Grove Press merged with Atlantic Monthly Press under publisher Morgan Entrekin. Entrekin emphasized that Grove/Atlantic was a “merger, not an acquisition. We created a new corporate entity for Grove.” Entrekin said that Rosset “produced an astounding body of work. It wasn’t just Barney—he had great editors like Nat Sobel, Richard Seaver, and Don Allen—but he was the captain of the ship.”
“It would be difficult to do what Barney did in the 1950s and 1960s today,” Entrekin continued, noting the Grove Press backlist. “If you had those authors today, it would be difficult to keep them. But having that kind of backlist gives you stability and allows you to publish and compete with bigger publishers.”
Neil Ortenberg, co-director and producer of the 2008 film Obscene, a documentary on the life, work, and erotic obsessions of Rosset, is the former publisher of Thunder’s Mouth Press.Ortenberg said that he tried to publish Rosset’s memoir, The Subject Is Left Handed—years ago this reporter accompanied Ortenberg on a visit to Rosset’s Fourth Avenue apartment/archive to discuss the book—now slated to be published by Algonquin. Instead, Ortenberg ended up making a film. “His integrity and willingness to draw or shed blood for things he believed in influenced me personally and professionally,” Ortenberg said. “He was the most important publisher of the 20th century.”
“We live in a world today where a 16–year-old can create a gaming content company and sell it for over a million bucks, where soon physical books will be the equivalent of vinyl records,” Ortenberg said. “But Barney was a publishing artist. His example for today’s publishers is that people will always have a thirst for great literature regardless of the content delivery method, or the competition from blogs, tweets, or video games. Publishers are in a fight for their lives, a fight Barney would relish.”