In 1962, there were 60 court cases underway in 21 states challenging the distribution of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. The novel, published in France in 1934, had never made it to the American market. Its graphic depiction of a writer’s life in libertine Paris in the 1920s was held by lawyers across the country to be obscene, and therefore unpublishable in the U.S. market. Unfortunately for the censors, Miller’s American publisher was 40-year-old Barney Rosset at Grove Press.
It was well known that Rosset, who died in 2012, had been working on a memoir. But, after being in the works for years, the book was ultimately orphaned. Now, thanks to OR Books’ John Oakes, Rosset’s protégé, Rosset: My Life in Publishing and How I Fought Censorship will be released in October.
“My whole life has brought me to this point,” Rosset wrote about publishing Miller in the fascinating memoir. “My Irish family’s outrage at British brutality; my years at Francis Parker, the progressive school I attended in Chicago; my fervent support for the loyalists during the Spanish Civil War—all of this history is being played out right here at home in the censorship wars. But the enemy has advanced as far as they can. They will not get through.”
They didn’t. The U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled in Grove’s favor. Rosset’s chapter on the Tropic of Cancer fight—which features weak-kneed distributors (Dell), printers (Western), booksellers (Brentano’s, Scribner’s, and Doubleday among them), and dozens of scandalized judges and critics, not to mention a terrified Henry Miller—is worth the price of the book and tells an important and ennobling episode in American publishing.
OR Books co-publisher Oakes, whose first boss in publishing was Rosset at Grove, said, “Young people don’t know this is the guy who changed the publishing world. They should. A case can be made that Barney changed worldwide culture, but it is incontrovertible that he changed American culture. From early on he was determined that a person should have the right to read whatever he wanted and publish whatever he wanted.”
But Rosset is more than a history of First Amendment litigation—it is a (characteristically) candid self-portrait by America’s foremost maverick publisher, as well as a colorful and rollicking history of Grove.
Rosset, an only child born in Chicago, enjoyed a privileged youth. He was a gifted athlete, a fiery debater, a young man full of opinions. After attending Swarthmore, he enlisted in the Army and served three years during WWII. After the war, his father helped him become a partner in a moribund little press called Grove. When his father died, leaving his heir control of a Midwest bank, Rosset merged it into Grove Press. Among the first books he published was Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which Rosset had read in the original French, long before Beckett was known, and which commenced a lifelong and mutually beneficial friendship.
“In the ’60s and ’70s,” Oakes said, “every college student, every serious writer and artist, knew Grove Press. Barney’s Evergreen Review had a circulation of 250,000. Grove had a theater, a movie company, a bar, a book club.” Being the publisher of Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco, Henry Miller, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, (among many other iconic and important writers), buoyed Grove with steady sales. But the small house, always run on narrow margins, became overextended. In the mid-1980s, faced with what Oakes called a choice between “death by fire or ice,” Rosset made the fateful decision to sell to Ann Getty. It was death by firing, as new management forced Rosset out.
The existence of a Rosset memoir has long been rumored, but who would publish it remained a question mark for years. “Barney was a seething mass of energy,” Oakes said. “His widow, Astrid [Myers], will attest—there must’ve been two dozen notebooks. He worked on it on and off, adding things here and there. There must’ve been 20 editors over the years who had an hand in it to varying degrees.” As recently as 2012, Algonquin announced its intentions to publish the memoir, then titled The Subject Is Left-Handed, a reference to an observation in Rosset’s considerable FBI file. But Algonquin backed out, and the project returned to the Rosset estate.
“When the estate asked me if I would take it on, I was really excited,” Oakes said. “I read the last version, and there were problems. It was a bit pallid.” So Oakes went to Columbia University to look at the Rosset papers there. “We went back to Barney’s own writing. It is his cadence. There is his aristocratic background, and yet his working-class way of speaking. The language is both direct and elliptical, and he pulls no punches. Literally. Even his poor treatment of women is reckoned with. One of the things that is most gratifying is to have the feeling that we made this a better, fuller picture of Barney—though he is no doubt raging at me from beyond the grave for changing the title!”
When asked what accounts for the great success Rosset had at Grove for many decades, Oakes said it was not only Rosset’s literary taste and rebellious spirit, but that he hired very good people—Kent Carroll, Richard Seaver, Fred Jordan, Nat Sobel, Herman Graf among them. And now Oakes, first hired as an editorial assistant by Rosset, has a hand in bringing more clarity to the Rosset legacy.
Another aspect of that legacy is also receiving attention at the moment. During the later years of his life, Rosset painted, gouged, and sculpted a large expanse of plaster wall in his and Astrid’s Fourth Avenue apartment in the East Village. Filmmakers Sandy Gotham Meehan and Williams Cole have started a Kickstarter campaign to fund postproduction of their documentary on “Barney’s Wall,” a kind of visual memoir from the irascible Rosset.