Review: Barney Rosset’s “My Life in Publishing and How I Fought Censorship”

In the 1950s, Barney Rosset was my hero. He published all the dirty books I’d been waiting to read and, in the process, changed the face of American reading. Grove Press—which Rosset ran—stood as a bulwark against puritanical mores and government censorship. As John Oakes, the editor of OR Books—who got his first job in publishing because of Rosset—states, “Every book was a battle, and he was the pirate captain exhorting his crew to slaughter.” Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer became celebrated censorship cases; Grove’s film division released I Am Curious (Yellow) to similar confrontation; Rosset’s Evergreen Review introduced dozens of non-American writers to American readers; and, yes, Samuel Beckett made Grove Press famous after it released Waiting for Godot, in 1953.

But let’s go back a few steps.

Here’s the first sentence of the Foreword of Rosset’s book: “Some people think my chief claim to fame is having published the first book to be sold over the counter in this country with the word fuck printed on its pages in all its naked glory.” And he adds, “Perhaps to the mainstream that’s all there was to D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover—just fuck, fuck, fuck. I saw the publication of Lawrence’s masterwork somewhat differently—as a major victory against rossetignorance and censorship.” Memory tells me, however, that the word had already appeared in one of the volumes of John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, published between 1930 and 1936. I can’t verify that on Google, where I can’t verify anything, since all it ever calls up is something I should buy. (But I digress).

Let’s try again, a few steps further back.

Barney Rosset’s Irish/Jewish heritage no doubt contributed to his making as a “maverick troublemaker.” He grew up in Chicago, as an only child and bed wetter. By high school, he was interested in Communism. He spent one year at Swarthmore, in 1940, and then transferred to the University of Chicago, where he finished no classes. Next was UCLA, briefly, followed in 1942 by Army Officer Candidate School, where he studied photography. Two years later, the government sent him to India and, eventually China, as part of the photo outfit, until the end of the war when he returned home. These details are sparsely presented and abruptly conclude as his early autobiography, barely more than a sixth of the book. Thereafter, it’s impossible to regard the book as an autobiography, since the chapter-by-chapter continuation focuses on people and activities related to his publishing.

Joan Mitchell, the painter who became his first wife, gets a brief focus, and then the next chapter is called “Samuel Beckett.” Facts are tossed out casually: Europe with Mitchell; then Greenwich Village; the New School, in 1951, where he was a student; the purchase of a small publishing house, the same year, which became Grove Press; and his divorce from Mitchell in 1952. The first book that Rosset himself picked for his new press? The Monk, also his first dirty book. The facts in these chapters are all jumbled up. A son (Peter) is suddenly mentioned because Rosset gave a talk at his school, though the boy’s existence has not been previously mentioned. (Several pages later, a baby is introduced). Mostly, Rosset evolves into chapters devoted to the many important writers he published—and/or the lengthy legal matters involving the celebrated dirty books.

Samuel Beckett was obviously the friendship of his life, the great writer taking on his nickname “Sam” once the two met. There are interesting speculations about several of Beckett’s plays (including Godot) and novels as depictions of the monosyllabic relationship Beckett had with his own wife. And there’s an amusing anecdote when Rosset was visiting Beckett in Paris during an electrical blackout. Sam couldn’t get back into his apartment because the lock on the door was controlled by electricity. So the two of them went to Rosset’s hotel, climbed up the six flights of steps because the elevator was also not working, and then spent the night sleeping in the same bed, giving new meaning to strange bedfellows.

Besides publishing some of the greatest writers of the twentieth century (Beckett, Henry Miller, Harold Pinter, Jack Kerouac, Malcolm X, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Kenzaburo Ōe), Rosset’s major accomplishment was fighting censorship—often at huge expense to Grove Press. Bookstores wouldn’t stock some of his writers unless Grove Press defended them in court. There were dozens of legal cases over individual titles (such as Tropic of Cancer) that gobbled up most of the profits. Worse, in some cases (both Lawrence and Miller) because of crazy copyright laws, books were in public domain. As soon as Grove won the legal case to publish a given work, other publishers jumped into the market with their editions, undercutting Grove’s royalties. There’s an appendix at the end of the book, providing Grove Press financials for the years, 1964-1984. In spite of decent profits for several years, the accumulated loss for the two decades was three-and-a-half million dollars.

There were plenty of other complications. Women who worked for the press in 1970 tried to unionize, resulting in legal matters that left the press broke. Much later, in 1985, Lord Weidenfeld and Ann Getty purchased the press, assuring Rosset that he would be kept on as editor. Sure, just as cows fly. Weidenfeld and Getty recognized the extraordinary backlist as a source for on-going profits. A year later, they let Rosset go. Years later, he unsuccessfully tried to buy the press back, though the glory days were over—several of its most important writers were dead.

My Life in Publishing and How I Fought Censorship is an uneven book, highly fragmented and, according to John Oakes, highly edited, with drafts “written and discarded; at least fifteen different freelance editors, and at least four experienced publishers (not including Barney himself) wrestled with the project.” These complications are readily apparent. But there are wonderful passages throughout, colorful incidents involving so many of the writers Rosset published. Mostly, what we see is a relentless fighter for free speech, winning and losing his shirt in the process, but acquiring a dignity few other editor/publishers can ever claim.

Barney Rosset: My Life in Publishing and How I Fought Censorship
O/R Books, 327 pp., $25

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.