Publishing Pioneer Barney Rosset Dies At 89
Barney Rosset paid $3,000 for Grove Press in 1951. Then he used the company to help tear down American obscenity laws of the 1950s and ’60s.
February 22, 2012
A literary legend has died — not an author, but the publisher behind some of the greatest and most controversial writers of the 20th century.
Barney Rosset gave American readers their first taste of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, as well as uncensored classics by Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence. To do that, Rosset fought literally hundreds of court cases and was largely responsible for breaking down U.S. obscenity laws in the 1950s and ’60s.
Rosset was the son of a wealthy Chicago banker. During World War II, he served as a photographer, and afterward tried his hand at filmmaking. Then, in 1951, he bought a nearly defunct publishing company called Grove Press.
“Grove Press was three titles and maybe a hundred copies of each, enough to fit in a suitcase,”Rosset told NPR in 2009. “No financial records, no nothing.”
Rosset published Waiting for Godot in 1954 because, as he told WHYY’s Fresh Air in 1991, no other American publisher was interested in Beckett.
“When I started publishing, I most definitely would have liked to have published Hemingway and Faulkner and Fitzgerald,” he said, “but they were already published.”
In 1957, Rosset launched The Evergreen Review, which became one of the most important magazines of 1960s counterculture. Two years later, he found himself waging a legal battle over the frank sexuality of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Rosset took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, where he won a First Amendment victory. But that was just part of a calculated strategy to publish another banned book: Henry Miller’s 1934 autobiographical novel,Tropic of Cancer.