Issue 145, Winter 1997
Barney Rosset was born in Chicago in 1922. His formative years were spent in the Francis Parker School, where several politically radical teachers introduced him to socially conscious literature and to organizations like the American Student Union. After serving in the Signal Corps during World War II, commanding a photographic unit in China, he produced a feature film, Strange Victory, in 1948. The film was concerned with how, after we defeated the Nazis, racism continued in our own country.
In 1951, he bought a fledgling literary publishing company, Grove Press, named after the Greenwich Village street where it began. For the next thirty-three years he ran it from various locations in the same neighborhood, developing Grove into a critical part of the downtown New York firmament and one of the most influential publishers of its day. Attracted to books that in some way—through their form or content—challenged the status quo, Rosset published writers other presses passed up because the were too far out, too experimental, or violated the prevailing mores of the day. Among them were the Beats, the postwar European avant-garde, the New American poets of the fifties and the playwrights of the Theater of the Absurd.
Always undercapitalized, Grove often paid low advances. But writers came to Grove because it championed their work in an often hostile environment. In the fifties, repressive obscenity laws made it illegal to publish D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Rosset deliberately set out to overturn these laws, publishing and defending these books, and others, in court. Over the years, Grove took on hundreds of lawsuits, in the process expanding the range of public discourse.
As the fifties turned into the sixties, and the Beat generation gave way to the counterculture, Grove became the principal home for writers who challenged the American mainstream—from both a literary and a political perspective. In addition, Grove produced a magazine, Evergreen Review, distributed art films, and by the late sixties, added a book club and two film theaters in the Village. But when the sixties ended, the press abruptly hit hard times and implemented drastic cutbacks. Rosset continued the company for another fourteen years, before selling it in 1985. He left the following year after disputes with the new management.
Following his strong personal tastes and left-wing convictions, Rosset had developed an impressive list of authors. Indeed, many Grove writers, who were considered iconoclasts in their day, are now regarded as central figures in our culture: Samuel Beckett, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Leroi Jones, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Charles Olson, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Joe Orton, Hebert Selby Jr., Michael McClure, Kenzaburo Oe, D. T. Suzuki, Kathy Acker, and David Mamet. In 1988, the PEN American Center presented Rosset with its Publisher Citation for “distinctive and continuous service to international letters, to the freedom and dignity of writers, and to the free transmission of the printed word across the barriers of poverty, ignorance, censorship, and repression.”
Rosset is a wiry man with strong hands. His hair is neatly trimmed. He speaks with a clipped staccato rhythm that communicates a charged enthusiasm and has a shy, introspective smile that lends him much of his considerable charm.
This interview was culled from over a dozen conversations held between 1993 and 1996 in Rosset’s East Village loft—a long comfortable space with a pool table in the center and Beckett play posters from the 1950s hung around it. On several occasions, Fred Jordan, my father and a close friend of Rosset, who began to work at Grove in 1956 and stayed for most of the next thirty years, attended the conversations.
When did you first read Lady Chatterley’s Lover?
When I was already at Grove. I didn’t know much about that book, and actually it didn’t interest me that much—only in terms of how it might help us to publish Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. It seemed to me that D. H. Lawrence was a more respected figure than Miller, that he had a higher hit on the ratings scale, so he would be easier to present as “literature” in the courts.
What did you think of the book?
I didn’t really like it. It affronted me in certain odd ways. It was written from a very class-conscious point of view, which didn’t particularly appeal to me. Lawrence’s blood-and-thunder thing really did not excite me either—he regarded sex and death as mythological. The book was also about industrialization, which he detested.
Wasn’t the use of the word fuck a major issue?
Well, there was a very graphic description of sex in the book. It wouldn’t be considered graphic now, but at the time it was. When he talked about his prick he called it John Thomas. It was like a detached person: What does John Thomas want today? Oh, well he wants you . . .! Ultimately it’s a good book. I like it better now than I did then. I mean, politically I did not go for it, but it was there, and it had to be published. And it led to Tropic of Cancer. Henry Miller did not have the kind of reputation that Lawrence did. He was thought of as a sort of bum, an early Kerouac.
The Grove edition of Chatterley came out in 1959. If you started the process to publish it in 1954, why did it take so long before the book came out?
We prepared very carefully. We decided the best thing to do was send the book through the mail so it would be seized by the post office. We thought this would be the best way to defend the book. The post office is a federal government agency, and if they arrest you, you go to the federal court. That way you don’t have to defend the book in some small town. If we won against the post office, then the federal government was declaring that this book was not objectionable. That was the idea, and it worked out in exactly that way. The post office has its own special court, where the judge and the prosecutor are the same man. We brought in all these famous writers. Malcolm Cowley was a witness. He was particularly good because he was deaf and couldn’t hear the questions of the prosecutor—so he gave a lecture. Alfred Kazin was another witness. Picked him up from the New School, where I’d taken a course with him. Horace Gregory. The judge, if you could call him that, ruled against us. We lost. Even so, I felt a great wave of sympathy coming from him, the way he stated things and the fact that he let us put all this evidence into the record. Getting things into the record was really important, because the judge who rules on the appeal only looks at what’s in the record. No new evidence is allowed.
What happened on appeal?
For the appeal Cy Rembar wrote a very good brief explaining why the book was a piece of literature. He appealed specifically on the issue of what is obscene. They had tried to ban Lady Chatterley because they said it “appeals to prurient interests”—which meant it caused “itching” as far as we could tell. Finally we won the appeal on that basis—that the book had literary merit. I still don’t like that idea. It seems like a compromise to me. But without my really noticing it at the time, that’s what the defense became, and we won.
You went through this with Lady Chatterley’s Lover just to publish Tropic of Cancer in the U.S. Why was Henry Miller so important to you?
I first went to college at Swarthmore, and that’s where I discovered Henry Miller. Theydidn’t discover him—he certainly wasn’t being taught in English class. I read Tropic of Cancer, which I bought at Steloff’s Gotham Book Mart on Forty-seventh Street. Who told me about it, I don’t know, but I liked it enormously and I wrote my freshman English paper about both it and The Air Conditioned Nightmare. My paper was anti-United States—it was all about what a lousy country we live in. My professor said, Perhaps the jaundice is in the eye of the beholder, meaning my eyes and Miller’s. He gave me a B minus.
At Swarthmore I got to hate Quakers. Detest them. They were anti-Semitic at Swarthmore, and there were no blacks, not one. They had fraternities! I say it with venom because I hated the idea. I was most certainly not going to join a fraternity—and nobody asked me. I really got disgusted by the whole place and was desperately unhappy. After I read Tropic of Cancer, I left—decided to go to Mexico. Because the book had influenced me so much, I left in the middle of the term. But I ran out of money. I never got to Mexico; I got as far as Florida and I came back. Four weeks had gone by. They had reported me missing to the United States government. My family didn’t know where I was. I came back, sort of sadly. At Swarthmore if you missed two classes you automatically flunked. So I went to the dean. He said, Well, nobody’s ever done this before—there was no precedent for it—so let’s pretend it never happened! But you know what, I was not happy. It did not make me like him. It didn’t change my mind a bit.
That paper, by the way, helped me a great deal years later. At the Chicago trial over Tropic of Cancer the prosecutor said, “You don’t care about Henry Miller, you’re only publishing him for the money.” So I took this paper, written in 1940, out of my pocket and started reading it. It made a big point.
When you published Tropic of Cancer in 1961, the post office didn’t seize the book?
No, they didn’t come after us, unfortunately. You can’t force them to. After Lady Chatterley, they never got involved in obscenity suits again. They learned their lesson, I think.
But if the post office doesn’t arrest you, there are still many other possibilities for arrest. The local police can go into a store and say, Take this book off the shelves, and arrest the bookseller. In Brooklyn they came after me, the publisher, and charged me with conspiracy. They claimed that Henry Miller and I conspired to have him write Tropic of Cancer—that I commissioned him to write it in Brooklyn in 1933! That was a mistake, right? I would have been ten years old, and anyway he wrote the book in Paris. It was insane. Then John Ciardi wrote a two-page editorial in the Saturday Review blasting the government, absolutely ridiculing the district attorney. In the course of blasting them, he told the history of the book, and that really helped us. I was brought before a grand jury. It was a big room. The jury looked like nice people. The district attorney got up and said, I understand that the children of these people on the grand jury are able to buy Tropic of Cancer at their local newsstand. I said, Well, that’s very good. And if their children bought that book and read it all the way through, then those parents should be congratulated! The district attorney just got laughed out of there by the grand jury. All the cops in America had settled on page seven or something as the page that made the book arrestable. It’s the page where the woman is shitting five-franc pieces out of her cunt, and there are wild chickens running around—the DA asked me to read it aloud. I did, and that’s when the jury really started laughing. And then he started laughing. And so they dropped it. The grand jury would not indict me. That was only one of hundreds of cases, all over the country, in every state—literally.