Barney Rosset, 1922 - 2012

Perhaps more than any other publisher, Rosset changed the American cultural landscape of the latter half of the 20th century.
David Hudson
The DailyObscene

From John Gall, art director for Vintage and Anchor Books, comes word that legendary publisher and film distributor Barney Rosset has passed away at the age of 89. Gall points us to a lively profile by Louisa Thomas that ran in Newsweek in late 2008: "Rosset's publishing house, Grove Press, was a tiny company operating out of the ground floor of Rosset's brownstone when it published an obscure play called Waiting for Godot in 1954. By the time Beckett had won the Nobel Prize in 1969, Grove had become a force that challenged and changed literature and American culture in deep and lasting ways. Its impact is still evident — from the Che Guevara posters adorning college dorms to the canonical status of the house's once controversial authors. Rosset is less well known — but late in his life he is achieving some wider recognition. Last month, a black-tie crowd gave Rosset a standing ovation when the National Book Foundation awarded him the Literarian Award for 'outstanding service' to American letters. This fall, Rosset was also the subject of a documentary, Obscene, directed by Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O'Connor, which featured a host of literary luminaries, former colleagues and footage from a particularly hilarious interview with Al Goldstein, the porn king. High literature and low — Rosset pushed and published it all."

Reviewing Obscene for the New York Times earlier that same year, Jeannette Catsoulis wrote that Rosset pursued a "remorseless crusade against obscenity laws and his championing of the avant-garde would bring Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller and William Burroughs to American bookstores and I Am Curious (Yellow) to movie theaters. It also brought death threats, bomb attacks, government surveillance and near-penury to its indefatigable sponsor, a feisty octogenarian whose backbone was honed during World War II as a military photographer alongside Frank Capra and John Huston."

Waiting for Godot

"Rosset published writers other presses passed up because the were too far out, too experimental, or violated the prevailing mores of the day," wrote Ken Jordan, introducing his interview with Rosset for the Paris Review in 1997. "Among them were the Beats, the postwar European avant-garde, the New American poets of the 50s and the playwrights of the Theater of the Absurd…. In the 50s, repressive obscenity laws made it illegal to publish DH 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…. In addition, Grove produced a magazine, Evergreen Review, distributed art films, and by the late 60s, added a book club and two film theaters in the Village." Meantime, "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, Hubert Selby Jr, Michael McClure, Kenzaburo Oe, DT 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.'"

I Am Curious (Yellow)

"With Paris as his primary resource, New York as his home base, and the booming American university population as his audience, Rosset's signal achievement with Grove Press and the Evergreen Review would be to take the avant-garde into the mainstream, helping to usher in a cultural revolution whose consequences are with us still," wrote Loren Glass early last September in a must-read piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books, the first part of a fascinating history of Grove Press. The second part appeared a couple of weeks later:

In the end, Grove made money on a single film: Vilgot Sjöman's I Am Curious (Yellow). Rosset had read about the film by the Ingmar Bergman protégé in the Manchester Guardian during his annual trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1967. Intrigued by its purported combination of sexual frankness and political critique, Rosset asked the president of the Swedish publisher Bonnier to put him in touch with the film's producer. He went to see it, liked it, and promptly purchased the rights to distribute it in the United States. I Am Curious (Yellow) was seized by US Customs in January 1968 and Grove had to arrange for critics to view it at the United States Appraisers Stores in New York City under an agreement that they would not "publicize the contents." These same critics were expert witnesses at the subsequent trial in May. A jury found the film to be obscene, but the Court of Appeals overturned the decision, and for the rest of the year it was shown to packed houses by reservation only at the Evergreen Theater on East 11th Street and generated lines around the block for its continuous showing (seven times a day) at the Cinema Rendezvous on 57th Street. It was widely reviewed and discussed, and Rosset aggressively pursued screenings across the country, going so far as to purchase an entire theater in Minneapolis when he couldn't find an exhibitor willing to show it. By September of 1969, the film had made over $5 million across the country, with Grove remunerating local lawyers who defended against obscenity accusations with a percentage of the box office receipts. Grove's stock soared. According to Herman Graf, "In '68 and '69 we had a stronger bottom line than Bantam; we were making money hand over fist."

And Barney Rosset was now a celebrity.

Updates, 2/23: The New Yorker's Richard Brody focuses on the "significant role Rosset played in the world of movies. Just after the Second World War, he produced a magnificent documentary, Strange Victory, directed by Leo Hurwitz… [W]hen I met and interviewed Rosset about a decade ago, he gave me a copy of it — and I'm grateful for it. (I reviewed it here several years ago.) The subject is American racism, and the movie highlights — with aesthetic originality — the disturbing continuity between the violent outcome of German anti-Semitism in the Holocaust and ongoing racist violence in America." Further in:

He also distributed Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend. But the reason for my interviewing Rosset was his investment in a film co-directed by Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin in 1970-71. At that time, they were the core of the Dziga Vertov Group, making films of explicit Maoist doctrine, and they were having trouble finding funding for their work. Rosset, who also published political books (and whose office was firebombed, supposedly by an anti-Castro group), invested twenty-five thousand dollars in the film, which was titled Vladimir and Rosa, but which turned out to be largely about the trial of the Chicago Eight, done in a spare, hectic, anti-naturalistic way — and also about Godard and Gorin, talking together through microphones, struggling toward a new variety of personal fiction.

Wondering how he could release it, Rosset brought together two of the real people who were represented theatrically in the film — Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin — and, filming them in discussion, intercut that footage into the print. (He also produced the documentary Godard in America, filmed during Godard's visits here in 1970.) Despite Rosset's doubts, Vladimir and Rosa was both acclaimed when it was released here and served, for Godard and Gorin, its purpose — it helped to propel them outside the enclosure of political doctrine toward a new kind of fiction.

Douglas Martin, in his obit for the New York Times, notes that "Algonquin Books plans to release an autobiography Mr Rosset was writing, tentatively titled The Subject Was Left-Handed."

Listening. The Leonard Lopate Show has posted interviews from 1995 and 2008.

Updates, 1/24: Charles McGrath in the NYT: "In an interview I had with him a few years ago Mr Rosset said that his venture into the blue movie business was one of the worst mistakes he had made in a life that was filled with them. But he was otherwise cheerful and unrepentant. 'Should we have had more of a business plan?' he said, looking back on his years at Grove. 'Probably. But then the publishers that did have business plans didn’t do any better.'"

Tin House is running Rosset's recollection of producing Samuel Beckett's Film (1965) from its Winter 2000 Hollywood Issue (via Movie City News): "The first person Beckett wanted for the only major role in Film was the Irish actor Jack MacGowran. He was unavailable, as was Charlie Chaplin and also Zero Mostel, Alan's choice [Alan Schneider, a seasoned director of Samuel Beckett’s work in North America]. Later, Mostel did a marvelous job with Burgess Meredith in a TV production of Waiting for Godot that Schneider directed. Finally, Alan suggested Buster Keaton. Sam liked the idea, so Alan flew out to Hollywood to try and sign Buster up. There he found Buster living in extremely modern circumstances. On arrival he had to wait in a separate room while Keaton finished up an imaginary poker game with, among others, the legendary (but long-dead) Hollywood mogul Irving Thalberg. Keaton took the job. During an interview, Beckett told Kevin Brownlow (a Keaton scholar) that 'Buster Keaton was inaccessible. He had a poker mind as well as a poker face… He had great endurance, he was very tough, and, yes, reliable. And when you saw that face at the end…  Ah. At last.'"

Tin House publisher and editor Win McCormack: "When I asked him in an interview for the Summer 2001 issue of Tin House how much, in choosing writers for Grove Press and the Evergreen Review, he relied on the judgment of other people whose taste he trusted, he replied, 'A lot. A lot!' and cited numerous examples. His first wife, the abstract expressionist painter Joan Mitchell, pushed him to republish the Henry James novel The Golden Bowl as Grove's first new title after he acquired the small press, which led him to go on to reissue several other of James' works, and to a revival of public interest in the Master, many of whose works had gone out-of-print. Princeton professor of French Literature Wallace Fowlie strongly encouraged his budding interest in the work of Samuel Beckett, particularly the play Waiting for Godot, which Fowlie informed him point-blank would be 'one of the most important literary works of the twentieth century.' It was indisputably that, and also arguably the single most important acquiring decision Barney ever made."

Update, 2/27: "Publishers have always loved a banned book. Rosset stood apart from his peers not only in his willingness to challenge prohibitions, but in being able to fund the action. In his posthumous memoir, The Tender Hour of Twilight, published in early 2012, Rosset's second-in-command, Richard Seaver, wrote: 'Everyone knew that Barney was rich, but never knew to what degree.' At one stage, he sued his father over the restrictions imposed on his inheritance. 'And to the consternation of all,' Seaver wrote, 'he won.'"

Update, 2/28: "In college in faraway 1970 I took one of those useful survey courses that furnish the mind, Major Dramatic Works of the 20th Century," recalls Gerald Howard for n+1. "And Grove Press just owned that syllabus. Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Ionesco's Rhinoceros, Brecht's Mother Courage and Galileo, Pinter's The Homecoming and The Birthday Party, Genet's The Balcony, LeRoi Jones's Dutchman, Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead — it's lucky there was any room left for Shaw, Miller, Williams, and O'Neill. Every one of those books is in print four decades later, a record nothing short of staggering, and a look at Grove's drama list today shows that important work by such playwrights as David Mamet and David Ives continued to be added. This is not simply a backlist, it's a monument to 20th century theatrical and adversary culture."

Update, 3/3: "Sure, he was part of a lineage," writes David L Ulin in the Los Angeles Times. "[I]t's difficult to imagine Rosset doing what he did for more than 30 years at Grove Press without the example of James Laughlin at the seminal independent New Directions or (further afield) Jack Kahane at Paris' Obelisk Press. And yet Grove, which Rosset bought in 1951 for $3,000 and ran until 1985, remains the touchstone, the publisher most responsible for breaking down American literary puritanism, for defending the idea that art, that literature, is meant to unsettle us, that among its central purposes is to challenge the status quo…. The irony is that despite Rosset's efforts, the moralists remain with us still. The culture warriors are as rabid as I remember them, as divisive and mean-spirited, as repressive about the pleasures of the body, as hypocritical about the complexities of society and soul."

Update, 3/4: The Brooklyn Rail runs Williams Cole's 2008 interview.

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Barney RossetVilgot SjömanJean-Luc GodardJean-Pierre GorinDziga Vertov GroupDailySamuel Beckett
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