The Most Dangerous Man in Publishing

Barney Rosset, the man who brought Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ and Miller’s ‘Tropic of Cancer’ to America, died on Tuesday. Here is Louisa Thomas’s profile from 2008.
by Louisa Thomas | December 5, 2008 7:00 PM EST

On a nondescript block south of New York’s Union Square, up a dreary staircase and through a black-barred gate, there is a long, narrow room that might be mistaken for a very small museum of literary counterculture. On one wall hangs two rows of iconic posters: Paul Davis’s print of Che Guevara’s proud head; a photograph of the authors Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg marching at the 1968 Democratic National Convention; a portrait of Bobby Kennedy. Loose-leaf binders of correspondence with groundbreaking authors line floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Beside the bookcases, Samuel Beckett peers out of a black-and-white photograph with a fierce crow’s gaze. Next to him in the picture stands a shorter, milder-looking man named Barney Rosset.

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. …

The story of Rosset’s life is essentially one of creative destruction. He found writers who wanted to break new paths, and then he picked up a sledgehammer to help them whale away at the existing order. “He opened the door to freedom of expression,” said Ira Silverberg, a literary agent who began his career in publishing at Grove. “He published a generation of outsiders who probably said more about American culture than any voice in the dominant culture ever could.” A Grove book, said Robert Gottlieb, who served as editor of Simon & Schuster and then Knopf during the years Rosset ran Grove, “made a statement. It was avant-garde. Whether European or American, it had very special qualities; it was definitely worth paying attention to.” Through Grove and its offshoot, a literary magazine called Evergreen Review, Rosset was a curator and a self-styled rebel. He published whatever he liked, even (or especially) when it got him into trouble. “I think he was at his best, enjoying life, when we were in crisis,” says Richard Seaver, who was, with Fred Jordan, a top editor at Grove. …

I lived on books from Grove Press. I subscribed to Evergreen for years. We’ve already discussed the value of publishers like Grove, Evergreen, New Direction, Dalkey Archive, Coffee House, Eraserhead, etc.:  just stop and think about all the wonderful, stimulating literature that never would have been published if it were not for publishing houses such as these. Can you imagine the bookstores being full of nothing but Stephen King and Lynne Cheney? The horror. The horror.

Take a few minutes and read the full article on Barney Rosset. It is both interesting and inspiring. Google around the internet for articles from around the world announcing the passing of Barney Rosset. There was a mensch.

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