Tom Bishop (New York University)
For Beckett people, Barney Rosset, who died on February 21, 2012, earned his place of great honour in the Beckettian firmament by having been Beckett’s publisher in the United States at his Grove Press. Thanks to Grove Beckett’s works were more widely disseminated in the U.S.—and especially on American campuses—than in any other country, and Waiting for Godot alone sold more than an astounding 2.5 million copies.
But for the publishing world at large, Barney Rosset was not only responsible for making Beckett a well-known writer long before his Nobel Prize, he was, beyond a doubt, the enfant terrible of American publishing, the man who fought numerous, highly controversial legal battles to assert the First Amendment in a climate of political and sexual censorship. His most celebrated—and successful—battles earned Grove Press the rights to publish and distribute D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and changed the face of publishing in the United States. Rosset spent large sums of his own money (he came from a wealthy family), fought the U.S. government, and even went to jail, but he made Grove Press ‘a breach in the dam of American Puritanism’, as he himself termed it.
Having broken down the barriers to sexually explicit language and subject matter in literature, Rosset turned to film. He imported the then-sexually daring Swedish film, I Am Curious (Yellow), bought a small Greenwich Village movie house to show it, and then went to court once again when the film was banned. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and again he won and again his success marked a landmark victory against censorship laws and mentality. Life magazine may have entitled a 1969 article about him ‘The Old Smut Peddler’ but Rosset was not only unfazed, he belonged to the ‘it-doesn’t-matter-what-they-say-as-long-as-they-spell-the-name-right’ school. Most likely he felt that at 47 he should not have been labeled ‘old’.
These were but the most celebrated of Barney Rosset’s battles. Controversial ventures included the publication of Burroughs’s exploration of the drug culture, the homoerotic Naked Lunch, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Che Guevara’s Bolivian Diaries and the pseudonymous erotic classic, The Story of O. Equally factious was the attempted release by Grove of Frederick Wiseman’s documentary film Titicut Follies, made in the nineteen sixties, which depicts in frightening detail the lamentable abuse of patients in a Massachusetts state hospital.
Barney Rosset’s iconoclastic, anarchic, oppositional stance was already evident in his high school days (he created a mimeographed journal and called it ‘The Anti-Everything’ and laid claim to John Dillinger as his hero) and survived despite studies at the austere University of Chicago, sandwiched between stints at Swarthmore, UCLA, and the New School. His New Left political stance did not protect him from trouble in his company. Uncharacteristically, he fiercely fought attempts by employees to unionize (he even called in the police), and, perhaps not so uncharacteristically, the five-times married Rosset was accused of treating women poorly in a bitter confrontation with female staffers. In 1968, the then University Place Grove Press offices in Greenwich Village were attacked (while empty) with a fragmentation grenade thrown by anti-Castro Cuban exiles, furious that Grove’s Evergreen Review had published excerpts of Guevara’s diary.
By general consensus, Rosset was not a good businessman. But with the crucial collaboration of his brilliant editor-in-chief, Richard Seaver (who had introduced Rosset to Beckett’s writing and who had published Beckett in the Paris-based Transition), and of the devoted, reliable Fred Jordan, he turned the sleepy concern he had acquired for a pittance in the early fifties at the suggestion of his first wife, the noted abstract painter Joan Mitchell into the publishing house of, arguably, most of the exciting, innovative writers of the sixties and seventies, who went on to become the classics of the late twentieth century. In addition to Samuel Beckett he published Nobel Prize winners Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Kensaburo Oe, and Harold Pinter, as well as Jean Genet, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Günter Grass, Marguerite Duras, Fernando Arrabal, Eugène Ionesco, Tom Stoppard, French Surrealists and German Expressionists. Moreover, with Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and the whole Beat Generation, Grove, later enhanced by Evergreen Review became the home of the counter culture of the sixties. Evergreen, while featuring many of the Grove Press regulars, added such notables as Amiri Baraka, Gore Vidal, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean-Luc Godard, Lenny Bruce, Erica Jong.
Rosset often made a lot of money – he did with Godot, with the more than one million copies sold of Tropic of Cancer, as well as the phenomenally successful Games People Play: The Basic Handbook of Transactional Analysis by Eric Berne, which ‘transacted’ more than five million copies. But these successes were more than offset by major setbacks caused as much by poor business choices as by Rosset’s willingness to back authors in whom he believed even if they presented little hope of even recouping expenses. And he could make costly mistakes: he passed on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings because, he said, he couldn’t make out a word of it.
But his most expensive hobby turned out to be film. Encouraged by the fame and financial success of I Am Curious (Yellow), Rosset launched full-steam but unarmed into the distribution of what would now be called independent films. A never-to-be-repeated Grove Press International Film Festival presented a number of important directors for American distribution, including Robbe-Grillet, Ousmane Sembene, Marguerite Duras, Miklós Jancsó, and Jaromil Jires, but it turned out to be a succès d’estime, not a success.
Rosset also developed the project of producing three films with original scenarios by Beckett, Pinter, and Ionesco. The Pinter and Ionesco projects never quite made it, but, of course, as all Beckett lovers know and are deeply thankful for, the Beckett project did. And if the result, Film, screenplay by Beckett, directed by Alan Schneider, and featuring an unforgettable Buster Keaton in his last role, certainly did not prove to be—could never hope to be—a money-making undertaking, it has provided us with a stunning, unique testimony of Beckett’s remarkable creativity. His French or English publishers would never have ‘invested’ in Film.
Overextended, perennially hard up for cash, Barney Rosset finally sold Grove Press in 1985 to Ann Getty and British publisher George Weidenfeld. At this juncture, Rosset’s unreliable business instincts really let him down hard. He was supposed to remain as president of the new company, but after one year, he was unceremoniously fired. Strengthened by a massive public outcry, Rosset was at least given a settlement, but the house he had built was gone, with the extraordinary list of authors Rosset and Seaver had put together now in the hands of the new Grove/Atlantic, while Barney Rosset was relegated to starting a new imprimatur, Foxrock Books, the erotic Blue Moon Books, and to publishing Evergreen Review online for a while. He set to work on his long awaited autobiography, tentatively entitled The Subject Was Left-Handed and expected for publication by Algonquin Books in 2013. A 2008 documentary film about him, Obscene, directed by Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O’Connor, was shown at the stirring memorial for Barney Rosset organized shortly after his death at the New York Public Theater, attended by many hundreds.
Barney Rosset’s small, thin frame was in marked contrast to the bigger-than-life figure he played in the publishing world. But until illness took its toll in late years, he was taut, even tough looking, and could be pugnacious and acerbic. But he also had a ready smile and loved a good laugh; he enjoyed jokes and did not hesitate to make them at his own expense. He was interested in people, loved conversation, and was a fine drinking companion. He was less good as dinner partner because while he loved to drink, he ate little.
Barney Rosset is survived by his wife, the former Astrid Myers, with whom he shared long, happy final years, as well as by two sons, Peter and Beckett, and two daughters, Tansey Rosset and Chantal Hyde.
Barney Rosset received numerous honors in his late years for his truly exceptional contributions to publishing, including an honorary National Book Award. If The Beckett Circle had an award to offer, it would surely want to honor the man who did so much to bring Beckett to American readers and viewers. The man who did so much for us.
Published in The Beckett Circle, Autumn 2012.