PEN Remembers Envelope-Pushing Publisher and PEN Member Barney Rosset
PEN mourns the loss of maverick publisher, First Amendment crusader, and longtime member, Barney Rosset. He passed away in New York on February 21, at the age of 89. Rosset’s Grove Press defied government censorship laws and published some of the most brilliant and controversial writers of the 20th century.
Rosset was born in Chicago and studied at Swarthmore College, UCLA, and the New School for Social Research. During World War II, he served as a photographer in the Army Signal Corp in China. In 1949, he married Abstract Expressionist painter Joan Mitchell; the couple later divorced.
Samuel Beckett, Octavio Paz, Anton Chekhov, and Jean-Paul Sartre are just some of the writers that Rosset helped introduce to American audiences. He published The Autobiography of Malcolm X after Doubleday dropped it. He also championed uncensored versions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, along with Victorian spanking porn. Rosset challenged American censorship laws to publish critically acclaimed, but sexually explicit, books.
During the 1950s and 60s, he fought hundreds of court cases, which played a crucial role in breaking down US obscenity laws. First Amendment scholar William W. Van Alstyne noted that Grove Press’s “willingness to take risks at the margin of criminal law undoubtedly pushed the envelope and made a positive contribution in the Supreme Court’s gradual rethinking and evolving protection of obscenity.”