Barney Rosset, 1922-2012

Barney Rosset’s death demands a focus on a life filled with extremes. His financial ups and downs—mainly downs—his personal intensity; his absolute unwillingness to compromise: these, combined with a fascination with how we communicate, both in verbal and visual terms, resulted in one of the Great Lives of publishing.

I first met Barney a lifetime ago, when I was a student intrigued by the work of Samuel Beckett. It was the dawn of the Reagan Era, a period when America appeared to have definitively rejected the aesthetics and politics of the 1960s and ’70s, and Barney, the publisher of Grove Press, was attempting to keep the company afloat (never mind prospering), holding fast to his original vision. And what a vision it was! His freethinking ways had brought us not only Beckett, Genet, Ionesco, and Miller’s Tropics, but John Rechy, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Frantz Fanon, The Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding, the comic book version of Barbarella, and yes, the resurrection of titles such as Ravished on a Railway and endless other Victorian “classics.” If Barney could identify the established path to doing things—he’d go the other way. Authors as disparate as Kenzaburo Oe, Margeurite Duras, William S. Burroughs, and Samuel Beckett have little in common besides their first American publisher, who embraced their writing first of all for its profoundly counter-cultural, anti-establishment outlook.

The man’s extraordinary, unmatchable publishing record was not so much a goal of his as a by-product of his revolutionary worldview. He had a modest vision to reshape American culture, and when he bought a tiny company called Grove Press in 1951 he started doing so via the medium of books. His first love was photographic imagery, and that was something he never let go of—his admiration for films brought us Samuel Beckett’s Film and I Am Curious Yellow, a now largely forgotten but then scandalous Swedish import. He published The Evergreen Review, a magazine that for a while was one of the most popular in a country that still read magazines; he published plays and scripts and might well have gone further into film if he hadn’t been too distracted by his other enterprises. He even opened a bar––a failure, he once told me, chuckling, in large part because of the never-ending succession of free drinks demanded by the thirsty crowd of Grove Press regulars: editors and writers and anyone else who could drop Barney’s name.

To know Barney was to know someone never at rest, figuratively and literally. Whether in New York or the Hamptons—where he spent weekends long before it became the magnet for glitz it is today—he was constantly digging and planting; renovating, ripping things up, and installing floors, walls, tiling, painting and patching. He was a man who liked dirt under his fingernails.

While Barney was never doctrinaire, unlike so many other great editors and publishers of his era who were only too eager to collaborate with the authorities, his commitment to being radically different never waivered. Was he a proponent of “American values” as sanctioned by the U.S. Information Agency? Was he furthering the goals and aspirations of the society that fostered him, scion that he was of a wealthy Chicago banking family? Was he, at least in theory, promoting high culture to the masses? Hell no, to all the above. Barney was interested in blowing things up, in combat publishing. And if he didn’t do so literally … well, maybe it’s just that he was never found out.