Barney Rosset, A Remembrance

Win McCormack

Barney Rosset was a great man, and like all men of that stature he had both great virtues and equally great flaws, and his flaws were typically exaggerated or distorted expressions of his virtues. He has been portrayed as irascible, impetuous, totally self-involved and self-driven, and given to irrational decision-making—and this by people who worked with him, admired and even loved him for his corresponding virtues of courage, commitment, and spontaneous personal generosity.  Jason Epstein, who observed Barney’s career from a distance, wrote that his decision to put his company at risk in the anti-obscenity trials involving Grove Press’s publication of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Naked Lunch—trials which cumulatively led to the end of book censorship in the United States–“was an act of Byronic boldness. The other side of the Byronic coin, a coin with no thickness, is rashness.”

Such comments, I think, might leave the misimpression that Barney was, or sought to be, an entirely virtuoso, solo act in publishing, and that was not the case.  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.

In that interview, Barney generously gave his trio of editors during Grove’s heyday in the sixties, Don Allen, Fred Jordan, and Dick Seaver, great credit for leading him to the various emerging avant-garde schools and branches of contemporary literature whose association with Grove and Evergreen constitutes much of the core of their unique historical identity. Fred Jordan, with a deep background in the German language, led him to German Expressionist and experimental Eastern European writers. Don Allen directed him to The Beat Writers and the whole San Francisco literary scene, which dominated the first two issues of the Review (Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl was published in its entirety for the first time in the first issue), and later to modern Japanese literature, which was to become of great importance to both Grove press and Barney personally, and later foresaw the South American literary renaissance. Dick Seaver, a Paris-based translator of Beckett when Barney first met him, introduced him to the path-breaking work of Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet.

Grove and Evergreen thus were a collaborative effort, as publishing needs must be, but Barney had from the beginning his own acute, well defined personal literary sensibility and taste. As soon as he acquired Grove, he set his sights on publishing Henry Miller, about whose book Tropic of Cancer he had written an admiring and enthusiastic paper as an undergraduate at Swarthmore before World War II. He published D.H. Lawrence, he told me, mainly as a way to get to Miller, and as soon he talked Miller into letting him publish his work, he was already in pursuit of William Burroughs; during the Tropic of Cancer obscenity trial, he already had copies of Naked Lunch in his warehouses, ready to go out as soon as a positive verdict came in. These three are, of course, the very authors whose works brought down the hammer of censorship upon him and his press. He told me he saw it like a lineup in baseball: “Lawrence to Miller to Burroughs.” I suggested, instead, “Henry James to Lawrence to Miller to Burroughs, how about that?” He acceded to the suggestion, noting that publishing the staid James books first had provided a backdrop of legitimacy for his publication of thescandalous Lady Chatterly.

Barney also carefully picked and chose among Grove authors to whom others had led him which ones he fully embraced, personally as well as literarily. He was especially drawn to Samuel Beckett, with whom he developed his closest literary friendship, and after whom he named a son; he agreed with my assessment, based on his description of Beckett’s personal characteristics, that Beckett was not only “the greatest of the writers you published,” but also “the greatest human being among your writers.” He also felt a strong affinity to Kenzaburo Oe, with whom he shared an admiration for the politics and derring-do of the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. Barney’s political revolutionary romanticism dated back to his early education at a progressive leftist school in his native Chicago, and was the basis for the enormous body of radical political literature published by Grove under his aegis. He loved the persona and writing of Alain Robbe-Grillet, whom he found to be “one of the most sexually charged writers I have ever read.”

Barney had found a common theme in the writings of Miller, Beckett, and Oe that eerily corresponded to one of the most profound experiences in his own life: the shattering, irrecoverable loss of a youthful love, which nevertheless simultaneously sets you free to begin living your own life. In Tropic of Cancer, it was Miller’s loss of Mona; for Barney, it was a girl at Vassar whom he deeply loved and lost: “There was nothing to replace her. It was like Miller, when he really lost Mona, he’s free. A catastrophe that sets him free to go out and be himself, whatever himself is.” It was this parallel, Barney argued, much more than the explicitly sexual nature of the book, that had drawn him so strongly to Miller during his time at Swarthmore. In Beckett’s work, this theme was sounded most clearly in the short monologue play Krapp’s Last Tape, in which an old man, chewing on a banana, listens to a recording of himself as a middle-aged man recounting the loss of a youthful love long ago–so long ago that he doesn’t remember or comprehend what he is hearing. This echoed a loss of love by Beckett in the Baltic region of Germany in his youth. “Oe also, like Beckett and Miller, wrote beautifully and hauntingly of a romantic disaster in his life,” Barney told me, though in his case it involved giving up his true love in order to return to his duties as a husband and father.

An editor trying to fly solo editorially will inevitably land far short of his desired destination, but an editor operating without a publisher will sooner or later crash and burn. Although Barney had business staff to handle sales and distribution matters for him, he never had a colleague on staff tending to the numbers or considering the overall operation in business terms. He diversified out of mere publishing into film-making and other unrelated or tangential enterprises, becoming a small, relatively complex conglomerate. He used part of his windfall profits from the erotic film I Am Curious Yellow to purchase an expensive piece of Manhattan real estate for Grove offices, and then spent another two million dollars of the money lavishly refurbishing it. This caused staff to rebel against their low wage scale, resulting in an attempt to unionize, a sit-in at the Grove offices when Barney fired the would-be organizers, and finally a confrontation involving the police. To top that off, the New York City real estate market collapsed and Barney had to sell the building at a substantial loss. Top editors left because he could no longer afford them. These developments coincided with social and cultural trends that militated against the basic formula—pushing the envelope on the two fronts of explicit erotic literature and radical political discourse—that, more than the publication of avant-garde literature, had been the foundation of Grove and Evergreen’s financial success, such as it was. Barney was eventually compelled to sell Grove, for a pittance, to the likes of Anne Getty and Lord Weidenfeld, who promised to keep him on as Editor-in-Chief, but, of course, did not.

Barney lived the rest of his life as a kind of exile within the publishing center of the nation, in an apartment only blocks away from where he had once reigned supreme, in a world he created for himself. But he had an indomitable spirit that never succumbed to self-pity or despair. I went often to visit him there, sharing ice-cold martinis and reminiscences about his experiences with favorite authors of mine, most especially the beloved Samuel Beckett.  He did not, however, by any means live only in the past. He had revived the Evergreen Review online, and worked as hard as he could at his age at discovering new voices to put into print, aided by a coterie of  assistants whose ambitions he was bent on nurturing, and of course his devoted and indefatigable wife Astrid. Not long before he left for the hospital and his fateful heart operation, he had with great satisfaction and glee put to bed the Evergreen Review’s 129th edition. In his life, he had rolled a gigantic rock up to the very top of the mountain, then it had crashed all the way back down to the bottom, and now he was struggling, against all odds, to push it back up again. To quote a French writer whom Barney did not get to publish, it faut imaginer Barney Rosset heureux.

Win McCormack is publisher and editor-in-chief of Tin House magazine.

To read more about Barney Rosset, click here or here.