Feature

Barney Rosset, 1922–2012

The provocative publisher who defied censors

Barney Rosset hated being told what he could and couldn’t say. In 1959, the publisher decided to challenge America’s strict censorship laws by printing D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which had been banned by the postmaster general—then the government’s primary enforcer of obscenity statutes—for promoting “indecent and lascivious thoughts.” The post office promptly seized 24 cartons of the book, but a federal judge confirmed the novel’s “literary merit” a few months later and overturned the ban. Rosset went on to fight, and win, court battles over other sexually graphic books, such as Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. The message sent out by those victories was clear: “If you have freedom of speech,” said Rosset, “you have freedom of speech.”

The son of an Irish Catholic mother and a wealthy Jewish banker father, Rosset showed a rebellious streak from an early age. As a child he idolized the bank robber John Dillinger, said The Washington Post. While attending Chicago’s progressive Francis W. Parker School, he published a newspaper called The Anti-Everything. After dropping out of several colleges, he served as an Army photographer in China during World War II. In 1948, he spent $250,000 of his family’s money producing the semi-documentary feature film Strange Victory, which compared anti-black prejudice to Nazism. The movie was a commercial and critical flop.

“A more economical investment was Grove Press, which he bought for $3,000 in 1951,” said the London Guardian. Grove became the home of playwrights Samuel Beckett and Bertolt Brecht, and of Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, whose poem “Howl” was first published in Rosset’s literary magazine, Evergreen Review. Rosset later expanded into film, making a small fortune distributing the erotic Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow). “But further sallies into film drained Grove’s coffers,” said The Wall Street Journal, and in 1985 Rosset was forced to sell the business. In the late 1990s, he revived Evergreen Review, which he continued to work on into his 80s. “I don’t understand the meaning of retiring,” he said in 2008. “That, to me, is another word for death.”

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