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Independent Publisher Barney Rosset Fights for Free Speech


During the mid-20th century, independent publisher and free-speech activist Barney Rosset fought America's anti-obscenity laws for the right to publish now-classic works by D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs and scores of other controversial authors.

Rosset was born in Chicago in 1922 to a well-to-do family. Raised and schooled in a progressive social environment, Rosset grew up an iconoclast and something of a rebel. He attended four colleges before graduating.

While serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, he was drawn to filmmaking and continued studying the craft after the war. In 1949, Rosset produced Strange Victory, a film about African-American World War II veterans who return home to face bitter racism.

"So we documented it. It took us about a year. But there was the good part: You could make the film!" Rosset says. "And a lot of the film we used we got from the American government… So our government let us have the material which, in a way, said bad things about itself. I admired that!"

Giving alternative authors an outlet

The bohemian culture of New York's Greenwich Village, where Rosset lived after the war, was bursting with new and challenging ideas in jazz, painting and the literary arts. In 1951, Rosset bought the tiny Grove Press for $3,000 and turned it into an alternative publishing house for non-mainstream writers.

Grove paid $200 for the American rights to Waiting for Godot by the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. Its publication in 1954 helped to establish Rosset's reputation in the literary vanguard. To date, Grove Press has sold more than two million copies of Godot, now widely recognized as a masterpiece.

In 1957, Rosset launched a literary magazine called The Evergreen Review. The edgy periodical showcased scores of now-famous writers, including Susan Sontag, Harold Pinter, Frank O' Hara, Jean Genet, Beat poet Alan Ginsberg and others.

In its second issue, Evergreen profiled the D. H. Lawrence novel Lady Chatterley's Lover, which had been banned in Britain for its explicit sexual content. Grove then boldly published the unexpurgated novel. That sparked a fierce legal battle, which Rosset finally won in 1961.

Fight for free speech goes to U.S. Supreme Court

Emboldened by the victory, Grove then published Tropic of Cancer, a semi-autobiographical novel by American expatriate writer Henry Miller, which had been banned as obscene by a U.S. court - also for its explicit sexual language. Rossett says despite those passages, Tropic of Cancer wasn't about sex.

"… The sex didn't really hit me. What really got me was the anti-American feeling that Miller had. He was not happy living in this country, and he was extremely endowed with the ability to say why," Rosset explains. "For example, he thought there were more beautiful women in this country than anyplace else, but they all looked alike. And it was true also in other areas of the community - the businessmen. He didn't like the homogeneity that existed."

In its landmark 1964 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Tropic of Cancer was not obscene because of what the justices called its "redeeming social value." Miller's novel has since been named by many critics as one of the greatest and most important works of 20th-century literature.

'It never occurred to me to quit'

Rosset contends that literary merit was always his primary reason for publishing a book. But he concedes that he has also relished the chance to assert the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of freedom of press and freedom of speech.

"I feel that if people don't have the right to express themselves, first of all, they are not going to be happy, and second, they aren't going to develop the creative abilities they have."

Neil Ortenberg, a one-time publisher and co-director of a documentary about Rosset's life called Obscene, says Rosset's tenacity and his extraordinary eye for artistic talent make him one of the most important American publishers ever.

"Publishing was always considered a 'gentlemanly' thing. That wasn't Barney. Barney was a street fighter," he says. "I don't think Barney purposely set out to transform the country. Barney hated hypocrisy… he wanted to do whatever he could to bring that down… and he decided to pursue these fights to the bitter end."

Rosset traces his ability to fight hard against long odds back to high school.

"I was a cross-country runner. And I didn't get tired very easily. That was my whole thing, was endurance. You win some and lose some. It was a similar kind of thing actually. I believed in freedom of speech. So it was a self-compulsion. It never entered my head to quit."

Criticized for peddling 'smut'

Other milestone legal victories led to the 1962 publication of Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs, with its depictions of homosexuality and drug use, and the controversial U.S. release, in 1968, of the Swedish art film I Am Curious Yellow. The movie became a cause celebre for its scenes of nudity and staged sexual intercourse - even though many consider those scenes mild by today's standards.

Rosset remains a rather paradoxical figure in the publishing world. On the one hand, by bringing to American readers so many barrier-breaking and Nobel-caliber writers - including Harold Pinter, Jean Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett - Rosset has been a champion of free speech and a free press. On the other hand, many critics still consider Rosset as a mere smut peddler. They cite Grove's best-selling series of Victorian-era erotic books as a prime example. Ortenberg suggests Rosset is a bit of both.

"You open up the culture to a wide variety of new things, and a lot of them are good and some of them are not so good," Ortenberg says. "Barney was just way ahead of his time, that's all, [and] always has been."

Rosset's contributions honored

However controversial his legacy, Rosset ranks among America's most honored publishers. In 2008, the National Coalition Against Censorship recognized his efforts, and the National Book Foundation gave him its Literarian Award "for outstanding service" to American letters.

Rosset is currently at work on his autobiography, The Subject is Left-Handed, a title taken from an entry in the very thick file kept on him years ago by the FBI.

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