OPINIONATED, IRASCIBLE, BRAZEN but smart, a gutsy dynamo of American alternative publishing, Barney Rosset was a 130-pound bantamweight on amphetamines with a bear’s loyal heart and stubbornness, a rum-and-coke man who often forgot about the need for food to accompany his drinks at lunch. His memoir My Life in Publishing tells the story of the press he founded and how it would forever change American culture.

His mother was a descendant of Irish tenant farmers whose land was mostly peat bog that served as low-grade fuel. The Tansley family used Gaelic as code and was involved in a clandestine struggle in 19th-century Ireland, part of an underclass exploited by Anglo-Irish aristocrats who actually owned the land. Rosset’s red-headed mother, working as a bank teller in Chicago, met and married Barnet Rosset, the son of Russian Jews from Moscow, who so excelled at accounting that he administered a series of small banks.

Rosset was an indulged only child, sent to progressive schools, and, despite the ravages of the Great Depression, the first kid in his fancy high school to own his own automobile. In 1940, he spent his freshman year of college at Swarthmore, not because of any commitment to the Quaker values stressed at that institution, but because he wanted to stay close to a girl he had fallen in love with in high school. He felt stultified as a student, but describes compensating for his boredom with academic proprieties in an autodidactic manner:

I had always been drawn to books that were considered risky. When I was at Swarthmore in 1940, I asked my parents to send me 50 books, all of which were published by New Directions or the Modern Library. And before that, when I was in Chicago attending high school, I went to Marshall Field & Co. to get books by John Steinbeck, James Farrell, and other writers considered too daring to read.

One of the books that most intrigued him was Henry Miller’s short prose collection The Cosmological Eye, which had been just published by James Laughlin at New Directions. This was where Rosset first learned about Miller’s banned novel, Tropic of Cancer. He discovered a copy of a pirated edition in Frances Steloff’s Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan — she sold him a copy that she kept under the counter. Rosset was drawn to Miller’s attacks on conformity and wrote a paper for his English class, “Henry Miller Versus Our Way of Life.” His professor, the distinguished literary historian Robert Spiller, rewarded him with a B minus. Probably speaking for the entire country at the time, Spiller pronounced that Miller was jaundiced, but the impact of Tropic of Cancer would linger.

Rosset then decided to study film at UCLA until he enlisted in the military in 1942. His father helped him get into OCS and he was stationed in Astoria, New York, to study film production. The experience was formative and he responded fully to the “immediate connection” he felt while filming, learning to edit as he shot. Up to this point, his story is a humdrum bildungsroman of privileged youth, frustrated courtships, and dissatisfaction with the prospects before him. When he is sent to China, conditions become more precarious and tense:

After waiting at an airbase, a steaming hole, for two days, I boarded one of the ungainly, underpowered C-46s for the plane ride over the Himalayas to China. Taking off from Assam, India, for Kunming, my unit’s Chinese HQ, in December of 1944, I was still a raw, semi-trained second lieutenant in the Signal Corps Photographic Service, 22 years old and with only a few dreams to cling to. Squashed under the weight of my equipment, I struggled onto the airplane and sat on the metal floor next to some uncommunicative Chinese soldiers. I leaned back in the curve of the bare fuselage, hugging a heavy parachute, which was a totally foreign object to me. We were in a death crate, a hulk of a cargo plane barely sustained by two undersized motors. As we puffed oxygen through our masks, the planet’s highest mountains glowered beneath us and loomed on both sides.

Japanese Zeros shadow the C-46, using it as cover to strafe the landing field. Driving a small truck on unpaved roads, Rosset was dispatched to the Sino-Japanese front near Kweiyang to replace an officer who had committed suicide and to document the Japanese retreat. The description of his activities as a photographer behind enemy lines in China is as graphic, hellish, and intense, really, as Norman Mailer’s more capacious accounts in The Naked and the Dead. It is the most gripping part of the book.

During the war, Rosset fought in a white army: under the prevalent doctrine of “separate but equal,” African Americans were segregated on the field of battle, as they were in the neighborhood housing of the United States. After the war, he produced Strange Victory, a film about race relations that compared the deplorable American situation with that of Nazi Germany. The film failed to get much attention even though it was a breakthrough attempt to explore the subject. The experience discouraged Rosset from a filmmaking career and — perhaps as a sign of how considerably he had been crushed by its poor reception — the film doesn’t receive much treatment from Rosset himself.

He began taking classes at The New School with prominent teachers like Wallace Fowlie, Stanley Kunitz, Meyer Schapiro, and Alfred Kazin. He also married the Abstract Expressionist painter Joan Mitchell, whom he had known since prep school, and he spent much of 1949 with her in France and Spain. Except for the inclusion of a few of her letters to him, we are given little access to the union or the reasons for its collapse in 1952.

Prodded by Mitchell, and with 3,000 dollars provided by his father, Rosset bought a small reprint house; it was called Grove Press because it was located at 18 Grove Street in the West Village. With it, he would change the genteel decorum of American publishing with a contentious, political, street-savvy perspective quite absent from the more polite protocols of conventional publishing.

Rosset would remain in the Village for most of the rest of his long life — he died at 89 in 2012 — and the memoir is at its best when recapturing the flavor of the Village in the 1950s:

Going out from our narrow entrance lane and turning left on Eleventh Street, you came in less than a block to Seventh Avenue and the Village Vanguard. We got to know Max Gordon, the proprietor, and his wife, Lorraine, very well. We spent hours at the Vanguard with the likes of Pete Seeger and his folk group. One night the great South African singer Miriam Makeba came on stage, fresh from the slums of Soweto and Johannesburg. It was at the Vanguard we saw the tragicomic Lenny Bruce warning us there was a cop in a raincoat in the audience; and then Miles Davis playing his horn facing the wall one night because the audience annoyed him; Jack Kerouac spinning a bizarre, more than slightly drunk monologue; and Huddie Ledbetter, Lead Belly himself, just out of a Southern prison, escorted by Alan Lomax, singing his new song “Goodnight, Irene.”

For Rosset, publishers were “foot soldiers in the struggle against hypocrisy and oppression.” In the service of what he regarded as a mission to voice the priorities of personal freedom, he published the work of European writers such as Bertolt Brecht, Antonin Artaud, Jean Genet, and Samuel Beckett. Inspired writers who had seen their work rejected by every mainstream press could hope for an audience through Rosset.

No American publisher was as dedicated to publishing drama, the avant-garde, or the unknown but sexually provocative writers like Hubert Selby Jr. Except for James Laughlin, who provided a model, no American publisher was as dedicated to translations of foreign writers. To further this effort to overcome American provinciality, one of his editors, Richard Seaver, was fluent in French and another, Fred Jordon, in German. Rosset had met Seaver in Paris in 1949 when Seaver was translating Beckett (who was then writing in French). Seaver would be instrumental in Rosset’s acquisition of Waiting for Godot and Jean Genet’s The Maids in 1954, plays that transformed American theater.

Two events near the end of the 1950s seemed indicative of Rosset’s intention to shake up the smug complacencies of what was called the Silent Generation. In 1957, he began The Evergreen Review, a national magazine that was always willing to challenge the status quo, publishing Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Norman Mailer, and Charles Bukowski. At the same time, Rosset published an anthology called The New American Poetry 1945–1960 that was dominated by the work of Beat poets using the “open form” that shook the academic formalism of the poetry establishment and shocked its sense of poetic decorum. The book made a lasting impression on the nature of American poetics and its future.

Two years later, Rosset published the unexpurgated edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the Orioli edition that had been published in Italy in 1928, but was banned everywhere else. The court battle, aided by the sympathetic testimony of witnesses like critics Malcolm Cowley and Alfred Kazin, resulted in the sale of over a million copies of Lawrence’s novel, and established a clear precedent as to what could be published in the United States.

Rosset’s profound impact on American culture in the 1960s was perhaps best reflected in his determination to publish the first legitimate American edition of Henry Miller’s banned novel, Tropic of Cancer. Thanks to Anaïs Nin, who supported Miller and subsidized the printing costs for his novel, it had been published in 1934 in Paris by the Olympia Press, a firm with a dubious reputation because of its pornographic list. His novel was considered contraband; “proscribed” was the official term used by American customs authorities for the next few decades.

Rosset approached Miller in the spring of 1959. Grove was publishing 60 to 70 titles annually at that point, though still condescended to by the larger uptown firms. Miller lived in a log cabin in Big Sur in California, supporting himself marginally on the occasional sale of a watercolor. He was content with his disreputable reputation as an outlaw author whose books were smuggled into the United States, mostly by GIs returning from European duty after World War II. Reluctant to authorize an American edition, Miller was ambivalent about fame, and feared a predictable and protracted court wrangle. He warned Rosset about an edition of his book, printed illicitly in Mexico, that had been distributed by a salacious book dealer named Jack Brussel, an act that got Brussel incarcerated in a federal penitentiary in Pennsylvania for three years.

Miller became a personal mission for Rosset. He would spend a quarter of a million dollars in legal fees to establish the right to publish Tropic of Cancer in the United States, willing to gamble the entire future of Grove on the potential hazards. He persuaded Miller with a huge advance of $50,000, an unheard of amount then.

The court contest for the right to publish Tropic of Cancer was epic in scope. Rosset had to hire two dozen attorneys to represent him in some 60 lower court proceedings, all of which were decided against Grove Press. Next was an even more expensive challenge in five State Supreme Courts. The judicial process lasted for two years and generated a lot of free publicity. The trials ended with the United States Supreme Court decision allowing Rosset to publish the book, enlarging forever the notion of what one was free to write and publish. That five to four decision of the Warren Court changed the face and future of the United States.

Miller can be considered the spiritual granddaddy of the Beat Generation, and Rosset was ready to publish key works like Michael McClure’s play The Beard, or Jack Kerouac’s Doctor Sax and The Subterraneans. The decision to print The Subterraneans — a novel describing a love affair between a white protagonist and an African-American woman, was particularly brave. Although The Subterraneans escaped the censors in the United States, it was prosecuted as pornography in Italy. Rosset was the sole witness for the defense which prevailed. Rosset also had enough moxie to publish William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch in 1962, a book that was more overtly descriptive of sexual circumstance than Kerouac’s; Burroughs’s book would only be fully exonerated by the highest court of Massachusetts in 1966.

All through the 1970s, Grove’s fortunes began to decline. Rosset sold a lot of land he had purchased in East Hampton to finance the press, but prospects became grim. His staff was diminished from 35 employees to nine, and in the years 1971–’72 alone the firm lost eight million dollars. This was a period of conglomerate mergers in the face of a general decline in publishing revenue. Rosset also lost a lot of money producing films like Norman Mailer’s Maidstone, which turned out to be a production disaster. Rosset first went public and then in 1985 sold his firm to Anne Getty of the oil fortune and Lord George Weidenfeld, an English publisher, with the provision that he remain as editor-in-chief. A year later, in what proved to be a pattern in publishing, he was betrayed and “they would wind up ousting me without ceremony.”

Rosset started a small press, Blue Moon Books, and began work on this memoir. In 1998, I interviewed him. He told me that one of his last acts — right before he had been fired — had been to reprint Naked Angels. Grove succeeded in keeping my book in print for another few decades.

I can testify that to the end of his long life he still remained thin, lively, always engaged in the new. But he struggled with how to tell his own story. Although he had lost none of his acuity, and could still drink me under the table, Rosset was easily fatigued and had lost some of his stamina and fire.

The book reflects this. My Life in Publishing is something of a composite. Rosset worked on it for too long with various assistants and editors, but was never fully satisfied and kept eliminating what he had written. Is it a sign of a lack of confidence in his own power to write, or were his expectations too great? This version integrates letters and other previously rejected sections its editors found in archives at Columbia University and material like an essay on Beckett that Rosset wrote. Suddenly, in the middle of his memoir, there are a dozen letters exchanged between Beckett and Rosset on the problems in translating Waiting for Godot into an American idiom. While this might interest a specialist in Beckett, it will have less appeal for a general audience.

Rosset’s account may not be as exemplary as the actual record of achievement. While editors are frequently writers, they are often forced to devote their concentration to another’s writing, often frustrated by the lack of opportunity to develop their own creativity. Sometimes the book is digressive, occasionally it meanders. Sometimes what is inserted in the text — like an OSS report on his disqualification for service in that secret branch of shadow governance — seems awkward or extraneous, perhaps useful in an appendix (and I should note there are four appended sections which each add value to the book).

Occasionally, Rosset reminisces about women he had pursued unsuccessfully, or recalls past lovers, but such snatches are undeveloped. We learn almost nothing about his lifetime as a psychoanalytic subject or the emotional reasons for the collapse of his marriage to Joan Mitchell, and nothing at all about the five marriages that followed. Serial marriage is an American pattern but it needs more explanation than innuendo. Memoir depends on selectivity, but this sort of omission seems like vagueness or evasion.

He provides much more intimately intriguing detail with friends like Jackson Pollock and Beckett, and we get close observation of Beckett’s domestic arrangements — even the night he had to share a bed in his hotel room with Beckett, and the occasion of losing Beckett who was on his last trip to New York at the World’s Fair in Flushing, and then finding him sound asleep on a park bench! Such rich anecdotes may be more entertaining for the general reader than chapters detailing legal strategies for the defense of Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Tropic of Cancer.

I suspect, at the end, he was profoundly discouraged by the loss of Grove, which would eventually merge with Atlantic. My Life in Publishing becomes a sort of justification, a history of giant achievement in changing popular taste and welcoming the new, but at the expense of the emotional core that makes any memoir sing.

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John Tytell has taught in the English Department of Queens College (CUNY) since 1963.