Tropic of Barney

September 29, 2016   •   By Loren Glass


Barney Rosset

I FIRST HEARD that Barney Rosset was writing an autobiography more than a decade ago, when I began conducting interviews for Counterculture Colophon, my history of Grove Press. My thoughts were predictably selfish. Would Rosset (who I spoke to at length in the course of my own research) let me see the manuscript? Would his book come out at the same time as mine and, if so, would that help or hinder its sales? Maybe people would review them together!

As it turned out, none of these things happened. Indeed, over the course of my interviews I learned that Rosset’s perennially unfinished autobiography had become something of a legend in New York publishing circles. It was all about China, where Rosset was stationed during World War II, and nothing about Grove, I heard. He didn’t even mention his longtime lieutenants Dick Seaver or Fred Jordan, I was told. The one thing everyone agreed on was that he would never finish it, and they were right.

But now, four years after Rosset’s death, here it is, sort of. Appropriately, it’s been published by John Oakes, whose first job in publishing was as an assistant editor at Grove during Rosset’s last year there. Oakes’s latest venture, OR Books, is billed on its webpage as “a new type of publishing company” embracing “progressive change in culture, politics and the way we do business.” Conceived in resistance to and the ongoing incorporation of publishing, OR produces radical and progressive titles through print on demand and as platform-agnostic ebooks. It is, in other words, a legitimate heir to Grove Press, and therefore a fitting place for Rosset’s long-awaited autobiography, Rosset: My Life in Publishing and How I Fought Censorship, to end up.

It took quite some doing to get to this point. “Hundreds and hundreds of pages were dictated and transcribed,” Oakes tells us, in the last of five appendices to the text:

thousands of pages edited and re-edited; thousands of photocopies were made. Drafts were written and discarded; at least fifteen different freelance editors, and at least four experienced publishers (not including Barney himself) wrestled with this project.

And, in her acknowledgments, Rosset’s fifth and final wife Astrid Myers Rosset regretfully concedes, “I wish that I could recall all the staff and interns and volunteers who helped to shape this book. Unfortunately I cannot.”

How is the finished product? Rosset has many riveting passages, and will certainly be required reading for anyone interested in postwar American publishing. But the many-handed history of its composition is reflected by its fragmentary structure, and one can’t help wondering what was left out, both by the posthumous editors and by Rosset himself.

There is, indeed, a lot about China. These early pages on Rosset’s military service are fun and informative, and provide useful insight into Rosset’s adolescent fantasies about revolutionary heroism and romance, fantasies that he never really relinquished. Armed with Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China (which he would later republish) and André Malraux’s Man’s Fate, Rosset arrives “in the China of my dreams,” ultimately ending up in Shanghai, “a place I already knew through dreams.” And, indeed, he finds his share of political and sexual intrigue there, tagging along with OSS operatives and conducting a clandestine affair with a young German-Jewish refugee. It is fascinating, and fitting, to see how fully Rosset’s fantasies were informed by his early reading, which in turn so emphatically informed the Grove Press catalog.

After a brief chapter on Joan Mitchell, the innovative abstract expressionist painter who briefly became Rosset’s first wife, we do get to Grove. Not surprisingly, pride of place is given to his close relationships with Samuel Beckett and Henry Miller, two of Grove’s star authors. Many of these anecdotes (such as Beckett’s only visit to the United States, or Rosset’s lengthy courtship of Miller) will be familiar to anyone who’s read the many interviews Rosset gave over the course of his life. The chapter on Beckett helpfully includes a good-sized chunk of their correspondence, further confirming my assertion that Rosset should receive credit for convincing the reluctant and reclusive author to translate his own work from French into English. While Beckett’s life has been amply documented, it’s refreshing to see him through the lens of this lifelong friendship. Rosset affectionately recounts Beckett’s decision to write his final prose work, Stirrings Still, for his dedicated American publisher, who had just been fired from the press whose reputation he had established. And his account of their last encounter, when Rosset brought the ailing author an American TV with a videotape of the San Quentin performance of Waiting for Godot, is quite touching. According to Rosset, “Sam was visibly moved by the tape; the inmates had understood his play.” Beckett died shortly after.

The chapter on Miller is also highly entertaining: I was particularly amused by Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann’s attempt to defend Van Norden masturbating with an apple core at the Chicago trial of Tropic of Cancer. But Rosset breaks little new ground about these now legendary censorship battles, relying heavily on Earl Hutchinson’s Tropic of Cancer on Trial, published by Grove in 1968, to recount his successful struggle to get Miller’s landmark work published in the United States. Indeed, even this relatively coherent chapter feels fragmentary, and a good number of the fragments — including lengthy excerpts from correspondence, interviews, books, and articles about Grove — are not written by Rosset at all.

Many other important achievements and events involving Grove are recounted in this piecemeal manner. There is a brief chapter (only six pages) on Grove’s enormously important investment in avant-garde drama, and a considerably longer chapter on the Beats (with due credit given to Don Allen, who co-edited the early issues of the Evergreen Review and served as Grove’s liaison to the burgeoning postwar poetry scene). There’s a chapter on film, a chapter on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a chapter on Rosset’s complex (and vexed) relationship with Maurice Girodias of the Olympia Press, and a chapter on his dogged pursuit of Che Guevara’s diaries. The order is only loosely chronological, resulting in many redundancies, with multiple insertions of versions of the phrase, “as I mentioned before.” There are also some fantastic photos. And while Rosset does occasionally acknowledge the people, such as Richard Seaver and Fred Jordan, who were indispensable to his enterprise, overall his crack crew gets short shrift. Morrie Goldfischer, Nat Sobel, Harry Braverman, and many others who were instrumental to Grove’s success receive no mention at all.

When I interviewed Nat Sobel, who ran sales for Grove through the ’60s, he told me that “all the juicy stuff about Barney will never appear in print.” Rosset confirms his prediction. Indeed, Sobel’s prophecy gets a paradoxical twist from the editor’s decision to append a brief epigraph by Rosset, dated 2006, titled “Notes for an Autobiography.” Written in the third person, and featuring a 1927 photograph of Rosset with his father on the facing page, the text claims “the struggle with his father is deep” and adds that “the struggle to get girls has been a deep-rooted problem, and he felt, rather mistakenly, that he could never be successful.” There is in fact very little, throughout Rosset, about Barney’s struggles with his father, whose investment banking fortune enabled him to purchase and prop up Grove Press. And aside from the chapter on Joan Mitchell, there is very little on Rosset’s wives or children (or his many rumored affairs), either. But perhaps this is appropriate, if not entirely satisfying. As his fierce attachment to his favorite authors indicates, Rosset was a reader, not a writer. It was his passion for reading, and for making the books he loved available to the masses, that made Grove Press the most important publisher of the postwar era.

Rosset reminds us early in his autobiography that he was monitored by the FBI throughout his life, starting from his years at the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago. But he neglects to quote from one of the most revealing documents he was later able to obtain through the Freedom of Information Act: a letter to the Bureau from the school’s principal which, in my opinion, represents Rosset’s mercurial personality quite effectively. “One of the very best,” the principal’s assessment begins:

A strong leader, a keen and habitual analyst; decided in his opinions without being intolerant of people who do not hold them; impetuous, courageous, and popular […] He should do work of the highest destination and should be liked, even loved, by many.

The letter concludes: “Potentially, since he is an extremist, he is an outstanding fascist or a fair, sensitive democratic leader.”

It is not surprising that such a contradictory and compelling personality cannot be contained in a single, fragmentary volume. Luckily, we have the Grove backlist to supplement our understanding of a man who was, to quote one of the early working titles for his autobiography, a “magnificent maverick” in the publishing world.


Loren Glass is professor of English and the Center for the Book at the University of Iowa. His most recent book is Counterculture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde.