Rosset by Barney Rosset review – a publisher’s fight against censorship

This memoir of the American publisher of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer is full of landmark literary moments

Some people think my chief claim to fame is having published the first book to be sold over the counter in this country with the word fuck printed on its pages in all its naked glory.” That country would be the US, the book in question the first publicly available unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the year 1959, and the publisher Grove Press, owned and run by the author of this posthumously published memoir, Barney Rosset.

This landmark event in anglophone literary history was the beginning of Rosset’s move to the frontlines of the mid-20th century battle against censorship. As he insists, however, there was much more to his career than that singular event – not least other great assaults on puritan literary sensibility, such as the publication of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in 1961 and William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch in 1962, and the distribution of the film I Am Curious (Yellow) in 1969. He can also point to his lifelong friendship with artists such as Samuel Beckett, Joan Mitchell and Kenzaburō Ōe, and the platform Grove provided for the leading names of modern drama, the upstarts of the beat generation, and such radical political works as The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Grove was a near-lifeless imprint when Rosset came across it in New York in 1951; he bought it and proceeded to build one of America’s major avant-garde publishing houses. From 1951 until 1986, when the company’s new owners ousted Rosset, it bore the imprint of his taste, which combined a predilection for erotica with the latest in modern fiction and drama. This editorial assortment, in addition to its quarterly Evergreen Review and ventures in film, turned Grove into a celebrated press, a hip enterprise with a loyal counterculture following.

More importantly, Rosset’s determination to establish the right to publish “anything” launched Grove into legal battles that contributed to the opening up of American intellectual culture. He deliberately sought to challenge the status quo, ordering uncensored copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer from abroad in order to provoke both the US postal and customs services into seizing the books. Bans proliferated across the country; some booksellers carrying the paperbacks were arrested.

Rosset regards elitism to be at the heart of the objections to “obscenity”. In the case of Miller’s novel, for example, it was the easy accessibility of paperback editions that redoubled efforts to ban the book. “In other words, the less affluent were not as well-equipped with the intellect necessary to withstand sexual temptation when presented in book form as the affluent and educated. The wrongheadedness and elitism of this assumption infuriated me. This was not the way I believed a democratic society should function.”

Rosset casts himself as the hero, but duly mentions his “counterparts” John Calder, of Calder Publications in London, and Maurice Girodias, of Olympia Press in Paris. Together they shared authors and resources in their fight against literary propriety. They stand as a postwar corrective to the “gentleman publisher” archetype of previous decades.

Beyond the breakdown of censorship, Rosset offers some of the usual fare of a publishing industry memoir, including writers-behaving-badly anecdotes and reminiscences of friendships with particular authors. He emerges as a hot-tempered iconoclast, and does not exclude episodes that cast him in an unflattering light. This is especially true of his relationships with women, who mostly feature either as wives or lovers. He admits his attitude to women began as “a very chauvinistic thing, in that the girl was basically a prize to be sought after”. He suggests that this changed later on in his life, though we are given little evidence of such a change.

As another chronicler of the postwar publishing industry, Diana Athill, has powerfully demonstrated, women’s involvement in the postwar literary world was multifold and complex. Yet the female staff at Grove receive no mention here – with the exception of a memorable takeover of Rosset’s office in April 1970, led by the feminist and then-employee Robin Morgan (for an alternative account of that event, read Morgan’s memoir, Saturday’s Child).

It is clear nonetheless that alongside the irascible and sometimes uncomprehending Rosset existed a compassionate individual who invested deeply in his relationships. Moving letters are reproduced here in their entirety, as well as quotes from his own FBI surveillance files, and helpful notes and appendices included by the editors. Rosset, who died in 2012, had long been preparing his memoirs, and the result of the editing at OR Books is a voice that co‑publisher John Oakes, in an afterword, calls “authentically Barney’s”.

Rosset’s style has neither the lyrical presence of Athill’s nor the “numinous” quality he attributes to favourite authors such as André Malraux and Miller. Instead, his narration gives the sense that life is being lived far more vibrantly outside its pages. “Trying to put a living Barney Rosset into the pages of a book was like trying to stuff a sun into a Volkswagen Beetle,” Oakes writes, and Rosset indeed does seem to continually burst the confines of those pages. Words are paltry replacements, after all, when Norman Mailer is biting off someone’s ear in the Hamptons or Harold Pinter is reading to you by candlelight.

Rosset is published by OR. To order a copy go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Merve Fejzula

The GuardianTramp

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