“The book is a metaphor for Barney himself,” said John Oakes, co-publisher of OR Books, which is putting out Barney Rosset’s memoir, My Life in Publishing and How I Fought Censorship, this week, 30 years after Rosset started it. That’s a long lead time for any book, even a “conflicted enterprise,” as Oakes called it. He added, “I admired the guy. He was a really conflicted guy in all sorts of ways: his wealth, about the idea of selling books and trying to have books that were popular and not popular. The life of his biography reflects it.” Then, speaking over Skype in November, he turned even more philosophical, almost apologetic: The book might “have been cleaner but it would not have been Rosset.” He explained: “We were careful not to fill in any gaps.”
But that’s not the only unusual thing about the memoir, he went on to say. Over the years, as 20 people worked on the book. “I had a huge advantage over every other editor,” said Oakes, who worked for Grove in the 1980s. “Barney was dead.” In an unusual move, Oakes is now bringing out the hardcover two months after it came out in paperback. (The press sells direct to consumers over the internet, but this hardcover is a co-production with Counterpoint.)
My Life In Publishing was reviewed in The New York Times, where the reviewer observed that My Life In Publishing seemed like it was written as “a group project.” That stung Oakes, although I don’t know why, because it is true.
Rosset began My Life in Publishing in 1987, two years after the heiress Ann Getty took over Grove Press and one year after she fired Rosset for taking too many risks. (Some observers call this the era when publishing went corporate.) Rosset, then in his late 60s, started dictating huge chunks of the manuscript. He wrote many introductions. He had an atelier method of writing in which he would dispatch people to various libraries and archives to fact check what he had written. He seemed at once committed to the truth and committed to the best truth. Plus, he loved to change his mind.
The rest of the book’s provenance is equally tormented. There was one chapter with Thunder’s Mouth Press. An infamous chapter in the book’s history began in 2007, when Rosset’s agent sold the manuscript to Algonquin Press and the novelist Brad Morrow came onto the scene as an editor. (Morrow did not respond to any requests for interviews. Algonquin did not respond to my questions.) Most people familiar with the collaboration say two things: Morrow got more money than any of the other collaborators and that he had a tough job. From the beginning, Rosset wanted the book to be his whole history. Algonquin wanted it to be about his famous friendships.
Rosset wasn’t happy with Obscene, the 2007 documentary about him, because he thought it was a downer and because it focused on his publishing pornography as opposed to presenting him as a pioneer of freedom of speech. He became more determined to use his memoir to set the story straight, but then Rosset died in 2012. In 2015, Myer gave his papers to the rare-books and manuscript archives at Columbia University. She took back the book from Algonquin and gave it to OR. Oakes hired Christopher O’Brien, a freelance editor who got his start in publishing working for Oakes at the defunct Four Walls Eight Windows Press, to go up to Columbia and use the archival material to supplement it.
Steve Brower, who was art director at Blue Moon Books, one of the publishing houses Rosset founded after Grove, was skeptical of the OR version of the backstory. “He very much wanted to tell his entire story,” he told me. “I worked on the book at different times. For 10 years. The book Barney envisioned was nothing like it is.”
Rosset was born in Chicago in 1922, the son of a wealthy Jewish Russian father and an Irish Catholic mother from a family of revolutionaries. He had the quality that so many 20th-century Jews had, that I like to think of as inciting. The best way to explain what made him great was his sixth sense for galvanizing.
He served in China in World War II, where he worked as a photographer. He was rejected from the Office of Strategic Services, a failure that haunted him. In 1951, he bought Grove Press, which had published just three books in the public domain, including Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man and some writings of Aphra Behn. There was a fourth book, a pornographic murder story, The Monk, whose sadism interested Rosset.
Under Rosset, Grove flourished, publishing Beckett, Genet, Oe, Mamet, Sontag, Chester Himes, Henry Miller, William Burroughs, Harold Pinter, the Beats—so many writers who identified as modernists who shaped the canon. But also many who were perceived as underdogs, outcasts. He also published the Evergreen Review, a fantastic literary journal that produced issues on pataphysics and German modernism (and is being revived by Oakes, edited by Dale Peck). Most famously, Rosset published an unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and defended Miller’s Tropic of Cancer against puritans.
He was as much a great Jewish impresario as a literary person. He was excited by books but he also saw himself as a revolutionary. He made money publishing Victorian porn with titles like Ravished on the Railway. This was not just a sideline. He considered these titles in their way as important as Beckett in fighting puritanism. He was not just interested in literary books for literary people to read.
He distributed the Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow), the first film with full-on sex in it to run in regular movie theaters, and he commissioned a screenplay by Beckett titled Film. He waged battles against anti-censorship forces. He played roles in some of the most diabolic antics of the 20th century—Robin Morgan staging a feminist sit-in, Valerie Solanas shooting Andy Warhol, the bombing of the Grove offices by Che Guevara’s enemies. The book jacket describes him as rebelling against the gentlemen’s publishing of the 1920s, but that doesn’t begin to cover it. He was a figure too rare in publishing now, a great contrarian and a great sparker of trends and influence.
“It’s impossible to talk about the meaning of Grove Press today, but it was everything to young people going into a store to read,” writer Steve Geller told me. “Rosset was this hero, protecting writer’s rights and honoring writers’ visions. He became freedom.”
Two words that many people used to describe him are mercurial and chaotic. He would also publish Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School. Grove picked up the paperback rights to A Confederacy of Dunces from LSU Press and it became a best-seller.
His influence didn’t die with Grove Press’s demise. Rosset’s Blue Moon published Beckett’s Stirring Still, even if by this time Beckett had stopped writing major dramatic works and couldn’t be an engine for any publishing house. But budget was not at the center of Rosset’s enterprise. Rosset didn’t care about debt. (Appendix C in the memoir provides a handy list of financials from 1964-84.) He just loved making trouble in publishing.
My Life in Publishing is as uneven and chaotic as Rosset’s life. Early on, he recounts his first love affair, with Nancy, his high school sweetheart, at Francis Parker High School in Chicago, where Alfred Adler taught and the filmmaker Haskell Wexler was his classmate. Rosset pines after her, punches her, then calls her father to see how she is. (Adler supposedly called the father to persuade him to let Rosset sleep with his daughter.)
Is this real? Surreal? Nancy (like most of the women who fly in and out of Rosset’s life) is less character than prop. Rosset plays Zelig less than Meyer Lansky. I’m not sure that he was ever more than a tough-guy manqué. You won’t catch him in Indian arm wrestling matches like Mailer. Like a lot of 20th-century Jews, the forces driving him were mysterious and dark and they’re not discussed in this memoir. Nor is his Jewishness, really.
As a child, Rosset went to Jewish camp but he also went to church. His father was the sort of Russian Jew from the early 20th century who was divorced from his tradition. Rosset’s mother was Catholic. Yet he says nothing about Midwestern anti-Semitism.
If some parts of the book are thin, Rosset is able to tell a good story when describing his friendship with Beckett. In general, he seems to have had a gift for friendship with men, especially Beckett. Despite being married five times, women were not the thing that saved him. Rosset tells several great stories, including one set in Paris, where Beckett refuses to write for Paul Getty after the Gettys took over Grove Press.
There is too much inside baseball too late, like the fact that Bennett Cerf was on the wrong side of saying that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was pornographic. And there is too much vengefulness without the cool details. He can’t remember why he fired Ephraim London, the initial lawyer on the case, except for, “Do it my way.” Why should the reader care?
Still, there are funny scenes, like where Nabokov pretends not to remember him. And good one-liners: “If he had been on the road he would have kept his tie on,” he writes, referring to the unlikely collision between the Beats and Maurice Girodias, the French publisher of Olympia Press. Or when he rebuffs Timothy Leary’s attempts to make friends after some of his LSD nearly killed Rosset. Leary comes off as a pompous bore.
But some stuff, like his merging of Grove Press and his father’s bank, does not make sense. Or the more heartening but equally mystifying claim that Grove Press would pay legal fees to any bookseller that carried its material. Some of the best lines come from other people, from the archives. My Life In Publishing quotes a letter from Girodias on going to the offices at Grove Press and meeting a “forthright loyal person in a house where everyone talked while looking out the window.
Ed Halter, who worked with Rosset in the Aughts, said, “every time you went to his house, the collection was revised, reorganized. Like My Life in Publishing. He was constantly reviewing his life. He was a human slide projector, assembling and reassembling the slides.” But sometimes it was more than a revision. Halter tells the story of how he wrote an essay about Grove Press’s early involvement in film, and Rosset said he didn’t like it. Years later when Halter looked at the manuscript OR was publishing, he said, “they were my chapters changed in the first person.” He told Oakes and now My Life in Publishing includes a footnote about it.
Maybe there should have been more footnotes. Christopher O’Brien said that in the Algonquin version a lot of things were cut that he felt should have been left in. And vice versa, like a section about Strange Victory, a movie Rosset made in 1948 about racial bias in WWII. O’Brien said his main job was to make this version more literary. The book now ends with his visit to China where he has a phantasmagoric dream in which 200 people burn to death in Kunming.
I first met Astrid Myer, Rosset’s fifth wife, a few years ago, working on another project. She invited me to the apartment that she and Rosset had shared in New York. It was on the third floor of a building on 4th Avenue and 9th Street, where Rosset lived and worked for years, and which Myers recently left because it was sold to be converted into condos. On one wall, at the time, was the gold 3D mural Rosset had painted. It was one of the things he focused on after he lost Grove Press.
Myer, a tiny, cheerful person, was working to move the mural to a museum. Someone was making a documentary about it. Myer was the force behind that, as she would be the force behind getting My Life in Publishing published. She said that when Brad Morrow turned in the manuscript, Algonquin was not happy with the finished product. It wanted to publish the book in print-on-demand, or as an e-book. She did not want that.
Was she happy with the book OR published? “We’re happy the book was published,” she said, adding that several writers, including George Plimpton, had abandoned Barney-related projects. I think Myer would agree that Rosset’s real story has yet to be told. His biography is romantic, one of the great stories of 20th-century Jewish protesters of Victorian mores. But My Life in Publishing is disorienting. Not just because it’s not clear who wrote it. It’s not clear who it’s about. You cannot fathom the man.
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Rachel Shteir, a professor at the Theatre School of DePaul University, is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. She is working on a biography of Betty Friedan for Yale Jewish Lives.