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Barney Rosset, 1922 – 2012.

February 23, 2012 \pm\29 4:23 pm

Barney Rosset, who died Feb. 21 at 89, didn’t just publish books. As the commander-in-chief of Grove Press, he helped direct the course of literature in the latter half of the 20th century.  Books that bore the Grove Press name in all-black capital letters at the bottom of the jacket spine challenged our ideas of what constitutes a novel or a play and defied the authorities to declare on the record that freedom of speech was fine in concept, but not in practice.

A glance at a few titles from the Grove Press back catalogue reminds us of the extent to which Rosset’s vision affected literature:

 

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet

Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence

Tropic of Cancer  by Henry Miller

 

The list reads like a syllabus for a course on groundbreaking 20th-century fiction and drama. The five authors are not simply writers who produced a few books. They are titanic names who created schools of writing, whose work encouraged others to pursue writing careers and who lived lives that were as interesting as—or even more interesting than—those of their characters.

In addition, Grove Press provided a forum for radical black thought in the 1960s, publishing the first edition of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and English-language editions of The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks by  Frantz Fanon, the Caribbean psychiatrist and anti-colonialist.

Grove Press published many books under Rosset’s stewardship, some by obscure authors with just one title to their name. My Grove Press editions are a cornerstone of my collection, not just The Wild Boys and Querelle, but Richard Horn’s Encyclopedia, a 1969 novel written as a series of encyclopedia entries, complete with cross-references, and A Life Full of Holes by Driss ben Hamed Charhadi, an illiterate North African who spoke an entire novel that was tape-recorded and translated by Paul Bowles.

Through his doggedness and commitment to publishing the avant-garde and the transgressive, Rosset made Grove Press a template for the small, independent presses that proliferate today. These presses, often strapped for cash (as Rosset tended to be, thanks to legal wrangles), publish books they believe deserve to spend time in readers’ hands, books that reflect their editors’ particular tastes and aesthetics. The major publishers may have the capital, but the small presses have the foresight and determination to tend the literary landscape as they deem necessary.

They and those of us who are writers and readers owe Barney Rosset our thanks.

Your assignment:  Read a Rosset Grove Press book that you haven’t read or re-read one you have.

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