Barney Rosset's Grove Press Paved the Way for Literate, Intelligent, Risk-Taking Book Publishing
Grove Press is the most important publishing house of the latter half of the 20th century. The authors and titles Grove worked with during that time are an unrivaled shopping list for intellectuals and avant-gardists. But there’s no way I’m the only reader initially drawn to Grove’s portals by its line of dirty books.
In the fall of 1969 I stumbled across a pile of Evergreen Reviews a fellow student was discarding. The words, photos, art, and opinions inside these issues of Grove’s glossy monthly were an incendiary blend of sex, weirdness, humor, and radical thought. I immediately tore out a subscription card and signed up, selecting several paperbacks as a new subscriber bonus. The books I received were A Man With a Maid, My Secret Life, and Sadopaedia, all anonymous Victorian erotica. Vividly sexual, floridly literate, and brimming with behaviors I found both baffling and compelling, the books were riveting. They threw off a vibe I’d never run across before, and I greedily eyed the list of other Grove Press titles.
A survey of the nearest bookstore resulted in a crazy potpourri of titles: Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Carl Oglesby’s New Left Reader, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, and various others. No discernible smut--as far as I could tell--but damn, they all looked great. For the next many years, I bought every Grove title I could lay my hands on. Some of them were mystifying--the anonymous Miss High Heels, for instance--but most were thought-provoking in the extreme. During its heyday, Grove had the ability to blow your mind in every way imaginable.
Grove Press was a small independent publishing house, based in New York. Its story truly begins when it was bought in 1951 by Barney Rosset for $3,000. Rosset was obliged to finish the books the previous owners left in various stages of completion. Once he discharged these duties, Rosset began to shape Grove into its true form.
Sitting in his Manhattan living room, Rosset, now in his 80s, is a natural raconteur. The years have diminished his imposing physical presence, but he’s still a hell of a natty dresser, and his voice retains the sly cadence of a born wise-ass. He laughs continuously and conveys the easy mix of intellectualism and charm that made Grove the publisher of choice for so many notable artists.
"The first writer we really signed was Beckett," he says. "I read a little squib about him in The New York Times. Waiting for Godot had just opened in Paris, and they wrote about it, saying it was a crazy play. I was very curious about theater right then, because it was just at the moment I was discovering the work of Ionesco and Genet. I wrote to Beckett. He wrote me back. ‘You don’t notice it when you read my books in French, but when you read them in English you’re going to get shocked. There are things in there that won’t be allowed. And I’m telling you right now I will not change anything.’ I wrote back and said, ‘Why don’t we wait until that happens?’ Of course it never happened. It did in England. That one scene--‘Let’s hang ourselves, at least that way we’ll get an erection.’ No way! Not in England! But he was the first Grove Press author."
During the late ’50s, Grove published an astounding amount of important theater work--Bertolt Brecht, Antonin Artaud, Anton Chekhov--as well as poetry, prose, translations, and critical writing of all kinds. But one of Rosset’s dreams was to do the first American edition of Henry Miller’s 1934 classic, Tropic of Cancer, a book whose graphic erotic sequences had kept it unavailable to American readers, except via smuggled European printings.
"I read Tropic of Cancer in English class when I was at Swarthmore," Rosset recalls. "I bought it at the Gotham Book Mart. Somebody told me to go there and get it. I didn’t notice it had sex in it! [laughs] I just thought it was the story of a guy who’s been deserted by his wife. And I had just been deserted by my girlfriend. Henry pulled himself out of his terrible despair and went on living. I read that book and thought it was superb."
Despite Rosset’s high opinion of the work, Tropic of Cancer had been explicitly banned by the U.S. government in 1938. By the mid-1950s Miller was a widely published and respected author, and it made no sense to Rosset that Miller’s first major work was still being censored. He considered the ban both a business opportunity and an intellectual challenge.
"At that time, New Directions published all Miller’s work," Rosset says. "They had money coming out their ears. I started writing to [publisher James] Laughlin--‘Why don’t you publish that book?’ I couldn’t understand it! Finally I said, ‘If you won’t publish it, let’s do it together. If you won’t do it together, let me do it.’"
It took about four or five years, but Laughlin finally consented. "‘OK, good luck--go do it,’" Rosset remembers. "But I hadn’t asked Miller yet! And Miller said, ‘I don’t want that published. If you do, the American Legion is going to attack me. And the next thing you know they’ll be reading it in college classes!’"
Rosset visited Miller to see if they could work something out. "I brought a very attractive young woman with me who knew his work inside and out," he says. "She was a painter also, very similar to him, but it didn’t work. Then I got word from [Olympia Press publisher] Maurice Girodias, ‘Come right away, Henry’s here.’ I went to Paris. This time he was friendly. We played Ping-Pong, signed a contract, and that was it. But it took till 1959. I’d done my paper at Swarthmore in 1940."
Before proceeding with Miller, though, Rosset decided to publish D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. "I thought it would be a good idea," he says. "After all, D.H. Lawrence was respectable, compared to Miller. That took us years. Knopf had published an expurgated version and they tried to stop us.
"Lawrence’s widow was wonderful, couldn’t have been nicer, but she died right after she gave me her blessing. So I had to deal with Alfred Knopf, and he hated me. But I told him: ‘Let’s do it together, etc., etc.’ He finally said, ‘If you publish that book and they don’t put you in jail, I will.’ That stopped me for another two years. Then I figured, ‘Fuck him,’ and went ahead."
Grove published Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1959. The U.S. Postal Service immediately confiscated copies of the book sent through the mail, on the grounds they were obscene. "Knopf was enraged, but that was it," Rosset says. "We had all the writers on our side, and there was no way he could stop us. And the strategy worked. We won that case, then we won on Tropic of Cancer."
Later Grove won another big trial supporting Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. And while it lost its 1971 defense of the movie, I Am Curious (Yellow), by the time that ruling came down, it was academic. The old censorship laws had been overturned, largely as a result of Grove’s insistent challenges.
But what about those dirty books? Where do they fit in? "I published books that I liked," Rosset says with a laugh. "There was a bookstore on 49th Street called Radio City. They had manuscripts done by Hollywood screenwriters who’d been banned, which they rented out. They also had a great collection of original erotica from England. I read some of these things and I thought they were pretty damn good. But what they really liked to sell was cookbooks!"
Eventually, Radio City offered Grove the chance to purchase some of its dirty titles. "One day one of the partners said, ‘We don’t really want to deal with these books, but we have a closet full of them. Come visit, go into the closet, and stay as long as you want. Pick the ones you like, come out, give us some money, and they’re yours. I went back to Grove and got the editors. We all went and sat in that closet for about three hours, going through all of these things. We came out, talked quite a while, and bought them. Out of that we got the original copies of A Man With His Maid, Romance of Lust, and a whole slew of books, which we published. Eventually we ran out of them and started writing our own. Gil Sorrentino would write fake jacket blurbs under phony names. And some of those books are goddamn good!"
Also in Grove’s mix were books with a radical political flavor, something that had been part of Rosset’s personal aesthetic since his days at Chicago’s progressive Francis W. Parker School. Political authors he published include Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Régis Debray, Ed Sanders, and Abbie Hoffman, whose Steal This Book remains a classic of street literature. "Although we had to give distributors an extra 10 percent for free, because of the title," Rosset notes.
Over the years, I’ve probably owned most Grove titles at one time or another. And there are many oddball favorites among them. Freewheelin’ Frank--Secretary of the Angels, by Frank Reynolds and Michael McClure, is almost a coda to Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels, detailing the thunderous saga of the motorcycle gang’s San Francisco branch from an even deeper, darker perspective. Robert Gover’s One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding has some of the funniest, most beautifully miscommunicated dialogue ever written. Hubert Selby’s The Room is a uniquely airless ride into the bowels of claustrophobic insanity. Jack Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues conveys the goofy joy of his writing with an exquisite rhythm he never matched elsewhere. And that’s not even getting into my favorite one-handed reads (list available on request).
Grove continues in name to this day, but Rosset was forced out decades ago, and with him went the imprint’s heart and soul. Since then he has been involved in a variety of endeavors--from publishing Eleutheria, the first play by his late friend, Beckett, to hustling suckers at his pool table. But his real legacy is the unparalleled selection of brain-scramblers whose publication he midwifed. Thanks to the genius of Barney Rosset, no matter what flavor of smut you prefer, you can rely on classic Grove Press to deliver.
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