Barney Rosset: ‘Most important’ U.S. publisher of the 20th century


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Barney Rosset died last week at the age of 89, news that rippled through the publishing community.

Rosset was known and admired for leading Grove Press from 1951 to 1985, deliberately setting a course to open up American shelves to fiction that had been considered too outrageous for our shores.


First he brought ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’ by D.H. Lawrence to the U.S., and after that censorship battle wound through the courts -- Rosset won -- he turned to Henry Miller’s ‘Tropic of Cancer.’ And then his foundation was set.

Book critic David L. Ulin writes that Rosset was, ‘the most important American publisher of the 20th century.’ He continues:

Look at the writers Rosset published: Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, William S. Burroughs, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Malcolm X. Look at the books that he brought into the center of the culture: ‘Tropic of Cancer,’ ‘Waiting for Godot,’ ‘Naked Lunch,’ ‘Our Lady of the Flowers,’ ‘A Confederacy of Dunces,’ ‘Cain’s Book.’ ... For Rosset, the mission was simple: Books mattered, they could be dangerous, they could change your life. Writers were heroes, ‘cosmonauts of inner space,’ to borrow a phrase from ‘Cain’s Book’ author Alexander Trocchi, their function less to reassure than to destabilize, to challenge the assumptions by which society was made. This could happen in all sorts of ways -- Beckett’s unflinching absurdism (‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better’), Burroughs’ scabrous cynicism (‘A functioning police state needs no police’), Miller’s sense of living at the end of history, when all the so-called verities had collapsed beneath their own sanctimonious lies.

Algonquin Books, which had been working with Rosset on his autobiography ‘The Subject Was Left-Handed,’ hopes to release the book within a year.


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-- Carolyn Kellogg