Rosset: My Life in Publishing and How I Fought Censorship
By Barney Rosset
360 pages, $28
Dear Mr. Beckett: Letters from the Publisher--The Samuel Beckett File
By Barney Rosset
473 pages, $32.95
"The late Barney Rosset, dean of combat publishing, scarred veteran of too many battles over the word to enumerate, must have chuckled appreciatively when considering this book's evolution and the many editors and publishers involved along the way."
So writes John Oakes, a former Rosset assistant, of his company's publication of "Rosset: My Life in Publishing" a book decades overdue and perfect for inaugurating 2017. Rosset died in 2012 at the age of 89.
No "serious student of American culture from the post-World War II era right up into the 1970s" ever doubted "that were it not for the indefatigable Rosset, our lives would be very different. That one person fundamentally reshaped the way we think, perhaps more than any other, in the modern era: he unleashed upon us "Lady Chatterly's Lover,' the intellectual puzzles of Beckett, Genet, Pinter, Oe, Robbe-Grillet, Ionesco and Stoppard; The 'Tropics' of Miller, the outrages of Burroughs and Rechy and so much more ... that in the last century, the idea of 'normal' sexuality has changed owes not a little to Rosset's exploration of such concepts."
And that's not all. Once language was liberated, and ideas along with it, along came the "liberation" of almost everything else we now take for granted.
For Rosset, says Oakes, "every book was a battle and he was the pirate exhorting his crew to slaughter. In fact, the list of censorship obstacles overcome by Grove Press under his tenure is so extensive it might be argued that the company was more likely to publish a book because it was 'forbidden.' "
And what came of such publishing? Everything. As Oakes understands, modern America as we know it changed utterly. As a well-known scripture once put it, in the beginning was The Word. And in Rosset's case, the Word was about the most embattled American subject -- sex, which Rosset's Grove Press first brought to us unexpurgated in D. H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterly's Lover" and then, Henry Miller's epochal "Tropic of Cancer."
He admits in "Rosset" that "Lady Chatterly" was the "stalking horse" for Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" which he read as a teenager from an under-the-counter copy and conceived of publishing when he was a Swarthmore Student (where he wrote an English paper on a book which, at the time, couldn't be legally sold).
What then, could be more apt, than a "memoir" that was itself, so embattled over the years in a different way that Rosset would almost certainly have disapproved what we can now read? He wrote so much that was autobiographical in his lifetime but he also discarded and fought over it all so that the publisher of this memoir hired a small battalion of editors and restorers to put together a final version of a previously chaotic and rejected work?
"Rosset" then is a Frankenstein monster of a book but as Colin Clive might so memorably have it "It's Alive!" And it gives us the pre-history of EVERYTHING that was so radically liberated in the past 70 years from the standpoint of a cardinal enabler -- beginning with literary language but along with ideas of sex and race, America itself.
The entire language -- street obscenities and all -- came first with the publication of Lawrence's "Lady Chatterly's Lover." Then, after Lawrence lyricized sex, came Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer," that willful eruption of joyous American song from the gutter, not the street, with its language and grubby defiance intact.
On its opening page, Miller invented a new American literary way of being in your face: "This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book in the ordinary sense of the word. No this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty ... what you will." So much for D. H. Lawrence, Rosset's lyricizing "stalking horse."
Miller in the '30s is where the American counter-culture began. Or would have, if America could have read him unexpurgated at the time. Enter Barney Rosset. And EVERYTHING becomes possible in 1959. How extensive was Rosset's influence? Almost unimaginable. Take for instance, everything we now think of as the post-Saturday Night Live sense of humor. Along with the Harvard Lampoon, SNL was formed by aesthetes who had previously written for Rosset's "Evergreen Review" -- Michael O'Donoghue, most importantly. And there was Rosset, enabler and soldier in 1959, fighting to allow us to read every word of Miller's explosive, anarchic and liberated reset of American culture from foreign shores.
Rosset, the Chicago banker's son and political radical, had the lunatic chutzpah after his father's death to merge his father's bank with his publishing company so that he could publish the books he wanted and finance his acquisitions and battles. It was the Irish on his mother's side whose rebel heritage he said he most cherished.
It should come as no surprise that the man who gave the English-speaking world Samuel Beckett was his lifelong friend, enabler and champion Rosset, who first published Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" in America and even named a son "Beckett." It was Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, who had first published Joyce's "Ulysses" and, in 1953, suggested Rosset publish Joyce's assistant, Beckett.
A magnificent friendship and working relationship between the two men thus began which is extolled brilliantly in "Dear Mr. Beckett" where their correspondence is reprinted along with contributions, old and new, from Paul Auster, Lois Oppenheim, Kenneth Rexroth, Alan Schneider, Richard Seaver, D. A. Pennebaker, so many others.
It is there we learn that when Buffalo had the incomparable privilege of premiering Beckett's astoundingly beautiful death sonata "Rockaby" with Billie Whitelaw, Beckett would call the hand-picked British actress daily to make sure his American friends weren't driving her crazy.
These are both milestone books -- irreplaceable to anyone who cares about both the evolution of the culture we live in and how it was affected by the blazing literary constellation revealed by Rosset -- Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter, Robbe-Grillet, Sartre, Duras, Behan, Brecht, Miller, Lawrence, Malcolm X, Genet, Borges, Jarry, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Abbie Hoffman.
I wouldn't claim that every word of Rosset's business and legal maneuvering in his life of "combat publishing" is compelling. But revelations large and small are abundant, and Rosset's feisty, raffish company is irresistible.
"Dear Mr. Beckett" gives you that one man -- who always "contained multitudes" -- in what was certainly his finest and noblest relationship: with Samuel Beckett, one of the cornerstone postmodern writers.
These are two books many of us have literally spent decades hoping for. We couldn't have been wiser, in doing so. That is now abundantly clear. Now that they're here, a cardinal American story is. at last, being properly told.
Jeff Simon is the News' Arts and Books Editor.