(reprint from the San Francisco Chronicle, March 4th 2012)
Barney Rosset revolutionized American publishing with his rash and successful defiance of censorship. The ultimate price of his rashness was that when he died Feb 21, at age 89, he was close to broke. Financially, I mean not spiritually. The rashness that lit up Rosset’s career at Grove Press was his un-American willingness to defend in courts everywhere the likes of Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence and William S. Burroughs, and to publish the Evergreen Review, full of the work of other disturbers of the peace, such as the beatniks and aborning hippies of San Fransisco.
Throughout his career, which included an invasion of the offices of Grove Press by irate feminists and also a bombing claimed by an anti-Castro group (he had published Che Guevara), Rosset was an eager fomenter of creative chaos. Naturally, there had to be many Bay Area connections, especially in the ‘60s. The book-seller in Marin County who was arrested for selling Tropic of Cancer, that dirty modern-lit classic, was tried in San Rafael. Grove paid for his defense. The expert witnesses testifying for the “redeeming social value” of the novel was a Dr. Wendt from Mills College; Dr. Come (this is not a joke) from a theological seminary in the East Bay; Dr. Mark Schorer, distinguished critic and chairman of the Department of English at UC Berkeley; and a non-doctor writer, Herbert Gold.
The bookseller was acquitted. We expert witnesses puffed ourselves up with pride. Barney insisted on a grand party for the jury (have I mentioned that he spent his money wildly?). The jury chairman, his breath aromatic with tasty tidbits, informed us that, for example, my explanations to the district attorney, judge and jury – a character’s dialogue in a novel does not necessarily represent the author’s own beliefs – were irrelevant in the verdict. Schorer’s evocation of Mark Twain and the evolving American vernacular mattered not, and neither did Dr. Come’s revelation that a bidet is not some cunning French sex tool, nor even Dr. Wendt’s willingness to expose Tropic of Cancer to the young women at Mills College.
No. The jury freed the bookseller because he confessed on the witness stand that, not having read it, he put Tropic of Cancer on the shelf with the astrology books. Barney started to giggle, but failed. He exploded with barking guffaws that surely caused tidal waves in the waterbeds of Mill Valley, perhaps even in the upper reaches of Fairfax.
He bought a movie theater. He distributed Swedish erotica. He published Ho Chi Minh and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Jean Genet and Eugène Ionesco, poetry and oddball scriveners who happened to catch his fancy. He was devoted to his friend Samuel Beckett.
Years later, funds exhausted, he sold Grove Press to an English publisher and Ann Getty of San Francisco, who liked the idea of being the patron of Beckett and so many other modern masters. Barney was supposed to remain as editor. In the natural course of such matters, he was soon fired. And then Grove sank into other embraces, and is known today as Grove/Atlantic.
Barney Rosset, five times married to interesting women, relentless lunger on tennis courts (he bloodied his knees rushing the net against me), enthusiastic gourmet of forbidden substances, world champion check-grabber; rest in anti-peace. If there’s a storm in heaven, or wherever you are now, you must certainly be at the center of it.