Obituary: Barney Rosset, freedom of speech campaigner behind numerous controversial books

Born: 28 May, 1922, in Chicago. Died: 21 February, 2012, in Manhattan, aged 89.

Barney Rosset was a publisher whose Grove Press and Evergreen Review brought unknown and banned writers to the public and who campaigned for freedom of speech, which endured sustained attacks throughout the 1960s. He described his press as a “valve for pressurised cultural energies, a breach in the dam of American Puritanism – a whip-lashing live cable of zeitgeist”.

Rosset was born in 1928 in Chicago. His maternal grandparents were Irish Republicans, whose political sentiments he felt he inherited. At school he founded the newspaper Anti-Everything, together with his friend Haskell Wexler, who would go on to become a renowed cinematographer.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

While at Swarthmore College, aged 12, he first read an imported edition of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, a book which would become significant in his later life as a publisher.

He joined the US Army Signals Corps in 1942 and served the last two years of the war with a photographic unit, based in China. On returning Rosset collaborated with director Leo Hurwitz on Strange Victory (1948), a docu-drama film which demanded to know what victory had been won for black and Chinese Americans, who were still experiencing racism. The film was shown there just once, in New York, but was well received in Europe.

In 1951 Rosset bought Grove Press, a small and struggling business that had previously published only three books, and soon found success. Three years later the press published Beckett’s Waiting for Godot for the first time in English. Faber’s English edition would not appear in Britain until 1956.

The magazine Evergreen Review was founded by Rosset in 1957 and ran for 96 issues over the next 16 years.

At first a quarterly publication, it evolved to become an important monthly, a conduit for new writing from American and overseas authors. For example, its second issue, titled San Francisco Scene (1957), introduced the writers of the Beat Generation, including Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, to a wider public.

At its peak in the late sixties the magazine was selling up to 250,000 copies per issue. Fred Jordan, who edited an Evergreen anthology, said: “Evergreen published writing that was literally counter to the culture, and if it was sexy, so much the better. In the context of the time, sex was politics, and the powers-that-be made the suppression of sexuality a political issue.”

When Grove Press published Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1959 it was not the first time that the book had been available in America.

But this, the unexpurgated third version of the book, was seized by the US Postmaster General and banned for promoting “indecent and lascivious thoughts”.

Grove Press sued and won both the initial case and a subsequent federal appeal. Lawyer Charles Rembar, who represented Grove, commented famously at the time that “Pornography is in the groin of the beholder.” It was during the appeal that Judge Frederick van Pelt Bryan established the important precedent of “redeeming social or literary value” in defence of alleged obscenity publication charges.

Over the following three years, similar cases were brought in relation to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1961) and William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1962). Grove won each time, incurring huge legal costs, eventually recouped through the sales of these and other bestsellers.

In 1965, when Malcolm X was assassinated, his autobiography was in production at Doubleday. Three weeks after the assassination, the publisher cancelled the contract, citing concerns about the safety of employees.

Grove Press took the book over and subsequently sold millions of copies in paperback. Malcolm X biographer Manning Marable called Doubleday’s move “the most disastrous decision in corporate publishing history”.

Rosset again attracted controversy by publishing a portrait of Che Guevara on the cover of Evergreen Review in 1968. Anti-Castro Cubans living in the US responded by bombing the magazine’s offices. He continued undaunted. Grove Press was sold to Lord Weidenfeld in 1985 and Rosset relaunched Evergreen Review as an online publication in 1998, together with his wife Astrid Myers.

His life and work were the subject of the film Obscene, directed by Daniel O’Connor and Neil Ortenburg, released in 2007. The following year he received awards from National Coalition Against Censorship and from the National Book Foundation for his “outstanding service” to American letters.

Rosset’s autobiography, The Subject Was Left-Handed, will be published by Algonquin Books later this year. The title is the first sentence of his FBI file.