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Kicking Out the Jams

The Trials and Triumphs of Barney Rosset's Grove Press

February 25, 2001|KENT CARROLL | Kent Carroll, a longtime publishing executive, is publisher and editor-in-chief of Carroll & Graf, a subsidiary of the Avalon Publishing Group

In 1951, Barney Rosset bought a small, failing reprint publisher that took its name from the Greenwich Village street on which it was housed. He paid $3,000 for Grove Press. Rosset was 29, a World War II veteran, recently separated from his first wife, painter Joan Mitchell, who had been his high school sweetheart. Two years earlier, he had made a documentary film, "Strange Victory," more didactic than dramatic, the message of which was that the freedoms we had lately fought for in Europe and the Pacific were not fully realized at home, especially for blacks.

Rosset had grown up in Chicago, the only child of a wealthy Jewish banker and an Irish Catholic mother. (It was Rosset's trust fund and then his inheritance that would underwrite the early years of Grove Press.) He claimed the transforming experience of his life was the years he spent in the Francis Parker School, a progressive private school that served the children of Chicago's upper middle class and whose graduates were automatically accepted by a dozen of America's best universities.

Between 1951 and 1959, there was little to distinguish Grove Press from a number of other small independent publishers. It reissued some minor Herman Melville and Henry James and, in 1953, selections from the writings of the Marquis de Sade. Rosset also started Evergreen Review in 1957, which paid attention to civil rights issues, new American poets such as Allen Ginsberg and to the growing popularity and influence of jazz. It was not until the end of the decade, with the publication of D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover," soon to be followed by Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" and Willam Burroughs' "Naked Lunch," that Rosset launched Grove on the path that led straight to the heart of the political and cultural maelstrom that we now think of as "the '60s." This courageous and audacious journey would initially be remarkably influential and finally prove to be destructive.

In the 1960s, Grove became the leading American publisher of much that was new to Americans, provocative and politically subversive. Rosset, along with editors such as Don Allen and Richard Seaver, tapped into a body of literature written, performed and published in Europe over the previous two decades, that had not yet been translated or introduced on our side of the Atlantic Ocean: Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett and, just as important for Rosset personally and the culture in general, "My Secret Life," Frank Harris' "My Life and Loves" and the "Story of O." There were also some American originals: Hubert Selby's "Last Exit to Brooklyn," John Rechy's "City of Night" and "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."

Rosset was presiding over a successful New York trade publisher that operated more like a small press, albeit one whose presiding authority was deeply attracted to freedom of expression and the romance of tarnished left-wing ideals. The Spanish Civil War might have been 30 years gone, but it continued to inspire Rosset, who directed the operation not only with his sympathy for the oppressed, an instinct for anything that challenged societal taboos, but also, as one wag commented, with "a whim of steel."

In 1968, Rosset went to Bolivia to secure the diaries of Che Guevara, who had been killed several months earlier. Che had become the Grove poster boy. An image of him used to promote Evergreen Review and urging one and all to "Join the Underground" had the dual effect of merchandising political revolution and turning Guevara into a cultural icon. Publication of excerpts from the diaries, first in Evergreen and then in a Grove hardback and subsequent paperback edition, did not go unnoticed by those who felt they had suffered at the bloody hands of Castro and his lieutenant. Early one morning in July 1968, a small bomb was launched through a window and exploded in Grove's editorial office on University Place.

Promoting uncensored sexual expression and supporting revolutionary politics, while profiting from both, was a combustible mixture. It was sometimes difficult to tell the avant-garde from the loony bin, the disenfranchised from the disaffected. One of the latter was Valerie Solanis, who submitted her manifesto for "Cutting Up Men" to Evergreen. When it was not accepted, she prowled the sidewalk outside the Grove office, ice pick at the ready, waiting to catch Rosset alone. When he proved too elusive, she walked a few blocks north to Andy Warhol's "Factory" and shot the artist.

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