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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

These same conditions were to give rise in the spring of 1970 to a conflict that marked the end of Grove's decade of remarkable success. A dissident group of employees sought to unionize the company, and a disciplined cell of feminists demanded veto power over Grove's editorial policy. The machinists' union quickly signed up half a dozen editorial workers, all of whom Rosset promptly fired. The women had other goals, including 24-hour free child care, for all profits from books written by black authors to be "returned" to the black "community" and for all profits from erotic books to be used to establish a defense fund for prostitutes. In keeping with the spirit of the times, the feminists occupied the executive offices at Grove and mounted a press campaign that made network television news. Rosset refused to acquiesce in what he saw as censorship and had them forcibly removed by the police. He had sat on his own sword.

The union lost the vote among the employees, but the demands of the radicals remained morally divisive. How could a man who had been a Communist in his youth, one who held in contempt any social policy that interfered with the freedom of the artist or the individual, not accede to the values of the women's movement? The writers and film-makers who saw in Grove a haven for expression and experimentation became disaffected. Readers, 200,000 of whom bought Evergreen Review every month and who sought out new books from Grove simply because they were published by Grove, began to desert the company.

These events, coupled with declining revenues from the film division and the excessive cost of renovating a new office building, combined to jeopardize Grove's financial future. But, more important, by the early 1970s, Grove's captive audience had been fractured. Books and magazine articles that only Grove would have published a scant five years earlier were now seen as safe commercial ventures by larger, more conventional houses, and Grove, at a moment of capital scarcity, was forced to compete with publishers who had far more money available to invest.

When I joined Grove in 1969, the company employed 140 people and had just moved into a lavishly restored office building at the corner of Bleecker and Mercer streets. Four years later, there were 14 of us working out of Rosset's home on West Houston Street, after an interim stopover on East 11th Street in a small building that housed a miniature movie theater and the Black Cat bar, which Rosset operated on the financially dubious policy of never charging friends or employees for their drinks.

During the 1970s, Grove lived on the income generated by its marvelous backlist. There was the occasional new book of note, even the rare momentary best-seller. But the halcyon days were gone, along with the money. Rosset's instinct had been to make Grove into what we would now call a multimedia company. And instinct it was, as his view of the future was always a bit light on planning or details and, later, on resources. He wanted a company that could publish a magazine to support its books and discover new writers, to run a book club that offered publications and short films (most of them in aggressive violation of just about everybody's "community standards") via the mail, so as to circumvent the regular, stodgy channels of distribution. He entered the feature film business to distribute movies such as Jean-Luc Godard's "Weekend" and the seminal, if banal, "I Am Curious (Yellow)." These and other films were, Rosset understood, a natural extension of the publishing operation (a number of them were made by Grove authors such as Marguerite Duras).

His idea of what America's future could aspire to--racial tolerance, free sexual expression--was based on morality and an acute sense of history. That some of his ideas were not much more than mental curlicues and that some of his behavior was awfully self-centered does not detract from his ethical impulse.

America has traveled some distance since the mid-1950s. Today it looks a lot more like what Rosset wanted it to be than it resembles the social order championed by those who would have delighted in attending his auto-da-fe. For his view of the future was not a "vision"; it was concrete, something one could stake reputation and private fortune on, which is what he did.

An inveterate child of the 1930s, he was a man whose true thoughts and emotions were closer to those of a precocious 16-year-old than to those of the charming sophisticate one first met. Rosset needed money but disdained what he believed it represented, as when, after his father's death, he sued the state of Illinois to return a prized charter to operate a private bank.

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