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Barney Rosset dies at 89; publisher fought censorship

Rosset founded Grove Press, which took on American censorship laws in the '50s and '60s and championed the work of William S. Burroughs, Tom Stoppard and Malcolm X.

February 23, 2012|Elaine Woo

The year he published "Godot," Rosset heard from UC Berkeley literature professor Mark Schorer, who urged him to put out an uncensored edition of "Lady Chatterley's Lover." Rosset wasn't enamored of the book, but thought it could pave the way for the much bolder "Tropic," Miller's semi-autobiographical account of his early life and sexual adventures in Paris. Rosset notified postal authorities that he was sending the book in the mail. It was immediately confiscated, setting in motion the protracted legal tussle that ended in 1959 with the book's publication.

He then went to work on Miller, who was loath to allow Rosset to publish "Tropic." According to Rosset, the author feared what success would do to the book. "He wrote me a letter in which he said…What happens if you publish it and we actually win the case?" Rosset recounted in a 1997 interview with the Paris Review. Miller said he didn't want it to become so acceptable that it was assigned in colleges "and no one will want to read it!"

Miller's fear was unfounded. "Tropic" became a classic, along with many other titles Rosset published. He printed Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" in 1962, and Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg were among the defense witnesses at that book's trial. A few years later, Rosset snatched up "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" (1965) after Doubleday, fearful of repercussions after Malcolm's assassination, dropped it.

Rosset did not agree with the "socially redeeming" argument that led to the landmark victory for "Tropic" in 1964.

"My grounds has always been that anything should be — can be — published," he told NPR in 1991. "I think that if you have freedom of speech, you have freedom of speech."

His attempt to expand Grove into the film distribution business took the company to the brink of ruin. Rosset sold it in 1985 to oil heiress Ann Getty and British publisher George Weidenfeld, who ousted him as Grove's chief the following year. Rosset found himself starting over at 63 and launched other publishing ventures that eventually ran aground.

He revived Evergreen Review as an online journal and continued to run it until shortly before his death.

Married several times, he is survived by his wife, Astrid Myers, four children, three stepchildren, four grandchildren and four step-grandchildren.

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