Barney Rosset, who died Tuesday at the age of 89, was the most important American publisher of the 20th century.
Sure, he was part of a lineage; it's difficult to imagine Rosset doing what he did for more than 30 years at Grove Press without the example of James Laughlin at the seminal independent New Directions or (further afield) Jack Kahane at Paris' Obelisk Press. And yet Grove, which Rosset bought in 1951 for $3,000 and ran until 1985, remains the touchstone, the publisher most responsible for breaking down American literary puritanism, for defending the idea that art, that literature, is meant to unsettle us, that among its central purposes is to challenge the status quo.
Look at the writers Rosset published: Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, William S. Burroughs, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Malcolm X. Look at the books that he brought into the center of the culture: "Tropic of Cancer," "Waiting for Godot," "Naked Lunch," "Our Lady of the Flowers," "A Confederacy of Dunces," "Cain's Book."
There was a time when it felt as if Rosset had published half of the books on my shelves, with their Black Cat logo and distinctive blocky title typeface. That's an exaggeration, but not much of one; without Rosset, contemporary literature as we know it would simply not exist.
For Rosset, the mission was simple: Books mattered, they could be dangerous, they could change your life. Writers were heroes, "cosmonauts of inner space," to borrow a phrase from "Cain's Book" author Alexander Trocchi, their function less to reassure than to destabilize, to challenge the assumptions by which society was made.
This could happen in all sorts of ways — Beckett's unflinching absurdism ("Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better"), Burroughs' scabrous cynicism ("A functioning police state needs no police"), Miller's sense of living at the end of history, when all the so-called verities had collapsed beneath their own sanctimonious lies.
If there's a quote that evokes what Rosset was after, it is this riff from the early pages of "Tropic of Cancer": "We have evolved a new cosmogony of literature. It is to be a new Bible — The Last Book. All those who have anything to say will say it here — anonymously. After us not another book — not for a generation, at least."
Rosset was deeply influenced by Miller. He wrote a college paper on "Tropic of Cancer" (which was first published by Kahane in 1934) and bought Grove with the specific purpose of bringing the book to American readers, although he knew the process would be fraught.
To lay the groundwork, he set out to release an unexpurgated edition of D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover," successfully challenging the U.S. Post Office, which had seized a copy of the novel sent from Paris, and issuing the novel in 1959. This case, and those that followed — trials over "Tropic of Cancer," which he published in 1961, and "Naked Lunch," which came out the following year — helped do away with a de facto state of censorship, in which works could be suppressed according to amorphous standards of decency.
"It's hard to remember how puritanical America was and is," 1st Amendment attorney Martin Garbus said of Rosset in the 1990s. "Barney was the guy who fundamentally broke down censorship barriers in this country."
Rosset saw the issue in more direct terms. The point, he argued, was not obscenity; "Tropic of Cancer's" sexuality, while considerable, was irrelevant. Rather, it was "whether Henry Miller wrote as a serious artist and produced a work of literary merit." Later, he would go on to suggest that what mattered most about the book was "the anti-American feeling that Miller had. He was not happy living in this country, and he was extremely endowed with the ability to say why."
That's a telling statement, about both Rosset's intentions as a publisher and also his belief in the subversive power of art. But he's right, in regard to "Tropic of Cancer" as well as many other titles — all those underground midcentury classics that he helped bring to light.
What these works share is a hatred of hypocrisy, a sense of literature as a tool to cut through the noise and the distraction, to help us see things as they are. When Miller writes about sex, or Burroughs about heroin, what they are really getting at is control and repression, the intrusive meddling of the moralists who want to tell us how to live.
You can take issue with these writers but you can't deny the power of their visions, the acuity with which they peeled back the surface of the culture to expose the tangled contradictions underneath.
Reading parts of "Naked Lunch" — "[T]he threat of torture is useful to induce in the subject the appropriate feeling of helplessness and gratitude to the interrogator for withholding it," declares Burroughs' antihero Dr. Benway — is like looking through a telescope from past to future, into our own morally compromised and ambiguous world.
The irony is that despite Rosset's efforts, the moralists remain with us still. The culture warriors are as rabid as I remember them, as divisive and mean-spirited, as repressive about the pleasures of the body, as hypocritical about the complexities of society and soul.
This, too, is like looking into a telescope, although now, we are staring through it from the wrong end. And yet, that just makes me think of Rosset, and his legacy, as all the more essential: a reminder of what can happen when we stand up for what we believe.