Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night

- February 23, 2012

"The end of a literary era..."

We often mourn or, at least, note the passing of important literary figures. But these are usually authors, not publishers. Today we should, at the very minimum, take note of the passing of Barney Rosset, whose Grove Press published the U.S. editions of many of the most controversial books and plays of the 20th century. Rosset died Tuesday night in New York, just before his 90th birthday.

From "Waiting for Godot" and "Lady Chatterley's Lover" to "Tropic of Cancer" – these pillars of world literature by Samuel Beckett, D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller, respectively – might not have been published in the United States, without the enormous effort of Rosset and his Grove Press imprint.

Rosset purchased Grove for $3,000 in 1951 and fought all the way to the Supreme Court on several occasions to argue the free speech rights of his publishing house to publish these authors and many others. Like Sylvia Beach of Paris’ legendary Shakespeare and Company, Rosset championed the work of authors banned in various countries (Beach first published James Joyce’s "Ulysses" in 1922, which was banned in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom at the time).

The son of a wealthy Chicago banker, Rosset served as a photographer during World War II, then became a filmmaker. But it was his purchase of Grove that set him on a course of publishing and litigating on behalf of his authors.

Over the years, Grove Press published many works that had been passed over by other houses, such as John Kennedy Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces" and Eric Berne's popular look at transactional analysis, "Games People Play." Rosset published "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" after Doubleday dropped it, along with work by a who's who of 20th-century playwrights. He also founded The Evergreen Review. It existed in print from 1957 through 1973, and was re-launched online in 1998. Its diversity can be seen in the March-April 1960 issue, which included work by Albert Camus, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bertolt Brecht and LeRoi Jones, as well as Edward Albee's first play, "The Zoo Story."

Rosset took his case regarding the publishing of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" all the way to the Supreme Court, where he won a First Amendment victory. But that was just part of a calculated strategy to publish another banned book: Henry Miller's 1934 autobiographical novel, "Tropic of Cancer." In 2009, Rosset explained why he pursued the case of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" through to his Supreme Court victory. "To do 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' before 'Tropic of Cancer' would be more acceptable because D.H. Lawrence was a famous writer and revered at many levels, 'Lady Chatterley' would be more feasible to make a battle plan for, and we did exactly that." Like the man said, it was all just part of a calculated strategy.

Dylan Thomas said it best:

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Through his life’s work, Barney Rosset upheld the poet’s words stupendously!