Michael Rosenthal’s Barney: Fighting censorship

Barney Rosset, the spirited subject of Michael Rosenthal’s new biography, Barney: Grove Press and Barney Rosset, America’s Maverick Publisher and His Battle against Censorship — which will be the subject of a reading and book signing event at 4 p.m. Saturday, March 18 at the Golden Notebook, 29 Tinker Street, Woodstock — seems to have made only one key trip to Woodstock in his lifetime. That was in summer of 1951 when he headed here to buy half of the fledgling publishing company he’d make his name with from Robert Phelps for $1500. Within weeks he’d bought the other half and, while simultaneously studying at the New School, began a career.

Which isn’t to suggest that Rosset’s ties to Woodstock ended there. Consider the nature of what this mischievous Chicago native, who based himself in the Hamptons for decades, created and eventually lost at Grove and its offshoots — Evergreen magazine and Grove Press Films. He was the guy who brought Beckett and Gide, Robbe-Grillet and the Beats to mass markets. His taking on the nation’s once-strict censorship laws on behalf of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch cost him years and fortunes, but also ended all such fights against books while also earning him huge profits for a small, idiosyncratic indie publishing firm. Evergreen, during its short but noteworthy run, premiered Sartre and Camus essays, Albee plays, and Che Guevara’s deathbed diaries alongside nudie photos and the first underground comics. Rosset’s distribution of I Am Curious (Yellow) broke down screen taboos against nudity, opening the floodgates for the New American Cinema (while also, according to Rosenthal, sounding the death knell for a burgeoning foreign art film cinema in the U.S.).

Barney Rosset was born and raised during a time where liberal, and even socialist or communist, was not a bad word. He came out of a Chicago known for its art and progressivism; worked in the Army during a war that championed democratic values over bullying fascism. And he found his way with the help of a family fortune small enough to have limits yet big enough to allow him a bit of playing. He flourished at a time when literature and the arts in general, alongside science and philosophy, were as respected as business acumen. It was a brief era when you could sell hundreds of thousands of copies of edgy books such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X or the early self-help pioneer Games People Play, or push anti-colonial theses into the nation’s classrooms with ease.


It was what led to a wave of well-to-do, hard-charging New Yorkers finding ways to set up alternative lives outside of their city, in a Quonset hut in East Hampton as Rosset did, or upstate as many others (including his fellow Chicagoan Albert Grossman) would do. Which in turn led to a bettering of circumstances for creators of all stripes, even without the incomes a Rosset and his peers could boast.

Rosenthal, who splits time between NYC and Woodland Valley outside Phoenicia, is expert at zooming in on the societal elements that make Barney Rosset and Grove Press’ story important. We get the crusading free speech battles, the confident manner in which our best and brightest business folks were once able to push their own tastes on a culture not yet fully enamored with bottom lines and prurient mass tastes, and what life during the Great Society final years of progressivism’s golden age could be like, from all-day rum and cokes to open sexuality.

But Rosenthal, while never supplying the novelistic touches many readers have come to expect from these “life and times” style biographies, is also pitch-perfect at demonstrating the underbelly of Rosset and Grove’s success, as well as that of the entire 1960s. Publication of works by Che and Castro lead to someone’s shooting of a missile into the publisher’s offices (no one was hurt), which much later leads to his paranoia about having been targeted by the CIA…which even later proves to be partly true. The man’s fondness for women and open sexuality, rushes through a slew of marriages (including his first to noted Abstract Expressionist painter Joan Mitchell) to distanced kids and eventual charges of misogyny that led, in combination with his employees wish for better terms, to union pressures and a much-publicized labor battle. Moreover, Grove’s very success pushed Rosset to overestimate his own prowess as a tastemaker and business force, which led to over-expansion and the loss of his business first to the Getty family, and later to Atlantic Press (where it still hobbles on).

Barney: Grove Press and Barney Rosset, America’s Maverick Publisher and His Battle against Censorship is much more than a local interest book, although its local connections are still strong (including its editor, Nick Lyons). It’s a book for book lovers, culture mavens, and all who still  harbor interest in the 1960s and how we got to where we all are now from where we thought we were then.


Michael Rosenthal, also known for his years as a professor at Columbia University, reads from and signs copy of this fun and deep book at Golden Notebook, 29 Tinker Street in Woodstock, at 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 18. See www.goldennotebook.com for further information

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