Barney Rosset, the publisher behind Grove Press, died at age 89 last week. Throughout his life, Rosset was a strong defender of First Amendment rights. During his tenure at Grove Press, he fought and won obscenity trials all over the country to establish the right to publish sexually explicit novels like Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller and Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. While his victories were won in the 1950s and ‘60s, I believe Rosset’s commitment to free speech still has something to teach us today.
It’s true that these sensational cases won Grove Press publicity and boosted sales, but Rosset defied censors out of principle. According to S.E. Gontarski, when an interviewer in 1959 suggested that sexually explicit literature should be restricted if it goes too far, Rosset shot back, “I feel that personally there hasn’t been a word written or uttered that shouldn’t be published.”
It’s easy to forget that was a radical position at the time. While the U.S. prided itself as a beacon of liberty, it still convicted booksellers and authors for distributing “obscene materials,” which were considered outside the protection of free speech.
Even what many consider classic works of literature often had to be smuggled in from Paris. Ulysses by James Joyce was banned in the U.S. for over a decade! It wasn’t until Memoirs v. Massachusetts and Attorney General v. A Book named Naked Lunch in 1966 that the nation saw the end of legal harassment and censorship of literary works.
Thanks in part to Rosset, authors can now write freely about sex without euphemism or obfuscation. This is a historic achievement, but we have yet to achieve Rosset’s full ideal: anarchism of expression. While obscenity law is now rarely applied to literature, it’s still invoked for pictorial, photographic and cinematic works.
Beyond obscenity, authors still face state repression for speaking out. In Rosset’s day, Grove Press took a serious risk in publishing subversive material, including books by Malcolm X and Che Guevara, and government exposés like the memoir of Soviet spy Kim Philby. Consequently, the press was carefully monitored by the CIA and hounded by death threats. After Rosset published an issue of the Evergreen Review celebrating Fidel Castro’s rebellion against Fulgencio Batista, a group of Cuban nationals threw a fragmentation grenade into their New York editorial office. (Luckily, no one was injured.)
Now, whistle-blowers like Bradley Manning are jailed for daring to speak government secrets. Like Rosset, Manning and his comrades at Wikileaks have an anti-authoritarian vision of a world with full transparency, one in which nothing is unspeakable or hidden from view. In other words, absolute freedom of speech.
Like Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, however, Rosset also had a problematic relationship with women. While Rosset did great work in popularizing black and queer liberation, there’s a great deal of masculinism in his editorial choices. With a few exceptions like Susan Sontag, women are largely absent from the Grove Press catalog during the Rosset years. The sexual freedom of men seemed to be the publisher’s primary concern.
This failing led Robin Morgan and a group of feminists to occupy the Grove Press offices, demanding reparations from men. At one point, Valerie Solanas, author of the “Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM) Manifesto,” even lurked outside Rosset’s offices with an ice pick.
We can’t excuse Rosset (or, for that matter, Miller or Lawrence) as creatures of their age. Clearly, they were out of sync with history in many other ways, looking forward to a freer and more inclusive culture.
Nevertheless, Rosset provides an inspiration for us at a time in which the conservative culture wars have returned. He was a man with a “whim of steel,” refusing to compromise his editorial integrity to appease prudes or cater to the mass market. If our own generation is to continue to fight for artistic freedom, we will need more people like Rosset.
JORDAN S. CARROLL is a Ph.D. student in English who can be reached at email@example.com.