An unlikely Irish rebel - Barney Rosset utterly transformed American culture


Barney Rosset
Barney Rosset may not strike you as a particularly Hibernian name. In fact, it might not even strike you as a familiar name.

But make no mistake about it – Rosset, who died late last month at the age of 89, was an Irish rebel who utterly transformed American culture.

Thanks to Rosset, we can talk much more frankly about topics such as sex without fear of being arrested.

So, we should perhaps also blame Rosset for all the cheap, tacky sex talk we see in music and all over TV these days.

Along the way, Rosset helped expose American readers to daring Irish writers such as Samuel Beckett and John Kennedy Toole, and was at the center of one of the most explosive censorship trials since the battle over James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Either way, Rosset credited his Irish roots for his rebel streak.

"I'm half-Jewish and half-Irish, and my mother and grandfather spoke Gaelic," Rosset once said.

"From an early age my feelings made the IRA look pretty conservative. I grew up hating fascism, hating racism."

He also despised conformity, perhaps even rules in general.

No surprise then, that three years after buying Grove Press publishing house in 1951 for a mere $3,000, he introduced American readers to an Irish writer who, himself, had little use for rules -- Samuel Beckett.

Grove was the first U.S. publishing house to release an edition of Beckett’s classic play Waiting for Godot.

"Grove Press was three titles and maybe a hundred copies of each, enough to fit in a suitcase," Rosset told NPR in 2009. "No financial records, no nothing."

No other American publisher was interested in Beckett in the mid-1950s. Rosset admitted that Beckett’s wordplay and existential angst were not exactly what he got into the publishing game for.

"When I started publishing, I most definitely would have liked to have published Hemingway and Faulkner and Fitzgerald," he said, "but they were already published."
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Rosset is perhaps best known for publishing and distributing copies of D.H. Lawrence’s banned, erotically-charged novel Lady Chatterley’s lover. The book was originally published in 1928 but had a history of being censored and suppressed because of its ribald language and steamy scenes between working class men and upper class women.

In 1959, Rosset went to court to battle charges that he was peddling smut. The Lady Chatterley’s Lover case is considered by many one of the most important tests of American artistic boundaries since the famous 1933 decision to allow Joyce’s classic Ulysses to be published in America.

Even after winning the Chatterley case, Rosset faced an uphill battle publishing the book. American culture was still tame, with TV, radio and the movies playing things extremely safe.

Needless to say, just a few years after Americans finally got their hands on Lawrence’s novel, they would be left yawning by mere prose. By the late 1960s, it seemed as if bold sexuality was everywhere.

Rosset himself moved onto publishing another pioneer of erotic literature, Henry Miller.

Indeed, that is why Rosset’s impact on American culture is both a blessing and a curse.

Yes, it seems reasonable to read Lawrence’s novel, and perhaps even the musings of Henry Miller. But Rosset helped kick open the floodgates, so much so that it sometimes seems as if we should finally take a break from our culture’s obsession with sexuality.

Meanwhile, Rosset’s role in the Chatterley case obscures some of his other work with brilliant Irish writers.

Yes, there is Beckett. And then there is the saga of John Kennedy Toole.

Famously, Toole – the author of the cult classic Confederacy of Dunces – committed suicide before his book was published. It was Toole’s mother who brought a messy copy of his manuscript to LSU press. 

The book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Rosset and Grove Press would later publish a novel Toole had written at a much younger age called The Neon Bible.

In the end, Barney Rosset may have upset as many Irish Catholic readers as he enlightened. But America would not have been the same without him.

(Contact “Sidewalks” at facebook.com/tomdeignan)
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