Barney Rosset has passed away at the age of 90. One could argue that Rosset is one of the most influential–if not the most influential–person in the arts this past century. His influence is strong today, though little celebrated, although recently he’s received some belated exposure. The Daily Be called him “The Most Dangerous Man in Publishing“; in 2008 the National Book Foundation awarded him a kind of lifetime achievement award; and there’s also a documentary, Obscene.
In 1954, Rosset’s publishing house, Grove Press, published an obscure play out of Ireland. Its title was Waiting for Godot and its author was Samuel Beckett. Fifteen years later, in 1969, Beckett won the Nobel Prize in Literature. By then Grove was a powerful force, responsible not only for the popular Che Guevara posters of the time but also, importantly, lasting works of literature by iconoclast authors like D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and William Burroughs. Not to mention The Autobiography of Malcolm X. And a dude named Jack Kerouac.
But Rosset also published less highfalutin fare by, including the work of the pornmeister Al Goldstein, tearing down the boundaries between high and low culture. Married for a while to the painter Joan Mitchell, whom he met while attending Francis W. Parker high school, Rosset became involved with Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Motherwell. “I bought Motherwell’s house in East Hampton after he had moved out,” Rosset told The Paris Review. “I lived there for thirty years. There were things in the house he’d left behind—including his family Bible. Didn’t interest him. But he had left a little cup by Matisse, with a little erotic drawing. I told him that, and he jumped—where is it? His own family Bible for generations didn’t interest him.”
Even contemporary TV has been affected–Rosset published David Mamet, and it’s safe to say that no critically celebrated TV drama on the air, from The Wire to Deadwood and including just about every network procedural, would be quite the same without Mametspeak.
Rosset’s most lasting impact, though, might be his determined fight against censorship. If Rosset hadn’t fought the censorship laws so determinedly when he published Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Naked Lunch, it’s safe to say that we would be living in a very different world.