It is no exaggeration to say that 20th century literature and culture is an infinitely richer and more fertile field because of the life’s work of publisher Barney Rosset. Whether they know it or not, all American lovers of literary freedom are indebted to Rosset, for it was through his bold leadership at Grove Press that we came to know the works of such visionaries as Samuel Beckett, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs, Jean Genet, Carlos Fuentes, Hubert Selby, and others of their rank too numerous to name here. That almost all these writers were unknown, ignored, or rejected at the time Rosset published their works bespeaks a great deal of the man’s visionary aesthetic and moral courage. But Rosset did more for these writers than simply publish them—he fought for them. Repeatedly and successfully, Rosset battled censorship laws in U.S. courts and won the right for Americans to read such now recognized classics as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Naked Lunch, to name but a few.
Born 78 years ago in Chicago, the only child of an Irish Catholic mother and a Jewish banker, Rosset lit out early on his own and as a teenager joined the American Communist Party, an affiliation that would haunt him for many years afterwards. After serving briefly in the U.S. Army in China during World War II, Rosset spent an even shorter stint as a filmmaker, making the full-length Strange Victory, an examination of post-war racism. Moving from Chicago to New York with his first wife, painter Joan Mitchell, Rosset bought a fledgling Grove Press in 1951. Almost immediately, he began revolutionizing American publishing. In 1957, Rosset founded the seminal Evergreen Review, which provided a forum for many of the greatest writers of the last half of the century. Throughout his early endeavors, Rosset drew serious attention from the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., both of which, among other things, repeatedly noted that that the subject of their inquiry was left-handed. Ever ahead of his time, Rosset in the 1970’s became one of the earliest victims of the corporate hijacking of culture when he was unceremoniously squeezed out at the Grove, the very company that had become synonymous with his name and vision.
Ever a fighter, and anything but forgotten by those whom he supported while they were rejected, Rosset has gone on to found Blue Moon Press and to maintain Evergreen Review, Inc. (www.evergreenreview.com). He is currently at work on his autobiography, titled, appropriately, The Subject Is Left Handed. Ever alert to the suppression of free speech, Rosset’s most recent battles have shifted from state to estates, particularly those of Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov; he seeks to publish, respectively, Beckett’s first play, Eleutheria, and Lo’s Diary, an account of Lolita from the heroine’s point of view. In 1999, Barney Rosset was made a Commander of the French Order of Arts and Letters.
We met Rosset and his lovely wife and companion, Astrid Myers, in their Manhattan home this past October, shortly after his return from Berlin, where he was invited to speak at a convention honoring Samuel Beckett’s film, Film, a work Rosset commissioned in the early ‘60s. During our visit, Barney and Astrid displayed boundless grace and generosity. A man of instinct and quiet faith, well into his eighth decade of life, Rosset retains the energy and enthusiasm of youth and the curiosity of a child. We had asked for 40 minutes. Some four hours later, we emerged from their home, Barney leading the way, off to his favorite sake bar. It was a fitting end to a thoroughly refreshing evening in the company of a very solid man.
Alan Lockwood and Patrick Walsh (Rail): You have fought many dragons, not the least of them censorship, which implies a fear of the world and its power to change minds. What kinds of hassles did you face from the U.S. government?
Barney Rosset: Oh, see all those files there? [Points to the wall] All my F.B.I./C.I.A. files. From the time I was 16 ‘til now. I was asked with Joan Mitchell, “Am I now or have I every been a member of the Communist Party?” This was to get a passport. I said yes. They gave me the passport anyway. I sued the government for personal information. I sued every head of the C.I.A. from its inception to [ex-director William] Colby. And we got tens of thousands of pages. I was called a spy for Japan. Then I was accused of being a “disaffected person.” In the meantime I’m in the Army, moving up the ladder a little—That’s how I got to China where I was made a member of OSS! I didn’t know it but I was. But Joan and I were terrified. I remember being in France listening to the McCarthy hearings on the radio.
Rail: You were suspected of “disaffection”?
Rosset: Right. I never heard that word before. I’m not sure I’ve heard it since.
Rail: You published Jack Kerouac. A cult of Kerouac has since developed that has very little to do with him or his writing and much to do with an idea of who people wish to believe he was. Reading his books, one encounters a deeply spiritual, deeply conflicted soul, often a tortured one. Yet this guy’s being used to sell automobiles, pants, and whatever else Madison Ave can use him for. What do you make of this?
Rosset: He certainly hit some chord after he was dead. As a free spirit, something people envied or liked or loved. I don’t know how much this has to do with him in the sense of his being very, “spontaneous,” using his word. He was a very unhappy person when I knew him.
Rail: When did you know him?
Rosset: Well it would have been when he was writing The Subterraneans—the ‘50s, right up until he died. He lived on Long Island. I’d never been there, but it’s in a biography that I went there with [Grove editor] John Allen to talk to him. But it never happened. Jack became so full of anti-Semitism. He would call me and complain about the Jews and I’m half Jewish and he was ranting and raving about Jewish publishers. But you know, I couldn’t take it seriously, and he would do the same to Allen Ginsburg, so—It was sad. It was very sad, he was so trapped into that. At the same time, he had very different feelings. I liked him and I thought his prose was great, beautiful. He and Jackson Pollock were very similar, stylistically and as people. There was something ominous about both of them. I never though they would hurt anyone else but I sure thought they could do a lot of damage—they were both athletic—to themselves, or to the door they hit, anything. And I was always a little wary around them.
One day Gallimard [the publisher] came here from France, Claude Gallimard himself, and he wants to meet Kerouac. I thought Oh, shit. [Laughs] But I arrange it, and Jack brought his mother, a stroke of genius on his par, ‘cause when he was with his mother he didn’t drink! It was right here on 11th Street, down in our basement. And she played the piano, she was very much like the mother in Confederacy of Dunces, and they spoke French, and Jack just sat there [laughs] like a good boy. And when it was all over, the luncheon was over, I ran out in the street with him and he said, “Hey Barney, I did pretty good, didn’t I?” [Laughs] “You sure did!” I said. I was trembling the whole time. When is this guy going to explode? And he didn’t. He was a marvelous, upset, great writer. And Allen Ginsberg, I felt, had all that together. Burroughs was the pope, Allen was the heart, and Kerouac was the soul. Allen was the father who loved everybody and could hold them together. Then Burroughs sort of put it together and cut it up.
Astrid Meyers: Literally cut it up!
Rosset: He was the brains.
Rail: Do you know Burroughs’s book of essays called The Adding Machine? Somewhere in there he writes on Beckett. And I was really struck by Burroughs, of all people, saying that he felt Beckett was “ahuman.”
Rosset: He was towards Burroughs. Cause Burroughs and Kerouac and Ginsberg liked Beckett very, very much. They really thought he was a great, great writer. As did I, but I returned the feeling towards them, and Beckett didn’t. He was in a different world, and if they would come into a café in Paris he’d ignore them. I thought at Grove we had transcended that, that Beckett had something to offer, but so did Burroughs and Ginsberg and Kerouac, and those three could see it too. I think that there was a certain European sensibility that didn’t permit these Americans. It’s really the only thing that I can think of, they were outsiders to the French and Beckett, who really was as much French as anything, he just didn’t dig that. Their prose, their approach: I thought it was too bad that that didn’t cross over. But it didn’t.
Rail: There was something very unique and very beautiful about the Beats. They really did have a brotherhood that I don’t see in any other group of writers or artists. They looked after each other. There’s been a movement to make them into saints, which they weren’t, but they did have a brotherhood.
Rosset: They did. That sort of thing is totally alien to me. I never had the kind of experience. The closest thing is with painters. And that was through Joan. Painters liked each other. They went out together. They got drunk together.
Meyers: Especially the Abstract Expressionists.
Rosset: They told each other how they painted and what kinds of paints to get and where to get your canvas and what’s it like. And that was my introduction to that kind of a life. And in writing and in my own life I never experienced that. In the beginning I thought, “What is this guy Ginsberg? He must be a C.I.A. agent!” [Laughs] I really did! For a long time I thought “too goddamn friendly!” Took me years to get over that feeling!
Rail: Great writing demands time and concentration of both writer and reader. It seems that there is a tension underlying our culture’s technological saturation, particularly as regards the written word. A computer-driven world or a computer-addled psyche tends to engender quantitative rather than qualitative thought, rewarding speed over contemplation and abstraction rather than a particular perception—everything that is anti-literature. Do you buy that?
Rosset: I do and I don’t. At the same time there are more special things done, beautiful editions of poetry, than I can ever remember. So maybe it’s a counterfoil to this. You know mass-market books became popular during my time. Okay, that was great. How else could we have sold a half million copies of [Selby’s] Last Exit to Brooklyn? Now I’m told we’re publishing him in gay books. I just thought he was one hell of a good writer! So now books are categorized. That I think is a real step backwards. There’s gay literature, there’s lesbian literature and how all that arrived is another matter. That I think is a real, real bad thing.
Rail: There are more books now being published than ever before. And yet literature as a force seems to have no effect whatsoever in the larger culture. Would you agree with this?
Rosset: I would say, when did it? I don’t think it’s been very obvious ever. You’re quite right about there being more and more. There’s also more people in the world, and more people who can read. I hope. It’s terrifying to go to a book fair if you’re trying to publish or write anything. My inner feeling says, “Run out the door, oh my God, the competition’s going to drown you!” and how much effect is it having? I don’t know. We read that Tom Paine’s writings had a great impact on the American Revolution. Well, we weren’t there. My theory is that they did, but there must have been a very small number of people who read these things and got them. I don’t know how many people read Walt Whitman, but he was certainly one hell of an influence on Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and me and Carl Sandburg from Chicago. There’s a direct line from Whitman on up. I don’t know, all I can do is do it. Like you’re doing with this [picks up a Brooklyn Rail]. That’s all I can think of.
Rail: Do you look at publishing as a spiritual or ethical act?
Rosset: Well I certainly think Allen Ginsberg felt those two things and he could articulate them. I’m not so articulate. Censorship is an affront to the human spirit if you want to put it—I mean you have to take a risk, right? The big risk in free speech is, God knows what will happen when you say something! But that’s a risk that a free society can survive. And it’s a big risk.
Rail: Do you find that writers of earlier decades had more courage than writers of today?
Rosset: Less money. [Laughs.]
Rail: Less money and more courage?
Rosset: I don’t think so. You know those are intangibles, things you can’t really understand until the time has come and gone and you can look to a month ago or a year ago. Listen, there are other ways to try make a living than this here [points to the Brooklyn Rail]. I think that bringing out your own magazine is as strong a statement as anything else that anyone I know did. It’s not the Paris Review, which published an interview with me. I thought that was a circular movement! I openly accused George Plimpton in the magazine of being a C.I.A. front and the only reaction I got was that he called me up and said, “That was very interesting. Let’s get together and talk about it.” I’m waiting. When I think about it, in the time of Kennedy it was very fashionable.
Meyers: To be a CIA agent?
Rosset: To them. Not to me. I’m trying to be forgiving.
Rail: I sure as hell hope you finish your autobiography.
Meyers: There’s so much material. This [points to the wall of files] is all archived material that we’re putting together and are what—a third finished?
Rosset: I have no idea. [Laughs] I think my life ended when I was 16. I mean consciously.
Rail: What do you mean by that?
Rosset: When I was 16, I was very conscious that I’d lived the best part of my life, and then it was going to be a long down hill pull. [Laughter] I was doing what I wanted to do. I was very excited by what I was doing, I was working; it was wonderful. I was with the girl I wanted to be with and I very consciously thought, “This is never going to be like this again.” And it never was. Oh, there were lots of wonderful things. It didn’t just go like this [arm vertical down to the floor].
Meyers: Well you know, you still have a few years to go. Maybe things will happen yet!
Rosset: I was learning something today about Beckett’s Film. Within that film and within Beckett things go from the state of I Am Not. In other words, to die. Film is about a person looking who doesn’t want to be seen but if he’s not seen he doesn’t exist. The struggle not to be seen is to die, and is to face death.
Rail: But the Keaton character also begins to see eyeballs everywhere.
Rosset: He can’t escape it. He can’t escape the eye.
Rail: He cannot escape that eye so that means he cannot enter death.
Rosset: It’s a superhuman eye. I interpret it that he was trying to accommodate himself, to die. You are not seen, right? You are gone, you don’t exist. There’s a terrible struggle to get to that point. It’s hard.
Meyers: It’s hard, yeah. Buster Keaton worked very hard for 20 minutes in that film to not have anybody see him. [Laughter]
Rosset: I was about 7 or 8 years old and had a tonsillectomy or something, and the ether hit. I can remember it like it was yesterday. In the dream I was gone and I was gradually falling further and further outside the orbits of the world and I couldn’t communicate with anybody and then I couldn’t speak and could not see and I was totally in the black, gone. But nothing was ever going to stop. It was endless. It was the most terrifying thing. And, in fact, Film comes very close to that feeling. The consciousness was still there but you could not express it; you could not see, you could not speak. You never knew that there was no way to stop it. [Pause] I never took ether again.
Rail: This is [Beckett’s] Unnamable.
Rail: It’s also the 15-line text “Neither” that Beckett wrote for the composer Morton Feldman. Beckett told him, I will give you the single thrust of my life’s work. It’s a very special synopsis of what Beckett strove to do. He felt that feeling of being neither here nor there.
Rosset: Yes, and earlier, like in Endgame which is a chess thing about how to play good endgame. Beckett was very involved in chess and in endgame itself. It’s very hard to work out a good endgame. They don’t succeed in the play. It’s disastrous, their endgame. “No more pills!” [Laughter] “There are no more pills.” That was the worst. Now you’re gong to stick it out with no more pills, nothing to alleviate the pain.
Rail: And Krapp sitting at the tape deck, listening to 30 years before commenting on 20 years before that.
Rosset: That’s my favorite of all Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape.
Rail: What was the first Beckett you read?
Rosset: Oh I think it was in a magazine or something. Transition. Godot was the first real thing, in French, which I’d been learning at the New School. We bought it here, got it here in 1953. Paid a hundred dollars, [laughter] but that didn’t really matter; a hundred dollars didn’t seem unreasonable. Who the hell else would’ve done it? [Laughs] I got married right then. This was after Joan, and we got on a boat of all things and we went and we met Beckett.
Rail: What was your impression of Beckett?
Rosset: I thought he was great. Warm, gentle. Those very first moments he caught me, the first moments, I can see him walking into the hotel bar with a raincoat on, very dapper looking, and he looked at his watch and “Ahmm. I have another date in 30 minutes.” That was 6:30. At 4 o’clock that morning, we were hitting Champagne.
Meyers: They hit it off well.
Rail: When was the last time you saw Beckett?
Rosset: Not long before he died. A few days.
Meyers: Barney took photos. He probably has the last photos ever taken. We saw him December ’89 and he died a few weeks later.
Rail: Did he change in the many years that you knew him?
Rosset: He got older.
Rail: I’ve read that he got mellower, this sort of thing.
Rosset: I was told that he was mellow. Beckett had this thing of listening to you, so some people would think he was unfriendly. Could be true.
Rosset: Here’s a photograph of Beckett and Beckett. That’s Beckett by Avedon, and that’s my son Beckett. I read once in a paper about Avedon, that there were only two people he wanted to photograph, Greta Garbo and Samuel Beckett. I’d known him once, before he was known and before Grove Press, through the left-wing film world. And so I wrote to him a note and said, “Can’t do anything about Garbo, but maybe I could do something to fix it for you with Beckett.”
Rail: Beckett offered you one of his beautiful late texts when he heard you were in a financial plight.
Rosset: Stirrings Still.
Rail: In a bar if I’m not mistaken?
Rosset: I don’t know, could be. [Laughs] That I don’t remember, if you say so. Deirdre Bair (Beckett’s first biographer) wrote that the only reason Beckett liked me was because we could get drunk together. [Acceptingly] Okay.
Meyers: It’s a very short text called Stirrings Still that’s dedicated to Barney.
Rosset: When I was thrown out of Grove, right, Beckett said the only thing a writer can do for a publisher is write something. But that isn’t what he gave me. He gave me Eleutheria, the play.
Meyers: Then he said he couldn’t translate it so he took it back.
Rosset: He wrote to me later and said, “I loathe it!” [Laughs] But that wasn’t the first time he’d done that. He did that on Murphy, he did that on Watt, he did that on More Pricks than Kicks, Mercier and Camier! He didn’t like the writing anymore. But each one of those times, after about four years, he’d change his mind. So why the hell wouldn’t he have changed it about Eleutheria? But I kept it for six years because Sam said he would write something in English, so he wrote this (Stirrings Still), and said, “If you’ll forgive your unforgivable Sam.” What am I going to say? No? [Laughs] Then he died. Marguerite Duras also came forward to write for me. I happened to be in Paris at the moment that I got thrown out of Grove, and I went to see Duras. She’d lived in the same apartment for about 50 years and she said, “I know exactly how you feel. It’s as if I went out to lunch now and I come back and I knock on the door and somebody said to me, ‘Madame Duras, you don’t live here anymore.’”
And she wrote a work of about the same length, and it was touching. I wasn’t about to turn that down. So I said, “Sam would you mind if I did two volumes and published them separately, but also put the two into a box or something?” And he didn’t say no but he did say, “Well if you don’t do that I’ll write another section to mine.” [Laughs] So what am I going to do? Say no? He wrote the third section, which is about one paragraph.
Meyers: Here’s Part Three [shows the two abbreviated pages; laughter].
Rosset: So then I published them individually. I’d never heard him say a word about her one way or the other so. How did I know he didn’t like her writing? Then Sam gave me Eleutheria, which is a very important work of his. It foreshadows all of the other plays. Krapp is in it, for example, as a major character. I had it for six years, put it away in a drawer, published this [indicates Stirrings Still and Duras’s book]. Then Stan Gontarski, who was done a lot of writing about Beckett—he’s the head of the Beckett Society—said to me, “You’ve gotta publish it!” That’s how things happened.
Meyers: That started a two-year fight with Lindon (Becket’s French publisher) to get the permission to publish it.
Rosset: Never got it, never, never got it. But finally shamed him into doing it himself first.
Meyers: No. You know why you got it? Because you said I’m going to publish this—
Rosset: And give it away!
Meyers: And give it away and that’s when Lindon broke down.
Rail: Eleutheria is the only work of Beckett’s stage production that’s not included in Dublin’s Gate Theater’s cycle of his plays or in the Beckett Project, the filming of the plays.
Meyers: It’s outlawed. It’s never been produced. Barney lost being the agent for Beckett after the Eleutheria affair, they said, “You’ve been a bad boy…”
Rosset: I was removed. But it was after I was thrown out of Grove so it [his loss of agency] was the only thing I had that was making any money, so it was a wipeout.
Rail: And the new agent licensed this recent Eh, Joe [a recent stage production that Barney and Astrid attended and found divergent from Beckett’s intent]?
Rosset: Now there I’m—I haven’t even said anything about it. Well, I said plenty in words but I didn’t write it. George Borchardt [the new agent] also represents a lot of French writers some of whom I’d like to republish, like Robbe-Grillet for example.
I was made Commandeer of the French Order of Arts and Letters recently. It used to be the Legion of Honor. George Borchardt was there, also. Susan Sontag and me and John Oates and Borchardt. Susan and I got their top level. They have three levels; Susan and I got the top one.
Rail: Was it a surprise?
Rosset: It was a shock to me, but I went. The publisher I really admired when I was in college was James Laughlin of New Directions. I really like him. He got the Legion of Honor and I thought, “Wow, would I like to get that!” And the years went by so I forgot it. But I didn’t quite forget about it [laughs]. So I was very pleased.
Rail: When did you get it?
Rosset: Last year. It was satisfying. I was amazed, a real shock.
Rail: What in your opinion is the responsibility of a publisher to culture?
Rosset: Well if I were a good Catholic or Jew I could answer that easily. I can’t. I feel a moral demand. It’s hard to articulate. I can only do what I want to do. So there’s a—I’ll give you an answer. It’s on the front page of my attempted manuscript [his autobiography]. It’s a quote from myself that I don’t remember saying. “If you want to know who I am, look at the books I’ve published.”