Obit of the Day: Champion of the First Amendment
Barney Rosset made a career of frustrating the authorities. In high school he published a paper titled Anti-Everything and joined the American Student Union, a left-wing organization. By the time he was in college the FBI already had a file on him.
But the best was yet to come. After serving in World War II, Rosset moved to Greenwich Village and purchased Grove Press, a publisher with three titles in its catalog, for $3,000. Rosset needed to expand his selection and managed to befriend Samuel Beckett who allowed Rosset to publish Waiting for Godot in 1954. It sold one million copies in its first year.
In 1959, Rosset made a business decision that would affect literature and the law for the rest of the 20th century. He simply ordered a copy of the banned novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence and had it sent by mail from Paris to the U.S. The Postal Service had categorized Lady Chatterley as pornography and, as such, it was illegal to send to or within the United States. When the copy arrived - the USPS was made aware of its delivery by Mr. Rosset - it was confiscated and Rosset sued. A year later a Federal Appeals Court found that the book was not pornography and the United States’ 19th century moral laws began to fall apart.
On the heels of his legal triumph, Rosset convinced Henry Miller to let Grove Press print Tropic of Cancer which was also deemed pornographic throughout much of the U.S. (Miller refused initially because he didn’t want it to become so popular that it would be assigned in college courses and “no one would want to read it.”) The publication of the book brought about dozens of lawsuits in 21 states. But in 1964 the Supreme Court in Grove Press v. Gerstein found that censoring the book was a violation of the First Amendment.
Rosset would continue to push the envelope publishing the first U.S. versions of William S. Burroughs Naked Lunch and Anne Declos’ The Story of O as well as The Autobiography of Malcolm X which Doubleday had dropped after the African American leader’s murder. Rosset also distributed erotic films bringing I Am Curious (Yellow) from Sweden which was also confiscated as pornography and eventually overturned in federal court.
His profits from his publications and films could not keep pace with his court costs and lawyers’ fees so Rosset sold Grove Press in 1985 to Anne Getty, and was forced our a year later. In 1988, the PEN American Center awarded him a Publisher Citation for “distinctive and continuous service to international letters, to the freedom and dignity of writers, and to the free transmission of the printed word across the barriers of poverty, ignorance, censorship, and repression.” In January 2012, the National Book Foundation presented him with the Literarian Award for his contribution to American letters.
Rosset, who was also the subject of the 2008 documentary Obscene, died at age of 89.
(Image of the Grove Press edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover courtesy of www.siu.law.edu)