Nonfiction

Remembering Barney Rosset

Kate Morris, the legendary editor's cousin, recalls his impulsive genius—and celebrates a legacy of fearless curiosity


 

On Tuesday night, I stood in a cold brick hallway in downtown Los Angeles, listening to my mother cry on the other end of the phone. Barney Rosset, wayward founder of the Grove Press and Evergreen Review, the relentless critic who dismantled censorship laws, our prodigal dreamer of a cousin, was gone.

 

This week, obituaries published about my many-times-removed cousin glorify a fast-paced life of intimidating accomplishments. This man’s shamelessly subversive aesthetic constantly kept him both ahead of the curve and in lots of trouble.

 

His haphazard, frivolous decision-making balanced out his knack for curating groundbreaking literature. Barney never had much of a plan. He liked what he liked and that was pretty much all you could get out of him. The world called them lunatics, while Barney recognized Samuel Beckett, Malcolm X, Alan Ginsberg, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, D.H. Lawrence, and William S. Burroughs as literary masters.

 

Barney’s passion for free expression influenced each pursuit with the same effortless compulsion as a heartbeat. He invested years arguing Naked Lunch, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and Tropic of Cancer through the Supreme Court because he knew those lascivious narratives could change America.

 

When English publishing houses were tossing Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” on their rejection piles, Barney sailed across the Atlantic to meet the Irish playwright in Paris’ Ritz Carlton. Hours later the men stumbled, whiskey saturated, across the predawn cobblestone streets, celebrating the deal that brought one of the most influential works of 20th century literature to America.

 

The Barney I grew up knowing was a slight, underfed man who was content in the stories he had left to tell. The ideas exchanged in his Astor Place living room over gin martinis. Barney unpacked a world that showed all of us how powerful writing can be when it fearlessly embraces the weird. His legacy is alive in the people he touched. Already our minds are restless, ready to go.

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On February 22, First Amendment champion and publisher Barney Rosset died at 89. Among those he published were Samuel Beckett, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Jean-Paul Sartre, Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence and William Burroughs.

 

Kate O'Connor Morris is chief copywriter at campaign for peace in Congo, Falling Whistles. She is also a contributing writer to MTV's Social Justice initiatives. She was a showcased poet during the 2009 Five College Poetry Fest, and her original work has appeared in the Iodine Poetry Journal.