Early yesterday evening, literary professionals, academics and devoted readers poured into Cooper Union’s auditorium for what was billed as a “celebration of the life and work” of the late Barney Rosset, who died on Feb. 21, 2012. The publishing genius is widely recognized as almost single-handedly breaking the shackles which defined post-war American fiction.
Here’s the thumbnail sketch: starting in 1957, Rosset’s magazine, the Evergreen Review managed to popularize the Beats at a time when the literary establishment was under the thumb of such high-modernism worshipping mandarins as critic Edmund Wilson. Later, after he founded Grove Press he continued to promote the Beats as well as pieces of outré fiction in a more traditionally narrative vein, a push culminating in a legal victory allowing the publication of DH Lawrence’s formerly banned “pornographic novel,” Lady Chatterly’s Lover. This laid the groundwork for William Burrough’s Naked Lunch and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer to be reviewed and discussed and the rest is history.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, beset by financial and union problems, and no longer as relevant in a field filled with counterculture imprints, Grove went into decline. But for many who were actually in Rosset’s orbit during the late 60s and early ‘70s, this fails to account for how dangerous Grove was seen by the Nixon-era political establishment. As well as how far these reactionary forces were willing to go to undermine it’s success.
Last night, Rosset’s former friend and confidante Mike Golden—writer and publisher (of the counterculture online magazine Smoke Signals)— referred me to an interview he conducted with Rosset years before his death. Golden, who describes Rosset as “possessing a jutting jaw, snow white hair, and the energy of a man 30 years younger,” quotes him placing the blame firmly on none other than the FBI for breaking into the back of Grove.
It’s a dark tale involving a flurry of strange events; a moribund informant riled up the printers union that worked out of his headquarters and agitated them into a long and costly strike. At the same time, a group of radical feminists baricadded themselves in Rosset’s office—smashing it to pieces—while he was traveling in Denmark.
When the dust settled Grove’s strength was sapped, its workforce slashed from 300 to 20. As he explained in the interview: “The FBI was responsible. I knew it was them. They destroyed us. It’s hard to explain it to people on the outside, but that takeover really was the end of Grove Press.”
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