Barney Rosset

Active - 2004 - 2015  |   Born - May 28, 1922   |   Died - Feb 22, 2012   |   Genres - Language & Literature, Culture & Society, History

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Biography by Nathan Southern

As the groundbreaking, taboo-shattering New York-based proprietor of Grove Press, publisher Barney Rosset dramatically altered the course of history with success that peaked during the late '60s and virtually turned him into a household name. A charter member of the postwar avant-garde from its very inception, Rosset founded Grove and used it as an engine to issue a periodical known as The Evergreen Review, solely designed to help spread knowledge and availability of contemporary literature and film. It achieved such iconic popularity that Rosset soon expanded Grove into the publication of books and plays, emphasizing vital works of contemporary literature that broadened the scope of American readership as they shattered censorship restrictions.

As an entrepreneur, Rosset focused his efforts almost exclusively on cultural enrichment and a valiant fight for freedom of speech. Without his presence, such authors as Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett (with whom he enjoyed a rare and lengthy personal correspondence), Yukio Mishima, and William S. Burroughs would have found it virtually impossible to establish a presence in the American market. With the now-famous rights acquisition of Vilgot Sjöman's arthouse classic I Am Curious (Yellow) (1969), Grove moved into films but inherited both trouble and success d'estime unlike anything it had encountered up through that time; U.S. customs immediately seized the motion picture for its unabashed nudity and extremely graphic (for the period) sexual content, sparking a legal battle that traveled all the way to the Supreme Court. The headlines paid off: the film checked in as the most lucrative foreign import of all time for decades, eventually topped by Like Water for Chocolate in 1993. The massive box office take of Yellow inspired Rosset to begin importing other films, as well -- everything from Vladimir and Rosa to Quiet Days in Clichy.

Unfortunately, as soon as it seemed that Rosset's success could not expand any further, that is exactly what happened. Grove won its battle for I Am Curious, but that broke down the barriers of censorship per se and opened the floodgates to hardcore pornography, alleviating the interest that many had demonstrated in Grove's explicit but culturally viable imports. The publishing house encountered extreme financial crisis from overexpansion, and Rosset himself inherited a wealth of trouble as the years passed, including government surveillance, occasionally violent protests from groups that disapproved of his activities, and forced bankruptcy stemming from a libel case. Still, to many, these difficulties only increased his status as a cultural hero and legend. Rosset's story is told in the 2008 documentary Obscene, co-directed by Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O'Connor.

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