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Into the Grove

In 1940, Swarthmore was home to a college freshman who would go on to become the country’s leading crusader for unfettered freedom of expression in literature and film, a man whose New York Times obituary credited him with “winning celebrated First Amendment slugfests against censorship.”

Barney Rosset ’44 fought those battles not as a lawyer, but as a publisher. After buying the tiny operation known as Grove Books in the early 1950s, he published banned books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer, knowing it would cost him dearly for years of litigation to overcome anti-obscenity laws.

He eventually won those battles, but at great financial cost. As a recent essay in The New Yorker noted, “Rosset liberated the [publishing] industry. He also picked up the check.”

Rosset’s fascination with “obscene” books started when he obtained a bootleg copy of Tropic of Cancer during his freshman year at Swarthmore. He even wrote a paper about it for an English class. (“Henry Miller versus ‘Our Way of Life’” earned a B-minus from Prof. Robert Spiller.)

Rosset turned Grove into the premier venue for publishing avante-garde works, erotic literature, and left-wing politics. His author list included Samuel Beckett, Malcolm X, Ho Chi Minh, and the Beat poets. In 1968, Grove’s offices were bombed by anti-Castro Cuban exiles angered that Rosset had published Che Guevara.

Though condemned in the 1960s as a “smut peddler” and caricatured as wallowing in a sewer, he was honored in 2008 by the National Book Foundation as “a tenacious champion for writers who were struggling to be read in America.”

Publishing an occasional commercial blockbuster helped keep Grove afloat, despite Rosset’s expensive crusades, questionable business decisions, and internal conflict with feminist employees and anti-capitalist union organizers. Burdened by debt for years, Rosset finally had to sell a controlling stake in Grove Press in the mid-1980s, and the new owners squeezed him out. He tried other publishing ventures, to little economic success. The New York Times reported that in 2012, “he died penniless, or close to it.”

He left behind an unfinished memoir, which was completed by those who knew him and published last year as Rosset: My Life in Publishing and How I Fought Censorship.

In it, he reiterated his “long-held conviction that an author should be free to write whatever he or she pleased, and a publisher free to publishing anything. I mean anything.”

Though Swarthmore might like to claim him as a graduate, the young man who would become a history-making defender of free artistic expression left after his freshman year. Rosset wrote that he’d chosen Swarthmore to be within reach of his high school heartthrob, who attended Vassar, and when she left after one year to attend college in Chicago, he did too.

Rosset attributed his rejection of mindless conformity to his family’s Irish tenant farmer roots and their struggles against their British overlords.

“Rebellion runs in my family’s blood,” he wrote in his memoir. “We have never shown a willingness to accept unthinkingly what authorities told us was right or wrong, in good taste or bad.”

“It’s been my life’s work to bring books, films, plays—art!—to the world, no matter the obstacles. As I always said to critics, naysayers, and those who would stand in the way: No pasarán!"