OPINIONATED, IRASCIBLE, BRAZEN but smart, a gutsy dynamo of American alternative publishing, Barney Rosset was a 130-pound bantamweight on amphetamines with a bear’s loyal heart and stubbornness, a rum-and-coke man who often forgot about the need for food to accompany his drinks at lunch. His memoir My Life in Publishing tells the story of the press he founded and how it would forever change American culture.

His mother was a descendant of Irish tenant farmers whose land was mostly peat bog that served as low-grade fuel. The Tansley family used Gaelic as code and was involved in a clandestine struggle in 19th-century Ireland, part of an underclass exploited by Anglo-Irish aristocrats who actually owned the land. Rosset’s red-headed mother, working as a bank teller in Chicago, met and married Barnet Rosset, the son of Russian Jews from Moscow, who so excelled at accounting that he administered a series of small banks.

Rosset was an indulged only child, sent to progressive schools, and, despite the ravages of the Great Depression, the first kid in his fancy high school to own his own automobile. In 1940, he spent his freshman year of college at Swarthmore, not because of any commitment to the Quaker values stressed at that institution, but because he wanted to stay close to a girl he had fallen in love with in high school. He felt stultified as a student, but describes compensating for his boredom with academic proprieties in an autodidactic manner:
I had always been drawn to books that were considered risky. When I was at Swarthmore in 1940, I asked my parents to send me 50 books, all of which were published by New Directions or the Modern Library. And before that, when I was in Chicago attending high school, I went to Marshall Field & Co. to get books by John Steinbeck, James Farrell, and other writers considered too daring to read.
One of the books that most intrigued him was Henry Miller’s short prose collection The Cosmological Eye, which had been just published by James Laughlin at New Directions. This was where Rosset first learned about Miller’s banned novel, Tropic of Cancer. He discovered a copy of a pirated edition in Frances Steloff’s Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan — she sold him a copy that she kept under the counter. Rosset was drawn to Miller’s attacks on conformity and wrote a paper for his English class, “Henry Miller Versus Our Way of Life.” His professor, the distinguished literary historian Robert Spiller, rewarded him with a B minus. Probably speaking for the entire country at the time, Spiller pronounced that Miller was jaundiced, but the impact of Tropic of Cancer would linger.

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