On November 25, PEN American Center announced a major tribute to Samuel Beckett, to be held December 9 at Town Hall. Curated by New York Times theater critic Mel Gussow, the panel will include Edward Albee, Paul Auster, and a dozen other Beckett aficionados. But judging by the e-mail invitation, PEN decided not to invite legendary bohemian Barney Rosset, now 80, who was Beckett’s first publisher in the U.S. and his longtime friend.
“I think it’s outrageous,” said John Oakes, publisher of Four Walls Eight Windows and a friend of Rosset. “Beckett and Rosset go together like ham and cheese.” While Beckett was a quiet guy, Oakes explained, he bonded with the hard-living, risk-taking Rosset. Rosset’s Grove Press single-handedly revolutionized the culture of the 1960s by publishing subversive authors like William Burroughs, Henry Miller, and Jean Genet, along with a fine collection of porn.
Oakes accused the meticulous Gussow of trying to sanitize the event. “It reminds me of Stalin airbrushing Trotsky out of the photos,” said Oakes.
Gussow responded smoothly, “We would never do that. No slight was ever intended.” Instead, he said, “the idea is that Barney will be in the audience, and Paul Auster will speak about him, and a spotlight will shine on him.” Asked why Rosset was not involved from the beginning, PEN director of literary events Alison Summers said, “It was all a matter of really unfortunate timing.” On the 25th, the day the invite went out and Oakes launched a protest, Summers was busy planning that evening’s Orwell event. Gussow was responsible for inviting the “honored guests” for the Beckett event, but he had been traveling and for some reason, did not contact Rosset until the 26th. That day, Summers apologized to Rosset for not contacting him earlier, and gave him the option to speak onstage. Rosset did not immediately accept.
Rosset is being very Zen about it. “I have good feelings about PEN,” he said, on account of a publisher’s citation the organization gave him last year. “And Mel Gussow has a perfect right to pick and choose who he invites. The thing that hurt me was that they squeezed me out of it by saying that they forgot.” At press time, Summers said, “Barney has turned down the invitation to be honored by PEN.” Rosset said he is still waiting for his invitation in writing.