"I feel, personally, that the word has never been written or uttered which should not be published."
It's been a rough few weeks for smut peddlers and the devotees who took a shining to their licentious outpourings. First, Jackie Treehorn died, then publishing icon Barney Rosset, and finally, the purveyor of the filthiest, raunchiest pornography in recent memory, Andrew Breitbart, dropped dead of a heart attack or utter shame (we're awaiting the autopsy).
Since Jackie Treehorn was a fictional pornographer played by Ben Gazzara (R.I.P.) and Andrew Breitbart was a lying sack of shit political sadist who enjoyed watching liberals squirm, our focus today will be on Barney Rosset.
The backwardness and puritanical tinge that American culture has always suffered from was made a lot less embarrassing for some of us due to the efforts of Rosset. Few people outside of literary enthusiasts knew his name, but he certainly played a large role in redefining this nation's social mores and what Americans considered acceptable art. He dragged a slouching behemoth, kicking and screaming all the way, into the world of modern aesthetics. And he did it primarily through publishing books.
Rosset was an eccentric. His first passion was for the cinema, but finding little headway in that pursuit, he turned to the written word. He was a fan of good literature and bad. He possessed a Bohemian flair for life and a schizophrenic business sense that saw his publishing house (Grove Press) through booms and busts throughout the 1950s, '60s and '70s. At his core, however, he was a crusader against censorship and a champion of the fringe elements of our society.
He served as a photographer in China for the U.S. Army Signal Corp. during World War II. Army Intelligence wrote three letters that described him thusly:
1.) A communist and a monster
2.) The greatest patriot that ever lived
3.) A nice boy who's worried about poor people who don't have the things that he has.
Rosset later joked that all three letters were likely true, simultaneously.
After the war, he produced a documentary called Strange Victory which dealt with racial bias in America after WWII. Finding no further inroads into Hollywood, he moved to France and married Joan Mitchell, an abstract painter and friend from his high school. Their open marriage failed and Rosset returned to New York where he purchased a press on Grove Street in Greenwich Village (assisted by a tip from Joan) for $3,000 in 1951. It was there he began publishing his literary magazine Evergreen Review. It was also at Grove Press where his numerous battles against censorship began. So many battles, in fact, that Rosset referred to his publishing firm as "a breach in the dam of American Puritanism."
The first fight was to publish D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1959. The Postmaster General had refused to allow it to be shipped through the mail despite the book being in circulation (in other countries) since 1928. Rosset won. Emboldened, he took on the obscenity laws for Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch. He won again. A flood of the Beat Generation's works followed through Grove Press and the torrent of the counterculture began to flow through the crumbling edifice of America's stone wall of hypocritical piety.
Rosset turned even more political in the mid to late '60s by publishing The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the writings of Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh. He had a knack for sensing revolutionary trends in the culture and was often beautifully situated just ahead of the curve with the right property when they broke. He even scored a sensation as a film promoter in 1967 with the stateside release of the Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow) which was like voyeuristic catnip to movie audiences that had not yet seen the influx of porn theaters on their downtown block. The film is laughingly tame by any standards now.
To give you an idea of the man behind the writers, take a gander at the list of artists that Rosset published:
William S. Burroughs
Hubert Selby, Jr.
Not a bad scorecard of widows and orphans that gunslinger Barney Rosset defended against the swarming hordes of pinch-faced, priggish god-fearers and their abiding lawmen, eh? He received his share of death threats (even a grenade detonation in his office, presumably by the FBI), bad press, slander, ridicule and ignominy during his time here on the big rock. But, for such a scrawny and odd little fellow, he went toe-to-toe with the giants of his day – and kicked every one of their motherfuckin' asses. That's a hero to me. Now, I'm not about to mourn like an Italian widow over an 89 year old man who died relatively impoverished and underappreciated despite being the most innovative publisher of the 20th Century but, again, that's a hero to me. We need more the likes of Barney Rosset. My life is richer for him. Our libraries are more full due to him. And we are a better, more open nation because of his efforts.
For those who prefer their info visually, check out the documentary Obscene. A well done synopsis of his life and contributions to our culture. Available for streaming on Netflix.