Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 116 in 2008.
The Most Dangerous Man in Publishing
Barney Rosset, the man who brought Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot' and Miller's 'Tropic of Cancer' to America, loves great literature. More than that, he loves a good fight.
By Louisa Thomas | NEWSWEEK Published Dec 6, 2008
From the magazine issue dated Dec 15, 2008
The National Book Foundation's 2008 Literarian Award for Outstanidng Service to the Ameircan Literary Community
Thank you, Marty, and thank you, Harold, and the National Book Foundation. I am deeply touched by this special award, and it has a particular resonance for me. In 1950, the National Book Award conferred its first award on Nelson Algren, who, even though he wasn't born there, was a son of Chicago.
I too am a son of Chicago - and there in 1935 in the 8th grade I, along with a fellow student, Haskell Wexler, made up a journal we named The Anti-Everything. Perhaps no title can be totally accurate – but this one certainly was meant to be a direct challenge to censorship and fascism.
Five years later, in 1940 at Swarthmore, I handed in my English term paper on Henry Miller. There was no doubt about it, he was my Anti-Everything personified. And the happiest moment of my career at Grove was coming out of the Chicago courthouse in a blizzard after the judge had ruled in our favor on Tropic of Cancer. Miller had been vindicated. It was a time of great hope – John F. Kennedy was President.
Printed on the cover and the first two pages of Evergreen Review, July-August 1962, was a statement signed by over 200 leading writers, editors, and publishers, which said in part, "We, the undersigned, strongly endorse Samuel B. Epstein's defense of the freedom to read in his historic decision in the Tropic of Cancer case in Chicago. Judge Epstein, by stating that the 'right to free utterance becomes a useless privilege when the freedom to read is restricted or denied,'
The National Book Award is about celebrating the best of American literature, and necessarily the freedom to read what we want is an essential part of that program. That principle—that no one has the right to tell us what we can and cannot read—is one that's always been dear to me.
Let me just add that it's an additional privilege to receive this award in a year when America magnificently, impossibly, turns its gaze back to a progressive agenda. At the point of uttermost despair, in the midst of a prevailing economic, moral and environmental sense of doom, a dynamic leader has appeared--and for the first time in recent memory, I'm not thinking of renouncing my American passport, and asserting my Irish citizenship. The country looks like it may emerge from these dark decades with a new and uplifting agenda. Perhaps publishing, that grand, battered, and essential institution that I've worked in for more than half a century now, will go through a similar renewal. I hope so; I think so.
Thank you very much.
The Literarian Award (the National Book Foundation) is presented to an individual for outstanding service to the American literary community, whose life and work exemplify the goals of the National Book Foundation to expand the audience for literature and to enhance the cultural value of literature in America.
On November 19th, the National Book Foundation will award Barney Rosset, the legendary publisher, The Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.
See OBSCENE at Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street. Opens Fri, September 26, 2008
New York Times Movie Review on OBSCENE
ALL NEWS in The New York Times about Barney Rosset, including commentary and archival articles
Film on Barney Rosset Opens Today
Maverick publisher profiled in 'Obscene'
By Michael Coffey
9/25/2008 1:28:00 PM
If you think the terms "maverick" and "book-banning" were coined just for this political season, then a trip back to the publishing scene in New York City in the 1950s and ’60s might be in order. And that’s just what you get in Obscene, a film about Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset that opens in New York on Sept. 26. Written and directed by former publisher Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O’Connor, and featuring commentary from more than two dozen publishing figures and writers, the film is part bio-pic, part case study of various censorship battles and part a study in how literature can serve as a devastating critique of the status quo. It’s also a story of how to have fun and go broke doing it.
A lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation
Publisher Who Fought Puritanism, and Won
By CHARLES McGRATH
New York Times
Published: September 23, 2008
In its heyday during the 1960s, Grove Press was famous for publishing books nobody else would touch. The Grove list included writers like Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs, Che Guevara and Malcolm X, and the books, with their distinctive black-and-white covers, were reliably ahead of their time and often fascinated by sex.
The same was, and is, true of Grove’s maverick publisher, Barney Rosset, who loved highbrow literature but also brought out a very profitable line of Victorian spanking porn.
On Nov. 19 Mr. Rosset will receive a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation in honor of his many contributions to American publishing, especially his groundbreaking legal battles to print uncensored versions of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer.” He is also the subject of “Obscene,” a documentary by Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O’Connor, which opens on Friday at Cinema Village.
Crusading publisher Barney Rosset is Obscene in a good way.
by Boris Kachka
New York magazine
Published Sep 21, 2008
Nobody pigeonholes Barney Rosset—longtime owner of Grove Press, anti-censorship crusader, countercultural icon. Not Screw founder Al Goldstein, who in a 1989 interview addressed him as “the worst, most fucked-up businessman in America.” Not the CIA, whose voluminous case file calls him left-handed (which, he points out, is only partly accurate). Not the publisher friends who made the new bio-documentary Obscene (displeased with the movie at first, he’s coming around). Not the National Book Foundation, whose Literarian Award this fall threatens to domesticate him.
And not his fifth wife, Astrid Myers, who tends to the 86-year-old Rosset in an airy apartment on the fourth floor of an otherwise grim walk-up near Astor Place. (His last business venture went bankrupt a decade ago.) Rosset, small and somewhat frail, sinks into a plush sofa with his signature rum-and-Coke and argues with Myers about what kind of organism best describes him. “He’s like an amoeba,” she says. “No,” Rosset retorts, “a many-legged animal. A spider.” “No, an amoeba,” she says. “A spider’s web,” he counters. Myers relents. “You have to be good at picking where you put the web,” Rosset adds.
One for the Books
New York Times
By BRUCE JAY FRIEDMAN
Published: September 13, 2008
I have a tendency to miss out on Golden Ages — even when I’m in the thick of them. From the ’60s on through the ’80s, I wrote stories and articles for magazines like Harper’s and Esquire, only to be told, much later, that I had lived through and been part of a Golden Age of Magazine Publishing. If only I’d been tipped off, I might have asked for more money.
Now Al Silverman has come along with an amiable and doggedly researched history, “The Time of Their Lives,” in which he makes a strong case for a Golden Age of Publishers and Editors (with writers trailing along behind them), stretching from 1946 into the early 1980s. Once again, there I was, scribbling away, unaware that anything special was going on. I’d had a long and bitter struggle in my 20s, during which I’d tried to get the hang of writing a novel. And then, suddenly, I had broken through and my books were being published, first by the scrappy anything-goes Simon & Schuster and then by the august Alfred A. Knopf. My editor throughout was Robert Gottlieb, one of the best — and not even arguably. Gottlieb’s editing style, at least in my case, was to wave at an occasional passage and say, “Do a little something here.” Yet the waves were brilliant, and once I’d addressed the “little somethings” the books were enriched. Everything I tried, or so it seemed, was snapped up, not only by publishers, but by the films and theater as well. It couldn’t last — and it didn’t — but looking back, perhaps there was something a little golden about the period.
Time in partnership with CNN
For publishing many of the past century's landmark works, including Howl, Naked Lunch, Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tropic of Cancer, Barney Rosset's Grove Press earned the U.S. government's highest tribute: prosecution for obscenity. This zippy documentary distills all the zest and pain of Rosset's career. Like the man and his imprint, it's sensational.
'Obscene: A Portrait of Barney Rosset and Grove Press'
San Francisco Chronicle
Friday, September 5, 2008
"Obscene," a tribute to New York publisher Barney Rosset, is an entertaining reminder of the ferocity of the culture wars of the 1950s and '60s. It is also an information-packed portrait of a spirited tastemaker who battled U.S. censorship laws, so that Americans could sample such diverse literary treats as D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover," William S. Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" and Pauline Réage's "The Story of O." As poet Ed Sanders says in the film, "Without Barney Rosset there is no 'Sopranos,' no HBO."
Review: Obscene by Marina Antunes rowthree.com September 25th, 2008
Imagine if you can, for just a moment for any more than that will likely break your heart, a literary landscape without the likes of D. H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer”, William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” and Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot.” That world was avoided thanks mostly to one man: Barney Rosset.
Beyond the Multiplex
By Andrew O’Hehir
September 26, 2008
Daniel O'Connor and Neil Ortenberg's documentary "Obscene" takes quite a while to get going. If you're not already convinced that longtime Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset is a worthwhile subject, you might wonder whether all these fragments of 1930s home movie and 1980s cable talk show and aging-bohemian interviews will ever add up to anything. But Rosset's tale of triumph and tragedy is definitely worth your attention -- he's the guy who broke the back of American censorship by publishing unexpurgated editions of banned books, including D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover," Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" and William Burroughs' "Naked Lunch."
When Grove was riding high, along with Rosset's literary magazine Evergreen Review, he was unmistakably a premier reshaper of American culture. He published "Waiting for Godot" and "Story of O" and "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" and countless other influential books, all in those ultra-cool, Abstract Expressionist-flavored paperback editions. His office was occupied by a feminist group in the early '70s, reputedly angry about his ardent interest in republishing Victorian pornography -- Rosset believes to this day that the group was an FBI front, and it's not as ridiculous a claim as it sounds -- and firebombed after he published an excerpt from Che Guevara's diaries. If there's anyone the right wing should demonize for the destruction of traditional American values and mores, it's Barney Rosset.
Somehow, although Rosset at one point ran the hottest publishing house in New York, made a mint off the softcore Swedish film "I Am Curious (Yellow)" and owned more than 200 acres of undeveloped land in the Hamptons (estimated current value: $100 million), he managed to lose the company, all the money and all the property. A puckish, cheerful man who seems reasonably healthy in his mid-80s, despite the decades of all-night boozing and womanizing, Rosset now lives alone in a modest Manhattan walk-up apartment. With lots of books. It's hard to know exactly what lessons to draw from Rosset's convoluted story, or even to know for sure whether he should be seen as an epoch-defining cultural hero or just a guy who was in the right place at the right time. He shouldn't die forgotten, let's say that much, and O'Connor and Ortenberg's fascinating film does its part.
Ginsberg. Beckett. Miller. Che Guevara. Kerouac. Burroughs. Malcolm X. I think its safe to say that few people think of book publishing (or even book reading!) as a revolutionary act. But in the oppressive monoculture of the US during the ‘50s and ‘60s, Barney Rosset, the owner and publisher of Grove Press and the literary journal the Evergreen Review, championed the voices of the underground. Publishing a range of work from the French avant-garde to the Beat Poets, black protest literature to the Black Mountain poets, Rosset fought government censorship in the courts and on the street. A new film, Obscene, documenting Rosset’s fascinating life and work hits theaters on September 26th with a rockin soundtrack with music by Bob Dylan, The Doors, Patti Smith, and other voices of the age. A passionate and creative businessman, Rosset only published books he liked and he had a keen feel for the market’s need for new voices. He was unrelenting in his vision for Grove Press and the filmmakers capture the energy of the man by interweaving interviews, archival audio and video, and the brilliant graphics of Roy Kuhlman’s iconic book cover designs. Rosset tells the filmmakers, “If you want to know who I am, look at the books I published.”
by Aaron Cutler
Posted: September 25, 2008
Obscene is a docu-biography of Barney Rosset, the founder of Grove Press and American publisher of landmark 20th-century texts like Naked Lunch, Tropic of Cancer and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The film opens with Rosset saying, "I feel personally that there has never been a word written or said that should not be published," which made me brace myself for a smarmy liberal invective along the lines of the recent Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson. I was pleasantly surprised to find otherwise; while slanted far to the left, the film justifies its views by investing emotionally in its protagonist’s work.
From the 1950s through 1970s, Rosset published books others condemned as “obscene” (the film’s definition being Clarence Thomas-level vague—generally, it seems, the suits loathed sex and curse words). The most intriguing point the film makes about Rosset's career-long First Amendment crusade, often waged in legal courts against small-minded judges and politicians (Obscene skewers Gerald Ford in particular), is that for Rosset to be progressive in one area, he had to be progressive in all of them. The film links his championing of Henry Miller and Malcolm X by arguing that sexual and racial liberties both constitute freedom. Yet while Obscene contains several hagiographic moments—"He wanted to change the world," one talking head actually says—it also raises its subject’s more prurient interests. A revealing passage discusses his publishing several anonymous S&M novels. It's clear he liked the smut in them—but hey, they're literature too.
My main issue with Obscene, in fact, aside from its reductive summations of various decades—the '50s were repressed, the '60s let things hang out—is that, for a film about publishing, it spends too little time on books. The film mentions both Tropic of Cancer and Lady Chatterly's Lover, which Grove also published, primarily in terms of their sexual content. Their themes and styles, along with any reason for loving them, get short shrift. By contrast, a documentary like Stone Reader shows its protagonist's bibliophilia by lovingly lingering over his favorite works; as someone who has read and adored a great many Grove tomes—in addition to authors like Miller and Lawrence, Grove also published Borges, Neruda, Beckett and Stoppard—I could have used more critical analysis and old-fashioned paging through. While Rosset comes across as a quirky old man, I never pinpointed the source of his passion. The closest the film comes to showing it is when Rosset describes a child asking him if Malcolm X was the best book he published, to which he responded, "You're asking me to choose between my children."
Grove did American readers an invaluable service, not just by giving them these children, but also by exposing them to material that made them grow up. Obscene is a brief, pleasant time-killer that genially preaches to the choir yet, while it's always enjoyable, this review's readers should seek Grove books out first.
New document on Evergreen Review’s BARNEY ROSSET!
Posted by Jay Babcock
Obscene: a Portrait of Barney Rosset and Grove Press
“OBSCENE is the definitive film biography of Barney Rosset, the influential publisher of Grove Press and the Evergreen Review. He acquired the thenfledgling Grove Press in 1951 and soon embarked on a tumultuous career of publishing and political engagement that continues to inspire today’s defenders of free expression. Not only was he the first American publisher of acclaimed authors Samuel Beckett, Kenzaburo Oe, Tom Stoppard, Che Guevara, and Malcolm X, but he also battled the government in the highest courts to overrule the obscenity ban on groundbreaking works of fiction such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch. Ultimately he won and altered the course of history, but not without first enduring lawsuits, death-threats, grenade attacks, government surveillance, and the occupation of his premises by enraged feminists.
“But the same unyielding and reckless energy Rosset used to publish and distribute controversial works such as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, the Swedish film I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW), and the provocative Evergreen Review, also brought him perilously close to destruction.
By Avi Offer
This compelling, informative documentary focuses on the life and work of Barney Rosset, a New York publisher whose companies, Grove Press and Evergreen Review, published writing that had plenty of graphic sexual content and profanity during the 1960’s. At that time, the U.S. government had strict laws about the publishing of obscene. Even though Rosset was repeatedly sued, he fought every battle as hard as he could all the way to the Supreme Court in order to stand his ground and bring back the basic rights of Freedom of Speech. Such works as William S. Borough’s _Naked Lunch_ and D.H. Lawrence's _Lady Chatterly’s Lover_ would probably never had seen the light of day at a bookstore had Rosset not been so courageous and bold. Throughout the 1970’s when the sexual counterculture flourished, he had started a successful film company that distributed film such as I Am Curious: Blue followed by I am Curious: Yellow. Co-directors Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O’Connor interweave footage from Rosset’s younger days along with fascinating, revealing interviews with Gore Vidal, Lenny Bruce, William S. Borough and John Waters among others. Most importantly, though, the directors include interviews with Barney Rosset himself, now in his 80’s yet still as outspoken, articulate and confidence as he’s always been. Admittedly, more analysis of how he affected the world today and comparisons to Larry Flynt’s career or, perhaps, interviews with him would have added more interesting insights, though. Although colleagues and friends of Rosset readily admit that he’s a bit crazy, it’s undeniable that he was and still is an intelligent individual who ultimately made a real difference in the literary and film industries as an advocate of the First Amendmant. Number of times I checked my watch: 1. Released by Arthouse Films. Opens at the Cinema Village.
"Obscene" on the Silver Screen
Obscene, a film about the life of maverick publisher Barney Rosset, whose company Grove Press was a driving force behind many of literature's most controversial books, premieres this Friday, September 26th at the Cinema Village in New York. Rosset's Grove is best known for bringing the words of Samuel Beckett, Kenzaburo Oe, Tom Stoppard, Che Guevara, and Malcolm X to the public, not to mention many of the Beat Generation writers, including Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg. His magazine Evergreen Review was one of the most influential publications of the counterculture of the 1950s and Sixties. He also fought the government in the courts to overrule the obscenity ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch. Grove's combative commitment to free speech and giving voice to the booming counterculture of the Sixties led to it being a major target of CIA and FBI operations. In 1969, the Grove office was the target of a missle launched from the back of flatbed truck by anti-Castro Cubans who had been operatives of the CIA.
The film follows the life of this “unyielding and reckless” man striving to enrich culture through literature. “Ultimately he won and altered the course of history, but not without first enduring lawsuits, death-threats, grenade attacks, government surveillance, and the occupation of his premises by enraged feminists.” The film includes interviews with many Grove Press alumni, including Reality Sandwich publisher, Ken Jordan, who literally grew up as a child in the the Grove office.(read full article)