I met and worked with Barney in the 90’s, some of his later years.
He had already been divested of several fortunes and of his great flagship, Grove Press and the Evergreen imprint. Of course they are still his. Everyone secretly knows this. Buying Jimi Hendrix’s guitar on eBay doesn’t make you Jimi Hendrix, even if you paid too much.
Gone, when I met Barney, was the townhouse in the West Village and the house in East Hampton. There were no more trips to Mallorca for the Formentor Prize, no flying off to help Pasternak smuggle Dr. Zhivago, or to march with Allen Ginsberg and the rioting French students. He no longer had the financial or legal resources to sue Richard Helms, or otherwise provoke the CIA. He was too sidelined to have his offices mortared a second time by Cuban mercenaries, as much as he would have loved that. The forces of reaction, which had been conspiring to kill, disarm or dispossess him for more than five decades, would no longer pay him the compliment of a botched homicide.
Furthermore, he had already defeated censorship. Performance artists, rap musicians, whistle blowers and sound poets were mostly unaware of their debt to the sharp-featured, blue-eyed wiry old man in a leather jacket, pressing though crowded St. Marks.
That man in the jacket was lean and fierce and tireless, thanks partly to a mild prescription amphetamine which, being narcoleptic, he was obliged and happy to take every day of his life. He was a dramatist, glad to invest the yuppified city with a drama it was losing, happy to make believe that an NYU graduate student slipping out of his dorm room for falafel was really an arms smuggler. Barney was a kid that way. He loved to pretend. He was more captivated by whomever was standing in front of him than anything he had already done.
Money, fame and an illustrious career can be corrosive. This never happened to Barney. Never. He remained always what he began as – a romantic and a matador. With millions or with his last fifty bucks, he was exactly the same.
He wasn’t hung up on the 50’s, the 60’s or the 70’s. Having published half a dozen Nobelists and met just about everyone, he was the furthest thing from a snob or a pedant. He could fill an unpublished young woman with courage and confidence, such as the Japanese -American Suchi Asano, who wrote in a dialect he called “Japonics.” Barney compared her to Kerouac and took the ms. away from me because I was “cleaning up” the prose .
One cold winter night Astrid sent me out to look for Barney. It was around when he was publishing Beckett’s Eleutheria in the face of a lawsuit. It was 2am and he hadn’t come home. I went straight to an all-night bar in St. Marks. Need I say rum and coke?
Still drinking with him at that hour were a poet, two lawyers, a futon salesman and several homeless men. One of the homeless men was Jim, an obese mental patient wearing only a thin sweater. The lawyer from Brooklyn had asked his wife to sew two coats together for big Jim, an old fur joined to herringbone. Outside the bar, with their breath frosting, Barney helped Jim put it on. It fit. They hugged for a moment in the cold.
-What’s that thing they’re suing you for, the one they’re suing you for? asked Jim.
-Eleutheria, Barney said. -Eleutheria.
-And that means ‘reason’ in Greek?
-No. Not ‘reason’. Not ‘reason’…. ‘Freedom’.
-Freedom, not reason.
-That’s right. You got it.
At one point Barney asked me to work on a proposal for his autobiography, with the working title Subject is Left-Handed. This title, which he had used on previous foundered autobiographical attempts, came from a classified FBI report on himself, in his teens, which he had obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Incidentally, he also possessed a classified letter in which an army intelligence officer made a recommendation to liquidate Barney while he was in the US Signal Corps, because he was a ‘premature anti-fascist’. That has always struck me as the most incendiary movie never made—an American black budget assassin, in uniform, dispatched to kill US soldiers for their political leanings.
One of Barney’s difficulties in selling the proposal was his refusal to emphasize the episodes of his life for which he was famous — the supreme court battles and the story of Grove — over more obscure episodes like the Parker School in Chicago, his days in the Signal Corps or a recent trip he and Astrid had just made to China. He felt they were all equally important.
This was because he didn’t view civilization or his own life as a gallery of freeze frame historic moments or legal decisions. He saw it as one long battle for liberty on many fronts. He didn’t separate the oppression of a bed wetting child or of a sexual frustrate from that of a banned author facing state sanctions. Many friends and associates, including myself, got wrong footed when they tried to minimize or underplay any one of his enthusiasms. He was passionate about the canonic literature (on its own terms) which he published, and equally passionate about the anonymous Victoriana on his Blue Moon list. If you invited him to a party and he was bringing a friend, you couldn’t know if it was Kenzaburo Oe or Angel Stern.
Barney laughed a lot when he spoke. He laughed about lost love, laughed about official stupidity, and laughed about petty jealousies and about the intramural absurdities of independent publishing. You could tell it was pretty funny to him, a bunch of men who were denounced by authorities as pornographers and seditious public enemies, denouncing each other in turn as thieves and trespassers. He would talk about all that crap but with bemusement and laughter.
Barney came up during WWII and the Cold War era, a period concerning which every year brings more revelations. It was the golden age of shills and frauds and propaganda, to an extent we are only now realizing. He had to deal with lots of shills, who owed their glamour and prominence in one way or another to the great lubricated gears of propaganda and empire. Barney was never, ever a shill.
How can we ever thank him enough?
On January 1, 2013, Terence Sellers Commented:
Gabriel, thank you for the beautiful tribute.
You have captured Barney perfectly.
In 1985 Barney became my hyper-Father, my first father was
a writer and cut from the same cloth as
Barney… brilliant, mad, obsessed with literature…
He was so full of love. I think that was behind his great connectivity to
people (and histories)
the great and the small.
I feel like crying as I read the description of how he
was always laughing when he talked, so beautiful! And true.
You could always count on his joy and good cheer.
btw I am/was “Angel Stern” and thanks for the mention!