by Williams Cole
Barney Rosset is the publishing legend responsible for the seminal
Grove Press and the highly influential cultural journal Evergreen
Review. Tropic of Cancer, Naked Lunch, Lady Chatterley's Lover, the
Autobiography of Malcolm X, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Beckett, Che Guevara,
Genetthese are just some of the books and authors that Rosset
published in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, many for the first time in the
country. In the case of Lawrence, Miller, and Burroughsand
othersRosset had to fight legal battles with the arcane obscenity
laws at the time in order to publish books now regarded as part of
the literary canon. Much of this important cultural history is
covered in a documentary Obscene: A Portrait of Barney Rosset and
Grove Press that premiered at Cinema Village in late September. I sat
down with Barney in the East Village apartment where he and his
partner Astrid Meyers live. It was the end of the mid-September week
when the American financial system basically fell apart.
Williams Cole (Rail): What do you think is going on in this country
now, in this election?
Barney Rosset: So far, I've been rather disappointed. It's hard to
tell any different ideology between the two parties but after the
last couple of days, thankfully, it seems to have gotten sharper. I
think it's sort of frightening because it's so difficult to know what
is really going on. I remember very clearly, actually, about 1930, my
father was a small time banker in Chicago and all the banks closed!
It was a really bad situation for everybody, including us. I feel
that the financial situation here seems to me to be most explosive
and dangerous since then. I don't know if I'm pleased or frightened
but there seem to be a lot of people saying the same thing. The
system is so tenuous. It's something that can so easily fall apart.
Rail: What about the nomination of Sarah Palin? This woman believes
Rosset: Such a backwards step. Entering someone with her religious
beliefs into the national debate puzzles me. It seems to me it
downgrades this country, which maybe it deserves [laughs]. I think
it's a very dangerous climate in the country. From an economic point
of view, working people will suffer most. It seems like now the power
of the far right seems to be very strong. But I am hopeful that Obama
gets elected. I think the main hope is that they get all of the black
voters registered and to vote! If I were running the campaign that
would be my chief objective, otherwise you could well lose.
Rail: Do you have confidence that many Democrats, even white
liberals, who profess that they support him will, in fact, vote for
him when in the privacy of the booth?
Rosset: [laughs] I don't know how many white liberals there are.
Yeah, I think they will but who knows. It doesn't change my hope that
they get people registered.
Rail: Did you ever think that there would be a black candidate?
Rosset: No. I mean, I thought there would be, but I didn't know when.
And, in one sense, I don't think of him as being black. It was
interesting when I got some papers that the government had been
keeping on me and saw that the principal of my school told them that
I didn't "act like the other Jews" [laughs], that I didn't have the
"characteristics of my race" or whateverI never thought of myself as
being Jewish. I was shocked! I was really shocked. Of course, the
poor principal thought he was helping me [laughs]. So, I mean, I
would have thought of Jackie Robinson, for example, as being more of
a "black candidate." And he ran for president. And got very few
votes, I remember, for an extreme left-wing party.
Rail:There's no real place for extreme left wing parties these days.
Rosset: No! There wasn't then either [laughs].
Rail: A big part of your story is that you were in a time when there
was a lot of censorship, a lot of constriction on culture. Did you
find these books and these writers and get into the lawsuits in order
to open up culture?
Rosset: I didn't go through lawsuits to open up culture; I wanted to
publish Henry Miller. That certainly involved fighting censorship.
But the first thing I thought of was Miller. So, in other words, my
thinking never went along the lines of, "We are doing all of this for
a very set purpose." I remember I became a member of the Communist
party when I was at the University of Chicago. And after learning
more I thought it was impossible! It was boring, stupid, and,
although I agreed with many things, I quickly saw that I couldn't
continue doing something just because a long track ahead was laid
out. So I, in other words, I don't think I had a set "line" to
accomplish one ideology. I thought Beckett was a great writer, I
guess, no matter what he wrote. To me, it was good. I certainly was
against censorship, in any way I ran into it. But I didn't go out
looking for new places. Growing up, I belonged to nothing because in
a city like Chicago there were two groups that I think really had
great prejudice against them, and that was the Jews and the Irishand
I was both of them! And they didn't like each other. I felt that by
not identifying with anything I would not censor, but they censored
each other too, also [laughs].
Rail: So you ran into censorship, or what you perceived as censorship
early on in your life and you just had a natural anger towards it?
Rosset: Yes, I ran into it early in my life. There were some things I
didn't notice but must have had an effect. One of my dearest friends
from childhood, Haskell Wexler [famous director/cinematographer, best
known for Medium Cool], was interviewed at one point and he said a
person he had great sympathy for was my mother because in the
building where we lived, a little world unto itself, he said none of
the other women, all of whom were Jewish, would speak to my mother,
who was Irish. I wasn't conscious of that but it must have done
something. I guess I saw people locking other people out and I didn't
like it. That was also a time where a number of good writers, like
Nelson Algren, even Hemingway and Steinbeck were closely connected to
Chicago and those who I read were very conscious of the problems of
groups of people, unfair violence and the like. It was the time of
the Depression and that brought out nastiness. It was interesting
though that Roosevelt, in dealing with poverty and the tremendous
problems, started the Civilian Conservation Corps as opposed to what
we do now, like sending Americans to attack Iraq.
Rail: What about Palin and her alleged book banning?
Rosset: That was a story that caught on with the list of books that
she supposedly banned but the whole thing was sort of a fraud. I
don't know what that indicates to do that, but it's not good. But if
she really did actually pick out that list of books that she wanted
to ban you'd have to say "My, she has a broad cultural background to
be able to single out those!"
Rail: Do you think that any books should be banned?
Rosset: No. No, I don't. A thing that puzzles me still is that, in my
own later grammar school years and high school years, although there
were some wonderful books by Nelson Algren and Steinbeck, they were
not welcome at school. At least in the seventh, eighth grade which
was a good time to read Steinbeck, they were not considered suitable
at the time. Near the end of Grapes of Wrath there's a scene where a
guy is suckling on the breasts of a woman because he's starving and
that was considered to be absolutely too much, too much sex. It's
better now, of course even though I'm sure many books are not allowed
in school. But, for example, the great problem of whether gay people
can get marriedI couldn't even image knowing about such a problem
when I was back in high school. The fact that it's being discussed is
a great leap forward. Not that many years ago what is considered
normal now was not even allowed at all. I'd say society is much
freer, open now. I remember discovering a gay bar in the Village way
back and the thought had never occurred to me that such a thing
existed. That was a whole new idea to me, and I thought how lucky
these people arethe gay peoplebecause they trust each other. They
don't think they're talking just because somebody's trying to pick
them upthey actually have a social interchange, whereas in the
male/female bars there was always a kind of laid back hostility,
probably with good reason. But that was totally new to me. That was a
big moment of change for me.
Rail: People probably ask you a lot about the idea that you were part
of a "Golden Age" of publishing. What do you think of this?
Rosset: Well it seems that in various things that there are such
periods. Painters, writers, football players, baseball [laughs]that
for a certain number of years, there seems to be a creative outbreak,
which then dies down. I think it's very easy to look back and say,
"Oh, that was the Golden Age!" But just as much might be done right
while you're saying it as was done it a "Golden Age" of the past.
Twenty years from now, people will say, "Oh, it was really great, that 2008."
Rail: I think the reason people say that a lot is because, at least
in the cultural world, like publishing and film, it's perceived that
there was more relevance with those works in society compared to
equivalent works now which might seem lost.
Rosset: Right. Well one thing I notice now, and you cannot not notice
it, is the decline in the ability to distribute books, and the fact
that the bookstores are gone. That's an important thing. Years ago,
right here, this street, was filled with secondhand bookstores and so
forth. All gone. It's not good. That, I think is a very sad thing.
And if it isn't replaced, you know, the culture is sort of
dead-ended. But there are, of course, various technical things which
maybe will replace them.
Rail: I think part of the "Golden Age" thing in New York basically
comes to this story that's told over and over again about the
Village, and the Beats. You were part of that.
Rosset: Good. I'm happy and pleased that people look at our life and
that period as being a "Golden Age." That sounds very good and nice.
Living in that moment did not feel that way, just like anything
that's absolutely current, and you're living minute by minute, you're
not aware or worried about what someone's gonna think ten years from
now. We remember certain moments, but I would say the greatest moment
for me was when Tropic of Cancer was banned in Chicago. I was one of
the accused. Henry would never go to a trial of his work. The
District Attorney had accused me of having published the book to make
moneynothing else. And I had brought the paper I wrote about Miller
in college with me. So I just took it out of my pocket and started
reading it until he stopped me. The judge had been a good friend of
my father and we won! And the judge gave a marvelous decision which
we used on the cover of Evergreen titled "freedom to read." That was
the high moment of the whole thingit all came together: me, Chicago,
the court, the book, the author. That's one time I was very conscious
of what we were doing.
Rail: What about Miller and the case with Tropic of Cancer in NYC?
Miller was from Brooklyn, actually right near the street where I live.
Rosset: We had a case in New York and, of course, he wouldn't go to
the court. I had lunch with him at a restaurant on 6th Avenue right
near here called Alfred's. Our lawyer and three or four other people,
and then we had to go to court. But he wouldn't go. He'd been
summonsed so he was breaking the law by not going. So we went into
court, and the District Attorney questioned me and said, "You see
that we have a jury here of men and women with children who go to
school right near where that book is on sale, near the subway stop.
What'd you think they feel to have their children reading this book?"
So I took out the book and started reading and the jury started
laughing and they thought it was wonderful. I said to them, "If your
children got this book and read the whole book you ought to
congratulate them." And they loved it, and they refused to convict me
of anything. That was a great pleasure. Henry couldn't leave this
country until the decision was in, verified and so forth. For at
least a year or two years, he couldn't go. It was so funny because
they accused me of soliciting him to write the bookwrite Tropic of
Cancer and Capricornin Brooklyn, and at that point I was only eight
years old! Henry was a little older than me. It was a specific charge
against me that was absurd. I was a pimp supposedly. They didn't even
bother to see how ridiculous their charge would look.
Rail: You worked with poets and prose writers.
Rosset: The difference between prose and poetry is an interesting
thing that has changed. Poetry used to be more differentiated from
prose. Maybe there's more in the way of poetry now than then but not
recognized as such. Ginsberg's Howl, I don't know if that would have
been considered poetry in 1920. Kerouac is a good example too. He
thought what he was doing, much of it as poetry. We published a book
of his, The Subterraneans, and the very person who brought the
manuscript to me, as much as he liked it, thought that it had to all
be edited, changed, and so that's what he did. When Kerouac saw it he
was enraged. He said, "I wrote it that way because that's the way I
wanted it." And he put every word back exactly as he had given it to
us in the first place. That's a good example of the certain
confusion, the idea of an editor saying, "this person really has some
talent but he has no education." Kerouac really disabused us of that.
Rail: What was it like hanging out with those guys?
Rosset: I mainly knew painters because of Joan Mitchell, whom I
finally got married to. So being with her, almost all of my social
life was with painters. Larry Rivers would be a cross between the two
and Joan liked him very much personally but was a lousy painter, she
thought. So whatever she thought, I thought [laughs] in terms of
painting. My social life was mainly with painters.
Rail: But you would talk literature with them and reading and…
Rosset: Talking about anything to the most famous of those painters,
Pollock, was not easy [laughs]. He didn't do much talking. He was a
very quiet guy and very ominous. He came in the room and everyone
went "Whoa!" He had a high temperature, but was actually quite
harmless except to himself. And De Kooning's language wasn't English.
So, in other words, it wasn't a very high literary group but they
were very intelligent, of course.
Rail: What about some of the writers you worked with. What were they
like? Was Beckett fun to hang out with for example?
Rosset: Sometimes, usually. But Beckett acted as your psychoanalyst.
He concentrated on one person so intensely, you could get the idea he
was angry at the rest. Then next time, it would be somebody else. One
thing that was funny about Beckett is that he really didn't like
Ireland. "I haven't any desire to go back," he said. I recently read
a magazine piece about Pinter. It was a long story about him but it
never mentioned Beckett even though every word that Pinter wrote he
would give to Beckett! I remember going to a bar in Paris drinking
alone once, and I didn't notice but the guy who was sitting next to
me is Pinter, with a manuscript he was bringing to Beckett.
Rail: So he would show everything that he wrote to Beckett?
Rosset: Everything. Pinter lived like a Pinter. He was a Pinter play.
So strange, the same pauses. I think that Beckett taught them
silence, Pinter and Mamet. He taught them that art is in silence.
Once I asked Pinter to write an introduction for a Beckett play I was
publishing and he just wrote back in big lettering, "I can't." I
never saw Pinter again. The Pinter magazine piece was mostly about
his play The Homecomingabout its great success. But I was there on
the opening night, and it was a riota bad riot. I was with his
agent, and I said to his agent, "What the hell's wrong with you?" I
mean this big theatre, and you gave these people tickets, why
couldn't you find anybody who liked Pinter? I mean this woman stood
up in the first row of the audience and said, "Let's get out of here,
this is terrible." So I wouldn't call that a great success, but I
guess it ran for a long time, so it was successful, but not from the opening.
Rail: You were spied on and harassed by the CIA and FBI throughout
your career. Do you think that's happening now to publishers and the like?
Rosset: I would think they would. I can't imagine that they would
stop. Wiretapping seems to be common.
Rail: Were you surprised personally when you found out the CIA was
spying on you?
Rosset: Yeah, I was. I shouldn't have been. I was very unpleasantly
surprised. I thought it was not in the spirit of what this country is
supposed to be. And that obviously is still going on. And now with
better means of communication it's a lot easier to ensnare people.
That's a real problem. You have to be vigilant.
Rail: Were you frightened or did it seem ridiculous?
Rosset: If you start using your time up being frightened, you're in