A Life in Underground Letters

Barney Rosset (2005) in OBSCENE, an Arthouse Films release, 2008

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, Genet—these 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 Burroughs—and others—Rosset 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 (1967) in OBSCENE, an Arthouse Films release, 2008

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 in Creationism!

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?

Barney Rosset and Kenzaburo Oe (1997) in OBSCENE, an Arthouse Films release 2008
(Oe’s introduction to the Academy of Arts and Letters, May 21, 1997)

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 whatever—I 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.

From left to right: Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Barney. Still from OBSCENE, an Arthouse Films release, 2008.

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 Irish—and 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 married—I 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 are—the gay people—because they trust each other. They don’t think they’re talking just because somebody’s trying to pick them up—they 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 money—nothing 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 thing—it 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 book—write Tropic of Cancer and Capricorn—in 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 Homecoming—about its great success. But I was there on the opening night, and it was a riot—a 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 big trouble.

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Williams Cole

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