Once a rebel—you know the rest.
As a publisher, Barney Rosset was the rebel’s rebel, defending freedom of speech in celebrated trials for his Grove Press novels, The Tropic of Cancer, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Naked Lunch; publishing and championing path-breaking writers from Beckett to Genet to Pinter to Ionesco; establishing in 1957 Evergreen Review, the premier magazine of literary radicalism for that period; the list goes on. So, it will come as no surprise that when he turned from publishing to writing his autobiography, he plowed, full speed, against the current.
And I have reason to know this since about eight years ago, when Seven Stories Press and then-existent Thunder’s Mouth hired me to assist Rosset (and his ebullient, gracious wife, Astrid Myers) in putting the book together. Then, when two years in we had produced nothing and the publishers dropped the project, we soldiered on, wondering where it all might lead.
In our very first meeting, as we made the long walk to the subway down Canal from the Seven Stories office, which is practically in the Hudson River, Rosset told me his vision. “I picture the book as being two volumes.”
“Great,” I said. “What would be in the first?”
I could see a problem there. I doubted the publisher would share that vision. Still, as I went through the material with him, I saw he had a point. Rosset had served in the army during World War II as a combat photographer; he was based in Kunming, China, which was a center of U.S. operations and home of the Flying Tigers, a trio of fighter squadrons made up of American pilots who joined the Chinese air force before the U.S. entered the war. Writing a letter a day to his parents for 18 months, he described in novelistic detail such actions as chauffeuring around Life reporter Teddy White, who later became a chronicler of presidents; driving blithely across a booby-trapped air field in Kweiyang; and living in liberated Shanghai, where he fell in love with a Jewish refugee taxi dancer. (This last story isn’t in the letters, but you can read it in an excerpt from the autobiography in Conjunctions, issue 56.)
And if the letters weren’t enough, at the ripe age of 29, Rosset wrote an autobiography, something to occupy his time while his wife Joan Mitchell painted up a storm. This 300-page ms included not only a condensed version of his G.I. days, but a cautionary tale about documentary film production. Rosset’s first venture, after he was demobilized, drew from his photographic experience. He produced and worked on the film Strange Victory, which intercut war footage of concentration camps and Nazi anti-Semitic materials with evidence of Jim Crow and analogous anti-Semitic materials found in the postwar U.S. As you might guess, this was not the kind of film most Americans, still congratulating themselves on their conquest of the Nazi “haters,” were interested in seeing, although there was one place, newly communist Czechoslovakia, where the film struck a chord. One of the longest and most compelling chapters of this autobiography details Rosset’s Kafkaesque progress, with Mitchell in tow, through a gray, bleak, puzzling Prague as he flogged the film.
This, I told him, should also be in volume one. For, I tell you, after going through the letters and finished pieces, and seeing how historically rich, nuanced, and emotionally resonant the texts were, I realized Rosset, this famed publisher, was a hell of a writer. There was a road not taken.
A few years into the project, Rosset approached me about another strand of the book. Let me say that I’ve ghosted a few books in my time, but here my work was solely assembling and editing, so I was surprised when Rosset said, “Jim, I want you to write the first chapter.”
I protested, “But, Barney, I don’t know enough about you.”
“That’s fine,” he said, “because the first chapter of my autobiography will be about someone else.”
“Well, that’s a novel idea,” I thought, followed by “I can see a problem here.”
The situation was this. When Rosset had been in Ireland for a Beckett event, he had done some research into the family background of his Irish mother (née Tansy). It turns out two (!) of his great-grandfathers had ended up in jail, convicted of murder. They were both reputed Fenians, who, it was claimed, killed in retaliation against rapacious landlords. Rosset had collected piles of newspaper clippings on the cases from which I was to build the chapter.
When I handed him my draft, he liked everything but the end, a transition where I suggested a connection between these Irish freedom fighters and his own battles against censorship years later. That he deleted. “Let the readers find the connections for themselves. Trust the readers,” he said, repeatedly, overruling my objections. Truth is, that was his philosophy when he ran Grove Press: provide adventurous, challenging, sometimes uncomfortable but always wondrous writing, and the readers will plunge in, even if they have to swim against their own internal currents. Indeed, not providing overmuch context was something he said he learned from what he saw as the aesthetic weakness of Strange Victory. Rosset thought it would have been a stronger film if they’d cut most of the voiceovers and just left the startling, juxtaposed images.
The opening Irish chapter would work that way with the book as, too, would the loads of pictures in each chapter. After the book was written, Rosset and Myers spent a year digging out and meticulously placing photographs in each chapter, designing the book so these images would be integral moments. In Rosset’s vision, the autobiography would not only be a life told, but a magnificent fusion of all his talents, those of raconteur extraordinaire, writer, photographer, essayist, thinker, rebel; the list goes on.