Barney Rosset’s Dirty Years

When I first started hoovering paperbacks as a teenager, I wasn’t especially schooled in the distinctions between various publishers, but I smart enough to intuit that Grove Press books dealt in provocative stuff—the house published Hubert Selby‘s Last Exit to Brooklyn, Henry Miller‘s Tropic of Cancer, Kenzaburo Oe‘s A Personal Matter, John Rechy‘s City of Night, and Jack Kerouac‘s The Subterraneans. (That last book was a big inspiration to me at the time, though I’m not sure why now; reading it may simply has been the moment when I realized that books do liven up a long bus commute.)

It would take me a few years to learn about Grove Press’ publisher, Barney Rosset, and his Evergreen Review—or that he helped bring I Am Curious (Yellow) to American filmgoers, 99 percent of whom were dudes hugely disappointed that it wasn’t the porno that its rep suggested. Grove’s offerings don’t have the same power to shock these days—this is the house that put out Cold Mountain, after all, and though the Black Cat imprint seems eager to revive that old spirit, Michael Thomas‘ novel Man Gone Down was a disappointment to me (though not to the New York Times). All of which is to say I’m hoping that a D.C. theater will eventually show Obscene, a documentary about Rosset’s life in publishing. The Brooklyn Rail recently ran an excellent, wide-ranging interview with Rosset timed to the film’s release. A notable exchange:

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].

In an interview with Chicagoist, co-director Neil Ortenberg explains how Rosset nearly earned himself a directing credit:

The other thing about filming him was that he really wanted to be a kind of co-director. Initially I just thought, oh, that’s Barney being crazy, that’s a nutty kind of thing. It was just a control freak thing. And then I realized that he just loves film, and here I was making a film about him. Barney knows no boundaries. So even though it seemed crazy to me, him being a co-director of his own documentary probably seemed completely reasonable to him. That caused a certain amount of confusion. Anyhow. The people we interviewed, there were no hard feelings. The biggest problem we encountered was–all the reviews so far have characterized the film more or less as a love letter to Barney. I didn’t want it to be. I wanted it to show Barney as this kind of tragic hero but with all of the darkness and the demons that haunt him. I wanted to show that, but I don’t think maybe we showed some of that.

The trailer:

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