In 1951, Grove Press was a tiny, almost-defunct publisher with just three titles in its catalog. But then Barney Rosset took over and, with a few choice books, helped push America past its Puritanical roots and into the sexual revolution. His memorial was held this week – he died a few months ago at the age of 89. In an interview from 2008, Brooke talks to Rosset about fighting charges of obscenity over books like Naked Lunch and Tropic of Cancer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 1951, Grove Press was a tiny, almost-defunct independent publisher, with just three titles in its catalog, including Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man. But then Barney Rosset took over and, with a few choice books, helped push America past its Puritanical roots and into the sexual revolution. His memorial was held this week – he died a few months ago at the age of 89 – and he deserves to be remembered. Rosset was a native Chicagoan who settled in New York after returning from the war. He began publishing such authors as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and explicit works of erotica, like The Story of O. It wasn't long before Rosset and Grove Press found themselves defending the First Amendment in the courts. This is Barney from the documentary about him called Obscene.
BARNEY ROSSET: When we published Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it was denounced as a wicked, perverse, terrible, degrading work, etc., etc. Then when we published Tropic of Cancer, we were told that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a fine book of creative merit but that with Tropic of Cancer we had gone beyond the bounds of decency, that it was a corrupt, perverse mess.
And now, with Naked Lunch [LAUGHS], we go to court [LAUGHS] and are told that Tropic of Cancer is a brilliant work of great merit, a modern classic, etc., etc. It is only Naked Lunch that is a bad book. Somehow I imagine the day when Naked Lunch will be the modern classic, and it will be yet something else which will be beyond the bounds of decency.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If Tropic of Cancer proved to be Grove Press' most hard-won battle, it was one Barney Rosset was itching to fight. The book, heard here in a reading by Henry Miller himself, was his favorite.
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HENRY MILLER: This then, this is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty, what you will.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rosset championed the works of Miller and other ostensibly lewd authors for more than 50 years, for which he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Foundation. When I spoke to him in 2008, he talked about some of the most memorable books acquired in those first years at Grove Press.
BARNEY ROSSET: One of the first and most important book we were ever to publish was Waiting for Godot of Samuel Beckett.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was it that intrigued you about Beckett?
BARNEY ROSSET: That he was a great writer. I was absolutely astounded and taken over by his work. Financially it was hardly a big thing. We paid 200 dollars advance for Waiting for Godot. We had also taken on Jean Genet, I think, a very important writer and playwright. And soon thereafter, Ionesco was added, making a third. So you could say that the first group of writers contained a disproportionate percentage of playwrights, but that was not on purpose.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The first book that you chose to fight in the courts to publish was Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence. Why did you want to publish it?
BARNEY ROSSET: The book I was going to publish and did, eventually, was Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. I had read that at Swarthmore College in 1940, a freshman English course. I liked it very much. And so, when I found myself publishing books, the first thing I thought of was Tropic of Cancer. But I knew enough by then to know that it would be censored or it would be stopped, and I decided to very carefully prepare a campaign to protect it.
Lady Chatterley's Lover was probably the most famous so-called “obscene” book, and it was by a famous English author, very much looked up to in the literary world. So I decided to publish Lady Chatterley's Lover in its entirety, and if any troubles came along, which they most certainly did, we would fight those through and, when we won them, we would then follow up with Tropic of Cancer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This was part, I guess, of a long strategy. The Postal Service actually confiscated copies of Lady Chatterley's Lover that were sent through the mail. You told the Postal Service that they were coming, right? And then you sued the New York City Postmaster?
BARNEY ROSSET: That's right. I had somebody who’d worked as an intern for me here in New York and who now lived in Paris send copies of the book. Very comically, really, they didn't stop them. They kept coming through.
I had to tell them, hey, you’re letting something illegal through. So finally they did seize the book, and then we formed the case to get the charges dropped.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And ultimately, you did win that case. You were allowed to bring out Lady Chatterley's Lover, and that set the stage for Tropic of Cancer, right?
BARNEY ROSSET: That's right, and it took quite a while.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me what it was that you loved about Tropic of Cancer.
BARNEY ROSSET: It was a very a cynical, tough book about [LAUGHS] the United States. Henry was living in France until he was forced to leave by the - World War II, and he had a very strong, sometimes contemptuous stance towards this country. He felt that people had very little originality here, that there was very little real feeling.
Also, something that was very important in it and also in Beckett, there was a lost love. Miller had a long ongoing love affair with a girl who left him, and he’d had to make a way to live, to go on living. And he did. And there’s a similar incident in Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape. And I had the same not unusual experience, and it was a matter of how do you continue living. And through both of them I thought I got strength.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What can you tell me about the court battle over Tropic of Cancer?
BARNEY ROSSET: The court battles were certainly beyond [LAUGHS] what we imagined. They started immediately upon our publishing the book. We have a feeling, and pretty good proof, that a whole group of police got together, picked on one page – it so happened to be page five of the book – to use as an example for other police to seize copies of the book, read page five [LAUGHS] and arrest the book sales people. And that happened all over the United States, from one city to another, to another, to another. And we had to go and fight in each place, dozens and dozens of places.
It took a number of years, really, as we gradually worked our way up the American jurisprudence system to get to the Supreme Court. But we made it. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Of course, you didn't just publish so-called “obscene” books. You also took on material that was controversial in the racially-charged atmosphere of the sixties. How did you come to publish The Autobiography of Malcolm X?
BARNEY ROSSET: Well, The Autobiography of Malcolm X sort of fell upon us. When he was assassinated, there was a statement that the publisher here was not going to go ahead with publishing the book because it would be a danger to his employees, that they might be physically attacked. I didn't feel that way, and I bought the rights to the book.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We saw the documentary that recently came out about you called Obscene. What did you think about it?
BARNEY ROSSET: I think a good idea of the difference between my viewpoint and the viewpoint of the producer of the film was that he chose to call it Obscene, and my autobiography, which I've been writing for quite a while and which parallels that film, I call The Subject Is Left-Handed. A slight difference there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] What does that mean, The Subject is Left-Handed?
BARNEY ROSSET: The FBI, CIA and others did many, many reports on me, which I was able to get from the Freedom of Information Act, thousands of documents. And the heading was used a number of times, “The Subject is Left-Handed.”
And I sympathize [LAUGHS] with them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You just don't think you gave them enough material to go on, huh?
BARNEY ROSSET: They had an enormous amount of material but it added up to “The Subject is Left-Handed.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Did it bother you, all this attention on Grove Press as publishers of mere smut, when you believed you were publishing also very important works of literature, or maybe these works of smut were, in fact, important works of literature?
BARNEY ROSSET: Yeah, it did bother me. It did bother me, but what was I [LAUGHS] going to do about it?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You took on challenge after challenge with so much gusto. It does seem that you were on a First Amendment crusade. You were trying to break barriers. How does it seem to you?
BARNEY ROSSET: [LAUGHS] I mean, to me, I was just doing what I would be doing. It’s what came naturally. I read Tropic of Cancer when I was a freshman in college. [LAUGHS] It was not a great decision to publish it, for me. It was how to do it and when.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Not whether.
BARNEY ROSSET: I mean, Samuel Beckett showed more concern about being censored than Miller ever did. Miller showed no interest. Sam wrote me right after we signed the first contract that he wanted me to know that he wouldn't stand for any censorship of his material, which was censored. Godot was censored in England.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why was it censored in England?
BARNEY ROSSET: I remember one little sequence where one of the two says to the other, if one of us hangs himself -
VLADIMIR: Well, what do we do now?
VLADIMIR: Yes, but while waiting.
ESTRAGON: How about hangin’ ourselves?
VLADIMIR: Mm, it might give us an erection.
ESTRAGON: An erection?
VLADIMIR: With all that follows. Where it falls, mandrakes grow. That’s why they shriek when you pull them up. Did you not know that?
ESTRAGON: Let's hang ourselves immediately!
BARNEY ROSSET: I didn't seriously listen to anybody who said books were smut or this or that. It didn't mean much to me. I mean, [LAUGHS] come on. I'm an anti-Fascist. I'm a Communist. I'm not bothered by smut-peddling accusations. I’d said I'm a Communist. I'm not. I was. I was a member of the Communist Party. The Communist Party was more against sex in books than any other group I've ever met. When that fact fully sunk in on me, which took quite a while, I quit.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Barney Rosset died in February at the age of 89.
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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary, with more help from Luisa Beck and Rob Schoon, and edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Dunne.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find transcripts at onthemedia.org. You can find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter. And you can email us at email@example.com. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.
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