is the Education Fellow at the Chicago Humanities Festival. She is a recent graduate of the Masters of Arts Program in the Humanities (MAPH) at the University of Chicago.
The F.B.I. has had Barney Rosset’s Francis W. Parker School file for over seventy years. In class a teacher had asked him: “Who is the most important person in the world?” He had been reading Sawdust Caesar by George Seldes, an anti-Mussolini novel. Already a radical contrarian, he answered with conviction, “Benito Mussolini,” but would ironically go on later that same year to publish a mimeographed, socialist/communist newsletter dramatically named Anti-Everything. In an interview for the Paris Review he commented, “[The F.B.I.] thought I was a pro-fascist.” He was, in fact, a twelve-year-old.
Barney Rosset, the legendary owner of Grove Press, editor of the Evergreen Review, champion of obscenity, gin, and the avant-garde was interviewed extensively throughout his lifetime. His collective profiles meld into a hagiographic portrait in which the life of Rosset and the life of his publishing company Grove Press confusingly collide. Rosset passed away earlier this year at the age of eighty-nine. It is fitting that a man who devoted his life to the unbridled telling of stories would himself become a tall tale. His memory, dictated now by the written record—the delusional factuality of interview—seems to have transcended naturally into the realm of storytelling. The fact is his life’s work changed the American canon: what we read, what we consider to be literature, what we consider to be beautiful, what we consider to be art, what we teach in college lecture halls. Henry Miller. Samuel Beckett. William S. Burroughs. Jack Kerouac. Antonin Artaud. Regis Debray. Jean Genet. The Marquis de Sade. J.P. Donleavy. Che Guevara. Malcolm X. Blacklisted and banned, these were the authors he fought for; the books that would never have otherwise been published in the U.S. were instead rolled up in the back pockets of a generations’ Levis jeans, on the shelves of student unions.
CHF presenter Loren Glass was one of the last to interview Rosset, writing Counter-Culture Colophon, a three piece story that appeared in the Los Angles Review of Books. He has recently extended it into a book on the history of Grove Press entitled Counter-Culture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde. Glass chronicles Rosset's life from his early leftist musings in Chicago at the progressive Francis W. Parker School, to the acquisition of Grove Press and the controversial publication of countless novels and Grove’s own Evergreen Review. Glass explains that with “New York as his home base, and the booming American university population as his audience, Rosset’s signal achievement with Grove Press and the Evergreen Review would be to take the avant-garde into the mainstream, helping to usher in a cultural revolution whose consequences are with us still.” Like black ink spilled on white paper, Rosset’s own story is an opaque, messy blurring of beauty and obscenity—a distinction that would become his greatest fight.
Evergreen Review No. 14
There was something both exceedingly complicated and perfectly simple about what Grove Press was doing. Rosset was making literature more accessible to the masses, taking part in what Glass refers to as the “paperback revolution that was democratizing reading in the United States.” But Grove was also re-defining what the public considered to be art. This was the ‘50s and ‘60s; a new generation was coming of age, heading to college in droves. They would become Grove’s greatest supporters, waiting outside bookshops for the new delivery of dollar paperbacks, that they nicknamed “Grovers.” Grove published books that other companies wouldn’t touch, like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and the uncensored version of D. H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In doing so, Rosset was essentially re-defining First Amendment rights; he fought countless obscenity charges and instances of extrajudicial suppression. These legal battles made certain condemned and elicit subjects—literature that was often erotic and even pornographic—not only legal, but acceptable. And the public ate it up.
Originally published by Obelisk Press in Paris, Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was purchased under the counter by a young Rosset at the Gotham Book Mart in New York City. He was deeply affected and intrigued by Miller’s great sense of individualism, as someone separate: an expatriate and maverick. However, he deviated with a key exception: “we must participate in action with our neighbors if we ever wish to achieve any of the freedom which Miller so covets… perhaps our salvation lies in all of us becoming artists.”
Glass writes: “Grove worked not only to associate their imprint with the latest in experimental literature, but also to establish themselves as a force in the communities which produced and consumed this literature, communities which would soon become epicenters of student revolt.” The young readership committed to these publications provided the support Grove needed for the battles against censorship lawsuits. Interestingly, mainstreaming avant-garde literature was what gave Rosset the mass support necessary to legalize banned texts that had previously been ruled by the Supreme Court as “material lacking redeeming social importance.” Grove fast became the center of the counterculture movement, a vanguard of the radical. But to do this successfully, the underground ironically had to step into the light—essentially making the new, the forbidden, the untouched, a norm.
In an effort to gain public support for these obscenity battles, Grove launched an anti-censorship campaign called “Join the Underground” that appeared in full-page ads in Esquire, Ramparts, The New Republic, Playboy, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and The Village Voice, and on posters throughout the New York City subway system. It was a counterculture call to arms: “If you’re over 21; if you’ve grown up with the underground writers of the fifties and sixties who’ve reshaped the literary landscape; if you want to share in the new freedoms that book and magazine publishers are winning in the courts, then keep reading. You’re one of us.”
Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Barney Rosset
By the time William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch was published in the Chicago Review and censured by the University of Chicago administration, Grove had acquired a large following. Allan Ginsburg famously testified using his poem “On Burroughs’s Work” that he had written years earlier: “A naked lunch is natural to us, / we eat reality sandwiches.” This was a club, with recognizable members, and Rosset had become a defacto leader of sorts, a charismatic avenger of sex, free love, and gritty reality. If you were between the ages of 16 and 35, you wanted to be in it.
The first edition of the Evergreen Review, 1957
In a broader scope, Grove was instrumental in creating the identity of what has become widely known as the “Beat Generation.” What was produced was a cult of the counterculture consumed by college students who could only really experience it through the safe black and white pages of “Grovers” or the Evergreen Review. Rosset explained in the Paris Review: “Certainly the Beats, the pop artists, and the abstract expressionists did complement each other when they were brought together inside Evergreen Review. But that wasn’t them. That was us. We saw the connections that they didn’t see.”
Evergreen Review No. 47, 1967
Glass, who also interviewed Fred Jordan, Barney Rosset’s right hand man and managing editor of the Evergreen Review, and his son Ken, referred to Grove and the individuals who ran it as a business. Ken immediately corrected him: “We just called it Grove. Because it was just its own thing.” Glass asked: What about a rock band? “It’s more like a band than anything else,” Ken agreed. And then he added, “The relationship was not so much from one person to another. It was one person to Barney, and then Barney to everybody else.” It was this legendary charisma that made Grove run, that made the whole thing work. It is how so many of Grove’s greatest moments are told—impossibility transformed by Rosset. He was both the alchemist and the crucible.
Barney Rosset and Norman Mailer
Rosset is considered by many to be the 20th century’s most important publisher. His story is a Chicago story, it is a New York story, it is an American story, but more importantly it is a story about storytelling itself. At the Chicago Humanities Festival we cannot wait to hear Loren Glass tell it.
Quotes used for this piece came from Glass’s three part series in the Los Angeles Review of Books,
, and from an interview from the Paris Review: Barney Rosset, The Art of Publishing No. 2 by Ken Jordan
806: Sun, Nov. 11 2:00 - 3:00 PM
Tags: Rosset, Grove, Evergreen, Press, Beats, Ginsberg, Beckett, Miller, Tropic of Cancer, censorship, experimental, literature