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By Umut Newbury
December 9, 2008 

This holiday season, books like “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Tropic of Cancer,” “Naked Lunch” may not be on too many gift lists, but they should be. 

While the trials and tribulations of comedians George Carlin and Lenny Bruce with obscenity are well publicized and known about, the story of one American publisher and the trouble he went through to distribute the three titles mentioned above are almost unknown. 

Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O’Connor put the much-deserved spotlight on Barney Rosset, the founder of Grove Press and Evergreen Review, in their debut documentary Obscene.  

Rosset is a Chicago native, born to Irish-Catholic and Jewish parents. Though he did serve in World War II, that’s where the 86-year-old’s similarities end with his peers in the Greatest Generation. Rosset went to radical progressive schools in Chicago and started his subversive activities in high school. He circulated a petition for John Dillinger to be pardoned and ran a newspaper, which eventually became the Anti-Everything Newspaper. Rosset’s first love was film, and through his banker father’s good connections, he managed to serve as an army cinematographer along with the likes of Frank Capra and John Hughes during WWII. His first project after the service was Strange Victory, a feature film about the problem of racism in the U.S. 

Rosset’s foray into publishing was almost accidental. His first wife, Joan Mitchell, after the couple broke up, told him about a publishing house that was abandoned after three books. In Obscene, Rosset puts it rather nonchalantly, “Somehow I acquired it.” Things that occurred afterwards, however, hardly seem random.  

His first great literary find was Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” back when it was a small play in Paris. In 1954, Rosset went to meet Beckett and managed to get the American publishing rights of the play for a ridiculous sum ($100 or $150), but told friends, “you mark my words, someday Beckett will be huge.” 

Rosset then started the Evergreen Review, the radical literary magazine, which was unlike all other magazines at the time. One colleague tells Obscene, “We were rebels; looking for things nobody else would publish.” When City Lights owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti got arrested and charged with obscenity for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Rosset published the poem in Evergreen as an act of solidarity. For many people, this was the first time they had a chance to read the epic poem, since all the book copies were impounded.  The judge ultimately found “Howl,” not obscene and exonerated Ferlinghetti.  

Rosset’s legal battle against obscenity began with D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” When published in 1928, it created furor in the U.S. In 1959, Rosset chose that as his first fight against censorship. “My god, people won’t publish a book like ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover,’” he says in Obscene, “which made me vomit. I had guts and I would fight.” All the literary experts of the time got behind Grove Press and Rosset, leading the court to rule that the book was not obscene and “may be out in mail.” 

Next, Rosset tackled Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer.” Published in 1934 in Paris, the book was banned in the U.S. and literally made it copy by copy across the Atlantic in people’s luggage. In Obscene, Erica Jong brilliantly summarizes the trouble with “Tropic of Cancer”: “If just having a word like ‘cunt’ is going to throw you off the track, you’ll never know what Miller’s all about.” The court seemed less friendly toward Miller and “Tropic of Cancer.” As one witness to the case puts it, “When you went in to testify for ‘Lady Chatterley,’ you were treated with respect. With Miller, you were treated as a member of a shit group.” Luckily for Rosset, the battle culminated in a lawsuit in his hometown Chicago and the presiding judge just happened to be a close friend of his late father. Rosset 2, Censorship 0.  

After those two legal victories, Rosset felt it was time to start distributing William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch,” which already had been printed, awaiting the result of the “Tropic of Cancer” lawsuit. The lawyers, Obscene informs us, were really afraid of this particular battle. Through the battle for “Tropic of Cancer,” Rosset managed to get the public opinion on “Lady Chatterley” to change from “wicked, perverse,” to a “fine book.” Through the fight for “Naked Lunch,” “Tropic of Cancer” was elevated from “a corrupt mess,” to “a great classic.” Still, “Naked Lunch” managed to prevail in the courts as well. Rosset, quoted early in the film as saying, “I feel personally there hasn’t been a word written or uttered that shouldn’t be published,” succeeded in getting a lot of judges to agree with that sentiment. 

What’s most amazing about Rosset, though, is not just his incredible struggle for First Amendment rights, but also his ability to get a really respectable list of authors under the umbrella of Grove Press. Just like he predicted, Beckett won international acclaim and the Nobel Prize in 1969. Rosset published other Nobel winners, as well, including Kenzaburo Oe, Pablo Neruda and Octavia Paz. 

Rosset’s story is a classic American story, the tale of a wild-eyed man with a lot of guts and some good luck and resources through family to fight the right battle. Obscene is an engaging biography with lots of detail and a star-studded interviewee list. There is the always-charming John Waters convincingly claiming that many in the arts and media “are benefiting from freedoms that we have because of what Barney Rosset did” and an aging Jim Carroll talking about his drug days with William Burroughs. Gore Vidal, Amiri Baraka and Ray Manzarek are also among the famous that chip in with their perspectives on Rosset’s contributions to freedom of expression. 

As thoroughly as directors Ortenberg and O’Connor walk us through Rosset’s early life and three major legal battles, they unfortunately wrap up the later years of Grove Press and Evergreen Review rather quickly and haphazardly. Obscene glosses over the incident when a bunch of feminists attempt to unionize Grove Press. Rosset dismisses them as “FBI agents” but blames the financial fall of the company on the mutiny. At the end of the film, we find out Rosset sold acres of land he owned in the Hamptons to keep the court cases going and that he went broke, sold the company then got fired. The details are murky and confusing. Surely, this wasn’t one of Rosset’s favorite parts of his life story, but it deserved a little more attention. 

Nevertheless, for those of us in the arts and media, Obscene is a wonderful history lesson. The notion of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Tropic of Cancer” or “Naked Lunch” being banned in the country that made a big enough deal about freedom of expression to make it its very first amendment is itself obscene. Rosset probably won’t get a presidential medal of honor for protecting First Amendment rights, but this film is the next best thing, paying respect to a true American icon that should be a household name.  


Obscene: A Portrait of Barney Rosset and Grover Press

Directed by Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O’Connor

2008 Arthouse Films

Color, 97 minutes

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