Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Barney Rosset and Grove Press

Okay. The thing of it is this: I keep saying that when I was young, the world was a very different place. A pretty easy statement, on the face of it. But the meaning of it goes much deeper. Forget that it was a world before home computers or cell phones, or for that matter wireless phones at all. A phone was a heavy Bakelite thing with a cord that emerged from a nearby wall.

When you picked it up, and sometimes tapped on the little head rest lever a couple of times, an operator (in my case located over the 5 and 10 cent store downtown) would come on and ask what you wanted. They'd tell you the time, Or if school was cancelled that day. Or connect you to someone down the street or clear across town, or out into the world beyond. I am fond of saying that I remember steam trains. I remember watching them water up from the tower at the station at the end of Allen Street where I lived.

This was before the big highway systems were built. When radio was AM. Tv had come in and we'd sit and watch programs on the 13inch tube. There was no such thing as a remote control. Oh, it was all wonderful. And no one spent time cursing, dressing scandalously, dancing provocatively (Ed Sullivan had seen to that!), or telling dirty jokes in public. It had been 20 years since Clark Gable caused a ruckus when he'd used the word "damn" at the end of Gone With the Wind and no one had dared utter it in public since. Besides, that kind of talk wasn't fit to be spoken around women. And there was no such thing as teenage pregnancy or unwed mothers. Young women who had sullied their reputations often took long visits to their Aunt Ida in the country - never-mind that we were a town of less than 2,000 people surrounded by farms and country was a short walk or drive away. No nudity. On the beaches and in detective shows in movies and on tv young attractive women were causing a stir by wearing a two piece bathing suit called a bikini. It had only been a few years since men at the beach had stopped having to wear tops. Not only was sex not discussed, it was barely admitted, and it was a word that was never spoken. I was in my mid teens before it was even considered okay to spell it out in polite society.

Things started to change. A guy named Hugh Hefner started publishing a magazine which had fiction with ideas in it and pictures of naked women, with folds of silk or flower fronds covering up unmentionables. The United States Post Office seized a shipment of a book that it deemed obscene. The author was a man named David Herbert Richards Lawrence who had died nearly 30 years before. The book was Lady Chatterly's Lover. It had won awards and critical raves when it was published in England. In 1928. The publisher who dared to print it and ship it in the United States was Grove Press. A court judge decided the book, with its "unexpurgated" passages had redeeming social value. Grove then published Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. That one went all the way to the US Supreme Court who allowed it to be published. Grove press published Samuel Beckett's play, Waiting for Godot. And then there were works by Harold Pinter, Eugene Ionesco, and Jean Paul Sartre. And in the late 1960's, William Burrough's Naked Lunch, another visitor to the Supreme Court. By the time Grove published The Story of  O., there were no more trials.

Grove Press had a magazine, a sort of sister publication, a literary magazine called The Evergreen Review. It published everybody from Jack Kerouac to Malcom X and Che Guevara. Gary Snyder, John Rechy, Alan Ginzberg, Paul Goodman, Jean Genet, and oh, so many more of the avant garde of the 50's and 60's. I still have (and treasure) a hardbound collection of works from the magazine. (Unless I sold it that time trying to keep the electricity on.)

The owner of Grove Press even took a shot at film distribution, releasing "I Am Curious (Yellow)", a film with male and female frontal nudity. I know I saw it, taking an hour long bus ride to Philadelphia to do so.

The man behind all of this, the man who changed what could be written, printed, spoken out loud, seen in public, the owner of Grove Press, a guy named Barney Rosset died yesterday at the age of 89.

He had quickly become passe in the world he did so much to create. Women's Rights groups took him to task for publishing works in which women were often subjugated and dehumanized. He fired employees who tried to unionize.  In 1985, he sold, and was fired from, Grove Press. A few years ago, he started publishing the Evergreen Review as an online magazine. The 2012 Spring issue went online the day before he died, publishing articles like this:


I just wanted to take a minute to remember him. Although the world may be a coarser and more vulgar place, it - and especially the United States - is more adult, more thoughtful, more intellectually based  because of him. I read a lot of Grove Press books. When I ran bookstores for a living, I sold a lot of Grove Press Books. We're the better for it.

His memoir, "The Subject is Left Handed" (a line taken from his FBI file), will be published later this year.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Rosset. Rest in Peace.

1 comment:

Munir said...

Through my sixty years of life, I came to an understanding that the world can be what we want it to be. It is just that a whole lot of people seem to want it to be more like" Jersey Shore". Hence the ratings for good shows don't show the numbers they deserve.
Hey humans are free of slavery - - that is a huge step!