We are kicking off Banned Books Week with a tribute to Barney Rosset. He is not the most pleasant of people, but he is a hero to the fight against censorship. As the publisher of Grove Press and [i]The Evergreen Review[/i], he led the fight to get [i]Lady Chatterley's Lover[/i] published in the United States. [i]Tropic of Cancer[/i]. [i]Naked Lunch[/i]. [i]I Am Curious (Yellow)[/i], when he branched into film. Basically, his entire career was based on fighting for your right to read whatever you want to. Oh, and his right to publish it, but he didn't make any money at it and indeed lost a fortune on court expenses. He had thousands of copies of [i]Tropic of Cancer[/i] sitting in a warehouse, because he could only afford court battles for one book at a time and he was already fighting for [i]Lady Chatterley's Lover[/i].
Barney Rosset was the son of a banker. During World War II, he worked with the film division of the Army Signal Corps. And after the war, he somehow drifted into publishing. If there was a court case involving censorship in the US in the second half of the twentieth century that involved neither the schools nor actual pornography, odds are pretty good it did involve Barney Rosset. He became the American publisher for such writers as Samuel Beckett and Pablo Neruda. He published Malcolm X and Che Guevara--and got his office bombed for the latter. He pursued First Amendment cases to the Supreme Court--and then had to keep fighting the case in court, because apparently that means less than people think it does. He doesn't seem to have been a very good businessman on top of that, and his attitude toward women was a bit lacking. Though he also assumed that the people trying to unionize his office were feminists teamed up with the FBI. It is true that he was under government surveillance, but that seems to me to be a bit much.
The important cases are not always won by the most worthwhile people. Rosset was half-Jewish, but there seems to have been a strong streak of antisemitism to him. When he was a child, his father (the Jewish parent) told him never to marry a Jewish girl, and he never did, though he did marry four other women over the years. Apparently, he used to spend quite a lot of time belittling one of his wives over the office intercom. I mean, I spent quite a lot of the movie very angry at him as a person. He seems to have had a strong sense of entitlement, though he did also seem determined to use that to better the world. One of the things he felt he was most entitled to was his First Amendment rights, and I can't argue that point. I'm not sure he was ever really interested in most of what he published for its literary merit, but I don't really think he had to be for it to be worthwhile. The point was that he thought it needed to be published, and that overcomes a lot in my opinion.
And it is true that you don't have to think something is worth reading to think that it has a right to be published. I find [i]Catcher in the Rye[/i] to be remarkably boring, as it happens. I read it in high school, which is when you're supposed to in order to be most moved by it, and I hated it. I thought Holden Caulfield was a whiny little snot who deserved everything bad that happened to him. I've never read [i]Naked Lunch[/i] and probably never will. I could go on. Literature is very personal, and what's meaningful to you is not necessarily meaningful to someone else. But to deny it publication because of the harm it might do? Ridiculous. After all, our government was created in part because of revolutionary literature. It's probably why the First Amendment is, well, [i]first[/i]. Our country would not exist without the Founding Fathers' ability to say and publish what they wanted, and believing what you want just naturally connects to the rest of it.
I studied banned books in college, actually. I'm not sure how much I read that was originally published in the US by Grove Press, but I know I received the benefits of Barney Rosset's life work. I do believe in the concept of "age appropriate"; I have argued in favour of the NC-17 rating, for example, and one or two of the books I read for that study, I thought, "Well, I get taking this out of an elementary school. But high school?" However, declaring things obscene and unable to be published or sold in a certain jurisdiction is taking choices away from adults, and that's ridiculous. Now, I don't remember my mother's ever having censored what I was allowed to read, probably on the grounds that, if I was capable of reading it, I could decide for myself if I got the concepts. However, that was Mom's choice. I was her child and her responsibility, and no one had the right to tell her that I wasn't allowed to read things she thought I could. Whatever else he did, Barney Rosset fought to let us all make our own choices.