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.
His battles against conservatism were so revolutionary, in the eyes of the filmmakers, that he is marketed as "the most influential cultural figure you've never heard of". And it is hard to argue. Rosset seemed to spend much of his young life in court rooms - battling for the rights to publish novels like D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterly's Lover", Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer", and William Burroughs' "Naked Lunch". At one point in time, Rosset even dabbled in the world of film distribution. His distributing of the infamous Swedish film, "I Am Curious (Yellow)", defied bans of censorship and embraced sexual freedom. The film, at the time, was such an underground phenomenon that even Jackie Kennedy was cited as a fan. Looking back, however, a few of the documentary's subjects laugh - Jon Waters, for instance, jokes that lingering shots of a man and his limp penis is far from sexy or entertaining.
Obscene is not the appropriate term to use in all cases, however. Rosset's introduction of the writings of political leaders, such as Malcolm X, was certainly far from pornographic pleasure. While the film mainly focuses on the more daring novels in the publication, I feel that a more interesting film may be the idea of overcoming political censorship.
Rosset makes for a fairly entertaining, albeit drained and dull, subject. He comes off as so defeated that it's hard to imagine that he's the same man who was such a crucial figure in the evolution of modern free speech. His status as "everyman" is heightened as now, as an old man, he is just about broke. After starting with a fortune, thanks to a rich family, he ended up broke due to poor investment choices in real estate. A sad story indeed that such a hero does not have the comfort or recognition that he deserves.
The film is tightly put together, however I was disappointed that it focused more on the legal battles rather than Rosset himself. While Rosset's efforts are astounding, it'd also be interesting to get inside of the head of the man who accomplished so much. The film feels fairly dull, but that being said it's a worthwhile history lesson that's deserving of a watch if only to be informed.
"Obscene" is available on NetFlix Instant View.