February 23, 2012

The man who published all those dirty books... and turned down "Lord of the Rings" because he "couldn’t understand a word."

Barney Rosset, of Grove Press and Evergreen Review, dead now at 89.
Besides publishing [Samuel] Beckett, he brought early exposure to European writers like Eugène Ionesco and Jean Genet and gave intellectual ammunition to the New Left by publishing Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”...

He defied censors in the 1960s by publishing D. H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer," ultimately winning legal victories that opened the door to sexually provocative language and subject matter in literature published in the United States. He did the same thing on movie screens by importing the sexually frank Swedish film “I Am Curious (Yellow).”
Grove Press also published "Naked Lunch" and "The Story of O." And Evergreen Review published Allen Ginsberg's "Howl."

What a great free speech hero! Thanks, Barney! RIP.

"If you have freedom of speech, you have freedom of speech," he said.

50 comments:

chickenlittle said...

Lawrence Ferlinghetti must be getting up there in years too.

TMink said...

I am glad that someone could understand Lord of the Rings enough to publish it!

Trey

Original Mike said...

"Mr. Rosset turned down J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” saying he “couldn’t understand a word,” "

What's so hard to understand? Good guys must complete a quest to save the world. Bad guys try and stop them.

edutcher said...

Except for Ionesco and Beckett, the rest of what he published was junk.

And, yes, I include "Chatterley" (God, what a boring piece of nonsense).

damikesc said...

What's so hard to understand? Good guys must complete a quest to save the world. Bad guys try and stop them.

Probably needed more Marxist undertones.

...oh, and boobies.

traditionalguy said...

He was a literalist.

Robert Cook said...

Miller's two TROPICS were good, as was his ROSY CRUCIFICION trilogy.

Sigivald said...

If he couldn't understand a word of Lord of the Rings, why did he publish Naked Lunch?

I can't imagine how you could not comprehend the first and yet comprehend the latter.

Robert said...

Is this right that he published Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tropic of Cancern in the 1960's? Shouldn't that be earlier? 1940's? 1930's?

Robert Cook said...

I slogged through LORD OF THE RINGS in Junior High School, and found it a terrible bore. And I had thought THE HOBBIT so charming! I only fishished it because I felt an obligation--then, not now--to finish every book I started. Plus, I figured...it's gotta get good eventually, right?

Needless to say, I didn't bother with seeing the films.

Robert Cook said...

"Is this right that he published Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tropic of Cancern in the 1960's? Shouldn't that be earlier? 1940's? 1930's?"

These books were published in America decades after they had been written and published elsewhere. America, then, as now, was an incredibly childish nation. Rossett had to go to court to fight obscenity charges when he published these books, and NAKED LUNCH, as well.

Original Mike said...

"I slogged through LORD OF THE RINGS in Junior High School, and found it a terrible bore."

You knew it wasn't going to end well for your hero.

The Drill SGT said...

I assume the reference was to publishing it in the US, as it was already in print in the UK by 1954.

as to the content, the World view of LOTR didn't align with his, hence the decision.

The Drill SGT said...

Original Mike said...
You knew it wasn't going to end well for your hero.


LOL, +2

Robert Cook said...

For a truly brilliant fantasy novel, I recommend the peerless A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS, by David Lindsay, first published in 1920.
According to Wikipedia, C.S.Lewis cited it as an influence on his science fiction trilogy, and Tolkien was also an admirer.

It is a blowtorch compared to the flickering candle-light of LOTR.

phx said...

@chickenlittle Funny coincidence I just read a 1960 piece this week by Kenneth Rexroth in the SF Examiner, where he did a quick assessment of Ferlinghetti. Might not be interesting for anyone so forgive me ahead of time for quoting two paragraphs:

"I suppose Ferlinghetti does represent America. He is a genuinely popular poet...He reaches at least as large an audience as ever did Vachel Lindsay or Edna St.Vincent Millay or Ogden Nash. Is it the same audience? I think so, pretty much. It will infuriate him to say so, but he says what those poets said, to the same kind of people, only he says it in the middle of the 20th c., a generation or two later. He is more up to date, more sophisticated, but so is his audience. Those poets seem corny to us today, but who going to seem corny to the new readers of poetry in 1985.

Certainly he represents a common American type. He thinks as does his wide audience. His responses to life are theirs... Ferlinghetti's responses to life, like his expression of them in poetry, are common ordinary American ones, simple, sensuous, passionate, and sarcastic and cynical when faced with fraud, pomp and falsehood. If he is going to be grouped with the Beatniks, the definition will have to be revised, because he is a remarkably well bred Beatnik..."

Original Mike said...

Hmmm, a bought A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS recently, at the suggestion of our hostess. Still sitting on the nightstand. I'll have to fix that, though I'm reading a whole bunch of non-fiction stuff right now.

phx said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
EDH said...

Flags are flying at full staff all over the country in his honor.

Paul Zrimsek said...

I'll bet the word he couldn't understand was a-lalla-lalla-rumba-kamanda-lind-orburúmë.

Paul Zrimsek said...

This version of LoTR is a bit more in Cook's line.

William said...

I bet that if Middle Earth had a race of nubile nymphs with a thing for hobbits and their hairy feet, Barney Rosset would have understood and published LOTR.....There's a poem by Philip Larkin. The poet wanders into a derelict church and wonders who was the last believer who prayed there to a living god. I wonder who was the last person who bought a Grove Press publication for handbook purposes. I wonder if anyone saw the Grove Press imprint and bought Beckett for prurient reasons. If someone can jerk off to Beckett, he has my respect.

ricpic said...

There were more naughty bits in Tropic of Capricorn than in Tropic of Cancer.

Do kids still walk around with a Grove soft cover Howl or Coney Island of the Mind or Dharma Bums in the back pocket of their jeans the way we did? No. They're so fucking bright today but something has gone out of the world as what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born -- which also doesn't mean shit to them.

ricpic said...

America, then as now, was an incredibly childish nation.

Cookie loves to take a dump on America. An orgasmic dump. Nothing else quite does the trick.

Patrick said...

Braun exonerated of PED. Great news for Brewers and fans.

Original Mike said...

"Braun exonerated of PED."

Somebody came to their senses.

Robert Cook said...

"Do kids still walk around with a Grove soft cover Howl or Coney Island of the Mind or Dharma Bums in the back pocket of their jeans the way we did?"

I don't know, but Shakespeare & Company Bookstore on lower Broadway in NYC keeps the beatniks and other "alternative" literature in a section by itself up front...Beckett, Genet, Celine, Dick, Burroughs, Miller, Kerouac, Bukowski, Hunter Thompson, etc., etc. They keep it up there to keep the books from being shoplifted. I'd guess from this that they still have their ardent readership.

I've tried to read ON THE ROAD a couple of time and I just can't dig the vibe, man, the wide-eyed sentimentality of it. I can't get past the first 50 pages or so. I much prefer the harder-eyed visions of Miller and Celine, and, in small doses, Burroughs, or the humorous cynicism of Vonnegut; for "cosmic visions," give me Philip K. Dick. I liked Hunter Thompson in my "yoot," but I see him now as talented but limited, emotionally arrested and, ultimately, tiresome.

Jess said...

I bet that if Middle Earth had a race of nubile nymphs with a thing for hobbits and their hairy feet, Barney Rosset would have understood and published LOTR....

I could have sworn that there was a scene where the elf maiden crooned to Frodo "Dost thou like what thou dost see?" as she slips out of her elf garb. Oh no, wait, that was Bored of the Rings

Valentine Smith said...

"I believe in God. I'm a communist."

Rosset's son Beckett told me this is one of the last things his father said to him before his unsuccessful surgery.

Faith runs a lot deeper in the godless than for most theists.

LarsPorsena said...

Robert Cook said...
"Is this right that he published Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tropic of Cancern in the 1960's? Shouldn't that be earlier? 1940's? 1930's?"

These books were published in America decades after they had been written and published elsewhere. America, then, as now, was an incredibly childish nation
----------------------------------

The number of abortions and the spread of STD's tells me we're all grown up now.

Palladian said...

"I've tried to read ON THE ROAD a couple of time and I just can't dig the vibe, man, the wide-eyed sentimentality of it."

It's not writing, it's typing.


"Please prove you're not a robot"

Fuck you.

phx said...

It's not writing, it's typing.

Isn't that Truman Capote's line?

I read On the Road twice, but both times after my formative years, and it didn't really impress me.

I think it's the kind of book that's best met in your youth.

Revenant said...

It is a blowtorch compared to the flickering candle-light of LOTR.

Whatever that's supposed to mean.

Tolkien's work is as influential as it is not because he was a brilliant storyteller, but because he was a brilliant (and still unequaled) world-builder. Most fantasy and science fiction is set either in the "real world" or in worlds constructed for the convenience of the story. Lord of the Rings is a story written for the convenience of the world Tolkien built -- that's what made it different.

Ann Althouse said...

One day the robots will say fuck you, and then we will be truly fucked.

Bob_R said...

Unless we have a really big rare earth magnet. Then you just throw it at the robot and they turn into a junk pile. If you are in a lab with lots of rare earth magnets you back up your hard drives all the time.

Bob_R said...

One of the nice things about LOTR is that it is very rereadable. Skip the poetry, read only the poetry, skip Mordor (that really moves). I'm not one to claim great literary value for it, but for me it's a fun and durable book to have on the shelf.

Bob_R said...

And definitely RIP Barney! Good work. Not many of those books held up, but there's a lot of art that works just for the moment. A good honest living. (Pretty good requiem for someone who was called a pornographer. I can think of several who were called the same who don't deserve the praise.)

pst314 said...

"publishing Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh..."

Ironically, either of them would have had him executed.

wyo sis said...

The real free speech heroes are those who know that free speech imposes an obligation as well. The obligation is not to speak things that are harmful. Not because you are not permitted to, but because you have a conscience. Self-censorship is a valuable thing, but I'm sure it's not at all popular. Sexually provocative is not the same as daring or brave or heroic or artistic. Mr Rosset self-discloses his own limits. Go ahead and call me a sexually repressed scold, but I can't think of one positive effect of all that publishing bravado. I can think of several from Lord of the Rings.

Robert Cook said...

LarsPorsena said,

"The number of abortions and the spread of STD's tells me we're all grown up now."

Your snark duly noted, but, to the contrary: it simply shows that we are still an astoundingly childish nation.

Andrea said...

"One day the robots will say fuck you, and then we will be truly fucked."

"The humans are dead."

Andrea said...

By the way, I have a copy of Voyage to Arcturus that I bought at a used book store a while back. It isn't "better" than anything C.S. Lewis or Tolkien wrote, just completely different. It can't be compared to LOTR; just because Tolkien admired Lindsay's writing doesn't mean he was at all compelled to imitate him. Some of Lewis' stories do seem to have a trace of influence, mostly the threatening, hallucinatory landscapes. But neither Lewis nor Tolkien were as fucked up spiritually as Lindsay was, and could never have written something so deranged. Voyage to Arcturus, like Lovecraft's stories, are best read when suffering from a high fever. ("At The Mountains Of Madness" got me through a bad bout of strep throat several years ago.)

Revenant said...

The idea that the legal status of Tropic of Cancer says something about the "childishness" of a nation is extremely silly. Childish compared to what, I wonder? Some Platonic ideal of a nation that doesn't actually exist?

Robert Cook said...

"The idea that the legal status of Tropic of Cancer says something about the 'childishness' of a nation is extremely silly. Childish compared to what, I wonder?"

Childish compared to a society that doesn't suffer an attack of the vapors over a book that contains "bad" words and frank--even obscene--depictions of human sexuality.

It's been noted many times before, but there is something skewed in a society that allows its young people to view material for entertainment that contains not just graphic violence, but that promotes violence as an optimal means to solve problems, yet will prohibit the exposure of a naked female breast to these same young people, or that seriously finds reason to debate whether mothers breast-feeding their children outside the home are or are not in breach of public decency.

Robert Cook said...

"By the way, I have a copy of Voyage to Arcturus that I bought at a used book store a while back. It isn't 'better' than anything C.S. Lewis or Tolkien wrote, just completely different. It can't be compared to LOTR; just because Tolkien admired Lindsay's writing doesn't mean he was at all compelled to imitate him."

Having never read Lewis, I cannot say whether Lindsay's book is or isn't "better" than Lewis' work, but I do certainly prefer it to Tolkien's interminable snoozefest.

(To say a work of art is "better" or "worse" than another is really just to assert personal preferences, and, while one can argue well for the quality of works of art relative to each other or to some other criteria--and while I will dare to assert that there are "better" and "worse" works of art--"I know it when I see it" may be all one can really say about it--ultimately, preferences for certain works of art over others do really amount, in the end, to personal taste.)

I never suggested that Tolkein imitated Lindsay, but merely pointed out that he was reportedly an admirer of Arcturus.

Writ Small said...

Mr. Rosset called Grove “a breach in the dam of American Puritanism.”

Metaphors.

phx said...

"The art of dreaming when wide awake will be in the power of every man one day."
Henry Miller, Sexus

gerry said...

Tropic of Cancer is a terrible read. It actually is boring. There's little about post-coital douches that really need to be literary art.

Oh well. It's the stuff a culture embraces as it turns into shit.

Revenant said...

Childish compared to a society that doesn't suffer an attack of the vapors over a book that contains "bad" words and frank--even obscene--depictions of human sexuality.

That's your only standard for "childishness" -- acceptance of explicit sex in art? That's is, ironically, a pretty childish attitude.

The France of the 1930s (and of today, for that matter) practiced much stricter censorship of political speech than we did. Yet you classify them as more mature than us because they publish sexy literature.

That's a silly attitude. Banning "Tropic of Cancer" is a triviality; banning dissident political books and organizations is significant.

It's been noted many times before

What hasn't been? "Someone said it" isn't an argument.

Robert Cook said...

"That's your only standard for "childishness" -- acceptance of explicit sex in art?"

No. Where did I say that it was?

"The France of the 1930s (and of today, for that matter) practiced much stricter censorship of political speech than we did. Yet you classify them as more mature than us because they publish sexy literature."

Where did I classify France (or any nation) as more mature than we?

"Banning 'Tropic of Cancer' is a triviality; banning dissident political books and organizations is significant."

Banning any kind of books is significant. The mindset that accepts the banning of so-called "prurient" literature can also be convinced to accept the banning of any other kind of writing or ideas that society at large may deem unacceptable.

"'It's been noted many times before'

"What hasn't been? 'Someone said it' isn't an argument."


It wasn't intended as an argument but merely as an acknowledgement by me that the observation was not original with me.

Do you think there's an argument to be made that a society that prohibits the display of the nude form or reacts with consternation at mothers breast-feeding their children in public but that glorifies violence, promotes it as a means of solving problems, and allows its young people to wallow in its graphic depiction isn't skewed...that is to say, fucked up?

(As you seem all too prone to misread me, I'll say that my comment above does not mean I support a ban on depictions of violence in the arts--I don't--although I do think it's proper to restrict certain types of material according to age-appropriateness, and leave it to parents to make the judgement as to what to allow their children to be exposed to. I merely point out that it is deeply contradictory and reflects badly on our cultural mores that we are so frightened of depictions of the body or of sex but seem to relish in the depiction of mayhem and murder.)