Two films recently got me thinking about Barney Rosset, the firebrand publisher of Grove Press and Evergreen Review. First, An American Journey: Revisiting Robert Frank’s The Americans by Philippe Séclier. I was not enamored of the film, which did not, in my opinion, do justice to Frank‘s photographic genius or the seminal book that forms the centerpiece of the film. However, the film did remind me of the struggle Frank had to get the work published in the United States, and the role Barney Rosset played in publishing the monograph of 83 black and white photographs, which is widely considered pivotal in the history of photography. The second film, New York in the 50’s, based on a book of the same name by Dan Wakefield, was great fun to watch, mostly because it brought me back to the heady days of the late 50’s in Greenwich Village.
I first met Barney Rosset at the Cedar Tavern, then at University Place at 8th St. It was the primary watering hole for Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and other Abstract Expressionists. The conversation there often centered around “Is it art?”, a question that has also shadowed photography. (See my recent interview with Ted Forbes, The Art of Photography host, on this same question). The Beat writers of the day were also in attendance. Kerouac and Ginsberg and latter Bob Dylan. Alcohol flowed relentlessly releasing inhibitions and sometimes ruining the very genius it helped unleash. Pollock would eventually be banned from the Cedar for tearing the doors off the men’s room. In his film, Dan Wakefield shares his own story of a night of drunkeness, which led to a botched attempt to slit his wrists due to a romantic rift. The next morning he was being interviewed for a Neiman Fellowship, which he somehow managed to get! I hate admitting how much I participated in this manic ritual, but I’m happy to say that those days are well behind me and now I kneel at the altar of AA.
1957 was a big year for me. I was 26 years old, and preparing for my first child. I had finished a show at Helen Gee’s Limelight Gallery and surrendered my space at the Jazz Loft to W. Eugene Smith. I moved into another loft at 747 Sixth Avenue with a bit more space. My partner at the time, Dorrie Woodson, was a jazz pianist and we were just scraping by (which I did most of my early life). I had begun teaching and, unbeknownst to me at the time, I was about to receive a teaching fellowship at The Annenberg School of Communications, which would take me out of New York and down to Philadelphia for a number of years.
Enter Barney Rosset who offered me the opportunity to help launch the premiere issue of Evergreen Review, which would become America’s most avant-garde and controversial literary journal. I can’t remember what he paid me for the cover photo and the eight page spread, but whatever it was, I needed it. I had earned some money as a designer for Blue Note Records and offered my design services for the issue also, for which he probably paid me a bit more.
The first issue featured a story by Samuel Beckett and an essay by Jean-Paul Sartre. Rosset would become Beckett’s most ardent promoter in the United States having published Waiting for Godot in 1954 after everyone else had refused it. The second issue of Evergreen brought the Beat writers front and center in one forum for the first time.
The New York Times described Rosset as:
the flamboyant, provocative publisher who helped change the course of publishing in the United States, bringing masters like Samuel Beckett to Americans’ attention under his Grove Press imprint and winning celebrated First Amendment slugfests against censorship,
In the 1960s Rosset defied censors by publishing D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, winning legal battles that opened the door to sexually provocative language and subject matter in literature published in the United States.
In addition to being the primary champion of writers like Samuel Beckett, Pablo Neruda, Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, Octavia Paz, Harold Pinter and many others, he also provided a platform for Che Guevera, Ho Chi Minh, Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon and other heroes of the Left. In 1968, his office was bombed by a hand grenade by anti-Castro advocates for publishing Che Guevera’s, The Bolivian Diary. No one was hurt.
In the 70’s the ferment he had helped to cultivate came back to bite him. When employees tried to unionize he called the police. The union proposal was defeated. After the union vote failed, he fired half his workers. He was accused by feminists of sexism and misogyny in some of his publications. Later, under financial stress, he sold Grove Press to the oil heiress, Anne Getty but kept Evergreen Review going online. His contributions were great. His flaws were also…just like the rest of us! He died in 2012.
Thinking back on Rosset, I associate him with my memories of New York in the late 50’s. It’s tempting to think of those times as “the good old days”, and to be sure there was an intoxicating romance to the creativity and daring that characterized the time. It was liberating to a point, but in hindsight it was limited by its own shadows. I suppose that’s a perennial lesson of history. In his New York Times op-ed Bye Bye Bohemia about the final closing of The Cedar Tavern, cultural critic Lee Siegel, painted a picture of the famed watering hole as a place at once heady, but also hedonistic, and not friendly to women or gay — a fact too true then and now. I found his conclusion interesting, though perhaps a bit too sweeping.
Enlightened social attitudes and revolutionary artistic creation rarely go hand in hand.
I’m sure there are too many exceptions to that statement. But, there’s always room for reflection, and whether that’s true or not, I’ll keep some faith that the two are getting closer and closer together.