by Peter Byrne
(Swans - February 27, 2012) Presidential hopefuls are presently striving to outdo one another in hypocrisy. It's as if the voters were all cloistered nuns and the prize of the White House will go to the cleanest suit of underwear. How refreshing then to consider the life of Barney Rosset, which has just ended in its 89th year. When asked why he printed erotica, he answered simply that he did so because it "excited me." However, his most notable courtroom defenses against obscenity charges concerned the literary masters D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and William S. Burroughs.
The Irish Jew who came out of Chicago and family money was no political militant. He nevertheless published some Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh when they were not at the height of fashion and did give us The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In 1968, anti-Castro Cubans threw a fragmentation grenade into his office.
Rosset's exploits as a publisher are now being itemized in detail in countless obituaries. Dead he can no longer cock a snook at the national press that once called him a "smut pedlar" and pictured him as a sewer rat. Some idea of Rosset's importance for American letters can be seen in Volume 1, Number 1 of his fabulous Evergreen Review, that was launched in 1957. It led off with Jean-Paul Sartre's article on the Budapest uprising of just months before. Samuel Beckett would not receive the Nobel Prize until 1969, but America could read his short story here as well as a suite of his poems. The Belgian artist-poet Henri Michaux' Miserable Miracle appeared in translation with his illustrations. The critic Mark Schorer contributed a long essay on Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, a book that would be published unexpurgated in America only in 1959, largely through the efforts of Barney Rosset. If I were around for the funeral I'd be tempted to lay my travel-scarred copy of Evergreen Review, Vol.1, No. 1, on the coffin. Instead, being far away, I'm going to re-read it.
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