Brooke Gladstone: This week, we're all pondering the decision by the Tennessee school board to remove the acclaimed nonfiction comic book Mouse from its curriculum. The book recounts the experience of author arts Spiegelman's father in the holocaust and recasts various nationalities as animals. For instance, Germans are cats. Americans, dogs. Jews, mice. In 1992 Mouse became the first and so far only graphic novel to win the Pulitzer.
On Friday, we're going to devote much of the big show to the squelching of books circa 2022 but we thought we'd use this opportunity to remind listeners to the podcast of some of the history of American book banning and one man who seems to have had a whole lot of fun doing battle with it. In 1951 Grove Press was a tiny, almost defunct independent publisher with just three titles in its catalog including Herman Melville's, The Confidence Man but then Barney Rosset took over and with a few choice books helped push America past its puritanical roots into the sexual revolution. Rosset was a native Chicagoan who settled in New York after returning from the war.
He began publishing such authors as Jack Kerouac and explicit works of erotica like the Story of O, it wasn't long before Rosset and Grove Press found themselves defending the first amendment in the courts. This is Barney from the documentary about him called Obscene.
Barney Rosset: When we published Lady Chatterley's Lover, it was denounced as a wicked, perverse, terrible, degrading work, et cetera, et cetera. Then when we published Tropic of Cancer we were told that Lady Chatterley's Lover was a fine book of creative merit but that with Tropic of Cancer, we had gone beyond the bounds of decency. That it was a corrupt, perverse miss. Now with Naked Lunch, we go to court and are told that Tropic of Cancer is a brilliant work of great merit and modern classic et cetera, et cetera. It is only Naked Lunch that is a bad book.
Somehow I imagine the day when Naked Lunch will be the modern classic and it will be yet something else which will be beyond the bounds of decency.
Brooke Gladstone: If Tropic of Cancer proved to be Grove Press's most hard-won battle, it was one that Barney Rosset was itching to fight. The book heard here in a reading by Henry Miller himself was his favorite.
Henry Miller: This then this is not a book. This is liable, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of art, a kick in the pants to God, man, destiny, time, love, beauty. What you will.
Brooke Gladstone: Rosset died in 2012 but he championed the works of Miller and other ostensibly lewd writers for more than 50 years earning him a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation. When I spoke to him in 2008, he talked about some of the first titles he acquired for Grove press.
Barney Rosset: One of the first and the most important book we were ever to publish was, Waiting for Godot of Samuel Beckett.
Brooke Gladstone: What was it that intrigued you about Beckett?
Barney Rosset: That he was a great writer. I was absolutely astounded and taken over by his work. Financially it was hardly a big thing. We paid $200 in advance for Waiting for Godot. We'd also taken on [unintelligible 00:03:47] I think a very important writer and playwright and soon thereafter UNESCO was added making a third so he could say that the first group writers contained a disproportionate percentage of playwrights but that was not on purpose.
Brooke Gladstone: The first book that you chose to fight in the courts to publish was Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence. Why did you want to publish it?
Barney Rosset: The book I was going to publish and did eventually was Henry Miller's, Tropic of cancer. I had read that at Swarthmore College in 1940 freshman English course, I liked it very much. When I found myself publishing books, first thing I thought of was Tropic of Cancer but I knew enough by then to know that it would be censored or it would be stopped. I decided to very carefully prepare a campaign to protect it. Lady Chatterley's Lover was probably the most famous so-called obscene book. It was by a famous English author, very much looked up to in the literary world.
I decided to publish Lady Chatterley's Lover in its entirety and if any troubles came along, which they most certainly did we would fight those through and when we won them, we would then follow up with Tropic of Cancer.
Brooke Gladstone: This was part of a long strategy. The postal service actually confiscated copies of Lady Chatterley's Lover that were sent through the mail. You told the postal service that they were coming and then you sued the New York City postmaster?
Barney Rosset: That's right. I had somebody who had worked as an intern for me here in New York and who now lived in Paris, send copies of the book, very comically, really. They didn't stop them. They kept coming through. I had to tell them, "Hey, you're letting something illegal through." Finally, they did seize the book, and then we formed a case to get the charges dropped.
Brooke Gladstone: Ultimately you did win that case. You were allowed to bring out Lady Chatterley's Lover and that set the stage for Tropic of Cancer, right?
Barney Rosset: That's right and took quite a while.
Brooke Gladstone: Tell me what it was that you loved to about Tropic of Cancer?
Barney Rosset: It was a very cynical, tough book about the United States. Henry was living in France until he was forced to leave by the World War II. He had a very strong sometimes contemptuous stance towards this country. He felt that people had very little originality here. There was very little real feeling. Also, something that was very important in it and also in Beckett, there was a lost love. Miller had a long ongoing love affair with a girl who left him and he had to make a way to live, to go on living and he did. There's a similar incident in Beckett Krapp's Last Tape.
I had the same not unusual experience and it was a matter of how do you continue living and through both of them, I thought I got strength.
Brooke Gladstone: What can you tell me about the court battle over Tropic of Cancer?
Barney Rosset: The court battles were certainly beyond what we imagined. They started immediately upon our are publishing the book. We have a feeling and pretty good proof that a whole group of police got together picked on one page, so happened to be page five of the book to use as an example for other police to seize copies of the book, read page 5 and arrest the book salespeople and that happened all over the United States, one city to another, to another, to another and we had to go and fight in each place. Dozens and dozens of places and took a number of years, really as we gradually worked our way up the American jurisprudence system to get to the Supreme Court but we made it.
Brooke Gladstone: Of course, you didn't just publish so-called obscene books. You also took on material that was controversial in the racially charged atmosphere of the '60s. How did you come to publish the autobiography of Malcolm X?
Barney Rosset: Well, the autobiography of Malcolm X fell apart when he was assassinated. There was a statement that the publisher here was not going to go ahead with publishing the book because it would be a danger to his employees that they might be physically attacked. I didn't feel that way and I bought the rights to the book.
Brooke Gladstone: We saw the documentary that recently came out about you called obscene. What did you think about it?
Barney Rosset: I think a good idea. The difference between my viewpoint and the viewpoint of the producer, the film was that he chose to call it Obscene and my autobiography which I've been writing for quite a while and which parallels that film I call the subject is left-handed. Slight difference...
Brooke Gladstone: What does that mean, the subject is lefthanded?
Barney Rosset: The FBI, CIA, and others did many, many reports on me which I was able to get from the freedom of information acts, thousands of documents, and the heading was used a number of times that the subject is lefthanded. I sympathize with them.
Brooke Gladstone: You just don't think you gave them enough material to go on, huh?
Barney Rosset: They had an enormous amount of material, but it added up to the subject as lefthanded.
Brooke Gladstone: Did it bother you all this attention on Grove Press as publishers of smut when you believed you were publishing also very important works of literature, or maybe these works of smut were in fact important works of literature.
Barney Rosset: Yes, it did bother me. It did bother me, but what was I going to do about it?
Brooke Gladstone: You took on challenge after challenge with so much gusto it does seem that you were on a first amendment crusade, you were trying to break barriers. How does it seem to you?
Barney Rosset: To me, I was just doing what I would be doing. It's what came naturally. I wrote Topic of Cancer when I was a freshman in college. It was not a great decision to publish it for me. It was how to do it, and when.
Brooke Gladstone: Not whether.
Barney Rosset: Samuel Beckett showed more concern about being censored than Miller ever did. Miller showed no interest. Sam wrote me right after we signed the first contract that he wanted me to know that he wouldn't stand for any censorship of his material which was censored, but that was censored in England.
Brooke Gladstone: Why was it censored in England?
Barney Rosset: I remember one little sequence where one of the two sides to the other if one of us hang with himself-
?Speaker 3: Oh what do we do now?
?Speaker 4: Wait. Yes, but while waiting how about hanging ourselves?
?Speaker 3: It might give us an erection.
?Speaker 4: An erection?
?Speaker 3: With all that follows where it falls mandrakes grow. That's where they shriek when you pull them up. they do not know that?
?Speaker 4: Let's hang ourselves immediately.
Barney Rosset: I didn't seriously listen to anybody who said books were smart or this or that. It didn't mean much to me. I mean come on I'm an anti-fascist. I'm a communist. I'm not bothered by smut peddling accusations. I had said I'm a communist I'm not. I was. I was a member of the communist party. The communist was more against sex and books than any other group I've ever met. When that fact fully sunk in on me which took quite a while. I quit.
Brooke Gladstone: Barney Rosset died in 2012 at the age of 89. His memoir was not titled the subject is lefthanded, but rather Rosset My Life in Publishing and How I Fought Censorship. Thanks for listening to the midweek podcast. Check out the big show. It usually posts around dinnertime on Friday where we'll talk more about the battles of the books.
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