The Outlaw Barney Rosset

Because my brother Howie and I collected comics as poor kids in the Bronx, hoping to score a prized first edition of, say, Avengers #4 (which heralded the return appearance of Captain America) or Amazing Fantasy #15 (containing the origin of Spiderman) we haunted the sleazy second hand bookstores around the Bronx of the 1960s, dark moldy storefronts stacked with boxes full of lurid paperbacks and stag mags.

In such a shop, I found a wooden grapefruits crate containing back issues of a magazine called Evergreen Review, edited and published by one Barney Rosset.

Fred Jordan, the other name prominently displayed on the magazine’s masthead, bore the intimidating title of Managing Editor. The small print somewhere described the review as an offshoot arm of a publishing house: Grove Press.

I bought a pile of Evergreens for a dime apiece, hauled them home in a shopping bag and stretching out on the cot that served as my bed poured over the black and white pages, little understanding what I read, mostly impressed by  the authors’ exotic high-sounding names—Jack Kerouac, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, William S. Burroughs, Vladamir Nabokov.

I aspired to write and  would have given at least one eye, possibly an arm, to appear in the pages of such a periodical. But, published in Manhattan, the distance between the offices of Evergreen/Grove Press/Barney Rosset and my Last Exit to Bronx neighborhood was like that between Cape Canaveral and Venus.

Nevertheless, decades later, and despite enough misadventures to fill the pages of several books (which in time they would), somehow I found myself sitting as an invited guest in the Fourth Avenue walk-up loft of the very same Barney Rosset (and his lovely wife, Astrid) whose magazine I had held in my hands as a child.

The journey to the Rossets has been one fraught with improbabilities. My anthology, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, had just appeared, containing a poem from Barney, as well as his picture. And just days before, Fred Jordan—the very same whose name had appeared as Managing Editor of Evergreen Review (and now, decades later, head of his own house, Fromm International, an imprint distributed by FSG) had acquired my memoir Jew Boy for hardcover release, which Barney later published in paperback on his Foxrock imprint.

I had by these and other weirdly karmic routes, arrived on Barney’s sofa, and now sat directly across from the famed publisher.

He was impish-looking but decorous, courtly even but with a Chicago sense of power and we liked each other instantly.

Raised in the Windy City, he was, he told me, half-Jewish and half-Gentile and had suffered a sense of identity confusion early on in life that made him feel like an outsider. His response to this was to opt for a path of perpetual heresy, so to speak.  Barney and some roguish Chicago schoolmates had conjured among themselves a certain elan of rebellious inquiry that would later drive, he said, his gambling choices as a publisher.

Nattily dressed in a black turtleneck and gray sports jacket, Barney exuded a kind of tough grandeur leavened with unflinching pride. But he could also break out in the most winning grin, in which the upstart Chicago schoolboy mingled with the legendary founder of Grove Press—that heroic battler who had single-handedly overturned bans on Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch and in so doing set the stage for much of  post-war culture.

He was, so to speak, an Outlaw Commander of letters, I, a mere highwayman, yet we related as equals. A quiet respect flowed back and forth between us. I sensed in him a Luciferian pride of indomitable willingness to pursue any inspired impulse, break new ground, reach unexplored depths, violate sanctimonious taboos, tear the mask from reality.

Many of today’s writers place money high up on their list of priorities, go write for HBO and Miramax. This was not Barney’s kind of author.

Better to die broke, even forgotten, but to have discharged your gifts honorably, he told me. He said that  the truest wish at the heart of the kind of  writers he had championed—Samuel Beckett, Hubert Selby, Jr., William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker—was not for wealth but to write in a way absolutely true to oneself, no matter how absurd; write in a manner that spits in the face of domineering convention, and that may perhaps even seduce ecstatic pleasures to your door, erotic or forbidden joys.

And in fact, mostly all of Barney’s best writers in some way fit this mold..

He could also provoke you to create. My novel Matches was the direct result of a question that Barney’d once asked me in that loft of his, where we often shot pool as we talked:

“What,” he asked, “ was your greatest heartbreak in love?”

When  I told him about my wartime adulterous affair with the wife of a best friend, in Jerusalem, during my service in the Israeli army, he listened gravely, then told me about his own shattering love for the painter Joan Mitchell.

The most extraordinary woman he’d ever met, Mitchell had opened his mind to things like avant garde theater and Abstract Expressionism and she gave him sensual experiences, he said, beyond his wildest imaginings.

Then he said, simply: “Your story about your friend’s wife and the war,  you must write that book!” Which I did and to which he put a back cover quote that compared the resulting novel, Matches, to Norman Mailer’s The Naked and The Dead.

Often, I asked him of how he felt about how various writers had evolved. What, for instance, did he think of Henry Miller’s later career? He grimaced; felt that Miller’s embrace of Eastern philosophy had compromised the intensity of his work.

Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, Black Spring: these, Barney felt, were Miller at his edgy best. But though his acquisition of Tropic of Cancer from a scandal-wary Miller and subsequent Supreme Court victory for the right to publish it was, he said, one of the high-points in his own life, he felt that the books which Miller later wrote at Big Sur merited little or no interest.

And what about Kerouac?

Barney only shrugged. “Kerouac was big at the time,” he said, “so why wouldn’t I jump to publish him?” But, no, he wasn’t a Barney favorite.

Which books did he most admire?

Unhesitatingly he answered: Waiting For Godot, Last Exit to Brooklyn and Naked Lunch.  He valued, too, the works of  Jean Genet, the author-thief of Our Lady of the Flowers and other works that Barney had published and told me that Genet had once stolen a valued object from his home. Barney laughed it off: “He was a real thief. What else should I expect?”

He felt that one of his most inspiring personal experiences had been his participation in Norman Mailer’s film project, Maidstone: cinema shot without a script—an experiment of the sheerest sort of  spontaneity.

He envisioned, he said, some day producing a version of Samuel Beckett’s play, Eleutherea, which he had published under the Foxrock imprint. In this production, he would use, he said, the same sort of  methodological freedom that Mailer had in Maidstone, so that spontaneity would inform the speaking of lines and the stage design. His face glowed with a kind of visionary intensity when he spoke of this.

Of course, his friendship with  Beckett and pioneering publication of the Irish dramatist’s works in the United States, including Waiting for Godot, was, he said, his proudest achievement, his finest hour.

According to Barney, the first few years of Godot’s appearance in print brought little more than sales in the hundreds: for Beckett, a typical outcome—none of his published works had ever sold well.

The playwright accepted obscurity with saint-like resignation, Barney said.

Nonetheless, Barney’s persevering belief in Beckett was absolute. And quite suddenly, Godot exploded in the consciousness of the world. Overnight, Beckett was on everyone’s lips. This was due in no small part to Barney’s unflagging support during the lean years when few others seemed to care.

So Barney was deeply hurt by efforts by some, he said, to claim Beckett away, and to relegate Barney to a minor role in the Beckett saga.

A low point for him was the release of  a volume of recollections of Beckett titled Remembering Beckett, Beckett Remembering. Edited by James and Elizabeth Knowlson, and published by Arcade Books, the imprint of Richard Seaver, a former editor at Grove, the volume appeared to place Seaver center stage in the tale of Beckett’s rise while relegating Barney to the sidelines. Offended, Barney declined to participate in celebrations of the book’s release.

He was hurt, too, by his portrayal in Obscene, a documentary which dwelled for inordinate lengths, Barney felt, on the financial difficulties he had faced at Grove, rather than meaningfully explore his almost single-handed identification and publication of what has come to comprise the most significant works of American and international post-war literature.

Indeed, when I met him, Barney’s fortunes seemed at low ebb. There were moments of what appeared to be actual penury, astonishing for a man of such eminence. And then, quite suddenly, again the tide turned. Barney was named a Chevalier Du France by the French Ministry of Culture. He won the lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle.

His name began to appear again with increased frequency in the New York Times. Near the end of his life, Columbia University bought his papers for a princely sum.

The last years of his life were devoted mainly to the writing of his memoirs, assisted by the estimable Jim Feast, and his direct overseeing of the online version of Evergreen Review, assisted by his lovely wife, Astrid Myers-Rosset. Under Barney’s stewardship, Evergreen continued to promote the new and the exciting.

In 2010, running over three numbers and in the spirit of its groundbreaking 1956 issue on the Beats, Evergreen offered up a special section on the New San Francisco Underground Poets. And a risky essay which I penned, entitled The Electronic Bookburning about the ruinous impact of high-tech on books and bookstores incited furious responses from Newsweek and Atlantic Monthly, Market Watch and The Economist, not to speak of untold numbers of fanatical techies. Barney was delighted.

The last time I saw him was in January of last year, a month before he died. I was on book tour to New York for my memoir, Drunken Angel. Four of us from the younger guard had come to the Rosset’s Fourth Avenue home, including photographer Clayton Patterson, the writer and editor Jim Feast and Ron Kolm, poet, author, archivist and (with Feast), ringleader of The Unbearables. During a lull in the conversation, Astrid allowed me a peek into the bedroom where Barney lay  fast asleep, curled on his bed, dressed in black pajamas.

For the rest of the afternoon, we sat with Astrid in the kitchen, eating cheese and salami, laughing and debating, and surrounded by framed covers of  the print edition of The Evergreen Review and photographs of Barney with Samuel Beckett and original watercolor art by Henry Miller.

Astrid then showed us a mural that Barney had undertaken even at this late age and despite his fragile health. It was unlike anything we’d ever seen. Strange organic shapes plastered onto a wall-sized painting. A vision from a visionary. A gift, as all his actions were, bequeathed to the future.

Alan Kaufman’s most recent book is Drunken Angel, a memoir.

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