Available on home video on February 10th, “Obscene” helps prove a point that I have made repeatedly, namely that the old left of the 1930s was midwife to both the beat generation and the political radicalization and counter-culture of the 1960s.
Focused on the career of Barney Rosset, who founded Grove Press and published Evergreen Review, this superb documentary reveals how it was completely natural for a member of the Young Communists in 1937 to eventually end up publishing not only “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” and “Tropic of Cancer” in defiance of the Calvinist censorship laws of the 1950s, but to also print the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” in defiance of the racist attitudes that prevailed in American publishing.
When Rosset discovered that Doubleday decided not to publish Malcolm’s autobiography, his Grove Press came to the rescue. This was completely consistent with values that he had embraced since his high school days when he published a student newspaper called “The Sommunist”. The title was a playful riff on the earlier titles, “The Communist” and “The Socialist”.
Serving as an army cameraman during WWII in the hopes of eventually making a career in the movie business, Rosset produced a documentary in 1948 called “Strange Victory”. Using stock footage of Ku Klux Klan lynchings and Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies, etc, it challenged racism in the postwar period. Despite his political interests, Rosset was also part of the social milieu of abstract expressionists and bohemian intellectuals who used to hang out at the Cedar Tavern in New York in the 1950s. With connections made through Joan Mitchell, his wife at the time and an artist herself, he socialized with Jackson Pollock who had begun his career as a leftwing WPA artist.
Samuel Beckett (l) and Barney Rosset in Paris in the 1970s
Six years after the launching of Grove Press in 1951, the very first issue of Evergreen Review hit the stands. I first discovered Evergreen Press in final year of high school in 1961 and took out a subscription. In my desperation to find nonconformist culture in those suffocating years, you can imagine my delight in seeing a table of contents that typically included:
Kenneth Rexroth — San Francisco Letter and Noretorp-Noretsyh
Brother Antoninus, O.P. — Four Poems
Robert Duncan — Three Poems
Lawrence Ferlinghetti — Dog and Other Poems
Henry Miller — Big Sur and the Good Life
Michael McClure — The Robe and Other Poems
Jack Spicer — Psychoanalysis and Other Poems
Gary Snyder — The Berry Feast
Philip Whalen — Five Poems
Jack Kerouac — October in the Railroad Earth
Allen Ginsberg — Howl
Not only was I starving for this kind of “outsider” literature, as a hormone-driven 16 year old I wanted to read sexually explicit literature without some censor interfering with that right. In high school, I learned that there was this novel called “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” that had some hot sex scenes. The only trouble was that it was banned in the U.S. People who traveled to Europe often smuggled it back into the U.S., like Cuban cigars. I couldn’t wait to get my sweaty 16 year old fingers on it.
Not only did Grove Press win a landmark decision that made reading D.H. Lawrence’s novel possible, it followed up with another legal victory in 1961. Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” was finally available through Grove Press as well, a witty and profane alternative to Lawrence’s floridly self-conscious literary style. We see clips of Henry Miller in “Obscene” as well as a number of other Grove Press writers, including Samuel Beckett, William S. Burroughs and Amiri Baraka.
Many years after first being exposed to Grove Press books, I learned that one of its top editors was none other than Harry Braverman who had worked closely with Bert Cochran on the American Socialist/Socialist Union project of the 1950s, whose legacy I have tried to uphold in various ways. After spending a few years at Grove, Harry went to work at Monthly Review where he wrote “Labor and Monopoly Capital”, a Marxist classic about alienation in the post-Fordist world.
I wonder what Harry thought of an article that appeared in the 1958 American Socialist that appeared so out of whack with the job that would be awaiting him at Grove Press. George Hitchcock’s review of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” damned with faint praise the literature that was shaking young people to their foundations. Hitchcock wrote:
But beneath the cultish nonsense and literary borrowings there is another aspect to ‘On The Road,’ and it is this which gives the book its value. For in his naive outpouring Kerouac gives us at least one authentic picture-the picture of a submerged America, the America of an alienated, protesting generation which wanders from meaningless job to meaningless job in the depths of her psychic forests, a part of America expatriated in its own land. And this tragedy is not merely the personal one of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise-it is the tragedy of our society, glittering on its suburban surfaces and anarchic and despairing in its true heart.
Although Barney Rosset appears to belong to a different epoch, he is still going strong at the age of 87. I strongly recommend a visit to his website where electronic versions of old Evergreen Reviews can be downloaded for only $2.95. Compared to the schlock that can be found in your local newsstand, this is the bargain of the century.