When I was new to New York in the 1990s, I often trolled about Lower Manhattan looking for interesting encounters and odd adventures. I was a single person in my 20s, impetuous for the first time in my life and trying to overcome my shyness. I knew only I wanted to be a writer, but I needed stuff to fill my head with. One night, I found myself at a rather loud clamorous bar on 9th Street called Solas, where the music was loud and the yawping patrons louder. It was a little too hip to be a sports bar, but also too loud a place to talk about things like, say, Samuel Beckett’s work.
I had learned a few things as a journalist, though, one of which is to look for incongruities in a picture. The incongruity in that splashy bar on that night was an old man in his 70s sitting in the corner watching the young people caper with the disinterest and mien (and even the glasses) of Jean-Paul Sartre. I did something I rarely do now–overcame my shyness and approached him, knowing somehow only that this must be a guy with a story.
Boy, did he have one. I’m not sure how we got to talking after I asked him what he was doing in a loud bar full of hardbodies, but eventually I got it out of him that he, as I, was interested in literature. Usually, a person must be skeptical when the old guy at the bar starts talking shortly thereafter about being on a first-name basis with the author of “Waiting for Godot,” and that he’s named his son Beckett after him as a favor. And yet after I talked more with this guy, I could no longer deny after a short time that I had not just stumbled upon an old guy interested in 20th century literature–but in fact had stumbled upon an honest-to-God 20th century literary figure. Sitting drinking at a bar by himself, ready for a conversation with an amiable dunce.
Barney Rosset, the man I found myself speaking to, was in fact the man who helmed Grove Press during the mid-century American literary Renaissance and brought literary greats like Beckett and Jean Genet to America using a cushion of family money and a famously lush caprice. He fought indecency laws by publishing “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” by D.H. Lawrence and “Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller for the first time in the U.S. with all their ebullient filthiness intact. Before there was a Larry Flynt or a 2 Live Crew, there was Rosset. He championed beat writers. And communists. And Malcolm X. The postmaster general tried to shut him down for “Lady Chatterly,” but an appeals court made the breakthrough announcement: sometimes smut can be redeeming.
That seems like a quaint notion today when South Park makes jokes about little boys licking each other’s balls. Look at that sentence again. If it sounds harsher in print than it does when you’re watching the actual show (where that actually happened), then maybe you have some idea of what Barney Rosset was up against. Ideas are scary.
So that I could hold up my end of the conversation with a guy who had seen everything, I remember talking a bit about a book I had set in Nicaragua (that’s a long story). Rosset was not only interested in my ideas, but he said he had a son that had gone down to witness the Sandinista era himself and was able to give me lots of color about the early hope and later disillusion of the young revolutionaries in their Marxist-Leninist government. (I didn’t know until later that Rosset, like a lot of radicals of his generation, was a former disillusioned communist). He was one of the only leftists I ever met who suggested genuine support for the anti-Sandinista UNO party at the end.
In his heyday, he not only published works by Jack Kerouac and Tom Stoppard and Malcolm X but even Che Guevara. For his trouble, his office was bombed in 1968 (when, luckily, nobody was in it). He later suffered a backlash from feminists in the late 60s and early 70s who said that the writings he championed mainly degraded women. And in 1985, he sold the Grove Press under a contractual obligation that he remain in charge. He was fired within a year. He spent time in court, settled, and seemed to dabble too much in too many ventures, bad radical films seemingly being a big one.
When I went home, I had to delve more deeply into the man I met. Though he didn’t tell me at the time, he’d been married, to Joan Mitchell–one of my favorite abstract expressionist painters (whose work I’d seen at the University of Texas at Austin in the James Michener collection). “Well shit!” I thought. I probably could have spent the whole evening talking about her alone, but I realize in retrospect that Barney Rosset collected a few wives along the way and perhaps wouldn’t have wanted to go there. But who knew. He was open about a lot of things, including the degradations of a close family member at Riker’s Island.
What struck me more than anything is that he seemed piqued about the literary projects I was working on … and hinted that I could perhaps send them to him at the Evergreen Review. As if! I knew then that even if my work was ready (it wasn’t) that it probably wasn’t radical enough for the tradition he was carrying on. What he brought was not only the seeds of sexual revolution but a freedom of sensual language in a world that is often depressingly literal. The intellect’s revenge on art, as Susan Sontag put it. Every writer I know owes some debt to that period, even if they don’t like all the work or think some of it is indulgent. Liberation is messy. It has no time for cuteness or the coyness that we’ve since come up with as an antidote to the Aquarian age of sexual Rousseauism. Even Camille Paglia, a supposed sexual radical, regularly craps on the seditionaries of this period for their back-to-nature naivete.
I personally felt ridiculous talking about my own work in the context Barney Rosset championed and shaped. But I marveled that this great man had not only encouraged me but showed me enough respect that we could have a two-way conversation. He had a great open mind even in his 70s and what I had to offer him, that night anyway, seemed important enough for him to listen to.
I never met him again, but kept up with him and his endeavors and told everyone I knew, “You know there’s an honest to God American literary legend walking around Lower Manhattan who sits in bars and occasionally has to remind people who he is.”