If there’s one person from the annals of 20th-century publishing who deserves to be better remembered than he currently is, that would be Barney Rosset; “founder” of Grove Press (that is, after buying the name from a couple of incompetent academes who only managed to re-release three public domain titles in the two years they were in business), who then turned the press into the premiere destination for avant-garde and cutting-edge work in the Mid-Century Modernist years, which he financed through hundreds of reprints of old Victorian erotic novels, eventually spending millions of dollars to convince the Supreme Court to create a brand-new definition of what constitutes “obscene” artistic material, it was Rosset who quite single-handedly ushered in the era of uncensored books and movies we currently live in, just to be personally undone by the ’80s by his flamboyantly sexist lifestyle and inherently bad business sense.
And Michael Rosenthal’s new Barney does a great job at covering it all; although a short book, it briskly covers all the highlights of this complex and fascinating man’s life, not only conveying the whats and hows but delving into the issues that motivated him, the culture around him that was perfectly ready at that perfect moment for such behavior, and what both the good and bad fallout was from his sometimes volatile decisions. And make no mistake, this is far from a sugar-coating or hagiography; Rosset not only comes off here like the petulant, libidinous man-child he no doubt was in real life, but Rosenthal even places this subject at the heart of the biography itself, rightly asking whether this First Amendment crusader would’ve even had the temerity to simultaneously fight 21 different state district attorneys at once if he wasn’t such a egomaniacal lothario. A man who was at the very center of the underground arts during the crucial decades of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, who not only introduced American audiences to such European writers as Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet but also liberated Henry Miller and the Beat poets into the realm of mainstream national success, this slim but essential volume is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the countercultural era and Postmodernism better, a solidly done portrait of a brilliant, often infuriating champion of subversion in all forms.
Out of 10: 9.5