The filth and the fury

Obscene chronicles one man's lifelong crusade against censorship
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Apologies to all Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville fans out there, but the American novel didn't get good until it shook off the last vestiges of Puritanism and risked a certain shock factor. It wasn't just the authors pushing potentially offensive social-realist (Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair) or unflattering social-elite-portraiture boundaries (Edith Wharton, Henry James, etc.) who made the upstart nation's lit suddenly comparable to the Old World's new output. By the dawn of the 20th century, non-rabble-rousing Yank fiction (not to be confused with today's street-corner favorite tabloid, Yank) had also matured stylistically. Still, it's those "dirty books" that somehow still stick out in well-read readers' back pages. American censorship battles in the 20th century were, until well into the sexual revolution, largely fought on literary terrain.

Barney Rosset, the subject of new documentary Obscene, should be canonized by First Amendment fans as the patron saint of key mid-20th-century obscenity cases. As founder of Evergreen Review and Grove Press, this "smut peddler" published everyone from Harold Pinter to Octavio Paz to Kathy Acker, as well as a whole lot of unapologetic porn (mostly the Victorian kind). No wonder Rosset was behind some of the central court struggles against censorious US standards for both literature and movies. He consorted with yippies and Black Panthers, produced close friend Samuel Beckett's only film (1965's Film), and was called a "tragic hero" by his own analyst (one of many). He is an interesting enough guy that one wishes codirectors Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O'Connor's admiring portrait was longer — it gets the career highlights down but barely touches on what sounds like an equally colorful personal life.

Weaned on the radicalism of Depression-era East Coast experimental schools, Rosset was an Army combat cinematographer during World War II. He returned home to produce 1948's virtually unknown Strange Victory — a movie about American racism so incendiary that only one New York City theater would consent to show it. Having been checked out by the FBI as a possible "Communist filth racketeer" while in grammar school, he was on familiar ground when he commenced the first of many legally challenged literary ventures in the late 1950s. Evergreen Press republished Allen Ginsberg's suppressed epic poem Howl; Grove launched US printings of D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, both already decades-old yet still banned on our shores. Other causes célèbres included William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (published just after his assassination), and Che Guevara's diaries (which angered somebody enough to get Grove's offices bombed).

As if this wasn't drama enough, Rosset's business and personal fortunes experienced considerably more disorder as the turbulent '60s turned into the oversatiated '70s. Importing a Marxist quasidocumentary art film from Sweden, 1967's I Am Curious (Yellow), made cinema safe for sex after protracted court battles. It also made millions, which perversely hurt Grove in the end — forcing an expansion that proved disastrous, particularly when 1968 sequel I Am Curious (Blue) bombed. The CIA put Rosset under surveillance and women's liberationists assailed his catalog as sexist, yet threatening calls and sniper fire at his home did not exactly discourage his alcohol and amphetamine abuse. He was even fired from Grove itself after a supposedly friendly takeover.

Too bad Obscene just skims over the less-public chapters in its subject's life, like his four marriages. Now a dapper and delightful old man, Rosset has long since burned through the last of many fortunes made and lost.

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