[This piece appeared in the recently published anthology, Jews: A People’s History of the Lower East Side, Volume II, edited by Clayton Patterson.]

Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes with Barney Rosset, that maverick publisher who, with Grove Press and its affiliated magazine, Evergreen Review, upended and changed (for the better) American publishing and culture from the 1950s through the early ’80s, will know that his opinions are unpredictable, adventurous and decided. And so they proved to be when, one afternoon in December ’09, we sat down to talk about the Jewish Lower East Side.

Having courageously published, championed and often befriended some of the most daring, unsettling and masterly writers of the 20th century, going from Beckett and Burroughs onto Henry Miller, Genet, Pinter, Leroi Jones/Baraka, Marguerite Duras, Kenzaburo Oe, and Jack Kerouac, he had definite ideas about literary culture, the part (often negative) New York City played in it, and on Jewish LES authors, such as Ginsberg, whom he knew well and who helped created this city’s literary milieu.

Let me preface a recounting of his remarks with a brief sketch of the man’s extraordinary career.

Born in Chicago in 1922, son of a Jewish banker father and Irish mother, he was already a flaming radical in the forward-thinking grammar school where his progressive English teacher had the class perform a rewritten version of Robinson Crusoe, which departed from Defoe by ending with a denunciation of capitalism! Soon enough, he and his buddy Haskell Wexler (who grew up to become an Academy Award-winning cinematographer and director) were putting out their own newspaper, Anti-Everything, which pretty much summed up their opinion of a country where, on May 30, 1937, some of his schoolmates witnessed the violence unleashed against picketers on strike at a Republic Steel plant in Chicago. The police dispersed the peaceful protesters via a barrage of gunfire, which killed ten outright and wounded scores more.

After high school and a few years of college, in 1944 Rosset joined the army, serving in China, where he was witness to both warfare and life in postwar Shanghai. Returning to the States, still hell bent on reform, he worked with Leo Hurwitz and a small group to produce the documentary film Strange Victory, which underscored the anomaly that a U.S., which had just fought a war against Nazi intolerance and anti-Semitism, went right on practicing Southern-style segregation and racism at home. This was not a message the country wanted to hear, and the film flopped. Rosset licked his wounds in France where he had gone with his wife Joan Mitchell, who is now recognized as one of the leading Abstract Expressionists. Mitchell knew that in the late 1940s New York City was the “happening” place to be for a fledgling painter, and they moved back, settling in the Village on 11th Street. Then Rosset bought a small, defunct publishing house for three thousand dollars, including its inventory of three paperbacks, as a new outlet for his progressive impulses.

The rest is history, U.S. history. American literary sensibility was changed as Grove poured out one

groundbreaking text after another, and not only the now well known, such as Genet’s Our Lady of the

Flowers, Beckett’s The Unnameable, Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, and Kerouac’s The

Subterraneans; but lesser known, though still potent texts such as Robert Gover’s One Hundred Dollar

Misunderstanding, John Rechy’s City of Night, and Last Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh. (In this

last group, of lesser known, but significant works, should go such specifically Jewish works as Norman

Rosten’s novel Under the Boardwalk and the anthology Jewish Radicalism.) And, since so many of

Grove’s authors were dramatists, Grove also rewrote theatrical history with the publication

of Waiting for Godot, Ionesco’s Rhinocerous, Jones’ Dutchman, Pinter’s The Homecoming, and

other works. And, since Grove branched out into film distribution, it also set its seal on cinema culture

with its introduction of such works as the Swedish film I Am Curious, Yellow directed by Vilgot Sjöman;

Oshima’s Boy, and Rocha’s Antonio Das Mortes, as well as by producing Beckett’s only motion picture,


Moreover, Rosset put his money where his ink was by, for example, in 1959 famously promising to reimburse the judicial costs for any bookstore brought to court for selling Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, a book that he had read and written about while a freshman at Swarthmore in 1941. Since at that time censorship laws differed from state to state, the cases were fought across the country. Not only did Rosset and Grove fight for freedom of expression in relation to Miller, but took up the cudgels for Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and other works in order to win new freedom of expression and latitude for the arts. In 1964, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that Miller’s novel could be sold and distributed in the U.S., a landmark affirmation of First Amendment rights.

Rosset sold Grove in the early 1980s, although retaining an editorial position, from which he was soon forced out, possibly because his brand of iconoclasm was ill-suited to the more corporate direction the firm was henceforth to navigate. His unceremonious ejection from the company he had guided for decades caused an outcry from many of the authors he had worked with, including Nobelists Beckett and Kenzaburo Oe, who not only expressed outrage but wrote or gave him unpublished materials to use in any new venture he established.

Since he left Grove, Rosset has continued putting out notable books, though on a smaller scale, offering such works as Eleutheria, Beckett’s first and only three-act play; Lo’s Diary, a work by Italian feminist Pia Pera, which playfully told the story of Nabokov’s Lolita from the nymphet’s point of view; and Alan Kaufman’s Jew Boy, the powerful memoir of a young man growing up in the Bronx, son of a holocaust survivor. Now [in Dec. ’09 before his passing], he is making what is hopefully a final revision of his autobiography  and publishing the innately controversial Evergreen Review online.

In fact, it was just after putting to bed the latest issue of Evergreen Review (where I am a contributing editor) that Rosset talked about the Jewish Lower East Side.

Let’s note that just as Rosset is half Jewish so it might be said that Grove Press’s final offices (when the house was under Rosset’s control) on Houston and Sixth Avenue were on the outskirts of the Lower East Side. It is this same insider/outsider positioning that I am tempted to say partially accounts for the characteristic objectivity, creativity and flair of his opinions.

The first matter he took up in connection to the LES was how it was configured. Simply put, coming from Chicago, he was not familiar with the way New York’s different sections were arranged via ethnic patterning. As artist Clayton Patterson has explained, “The LES was always an immigrant neighborhood, though certainly not always Jewish. Look round at the many Catholic Churches.  When the Slocum sank,” he continued, referring to a 1904 disaster when 1,000 people, mainly Germans on a church picnic excursion, were burned when the paddle steamer, the General Slocum, caught fire and sank, “a large portion of the LES German Lutherans moved to Yorkville. The LES Lutheran churches became synagogues. After World War II, the Puerto Ricans came in, and the synagogues turned back into churches.” But Chicago, possessing less variety of ethnicities and having its main dividing line being between white and black, not different nationalities, was not conceived in the same way.

“You see,” Rosset explains, “I could never identify locales in New York the way I could in Chicago. I couldn’t connect the North Side of Chicago with the Lower East Side. In Chicago, there was a straight line from the Upper North Side down to the South, all along the lake. The city stayed on the lake.” While each neighborhood had its distinctive ethnic or racial profile, districts were not primarily viewed along these lines, but rather according to income. Moving down from the north, the city was arranged according to “ascending levels of wealth until it reached the center [the Loop], then its well being dipped abruptly [continuing south] only to recover very strongly as it went toward the University of Chicago. I knew nothing of that second [south of downtown] half.” By contrast, he continued, “New York was different, especially the Village. It mixed a lot of different people. You would be in a circle of different people, and the circle would circulate.”

Although this form of interaction was not common between ethnic groups – as Patterson has pointed out, in the 1940s there was a line dividing the Jewish and Italian sections, and youth crossing it in either direction would be in danger of harassment from the neighborhoods respective gangs –  it would have been true of the LES’s artistic fringe where Jews and non-Jews interacted as freely as they did in the Village.

Speaking of the fringe, Rosset made another remark that, at first, seems quite surprising. He says that bohemia is not an essential place for writers. Why? “Writers could live anywhere and carry on their writing.” But, as he found from living with Joan, “painters had to have each other’s company. They had to talk, to ask, `What kind of paint did you use?’ They learned from each other. Eighth Street [in the late ’40s] was the center of the universe for them.” Rosset himself did not confine his cultural activities to the Village, but would make trips to Lower East Side jazz clubs, such as Slug’s and The Five Spot, to catch the latest sounds.

Mitchell took him along when she hung out with de Kooning, Pollock and others in the Abstract Expressionist crowd. “The painters were very convivial. But also very poor,” at least till they moved to East Hampton. Rosset followed them there, buying a house or, rather, a Quonset hut, which he purchased from Robert Motherwell. “They went out there because a benefactor gave money to them, supported them. Of course, some of them, like Motherwell, were already rich.” He added that he himself was not a painter. “I was an outsider.”

I asked him, then, given that he had found some camaraderie with painters, how he got along with writers. His thought turned to Ginsberg. “I was never as close to the writers [as a group] as I was to the painters. But when I met Allan, he was like a painter, very simple. He was not a part of the ‘literocracy.’ No emphasis on Ph.D.’s, going to Columbia.”

“But he did go to Columbia,” I objected.

“Yeah, but he got out of there as fast as his legs could carry him.”

Perhaps this would be a good point to say something about the vagaries of literary history as revealed in Ginsberg’s climb to fame.

In the hagiography of the Beat generation much is made of the Big Six Gallery reading in San Francisco at which Ginsberg premiered Howl, with Kerouac in the audience shouting “Go, go” to the poet’s rousing performance. Yet electrifying and inspiring as this unveiling was, it was only a reading, and, so far as the poem’s wider reception is concerned, the main value of this event was the securing of the poem’s publication by City Lights in 1956. But, again, to concentrate on readership, City Lights was a small press, just starting out, and did not have a wide distribution.

It was controversy, as so often with the Beats, that preceded celebrity and wider readership. Take Naked Lunch, as another example. The book had circulated for years, but no publisher took it up. Then the Chicago Review, literary magazine of the University of Chicago, decided to run an excerpt. When school officials found out, alerted by a pre-publication right-wing editorial in a Chicago paper, the magazine was suppressed, the student editors resigned in protest, and Naked Lunch, now famous, was published by Grove.

In an analogous way, Howl’s  fame grew when the book was seized as obscene and City Lights’ owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was arrested for publishing it. However, the book’s artistic value was vindicated in the courts, who allowed it to be sold. Still, City Lights was small, and even with its notoriety, the poem was more talked about than purchased and read. Again Grove stepped in. With the poem’s legalization, the publisher’s magazine arm, the recently inaugurated Evergreen Review, devoted its second issue, “The San Francisco Scene,” to various Beat writers and included Howl, as Exhibit A of the new writing.  It was this publication by Grove Press, larger and more well-known New York company – at that time, the city was the country’s dominant publishing center – that got Howl in the hands of a much larger public, establishing the poem as a widely read masterpiece (almost an oxymoron in the U.S.), and put Ginsberg in the new pantheon.

Let it be noted that in many cases, such as with Last Exit to Brooklyn or City of Night, Grove itself unearthed the controversial, first-rank authors behind the books. However, as we see with Ginsberg’s Howl, Grove also acted by picking up books that had been put in print by small houses and already stirred controversy, and then created further excitement by putting its imprimatur on them. Ginsberg, though unconventional in many regards, recognized the value of a New York publishing connection, especially with a fellow maverick like Rosset. Though not close friends, over time Ginsberg and Rosset developed a relationship that was filled with respect and congeniality.

We left Kerouac beating a tom-tom at the Big Six Gallery, but let’s return to him briefly, since Rosset classified him as another serious but unpretentious practitioner of this craft, just like Ginsberg. Rosset said that, as was Howl’s author, “Kerouac was natural and I loved him for that.” Moreover, as Rosset explained in relating a key incident, Kerouac’s lack of academic training did not leave him feeling abashed in front of credentialed people. “When Kerouac gave us The Subterraneans, my editor, Don Allen, loved it. But then Don began changing it, fixing up parts. When Kerouac heard about this, he wrote us, ‘Do it the way I wrote it or forget it.’

“I wrote him back, ‘We’ll take it the way you wrote it.’ Kerouac was not as learned or educated as Don Allen, but the way he wrote erupted from the inner self. Quite wonderful.”

The conversation moved to another writer who was strongly associated with the Lower East Side, Alexander Trocchi. This writer was not Jewish, but rather a Scottish expatriate who wrote his powerful novel Cain’s Book in and about the LES. Still, Rosset’s comments on Trocchi had broad relevance to the existence of literary subcultures in New York City and particularly the LES. Here let me note that while much of this anthology, along with its companion volumes Captured and Resistance, celebrates the openness, tolerance for experimentation and sociability of the bohemian life on the Lower East Side, Rosset focuses on the fact that this milieu could not only make but also break a writer.

When Trocchi came to the Lower East Side, Rosset said, “he changed more in a short period of time than anyone I ever knew. When he was at Merlin [the Parisian publisher], he was very creative, but dominating, tough. He came to New York and it took something out of him. He was destroyed by living here.

“And,” he went on, “he was not the only one. Other Grove authors I knew, such as Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas, were crushed by New York. Those two were incipient alcoholics for sure when they arrived in New York, and were destroyed in a matter of weeks.”

I think his point – having talked with him on similar themes over the past few years – was that those accustomed to the respect with which serious writers were treated in Europe were shocked, elated, frightened and very nearly disabled soon after arriving in the U.S., finding themselves surrounded by the circus atmosphere of literary celebrity. As outsiders, though very special, they could not easily penetrate the bohemian subcultures, which, as other entries in this anthology testify, could provide a nurturing ground and a small, appreciative audience of peers. In fact, it was the kind of bohemia Rosset started out among in the days of the Abstract Expressionists.

So, being saturated with Chicago’s second city-ness, and as half Jew, half Irish, and half in the Lower East Side, Rosset brings the same renegade and provocative view to his opinions on LES writers and artistic community that led him, in the 1950s through the 1980s, to uncover, and publish or distribute novels, nonfiction, theater works and films that opened and recast American culture.