Tribute to Barney Rosset

Wynn Chamberlain

“Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” Author D.H. Lawrence.  Case # 276F. 2d 433–Grove Press and Readers Subscriptions v. Robert Christenberry individually and as Postmaster of New York City – The case was argued on December 2, 1959, and decided March 29, 1960 at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Lower Manhattan.  The hero of this story is Barney Rosset. He had published “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and the U.S. Postmaster had decided on his own that the book was ‘unmailable’ and held to be obscene pursuant to U.S. Code # 18 – 1461 based on laws passed by Congress in 1873, 1876 and continued in 1958.

And so the 1960s began – ‘A breach in the dam of American Puritanism had been opened,’ and in the next four years came the cases of Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer”, the writings of Samuel Beckett, and “Naked Lunch” by William Burroughs versus the U.S. Government. The Victorian burial wrappings of the English language were torn away and its body resurrected in all its splendor.  Speech and the Constitutional freedom it enjoys under American law was reasserted and broadened to include journalism and literary works; works of art, including journalism, painting, drawing and photography; drama, opera, dance, and finally motion pictures.

All this was brought about by the energy and enthusiasm of one man, Barney Rosset, who defied the odds against him and fought the fight to renew the ideals of Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams based firmly on The First Amendment of the American Constitution.

A whole new world of creativity opened up, including the translation into English of ancient and foreign languages, which had been smothered with euphemisms since the 17th Century.

But there were and still are many in America who would happily snuff out freedom of speech.  Upon his inauguration as President, in January 1969, Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell, suddenly the most important man in America, said, “We’re gonna take this country so far to the right that nobody will recognize it.”

Unfortunately, the threat to freedom of speech and expression never goes away and has increased over the past 40 years. G. W. Bush has been recorded as saying, “We aren’t interested in history. We make it.”

Besides being a great freedom fighter, and one of the most important publishers since Alfred Knopf, Barney was also a major collector, mover and shaker in the creation of the New York School of Painting, which included Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Bill De Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Joan Mitchell, Franz Kline, Larry Rivers and many others who made New York in the 1960s and 1970’s a world center for the avant garde in all branches of artistic expression.

If any new statue should stand permanently in Union Square at Park Avenue and 14th Street it should be a larger than life bronze of Barney, dedicated to this man’s heroic efforts to keep freedom alive in the country he loved so much, and to remind people that they will have to continue to speak up bravely if they wish to preserve these freedoms which are always under attack by those who have the power to instill fear among the public and suppress free speech by any means. With the digital revolution, the danger is greater today than it has ever been. Let us remember these things when we think of Barney Rosset, who did so much for all of us.