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May 28: The Tropic of Free Speech

May 27, 2015

rosset2Lenny Bruce, Allen Ginsberg, Al Goldstein, and Elsa Dorfman were among the controversial artists and writers featured in Obscene, a 2007 documentary about publisher and free speech warrior Barney Rosset, who was born to a Jewish father and Catholic mother in Chicago on this date in 1922. The owner of the Grove Press (from 1951) and founding editor of the Evergreen Review in 1957, Rosset led a successful legal battle to publish D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover uncensored, and fought for free speech all the way to the Supreme Court to publish Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Rosset’s Grove Press fought scores of other legal battles over free speech, while introducing America to all of the Beat Generation writers, as well as to Harold Pinter, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Pablo Neruda, Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka, David Mamet, Kathy Acker, Eugene Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett, among others. Rosset received death threats throughout his life, and Grove’s office in Greenwich Village was bombed in 1968 by anti-Castro militants (Evergreen Review had recently published a memoir by Che Guevara). In that same year, Rosset bought the rights to the film I Am Curious (Yellow), which was banned in ten states for its sexual content but earned him more than $15 million while ending American censorship of cinematic nudity.

“We decided the best thing to do was send the book through the mail so it would be seized by the post office. We thought this would be the best way to defend the book. The post office is a federal government agency, and if they arrest you, you go to the federal court. That way you don’t have to defend the book in some small town. If we won against the post office, then the federal government was declaring that this book was not objectionable. That was the idea, and it worked out in exactly that way.” —Barney Rosset