San Francisco Bay Guardian 9/3/08

Press Excerpt:
By Dennis Harvey

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.

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