Friday, September 24, 2021

History of My Reading: From the Physicists to the Pentagon, Fall 1967

Iconic photo--and act--from March on the Pentagon Nov. 1967. Norman Mailer
wrote: "Posed against the line of soldiers, already some historic flowers
 were being placed insouciantly, insolently, and tenderly
in gun barrels by boys and girls." 

And suddenly I was a senior, at the top of the heap and the end of the line.  I got an early lesson in this fact when I arrived on the Knox College campus in Galesburg, Illinois early in the fall of 1967, with a couple of official responsibilities regarding the incoming first years.  I was re-experiencing orientation from the other side of it.

My first responsibility was in regard to the summer reading program for incoming first years.  In an earlier post ( here) I wrote at length about it from a first year's perspective in 1964.  It turns out that my class was only the second to experience this program, when we read the summer before we arrived about the science v. humanities split, through books by and about C.P. Snow, author of the Two Cultures thesis.  There were faculty-led discussions of these books as part of our Orientation week.

Bill Barnhart at one of the three ongoing construction projects
at Knox in fall 1967.  Photo by Leonard Borden.
 In 1967 the books were Giorgio DeSantillana's The Crime of Galileo and a play by Freidrich Durrenmatt, The Physicists. But instead of only faculty members leading discussions for the incomers, third and fourth year students would so for the first time.  There were 16 of us: Bill Barnhart, Jean Belieff, Diane Burwig, Joe Cecchi, Joni Diner, Jack Herbig, Kathy Karsten, Ed Novak, Mary Mangeri, Harvey Sadow, Wendy Saul,  Judy Schmidt, Ron Stern, Ted Szostkowski, Anne Wylie and me.

The Physicists was a fairly new play at the time, written in 1961 (in German; Durrenmatt was a Swiss national) and was a worldwide hit by 1963. It was first produced in New York and got its first US publication in 1964.  According to Samuel Matlock in his essay "The Physicists At Fifty": "Ever since, the play has been part of the canon of high school literature classes in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany, where it is also a favorite choice for high school theater groups and one of the most-performed dramas over the last half century."

The play takes place in an insane asylum where two inmates claim to be the famous physicists Newton and Einstein, while a third man, Mobius, says that he gets private instructions from Solomon.  Each of these men murders a nurse, which brings the police, who can't do much since the murderers are judged insane and are already incarcerated.

But it turns out that Mobius is a real physicist and genius, who has made certain discoveries that could create military supremacy for some political entity, and so he has faked insanity in order to be safely hidden away.  (Curiously, this is somewhat the subplot of the 1954 Japanese Godzilla movie I've written about recently,  Gojira.)  The other two--Newton and Einstein--are also actual physicists, as well being as spies from two superpowers trying to get Mobius' secrets.

Eventually, Mobius convinces them that the world will be much safer if they all stay insane.  But the head of the asylum has been reconstructing Mobius' burned notes, and is now bent on world conquest, under the personal instructions, she says, of Solomon.

The issues are similar to those raised by Gojira, though more complicated and paradoxical, reflecting an absurd nuclear weapons world.  The situation also suggests the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, which some perceptive programmer scheduled as the movie shown in the Harbach Theatre during orientation.

Unfortunately I don't remember anything about the discussions (and would have forgotten my participation completely except for the Knox Student), and no longer have the books. I suspect however that some members of the Class of 1971 will remember something about them.

 But I very clearly recall my second duty, speaking on behalf of the student literary magazine as part of the introduction to campus organizations that so impressed me my first year.  It was evening, and there must have been several of us making presentations because I sat on the stage in Harbach Theatre for some time.  While I sat there, I wrote what became a kind of poem that would constitute my pitch. When it was my turn, I simply got up and read it--or more accurately, performed it.

It started out very well because I got applause just for the jacket I was wearing--a red team jacket that said Higgins Dairy on the back that I'd acquired at a Galesburg thrift store. (Higgins was a family store with counter and booths and a juke box on South Street near campus, a place I hung out at times.  It closed in 1972.)  In marked contrast to my hometown just weeks before, my long hair and look delighted this crowd.  It seems the 60s hit high schools at the same time as Knox--and perhaps more so, as I was soon to find.

What I wrote and delivered (called "Notes for an Introduction to a Definitive Poem on Sitting on Stages") was a kind of rhythmic poem or stand-up routine, a kind of parody of speeches, very much of the moment, including references to Harvey Sadow's coat, and political and cultural figures, with a few Knox in-jokes that no longer signify, plus a few actual references to the Siwasher (the aforementioned literary magazine.)  It's not much now, but it was great fun and as close as I came to one of my ideals for poetry, which was spontaneous music for the occasion, yet written with a shape rather than complete improvisation.  It was also total performance, since the audience observed me writing it as well as delivering it.  John Cage might have dug it.

Laurie Khan, from 1969 Yearbook
I met a number of first years during orientation, and through them I met others that became part of my senior year.   Laurie Kahn, Celeste Manking, Judy Bowker, Jane Langer, Carol Hartman, Steve Phillips, Michael Shain and Sherwood Kiraly come immediately to mind.  Laurie decided I should represent Flower Power at the Pumphandle.  I said if she made me a lei of flowers I would wear it. She did, so I did, which explains my Sergeant Pepper presence in the senior movie.

My fall 1967 term was unusual in that I made three off-campus trips, including one to each coast.  The first of these was a bus trip to the antiwar demonstration at the Pentagon in Washington in October.

By then I was living in a big wood frame Prairie Gothic house on First Street.  Once again I'd returned to find myself homeless when I suddenly didn't have the place I thought I had in the spring.  Bill Thompson offered space in the First Street unfinished basement, but thanks to the kindness of Leonard Borden who freed up one of his two rooms, I moved into a bright, airy front room looking out on the quiet tree-lined street.  (Leonard soon found another place he liked better, and Ric Clinebell moved into his room.  George Otto had the attic second floor.)

I believe all the First Street houses were owned by the college, preliminary to being torn down for new college buildings in a couple of years.  Two English department faculty also lived there--Richard Alexander and his wife next door to us, and a few doors down was Robin Metz and his family.  Both Metz and Alexander were there when the meeting to organize our participation in the Pentagon events was held in our back yard.  We stood in the waning sunshine with green tea in paper cups and Jimi Hendrix blasting from speakers.  I remember the mood becoming bleaker as the light dimmed and the temperature dropped, and the few people left contemplated the uncertain dangers ahead.  The March was organized by a broad and nebulous coalition, and nobody could predict what marchers would do, or how the Pentagon would react.

But enough people eventually signed up, the bus was hired, and we boarded on South Street in high spirits and with a Galesburg Register Mail reporter watching us. As I climbed aboard he asked me, in the abrupt way the question was always asked, "Are you a hippie?"  "No," I said, in my best John Lennon in Help! manner, "I'm a flippie."   It was a spontaneous retort, appropriately flippant, and I immediately forgot about it.  After we returned however, someone showed me the resulting newspaper article which helpfully explained that the flippies were a new Midwestern offshoot of the California hippies.  Who knew?

Though protest and civil disobedience events took place in the days before and after, the official March on the Pentagon was on Saturday October 21. Shortly afterward I wrote a few unpublished paragraphs about my experiences. It seems we sat in the sun near the Lincoln Memorial for hours, chatting while waiting for boring speeches to end, then walked en masse fitfully across a bridge, military helicopters buzzing over us "like Olympian mutant flies."

Our group must have been pretty far back in the crowd of perhaps 100,000 (maybe fewer, maybe more.).  By the time we got to the Pentagon we--that is, me and the people I was with-- basically became unequipped medics, helping people down a hill blinded by gas or mace, running damp cloths for gas victims and later, food and cigarettes from the parking lot to the area near the building where demonstrators sat, facing armed troops.

Siwasher cover by Jack Brown. Note
the soldier pointing his rifle at the crowd.
I do recall getting close enough to the building itself to witness a scene similar to the one captured by Jack Brown's photo which we subsequently made the cover of the March 1968 Siwasher.

Mostly what I remember is, later in the night, the sight of bonfires all over the huge Pentagon parking lot, as we waited for our buses, listening to sporadic stories and rumors about what was happening elsewhere, punctuated by loud indecipherable speeches and announcements from a p.a.,  sounding alternately pedestrian and hysterical.  Earlier some young men dramatically burned their draft cards.  I burned mine when we needed kindling for a fire to keep us warm.

My written description was part of an ongoing fictional account of this year, my never-ending and never completed college novel.  It was preceded by a paragraph that suggest part of my mood in this senior year, in the contexts of 1967-68.  "Before he left for the Pentagon, [name of character] did not feel in touch with his body.  He felt as if he were communicating with it over long distances, through weak signals, dimly, as if trying to see through rain.  Even when communication seemed possible...the code was imperfect."

"But for several days, starting with the day he decided to go, until sometime on the trip back, his mind and body worked together, were together.  They seemed, then, to know each other.  They might have been old friends."

Someone else's bus trip, but reminiscent
What I remember most clearly is not the Pentagon but the bus trip getting there. We had pretty much a full bus of students, including first years, with two faculty members, the aforementioned Alexander and Metz.   A younger student, Bill Long, has his guitar, and after he played it awhile, I asked him to pass it over.  I strummed it to myself for a second, realizing it was in some kind of open tuning.  He laughed--saying he wondered if I was going to just bash right in--and tuned it to standard tuning.

 Before moving on to some Donovan tunes ("Universal Soldier" by Buffy Sainte-Marie for certain), the only song I remember playing was the Woody Guthrie car song ("Take me for a ride in your car-car..."), the version done by Peter, Paul and Mary. Robin Metz approved of this latter choice, saying that the humor diffused the tension.  Tension?  He thought there was heavy male rivalry going on, which there might have been.  But I was clueless as usual.

The trip back at night was much quieter, as most of us slept.  When we stopped at one of those overlit highway restaurants and "comfort stations," several of our female students got fed up with the lines at the ladies' room and invaded the stalls in the men's room.  I remember Robin Metz observing, "this is the most revolutionary thing that's happened all weekend."

The definitive account of the March on the Pentagon was by Norman Mailer, eventually published in a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Armies of the Night. He wrote this shortly after the events, and estimated that there would never be a complete and accurate account.  As far as I know, there hasn't been.

Immediately after my fictional protagonist returned from the Pentagon, someone told him, "I hear Norman Mailer was there."  "Oh?" he said.  "I didn't see him."

And of course we didn't--we were too far back and away from the action, which included hundreds of arrests and some beatings.  We got our whiffs of tear gas, though--tear gas was one of the chief smells of the 60s.  So Mailer's account, which I read as it was first published in Harper's Magazine, remains separate from my experience.

But he makes general observations in the book, especially about the mood of the times, that reflected what I felt then--notably that America might well be insane.  He also made observations that I didn't believe then but that I do now, such as motivations for becoming part of a movement may well include self-pity and self-righteousness.

He was right about the feeling at the Pentagon that it was one kind of army confronting another, although he did tend to over-inflate the historical importance of this event (comparing it to a Civil War battle).  I don't recall believing this even at the time, though I certainly felt the sense of a besieging ragtag army huddling around its campfires that night in the parking lot.  I saw my participation as morally and politically necessary, and though I had hopes that these demonstrations would end the war, I feared it was probably futile. But I was too impatient to see it as the beginning of something that might last (as Mailer wrote) 20 years.  The six more years the protests and the war lasted were bitterly and soul-numbingly endless.

Mailer of course was up at the front of the action with the leaders of the March and the celebrities of protest.  This may be the distinguishing--and today the almost unbelievable-- feature of the Pentagon events, that its major celebrity leaders were one of America's foremost poets (Robert Lowell) and novelists (Mailer), and one of its major nonfiction writers (Dwight Macdonald, whose essay-review of Michael Harrington's book on poverty, The Other America, had thrilled me when I read it in the New Yorker in high school.)  As well as America's #1 baby doctor, Dr. Benjamin Spock.

Mailer deliberately got himself arrested, and seems to have gotten the stiffest sentence of any nonviolent protestor, though he spent only one night in jail.  He records for posterity some of the notable moments of preceding events, such as Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin's defense of men who claimed conscientious objector status because they were morally opposed to the Vietnam War, though it was being granted only to absolute pacifists who could cite their church's doctrine: "...for the rights of a man whose conscience forbids him to participate in a particular war are as deserving of respect as the rights of a man who conscience forbids him to participate in any war at all." 

Mailer ends this book with a metaphor that has resonance for this historical moment in America, as it did for 1967:

"The death of America rides in on the smog.  America--the land where a new kind of man was born from the idea that God was present in every man not only as compassion but as power, and so the country belonged to the people; for the will of the people--if the locks of their life could be given the art to turn--was then the will of God.  Great and dangerous idea!  If the locks did not turn, then the will of the people was the will of the Devil.  Who by now could know where was what?  Liars controlled the locks."

I don't seem to have heard his name much in recent decades, but Norman Mailer was an important writer and major public figure from the 1950s through much of the 1970s.  He was so identified with the 1960s in fact, that when Esquire Magazine issued Smiling Through the Apocalypse, a still fascinating compendium of essays published in its pages that decade, a caricature of Norman Mailer was front and center on its cover, with James Baldwin and Tom Wolfe as acolytes.

Or maybe it's just me who forgot him.  I read a lot of his earlier and current work in the 60s and 70s, and he was an inescapable presence on the kind of television programs ( Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Dick Cavett, David Susskind, William F. Buckley, etc.) that mostly don't exist anymore.  (Can anyone today believe that frequent talk show guests once included Margaret Mead?  Or even that Esquire's reporters at the 1968 Democratic Convention included William Burroughs and Jean Genet?)

What remains of my Mailer book collection is negligible.  I used to own several of his novels, and I can't believe I lost Advertisements for Myself somewhere along the way. What remains is centered on the late 60s and early 1970s, when (if memory serves) I wrote about him a couple of times for publication, including a review in the Boston Phoenix of a collection of minor work titled Existential Errands.  

Mailer could be exasperating but he was usually provocative and sometimes stunningly articulate and insightful.  (Armies of the Night contains a version of my favorite Mailer quote: "Totalitarianism is the interruption of mood.")

He ran afoul of the women's movement (in its first dogmatic phase; we're currently in its second--witness "The Revolt of the Feminist Law Profs") with his book The Prisoner of Sex.  His views on sex were always weird (in Armies he calls himself a Left conservative, which describes more than his politics) and his views on women, while more nuanced than those times permitted,  were often off.  Still, I admired his almost chivalrous defense of the literary merits of D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller.  In fact, he started me reading Miller.

I especially valued insights on writing and reading, some of which I remember as his (that a book and a reader must be ready for each other), and others I probably just absorbed.  After the new orientations of age and the changing times reduced his public presence, Mailer became more of a full-time novelist. Unfortunately for me, I couldn't get through the results.  I recall beginning a paperback of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Executioner's Song over coffee at the counter of Lee's Restaurant, but in the end I couldn't sustain hundreds of pages of interest in the subject of a murderer.

 I read some of his Egypt novel in a magazine, but that didn't motivate me to get the book. It seems his CIA novel, Harlot's Ghost, is considered one of his best, but again, not that fascinated with the CIA, at least not yet.  Unafraid of incredibly large themes, his last two novels were The Gospel According to the Son (as told by Jesus) and The Castle in the Forest (about the youth of Hitler, the New York Times best-selling book of 2007, the year of Mailer's death.)   They passed me by completely. These books and this reader were not yet ready for each other.

Mailer's polemics remain memorable, especially his concentration on the spiritual as well as physical disaster of pollution, television commercials, the corporate culture and both actual and metaphorical plastics.  He ranted early and often until these observations became common ground.

By the 1990s and during as much of this century as he lived, his sense of history was astute, as expressed in various interviews (some of them now on YouTube.)  He saw what I saw: a certain American--and perhaps, human--path of progress destroyed by Vietnam and the assassinations of the 1960s.  He also remained highly cogent on literature and the soul of a writer.

So maybe he wrote too much and he talked too much, and exhausted us all.  But he remains a complicated model of intelligent inquiry.  In my notes still stuck in my 1972 copy of Existential Errands, evidently for that review, I describe his process as running experiments in his mind, and reporting on them in detail. (I recall that my--male--editor would have preferred a simple hatchet job.)  When Mailer was right he was stunningly right, but just as importantly, he had the integrity and courage to be wrong.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

History of My Reading: Summer of Love 1967

Summer jobs during the college years could have a number of purposes.  They could result in money for school or at least for summer support and entertainment, they provided "real world experience," they were something to do over those long unobligated months. Among the major motivations for summer jobs were money and parents.

Especially for those of us who had just completed our third year, a summer job could also be an opportunity to explore work we might pursue after college.  And in 1967, doing some good in the world was also a goal and a motivation.

They were also something to talk about when we returned, or in letters during the summer. These letters over the years often cast a harsh and despairing light on "real world experience."  After months of unrelenting and often intense mental and emotional stimulation at school, many found their summer jobs to be so tedious they threatened their sanity.  The corruption, greed, stupidity, vapidity, cruelty, arrogance and intolerance exhibited by bosses, coworkers, customers and so on, tended to make "the real world" seem deeply unattractive if not horrifying.

But even the most unpromising-sounding jobs could be enlightening.  I recall Leonard Borden returning one year with admiration for the wisdom of his coworkers collecting garbage on the early morning streets of Wilmette.

Jack Herbig.  Photo by Leonard Borden
Or at least the job could provide a good story or two.  Another Chicago area student--I'm pretty sure it was Jack Herbig--drove a city bus, and was once robbed by a man with a unique weapon: a scorpion.  This driver watched a large man showing various riders the contents of a small box he was carrying, until the last stop came, and he was the only remaining passenger.  He then showed the driver the scorpion in the box, and demanded all his money.  The driver complied, even offering his wristwatch.  After ascertaining that the watch belonged to the driver and not the bus company, the robber declined to take it.  (The story was too good for me not to preserve it at the time.)

Wendy Saul.  Photo by Leonard Borden
I learned from letters during that summer of 1967 that classmate Wendy Saul was working with inner city kids at an Upward Bound program in Connecticut, and Barbara Cottral was a staff writer for her hometown newspaper in Clinton, Iowa. Valjean McLeignhan, who had already graduated, was a summer apprentice at the prestigious Williamstown Theatre in Massachusetts, before beginning graduate school at Iowa in the fall.  Joni Diner was working as a waitress in Denver while taking a biology course at the University of Colorado.

A few months before it seemed I had the choice of several jobs for this summer.  I applied for and got into a program that had agreements with newspapers across the country to supply them with summer interns for their newsrooms, subject to individual approval.

  Back home, my parents assured me there was a job waiting for me with the railroad.  And late in the spring, the Knox publicity director--for whom I'd written an article or two on assignment for the alumni magazine--had taken the initiative to find me a spot with a Quad Cities newspaper, with the stated intent to test my long-hair ways in that ever-popular real world.

I applied for newspaper jobs in several places including in upstate New York. During the break before spring semester I interviewed for one in Pittsburgh and--as my "safety"--on my hometown newspaper, the Greensburg Tribune-Review (not yet a Scaife right wing prototype for Fox News.)  The editor there pretty much assured me of the job, since for one thing it was unlikely there would be another applicant from the program.

With all these choices, I decided against a blistering summer in the Quad cities, and headed back east.  I arrived to the news that the railroad job had fallen through.  As for the remaining newspaper jobs, I got one rejection and did not hear back from the others, including the Tribune-Review, where someone else had applied at the last minute.  Having seen those gray concrete offices and met the pale and uniformly middle-aged male editors, I was not surprised that they chose a bright and energetic young woman when she gave them the opportunity.  So I was left without a summer job.

Parks wrote this book about his
adventures in Tuscarora
Other classmates were similarly free, at least for part of the summer, as a number of them showed up in the tiny "ghost town" of Tuscarora, Nevada, where ceramics prof Dennis Parks hosted a "Summer Retreat and Pottery School."  (Parks did not return to Knox in the fall, and still lives and works in Tuscarora to this day.)  I had letters from Julie Parks (who sadly died just last summer) and Doug Wilson, who included his own "Things To Do in Tuscarora" poem.

I hasten to add that these letters--and others--came in response to letters from me.  For I had plenty of time to write them.

I had various intentions and half-made plans to travel--the West Coast was an incredible magnet (in their letters, former Knox students Mary Jacobson and Mike Hamrin wondered if I was coming to the Bay Area), for this was the Summer of Love, and Scott McKenzie was on the radio advising that "if you're going to San Francisco/be sure to wear flowers in your hair."  These travel ideas also came to nothing, mostly because I didn't have the money, but also because I was otherwise engaged.

I had a few temp jobs over the summer (doing inventory at a discount department store for a week until I managed to get myself fired, for example) but basically, I wound up spending the Summer of Love in my parents' basement. And though it was oppressive in many ways, it also was one of the most creative summers of my life, certainly to that point.

For it turned out that I didn't need to be in San Francisco or LA or London or even Tuscarora, at Haight-Ashbury or on Carnaby Street, to feel the incredible energy of that summer, which had been building in the Bay Area but more generally was chiefly unleashed, formed and amplified by the one and only Billy Shears, and Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The Beatles were said to have been working in the studio for months, and their new album was widely anticipated.  So when I saw Bill Thompson on Galesburg's main street walking with purpose towards the record store in early June, I knew where he was going and why.  He knew that the album was in, and he was on his way to get it.

I wrote about this and about the summer of 1967 a couple of years back in a fiftieth anniversary of Sergeant Pepper post. Here I intend to do what we old folks do best and repeat myself, while--like some bloviating congressman feeding the Congressional Record--revising and extending my remarks.

I listened to the album straight through for the first time with Bill Thompson, and I probably bought my first copy in Galesburg.  By the time I was back to Greensburg, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had already sold more than a million copies in the US in just a few weeks.  Demand was so great that there were nearly 100,000 back orders.

I more than listened to that album in June--I inhabited it, as it inhabited me.  I played it when I got up, to set my day, on the big stereo in the living room.  I played it while I was in the kitchen, and while I took a bath.  My parents were both at their jobs, and only my 13 year old sister Debbie and I were in the house for most of the day. I reveled in the music that matched the beat of my blood and my soul, in the lyrics that sang of a familiar world in a new way. Even the English major in me reveled, as I noted the irony of "fixing a hole" that "keeps my mind from wandering;" you know--closing something up in order to wander freely. And of course, the multiple meanings in just the title of "Within You Without You."

Not everyone felt this way about this album, or the other aspects of the musical and cultural explosion.  Most were bewildered and many were dismissive, caustic and even angry.  It was all of a piece with alarm over other obvious cultural shifts.  This was definitely the era when I would hear "are you a boy or a girl?" called out to me on Main Street because of my long hair (or what passed for long hair in that year)--nearly every time I walked that hot street, trying to keep the beat in my mind.  The people who yelled it seemed to believe it was clever, and delighted in laughing together in appreciation of their own wit.  Soon I was keeping my daytime trips to town at a minimum.  There were other, more personal incidents that were as unpleasant to experience as they are to remember.

Sergeant Pepper was remaking my world, though much of the world around me seemed oblivious.  But it was too big a cultural story to pass unnoticed, even in the Tribune-Review and the Pittsburgh Press Sunday paper.  Everywhere there were newspaper and magazine stories, reviews and interviews.

There wasn't much of a musical press yet--but Sergeant Pepper would help create it.  Both Rolling Stone and Creem would get started before the year was out.  The only such publication I knew about was a short-lived one called Cheetah.  I was such a fan that I sent away for a Cheetah sweatshirt.  Otherwise there were the teen magazines, some of them dreadful, at least one of them--TeenSet--pretty good. Their interviews with the musicians were particularly interesting, especially since nobody else bothered.

Sergeant Pepper was so pervasive an influence among the self-selected elect that it even created a kind of secret language.  Titles of songs and lines from them made their way into letters and conversations.  If the songs weren't enough, there was that fantastic cover, with the images of pop culture heroes arrayed behind the Beatles transformed into the Sergeant Pepper band.  There would be endless discussion in the coming year over the meaning of every detail, spun out through long cannabis nights. But that was yet to come for me; I still hadn't had a proper toke.

I had my own theories about the album, including why it seemed like one unit, a "rock opera."  There were attitudes that united the songs, a feeling that was undeniable.  But technically I realized they were unified by one small change that hardly anyone mentions these days: the dead space between the tracks was considerably reduced from past music albums.  One song flowed more quickly into another.

There was of course more new music exploding into the air, although it was hard to hear much of it.  We were still deep in the hegemony of top 40 AM radio.  I had to wait until late at night, in my bed in the dark, when I could feverishly search and delicately tune the elusive signals from distant stations in Cleveland or even Chicago on my transistor radio, that would play Jimi Hendrix ("The Wind Cried Mary,"  "Foxy Lady",) Country Joe and the Fish ("Not So Martha Sweet Lorraine"), the Jefferson Airplane songs that Pittsburgh AM wouldn't play ("White Rabbit"), and of course the long version--with the keyboard solo--of the Doors AM hit, "Light My Fire."

One thing to be said for Pittsburgh area radio stations, though, was that there was a long history of playing black music, promoted mostly by WAMO and other black music stations, but going mainstream on the top 40s and the biggest and most establishment station, KDKA. And this was a good summer for Motown (the Supremes "Reflections,") soul singers (including white soul, like Chicago's the Buckinghams), Aretha and Stevie Wonder ("I Was Made To Love Her.")  But it seemed like the psychedelic music coming from England and the West Coast was a bit more threatening.

Sergeant Pepper and this other music became like brain oases in the desert, or in terms of television, the vast wasteland.  Television was then dominated by the likes of The Beverly Hillbillies, Peyton Place, Hogan's Heroes, Petticoat Junction and the Lawrence Welk Show.  I might watch an occasional rerun of Jackie Gleason or Man From U.N.C.L.E., Star Trek or the Monkees, but except for the Smothers Brothers and the Steve Allen summer show, it was a matter of three channels and nothing on.

So Sergeant Pepper blasted during the day, but at night things were different.  My old room had been converted into a den, so I slept on a fold-out in the area of the basement known as "the other side."  It was in fact the space where my parents and I had first lived on this piece of land, before the house on top of it was built, and this cement structure was literally "the foundation."  This became my domain, for hours during the day and certainly at night, safe from the blathering television and other impositions.

Inspired by Sergeant Pepper and all the stories about the Beatles in the studio, I created my own recording studio there.  I took over an old reel-to-reel tape recorder that I somehow manipulated to record on two separate tracks.  I electrified a guitar with an old microphone and even older amplifier and speaker--all this equipment accumulated by way of my father's inconsistent interest in tinkering with amateur electronics as a hobby he didn't really have time for. There was also an old piano salvaged from a neighbor with dubious tuning, bad action and a few broken keys, though it could sound properly bluesy in certain registers.  A small chord organ had migrated to the basement from the living room.

So I became my own Beatles. I knew enough three and four chord progressions on guitar and piano for rock, blues and even some jazz sounds (which at Knox I had too often inflicted on fellow students in line to dinner by means of the piano in the student union), and I was learning new combinations from the music I was hearing.  I wrote song after song, layered instrumentation on the tracks, sang back-up and even tried harmonies and double-tracking, adding homemade percussion with some old rattles, my sister's tambourine, drum sticks and coffee cans.  I experimented with feedback, random overdubs and found sounds.  All with the aid of old earphones that didn't always work.

The 4-track tape recorder for Sergeant Pepper's
The results were hardly professional but often surprising.  I was participating in the kind of exploring the Beatles did on a different level, though technically not so far apart: all the layered sound of Sergeant Pepper had been done on four-track recorders.  By re-recording multiple tracks on one track, and adding to them on the other track(s), the layering could be endless--on my machine as well as theirs.  After Pepper, professional recording rapidly expanded to 8, 16, 32, 64 tracks and up.  The technology wasn't that hard--once the Beatles showed how it could be used.

I didn't stop with music.  There were old magazines and catalogs in the basement, so I cut out pictures and some text, and created elaborate collages, a few of them quite large.  I gave them all away, which seemed like part of the spirit of the thing.  Just endless creating, all gifts.

But sometimes on those humid nights I couldn't contain myself there any longer.  Fortunately there was a new all-night hamburger joint on Main Street, and it was air-conditioned.  Very late, when everyone else in the house was asleep, I escaped into the damp empty streets, safe from hostile stares, and loped through the dark, down and up the hills to town. Then I would sit for hours under florescent light, drinking coffee and writing.  Mostly letters--the letters I sent all these people, who wrote back to me.

I also sent tapes occasionally.  I sent one to Tuscarora which included a few songs I'd written using Emerson images ("Expanding Mellon," "Give All to Love") and a song I wrote about Tuscarora itself, modeled on the Mamas and Papas hit "Creeque Alley."  Apparently they tried to play it at some sort of group function, but the electrical generator gave out, and it slowed and slurred to a premature close.  Which I suppose is the outcome of that summer.

The 1960s paperback
This series of posts is ostensibly about reading, but I don't remember any specific book titles from this summer. I had requested and received a reading list of contemporary fiction from the incoming teacher of fiction writing, Robin Metz, but the titles I recall were those of books I couldn't find in Greensburg, and I'd already read the others.

Basically I was still enthralled with Richard Farina's novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me.  For a long time it seemed the most characteristic 1960s novel, although the action takes place on a college campus in 1959.  I tried reading it recently but except for taboos it broke and the beat of the writing, it no longer resonates with me, especially the main character.

This time I read a later paperback edition with an entertaining preface by Thomas Pynchon, who knew Farina at Cornell, and knew people who inspired the characters in this book.  Pynchon claims he didn't know Farina well, but they did once go to a costume party together: Farina dressed as Hemingway, and Pynchon as Fitzgerald.  That, more than the book, blew my mind this time.

I am reminded however, not of books I read but an author I did not read at Knox at all, and wish I had.  That would be Charles Dickens.  He was not taught in any class I took or knew about, which might have been a good thing, given the scholarly opinion at the time reflected in the defensiveness of novelist John Irving's preface to Great Expectations (Bantam edition 1981.)  On the other hand, what Irving says in praise of Dickens makes me wish that I'd gotten to the Iowa Writers Workshop in time to know him, as well as his teacher, Kurt Vonnegut.

What puts me in mind of Dickens in considering the summer of 1967 is his persistent theme of childhood potential either squelched or nurtured by the people and circumstances of the child's world.  That need goes beyond actual childhood.  Perhaps everyone has a Summer of Love in them.  But it is seldom permitted, let alone encouraged to develop, transform and flourish.

Sergeant Pepper, now universally praised and even loved, stood in the middle of a great divide in 1967.  For those whose minds and hearts it opened, it opened them wide.  We experienced ecstasy in the moment, and in the prospect and promise of a new world, or at least a new way, which was especially welcome in the brutal and condemning context of Vietnam and the thermonuclear Cold War.  But others experienced fear and disdain and hostility, and expressed it. That made their hard world seem even emptier and more cruel.  It is less ironic than illustrative that I found communion while alone in my basement.

  I did see a few friends that summer.  My songwriting partner Clayton was in L.A. staying with relatives for the first months.  I got one letter from him that consisted largely of phrases from Sergeant Pepper's lyrics.

But Mike, the other Crosscurrent, was living and working in Latrobe, some 10 miles away.  Despite inconveniences of time and distance, we had some adventures.  We tried attending a high school class reunion, but our "long hair" and improvised Carnaby Street gear (complete with granny glasses I borrowed from my actual granny) so mystified and eventually alienated the classmates who showed up that we spent most of the evening talking to each other.

We had some female friends from high school sharing an apartment in Pittsburgh who we visited, sleeping in their living room if it got too late to hitchhike or take the bus home.  But one night our presence became inconvenient, and we wound up walking a considerable part of the 35 miles back, until daylight provided a bus. 

Our biggest adventure however was the night Mike and I became rock stars.  We traveled to Pittsburgh for a Mamas and Papas concert at the Civic Arena.  We got there hours before the show started.  We escaped the hot sun by ducking into the cool dark lobby of a hotel, where we soon found ourselves the target of a group of enthusiastic teenage girls.  At a loss, we retreated to an elevator, only to have the operator chat with us as if we were guests, and famous ones at that.

members of Moby Grape 1967
We were mystified, as we did not look anything like even the Papas, but we soon learned that there was an opening act called Moby Grape, a new San Francisco group with their first record out, introduced at the Monterrey Pop Festival earlier that summer, a now legendary event engineered by Papa John Phillips.  Evidently they were staying at this hotel, but nobody really knew what the band members looked like.  Or maybe those girls just didn't care--we looked strange enough.  Mike and I wound up sitting on some back stairs, contemplating the price and extreme brevity of our phantom fame.

Eventually, Mike had saved enough from his job to buy a used yellow VW bug, and Clayton returned from L.A. with gifts of buttons (buttons were the rage there), three of which I wore the next year at Knox.  They said "Reality is a Crutch," (which tended to befuddle administrators and faculty members), "Totally Illogical" (I grok Spock) and "Lennon Saves."

These replaced the button I had been wearing my third year--it was white with Chinese characters in red.  I heard whispers of speculation on what they said--a Zen koan perhaps, or a dark revolutionary slogan.  Actually they were supposed to say "We Try Harder."  It was a button from the Avis car rental company, with their current slogan.

The Crosscurrents reunited musically a few times that I remember.  Once at Mike's apartment we tried out the new song on the radio by the Youngbloods, "Everybody Get Together," and nailed harmonies that astonished me.  And down in my basement I finally made use of that chord organ to do the keyboard part on "I'm A Believer" by the Monkees as Clayton and I improvised our version.

The three of us made one road trip together in Mike's VW at the end of the summer, to Canton, Ohio where lived a young woman who Mike had met and dated during the previous school year.  I remember three things from this trip.  Clayton was a natural punster, and he let go with one of his best when Mike asked him, "is there a red spot on the back of my neck?"  To which Clayton replied, "No.  It's a pigment of your imagination."

Second: during a Crosscurrents command performance for the young woman in question, she thought it was funny to burn holes in the lyric sheet of a new song with her cigarette, while we were singing it.  We did not agree, and I believe it damaged that relationship as well as the paper.  We didn't hear anything more about her after this trip.

Beatles playing "All You Need Is Love" for first
global broadcast
But at one point Clayton and I left the couple on their own, while we spent the evening at a local bar.  The Beatles " All You Need Is Love" was a hit single by then, and people played it several times on the jukebox.  Every time it began--with those opening strain of the French National Anthem--Clayton and I stood up and saluted.  We got stared at, but at least we didn't get thrown out.  Later we met two young women, one of them with long dark hair who called herself Cher.  They eventually invited us to leave with them, but in fact they ditched us. So I don't have many warm feelings for Canton, Ohio.   So much for the Summer of Love.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

History of My Reading: Spring Things 1967

First we read, then we write.  I did most of my writing in 1966-67, my third year at Knox College, on a white enameled metal kitchen table, the only suitable surface in my two rented rooms.  I wrote my academic papers there--the table otherwise piled with books and notes-- and my fiction, poems and plays, which were often likewise assembled from notes, handwritten pages with prior draft paragraphs stapled in place.  I typed them all on my gray portable typewriter, something very much like this Smith-Corona.

This was the first year, not only of college but of my life, that I lived alone.  My two room apartment was in a shabby wood frame building, and there was that questionable dip in the linoleum-covered kitchen floor, as well as the bathroom downstairs shared with scary old ladies.  But otherwise I enjoyed the place.

I still had my food service number at school so I ate there a lot, dinners and lunches, as well as patty melts in the Gizmo.  But I made coffee and tea in that kitchen, and got cereal and so on for breakfast, as well as Pecan Sandies and Chips Ahoy cookies, and possibly something as exotic as English Muffins (which were actually hard to find in a place like Galesburg.)  I probably did most of my grocery shopping at Higgins Diary.

 The bedroom was comfortable, with a double bed--the first time I had that at college: there's a certain luxury in a double bed all your own. I could spread out papers and books, and read and write there, as well as stretch myself sleeping.  There was at least one window in the bedroom near the bed, and the enduring image I have of that apartment is sitting on the bed, with a lacy curtain over the window open to spring air and light, sipping tea I'd made, with my little stereo playing "Retired Writer in the Sun" from the Donovan Mellow Yellow album.

I listened to music a lot.  Besides LPs I also had some 45 rpm records, like Beatles singles not yet on an album ( in the spring that would have included "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever.")  The 45 I remember playing repeatedly that spring was "Pretty Ballerina" by the Left Banke.  Many years later, I would spend an evening with the member of that short-lived band who wrote it.

And of course I played my guitar, learning songs, writing songs.  I had occasional guests, especially early that fall, with some memorable if sometimes strange and poignant moments throughout the year.  But mostly it was a haven, my fortress of solitude.  Occasionally I would spend an entire day and night there without leaving, usually on a Sunday when there were no classes and the school dinners were notoriously skimpy.  The one thing I knew how to cook was spaghetti.  My grandmother had advised me on which ready-made sauces in jars were acceptable.

The deep 60s were beginning that school year, with their three most prominent characteristics: the music, Vietnam war protests, and the substance we called grass.

Audience for the spring 1967 antiwar event.  I may be hidden behind Bill
Thompson in the foreground right.  Leonard Borden photo.

The music I'll get into in more detail in a later post, but I do recall the dance tunes at parties that spring included the Stones "Let's Spend the Night Together" and "Ruby Tuesday." Other songs we heard a lot--on the Gizmo Jukebox and elsewhere that spring-- were the Buffalo Springfield "For What It's Worth,"  Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" and the Turtles "Happy Together."

Wendy Saul reading. L. Borden photo.
There was an anti-war reading that spring in front of Old Main, with people sitting on the grass to hear.  Leonard Borden remembers that it was organized by Steve Goldberg, who had returned from Vietnam where he'd been posted with the International Volunteer Service.  Leonard figures it was late April or early May. He took a number of photos of the event.  They show Sam Moon, Wendy Saul, Dennis Stepanek and Goldberg reading, and Rick Clinebell singing.  Many others are visible in the crowd, including professors Howard Wilson, John Stipp and Miki Hane.  I read a poem, "Things To Do Instead of the Army," dedicated to Valjean.  More about that later.

As for grass, I probably would have caught on sooner to the increasingly open--if nevertheless furtive--smoking of the weed had I not been in an isolated apartment, but I was only becoming aware of it on campus (as opposed to the publicized use elsewhere) in the spring.

In late May, the second Siwasher of the year came out (it's the one with the psychedelic poster cover by James Campbell) that included a story I'd written, "the continuing adventures of the incredible hairyman." The story included an account of a series of "heightened perceptions" which the narrator claimed was "not like a drug."  But readers knew better.  Clearly I was a "head," and had probably dropped LSD.

It wasn't true, yet.  The first time I smoked a joint was after the story came out.  I sat on the floor with Neil Gaston and Chuck Goodman in their apartment, as they separated the seeds and rolled it, an operation they conducted literally on a copy of the Siwasher with this story in it, which I could see was open to the page where my story began.

That's partly why I thought I was being put on.  Neil and Chuck began to act high, but I didn't feel a thing.  Later I understood that this sometimes happened the first time.

That issue of the Siwasher featured a story by J. Mark Brooks, who also wrote a column for the Student that year.  It includes poems by Leonard Borden, Nicholas Brockunier, James Campbell, Julia Fonda, Candi Lange, Alison McClure, W.R. Peterson, Gerry Roe, Wendy Saul, Dennis Stepanek and me.

Peter Overton and Erica Overberger. L. Borden photo
There were photos by Jack Herbig, and photos of artworks by Mary Borden, Jack Brown, Dorie Campbell, James Campbell, ceramics by the future famous Tom Collins, Don Hansen, Peter Overton, Jane Seamans and Susan Walsh.  Gerry Roe was the editor.

Late that spring, I ran into Geroe in the Oak Room.  He seemed hesitant but finally said he'd decided to name not one editor for the Siwasher for the following year, but two: me and Wendy Saul.  I said, great.  He seemed relieved.  My first editorial meeting with Wendy was equally brief and easy.  She asked how we were going to split the editorial work, apart from selecting manuscripts which was more of a team effort.  I said, you take the first issue and I'll take the second.  She said, great.  And though we were both involved in both issues, that's pretty much what we did.

As for my story in the spring 67 issue, at this remove it seems to me the best thing I published--and probably the best I wrote--that school year.  But I didn't feel that way then.  I remember Sam Moon approaching me to talk about it, but I dismissed it as an entertainment--not my serious writing. (Perhaps I'd heard of Graham Greene dividing his fiction that way.)

The story starts with the protagonist passing a music store, when a mail truck stops, delivers a package to him that turns out to be a bomb.  That is literally how the story started in life--I was passing Butz Music House in Greensburg, resisting the temptation to go in and buy sheet music I couldn't actually read, when I had that fantasy.

"The Incredible Hairyman" by Jack Herbig
scanned from the Siwasher Vol. 45 #2 The
photo title came after my story, though I'm
not sure how Jack knew about it before it
was published.
The rest of the story collects other events and fantasies, some of them set at Seton Hill College in Greensburg, where the "Scottish castles" were almost literally that, for several of the city's most wealthy citizens in the 19th century were Scots, and the main college building had been a castle-like home.  These buildings had an
air of the fantastic.

This section contains a line I'd wanted to get into a story for awhile--the observation of the view of a young woman walking away: "her closely hipped levis swinging him alternate winks."  I actually thought of it on that particular campus.  I don't know about "closely hipped," probably "tight" would do, but the "swinging him alternate winks" seemed something Updike would have liked.

The style of the story combines the artifacts I clung to for psychic survival at the time: certain music (the Beatles) and movies (again the Beatles, as well as--and especially--the British comedy "Morgan!": the first two lines of the song about the Putney duck more or less quote one of David Warner's lines in the movie) and superhero comic books, mostly Spiderman and Daredevil.

But now I see that the story is more than that. It expresses certain illusions and disillusions of the time.  The protagonist's interactions with a psychologist and his hospitalization at the end reflect both the protagonist of Morgan! (subtitled "A Suitable Case for Treatment") and an earlier iconic character, Holden Caulfield.  Though the protagonist's descriptions of the hospital at the end reflects some of my own experience being hospitalized the previous winter, his vocabulary suggests Holden, and it was meant to.  Morgan and Holden were two alienated guys, two disillusioned dudes.

I have a similar impression about my pieces published in the Knox Student.  My column that year was called "Revolver" (Beatles reference of course), and under that marque as well as otherwise, I wrote many earnest and serious expositions on student issues, while attempting to apply McLuhan to everything.  But the columns I like now are the more poetic ones, and especially the ones that employ my Joycean/Lennonesque word play.

I'd written a few the year before--at first it was the way I recast familiar names that got attention.  But I refined the style each time, until several I published in 1967--one an account of a Student Affairs meeting (called the "prudent repairs comite"), the other on the Anderson House women's dorm controversy--I still find funny.   To come up with a more absurd name than Sharvey Umbeck was a challenge but I think I did okay with "Shafty Farfetch."  Though that was only one of his alternates (which included "Sharpy" and "Sharkey".)  I recast Valjean McLenighan as "palgeorge mccartneyism," which is funnier if you know who George Pal was (producer of some of the classic 1950s sci-fi movies like War of the Worlds and When Worlds Collide), and see immediately the McCartney/McCarthyism collision, which also reflects on McCartney's pal George.  Anyway, these columns make me laugh out loud (as opposed to cringing), a nice bonus after more than 50 years.

Bill Dean--relaxing after a performance?
Photo by Leonard Borden
The first production of a play I wrote happened in the Studio Theatre that spring. It was called By the Sea By the Sea By the Sea By the Sea  or The Samuel Morse Songbook.  Ric Newman directed it.  Unfortunately I can't find a program that tells me who else was involved in the production.  As I've written elsewhere, its high point was a pantomime scene--done to the entire Beatles song "The Word"--of a group of elderly demonstrators being arrested by a motorcycle cop, played by Bill Dean, who came into the theatre, up a ramp and onto the stage, riding his actual motorcycle.

"Sunshine Superman" by Jack Herbig. Scanned
from the Siwasher 1967.  The title refers to
a song by British invader Donovan.
The play reflected my major obsessions of the year: partially digested McLuhan, and the continuing British invasion of my heart.  I played with McLuhanish ideas on media and perception; for example, the characters suddenly break into a television interview.  But the British invasion stuff--Beatles, Morgan!, Beyond the Fringe etc. was embarrassingly prominent.  I couldn't seem to believe a line could be funny unless delivered with an English accent.  But then, I wasn't the only one at the time who was smitten.  The American culture--especially youth culture-- had been undergoing this for several years, and it was soon to get even more pronounced.  So the audience laughed, and seemed pleased by the play's good spirits and antic disposition (one of the characters was The Great Dane, also known, of course, as Hairyman.)

Spring brought with it the annual awards.  I took first in the Bookfellow Library Contest--and it's because I catalogued my books to enter it, and those pages survived, that I now can identify the books I had then.  And I won something at least in poetry, though the Student article on the matter isn't entirely clear.  Henry Rago, nearing his final year as editor of Poetry magazine in Chicago, was the judge.   I was reading more poetry and trying to assimilate it (I loved James Wright, and had books by Bly, Corso, Creeley, Ginsberg, Lorca, Levertov, Snyder, Lowell and Kenneth Patchen as well as Cummings, Hart Crane, Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Stevens, Williams, Whitman,  D.H. Lawrence and Dylan Thomas) but I can't say much good about my poems in the Siwasher, except they're a bit better than the year before.  Maybe one good metaphor.

Sam Moon reading, Howard Wilson in
foreground.  Leonard Borden photo.
What wasn't reflected in those poems was my growing interest in spoken word poetry, partly influenced by McLuhan's suggestion of a return to sound and oral tradition, partly by the readings of poets who came to campus, especially the more dramatic readers like Robert Bly. That tendency would get even stronger in the coming year, when I discovered the Liverpool Poets who wrote their poems to be read before audiences at jazz and rock clubs.  But even that spring, public readings were becoming more frequent and pointed as part of protests.  I already had Bly's collection of A Poetry Reading Against the Vietnam War which he probably brought with him to Knox.

I combined these interests in the poem I read at the protest/teach-in on the Old Main lawn, called "Things To Do Instead of the Army."  The direct inspiration in a number of ways was Gary Snyder.  Among the work he read at Knox were several poems called Things to Do.  (He published three in Poetry magazine: "Things To Do in Seattle", " San Francisco," and "..on a Ship At Sea.")

Rick Clinebell singing, Steve Goldberg watching.
Leonard Borden photo.
At Knox he remarked that these poems were both particular and universal; they were his particular experiences, but they were the kind of things anyone could do and write about.  Though he may not have said so, they were also especially effective when read out loud to an audience.

The "Things To Do"--which is a kind of list that everybody makes, as well as a catalog of possible experiences, like a guidebook to having a good time somewhere--grabbed my imagination, especially as I was already thinking about the oral and even mythic dimensions of reading poetry in public.  It had that very McLuhanesque quality of participation, because the audience is part of it.

I said some of these things in a short Revolver column that appeared in the last Student issue of that spring.  I asserted that the "Things To Do" poem could be a legitimate poetic form, like the sonnet or lyric.  (For the record, Sam Moon disagreed with me, and curiously Snyder did not publish these poems in any of his books that I know, especially not in his Mountains and Rivers Without End sequence he announced them as being part of.  But since then, at least one other published poet has tried one: Dan Albergotti, whose poem "Things To Do in the Belly of the Whale" was featured in the Writers Almanac in 2015.)

The Beatles bicycling in Nassau in Help!
My column also included the first few lines and several of the last lines of "Things To Do Instead of the Army,"  maybe half of the poem I read.  Like previous Things To Do poems I'd written, it includes things I'd actually done, or someone else had, though this one sometimes reflected my experiences in ways I wasn't even conscious of.  (The first line is "bicycle riding in nassau," which I doubt I consciously associated with a scene in one of my touchstone movies.  Then again, maybe I did intend this.)

 But otherwise, through odd proposals it tries to imaginatively suggest that there are alternatives that make more sense that going to war, as something we're just supposed to do next.  It was one attempt to break out of the apparent logic of Vietnam and the draft that adherents repeated, often with undisguised condescension.

I'm not sure if I wrote that column because I'd caught wind of what else the Student was publishing in what appears to be a four page issue, but a goodly amount of its inside space was taken up with two attacks on a person never named.  That person was me.  I can imagine the bewilderment of readers who weren't on the inside of this reference, and had no idea of who was the subject of a fable about an imitator who went too far.  The shorter of the two pieces came right out and used the word "plagiarism."

The complaint stemmed not just from general observations, including the Things To Do poems I'd published, but a specific line in one of them. It was in "Things To Do in Iowa City," which was about the Gentle Tuesday event I attended, as did other Knox students and faculty, that featured Allen Ginsberg.  I referred to a "quaint and magical house."  I had in fact read that combination of words on a piece of paper posted on the bulletin board in the Seymour Union, advertising a house for rent.  I don't recall seeing any names attached to this paper.

David Warner in Morgan!
This was the era of the found poem, the pop pastiche, the collage. (I was later to use verbatim a promotional paragraph from American Chickle that appeared in my mailbox, in What's Happening, Baby Jesus.)  I did what writers have been doing forever: I repositioned those words--those anonymous words-- in another context.  (I hasten to add that I have more rigorous standards for non-fiction.)

Whether or not this use of these three words in a poem is in any sense plagiaristic, according to the mores of that time or any other, is debatable.  (I assume they weren't claiming copyright on "and.")
 Unfortunately the veiled accusations appeared in the last issue of the year, and couldn't be debated in its pages or anywhere else.  And by the next fall it was forgotten.  I note, however, that one of these pieces begins beside the ads for the local movie theaters.  Now (that is, then) playing at the West: Morgan!

So this quaint and magical year ended, but on a high note: in early June (as I've written about earlier) I spotted Bill Thompson turn the corner purposefully and head towards the record store in downtown Galesburg.  And I knew why.  The latest Beatles record must have just arrived, and so an hour later we were back at his rented house, listening to Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

(I might mention in this context that this particular record includes a song by John Lennon in which the lyrics are almost entirely taken from a circus poster on his wall.)

And so the summer began.  Before I left Knox, I once again had an assured place to live in the fall, and once again had my choice of summer jobs.  And once again, none of it happened.

Monday, June 07, 2021

The Dancing Balloon with Emerson and Thoreau

In the Knox College spring term of 1967, I took a 16th Century English Literature course from Mr. Brady.  At that time we were both on the Faculty Committee for Student Affairs, and our interactions there could be described as inflaming mutual frustration.  Our conflicts would become oddly defined in public in the upcoming fall term.  But whatever bad feelings there might have been at this point did not spill into this course.

I have two surviving papers from this course: one short, the other longer.  I got an A on both.  Brady even included a pun in his comments on the short paper, which was on a poem by Thomas Wyatt, in which a central metaphor was a filesmith's file.  Along with the grade, Brady wrote: "Far superior to the rank and file."  (He did not however get my joking reference to a contemporary novel I was enthusiastic about: Richard Farina's Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me.) On my longer paper on Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, he disapproved of the "staccato style," but concluded "it's a very good job."  

Truth is I didn't much care for 16th century literature--but it is interesting that the approach I took to the Faerie Queene was to focus on "innocence as the essence of ideal love," carrying on a theme I followed in 20th century writer Scott Fitzgerald in winter term.  One paragraph is worth quoting to indicate my thoughts and feelings on the subject at that time, and for years later:

"Innocence, openness, gentlenesss, are the qualities of love that make it what it is--the conciliator of disparate elements in human experience.  It must often be a fostered innocence, deliberate, treasured.  And it does not always promise perfection, for love blends the mortal and the immortal, but is not wholly of either.  It is poignant."

The chief element of this course that I remember is an assigned book: The Allegory of Love by C.S. Lewis, particularly the first two chapters, on Courtly Love and on Allegory.  Impressions of these lasted beyond the course.

Now I come to the course on Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau taught by Douglas Wilson in spring 1967.  The opportunity to read and study these two writers has had perhaps the most lasting effect on my life of any literature course in college.  I can't imagine my life if I hadn't read them that tumultuous spring.  They were a necessary connection to nearly everything that came before, and nearly everything that would come after.

As with the Walt Whitman/Wallace Stevens course the spring before, Doug Wilson's enthusiasm infused this experience.  I can't read any of these writers--Whitman, Stevens, Emerson or Thoreau--without thinking of Doug Wilson.

But even before his knowledge and enthusiasm was displayed in the classroom, Wilson made this course memorable by the choice of books we used as texts.

Emerson's best known works were his essays, and Thoreau's was Walden.  But the specific books Wilson chose both broadened the view of these writers, and placed their work in context.

Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Riverside paperback edited by Stephen E. Whicher, placed Emerson's major essays in the context of his journal entries surrounding the times of their composition.  The book also included Emerson's poems, which Wilson did not neglect in class.  We probably were assigned the Prentice-Hall volume of Emerson criticism, also edited by Stephen Whicher, along with Milton Konovitz.
Similarly, the Norton Critical Editions paperback of Walden and Civil Disobedience included not only the full texts but excerpts from Thoreau's journals, plus reviews and critical essays, ranging from Thoreau's contemporaries (including George Eliot and Emerson) to modern writers and critics, including Van Wyck Brooks, F.O. Matthiessen, Sherman Paul and E.B. White.

Providing further context was what for me was the most valuable addition: H.D. Thoreau: A Writer's Journal, selected and edited by Laurence Stapleton (Dover, which kept Thoreau's entire published journals in print for years, along with other Thoreau books.)  How thoroughly I consumed this volume (for this class and a later independent studies) is indicated by the profusion of underlinings and check marks throughout.  The idea behind the selection was to highlight entries--some of them quite long--that illuminate Thoreau as consciously a writer.

These kinds of contexts not only informed the main texts but made the course more involving, more personal, and more of an adventure.

Unlike Whitman and Stevens,  Emerson and Thoreau came from the same place at the same historical moment--in fact they were close friends for years, and the younger Thoreau even lived for awhile in the Emerson household.  That historical moment involved the Transcendentalist movement, so we had Selected Writings of the American Transcendentalists (Signet paperback) as background (My copy has underlining only in the introduction and first chapter.)

My copy of Thoreau's book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, dates from this time, and it may have been an assigned text.  I also acquired The Portable Thoreau that spring.

My feeling for Emerson and Thoreau was genuine during the course, but my sense of them in history and literary history comes later, as well as the obviously inaccessible knowledge of their role in my personal history.  Surviving papers show concerns somewhat derived from academic questions that were probably prominent at that moment, and an approach that still derives largely from philosophical analysis.

About history: today I see Emerson and Thoreau partly in historical context--a context I can feel, imaginatively, that I could not back then.  My feel for this history begins with imagining the historical contexts of my parents and grandparents generation, and the generation before that.  That takes me into the latter 19th century.  The Civil War era was not of much interest to me when I was young.  I grew up in western Pennsylvania, where the French & Indian war was fought, and in a town named after a general of the American Revolution.  That period was somewhat alive. In grade school I greatly admired Thomas Jefferson.  But even this period was merely "long ago," along with Davy Crockett and Robin Hood.

Even in college, historical periods were discrete and unconnected coalitions of facts and personalities.  In literature I was interested in the writer, not the period. I recall Mr. Wilson asking the class at one of our first Emerson/Thoreau meetings, who was President in the 50s?  I immediately said Eisenhower.  Of course he meant the 1850s.  But that combination of numbers meant nothing to me.  I was interested in what Thoreau and Emerson had to say to me NOW.  We were the Now Generation, after all.  But part of it was a failure of imagination because of a lack of experience: i.e. I was young.   Some of my contemporaries in college had that historical sense.  I did not. As I used to say in the 1990s, I got interested in history when I'd had some.

 A short paper wound its way through Emerson's essay on Art, with reference to contemporary trends in art, of which I actually knew little.  My final paper on Emerson was more ambitious, returning to the theme of innocence (footnotes include references to a book called Radical Innocence by Ihab Hassan, though I have no memory of it--some credit Hassan with the term "postmodernism"), the nature of good and evil, and Transcendentalism vs. existentialism.  The paper is interesting but mostly an emotional mess, clearly written with a distracted mind and a broken heart. It marks the low point of my spring affair, as well as a surfeit of other influences--the aftereffects of campus visits by Gary Snyder and John Cage among them.

 After this course at Knox, I acquired various collections of Emerson, including several old hardbacks: a Greystone Press edition of essays, the Modern Library abridgement of his journals, and a Chelsea Classics edition of Representative Men.   

To a paperback edition of Thoreau: The Major Essays (Dutton), I added new editions of some late Thoreau works: Faith in a Seed (Island Press 1993, edited by Bradley P. Dean), which calls itself Thoreau's Last Manuscript, at least until Wild Fruits:Thoreau's Rediscovered Last Manuscript (Norton 1999, also edited by Bradley P. Dean.)  I also got a few more books on the transcendentalists,  including Philip F. Gura's 2007 history, American Transcendentalism.

I also received (as review copies) several in the series of Yale University Press annotated Thoreau volumes, but I didn't care for the format (two columns of text, with annotations on both sides of them, plus a lot of white space.)  I did hold onto one of them--I to Myself, a selection from the journals.

But my major new adventure into Emerson and Thoreau began when I read a review by John Banville in the New York Review of Books of December 3, 2009. The review began with the greatest opening sentence of any review I've ever read, and quite possibly my favorite sentence ever.  It is: "Surely mankind's greatest invention is the sentence."

I've been wrapping my head around that ever since.

The review was of First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process by Robert D. Richardson.  This slim book also became one of my favorites.  And it introduced me to Richardson as biographer.

Over the next year or so I read his big three: Emerson: The Mind on Fire  (U. of CA 1995), Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (U. of CA 1986) and William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (Houghton Mifflin 2007.)  They led me as well to Richardson's selections of William James essays and of Emerson's essays, lectures and poems.  All three of the biographies are excellent in approach and as writing.

Emerson and Thoreau continue as living influences among contemporary American writers of various kinds, including the science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, the one fictionist whose books I buy immediately on publication.  In his Science in Washington trilogy (which he more recently edited into a single volume, Green Earth), one of his principal characters stumbled on a website called Emerson for the Day, and so quotations from Emerson and Thoreau became part of the text. (That website didn't actually exist, but for some years afterwards it did, because of those books.  I did a version of it on this site for awhile.) Then when Robinson visited Arcata several years ago, he advised his audience to read an entry in Thoreau's journals every morning, as he does.

There's much more that could be said about the influence of Emerson and Thoreau, and I will have a little more in my post on the upcoming summer of 67. But I will say this much here: in retrospect, it is evident that for me, Emerson and Thoreau were both a bridge from earlier literary enthusiasms, and a counter-example.  They were an American version of the English Romantics, and therefore a link to all that echoed in the Romantics (Wordsworth's "something more deeply interfused,/ Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,/And the round ocean and the living air,/And the blue sky, and in the mind of man/A motion and a spirit, that impels/All thinking things, all objects of all thoughts,/And rolls through all things...")

But Emerson and certainly Thoreau went beyond the pastoral identification with innocence as in Spenser or even Shakespeare, to reclaim nature itself and the beauty and essentiality of the wild in the world and in the human soul ("In wildness is the preservation of the world"--Thoreau.) That notion links them forward to poet-ecologist Gary Snyder and ecologist-poet Paul Shepard, and back even farther than English literature goes, to the Native American and other Indigenous and original cultures developed in the far past.