Whatever the dubious credibility of Henry James's central plot device in "The Figure in the Carpet" -- that a famous writer, recently deceased, concealed a secret message in all of his books, hidden beneath the flooring of his plots, descriptions and characterizations -- there's no denying that it is an enticing idea. I imagine many literary critics, at least subconsciously, study individual works looking for clues that their pet subject did just this. My own view is that such an ability to plan out in advance one's lifework demands a foresight no writer is likely to possess.
Yet, I think there is one somewhat rare instance where such a perspective is probably true, or rather, made to seem true. Let us say an author has created a large body of work and then is called upon to compose something about her or his youth. It is very likely that the writer, working retroactively and possibly subconsciously, will put into her or his reminiscence moments of imagined foreshadowing, when the author in the distant past looked ahead and charted the course all her or his work would follow. This, of course, is actually the view the author now possesses in the present looking back, not an authentic memory. No, more likely, it is an authentic memory has been retouched to yield these directions.
Such reminisces are key texts, not for understanding the writer's work, although if the writer is highly self conscious (like Henry James), they are helpful in this way, but for understanding the author's own view of her or his work.
Now one thing that can be said without argument about Ed Sanders is that he is highly self conscious. His new book, Revs of the Morrow, not only contains a sheaf of vigorous poems, some informative, some inspiring, some sobering, but the type of memory piece I have been discussing, one in which the author (implicitly) passes judgment on the whole of his (or her) life work by retroactively imagining central decisions that shaped the direction in which her or his writing would flow. For a proper appreciation and evaluation of this book, we have to look closely at this poem.
The piece in Revs to which I refer is called "Poseidon's Mane," and concerns a visit Sanders made to visit Charles Olson in 1966. To me, any discussion of these two writers is crucial for an understanding of Sanders in that, on the surface, the younger writer's connection to this elder statesman of letters is paradoxical, at least in terms of how each composed long poems. Here's the vexing issue. Sanders, who in the "Preface" to Tales of Beatnik Glory and other places, calls Olson his guru, and gives him a part to play in America: A History in Verse; in this same epic work powerfully and devastatingly repudiates Olson's procedure.
The point toward which I am leading is that Sanders' lucid reasons for making this break can best be understood by reading "Mane," where in the course of describing his visit to Olson, he lays out in spectral form his own future poetic development. Not only being an outstanding poem in itself, this piece is key to understanding Sanders' attempt to change the direction of American verse.
In order to abbreviate this part of the discussion as much as possible, let me simply state bluntly the differences between the two writers' approaches. In Maximus, Olson reduces his geographical ambit, to one place, Gloucester, which he will describe not only in historical depth, but in terms of his own life there, he being one of the main characters or voices in the poem. Moreover, his purpose, to understand what has brought the U.S. to a pretty pass, where the democratic "polis" is repressed in favor of corporate interests, is one that demands probing, a careful sifting of historical records in a way that leads to merely tentative conclusions, but no final resting place.
Sanders in America, in vivid contrast, does not limit his purview to a single locality, indeed, he doesn't even stick simply with a chronology of the United States, but roams far and wide, to Russia, Cuba, Germany, China, though only insofar as the history of these places are necessary to an understanding of 20th century America, with its multiple foreign entanglements. Sanders' own person, appearing occasionally on the sidelines in such cameos as in Volume II, when he recalls his childhood, apropos World War II, "I remember making // a mock flamethrower // that spring in Missouri // and crouching among the lilac bushes // & the row's of my mother's tulips" (91). In contrast to this belligerence, a few years later, after the war, a mood of quiet hysteria pervaded the middle class and is registered in his mother's fears. "She was afraid of Wildwood Lake // with its nearby septics // Wouldn't let us swim there // Didn't want us to watch the powerboat races // out of fear // we'd wake up prone in the hospital // in an iron lung // from polio" (189). This occasional and slight presentation of the self in the epic is a far cry from the obtrusive bardic position of Olson's persona, who will save Gloucester single-handedly.
Lastly, while Olson makes the poem inconclusive, shifting as he uncovers new documents or has new experience in his daily life of the degradation of the republic, Sanders' America, by contrast, though the author researches as much, no probably more, than Olson, is set up to respect lines of history that are already fixed. The general position of America is not, like Maximus's, based on interaction with primary documents, but is simply the combination and lucid presentation of research done by Zinn, Chomsky, Kolko, Aronowitz and a host of left historians and sociologists. Of course, only Sanders has taken such a broad view that he can integrate all these interconnected strands. This, dare I say, Hegelian ability to synthesize is what makes the volumes so constantly impressive. I point to this crucial difference between searching for and fleshing out, not to make an evaluation of which is preferable, but to show that even in this texture, the two authors display a fundamental, well-nigh ontological difference in approach.
1. "Poseidon's Mane"
So, Sanders in America has taken a route that diverged all along the line from the practices of his mentor. But it is still not clear what determining stroke led him in this direction. A hint is given in the poem "Poseidon's Mane" in Revs , which describes Sanders' visit, accompanied by his friend Weaver, to Olson in Gloucester. It turns into something of a freak festival when Olson, the kind host,brings out a bottle of liquid LSD and says, "Want a swig?" (44). What ensues, after Sanders states, "I took about 8 // Weaver as I recall had 12 // & Olson
12 or so," (which is to say, no one actually "swigged" any LSD but opted for taking more manageable tabs of psilocybin) are some bizarre adventures indeed (45). When Olson is driving them to where they will bunk for the night, Sanders suddenly sees his mentor transmogrify,
Then I glanced to the front seat
and Olson had turned into Poseidon!
literally! the Horse from the Sea!
with kelp in his mane
matted and wet (45)
Later, safely home though Olson was driving about 20 mph under the speed limit, Sanders leaves his friends chatting in the house, wanders off, gets lost in the woods, is picked up by the police, taken to the wrong house, and, hours later, gets back to find "Olson and Weaver were still talking! // it seemed they had not moved an inch // during my adventure" (49). In order to come down from what is still a rough acid ride, Sanders continues, "I called Miriam // at our pad on Avenue A // and once again, she helped me to land // from another trip into the universal mosaic" (49-50).
A lot could be said about this masterful narrative (and I've said a little about it in a review in the Brooklyn Rail, May 2008), but here let me emphasize Olson's problems, or, rather, the problem of being Poseidon.
Let me say -- this is the aspect I cover in the Rail -- that America contains some of the greatest encomiums yet written, maybe the greatest that can be written, to such progressive fighters as Mother Jones and Big Bill Haywood, but it is done with no hero worship. So if, here, Sanders fingers certain difficulties with Olson as a person, that is, a drug-addled person, it is after, here and elsewhere, including in America, he has taken full measure of Olson's greatness as poet and influence.
Let me also add, preliminarily, that at the end of this essay, I will show how this piece fits into the overall architecture of Revs of the Morrow this book is as carefully structured as his narrative poems but at the moment there are other fish to fry.)
The point is, as is probably clear, that once Olson is on a talking, drugging jag, like most people, he is oblivious to the actions of others around him. Though Sanders says, "I felt a great surge of confidence // that my mentor, the O, was driving," this trust is immediately undercut by Olson's metamorphosis (45). Poseidon might be trusted piloting a speedboat, but a car on dry land? Nor does Olson wonder or care when Sanders disappears for hours, which, while understandable, is hardly humanly sympathetic, though in keeping with what one expects of gods. Greek gods are known for paying great attention to the other gods' doings and to sexual conquests, but not to mundane actions of humans.
2. Sanders, Olson and Readers
Sanders is presenting a parable. By telling the story of how Olson gets so caught up in his talk with Weaver, while remaining blissfully unaware of changes taking place around him (i.e., one of his guest's disappearances), Sanders is suggesting Olson has the same lack of engagement with his audience, pouring out his riches to the chosen few, while staying in ignorance of the wants and likes of the many.
True enough, Maximus is spoken as if to all the people of Gloucester, but there is a sense in which this is
a covert address. For one, he has to reach them past the influence of the domineering mass media, who have largely supplanted poets. As he says, "The true troubadours // are CBS. Melopoeia // is for Cokes by Cokes out of // Pause" (71). With poetry so low in the water, it is practically invisible to the general public, and as a result, for the poet, "It is not the many but the few who care // who keep alive what you set out to do" (18).
Olson's alienation from quotidian community life is established poignantly in this anecdote, where he is approached on the street in Gloucester by a local pastor:
"Pardon me, but
do you belong to,
may I ask?"
And the whole street, the town, the cities, the nation
blinked, in the afternoon sun, at the gun
was held at them
I sd, none,
Certainly, there is nobility in Olson's Creeley-like answer, slightly undercut by the ironic exaggeration of imagining the whole world turning on his reply, but what I find significant is the stiffness of his reaction. There is no sense of give-and-take or attempt to enter a dialogue in which the values of belief or non-belief would become subject of debate. What is registered is, rather, a divorce from than an attempt to interact with the mainstream.
To put this another way and return to our contrast, compare the appeal of the epics. Any alert, general reader would profit from America, gaining a strong perspective on our national history as well as going through a joyous, invigorating story. Maximus, brilliant as it is, with its disjointed, at times confusing, weaving together of unidentified fragments, opens its beauties only to an audience educated in the refinements of literary Modernism.
Now, Sanders' way of writing could be explained (I think wrongly) with the mundane thought that, unlike the other writers to which he is being compared, he has, in his life, written a best seller (on the Manson family) and been in a semi-commercial rock band, and so is more familiar with how to address a larger public. However, I believe, there is a much more significant reason behind his view of audience. In fact, I would call this the major conclusion of the review. He has provided a complete profile of his readers (and of those who might be readers of any culturally and politically radical verse) in Tales of Beatnik Glory.
2. Sanders' Diagnosis of a Generation: 1. General Dimensions
This is more than an academic question. Many writers today are solely culturally radical in their art. They have leftist views, but these are kept implicit, overridden by cultural practices that eschew easy communication. (Bear in mind, this and similar points are made to assess differences not to level aesthetic judgment.) For this reason, they can only have a coterie following.
Now, Sanders, in Beatnik Glory, is not simply writing entertaining, striking fiction about a collection of artists and n'er-do-wells on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but (as I will show) describing a generation's learning experiences, which has prepared them, as a mass of readers, for a work of America's tenor.
This is a crucial, and separating, act of imagination on Sanders' part. Rather than be told by focus groups, surveys or any other of the tools of marketing about what readers might prefer, Sanders, as a byproduct of attempting to "bring some sense of the spiritual hunger of the era," has had to think carefully about his "people," not citizens of a small New England town, but a milieu of "beat" artists, who, over the '60s rose and fell as a committed community (Beatnik Glory, "Introduction," 5).
Sanders has a lovely line in "The Age." "This is the Age of Investigation, and every citizen must investigate" (Thirsting, 137) He imagines, further, "full millions" doing the investigating. Inspiring, isn't it? But history doesn't work that way. Certain groups (different at different times) form alliances to fight for progressive improvements, others dig in their heels.
In fact, this is the central concern of the four-volume Beatnik Glory. We find in it, not as it is sometimes pictured, a whimsical, occasionally tragic, usually celebratory story of how the Beats on the LES met, fought with and blended into the influx of Hippies into the neighborhood, though it is that too.
The theme is more comprehensive and historically oriented. It can be put like this: How long and with what conviction will the circle of friends (whose lives the narrative follows) push toward an alternative system, one in which, for example, a free store gives away clothes and an envisioned Reich house network of communes will act as free or low-cost crash pads, each one with a special Eros Room?
(The Eros Room, by the way, is described in a conversation in this way: "It's a fuck room.
These kids [hippies] need places for eros and privacy. You'd have a lot more peace in the streets if there were Eros rooms on each block" (III, 573).)
For a time, the group of friends do much in the direction of freeing up society by organizing community events, building alternative networks, railing at the society from stage, page and underground screen, proselytizing, even putting their lives on the line in demonstrations, even investigating. That's the crux of Volumes I and II (covering 1957-1965). But things snap, don't they? Volumes III and IV (1966-'69) charts a de-politicization brought about, yes, by COINTELPRO, police Gestapo tactics and other actions of the state and the media. That's part of the story. But, very usefully, Sanders puts that to one side. He focuses on the simultaneous internal dissolution of the leftist/Bohemian community, the sell-outs, betrayals and co-optings, that sap the internal cohesion. He brings this process to a close by describing, in Book IV, a scene so bitter (as I will describe below) it seems more like one that had flowed from the pen of a Swift or a Juvenal than from this usually more genial fiction writer.
I want to give a little more detail on the rise and fall of this circle, but perhaps you already see what I am getting at. America is written as a direct response to the immolation of this community.
The epic poem starts from the background premise that this group's weaknesses, having been identified, can (to some degree) be palliated by a conscious redirection of their energies in the way the epic poem proposes. This, too, will be given more substantiation below, but I think you already see the difference, the wide difference, from Olson on this fourth ground. Sanders has envisioned a wide strata of artists, small-scale entrepreneurs, activists, bums, grifters and others, who are not a coterie, but a world, one in a movement of cultural and political change. I wouldn't argue against the idea that Olson, Williams and others mentioned also lived in the context of such a world, but without the sustained reflection and consideration demanded by the composition of a multi-volume novel, they were hardly in a position to address it with any of Samders' authority.
Note my claim, for it is not a common one. Knowledge gained by the creation of serious fiction can provide real sociological understanding of a fraction of society. It is point hammered home (in discussing reception of a text) by Stanley Aronowitz in his "Literature as Social Knowledge," one which, unfortunately, he never elaborated in close case study.
I'm not done with this theme and it will come up when we assess Revs more fully, but for now let's look further at Sanders' Beatnik Glory social history to see if we can grasp the brutal, nonpareil judgment he passes on this own generation.
3. Sanders' Diagnosis of a Generation: 2. Two Bohemias: Paris and Berlin
In most ways the milieu of the LES described in Volume I is that of other artistic Bohemias, like Paris in the 1920s or the early 20th century West Village. Its denizens embrace poverty since only by avoiding waged work as much as possible will they have the leisure to undertake their idiosyncratic artistic apprenticeships.
Along with this, and again characteristically, though these dropouts are largely from the middle class, they eschew its conventional morality and pieties. This aspect of their existence is multiply conditioned. For one thing, bourgeois ethics are the accompaniments of a middle-class lifestyle and become rootless without the material trappings and structural life constraints (working 9 to 5, for instance) of this habitus. Moreover, in that Bohemians' search for cheap lodgings, food and so on position them in working-class neighborhoods, they are naturally touched by the, not necessarily looser but alternative morality found in lower-class and immigrant social formations. Lastly, Bohemians have always carried their practices of artistic innovation into experimentation with everyday life, in new "designs for living," something that many of Sanders' protagonists carry to "naughty" extremes.
I think some illustrations would not be out of place. In terms of sexuality, one set of poets, who are deeply enamored of spoken word records, schedule a weekly orgy to the sounds on vinyl of Marianne Moore, Delmore Schwartz, Edith Sitwell, and others. ("Siobhan McKenna Group-Grope"). In terms of drugs, there is the picture (literally, a picture in that it is documented by a filmmaker) of the subculture of amphetamine heads, who engage in astounding bouts of creativity, going without sleep or food for days while heavily drugged on uppers ("The Filmmaker"). These amphetamines, I might add, seem to be the children of the bennies beloved by the Beats and, arguably, responsible for such artistic monuments as On the Road and "Ornithology."
There are other aspects of this space, however, which point beyond the playful and ultimately socially nonthreatening aspects of an artist's colony so far described. For the terrain of the first two attributes is that of the Paris Bohemia (acknowledging, even as I dub it with this geographic designation, that it is simply that of a long-standing stereotype, and not factually accurate). In the Paris Bohemia, young bourgeoisie sow their wild oats: drinking, carousing (always with working-class girls) and breaking new aesthetic ground. Once the artist reaches middle age, if all goes well, he (or occasionally she) gains recognition, drops outrι manners and, as much as characterologically possible, rejoins bourgeois society with all its deadly prejudices. It is this story that is still limned in Hollywood films on, say, the life of Pollock or Basquiat, or, with a slight shift in focus, rappers.
But there is another type of Bohemia. Let's call it, taking a term from Sanders, "the society of the rose" or Bohemia, Berlin version, keeping in mind the previous stricture that this geographic selection is used to borrow from a stereotype, not history. Berlin's enclave sets its sights higher. The artists are not satisfied with remaking aesthetic values, but, often strongly influenced by mixing with the working class, whose life is organized around antithetical principles from that of the middle strata (that is, ones based on community not individual truth), these Bohemians want to recast society as a whole on more equalitarian lines.
There is nothing new here either, since from the days of Hauptmann to Kaiser, there have been socialist and anarchist Bohemians who have put this on the agenda. Yet there is one thing that separates Sanders' Berlin Bohemia from that of other classic ones, including that of the West Village in the time of O'Neill and Bryant. After the violent, relentless quenching of dissent under McCarthy, Hoover and other stokers of the Red Scare, the LES artists are without the organizational guidelines provided to other Berlin Bohemias by large social movements based in major dissenting fractions within the farmers, poor or the workers. Part of Sanders' chronicle is to show how, as the decade progresses, such large constituencies (such as that of the middle class Blacks who supported the Civil Rights movement) emerge and contribute to the deepening consciousness and practice of the artistic conclave.
4. Sanders' Diagnosis of a Generation: 3. Volume I, Commercialization and Politicization
However, at issue in Volume I, where such contact is minimal, is how the LES Bohemia struggles, without such backing, to create a new society, "in the husk of the old," as it were. And, paradoxically, the means to accomplish this are two processes that might seem diametrically opposed: commercialization and politicization.
Three chapter titles in I take their names from institutions: "Mindscape Gallery," "Luminous Animal Theater" and "Total Assault Cantina." The first two represent forms familiar from all Paris-style Bohemias, ventures that handle the business aspects of making a living as an artist. Yet both also contain a secondary aspect. Louise Adams, who owns the gallery, has a "plan
to live in the back and sell her work in the front," imagining a less-alienated way of combining work and life (80). Claudia Pred, of the theater, uses her grant-getting, backer-attracting savvy to put on productions that, in one case, has "several incidents of flag-burning and interracial nudity," stepping on all kinds of toes as it treads beyond the boundaries of the acceptable (125).
The third venture has clearly moved into the territory of the Berlin Bohemia. The Total Assault Cantina is operated by two militants who want to set up a community center under the guise of a cafι. The restaurant hosts meetings and poetry events; has a print shop in the back, specializing in "protest posters, poetry mags, draft cards, I.D., & leaflets"; gives out free soup and tea; and "was unable to resist allowing people to sleep on the floor although it drove the landlord nuts" (35, 33). What can one say of a going concern that blazons this on a sign above the cash register, "THERE WILL BE NO PROFIT!" (34). Total Assault, then, is an early example of a countercultural omnibus, which seeks to subvert the dominant regime by running a minimally profitable firm while providing a public sphere for the formation and elaboration of a counter-hegemonic bloc.
To move to the second point, the politics of the time are those of peace marches and proselytizing for nonviolence, punctuated by such events as the Cuban Missile Crisis and a sit-in at the AEC, protesting the U.S.'s resumption of nuclear tests. In this atmosphere, the Bohemians undergo a growing politicization. Of interest here are Sanders' diverse, nuanced portraits of artists deepening their social outlooks, a process which sees individuals devoting more time and attention to political questions over the course of the volume.
In the early "Chessman," Sam Thomas has been following the Caryl Chessman legal case. The convicted killer had been writing eloquent books in his own defense while waiting out his appeal in a California death row. As the story opens, Chessman's time has run out and he faces execution amidst international protest. Despite Sam's interest, it's only by accident, when he is handed a leaflet about a demo, that Sam decide to join the outcry. At the rally, "as a first experience, it filled Sam with an unutterable urge to march again, to sing again, to protest again" (43). Despite his temporary ιlan, the state killing proceeds as planned and Sam feels crushed by the lack of impact of the small band that has been championing pacifism.
The hero "Johnny the Foot," in the story named after him, is even less politically aware than Sam. A street person who cadges money from tourists in Washington Square, he is caught up in a police ban on yodeling and folk music in the park. He addresses the protest rally, evoking a really inflammatory response (someone lights the wastebasket he is orating from on fire). Not fazed, he, like Sam, feels temporarily empowered by the protest crowd action. It represents a turning point in his life as he shifts gears and gives up being a homeless panhandler in favor of being an all-around activist who takes part in "lunch counter sit-ins in southern bus depots, voter-registration drives in Mississippi, peace walks, [and] ruining war-research computers with maple syrup" (74).
The anonymous poet hero, the next activist in the chronology, who appears in "The AEC Sit-In," no longer drifts into an action by whim or happenstance, but is linked into progressive organizations and, in accordance with this greater devotion, has upped his degree of commitment, being willing to be jailed as part of the disruption of the AEC facility. The incarceration only strengthens his resolve. When he hears of a new protest going on outside the bars, "He gnashed his teeth and thirsted to join his comrades roaming the streets" (174).
In "Peace Walk," various Bohemians' integration into a social movement is even greater. Twenty people, including a number of key Bohemians we've met before in the volume, have joined a 1,000-mile peace walk along the side of the highway from Memphis to Washington, D.C. Since they will be trekking through conservative strongholds and staying at churches, drugs, sex and the carrying of underground papers is outlawed. Decisions are made by consensus, and the group solidarity this induces is further tightened by the constant petty harassment and more open violence they face.
It's not, as time passes, the Bohemians have given up aesthetic concerns, but that the countercultural sphere, which, as noted, already involved the creation of an in-group set of anti-establishment personal relations and roles, has moved a notch, and the group begins doing missionary work, as it were, spreading to a broader segment of society the more equalitarian lifestyles they have been developing. Yet, in acting to proselytize, they have had to tone down certain aspects of their lifestyle, converting it to a less abrasive, less deviant one, giving up marijuana consumption on the Peace Walk, for instance, so the group's more objectionable (from a mass society view) components will not interfere with the delivery of the antiwar message.
In context, this represents an empowering compromise, for giving up (for the moment) certain lifestyle choices has allowed them to participate in a larger democratic plurality. This brings us to the point made earlier, the need, if the Berlin style Bohemia is to move ahead in changing society, to find and nurture links with social movements tied to larger class groups.
5. Sanders' Diagnosis of a Generation: 4. Volume II, Linking and Self Reflection
In the next stage of community development, depicted in Volume II, a latch is found on which to swing links between the avant garde and other sectors of the populace.
In the exemplary "Talbot Goes to Birmingham," on a trip to get revenge on the Klan leader who attacked and permanently injured him during a bus integration ride, Talbot the Great ends up befriending the Kluxer's son, not killing the man, but deciding to subvert his transmission of racist beliefs by sending the son packages of liberatory cultural materials.
In another key piece, "Fabrente Rose," 60-year-old Rose Synder comes to revisit the LES tenement in which she grew up. She chances upon Talbot, Andrew Kliver, John Barrett, Sam and Cynthia Pruitt preparing for a civil disobedience action at the U.S. and Russian embassies. One thing leads to another, and Rose recounts her past in the early days of the century when she was a firebrand Jewish Socialist orator and strike captain. She ends up joining them in the demonstration and then in jail.
In other words, the group is reaching out into foreign territories and generations, spreading its alternative, informal, partially liberated folkways, and, at the same time, affected by its increasing politicization, the circle is turning its collective mind to more self conscious reflections on its own actions, A turning point in terms of the latter is reached in "It's Like Living With a Mongol." A "core of six young mothers, expanding some days to ten or twelve, who came leading their children by the hand or pushing strollers and carriages," gather every morning in Tompkins Square Park (237). Sharing stories of spouse abuse, from mates who "tended to be obsessive, neglectful, drug abusing, pushy, manic-depressive, overly assertive and overerotic yet indecisive and unselfconfident egomaniacs," they form a loose-knit, rough-hewn women's group. "Their strength came from the power of sharing," and then from doing, working out feminist programs, starting with "a total ban on violence and threats of violence in their households," moving on to sheltering women whose "husbands had rough hands" and other proactive actions (238, 239). In this way, patriarchal attitudes and behaviors that have been carried over from traditional lifeways are challenged and broken.
As a further example of this greater, collective self criticism, the members begin to discriminate between, on the one hand, recreational and mind-expanding drug use and, on the other, drug addiction. In Volume I, the filmmaker Sam, who we've already met, bought a huge quantity of amphetamines to supply a bunch of addicts so he could (in the style of Warhol's Chelsea Girls) make a documentary of their romantically self destructive actions. With the deepening social conscience found in Volume II, such art projects would be unthinkable. By contrast, a group of friends set out to help Andrew Kliver break his heroin addiction. This is no spur-of-the-moment impulse, but rests on well-planned, round-the-clock support, with the duties of the participants laid out on a chart. The community is trying to take care of itself rather than rely on outside social agencies.
Both these vectors, encouraging a more conscious direction to interpersonal life and seeking to extend their ethos into different areas and generations, are taken further and given an institutional basis through commercial projects. We saw that the Total Assault Cantina was as much a community center and networking site as a restaurant. As unorthodox as the Cantina was in its heyday, it followed conventional ownership patterns, being the possession of two progressive businessmen. The Guild of Revolutionary Printers, by contrast, is to be cooperatively owned and run. For this startup, Eric Balin looks for suitable accommodations that would include both plant and living quarters (in the manner of the Mindscape Gallery), and which would also have space for "A common library, a common kitchen, a common laundry, a business office, and a large room for printing" (345). The company plans to support itself by printing subversive school supplies. "Textbooks! The most powerful social tool, and gigantically renumerative. They would publish the textbooks to forge a new age!" (ibid.). However, despite Eric's numerous contacts, who are generally in funds, this time he finds "a total paralysis of the cosigning fingers," and the guild never gets beyond the planning stage (346).
One could say this very failure represents the depth of the Bohemians' penetration into the mainstream where they meet more and more resistance. Indeed, in the final, chapter, which, except for its placement, might be called the centerpiece of the volume, "Freedom Summer," in parallel, the group's devotion to substantial change and the mobilization of reactionary forces against them both strengthen.
In going to Mississippi to aid civil rights organizations in voter registration, group members including Talbot, Rose, Cynthia Pruitt, Sam, and Past Blast witness black churches that support the movement being burned to the ground, activists threatened and roughed up, and one of their group, Sam, jailed on a trumped-up charge and on the way to a stiff prison term. At the same time, the group shows remarkable resilience and mutual concern. Many of the group members were not originally involved in the civil rights activity, but drive south when they hear of Sam's arrest to do what they can to spring him.
On all sides, then, in this volume Sanders shows that a set of people who came to the LES to make their way as outsider artists have been drawn deeper into social struggle in a way that forces them to reflect on their own everyday practices, both interpersonal ones and those concerned with maintenance of a healthy community life and spirit, and work to refashion them as supports for a less menaced and hierarchical society. It is this encouraging process that Sanders has enshrined in Volume II.
6. Sanders' Diagnosis of a Generation: 5. Volume III, Parochialism and Disintegration
In most ways, but not in one crucial way, Volume III represents further progress. Rituals are developed to cement the sense of community, more progressive businesses are begun, another visionary plan along the lines of the guild is thought through, and, very significantly, a program is informally established to re-educate chauvinist males. However, on the deficit side, engrossed in deepening and extending its internal ties, the community cuts its moorings to the hostile outer world, which it has previously tried to counter-colonize with its libertarian notions.
If the two previous volumes had their moral centers outside of New York, in the Peace Walk and Mississippi vote drive, Volume III lacks such a focus, plays out as a jumbled series of episodes, which no longer seem to work as a counterpoint to the recalcitrance and reaction they meet from the mainstream.
One clear marker of the changed relation between Bohemia and the outside world is that instead of going to the South to fight the Klan, the Klan comes to the LES when the father of Johnny Ray, the son corrupted by progressive influences after Talbot coordinated monthly mailings of cultural Care packages, comes looking for the runaway boy. The father and his cronies are routed in a hilarious scene since, adept as they may be at backwoods bushwhacking, the down-home characters are fish out of water in the urban slum.
And this debacle on their part is only one indication of a general conclusion of the volume, which is that the repressive arms of the state are feeble. Not only do the bumbling Southerners fail miserably, but big city cops also meet a comeuppance. The police raid the Psychedelicatessan, looking for drugs, based on misinterpreted surveillance, only to find the place is squeaky clean, since someone was tipped off by accidental radio transmission of police plans that resonated in the wall of the building. However, as we will see below, the temporary weakening of the establishment's formal and informal agencies of force is compensated for by its more capable and conscientious handling of ideological weapons.
A second comment on the community's new-found insularity appears In "The Man Who Loved Brecht," which describes the only one trip outside of the city that is connected to social struggles outside the neighborhood. In this case, though, the Bohemians have become tourists, not participants, when they cross the river to Newark to, as Sam puts it to those who accompany him, "see for ourselves what a real riot is like" (480). Sam and his friend, the actress Vera Kommissarzhevskaia, are fascinated yet frightened by their observations. Then, "reality finally met up with the world of the theater when they were trapped on a nameless street amidst the crackle of bullets' (481). Not that the situation could be otherwise, but now they are estranged from the black social movement to which they once pledged so much time and energy.
The significance of this breach between the Bohemians and their one-time allies in the civil rights infrastructure is brought out most starkly in what becomes by default the organizing center of the chapter. Groovy and Lorna, two hippies who have lost their places to sleep, shelter in a basement where they tangle with a black street hustler, Yorry Hansen, who "supported himself through a combination of welfare, drugs and holdups," who ends up killing the two of them (590). I call this incident central "by default," because, compared to the violence in the pivotal chapter of I and II, which had irrational components but was basically employed to stop progressive forces from changing social structures, the violence here is meaningless or, better, registers the situation Piven has explored in "The Urban Crisis: Who Got What and Why." Looking at inner city violence, she notes that when there was a massive Black influx from the agricultural regions in the 1940s and 1950s, the normal channels that had been used to mold new groups for city life did not function, because entrenched groups would not allow institutions already in place to serve earlier groups to expand so as to minister to blacks..
Under the best of circumstances, of course, the task of integrating a new and uprooted rural population into local political structures would have taken time
But for all the reasons given, local government was showing little taste for the task. As a result, a large population that had been set loose from southern feudal institutions was not absorbed into the regulating political institutions
of the city. Eventually the dislocated population became volatile. (320)
Where the violence in Freedom Summer is generated by a monumental fight to bring down a racist social organization through the united efforts of blacks and whites, this crimes testifies to the petering out of the struggle and the fallen solidarity between the races as well as, mentioned above, the non-operation of the mechanisms that had been used in former times to fit newcomers into the city's politics and economy.
I noted that the repressive abilities of the state seem temporarily withdrawn from policing the counterculture but, in the end, this may be less important for the viability of the formation of an alternative to the system than the fact, ideologically, the community has begun to undermine itself.
The ruling ideas of an age, as Marx put it, are those of the ruling class. Let's modify this by suggesting that these ruling ideas are most effective on anyone who is or has been at one time integrated into the system. In this sense, the southern blacks, having been largely excluded, fashioned their own folk, collectivist forms of culture and organization (shown vividly in the character portraits and description of activist networks in the "Freedom Summer" chapter). By contrast, the middle-class Bohemians of the LES, no matter how daring, still were socialized in their youth to have internal ideological agendas. They are constantly in danger, as George Katsiaficas puts it in The Imagination of the New Left, of suffering a "psychic Thermidor
an internally conditioned impetus [of those who have preceded partway to forming an alternative to capitalism] to return to the status quo ante" (110).
Let's face it.
What is the Parisian desire to be an artist, when being one is conceived as being the possessor of a unique expressive gift, but a central pin in the conservative American idea structure? Still, just as the WPA briefly did (as did associated institutions like the Mercury Theater), the LES artists resist the pull of the individualist ideal of an artist, counter-posing to it the Berlin perspective, which views the artist as one among others in a shared, self-elaborated environment, a view reinforced by the development of communal neighborhood institutions and shared participation in political action. In Book IIII, as will be seen, the second conception of what an artist is gives ground to the first.
Sanders' dramatic thesis is this: Less exposed to outside attacks, especially because they have stopped visiting trouble spots, the community begins to lose cohesion and, as it falters, the reserves blocking the re-ignition of individualism are lost.
Let's note two events as this struggle plays out, 1) the impossible attempt to have what might be called free, really free enterprise and 2) the way insularly cocked ceremonies contribute to the growth of cults.
The Free Store, as its name indicates, is a depot from which food, clothing, house wares and other materials are distributed gratis. It can't be denied that this is a forthright, unvarnished attempt to undercut the very basis of capitalism, where everything has a price. But, as it turns out, though the store is wildly popular in the neighborhood (for obvious reasons), its functioning has not been thought through nor is it formally rooted in the LES.
As we saw, in Volume II when people decided to help Kliver kick his habit, a careful ground plan and a schedule were prepared to assure smooth running. Even the printers guild, though it never got off the ground because money to fund its initial stages was not found, had gone through months of careful planning. The Free Store, by contrast, relies on volunteers brought on board due to the novelty of the idea and the large media hype its opening attracts. They are not neighborhood locals but people, including celebrities, who want to be first with a new thing. As the store loses its initial glow, faddist helpers peel away. "To them [the early helpers] it was a Conceptual Revolution. But very few wanted to be the orderlies" (584). Bereft of staff, the store is also rocked by its lack of a clear-cut policy to deal with mooches. So Hip Cap waltzes in and cherry picks the best giveaways to stock his own store. When challenged by Sam, he replies,
"Everything's free here, isn't it?
These are your laws, and I need these items, they're mine. You're the assholes who march beneath the banner of Do Your Own Thing. This is my thing, so go fuck yourself, hippybilly, with a rasp, an asp, a hasp or a silver clasp." (583)
In short, the Free Store founders, wracked by these two problems, which chart the re-surfacing of individualism, epitomized by Hip Cap, in the interstices of the community.
2. A second, seemingly more benign influence that begins operating in Bohemia is the rise of ritual. A number of spontaneously born, jubilant, playful rituals, such as the Goof Parade and the Beatnik-To-Hippie Conversion Ceremony become important activities as ways to make public and (in the case of the parade) institutionalize in a counter-calendar (like the one done by Autonomedia) a set of alternatives to the mass consumption festivals, from Christmas to Mother's Day, that rule the bourgeois year. Nonetheless, these ceremonies are deficient in a number of key aspects.
They do not go head to head with the capitalist program, by being ecological and anti-consumption, for instance, nor do they portray a counter society, as one saw in the same neighborhood in such holiday festivities as the late 19th century Mayday parades, where, as workers marched with their crafts, floats portrayed in tableaux vivants capitalists forced to bow to workers who were instituting cooperative production.
Moreover, unlike the songs, marches, meetings and services of the Southern civil rights struggles it should be clear by now what is described in the Mississippi chapter is a benchmark against which to measure much else that takes place in the complete book which are steeped in the traditions of the black church and so resonate, not only among the black adherents to the cause, but even in the consciousnesses of Kluxers and other opponents, who share the same heritage of symbols and liturgy, the Goof March and its like, no matter how diverse the people who temporarily join the revelry, lack such a resonance insofar as they do not draw on a common background. Various characters' outlandish (if personally fulfilling) efforts to resurrect and offer for others' use such intellectual resources as that of Egyptian hieroglyphics only indicates further that the Bohemians are losing sight of the empowering compromises they made earlier when they curtailed their unbridled imaginations so as to shape them more in line with mainstream standards.
And these rituals take another toll. Although it can hardly be blamed for this development, it seems the greater the attention to ritual in LES Bohemia, the more the neighborhood attracts cults. Where, for all their deficiencies, the Goof Parade and other rituals are interstitial inventions of the arts community, if not the larger neighborhood, these new-fangled belief systems import threadbare, painfully silly philosophies, sent up by Sanders in this passage.
Cults had been oozing into the counterculture. While Lorna was in California, a group had opened a store front on East 10th across from Peace Eye. These particular adepts had decided that the San Diego phone directory was visited by a spirit, and placed it on a shrine stand. Sam was flabbergasted to see how by Tuesday night they had signed up followers. (588)
Another thesis revolves. Sanders determines: As direct political involvement wanes (there are no descriptions of sit-ins or freedom rides in this volume), and this saps the community's practice of fighting in open combat with the system for change, the presence of cult-like groups, which withdraw more people from open contact with the wider community, waxes.
And the ultimate flight, going beyond that stimulated by cults is this: Be Blake. Sam, one of the most militant activists in volumes I and II it was he who was jailed in Mississippi now feels disgusted and discouraged by the lack of impact of progressive political struggles and by mounting internecine violence, epitomized by the murders of Groovy and Lorna, he considers the Blakean manner of revolt. He tells a friend, "All poets should think of following Blake's turning away from the right wing horror of his era. Going the Blake Route is a definite way for loner like me to survive an era ruined by war. Being Blake means going Loner in Thrill Hue and Self-Published Genius. (479). Later, depressed not only by reaction but by the slim pickings for leftist artists "life was beginning to look
like a Beckettian crawl in which he would be reduced to editing magazines from a sleeping bag in a midwest cemetery, [and] scholarly disputations in bread lines -- Sam packs and prepares to leave the LES (597). At this point, he makes his new program explicit, "My tiny parcel of trust, of place, in the Overall Gnarl is finished, and now it's time to gather my sesh, and go the Blake Route, into lonerdom, into my own little glyphic universe" (598).
A point I've already made but which I want to stress again is that Sanders is not simply beating his breast over failures and omissions hobbling the milieu he describes. Enough signals from the historical background enter the volume -- as the Vietnam War continues to escalate; nuclear bombs are stockpiled in growing numbers; the civil rights movement, once it moves north, ends in riots and repression of the Panthers and other radical groups; and all segments of the counterculture find their aspirations deflected or synthesized into defanged forms that are palatable to the establishment to tell readers that the "sins" of the aesthetic wing of the New York are hardly centrally to blame for the eventual evisceration of the hopes of the group (and a generation) for a more equitable, compassionate society.
A point I've said I will make, but can't yet turn to, is that the whole raison d'κtre behind Sanders' break with Olson's direction in his own epic verse can be found in Beatnik Glory, especially in Volume III. I will return to this shortly.
7. Sanders' Diagnosis of a Generation: 6. Volume IV, Thermidor
Volume IV, after a brief foray into politics, opens with a sensational dialectic twist on what has come before. On the one hand, the Lower East Side, now overrun with Hip Caps and cults, has seen its alternative infrastructure disintegrate. On the other, as if seeing the error of their insularity, many of the core characters realize that it is their disengagement from contact with the Heartland, no matter how frustrating and fruitless such contact often proved to be, that has brought about the rapid deterioration of the libertarian socialist mindset that had prevailed as an artistic ethos for a number of years, but which is now being displaced in the community by retro-entrepreneurialism, religion (one character, Cynthia Pruitt, enters a nunnery) and individualism (the Blake Route).So, a group of the original circle work with others to found a base in the hinterland, really taking their lifestyles into the mainstream. They set up a commune on the West Coast, called a hempune, since its livelihood is based on the sale of secretly raised marijuana.
While Volume III lacked the single nodal chapter, found in volumes I and II, in which the group is tested against society's conservatives, IV restores it here. Instead of directly confronting their ideological opponents, the commune acts as a leaven and magnet for mainstream Twayne county where its risquι and colorful antics make it an eccentric but not repulsed member of the community. It becomes part of small town life, bringing its mule train to the county fair, for instance, and entering its creations in the bake off. It's also a weekend refuge for rural young people, who have not yet settled in to the prevailing, stodgy culture of the countryside.
Long-haired hempunards with guitars and underground vocabularies were winsome to alienated young women trapped as store clerks in right wing towns just as hippie girls with sunwheels painted on their breasts
were a powerful lure to testosterone-dinged young men in pickup trucks. (623
A strong woman's group adds to the mix by presenting a less sexist view of females than those likely on offer in the mainstream.
The alternative farm serves as a conduit for ideas of more progressive social arrangements and beliefs, which will help disaffect youth. In the long run, this would seem to be a usable and viable strategy, but in the short term, it is overcome and destroyed when the police and para-military invade, legally, in that the commune is growing a banned drug, wreck the structures and gun down a Vietnam vet, who violently overreacts to the incursion.
It is summer 1968. Historically, the time is right, since this new government militance -- we saw state repression was not very effective in the years covered in the last volume coincides with broader trends. Katsiaficas notes,
By 1968, it was evident that there was such a global awakening of radical social movements that only a global counterrevolution could manage the crisis, and this counterrevolution soon emerged with a vengeance.
After Tet [in February 1968], the U.S. government abandoned policies of discussion and appeasement at home and embarked on a program of systematic domestic repression. (77)
However, to re-emphasize a recently made point, it is Sanders' brief to pinpoint internal weaknesses in the movement, even though, in the big picture, they may well have been less significant than this new wave of government repression.
Without suggesting any kind of Left Puritanism, it should be said that choosing to base the farm's economy on marijuana crops, even aside from the fact that this leaves the commune wide openly for this easily justified police raid, has other deficits. For one, it separates the group from the wider rural community since the Hempune has to conceal many of its activities. And, not harvesting the same produce as the other farmers in the locality, the commune is precluded from forming Granger-style alliances with small- or middle-sized farms in the vicinity, with whom they might have pooled resources. On top of that, being involved in this illegal trade means they have to connect with shady figures like Hip Cap, the sleazy character whose actions helped bankrupt the Free Store. All in all, the Hempune exists on very shaky foundations.
Moreover, since to avoid any hint of their lucrative activities, the group can't put large sums in the bank (the cash they get from selling the primo weed), it is kept on premises, from which here's the risk it is stolen, destabilizing the setup through this loss of all working capital. Although the commune is later raided and shut down by the police, this loss of monies suggests the Hempune would have foundered even if they had escaped state repression.
But there's one other highly significant problem, which is nailed by an offhand comment when the Hempune brings its decorated mules and hippy dippy dress style to local festivities . "Nothing like it had ever been seen at the Twayne County Fair since Emma Goldman had once given a speech on free love for the Wobblies, an event so long ago no one remembered her name" (645). I don't think I am reading too much into this comment by suggesting that the hamlet did have a smidgen of a connection to radical history, which the commune, to its peril, ignores in favor of pleasant, but ultimately disconnected associations to Native American (tepees) and Egyptian (Ra) culture.
This is the point made in the last section. Moreover, instead of adapting patterns from progressive aspects of any of these cultures, they create their own psychedelic rituals, such as that of the Kissing Tepee, in which "couples could split apart and embrace others, climbing up on Suncatch's tall eight-tier spiral bunk bed
There could be some measure of petting but no actual intercourse, or, in general, exposure of genitals" (633-634). While this practice may be valued for encouraging non-possessive relationships and group cohesion, it, like the rites in Volume III, has no discernible link to American traditions, and so, again, stops the group's influence from stretching very far into the mainstream.
It is these damaging weaknesses that make the Hempune a pushover for a government strike, one which does not bring about any rallying around of the their rural neighbors. Yet, it was still, above all its weaknesses and overriding them in significance, a functioning and evolving community that had in place or was forming ways in which to have an impact on the mainstream, partly by liberalizing and radicalizing susceptible segments.
Once the Hempune has been broken up by the law, members from the original circle, who have already separated from the LES, which no longer offers a refuge, are left flailing. Quite a few, those who had kept up a running dedication to their craft, be it singing, filmmaking, writing or another art, go into show business. All of them have high hopes of seeding a mainstream public with their progressive messages, as they had wanted to pollinate the rural district of the commune, but, whether this is foreordained by the nature of capitalist culture or not, in every case this new-found career involves so much compromise, that, in the end, everything of consequence in their art is jettisoned. Let me note three instances of capitulation, ending, as promised, with the most harrowing.
The most uncompromising of the new corporate-backed countercultural icons is Johnny Ray, whose success is aided by the joint efforts of his LES comrades. "Johnny Ray's friends and supporters rushed to help him outfit Rock House [where he is writing tunes for his first album]. Allen Ginsberg sent him some poetry books
The Peace Eye Bookstore sent him genuine Lower East Side wooden milk-crate bookshelves" (659-660). Of all the Bohemians who make it, he is the most genuinely true to his own spirit, yet, because of the exigencies of the music business, he unintentionally breaks up another band by hiring away its best player and has to leave his girlfriend in the lurch when he flies off on his first tour, which ends with the murder of his manager, who, it turns out, was using the band's trucks to carry illegal medical waste. Thus, it seems impossible for him to avoid dubious actions once he has climbed on the musical wheel of fortune.
The ex-Lower East Sider Debbie Harnigan is a much less scrupulous chaser after musical fame. As she begins mounting the rock charts, her friend Sam sends her, as a gentle joke, a modified version of an anarchist credo. The new Rock Star Catechism includes such dictums as "All the gentle sentiments of kinship, love, friendship, gratitude, and even honor must be suppressed in the Rock Star and give way to the total passion for utter Stardom" (722). This tongue in cheek text is taken all too literally by Harnigan. "Sam meant it as Ha Ha Hee in the Blakean sense, but to Debbie it wasn't a joke, it was pure inspiration and helped her transition from Imperious to Imperatrice" (722). She begins stomping on others in her climb to the top and succeeds beyond her wildest dream, playing hockey stadium concerts as an adulated diva. She dies beyond them also, overdosing in a helicopter.
But the most depressing change takes place in Sam Thomas, who has been something of a touchstone character in the book. Having become a renowned and near-idolized experimental filmmaker, with a cushy sinecure in a university, but, possibly because he sees the gulf between what his circle of friends was hoping for, a renovated society, and the little they achieved, he suffers a kind of role collapse, drops out, disappearing from his family and job, and hides out with the homeless, back in the LES. "He wound up in early 1991 living in compete anonymity in a homeless encampment in Tompkins Square Park" (749).
Curious dating. The homeless encampment in the park was destroyed (and never rebuilt) after the 1988 riot.
(Indeed, if I may add as an aside, the following points I will make about Sam's connection to the homeless may seem more crushing to me than to most readers in that I worked for a number of years as a sub-editor on and contributed two pieces to the anthology Resistance: a radical social and political history of the Lower East Side, edited by Clayton Patterson (Seven Stories, 2007), a book that contains hundreds of pages on the amazing confluence of squatters, anarchists, neighborhood activities and simply residents that came together to support the homeless's Tent City and try (unsuccessfully) to ward off the police attack we all knew was coming.)
Sam becomes a leader of the encampment, helping keep the bivouac orderly and sanitary, yet, at the same time, he let's go with the kind of shooting-from-the-hip attacks on the homeless one would have expected (and seen) more in the rightwing press than in the mouth of a former radical. To wit, "He was wondering how he could continue justifying living in a tent town that had seized open space from the neighborhood. Wasn't it just another footstep of ghastly Manifest Destiny stealing open land, even if it had once been Peter Stuyvesant's swampland?" (752). This in a park surrounded by dozens of empty, abandoned buildings, kept that way by a city policy of spatial deconcentration, aka benign neglect, which sought to drive out the poor, who (it was hoped by city planners) would suffer so much from the lack of services, as registered in fires and ascending AIDS statistics, that accompanied the engineered wasteland, they would leave the area for the outer boroughs.
But let's get to the story's punchline. After he has been discovered in his hideout, and is planning to resurface and return to his old life, a well-placed friend tells him,
"You better get out of here, Sam. Because later this week, maybe even tomorrow they're going to drive everyone out of the park. I've been to meetings at the mayor's office on this one. It' real."
Sam did nothing and did not warn anyone in the park. Instead he allowed the Spirit of Film to overcome him just one more time.
he purchased a video camera and started to capture the tent town [and its violent dispersion]. (753)
It's as if, to reenter the bourgeois university hierarchy, Sam must make a peace offering, a sensational film of the homeless being routed and ousted. Forget that these people helped him when he was down and out and that, if he warned them, they might protect their few belongings and summon help from their neighborhood support system. He'll get a better film if he can show them being brutalized and vandalized. In other words, the iron law, which ordains you must trample anyone weaker in order to rise in art, is maintained as rigorously in the esoteric field of underground film as it is in the higher profile, glitzier realms of entertainment.
Don't get me wrong. Some of the Bohemians do stay the course and remain true to their ideals, including Johnny Ray Slage to a degree. But the overall collapse of the integrity among individuals who had once risked all in championing a better world puts the Lower East Side on a par with Dublin as a center of moral paralysis. Or, to give this a more American reference, Beatnik Glory, as a whole, presents a vision to rank with those of Poe and Lovecraft. A group who, for a decade, went through a testing fire, while they created an alternative, affirmative culture in the midst of the Vietnam War and state counterattacks, once they are cut adrift from their sustaining Bohemia, fall back into the sick, hateful dimensions of the bourgeois life that they fled on page 1.
8. Deficiencies of the Counterculture & Literary Countermeasures
But, let's get back on track. Rather than look on the book as a Balzacian portrait of a group moving through history, suffering ups and downs as broader socioeconomic contours shift, which the book is, I want to view Tales of Beatnik Glory as a list of premises. Having drawn this intimate depiction of a group he knows so well, Sanders can locate precisely where it went wrong. As one of his characters puts it, in a bull session that develops at a party during which many of the characters being confessing things of which they are ashamed,
"When we scaled back our plans after the fall of Nixon, we didn't do more to create a Social Democracy. We gave up. We had more power than we realized but we gave up. I think all this energy of confession [during the bull session] comes out of the chance that we missed." (759)
Again, a cautionary note. Some of the traits Sanders identifies as stumbling blocks, such as the dependence of the Hempune on sales of an illegal substance, are matters (if the occasion arises) for consensus discussion of a group in formation, that is, ones outside the jurisdiction of a poet.
However, two major deficiencies that Sanders has diagnosed in the multi-volume novel are amenable to cultural intervention.
For one, as we saw, the alternative culture felt a need for ritual to solidify ties and mark out its own calendar of sacred time. Yet, in contrast to those of the black civil rights groups and to Native American (not mentioned in this review, but who are important in Volume 4 when they take over Alcatraz as a protest and are visited there by various core characters), who appear prominently in the narrative, these alternative rites are not drawn from a community's shared backdrop of religious perceptions, stories and value lines, which, in both cases, in Afro-American Christianity and Native American animism, are coordinated with natural, seasonal rhythms. Instead, such rites as the Goof Parade or the Kissing Tepee get-together, for example, no matter how effective and community-enhancing in the narrowest context, seem ill-chosen and jerry-built because they do not draw from wider, more entrenched cultural resources.
Tactic A. To find details that will resonate across both the counterculture and the mainstream, it would be useful for an author to make a deep threading through American history. This author will not create a set of rituals, this can only be done by larger consensual circles, but will unearth the contours of a progressive American spirituality, or, at minimum, a mythos, that will provide the necessary arsenal for the elaboration of rites for a new spring.
Secondly, the other deficit we saw (of the ones amenable to literary repair) was that as soon as community structures weakened, group members fell back into retrograde, mainstream behavior, undergoing psychic Thermidors, which, at the extreme (which very few reached) meant following Hip Cap in destroying the very institutions that made their own time of artistic or activist apprenticeship possible.
A number of principled responses to this second weakness are possible, but in Sanders' work two stand out.
Tactic B. The non-heroicized yet nonetheless exemplary presentations of people who stood up for their subordinate community's rights and did not buckle under to pressure to conform to system-upholding ideology and behavior.
Tactic C. The direct targeting of pivotal tenets in business/imperialist thought for remorseless ethical and satirical attack. (Sanders' exposι of the self-destructive effects of chasing the rock & roll star, which occurs in the Debbie Harnigan chapter in Volume IV, is a good sample of this strategy.) And, as the converse component of this tactic, the delineation of the virtues of a socialist structure of practice and ideas.
This second method is punctually expressed in this poem from Revs .
The U.S. Military Southern Command
won't be able
Which reminds me. The point of this essay is to review Revs of the Morrow, Sanders' latest publication and, I think, it can only be understood in the light of this vast contextualization.
Tactics C and B are much in evidence in poems in Rev -- Tactic A is the core them of America's volumes -- but, as suggested, even more significant and provocative, because it is the work in which, in nuce, Sanders maps out his whole, mature, poetic strategy, particularly in favor of rejecting the Olson approach to the epic poem, is "Poseidon's Mane."
9. The Counter-Drift
Let's talk technically a minute, for I want to note that I can be blamed for not giving Sanders enough credit for something I noted in passing. I suggested volumes I, II and IV of Beatnik Glory had single chapters that were the pillars of the edifices as, I would add, "Poseidon's Mane" is the main structural support of Revs. But I neglected to say that they each have a shared special quality, which makes me denominate them center-drifts. Unlike other major turning points, such as outstanding poems or stories that occur in works of related but not tightly organized sequential or thematic order, when a center-drift is employed, in this case, when Sanders' pivots occur in the early or middle sections remember in Volume II of Beatnik Glory the key work is the last one in the book -- revealing itself from the first to be a powerful statement, it later shines forth with another, quite unprecedented trait. The stature of the single unit (while never diminishing) is constantly modified as each succeeding piece in the work is read, so that (if I may be permitted a fantastic metaphor to which I will return) it is like the shimmering ruins of a glass city emerging from an ebb tide. As each following text is encountered, the center-drift takes on more and more implications, more and more virtues.
10. "Poseidon's Mane": A Forward-Glancing Epiphany
I will illustrate that with "Mane" in a moment, but something more pressing has to be handled. Much earlier in this essay, I stated that in Sanders' description in "Mane" of his visit to Olson, he, conscientiously enough, hinted at certain all-too-human weaknesses in Olson's treatment of others, especially his obliviousness as he poured his soul into conversation and hallucinogens. It was further argued that this anecdote is used as a symbolic indication of Olson's lack of contact (or rather spiritual communion) with the people in his immediate vicinity in Gloucester, though he kept up a wide correspondence with poets around the country, and that this isolation resulted in certain, not necessarily detrimental, thinness to Maximus.
Then, I asserted and, I think, now partially substantiated, that Sanders was much closer, due to favorable circumstances on the LES, much closer to a teeming, interactive, mutually supportive, evolving, politically alive arts community, which fed him ideas and nourished his productivity. When he comes to compose an epic poem, addressed to a discrete audience, he will likely have in mind the same mix of comrades, friends, acquaintances, enemies and, moving back a step, a vast fringe of people who, while not personally know to him, were attached to the leftist, artistically experimental, flawed Berlin Bohemia of the LES through the 1960s, the same mix who were the subject voices in Beatnik Glory.
This, too, this identification of an audience for his epic production is contained in Revs ' center-drift. Let's revisit "Mane." You'll recall that as Olson and Sanders' friend Weaver sat at the kitchen table at "Castle Perilous" in a rambling, all-night conversation. Sanders somehow detached himself all of them tripping on psilocybin and stumbled bewildered through the woods, out of sight and out of mind of his erstwhile host. But before he goes fully into the woods, Sanders begins a yo-yo itinerary. He makes a foray outside, hallucinates himself into another time and place, then hurries back indoors for a few more moments of chat.
I also already mentioned that, at the end of the night, getting little support from his friend or Olson to help him on what has turned into a bad trip, he calls his wife, who is at home in the Lower East Side, and she talks him down, This, by now, should suggest how ineluctably the poet is connected to his East Village support network. In the yo-yo movement, though, two other key signifiers of Sanders' future direction are evident. In each moment of outward roaming, Sanders' projects himself into a distinct past, as when "Once I spoke Akkadian, building a mud brick hut // by the River Euphrates" (47). But the last life cycle he enters is this, "I was a Hasidic store owner on Hester Street // in the Lower East Side" (ibid.). In other words, he is experiencing the back story of his own neighborhood.
He returns to the house in which he is staying and engages in this cryptic dialogue.
On the table was a jade and silver cross
I asked the O, "what is there to hold on to?"
He handed me the cross
I tasted it and felt it melt in my mouth (48)
(Let me say, as an aside, and to add another feather to this consideration, that a number of mystical moments take place in front of a Russian Orthodox church in Beatnik Glory. These are not Christian visions per se and do not solicit faith in Jesus. Rather my sense is that they suggest two things. That reality contains visionary dimensions and that the older religions possess a charge that is far greater than that of Goof Parades and New Age ceremonials.)
However, to return to Gloucester, the upshot of the "cross questioning" is not the suggestion that Sanders should fall on his knees and embrace that old time religion, that he must recognize, while advocating leftist causes, the value of grounding argument and pageantry in the progressive sides of America's religious and civic traditions. The upshot of both together, cross and sojourn as a Hassid, is that he, in a fragmented way, is seeing that the epic verse he has in him must work first with the common experience, drawing on his present milieu (notated by his call to his wife), tying back to its lower-class cum socialist cum anarchist roots (the Hassid), and written in the most reachable, plain spoken style (the cross symbolizing a writerly catholicism, lower case "c").
Upshot final: America: A History in Verse, which presents U.S. history as a way to provide the next generation with a more solid grounding (more solid than he possessed in his first days of being a young rebel) in the radical history of Turtle Island. To spice it with thumbnails of heroic figures who battled for a cooperative society. To lace it with a resonant use of symbols and antically coined phrases, such as "military-industrial surrealists" or, to denote a setback for the forces of reaction, "the rolling of cap-eyes." To infuse it with passion, at times a maddened intensity of anger and love. All this, I argue, is constructed in "Mane," as conceived one night in Olson's Gloucester. And this is why I construe this center-drift as the record of an epiphany, "a forward-glancing one," to employ Ernst Bloch's terminology.
This forward-glancing form is not the retrograde, sad-sack epiphany featured in Dubliners, whereby a protagonist recognizes her or his weakness or has impending mortality confirmed; but an epiphany in which the underbrush is cleared and one sees the road. All that is necessary is taking one first step onto the highway. A Guthrie step, a Holiday step.
I refer to singers here, not just because Sanders had been one, but because the two mentioned took the same tack. They put their writing and singing skills toward a conscious politicization of the folk and jazz idioms, whether performing at Town Hall or Cafι Society.
11. Sanders' Cherished Program
I have no more to answer to in this essay, except to get to the review of Revs of the Morrow, for I believe I have, as far as you are willing to swallow my argument, shown why Sanders broke with his mentor and shuffled about the tradition of the American long poem. Shown also, perhaps, that this new stance is signaled most authoritatively in "Poseidon's Mane," and prepared for in the study of a generation, reflected in Tales of Beatnik Glory. In Revs , he simply, with grace and aplomb, moves inexorably forward on the same path.
I don't think I have to tick this off in any detail, beyond saying that aside from the extraordinary center-drift "Mane" (whose exact working will be described in a minute), the book contains a series of lyric and dramatic productions, further forwarding Sanders' cherished program.
There are true-life portraits of progressive saints (Tactic B). See his depiction of Emma Goldman and his nervy, indelible painting of Rachel Carson, describing how she finished Silent Spring and then went out to defend it from corporate flaks all while she was enduring increasingly savage treatments for her inoperable cancer.
To see him satirically castigating the puffed up pretensions of America's charter governing class (Tactic C), consult "The Impeachment of George Bush A World Wide Party," which does not imagine the dour proceedings of a Senate trial, but rather the aftermath of its success, an infectiously described jumping jamboree in which, macabrely enough, "500,000 legless humans from U.S. and Chinese land mines // clicked their crutches to the beat as // Stevie Wonder's 'Superstition' played from giant helicopters." Even the animal kingdom gets to groove, when "the birds in pet shops // suddenly knew 'All you need is love"' (58).
For the creation of a new iconography (also Tactic C), we can reference his mention of the "Share-Flower," which opposed military might. The revolution, then, will be buried in a catalog of flower references. He submits this idea most forcefully in the book's opener, "To The Revolutionaries Not Yet Born." Here, using the same salient term, he distinguishes between those pushing for justice, peace and an expanded utopia, "the Workers of the Rose," and the state they eventually hope to reach, the "cradle-to-grave society of the Sharing Rose" (11). Both invoke this flower because it occurs in a standby phrase of American radical lore, Goldman's demanding "bread and roses." So, Sanders' rudimentary (in the sense of still being in the process of being worked out) system of symbols is, in line with what I take to be the poet's concern for an historical continuity in left history, a reworking of one already resplendent in our socialist/anarchist past.
12. Use of Center-Drift in Revs
But let's move to the last point, the writer's development of a new literary device, the center-drift. As suggested, according to this usage, every piece following the key one acts as a foil to it, shifting the reader's remembrance and understanding of the core text.
If, as noted, the center-drift in Revs is "Poseidon's Mane," whose content we know, the first poem to throw it into relief, immediately following, is "Lawn of Jars." It runs in entirety.
The melted eyeballs are on the lawn
where the child of leisure learns croquet
You can only see them
reflected in the expensive gas guzzler
that brings Uncle Fred from Dayton
The eyes of Hiroshima
but the time-track is ankle deep in jars
to hold the tears (53)
How does this inflect what has gone before? Simply enough. The thesis of this poem is that the violence the U.S. has perpetuated, no matter what the excuse, whether justified (in fighting Japan) or not, haunts the middle class, who this is the ultimate tragedy are deaf to the banshee cries of the slain. The special danger of not hearing is that the "victim" will not know (or will know only lies about) about her or his country's history and, hence about the foundations of his or her life.
(The reader of "Lawn" can't be expected to be aware of what I am about to note, but I believe when Sanders says the eyes are only visible "reflected in the expensive gas guzzler," he is alluding to the fact that gas was behind Japan's entrance into the war at Pearl Harbor. In America II, he puts it, "and so it was that the Japanese // starved for oil // (the U.S. embargo was forcing // it to use some 12,000 tons of oil // from its reserves each day) // sneaked an armada // toward the American fleet" (43). Further, my own suggestion that the bombing might be justified, since, according to U.S. apologists, it saved so many lives, it also refuted by Sanders. He explains that sheepish, bamboozled Truman, who had been well out of the loop, so that when he took over from Roosevelt, he knew nothing about the bomb, was herded by military top brass into dropping the the device on civilian targets. In fact, as Sanders explains, the original plan, when Roosevelt had been alive, was to present only "a demonstration of the bomb // with notice to Japan they'd get it next // if they didn't surrender" (119).)
But, how does this poem tie in with "Mane"? The connection is not through oblivion, the tyke oblivious, Olson oblivious, but on the question of awareness. It may seem to the casual reader that in "Mane" Sanders' temporary LSD-induced flights to other times (to Egypt and the New York City Jewish quarter) were cut-and-dry records of typical acid trips. This would be a realist reading. A reader more familiar with Sanders' other writing might surmise that the mention of the Hassid is a presage of the poet's immersion in historical studies.
Now, with this new poem in her or his sights, a different complexion is cast on the interpretation of his yo-yo-ing experience. It seems being a radical poet is being open to ghosts. Stirred more by common people's experience, such as that of a man constructing a brick hut or a small shopkeeper, than by pharaohs or presidents, the progressive artist connects beyond the present with a long tradition of resistance and is stirred to redress current wrongs not only to improve the world as it is, but and this was Benjamin's insight, drawn from Jewish traditions -- as some compensation for what was ruined in the past, the sparks of which still stand somewhere, clinging to the world.
It is the bleak darkness of the rich, of those, at least, who are comfortable and self-satisfied, to be riven from these pasts. While Olson, Weaver and Sanders, no matter how much they differ in individual perspective, all deeply partake of the past, and share that longing.
To repeat, "Lawn," once registered, leads the attentive reader to a new, added aspect of the center-drift.
This is not the place to take such a discussion much further, but let me add one final, briefer example of how this works. Some readers of "Mane" might feel a nagging, moment of doubt concerning the validity of Sanders' experience. After all, here was an epiphany arrived at, not via such avenues as meditation or as part of a determined spiritual quest, but on drugs, a fast-track, no-sweat way to enlightenment.
Coming across a further poem in the book, "Chewing Coca Leaves" will not heal these doubts, but it will force forward another thought on "Mane." In "Chewing," Sanders notes how mild hallucinogens have been a part of many indigenous lifestyles, "the natives chewed the leaves // to calm the hunger and fatigue // that form so many strands // in life's harsh lanyard" (56). He notes that taken in moderation, these leaves proved more a health tonic than a debilitating influence, "Those who chew coca leaves // through their lives // show no physical deterioration from it" (ibid.). In their untreated, pristine form, the leaves are to be distinguished from the harder, export article, "Refined cocaine // is a right wing drug // chewing coca leaves with lime // is an ancient song of the people" (57).
With this poem under her or his belt, the reader again has to rethink various motifs of "Mane."
Against my position, it might be said that any well-planned book of lyrics slowly builds to a unified impression, for, in this sense, each new poem rewrites the one before. But Sanders is risking all, not to create such a gestalt, but to modify, poem by poem, a single holistic center-drift that, by the end of the book, has become almost as many nuanced as, suggested before, the waved-tossed, cut-up, glass city.
13. Grooms' Cover
And, appropriately, there is a replica glass city on the book's cover. It's vintage Grooms or, should I say, Red Grooms in a vintage mood, portraying the street in front of a 1940s Times Square grind house. Sanders' name and the book title are on the marquee, patrolled past by a group of characters who seem to have popped off a pulp novel of the era. Dead center is a brazen hood. Well, I'd call it brazen to pocket a stolen billfold while standing eye to eye with a cop, while wearing a mask to boot. But maybe the female cop is actually a costumed member of the Daughters of Bilitis (the '40s lesbian rights group), got up that way as a flirtatious tease. The frame is further crowded with other Forty Deuce denizens, such as the usher, jaded ticket seller, a tall man from the circus and a suicide blonde, entering from the right, with a smile smothered on her lips.
This is certainly a visually arresting and provocative view, but Grooms is making a larger point. Back in the '40s, all the intertwined, underground subcultures: gays, druggies, petty hoods, fetishists, had spaces that offered an actual refuge from the norm. Though their get-togethers may have been invaded by the cops, their lifestyle was not influenced by an outside media, nor were their appearances stolen from them by fashion's style captains. So they had a great measure of integrity, granted them also in the cover portrayal
Looking at Grooms this way suggests a common center to his drawing and Sanders' poetry. Both artists depict a generation in flux, what the establishment would call scandalous flux, in that their movements, embroilments, political leaps and building of Bohemias, which, as a speaker in Beatnik Glory envisions them, would create, "permanent revolutionary structures ... not just psychedelic barricades at street corners," would work toward a turnabout in the overall social structure (III, 440). Sanders' large subculture works explicitly towards this goal, Grooms' only implicitly, if at all. But the hipsters on the cover, at least, consciously stand apart from the social juggernaut of capitalism and anti-communist Puritanism of their day.
A fitting cover, then, to a lively volume, which works by addressing an audience, one whose political and cultural needs Sanders uncovered in Beatnik Glory, and whose resolve to fight for a better world, one organized along socialist lines, he seconds and encourages by offering road maps that trace paths in three directions. He looks back to the past by reminding readers of great fighters, such as Rachel Carson, whose struggles may not have been fully appreciated. He offers excoriating comments on the present, knocking the foibles and follies of our present ruling elite. And, in his exordium, he gazes at the future and writes for firebrands still riding in their prams.