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An Autobiographical Novel

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Kenneth Rexroth, An Autobiographical Novel


Kenneth Rexroth (1905-82) was dubbed the ‘Father of the Beats’ and is associated with Ginsberg and other radical American

writers in an Age of Protest.  This book belongs in the archives rather than the ‘must read’ section of the library.  It contains a good deal of rant and expresses contempt for academic institutions.  It is a reminder of the way things were in the Depression by a spokesman for the underdog. 


Rexroth is celebrated today, if at all, for his painting and poetry.  Certainly, on the evidence of this book, he is no novelist.  This ‘autobiographical novel’ is a spontaneous outpouring from one who knows the life of the streets, especially the less salubrious quarters of LA and Chicago.  ‘I have never lost my appetite for this lowest of low life,’ he declares, ‘and to this day I greatly prefer hustlers and grifters to bohemian intellectuals.’  Later he fulminates against ‘intellectual perverts.’  Rexroth’s highest praise goes to the down-trodden and those who know life in the gutter, especially those who have ‘done time,’ such as condemned Sacco and Vanzetti, victims of injustice and men ‘of true saintliness.’


The tone throughout is angry and aggressive.  Unlike that other champion of the poor, George Orwell, Rexroth is no stylist.  He is slangy, tough and informal throughout, yet he ‘picked up a lot of learning,’ at Smith College, Northampton.  In fact he learned several languages.


Rexroth is not your everyday beat poet, but a man of wide reading who, however, has now put all that behind him and moved on to more important matters.  His account of his relationship with Ole Olsen, the Dial poet, typically shows how the egotistical Rexroth despises the pretentious and effete offerings of a man from yesteryear.  ‘He [Olsen] despite having spent the last 25 years in a state hospital, ‘still writes the same kind of poetry … which has not changed at all since he entered the Catholic Church in 1927.’ They would talk about the Elizabethan poets, Donne’s satires and much else, but it was impossible to discuss serious matters: ‘From his effeminate manners and pseudo-English accent you would think that ritualism and incense and silks and satins would appeal to him,’ but they didn’t.  ‘He just loved Our Lady and Our Lord.’


Nothing worse for Rexroth than being stuck in the past, like Olsen.  Yet ‘in a well-organized society not only would there be a place for such an unworldly personality … but such a person would be one of the leaders … one of the true growing-points.’  To which the sensible reader would reply in one word, euphemistically represented by the two letters BS!


I miss not having an index to this book, which is crammed with references to the great, the good and the unknown pals and victims of KR.


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