Kenneth Rexroth was primarily a poet and translator who occasionally wrote essays and book reviews. Although he believed that poets should write prose only for money, he took the writing of his commissioned assignments seriously. Altogether he wrote over 400 essays, book reviews, and newspaper columns. Most were on literary topics, but Rexroth also wrote authoritatively on modern art, jazz, religion, the Orient, and contemporary society. Regardless of the topic, the essays and reviews are all marked by his strong opinions on aesthetics, morality, and community.
In the introduction to his first collection, Bird in the Bush (1959), Rexroth wrote that his essays “are not criticism but journalism. It is my hope that they may find a modest place in what critics call a ‘tradition’—the tradition of [James Gibbons] Huneker, [H.L.]
Mencken, [Edmund] Wilson.” The writers he cites each wrote on social as well as artistic issues, for a mass audience in popular magazines, all the while expressing unpopular opinions. Like them, Rexroth expressed his often radical views in popular magazines such as the Nation, the Saturday Review, the New York Herald Tribune, and Art News.
Like his predecessors, Rexroth used these organs to bring a middle-class audience news of the avantgarde in jazz and art and literature, as well as of social movements such as those of the Beats in the 1950s and the hippies in the 1960s and 1970s.
The voice in the essays is instantly recognizable as Rexroth’s—lucid, learned, anecdotal, sometimes dogmatic (“Baudelaire was the greatest poet of the capitalist epoch.
Does anyone doubt this?” from “Unacknowledged Legislators and ‘Art pour art’,” 1958), and informed by a strong sense of aesthetic, political, and social values. An autodidact himself, Rexroth assumed an equal desire for education and information on the part of his audience. For instance, he wrote long essays on such recondite topics as alchemy, gnosticism, and Hasidism. His anecdotal manner stems from his frequent personal involvement with the issues of his essays (“Recently police activity began to impinge upon my own life” from “The Heat,” 1966) or to develop a sense of immediacy, if not of a somewhat truculent authority (“As [Charles] Mingus once said to me…” or “I knew Bird [Charlie Parker] pretty well…” from “Some Notes on Jazz,” 1957). But behind the lightly worn learning and the occasional swaggering is a deeply felt and frequently stated view that modern civilization has gone dreadfully wrong.
Rexroth believed that “organized society in our epoch simply has nothing good about it. It is a deadly fraud from start to finish” (“The Ennobling Revulsion,” 1957). Human beings, he felt, are alienated from their work, their fellow beings, and themselves. He ranks Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as one of the world’s greatest novels primarily because of the book’s “realization that the official version of anything is most likely farce and that all authority is based on fraud” (“Would You Hit a Woman with a Child?,” 1957). A home-grown anarchist-socialist, Rexroth emphasized the virtues of community and cooperation. His book-length essay, Communalism (1974), is an examination of attempts at cooperative living from Neolithic times to the present.
Believing that “Literary criticism can play its role in social change” (“The Art of Literature,” 1974), Rexroth felt that “official high-brow culture,” as evinced in specialized academic journals and critical reviews, was “the enemy” of true culture, communication, and change (“Disengagement: The Art of the Beat Generation,” 1957).
But although regarded as a father figure and spokesperson for the Beat Generation of the 1950s, Rexroth was highly critical of that ostensibly rebellious movement, finding it aimless, without principle, and ultimately conformist. To Rexroth, true revolutionaries, unlike the escapist Beats and the later hippies, work vigorously—in art and life—to overthrow the “social lie” of church, state, and capitalism (“Revolt: True and False,” 1958).
Although Rexroth’s best essays present the spectacle of a thoroughly engaged intelligence attempting to explain the cultural manifestations of the middle years of the 20th century, perhaps his most lasting prose works are the 101 short essays collected in Classics Revisited (1968) and More Classics Revisited (1989). First published in the Saturday Review, these brief essays seek to distill the essence of enduring literary works while giving a sense of their social and moral importance. In his introduction Rexroth declared that “The greatest works of imaginative literature…objectify the crucial history of the subjective life. They make reality, nature, out of man.”
In these short essays the traditional classics are discussed—Homer and Sophocles, Shakespeare and Tolstoi, Mark Twain. But also—and long before the academics he detested began their debates on the canon—Rexroth included masterpieces from around the world: the Finnish Kalevala, the Icelandic Njal’s Saga, the Hindu Mahabharata and Bhagavad-Gita, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, the Chinese novel The Dream of the Red Chamber, and the poetry of Tu Fu. In his essays, as well as in the poetry to which he devoted his life, Rexroth’s proved an early and resonant voice for an increasingly multicultural time.
Born 22 December 1905 in South Bend, Indiana. Studied at the Art Institute, Chicago; Art Students League, New York. Married Andree Dutcher, 1927 (died, 1940). Active in libertarian and anarchist movements during the 1930s and 1940s, San Francisco; orderly, San Francisco County Hospital, 1939–45. Married Marie Kass, 1940 (divorced, 1948).
Conscientious objector during World War II. Cofounder, Pacifica Foundation, 1949.
Married Marthe Larsen, 1949 (divorced, 1961): two daughters. Involved with the Beat writers, 1950s. San Francisco correspondent for the Nation, 1950s; book reviewer and critic, the New York Times; columnist, San Francisco Examiner, 1958–68, San Francisco Magazine, and San Francisco Bay Guardian, from 1968. Taught at San Francisco State College, 1964, University of Wisconsin, Madison, and University of California, Santa Barbara, from 1968. Married Carol Tinker, 1974.
Awards: several fellowships and grants; Shelley Memorial Award, 1958; Copernicus Award, 1975. Member, American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1969. Died (as the result of a stroke) in Montecito, California, 6 June 1982.
Essays and Related Prose
Bird in the Bush: Obvious Essays, 1959
Classics Revisited, 1968
The Alternative Society: Essays from the Other World, 1970
With Eye and Ear, 1970
American Poetry in the Twentieth Century, 1971
The Elastic Retort: Essays in Literature and Ideas, 1973
Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century, 1974
World Outside the Window: The Selected Essays, edited by Bradford Morrow, 1987
More Classics Revisited, edited by Bradford Morrow, 1989
Other writings: many volumes of poetry, a play, and the autobiographies An
Autobiographical Novel (1966) and Excerpts from a Life (1981). Also translated poetry from the Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Greek, Latin, and French.
Hartzell, James, and Richard Zumwinkle, Kenneth Rexroth: A Checklist of His Published Writings, Los Angeles: University of California Friends of the UCLA Library, 1967
Bartlett, Lee, Kenneth Rexroth, Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1988
Beach, Joseph Warren, Obsessive Images: Symbolism in Poetry of the 1930s and 1940s, edited by William Van O’Connor, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1960
Foster, Richard, “With Great Passion, a Kind of Person,” Hudson Review 13, no. 1 (Spring 1960):149–54
Foster, Richard, “Lucubrations of an Outside Insider,” Minnesota Review 3, no. 1 (Fall 1962):130–33
Gibson, Morgan, Kenneth Rexroth, New York: Twayne, 1972
Hamalian, Linda, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth, New York: Norton, 1991
Kazin, Alfred, “Father Rexroth and the Beats,” Reporter 22 (3 March 1960):54–56
Lipton, Lawrence, The Holy Barbarians, New York: Messmer, 1959; London: Allen, 1960
Mills, Ralph J., “Recent Prose,” Poetry 102, no. 4 (July 1963):270
Montague, John, “American Pegasus,” Studies 48 (Summer 1959): 183–91
Parkinson, Thomas, “Phenomenon or Generation,” in A Casebook on the Beat, edited by Parkinson, New York: Crowell, 1961
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