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Rexroth Autobiography (1)



Home Schooling and Indian Lore




Any writer, reading over the typescript of a book for the last time before sending it off to the publisher, must wonder what all the effort was for. An autobiography is specially in need of justification to its author. It is a work of self-justification which itself needs justifying. Why have I written this book? Why have I written it the way I have? What does it mean to me? What do I hope it will mean to others?

Each human being has at the final core of self a crystal from which the whole manifold of the personality develops, a secret molecular lattice which governs the unfolding of all the structures of the individuality, in time, in space, in memory, in action and contemplation. Asleep there were just these dreams and no others. Awake there were these actions only. Only these deeds came into being.

Every cell in the body is marked with the pattern of the genes that stripe the chromosomes of the original fertilized egg. This is the physiological fact, the minute, infinitely complicated pattern of organic individuality. So, too, there is a psychological secret determinant. Each of us is a specific individual, that one and no other, out of billions. I think each of us knows his own mystery with a knowing that precedes the origins of all knowledge. None of us ever gives it away. No one can. We envelop it with talk and hide it with deeds.

Yet we always hope that somehow the others will know it is there, that a mystery in the other we cannot know will respond to a mystery in the self we cannot understand. The only full satisfaction life offers us is this sense of communion. We seek it constantly. Sometimes we find it. As we grow older we learn that it is never complete and sometimes it is entirely illusory.

I suppose in the first impulse the telling of these twenty-one years of my own life was a gesture of communion with those I love, with my daughters especially. Secondly, of course, it was an attempt to understand myself. I am not so naïve as to believe that one reveals oneself by talking about oneself. But possibly out of the narrative a self can be deduced, as Pluto was discovered by an analysis of the perturbations in the orbit of Neptune.

The last and, as a published book, the only justification — I think it is an interesting story of a minor historical importance. To many people it may seem a most atypical childhood and youth. I do not think it is, or if it is, it is at least characteristic of one kind of American life.

Today we hear a great deal about Organizational Men, Mass Culture, Conformity, the Lonely Crowd, the Power Elite and its Conspiracy of Mediocrity. We forget that the very volume of this criticism is an indication that our society is still radically pluralistic. Not only are there plenty of exceptionalists who take exception to the stereotyping of the mass culture — but that very string of epithets comes from a series of books that have been recent best-sellers, symptoms of a popular, living tradition of dissent from things as they are.

Most American families that go back to the early nineteenth century, and certainly those whose traditions go back to the settlement of the country, have a sense of social and cultural rather than nationalistic responsibility. The sense that the country is really theirs, really belongs to them, produces radical critics, rebels, reformers, eccentrics.

The conviction they have the right to demand their society live up to their expectations does not necessarily mean traditional Americans are crackpots or cultists, or even odd at all. True, an obstreperously pluralistic society shades out through Brook Farm, the Oneida Community, the Fourierist phalanxes of the early nineteenth century into all sorts of cults both political and religious. On the other hand, people who insist on exercising their right to determine their social environment are eminently normal. This does not mean they are common. Most people in the world, anywhere, any time, just make up bulk. As we look back after history has passed by, hundreds of their contemporaries in American politics are forgotten and Senator Norris or the elder La Follette or Eugene Debs or Bryan or even a rascally character like Borah stand out. They were the actors in political history, even though lesser men finally obtained the goals for which they fought. Leaders of causes stand out unduly.

Through this story of my own life runs the thread of the Abolitionist heritage. It is one of the strongest factors in the shaping of my mind. Yet those of my ancestors who were Abolitionists were modest people indeed. They were inconspicuous while they lived and are lost to history. Yet they were no less convinced than John Brown, just as brave, perhaps a little saner. Similarly with those who were suffragists, Socialists, Mutualists, and were sexually, politically, and economically liberated people of the early years of the nation. It was they, most of them common, normal people, who built into our society those structures and relationships which have always redeemed it from the evils Aristotle said were characteristic of democracies. I think this is the actual framework of American life, and I doubt if it is really collapsing today under the onslaughts of mass man. Mass man has always been around. It is a measure of our concern and our responsibility that we take his doings so seriously.

I surely was taught by parents, grandparents, by all members of a widely extended family, that I was different from irresponsible people, that it was up to me to be better mannered, more courteous, more concerned, as the Quakers say, in all social relationships, direct in speech and unostentatious in behavior and clothing.

Although I was unaware of being taught anything I absorbed a clear and rigorous code. You were not only honest, but forthright in speech and never used polite evasions or euphemisms. On the other hand, you never volunteered unwanted advice. You never bargained. In Cairo or Paris or Cleveland you either paid the price asked or walked out — and so in the more subtle bargains of life. You never gambled. Although my father was a constant gambler he presented this aspect of himself to me as a very bad example, a vice not to be imitated. You never overindulged in food or drink. You never hunted or wore furs. You never dressed in fashion, like undignified people. You never went to court or got your name in the papers. Everything you did, but especially acts of charity, you did as inconspicuously as possible.

This kind of training produces a hauteur I know many people find offensive. It may be arrogance, but I prefer to think of it as an expression of the sense of responsibility and the desire to keep efficient for the exercise of that responsibility. It comes not only from the pietistic Germans in my ancestry, but, at least I like to think, it is the ethic of free men growing up in a free country.

Schwenkfelders, Mennonites, German revolutionaries of ’48, Abolitionists, suffragists, squaws and Indian traders, octoroons and itinerant horse dealers, farmers in broad hats, full beards, and frogged coats, hard-drinking small-town speculators, all have gone to make a personality that has proved highly resistant to digestion by the mass culture and yet, I think, conservative of the characteristic values of American life rather than the reverse.

So much for the inheritance from the more distant past. Directly from my parents comes another heirloom — an unusually strong memory of and feeling for the world before the Other War [World War I].

While I was dictating the first chapters of this story in Vicenza I took Marthe and the girls to a performance of La Traviata by one of those traveling companies that play the small Italian cities all year round. Usually the stage-set for the opening scene is so grandiose that it looks like nothing but a stage-set. This was a simple drawing room of the turn of the century and the costumes were equally authentic and uninflated. The moment the show opened I was overcome by the feeling I was back home at a party in the Midwest about 1910. The old-fashioned tenor had the same damp, romantic, slightly babyfied look as my father — the acme of good looks of those days — and Violetta was in every way my mother. Played straight and realistically, this was my mother’s world and her attitudes to life. True, in her case Edwardian sentiment was stiffened with American radicalism, high reading, and high living, but then Violetta and the Lady of the Camellias were not illiterate reactionaries, either. It was my world as a child, too. That first scene of La Traviata seemed a grown up make-believe revival of the New Year’s party at dancing school in a small Middle Western town before the Other War.

That gracious Edwardian world was not only the last flowering of capitalist civilization — it was permeated with a foreboding of its own end. A few pessimists — H.G. Wells, for instance, when he spoke from the heart in his scientific romances — thought it was doomed. Most people thought it was going to turn into something much better.

As a boy I had on my wall a picture of a high-society revel at Delmonico’s. Supporting the floor like half-prostrate caryatids were workers, men, women, and children, kneeling, bowed, crawling figures in a shallow cellar under the black and white tile floor. Above them, handsome men with ribbons across their shirt fronts and women with their breasts showing above their evening gowns were dancing. In the center of the picture a worker had thrust his clenched fist up through the floor and all the nearby revelers were staring at it aghast.

The truth is that upstairs in Delmonico’s all sorts of people were aware of the rumblings under the floor. It was the world of Little Nemo or the Land of Oz, more grand than any the ruling classes have been able to manage since. Still, all through that autumnal society circulated men and women with a profound sense of their responsibility and an awareness of the need for social change.

People like my parents had a moral confidence in the future that is incomprehensible today. They and everybody like them believed that soon all life from clothing design to the game of chess was going to change for the better. It wasn’t a political attitude as we understand that word today; in fact, nobody I knew until after my minority was over thought politically in the present meaning of the word — except the Russians who began showing up in American radical circles after the first war. This moral content of the old radical movement has vanished altogether. The classics of Socialist and Anarchist literature seem at mid-century to speak a foolish and naïve language to minds hardened by two generations of realpolitik.

It was not just the sophisticates and the reformers who had no belief in the validity or endurance of the system. Everybody in what they used to call the master class, from the Pope to William Howard Taft, believed in his bones that the days of his kind were strictly numbered and found wanting. What happened instead of apocalypse and judgment was a long-drawn-out apocalypse of counterrevolution against the promise and potential of a humane civilization. It began with the world economic crisis of 1912, and the First and Second World Wars and the Bolshevik Revolution have been episodes, always increasing in violence and plain immorality, in the struggle of our civilization to suppress its own potential.

Whether it was listening to the birth of jazz at the Clef Club or Schiller’s Café, or wandering wide-eyed through the Armory Show behind my gesticulating parents, I watched, unawares, the laying of all the foundations of a century’s culture. The positive achievements were set in train and largely consummated in my boyhood. After the First War would come Dadaism and Surrealism, organized movements of the broken heart, or Bolshevism, the “dialectical negation of the negation” of capitalism. Somewhere in his travels my father had met Soddy and Rutherford; he did not live to know Oppenheimer and Teller.

So much for general principles and motives. Far more important, I believe, in the formation of my character has been the memory and example of actual ancestors and immediate family. I may be mistaken. Genealogy certainly doesn’t determine character. My genealogy is far from spectacular, but at least in my own mind all these living and dead people provided me with a kind of family epic in which I thought, and still think of myself, as called to play a role. So, as introduction to my own life, I will try first to give a picture of the web of lives, the cast of characters, out of which it came. I have started off by trying to describe my family from the outside — not from outside myself, which would be impossible, but from outside the narrative of my own life. In contemporary society many people are almost totally free of such background and antecedents. I feel that for myself they are as potent and determinative as they ever were in a social order which is gone. They are how I understand myself so that even if I am wrong they are essential in one way or another to understanding me. In an atomized miss culture a life motivated by inherited standards may well seem eccentric and revolutionary.

If this story has a plot or a theme it is the tale of a boy’s effort to select and put in order the tools with which he would live his adulthood. It would be easy to say that my adolescence, like that of any boy in any other culture, moved steadily toward fulfillment in matrimony, or that my abstract painting was a reassertion of the canons of classic art, or that bohemianism was a search for the natural relations of any small community, or that political revolt was a quest for the largest organic community, or that my religious adventures were attempts to ensure an abiding sense of transcendent meaning. I look on this as the story of the youth of a conservationist if not a conservative.

Unlike many contemporary writers I have never felt the need to be free. I have always had as much freedom as I needed for the task at hand, for the taking. I have never felt any inhibition on the development of my personality. In fact, that concept is so abstract that I have great difficulty understanding it. I have always been too busy being a poet or a painter or a husband or a father or a cook or a mountain climber to worry about my personality, and this book is my first attempt to consider it at all. Reading the typescript over I discover that it is largely straight factual narrative, a great deal of it about other people.

I did not actually write this book but talked it. Some years ago I decided to leave a record for my young daughters of what I thought my own youth had been like. I started to talk into a tape recorder. These tapes were eventually broadcast over the Pacifica stations KPFA, KPFK, and WBAI and attracted the interest of publishers. I have tried to preserve the spontaneous, oral character of the style and the direct simplicity of the narrative. I believe in this sort of thing on principle. I admire Defoe and the great Chinese novelists and I have spent my life striving to write the way I talk. So I have worked over these tapes not by rewriting the transcriptions but by redictating them. This has led to an immense amount of labor on the part of a succession of devoted secretaries. I am deeply indebted to their skill, patience, and advice. I hope they have made it possible for me to preserve in the printed book something of the character of speech.

In the years since I first told this story on tape, there have been many delays in moving the book toward publication. Meanwhile society has caught up with me in frightening fashion. It gives to ponder. Maybe history is just hallucination.

Everybody knows that the avant-garde in the arts in The Beautiful Epoch was a small circle of friends, who felt they knew one another however separated geographically. Machado, James Joyce, Mondrian, Stravinsky, and their anonymous tiny audience had in fact almost all met one another by the time the world economic crisis, Fascism, and war put an end to the avant-garde forever. It is startling to realize that what was once a way of life for a tiny international band of emancipated people has now become commonplace in Irkutsk, Krakow, Des Moines, and Kobe. Racial equality, folk songs, beards and sandals, red wine and marijuana, conscientious objection and direct action, poetry readings and jam sessions — it’s all here in the lives of a couple thousand people in London, Paris, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. Today it’s only to be expected that the intellectual world would overtake its pioneers in the course of a half century of disorder and early sorrow. What is most amazing to me is that the Church has caught up with me. I who was once a troubled, irregular peg in a complicated hole now find myself in agreement with Jesuit theologians and Broad Church bishops.

Behind this story of picaresque adventure, I hope there is apparent the beginning of a spiritual awakening and growth which I have shared however clumsily with the best of my time. The free, creative, loving people who shine so brightly in my memory of studios and coffee shops have become models for a huge section of the population. If they in turn can just stay alive in the face of power and terror, they may become the decisive section.



* * *


[Home Schooling and Indian Lore]

[Rexroth was born in Indiana in 1905. The following events would be ca. 1910-1915.]


My mother took over the billiard room and moved the billiard table down to one end. At the other she built a one-teacher, one-student schoolroom with blackboard, desk, pictures, bookshelves, and cases of what are now called educational toys. I had a separate playroom with more shelves, cupboards and blackboard, lots of pictures on the walls, and all my books as I accumulated them. In the early morning, and on rainy days in the afternoon, too, we had our own school.

Winter evenings by the fire my mother told me long stories which I recognize now were educational in intent, about various aspects of life and science and how the world is run, how foods are produced, what makes the electric lamp give light — the things you find now in textbooks for young children. In those days such methods represented the most advanced theories of education. I also got plenty of mythology — stories of the Norse gods, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Ramayana, the Arthuriad, Robin Hood, the Mabinogion, The Arabian Nights, and Lady Gregory’s two collections of Irish folklore. She read me stories and I early had books about foreign children — Bushmen of Africa or Australia, Chinese, Japanese, Eskimos, and Indians. Like all children I had an especial fondness for the Eskimos. I now understand that my mother put a special emphasis on Indian folklore and factual information, and I understand why. In America we have nothing that takes the place of the gods and goddesses and heroes and demigods of the ancient world. There is nothing to connect us with the soil. We have no mythology. It has never been possible to construct one. The mythology of the founding fathers, of George Washington’s cherry tree, of Johnny Appleseed, and of Lincoln studying by the firelight is not enough. The Indian connects us with the soil, connects us with the earth of America. Pan and the satyrs and nymphs and the Artemises with horses’ heads or with many breasts or shaped like fish and the other strange pre-Hellenic local deities fused the inhabitants of the classic world with the rocky bones of Greece. The Indians and their ways are our mythology, our gods of the fields and springs and high places. For that reason, before my daughters knew anything else about American history, they knew a great deal about Indians.

My mother and father made me toys which somewhat resembled Montessori apparatus. Some of them probably were Montessori or Froebellian toys, although I cannot remember any of those things that button and unbutton and lace and unlace that Signora Montessori was so fond of. I do remember graded and weighted, carved and textured blocks painted in spectrum colors, of the kind now obtainable in any good toyshop. They were quite revolutionary in those days. Tasteful and carefully planned educational toys were used by few people and weren’t bought in a shop, but made at home or imported from Switzerland.

I learned elementary arithmetic and a considerable amount of natural science. The nature study was all done in the fields. The schoolroom filled up with collections — herbarium, aquarium, terrarium, minerals, shells, rocks, fossils. Eventually we called it “the museum” rather than “the schoolroom.” Gathering and studying these things with my mother, I spent what still seem the happiest, most lyrical hours of my life. I still make collections in every strange country that I go to. Now I do it with my little girls. We collected butterflies and insects by sight, never by catching and killing them. On this subject my mother was quite fanatical.

A few years later, in front of our second house, there was a slight rise in the road. A man with a team of four horses and a flat-bed truck loaded with stone came along. The horses were unable to negotiate this very slight rise — Elkhart, Indiana, is on a perfectly flat prairie — and he whipped them until one of the rear horses fell and there was quite a tangle. The front horses broke half free, rearing and snorting. Instead of getting down, the truck driver continued to whip them. My mother went into the house and got a pistol, came out and shot at him until she emptied the chambers. When the sheriff came round he said, “Del, what on earth got into you?” She said, “Bill, I just shot over the son of a bitch’s head to frighten him.” I don’t think she could aim a pistol at all. I remember her holding it in both hands.

She had a great capacity for joy, and I never see a Kate Greenaway dress or one of her pictures of little girls dancing in their characteristic gowns and little slippers without thinking of my mother and the innocent, graceful handling of the body that Kate Greenaway drew so well. That physical grace was probably the expression of joy and contentment with her life at that time, her happiness as a mother in relation to her child.

Many of her stories not only were about Indians, but they stressed the Indian past of our own family. Unfortunately, although I was taught to be very proud of this strain in my own blood, I have forgotten most of the anecdotes. She was even more proud of the family’s past relationship with Negroes. Incidents that took place in the Civil War and in the work of the Underground Railway I do remember somewhat better.

The towns in northern Indiana lying along the Michigan border had been the last stops on the Underground Railway. They had a good many Negro freedmen living in them. Elkhart became one of the centers of the Ku Klux Klan only some fifteen years after that, but in my days there if you called a man a nigger in the street a white man would very likely walk up to you and knock you down. People today have no idea how living a thing the Abolitionist spirit was as late as 1914. We can no longer gauge the destruction of native American radicalism and liberalism in the First World War. In those days people like my family were still animated by the spirit of a won revolution.

“If you want to know what America would be like if the South had won the Civil War, look at France.” The French have lost all their revolutions and the modern French of all parties are severally defeated groups of partisans. In the course of the last two hundred years everyone has managed to defeat and betray everybody else. Nowadays it’s hard for people to find out that the Civil War was not the sort of thing you see in the movies or read about in the Sewanee or Kenyon Reviews. The Civil War was America’s great revolutionary war, and it was a revolution which was won. It was from several generations who had won all their revolutions and expected to go on winning them that I came.

I spent a great deal of time at my grandparents’ house. They lived a little way across the river — over a long railroad trestle and over a wooded river bottom, then a low bank, and then my grandfather’s house, which was still on a dirt road although just a few blocks from Main Street in Elkhart. To this house came a wonderful new member of the family, a more delightful visitor than Santa Claus.

At the junction of the St. Joe and Elkhart Rivers, there’d been a Potawatomi village in the early days. An old Indian who had lived there as a boy came back one day, working his way across from Oklahoma. He was a man long past eighty. His name was Billy Sunlight or Billy Moonlight, I’ve forgotten which, and he was known around Elkhart and to the family as Old Billy. Although he was very old he was very spry. He came down the dirt road past the house when my grandmother was working in the garden. He stopped and put down his bundle of herbs — he was a herb doctor — and he asked my grandmother if she could give him any work for dinner and a place to sleep and feed for his horse, which he had hitched off somewhere as he went from door to door with his pack of herbs on his back. She said certainly, he could help her with the work she was doing in the garden that afternoon, and that night they fixed him up a shakedown in the chicken coop and put the horse in the barn.

I don’t want to give you the impression that we put the Indians and the lower classes generally in the chicken coop. I used to play in it before Old Billy took it over. It had a wonderful smell of fresh clean lumber. It was quite spotless and had windows all along one side. Once they planned to have a lot of chickens, but they gave it up and had just a few chickens, enough for eggs for breakfast. These were off in an old coop which left the new chicken coop unused; it was built to house maybe a hundred chickens on the other side of the garden, and was back from the house about a hundred and fifty feet.

In the morning very early, Old Billy was up cooking himself breakfast on a potbellied stove that had been put out in the backyard to boil soap. He stayed for several years. He kept a garden that was the wonder of Elkhart. He didn’t seem to do much work on it. He would go out and putter around for a while and make magic over it. The weeds disappeared; the tomatoes were the biggest in town. This is so much more remarkable because Indian men commonly do not believe in working the earth. They believe that only women can do that without destroying the fertility of the soil, which is the reason why the Indian Bureau has never been able to make farmers out of most of the Indians of the United States, except those of the Southwest, which has a different culture.

The rest of the time Billy spent sashaying around in the woods looking for herbs. He took me with him. Like Hiawatha, at the age of five or six I knew the names of all the birds and beasts and flowers and roots and plants, but unfortunately I knew them in Potawatomi. And the only Potawatomi I ever knew slipped from my mind within a few years. So I wasn’t what could be called a trained botanist. My knowledge didn’t have much to do with Linnaean classification; its taxonomy was of an older and stranger culture. I gained, more important than taxonomic order, a living experience of what was then still, particularly along the river bottoms and some of the moraine country, quite wild woodland and meadow with small animals of all sorts — mink and otter, muskrat, skunk, and coon — though not possum, which in those days I don’t believe crossed the Ohio River.

There were lots of woodchucks and weasels, and I remember the first time I ever saw otter play and slide down a slippery bank into the water. Old Billy knew where they were and took me to them. We sat down silently behind some bushes on the bank of an Indiana stream and pretty soon out came a family of otter and climbed up on the bank and slid down the mud slide over and over again like little children. Nothing looks funnier than an otter having a good time, unless it’s a sea otter, which looks even more cherubic.

Then somebody, for some reason or another, perhaps just for love of nature, imported some beaver into a nearby brook, and we watched them, Billy and I, build their dams and lodges. I sat for long hours quietly by the side of the pond. I still think sitting still by a beaver pond in the sunset and early dusk is about the finest activity of man. [...]

Old Billy was fanatically neat and clean. He was a regular Swiss watchmaker of an Indian. He rebuilt the inside of the chicken coop, and on the rafters he hung his herbs. He had a built-in bunk and a little stove, wall cupboards, magnifying glass, various pots and even glass flasks to cook up some of his mixtures in, and a Bunsen burner. He probably would have been a fine pharmaceutical chemist if he had had the chance; perhaps he was anyway.

He covered the coop with insulation and then with shakes which he split with a frow. It’s the first time I ever saw a frow used, and I was permitted to help him. It gives me great pleasure to this day to sit on a warm late-summer afternoon and sock a frow and split off shakes. I’ve forgotten the name of the mallet like a one-handled rolling pin that you hit a frow with. I wish someone would tell me. It’s a fine name like those old British names for parts of windmills and tails of animals.

Billy’s cabin was warm all winter long and cleaner than my grandmother’s home, which was spotless. He did his own washing and mending, and in the wintertime, when he wasn’t busy, he was always grubbing around in the house getting stuff to take out and mend for the family. He was an expert seamster, much better than any woman in the house, and he never used a sewing machine. He had many other talents of this sort. He could cure leather and make beads and do all the things Indians are supposed to do. He had all the female talents as well as the male talents. He was quite an Indian.

I was willing to spend all my time with Old Billy, and I did spend a considerable amount with him. He couldn’t read, but he used to give me long lectures. He spoke perfect English with no trace of an accent. Indians like him had been in contact with white men for generations. As far as anybody in Elkhart could tell, he spoke perfect French. [...]

And as I said, Billy used to give me long and slowly delivered and dramatically illustrated lectures teaching me the ways of life. The relationship between me and Old Billy, I would say from reading about and living with Indians relatively untouched by white men, like Northern Utes, was that which prevailed in the average Indian tribe in an uncorrupted state. The middle generation, the fathers and mothers, are busy, but after an Indian gets to be fifty-five or sixty, if he’s still alive, which is unlikely, he’s really out of affairs altogether. So the old men sit around and teach the young and are otherwise only called on for counsel in serious situations. The basic educational relationship was that between the grandparents, or even the great-grandparents, and the children in most Indian tribes.

When I was about seven, one day I went out to the cabin — it was called Old Billy’s chicken coop still — to get him to go on a trip. I opened the door, and he was lying dead in his bunk, his hands crossed over his chest and a luminous look to his face. I wasn’t afraid or upset. Old Billy by then was, I guess, over ninety, and I knew that he was going to die at any time. He had talked about his death to me, and it seemed just as it should be. I walked back up to the house and told my grandmother, who was surprised at the way I took it. Then as the days went on I felt lonely and I used to cry for Old Billy, but not because he was dead really, only because he was gone from me and from the woods we loved.


End of part 1 of excerpts from Kenneth Rexroth’s Autobiography. Copyright 1991 Kenneth Rexroth Trust. Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

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