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Kenneth Rexroth’s Autobiography



Editorial Note

These excerpts, though extensive, comprise less than a fifth of Kenneth Rexroth’s autobiography. I have tried to present a representative sampling of his adventures, but there are hundreds of other fascinating anecdotes in the book, and many of Rexroth’s explorations in all sorts of areas, political, philosophical, literary, artistic or erotic, are scarcely touched on here. If you enjoy these selections, I think you’ll find the entire book equally interesting.

The book’s title, An Autobiographical Novel (which was adopted on the urging of the original publisher in order to reduce the risk of libel suits), and the remarkable range of Rexroth’s experiences have led some readers to question whether one person could have met so many people or done so many different things. My own view, based on those areas that I have some familiarity with and on a number of independent corroborations that I have come across, is that Rexroth’s book is as true as most autobiographies are — that is, allowing for the fact that we all have a tendency to remember, and perhaps embellish, the most interesting and admirable events in our lives and to gloss over the most boring or embarrassing. Granting that his story probably includes a few “stretchers,” as Huck Finn would put it, I think that most questionings of its reliability can be attributed to various combinations of ignorance, inexperience and envy. I cannot do better than to quote one of the few reviewers of the book who was honest enough to recognize this:

Glancing back over his book, I perceive that Mr. Rexroth did quite a few things in his youth that I haven’t yet gotten around to. I’ve never shared a prison cell with a man in drag, or so much as seen any dingfobs: “life-sized rubber women which were exported by the Kobe Sex Shop, probably to all the prisons in the world.” I’ve never changed the locks in an office building, uncovering evidence which forced several people out of the IWW. I never got caught in the middle of a typhoon. I never attended a Black Mass in the Bronx, or hung around in a place patronized by lesbians who were really escaped nuns. I never met a girl whose stories, still unpublished, were better than those of Katherine Mansfield. I never sold health books to country folks using a Gila monster and “slowly peeling an orange in one continuous spiral” as part of my pitch. And I never fell in love at first sight with the girl I subsequently married.
       Being a skeptical and conservative fellow, I couldn’t help wondering whether Mr. Rexroth was laying it all on a bit thick. So, as we happen to live in the same town, I called on him and asked him bluntly if he was a liar. He said no, he wasn’t, and went on to tell me several stories that he’d left out of the book. During an evening of delightful and rambling conversation, he told me several things about my home town in England which I didn’t know, including the name of the family who ran the place back in Tudor times and some details about the rood screen in the cathedral. On the basis of this and other aspects of our conversation, I was obliged to conclude that Mr. Rexroth did experience all the events he describes. He himself maintains that the variety was only possible because the social structure in the West was then so open and because it was easy to drift into what would now be much more tightly guarded groups. . . .
       I strongly recommend this first volume of his memoirs to anybody who wants to know what the life of action is really like. But it would not, I think, make suitable reading for the envious, since it is all too likely to depress them, making them brood over how little they know and how much time they’ve wasted. [Sarel Eimerl, The Reporter, 19 May 1966]

The first edition of the book (Doubleday, 1966) ended with Rexroth’s move to San Francisco and the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in August 1927. The “Postlude” was added to a 1978 reprinting of that edition. Some later chapters were published in a small volume entitled Excerpts from a Life (Conjunctions, 1981). The present selection is drawn from the posthumous edition edited by Linda Hamalian (New Directions, 1991), which incorporates the Excerpts chapters and some other previously unpublished material, bringing the story up to around 1949. Page numbers are indicated at the end of each selection. Headings and other material within square brackets are mine.

Ken Knabb
May 2001




  1. Introduction
    Home Schooling and Indian Lore

  2. Soapboxes, Salons and Speakeasies

  3. Cub Reporter
    Jail Time
    Political Education

  4. Trips Out West
    Monastic Interlude

  5. France and Mexico
    San Francisco
    California Mountains
    Psych Ward

  6. World War II
    The Libertarian Circle






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