Kenneth Rexroth’s Autobiography (5)


France and Mexico
San Francisco
California Mountains
Psych Ward



[France and Mexico]

Those were the days before the sea was organized, and it was easy to get workaway jobs. Over in Hoboken you could walk on a vessel, hand the skipper twenty dollars, and go all the way to Piraeus. I shipped out as a mess steward on a filthy rust bucket of one of the many Ellerman lines. It crossed to the Channel ports on both sides, came back around the Irish Sea and back across to Baltimore, and from there went down to Buenos Aires, which I think was its port of registry. I made the trip over and back, and this is all the seafaring work I’ve ever wanted. It was exactly like being locked up for a month in a cheap flophouse. We didn’t, as a matter of fact, go to Liverpool and Belfast that trip, but came straight home from Plymouth. The longest layover was in Dunkirk. I bribed myself shore leave for the whole time and went up to Paris. The first couple of days I rushed about meeting the people who had been heroes of my imagination: Aragon, Soupault, Tzara, Cendrars, and the Esprit Nouveau and Der Stijl group, who were all in Paris. Many of these meetings took place at a party given by a disheveled and disreputable Polish countess in an even more disheveled studio back of Rodin’s statue of Balzac. I think she still lives there and still gives parties to the latest things on Montparnasse.

I didn’t like it. It seemed to me that the whole scene was corrupted by a faint but perceptible odor of fraud. I think now it was really the caste mannerisms of even the most revolutionary French intellectuals. American intellectual life, at least among the avant-garde of the Twenties, was a genuinely classless society. People came from family backgrounds of every description, probably a slight majority of them from the working class, and had an ethic or social morality derived from the Socialist and Anarchist movement. This was not political; it was a very strictly held code of personal relationships. Several years were to pass before the Trip to Kharkov, and the Frenchmen I met were not even nominally revolutionary — except the painters. I met Fernand Léger briefly one afternoon at a table in the Dôme. He was really the only one I liked. He certainly was proletarian enough; or, to be more accurate, he had completely the personality of a French skilled mechanic, and this he never lost until the day of his death. I sat for a week on café terrasses in Paris at its best — mid-June — debating whether to go back to the ship. That isn’t quite true. Most of my time was spent walking hundreds of kilometers, systematically through every museum and all over the streets of Paris, until the small hours of the morning. All the time the necessity for what I knew would be a fundamental decision turned over and over in my mind. The one person whose advice was of value was Alexander Berkman, vastly changed from the man I had seen in my childhood. I didn’t know it but he was already dying of cancer, and he killed himself a couple of years later. He said, “Go back. There is more for you in the Far West than there is here. You can probably become famous here but you’ll just be another one.” I went back to the ship, and in July was in Billings, Montana, with Bob, my first zebra dun. [...]

When the job was over I hitchhiked south through the intermountain country, riding freight some of the time because there was very little auto traffic in those days, to El Paso.

At a party at Duncan Aikman’s, the literary critic of an El Paso paper, I met a man who was planning to drive to Mexico City. He had a Ford, specially built and equipped with hard rubber tires and a Ruxton axle. There were no through roads in those days from the American border to Mexico City, and the worst connections among back-country roads were those south of El Paso. We drove over most of northern Mexico, and eventually had to abandon the car and go on by train, The political revolution was dying down, but intellectually and artistically Mexico was at the height of the wave. It was all very free and open, even riotous. Nobody had become so famous as to be inaccessible. The person I liked best was Siqueiros, in those days a still completely genuine man, uncorrupted by politics. Orozco was the most impressive, but he was inaccessible, not out of snobbery but because of his lonely greatness. Rivera was simply dreadful, even then. The rest were better than their French counterparts, but they suffered from the same caste faults. There was a café rather like the Dôme where they all hung out along with heavily armed politicians, bullfighters, criminals, prostitutes, and burlesque girls. The most spectacular person of all was a photographer, artist, model, high-class courtesan, and Mata Hari for the Comintern, Tina Modotti. She was the heroine of a lurid political assassination and was what I guess is called an international beauty. I had outgrown my fondness for the Kollontai type and she terrified me. She was exterminated in the Great Purge. A wiry little tart, who later became an actress, used to dance naked on the table, clad only in a rhinestone glued to her navel, while people banged guitars and everybody shouted. I think at the time she was Siqueiros’ girl; at least she was always at his table, and years later when she was rich and famous, killed herself because she was about to have an illegitimate baby.

One day a friend of Tina Modotti’s came up to the table — a tall, well-fleshed, natural pale blonde who looked rather like a Danish or Dutch girl and was, as a matter of fact, an Austrian. She was one of the city’s most expensive prostitutes. She announced that she was about to go on vacation to Oaxaca. I said that I would rather see Oaxaca than any place in Mexico. “Why don’t you come along with me?” she said. “I haven’t very much money,” I said. “That’s all right,” she said. “I’ve got plenty. Besides, the hotel won’t cost much. It’s run by a friend of mine, a landsman.”

To Oaxaca we went, and I lived for two weeks in a hotel on the Paseo, an ancient palace with immense whitewashed rooms, and massive black furniture, and, best of all, with excellent Austrian cooking prepared specially for us. I loathe Mexican food, which has always seemed to me only a slight improvement on Northern Ute cuisine. We visited all the monuments and met all the people. Oaxaca was at the height of its revolution and practically an independent country. We danced most of the nights, and when we weren’t dancing we were singing and watching other people dance, and falling asleep in the dawn, exhausted with lovemaking, our heads full of guitar music. When the two weeks were over I came straight back to the States.

[pp. 341-345]

* * *



Just before Christmas I went over to call on Kenneth Thorpe one bright warm late afternoon. As I came up the steps of the red brick and sandstone Richardson house on Walton Place a girl opened the door ahead of me. She was dressed in a dull crimson coat with gray wolf fur at the collar and hem; she had deep chestnut hair, an oval face, a pale ivory skin with bright red cheeks, horn-rimmed glasses, and brown eyes with a gaze of incredibly angelic purity and seriousness. She smiled and said, “Aren’t you Kenneth Rexroth, Kep’s friend?” I said yes, scarcely able to speak. She said, “My name is Andrée Dutcher.”

Harriet was alone in the Thorpe apartment. “Who is that girl, Andrée Dutcher, who lives downstairs?” I said. “She is a young commercial artist,” she said, “and she’s very anxious to meet you.” “I just met her at the door,” I said. “Did you like her?” Harriet said. “I intend to marry her,” I said. “Well!” said Harriet, “I guess we had better get started. I’ll ask her up to dinner.”

She came to dinner and we sat about, talking about nothing in particular. Early in the evening we left together and she invited me into her room. From then on we were never apart, except to fulfill the routine tasks of life, for eight years. Shortly after Christmas we were married in the Church of the Ascension. [...]

Most of our time was spent in uninterrupted, enraptured conversation. We agreed about everything. We had read all the same books, and seen all the same pictures, and liked all the same music, and each of us was the first person the other had ever met like that. The only subjects she was relatively unfamiliar with were poetry and the classic theater. We spent whole days reading aloud to each other. I have never known anyone so vulnerable. Donne’s love poems threw her into an excited coma of passion. One night, by the fire, I was reading Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. I looked up and she had fainted away. Prophetically I read her Henry King’s “Exequy on His Dead Wife,” and she was inconsolable all next day.

Visual experiences induced in her an extraordinary excitement. I showed her the little Cazin landscape of which I was so fond; also a painting of Corot’s Roman period and a Pissarro of a hazy evening on the Boulevard de Sébastopol. Each time she turned away with her eyes full of tears and hurried out of the Art Institute. Chance arrangements of form and color in the park or on the streets would set her trembling. All this excruciating sensibility was accessible to an effortless technical mastery. It’s true that she had never tried before to paint, noncommercially that is, and had to learn, but the learning process began far beyond where most people stop.

There was nothing sickly or high-strung about her. The social impression she gave was of ebullient calm — what advertisements call radiant good health, overlain by her unbreakable innocence. She was a tireless athlete, given to the same individual sports as I was. That winter we rode and skated in Lincoln Park. Many times we were the only people out and took along a string of horses for exercise. At first we got a discount for this, and finally, since we were so faithful, we weren’t charged at all, so we could ride all morning. As soon as the water warmed up we were in the lake. Her favorite swim was a mile out to the breakwaters that lay off Chicago, where we would chase each other for a while over the tumbled limestone blocks, make love, and then swim back. At first I was terrified that she would have an attack while in the water, but in all the years to come of ocean swimming and mountaineering and skiing she never had an attack under such circumstances. This fact and others like it had led most doctors to believe that her epilepsy was psychogenetic. Her mother and aunt, and other people in the generation before them, had died of brain tumor, and she was convinced that her disease was organic and that in a few years it would overwhelm her. Just before she met me, after a completely happy day painting and swimming, she had attempted suicide.

I have no idea what her intelligence quotient was; it was certainly very high. I taught her how to play chess, and although I am a fair chess player, after a couple of weeks she could always win. Soon she was playing two or three simultaneous games and working out the most complicated chess problems for herself.

Right away we started painting together on the same picture without conflict, like one person. Except for watercolors, a medium I’ve always disliked, we continued to do this all our life together. Poetry I wrote myself, but as soon as a page or two of a first draft was done we’d go over it together. She had had a few piano lessons, so we got an old piano and she started to practice. This was one activity which was hers alone. I have never learned to do more than pick out the notes with one hand. If anyone asked me, “What single thing in your life do you most regret?” I would answer, “Never having learned the piano.” However, we got all sorts of music out of the public library and had excited discussions over scores that we hardly comprehended.

From the first night our sex had the abandoned, idyllic quality that is supposed to be found in the South Seas, without conflict and without inhibition. That first night she was an easy and accomplished lover, but just before we were married she said, “I’m going to tell you something that I hope won’t make you break off the marriage. I was a virgin when I met you.” All this sounds like the perfect marriage, the relationship everybody seeks and almost nobody finds. That’s right. That’s the way it was. Ideologically, as they say, in politics or social relations she was an untroubled absolutist. Raised in a Socialist family, she had read all the old masters of the literature of revolt, but she needn’t have; she was, so to speak, physiologically conditioned to their ideas and their moral simplicity. Kropotkin doubtless came to his opinions through struggle. She was unaware of the validity of any others. There was nothing whatever programmatic about it; she was simply what people mean by the term “free spirit.”

[pp. 347-350]

* * *

As soon as spring came we made preparations to migrate to the West Coast. [...]

The trip went exactly as planned: a succession of idle, wandering, late-spring days in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. We took a side tour through the Badlands of North Dakota on rented horses. There it began to storm and never let up until at last we had to stop, mudbound, in Billings, Montana. In those days the only paved road in the state was a short stretch between Butte and Anaconda. After a week of rain it was impossible to move. We laid over in a tourist camp, waiting for the weather to clear.

There we made a fascinating friend, a hard-boiled, well-to-do man who seemed to know everything and believe nothing. He was especially well informed about revolutionary theories and movements, Marxist and other. For all of them he had nothing but contempt. For orthodox politics and politicians, his scorn was far beneath contempt. His knowledge of Montana life, politics, and society was intimate, bawdy, and exhaustive. I found it impossible even to guess what he did for a living, although I suspected he might be a lawyer. He was full of good advice and sound opinions, and the three of us sat up in the camp cookhouse around the fire every night till after midnight. One night I said to him, “Don’t you believe in the integrity of any politician whatsoever? Don’t you believe that a few rare people are motivated by a disinterested desire to serve society?” He didn’t. “How about La Follette and Burton Wheeler?” I said. “You know everybody in Montana. I don’t agree with them, but you certainly must admit that they are honest men and really believe what they say.” “Did you ever go to a baseball game?” he said. “Of course,” I said. “Uh hunh,” he said. “What’s behind the catcher?” “Why, there’s nothing behind the catcher, except the umpire.” “Oh yes there is,” he said. “Think.” “I can’t think of anything. There’s just the boxes in the grandstand.” “What’s between the box seats and the catcher?” “Nothing.” “Oh yes there is; there’s a wire net called the backstop. It catches the balls the catcher misses, and all the fouls that go off in that direction, so that nobody in the box seats gets hurt. That’s the function of guys like La Follette and Wheeler, and believe me, they know it if you don’t.”

The next day the roads had dried off enough so that we started out in a caravan of about fifty cars, everybody equipped with shovels and chains and ropes and planks, digging each other out of the mud for five days between Billings and Great Falls. The first day out we were leading the caravan, riding in the car of our new friend. We bogged down, and it was impossible to dig our way out. We got a farmer and a team of mules that were plowing in the nearby field to give us a pull. The farmer seemed thoroughly intimidated. After freeing us from the mud he refused a ten-dollar tip. “No, thank you, Senator,” he said. “It’s been an honor I’ll always remember.” Our friend was Burton K. Wheeler. I guess this is what they mean by the school of hard knocks. Certainly a week with him was more illuminating than all the economics and political-science courses in all the universities in the country. [...]

In Seattle we learned that they had started to build a highway straight down the Oregon coast which would open up country which had hitherto been amongst the most isolated in the United States. We decided to see it before it was gone. We hitchhiked to Portland, out to Astoria, and started walking south.

In those days the coastal highway broke off somewhere around the center of the state, and even north of there it did not stay close to the ocean all the way. Except for short distances into a town to get food or something of that sort, we didn’t hitchhike, and most of the time, even in the north, we were off the roads walking along the beach or high on the cliffs above the headlands. Eventually we came to the area where they were cutting through the new highway — Port Orford cedars and Douglas firs crashing, caterpillars and shovels wallowing among the ferns. Beyond that lay the special wilderness of the Pacific coast, the last left except for the Big Sur country in California. From there on we went by trail through the dense rain forest, then still the finest in America, along the beach and over the rocks.

There are few other coastlines in the world as beautiful. The west coasts of Ireland and Dalmatia are the only ones I know. There’s only one thing wrong with it: like southwest Ireland, it has almost continuous rain. Engineers have told me that the Northwest rain forest is far more dense than anything in Africa or South America, where there is comparatively little ground cover or understory. I suppose there is no more beautiful forest in North America. Port Orford cedar and Douglas fir reach their prime in southern Oregon and are in some ways more beautiful than the California redwoods. The understory is thinner than the impenetrable jungle in the Puget Sound country, so that it’s possible to see off between the trees. Where the forest did not come down to the sea the headlands were covered with thick native grass of the densest possible green, the kind of color that gives Ireland the name Emerald Isle. It is very different from the harsh yellow-green Spanish oat which has taken over the grassy coastal hills of California. Southern Oregon is covered with a cap of lava so that the cliffs and offshore rocks are a deep purple spotted with orange and gray lichen. For some reason that I do not understand, this usually produces beach sands of the purest white. Long stretches of the beach are of singing sands which squealed as we walked over them, a high-pitched, almost inaudible note like a dog whistle or the prolonged squeak of a bat.

The forest was so thick and dense that we camped wherever possible on the beach. Back of the high-tide line, piled against the cliffs, was an endless windrow — or wave row — of driftwood, great logs of the native forest, and strange shapes which looked like they had been carved by Brancusi of unknown hardwoods from across the Pacific. Every night we worked our way down to the beach and camped where a stream of fresh water came out of the hills. Every night, after we had made camp, we searched through the driftwood and set up a circle of uncanny wooden sculptures around us, like Abraham camping among the massebahs of the Canaanites. Two or three times a day we swam in the sea. Neither of us had any experience with such a force, and why it didn’t kill us I don’t know. We soon learned to ride the surf, and would swim half a mile out, diving under the breakers, and come in riding the crest with arms outstretched and tumble over and over in the churning sandy water curled up like armadillos or hedgehogs. [...]

[pp. 352, 355-356, 361-362]

* * *


[San Francisco]

San Francisco was not just a wide-open town. It is the only city in the United States which was not settled overland by the westward-spreading puritan tradition, or by the Walter Scott, fake-cavalier tradition of the South. It had been settled mostly, in spite of all the romances of the overland migration, by gamblers, prostitutes, rascals, and fortune seekers who came across the Isthmus and around the Horn. They had their faults, but they were not influenced by Cotton Mather. The large Italian population had come mostly from northern Italy. The largest town club in San Francisco is that of the Lucchesi. Poverty-stricken Sicilian and Neapolitan immigrants may have brought much to America, but it can hardly be disputed that Lucca would send over people with greater awareness of their cultural traditions. There was a full-time Italian stock company in the Verdi Theater, where my old friend Mimi Agulia, probably the best actress ever to live in America, was playing. There was a French theater which gave rather stiff and amateurish performances of Racine, Corneille, Beaumarchais, and Marivaux. Still, it was the French classic theater. There were three Chinese theaters that played every night in the week. Once [Ralph] Stackpole had introduced us to them, this alone would have been enough to keep us in San Francisco. It was a truly Mediterranean city, and yet it had none of the horrors of poverty that still make Marseille, let alone Genoa, Barcelona, or Naples, impossible for a sensitive person to work in very long. On the other hand, it had none of the cheapjack tourism which makes the Riviera unlivable. It was like an untouched Mediterranean village — like St. Tropez or the Cinque Terre in those days — and yet it was a great city, and in its own way not a provincial one but the capital of its own somewhat dated culture.

The ocean was at the end of the streetcar line. Down the peninsula and across the Golden Gate the Coast Range was still a wilderness, and the High Sierras were a short day’s trip away. More important, nobody cared what you did as long as you didn’t commit any gross public crimes. They let you alone and however much you might have puzzled them they respected you as an artist. At no time in all the years I have lived in San Francisco have I ever met with anything but respect verging on adulation from neighbors, corner grocers, and landladies. They were proud to be associated with an artist or poet. With Greenwich Village landladies or Left Bank concierges, this is simply not true, all the myths of the American inferiority complex to the contrary notwithstanding. There was an Anglo-Catholic church of the strictest persuasion around the corner from our apartment.

It was pretty apparent that we had found the ideal environment for ourselves, at least in America. After three weeks of tracing, the five hundred dollars showed up in the post office. We decided to stay and grow up with the town.

At that time, during the third week of our stay in San Francisco, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. A great cleaver cut through all the intellectual life of America. The world in which Andrée and I had grown up came forever to an end. One book of my life was closed and it was time to begin another.

[The first edition of the book ended here.]

[...] The people we met were mostly artists, and we spent a great deal of time painting and in correspondence with the non-objective painters of Europe. Andrée had a long correspondence with Moholy-Nagy’s first wife, who figures rather extensively in his photomontages. They’re seldom exhibited, I think, due to objections of his second wife who didn’t approve of the first wife’s existence. We corresponded with Ozenfant; we subscribed to transition, Minotaur, Commerce, L’Esprit Nouveau, Blues, and other magazines of that sort, which we took extremely seriously. I wrote a great deal. It was always possible for us to do part-time work decorating furniture and still make quite a good living. We had limited needs. We lived the kind of life that I’ve lived almost always since, a sort of semimonastic life devoted to writing and painting.

We hadn’t been very long in San Francisco before we started to take advantage of the natural environment. It is this which kept me in California all these years. The human environment, I think, has something very definitely missing, but there are few cities in the world which have any sort of cosmopolitan character immediately accessible to mountains and sea. We came in August, so we immediately started swimming. In those days the ocean was looked on by the natives as forbidden land. No one lived near it. There was no Sunset District; there was nothing at all along the coast except dunes and a few isolated, shingled, beach houses scattered around. Most of the outer Richmond District did not exist. West of Twin Peaks, there was nothing at all. Twin Peaks itself was a very beautiful place, and cow pastures stretched from the other side of Twin Peaks, Larson Hill, straight across through the Glen Park District and up the side of San Bruno Mountain.

San Bruno Mountain was peculiarly isolated. We used to go out there and hike, and we’d never see anybody. There were a lot of flora and fauna which were especially developed there. For instance, I remember in the narrow gorge, along the side of the mountain, there were extraordinary, huge, white trillium in the spring. The stem of the trillium was about four feet high or more, and the three petals were four or five inches long. This was the southeast corner of the city limits. Laguna de la Merced and all the region about it was half wild. There were only dirt roads, and there was a pinetum that stretched away for miles, where Stonestown and San Francisco State College are now. So that actually within city limits there was a wonderful wild country in comparison with, say, the forest preserves of Chicago. Chicago has preserved its preserves and leap-frogged over them, so that outer Chicago has running through it a beautiful green belt, much of it hilly moraines, and still quite unspoiled.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has always been dominated by the most unscrupulous real estate men and real estate speculators, and if they aren’t such when elected, they become so the minute they get on the Board. The Hearst press has always had the slogan: “Get it on the tax rate.” The Hearst Corporation is itself a great speculator in real estate, and so, of course, is the Carmon tribe on the Chronicle. In those days, of course, there were a good many other papers here, so that the howl has always gone up from the press not to destroy the city. The Sutros and Spreckels and various other families left great tracts to the city which they had envisaged as becoming beautiful parks. These were all destroyed. McLaren Park, I think, belonged to the Spreckels; it was the tail end of their cow pasture. It and Buena Vista Park are unpoliced, unkept-up, full of rubbish. Buena Vista Park, one of the most beautiful small parks in the city, is an open homosexual brothel on top and hippie bedroom below, which I suppose is all right. It’s also rather dangerous. The rubbish is never picked up. It’s full of papers and tin cans and milk cartons and bottles. This is in a neighborhood which needs a park very badly. The reason that McLaren Park and Buena Vista Park are not developed is that the Zellerbach Commission recommended that they be sold, both parks, along with a lot of others, for apartment houses. This is what the great guardian of culture, Harold Zellerbach, wanted to do to the city, and he was far more civilized than most San Francisco robber barons. So it goes.

The tremendous potential which existed in San Francisco when I came here in the summer of 1927 has almost all been destroyed, and soon the Presidio will go the way of all flesh. At one time San Francisco was like Berlin. It had more green areas than it had built-up ones, and we could have had the Grünewald all around us. But it has been thrown away. The Skyline Boulevard was just being built, and a great deal of the ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains was inaccessible except on foot. We’d hitchhike down under it, along the old El Camino Real, and then hike up into the Santa Cruz Mountains where now the Skyline Boulevard goes. As a wilderness, it has been destroyed by freeways and developers. The beaches were wonderful because the sea life still flourished. Commercial fertilizer fishing disrupted the balance of nature along the California coast. The San Francisco beaches and the Bay became seriously polluted. Hunter’s Point, for instance, was once a shrimp fishery. There were little shacks out in the cove, where these tiny San Francisco Bay shrimps were fished by Chinese. We used to swim there in the winter. There were oyster beds all around in the bay. Now oysters wouldn’t live there, and if they did, they’d taste like crankcase drainings. So it goes.

[pp. 366-367, 369-371]

* * *


[California Mountains]

We went off to the Sierras whenever we could, even if the main road to Yosemite (this was before either tunnel) was closed. We hitchhiked up the steep, dirt Sand Hill Road. Once during that warm California autumn we spent about a week in the Yosemite Valley. A farmer took us just east of Merced, where the land was getting hilly, and we slept under his immense fig tree and ate wonderful black Mission figs which were not only ripe but were just past ripe, drying on the tree and then falling off. In those days, Mission figs were looked on as garbage for pigs, and you could buy them very cheaply fresh or later dried. (That’s another story — the cheap food at the Crystal Palace Market. Later, when we lived in the Fillmore District, we could walk there and buy great stacks of stuff, heads of lettuce — six for five cents — and other produce in proportion.)

There were big fish in the Merced River, some so big, in fact, that two fish made a supper for us. Then against everybody’s advice, we hiked up to Tuolumne Meadow and over Mono Pass and down Bloody Canyon, to the Valley and back to Lee Vining and Bridgeport. We turned around and went back down to Bishop and around the mountains, through the Mojave, and back up to San Francisco. Of course there were no concrete highways, no highway over the mountains. The east side of Tioga Pass Road was still a rough miners’ road. I don’t believe there was a connection between Tuolumne Meadows and the mining road down below. Anyway, we didn’t go down that way. Highway 395 was not what anybody would call a highway in those days, and the whole country at that time of year was deserted. It was quite wonderful to have camped in Tuolumne Meadows in a warm late autumn with no one there at all. Then a storm came up, and it began to snow as we went down Mono Pass. I know now we had done something very foolish and dangerous. We debated climbing Mt. Lyell. Had we done so, we probably would have been mercilessly exterminated by the onset of the weather. However, we did climb Mt. Gabb. That was not the first of innumerable trips into the Sierras, but the one that I remember best. It was Andrée’s birthday when we were in Yosemite. We had trout and a bannock birthday cake stuffed with black figs and nuts. [...]

No matter the season, we were able to get away from the main trails, which was not a common thing to do in those days. One fall afternoon, we hiked down one of the old lumber roads from our camp near Hume Lake. Andrée had spent the morning painting, and I had been botanizing and writing. At the end of the road, we met a group of convicts who were living across the valley of Hume Creek. They were building a road that would eventually reach the floor of the Kings Canyon and go on to the upper basin, the valley which greatly resembles the Yosemite Valley, and which could only be reached then by trails over the top. In return for mailing their letters, the convicts showed us a trail that had been built up the floor of the canyon by the engineers who were surveying the road. It entered the upper basin through Cedar Grove, a dense wood of incense cedar at the other end. The convicts had concealed the trail with timber and brush, so no one else knew about it except a few of them who had gone up there for fishing. So we hiked up to the upper valley.

Because it was the fall, the water was way down and we could easily get back and forth across the river. Earlier in the year, the fords were impossible to navigate for a person on foot. For all intents and purposes, a great stretch of the Kings Canyon was open to us alone. We never saw anyone. Usually, we were below the snow line, that is, lower than Yosemite Valley. We could have stayed there until late in the year, at least until Thanksgiving.

Midway up the trail there was a cabin which had belonged to a prospector, trapper, and general mountain rat by the name of Put Boyden. He had discovered a cave at this point which later became one of the sights to see in Kings Canyon National Park, kept closed by huge iron gates so that people would not get lost in there, and to prevent vandalism, the curse of national parks, national forests, and city parks. Put Boyden’s cabin was a little shingle hut, with a bunk and a stove. In front was a broad deep pool in the river where the current was still enough for swimming and full of immense fish, the largest of which were almost as long as my lower leg. The smallest fish weighed about a pound and a half. We only had to toss in a fly to pull out a meal. That gave us a plentiful protein supply, and we could carry in on our backs three weeks of dry food.

Not far above our camp, some timber fell across the river and formed a logjam which made a bridge. So we could get all the way to the upper valley in the spring of the year when the water was too high to ford anywhere else. It was a little dangerous, but it was worth it. The Kings River Valley in spring was an immense flower garden, covered very thickly with tricolor lupines. In the meadows and up in the shady sides was every imaginable flower of that elevation. We’d go in and stay a month. We made a huge herbarium there. When our supplies ran short, I’d hike out, twelve miles or so, to Hume to get some food and come back. No one was around yet because there was still snow on the way over the bench from Lake Hume. So we had our refuge all to ourselves. It’s extraordinary to think that then we could spend six weeks in California and never see another human being.

Most travel was done with packhorses and mounted tourists. There were few backpackers like us. We’d go off the trail wherever the country was relatively level and travel with geological survey topographical contour maps. So I began the habit of living under the stars, later even in the winter. Until very recent years I’ve spent most of the year living outdoors. We would lock up our little studio in the Montgomery Block or let somebody use it. We knew everything would be perfectly safe. It was the same with camping. In those days, you could leave a tent with cameras, fishing tackle, and everything else in the public campgrounds in a national park, let alone in the high country, and no one would ever disturb it. The high country was far less populated and polluted than it is now. Then there was no road in Big Sur. The Muir Trail was not finished, nor was the trail from Giant Forest to the Muir Trail, the so-called High Sierra Trail. Now the Muir Trail along the crest of the Sierras resembles the Haight-Ashbury in its days of horror, and if you leave your tent, it will be gone when you come back.

We had a life of remarkable peace and order. Later, when we went to Santa Monica the same thing was true. Directly above Santa Monica Canyon, where we lived, the country was quite wild all across Topanga Canyon and on through the Malibu range. We’d get horses for free to exercise them in the winter and ride all day through a wilderness of chaparral. Coyotes would come down and tip over our garbage cans.

All of this had tremendous influence on us. My poetry and philosophy of life became what it’s now fashionable to call ecological. I came to think of myself as a microcosm in a macrocosm, related to chipmunks and bears and pine trees and stars and nebulae and rocks and fossils, as part of an infinitely interrelated complex of being. This I have retained.

[pp. 372, 375-377]

[Rexroth drew on the above experiences in his unpublished guidebook Camping in the Western Mountains (1939).]

* * *


[Psych Ward]

At the time of Munich [1938], I quit my job as an editor for the WPA Writers’ Project and went to work as an orderly in the psychiatric ward of the San Francisco County Hospital. It was an easy job to get. Very few people wanted such work, and there were all sorts of well-paying jobs in the booming war industries. Although she was a public health executive, Marie [Rexroth’s second wife] went back to the hospital. She felt that this was the best work she could do as a person who conscientiously objected to the war. So we were both there for the duration. [...]

In the daytime, the psychiatric ward was an actual madhouse because of the people who were constantly filing through and pestering the patients — social workers, psychologists, sociologists, med students, student nurses, people with questionnaires, people writing theses. From four until twelve we had comparative quiet. In a short time I convinced the superintendent of nurses, a personal friend, to send me over orderlies who did not believe in violence, and eventually I got a couple of conscientious objectors. On our shift alone, we ran a completely nonviolent ward. No patient was put in seclusion unless he was so completely demented that he ran around, threw himself in all directions, and attacked people. No one was kept in restraint except people with brain damage from strokes or trauma who were unconscious and would roll out of bed and injure themselves. In those days, we got all such patients — strokes, brain damage, alcoholics, delirium tremens — none of whom, of course, belonged in a psychiatric ward. I always wore whites (orderlies only wore smocks over their clothes), and I spoke with authority.

Just before we went off, I’d come around to the patients we had taken out of restraint and say, “Well, the next shift is coming on.” And they’d say, “Okay, Doc,” and lie on their beds with their hands and feet in position, and I’d put them back in restraint. They would say, “Thanks, Doc, for letting me out.”

During the long evenings while the patients were usually asleep, I translated from the Palatine anthology, the huge old Dubner-Didot edition. A book of these translations, Poems from the Greek Anthology was published by the University of Michigan Press in 1962. There are several Latin poems in it, so it is a slightly misleading title. I would be sitting in the station translating Greek. The interns would say to me, “Whatcha doin’, Pop?” as though I was some kind of trash. I would say, “I’m translating The Greek Anthology.” “Oh.” [...]

Something I learned in all those years on the ward was what I had also been taught by Otto Rank: the neurotic is a person whose method of coping with the world does not work. He tries to make his interpersonal relationships resemble other people’s, but they are not completely operable. They are deficient because they are exploitative. The psychotic, on the other hand, has a system of coping with society which works, but it’s an unreal system and nobody else agrees with him, although he can infect other people with his psychosis, like many leaders of religious cults. The psychotic, to my mind, means business, while after you’ve done a certain amount of counseling with a neurotic, you feel like saying, “Oh for God’s sake, go out and get a job. Have something happen in your life.”

I once took out on my back porch a girl who was coming to me for counseling and said, “You see that woman next door? She is a scarcely literate Irish woman. Her husband is an alcoholic. One son is feeble-minded. Another son is a tail gunner flying out of North Africa. The other son is a rifleman with Patton, who believes in killing as many people as possible on both sides. Her mother is senile and incontinent. If all these things were happening to you, you wouldn’t be here talking to me. You wouldn’t have time to be neurotic. You need something to happen to you. You need to do something — to act.” The girl, incidentally, did act and get “well” shortly.

I am a great believer in the straighten-up-and-fly-right school of psychiatry, what Otto Rank called “will therapy.” I believe that patients want and need to be told what to do. Even Freud knew that neurotics are love-lost and they want confidence and security that someone knows, cares, and is willing to share responsibility. The idea that you can lie on a couch for five years, spend twenty thousand dollars, suddenly remember the first time you saw your grandfather’s penis, rise illuminated, and walk away in complete mental health, I think is pure bullshit. There are very few people I like as little as Freudian psychoanalysts. Most of them simply sell pseudolove, known as transference and countertransference. There’s a shorter word than psychoanalyst for people who sell the pretense of love. This is the main reason I have never taken any money whatsoever in all the counseling I have done.

I learned a great deal about human beings. I learned that mental illness is by and large a disease of the poor. When you read Freud, you’d think that mental illness was an indoor sport of the Viennese upper class. As a matter of fact, it is a group of diseases of poverty, like tuberculosis. I usually saw very poor people and had the opportunity to see deeply into their lives. The problem was to keep the Establishment from interfering with them.

I used to say that the secondary diagnosis of all patients who had been on the ward forty-eight hours was barbiturate poisoning. The first thing they do to a patient is fill him full of goof balls to keep him quiet. Now with the wonders of chemotherapy, they no longer use barbiturates, but everybody on a psychiatric ward walks around with a pharmaceutical prefrontal lobotomy and is usually turned loose with, at best, a weekly visit from a psychiatric social worker.

They say, “Isn’t it wonderful? It’s like the Belgian system where the mentally ill live in people’s homes in perfectly normal villages.”

The hell it is.

The dumping of the mentally ill, full of these new psychiatric drugs, into the streets is a scandal. It’s been carried furthest in New York, where whole sections of the decayed Upper West Side are being filled with pensioners and psychotic patients on stelazine, lithium carbonate, and everything else under the sun. They can’t diagnose the patient, so they give him the whole psychiatric pharmacopoeia at once, and he walks around in a psychotic trance beautifully painted all over with petrochemicals.

I think that contemporary drastic methods of treating the mentally ill are far worse than any of those horrors that are supposed to have existed in the Middle Ages. Psychiatric care in Byzantium, Baghdad, or Peking was as good as it is in modern Paris.

When people ask, “Do you believe in capital punishment?” I say, “No, only for doctors who order shock therapy and prefrontal lobotomies. I believe they should be hung.” [...]

I don’t suppose that anywhere I ever learned as much as I learned on the psychiatric ward in San Francisco City and County Hospital. Ex-cons always say, “You never know what makes the wheels go round until you’ve done time in the joint.” This is even more true of psychiatric hospitals. It is a perfect mass hypostatization of society, the organization of the Social Lie. I’m not only glad that I did this work, but I enjoyed doing it. If males could volunteer in their old age, like ladies, as nurse’s assistants, “gray ladies,” I would be glad to donate one day a week. But, of course, I would not be allowed to do that, least of all if they had any inkling of my opinions.

[pp. 475-477, 484-486]


Part 5 of excerpts from Kenneth Rexroth’s Autobiography. Copyright 1991 Kenneth Rexroth Trust. Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.