Kenneth Rexroth at Large in San Francisco



Pacifica Radio KPFA
The Death of Hemingway


Pacifica Radio KPFA

[...] Years ago a friend of mine, publicity man for Columbia University Press, and for a while out here with Stanford University Press, once said, “I honestly believe that KPFA is the most remarkable single cultural institution in the United States, and that includes any single university, museum, or any other such body.” Possibly that was overenthusiasm, but KPFA is certainly remarkable.

It is a noncommercial educational FM station, owned and operated by Pacifica Foundation, a democratically run, more or less cooperative, board of local leaders of every variety, united largely by their sense of community responsibility. It has no other income than the subscriptions and donations of its listeners.

From 7:00 in the morning until midnight, KPFA’s transmitters pour out a steady stream of the finest classical music, readings and discussions of literature, commentaries, panels, lectures, on every variety of questions of public concern and current events, lectures and discussions of all the sciences — both general popularization and the up-to-date presentation of new developments, resum├ęs of the news and opinion of the press of the world, full length plays and opera, children’s programs, book reviews, poetry readings, imports from the BBC Third Programme and from similar things in other countries — and so on and on — modern jazz, traditional jazz, ethnic music, folk songs, a program “Music of the Italian Masters” which is far better than anything on the air in Italy.

Many people say, “Oh yes, KPFA. Like the British Third Programme, isn’t it?” It is not. It is far better. I have lived in England and listened to the Third Programme for months at a time. The best word for BBC programming is “unexciting.” Some of it is just dull. Once in a great while you get an outstanding program, but by and large it’s highbrow Yorkshire pudding. Furthermore, British musical taste at its most advanced is far narrower, more provincial and conventional.

KPFA is not only exciting to listen to (it becomes a religion almost with many of its subscribers), it is stimulating in the literal sense of the word. Its programs move people to go out and do things, to assume social responsibilities, to explore further avenues of learning or music first opened to them by a KPFA program. More than any other factor, it is KPFA which has set the character of San Francisco culture in the postwar period. It has been the most powerful single stimulus for the San Francisco Renaissance, in the arts and sciences but most especially in our own 1961 San Francisco way of looking at life.

Try it. Tune in today, 94.1 megacycles, FM.

[12 February 1961]

NOTE: Rexroth’s own book review program on KPFA ran every week for some twenty years.


The Death of Hemingway

Before I read Joseph Alsop’s vignette of Hemingway I had planned to devote part of this column to what might be called noncommittal tribute to an unquestionably important writer. I’m sorry, but I just have to speak up. I find all this glorification of Hemingway for his manifest evils nauseating.

This picture of a bunch of aging journalists and international bohemians staggering into a peasant cockfight and making grand whoopee is — is what? — you name it. One thing it certainly isn’t, and that is the expression of an appetite for intense significant experience.

I don’t care much for people who enjoy killing things, but I am willing to put up with hunters as long as they don’t carry their habits into private and public life. (Trotsky wired Zinoviev re the Kronstadt sailors, in revolt for the fulfillment of the promises of the Revolution, “Shoot them like partridges.” Bertrand Russell commented, “A hunter should never be allowed to lead a revolution.”)

I abominate people who make of killing a spectator sport. I honestly believe that all Americans who go to bullfights in the Spanish countries should be locked up on their return to the States.

How can anyone say that Hemingway loved life? It was death that fascinated him, as he never tired of saying. Love is not the word — that implies extreme positive evaluation. Death fascinated him as snakes are supposed to fascinate sparrows, with an empty but irresistible lure.

Life comes at the characters of Hemingway’s fictions not as experience, but as sensation. He is master of the brilliant still life — nature like a stereopticon picture, far sharper than reality. Far sharper, but that is all — never more meaningful. Similarly his people are perfectly delineated cutouts, more defined than people, who shade off into all sorts of obscurities, ever are.

His speech, which once sounded so realistic, is the same way — reading Men Without Women, it seems to be in a kind of blank verse, the ceremonial language of a religion without deity, without faith, hope, or charity.

Compare his novel of the Spanish War with Malraux’s. I think much of Malraux’s moralizing and philosophizing is flashy and dishonest. But it is dishonest — when it is so. Honesty, motivation, evaluation, have nothing to do with Hemingway’s story. His Spanish War was not a tragedy — but an enormously complicated fiasco, like a bullfight, but about girls with no place to sleep and men with nothing to do but die.

Do not think I have sat down to write an attack on Hemingway. Quite the contrary. He was a very great writer. His attitudes to life have become a codified faith of the faithless. They make a substitute for religion amongst the technical and professional intelligentsia all over the world — a class far more alienated than ever was Marx’s working class. His empty, clipped, ominous speech is parodied by television detectives and French philosophers. Bullfights are now legal in the country of Montaigne.

Long ago, when his first books came out, somebody — was it Wyndham Lewis? — said that you knew Hemingway was terribly cultured and brainy, because his characters never used good English and never said an intelligent thing. This is what he stood for from the beginning, the conscious rejection of what we call the Humanist tradition. He was a bullfight aficionado because Shaw was a vegetarian and Rolland a pacifist.

For so many, the rationalistic, humanistic society that had evolved in the Western World for three hundred years came to trial in the First World War and was found wanting — utterly wanting. Lady Brett and her pals and the old man and his fish, the indictment never changes. “It doesn’t mean a thing.”

People have said that in the face of an empty but still hostile world. Hemingway’s only value was courage. But courage involves fairly complex relationships with other real people. His response was not an act of evaluation, it was rather a reaction, a kind of lonely attitude of flat defiance.

In his own personal life it often assumed the character of childish truculence. Truculence, they say, is an expression of insecurity. Hemingway’s world was awfully vacant; there weren’t any comfortable nooks and shelters in it.

The significant thing is that it is also the world of vast numbers of people, and especially overcivilized people today. Irrationalism, hidden anguish, unrelieved insecurity, defiance — these, once individual, personal qualities or defects, are becoming the characteristics of our civilization.

It is a measure of Hemingway’s stature as an artist that he embodied them unmistakably. He, more than anyone else, first shaped a new archetype, a new myth, a different kind of Modern Man. This modern man is certainly a tragic figure, but the tragedy is not a literary one, it is society’s.

[9 July 1961]


Kenneth Rexroth at Large in San Francisco (selected columns from the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Magazine). Copyright 1960-1975 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.