San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns for the San Francisco Examiner)



First Column, January 1960



Here I Am

Well, here I am. When I was a boy, back before the other war, my father had a friend whom he admired tremendously and of whom I stood in utter awe — the critic James Gibbons Huneker. He was not just a critic. He was a journalist. When he wrote about de Pachmann playing Chopin, you could hear it. And he had a nose for news, an infallible nose, what in another context would be called good taste. He looked at the first exhibitions of modern art, back in 1908, and said that the Cubists would change the history of painting and that the Futurists were self-deluded fakes and would pass as a fad. He played Bach like an angel, but he also welcomed the first music of Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

Huneker had a true journalist’s whimsy. He wrote a fascinating guide to the beer of Europe, full of dry mockery of the wine snobs. He wrote about the tortured Danish philosopher Kierkegaard long before he was discovered by the intellectuals, in fact, before Sartre and the editors of America’s highbrow quarterlies were born. He did all this in the newspapers, back in the nineteen hundreds when nobody was supposed to know anything. In my adolescence I read all his books, imitated his attitudes and resolved to follow in his footsteps.

So I went to work on the old Chicago Herald and Examiner back in the wild days immortalized in The Front Page. After a spell of Chicago newspaperdom of the Twenties, I decided it was all too rough for me. My father had died of drink and I saw myself following quickly in his footsteps, not Huneker’s. The years went by and I led a quiet life. About the time when, if I had stayed in the business and had kept alive, I just might have been offered a stint like Huneker’s, the telephone rang and they said, “This is The Examiner.” Think of all the time I’ve saved. Going on for 40 years, taking it easy. It just goes to show.

What is this column going to be about? Oh, just things, whatever strikes my fancy. One thing, for sure, I am not going to be a professional Angry Man. I think I live a fairly civilized life and I enjoy living it and I enjoy telling what it feels like. Maybe once in a while some Big Issue might turn up and I might be what they call “fearless.” I hope I don’t even know it. I think one of the symptoms of being civilized is that you never know when you are being courageous.

One week maybe I will write about a book, another about a show of pictures, or maybe even just one picture, another week about jazz, another week about a good meal, another about a recital of Renaissance motets.

I like rock climbing, ski-mountaineering, dry fly fishing, maybe I will write about them. I am all for Issues, too, but I have the vulgar, journalistic opinion that Issues should be hung on pegs. If you talk to the public you should always talk about things, not about abstractions, however noble. If you can’t find a peg to hang an issue on, probably it isn’t an issue. In this the public is smarter than a lot of writers, and a lot smarter than most thinkers.

This all sounds like getting publicity out of me is going to be like shooting fish in a barrel. But don’t fool yourself. Having been one, I just loathe publicity men. So don’t come at me with any hot leads. I’ll just run off. Everybody knows now that nothing fouls the nest of “communications” like payola. You can rest assured that when I write about a good wine or a good dinner it has not been a token of esteem or a little courtesy. Of course, I won’t be above a little plug for my friends — but they will be sincere plugs.

I got a lead for a plug for some friends this week and thought I might open with that. Alas, it was in the world of jazz and as so often in that world, things didn’t work out, in fact, they got hung up. I went down to the sound studios to play sidewalk superintendent to a record Fantasy was making of Dave Brubeck playing a whole suite of Bill Smith’s music, with Bill playing clarinet instead of Desmond on sax. And what happened? Everybody was hung up. The Weiss brothers were running around twiddling dials like a bobtail flush in the Avon Comedy Four. The musicians were just turning grim and speaking to each other with falsely jocular formality. “If you please, Mister Brubeck . . .” Everybody was tired. They’d done all the easy ones and decided to put off the hard ones to another day. It will probably be a real crazy record. But I didn’t have any story. So, for this opening piece, I’ve just had to ramble off the top of my head.

San Francisco seems to have always had a peculiarly salubrious climate for personal journalism, the occasional essay, the intimate column, from Bret Harte and Ambrose Bierce to Fremont Older and John D. Barry, it’s a great tradition. Today the papers are full of them, excellent, good, bad and indifferent. They are not now and never have been, these columnists, all of them sensationalists. Even the gossipiest ones have never been as invidiously gossipy as some elsewhere in the country. A lot of them have purveyed, between the lines, a lot of wisdom and light.

As I say, it’s a great tradition and I’m proud to be associated with it. Anyway, Huneker, here I am!

[January 31, 1960]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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