San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



April 1960

Two Questions About Modern Life
Signs of Change in the South
Conversations with Southerners
Flagstaff versus Phoenix



Two Questions About Modern Life

Perhaps you’ve caught on by now, reading these columns of mine for a couple of months, that two subjects that interest me very much at present are, first, community integration, how we can function at the highest level and get the most out of life in the modern world that is overtaking us with its dense population, its commercial culture and its conflicting interest groups, and, secondly, the picture we have of ourselves as modern men — what do we mean to ourselves, what do we want out of life, here, rushing into time, ten years past the half-century mark?

When you come down to it, having taken these problems apart, I think they are going to be two aspects of one problem — in the long run it is the problem of civilization, the meaning men give to their life together.

Circumstances have conspired to give me new and fresh material to feed just these interests. An agent has arranged a lecture tour for me through the South, up to New York, around there for a couple of weeks, and then back across the Midwest.

Many places I will be reading my own verse, but at the University of North Carolina I will be part of a large scholarly symposium on, guess what, “The Image of Modern Man.”

Between here and there I will be traveling in short jumps through the Deep South, and I will have plenty of time to talk to people about integration, not about Integration with a capital I, but about the kind of community that is going to come out of the struggles that are going on now. I want to ask a lot of people, Negro and white, scholars and ordinary humans, “What kind of world is there going to be, in your opinion, below the Mason-Dixon Line in another twenty years, and how do you picture yourself then, living in it?”

Similar questions could be asked all over the world, in great and small areas of conflict. “How is it all going to turn out, do you think?” So many people are blind partisans, struggling through life and with each other with no imaginable end in view, victims of momentary slogans and ancient prejudices. Behind them are men with clear ideas and well-defined aims. Khrushchev thinks the 21st will be the Communist Century. Many people besides Nkrumah and Tom Mboya think a great new civilization will arise in Africa. Chou En-lai has another idea. What idea do we have, leaders and ordinary people in America, of our future as individuals and as a group?

The other night I had dinner with a group of literary, theatrical, academic and professional cronies in Jack’s. San Francisco’s leading director told an amusing story of his futile efforts to work with a currently successful novelist. He made the observation, “Like a lot of writers, he is unable to get along with his peers.” This started a discussion of why so many artists and writers, and not all of them highbrows by any means, are unable to get along with anybody except those who offer them no competition or resistance. Many, of course, can’t get along with anybody at all. Partly this is just the high-strung nerves and concentrated interests of the trade of being a creative person. The man who carved the Sphinx was probably temperamental. In the modern world it is something more.

Even if he isn’t, and usually, after a few years have gone by, it turns out that he really hasn’t been, the average writer or artist in our society considers himself completely at odds with everybody in his environment, a rebel, an outcast, and a stern denouncer of evil livers.

We have put the novelist and poet in the position of the ancient Hebrew prophets. They are themselves quite convinced that this is their role and behave accordingly. This is an “image of modern man” and I think it is most often a false one. How many of the more famous examples of the outcast and Jeremiah in literary history have actually been rejected and rejectors of society? Was Poe? Indeed, he was not. He was so conventional a man of his time that most of his attitudes seem ridiculous to us today. Was Baudelaire? He was a typical young Frenchman about town. He was sensitive, unhappy and poor, but he was far from a pariah. So it goes, down to our own Henry Miller, whose life is as conventional as could well be imagined.

Someone once said of Lawrence Lipton, the publicity man for the Beatniks, that his much touted “voluntary poverty” consisted in not getting a third TV set for the bathroom. Colin Wilson, the boy who wrote The Outsider, used the very considerable revenue from that book to buy a nice middle-class home in Cornwall and bring down his father and mother and sister and wife and set up a quiet, comfortable and respectable life for the family. The neighbors never think of him as anything but one of themselves, only more successful.

Yet still, the conflict is there. The poet Richard Eberhart was here recently, reading at colleges around the Bay and at the Poetry Center. He looks like a middle-aged businessman. He acts and talks like a middle-aged businessman. So he was, and a successful one too, until Dartmouth offered him a lot more money and a lot easier life teaching poetry to the young. Yet he is probably the best poet of my generation, a mystic, and a subverter of the established order in his poetry if not in his life. The two departments of his life are so far apart that he hardly recognizes himself in one when he is in the other. He doesn’t suffer from conflict because he has divided himself into two entirely separate halves.

Is this a condition peculiar to poets? I think not. Almost everybody has a secret self — his real self — that he feels nobody else really ever knows. Almost everybody lives a private life, his “own” life, which may consist of nothing but the vaguest dreams and reveries, and a public life. Poets are special in that they know how to show this private life forth, how to write things that bolster it up in others.

Poetry gives people confidence in their own inner integrity. If this is so, what is wrong with the world we live in that the poet should characteristically feel always at cross purposes with it? The success of a civilization can be measured by the degree to which inner vision and outer reality match. For over two hundred years there has been a widespread belief that, for modern man, they could not be matched at all. Of course, they never can be completely, except in societies like those of the ants and bees.

But I think today we stand on the verge of new possibilities of healing what the philosophers of history have called our “schism of the soul” and our “failure of nerve.” The human race has in its hands today the possibility of a new unity of spirit. It had jolly well better take advantage of it, or it will blow itself to smithereens.

[April 3, 1960]



Signs of Change in the South

For a week now I have been traveling through the South, talking to all manner of people. I have had one serious problem. I have not been able to find a single example of an intelligent, articulate person who refuses, at least in private conversation, to accept the fact of fairly immediate abolition of Jim Crow and the establishment of a workable structure of legal, but of course purely legal, racial equality.

With very few exceptions, people have prepared themselves to go into this with all the good will they can muster. Of course, there is a centuries-old accumulation of bitterness on one side and a certain fear of the first few months or years of adjustment on the other. Nobody expects social equality for a long time. Most intelligent white Southerners know that after years of educational and economic equality, social equality is bound to come. Negroes, of course, are not, at this stage of the game, concerned with social equality at all. What they want is simply full American citizenship.

Both sides know that at first this will make little observable difference. It will make enormous difference in the heart, which is the same color on both sides. The white South will lose its guilty conscience. The black South will gain new pride and hope. Maybe all this is better, in spite of manifest difficulties ahead which everybody recognizes, than the smug self-satisfaction of an “enlightened” Northern city like San Francisco, where we still have a long way to go to reach even ordinary equality of opportunity, let alone free social equality. At least here a large number of people know they are face to face with the fundamental social moral problem of our time and only hope and pray they can measure up to it.

I have talked to Negro mechanics, warehousemen, janitors, to the gambling boss of Negro New Orleans, to white college professors from old Southern families, to college students, to carpenters. Every newspaper man or woman who has interviewed me on this lecture trip, I’ve interviewed right back. I was at the first Louisiana sit-in with a girl from the local paper who had interviewed me that morning. She was typical, full of dying prejudices, misinformation and superstitious fears. But she knew it. She was trying to change. Well, the sit-in did a good job of changing her. It was terrific. A group of gentle, well-bred, sweet-faced kids from Southern University filed in, hand in hand, fellows and girls in couples, and sat down quietly. Their faces were transfused with quiet, innocent dedication. They looked like the choir coming into a fine Negro church. They weren’t served. They sat quietly talking together. Nobody, spectators or participants, raised his voice. In fact, the bystanders did not even stare rudely. When the police came, the youngsters spoke softly and politely, and once again, fellows and girls hand in hand, they filed out, singing a hymn, and got in the paddy wagon.

The newspaper girl was shaken to her shoes. Possibly it was the first time in her life that she had come face to face with one of the great moral issues of being a human being. She came to the faculty party for me at Louisiana State that night. Her flesh was still shaking and she couldn’t stop talking. She had come up against one of the big things in life and she was going to be always a little different afterwards. After all, how many of us do face life in these terms and how often? Mostly, life just goes on. Lucky for us we are not often called upon to be all out moral human beings. There was nothing wrong with this girl’s response and she had not been prepared by past training to make it.

We forget that Gandhi did more than free India. He gave the British Commonwealth an awakened conscience. Not everywhere, not, alas, in South Africa, and not all at once and to everybody, but in the long run the decisive people were affected. Today it is an inspiriting thing to read in an editorial in a small town Carolina newspaper, the last line of a sane and sad evaluation of the situation in South Africa at the moment, a quotation from Alan Paton: “Let us not, in our pride, think there is any consolation for us in South Africa.” Captivity has been taken captive, and by little handsful of modest, friendly school children.

I talked with a young man from an old aristocratic family, with a county named after them in Georgia, who teaches at a state university. He said the old chestnuts about the mammy who raised him and the faithful retainers whom everybody loved and the drunken gardener who his uncle, a judge, had to get out of jail every second weekend. All the old stuff that they say in filibusters. But he said it with a new meaning, a sense of a new kind of responsibility facing him and his family in a new pattern of social relationships. And he meant every word of it.

In the world of 1960, and all over the world, if we don’t learn to live together as full human beings pretty quickly, we are going to have to get ready to die together pretty quickly. Not so long ago I despaired of the future, I thought we were incapable of learning. In the last few years it has seemed to me a new feeling of mutual humanity, a new wisdom, is slowly seeping into the stubborn heads of quite ordinary people everywhere. It is a fine thing to watch the tears streaming down the face of a piney woods housewife out on a shopping tour and brought suddenly face to face with dignity, courage and total lack of hatred.

We have heard plenty about the violence and antagonism in American life. From others we have heard about America as a Glorious Republic. Maybe now we are witnessing something new — the emergence of America — and the first emergence right in our most troubled part of the country — of America as, in the words of that famous painting by a naïve Quaker painter so long ago, America, a Peaceful Kingdom.

[April 10, 1960]

NOTE: A more in-depth account of the civil rights movement can be found in Rexroth’s Beginnings of a New Revolt.



Conversations with Southerners

Everywhere I have gone in the South I have met with deep concern, with a real desire to face the ultimate issues of this conflict, and with realization that the impending disappearance of Jim Crow will liberate the South morally and economically.

Every class seems to know that in the final analysis, this is a temporary, actually unreal, problem, and that once it has been got out of the way, the South will be free to come to grips with its many, truly major, problems — problems of reconstruction in the best sense — of both men and the land. Every class, that is, except two — the demagogues with whom it is impossible to talk sense at all, and their diminishing band of followers. Soon they will be left only with the ducktails, the mobs that any rascal could stir up anywhere in the world out of any poolhall or low bar. Time is wasted talking to them. They have no program. It is impossible to get them to focus their attention on anything but the most immediate situation. They respond with the most senseless clichés, a large portion of them slogans of the old Southern sex fear of the Negro.

The Boers in South Africa at least have a program, however awful its consequences may turn out to be. The old-style gallus-snapping demagogue has nothing but rant. He is fighting a battle he knows he can’t win, except for the shortest period of time. He hopes, however, that in that short period of time he can “get his.” This, of course, is not politics, but a kind of moral looting of the body politic.

I do not like to have to say what I am going to say next. There is another class, or rather small caste, in the South who have a vested interest in things as they are, or rather, used to be. They who cling to their position, even though they know the law of diminishing returns is catching up with them inexorably. These are the majority, but let me hasten to add, just a bare majority — maybe even secretly not even that — of Negro college professors in the politically captive Negro colleges.

In the face of a world upsurge of unbelievable power and spiritual depth, they persist, a little band of petty, arrogant and frightened men. These are the only people in all the South who have been literally afraid of me and who have refused to talk or who have given answers, if anything, less straight and more senseless than the tub-thumping white demagogues. They are the only class who has not treated me as an equal, man to man. Even the gallus snappers are crafty enough to do that. Although I have always understood it intellectually, at last I know by experience, in my bones and innards, as a Negro knows, why the words “Uncle Tom” and “Booker T.” are terms of contempt. Acquiring this knowledge has not been a pleasant experience.

I talked to the so-called “vice lord” of Negro New Orleans. He is a man of great dignity, intelligence and genuine kindness, even human decency if you will. A person less like the Harlem numbers king would be hard to imagine. He is deliberately liquidating what was once a very profitable empire. He said, “I’m getting out as fast as I can take care of the people who work for me. I’m putting my money in things that will help build up the community, construction companies, building and loan associations, insurance, things like that. Once, the only thing a Negro could do with his money was dice or women or lottery. Those days are going fast. At least I always gave the player a break. We paid 33-1/3 percent, which is more than you could say for Harlem — come to think of it, it’s more than you could say for Vegas. Those are the old days. I’ve got better things to do with my money, and they’ve got better things to do with theirs.”

A Negro warehouseman, who worked for the government at standard wages but who lived in the French Quarter in a cramped and moldy slum, said, “I don’t care about their social equality. I don’t want to go to their hotels or live in a fashionable neighborhood. They can keep their women, they don’t interest me. I just want my sons to know that when they use a drinking fountain, they haven’t dirtied it so ‘ofays’ can’t use it. I’ve got money enough to help my kids through school if they work, too. I want them to get a chance at a good life for themselves. We get along fine with all our white neighbors. It’s just when they get together and some crooked politician stirs them up that they make trouble. We can all get along fine in New Orleans if the crooks just let us alone.”

I said, “Mr. Hall, you’ve worked for the government all over the place. You’ve worked in Hawaii, where certainly there is more racial equality than anywhere else under the American flag. Why did you come back to this place? I wouldn’t if I’d been you.”

He replied, “Why, this is my home. I was born in the house across the street. When I came back we lived there until they put a historical marker on it. Then the landlord moved us out and remodeled everything, and white people moved in. Now it’s what they call studios. But they couldn’t shake us. We just moved across the street. It’s my home and I want to make it a better place for my family, not somebody else’s home, someplace away off somewheres.”

One of the leading Negro professors said, “I’d love to talk to you, Mr. Rexroth, and share your thinking on this subject. I am sure you are doing a great deal of good. But I have a very tight schedule. I will turn you over to my secretary and she will do her best to work something out. Thank you very much for asking me. I am very flattered.”

Thank you very much, doctor, you are most cooperative. The secretary couldn’t work anything out, but over the phone, sitting in front of him, using the subtlest inflections of her voice, she managed to convey her sorrow and contempt.

Who am I to cast the first stone? These men accepted a compromise. They thought they were doing the best they could for their people under the circumstances. Maybe they were. But behind compromises lie, so often, what I was talking about recently in a column on Hamlet — the hidden working of that tragic flaw, that someday undoes all.

Who can say, violence, even bloodshed on the scale of Hamlet might break out someplace in the South at any moment. But the real tragedies will be acted out at those pitiful mahogany desks in those pathetic offices, and in the privacy of those cheap columned or split-level “upper middle class” homes.

[April 17, 1960]



Flagstaff versus Phoenix

Europeans are always telling us that American cities are all alike. Sometimes we even believe it ourselves. It is easy to go from airport to first-class hotel to chic night club to hotel to airport to airport to first-class hotel and, as the jet ads say, be unaware that you are in motion.

Actually, as any drummer [traveling salesman] could tell you, there is considerably greater difference between Pittsburgh and St. Louis than there is between most large European provincial cities within the same country. One thing — they are no longer provincial in that way. Each major American metropolis is the focus of a whole group of problems, the expression of a specially adapted way of living, and this finds voice in definite small cultural distinctions. Least of all are American cities capital centered. Contrary to the opinions of most New York cab drivers or Washington correspondents, few people in the rest of the country look to either place for leadership. Nowadays, as everybody knows, they even make up their own fashions in Los Angeles, Dallas, and perhaps San Francisco.

It has been fun traveling about these last few weeks to observe and try to weigh the meaning of these differences. I am interested just now in “community integration” (both words without capitals); it is a few superficial impressions along this line that I want to talk about today. Certainly the cities I stopped in were about as widely different as could be imagined in America.

First, Flagstaff, Arizona. I worked around here once when I was a boy. Then it was a sleepy cowtown and small mining center on the edge of an Indian reservation. These facts conditioned its whole life — and that is all the life there was. It hasn’t grown as tremendously as has much of the Southwest, but it has more than doubled. The normal school is now a fair-sized state college, where books, paintings, music, learning are available, and people pay money to hear people like me give lectures about Baudelaire and Jean Genet and all that noise.

There is a really good restaurant, where you can get French, Livermore or Napa wines with your very Western steaks, and finish with, of all things, Port Salut cheese.

Everybody complains about how isolated and provincial they all are. But people come up to you after the lecture party and ask you which you prefer, Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane, and how do you think Norman Podhoretz will make out editing Commentary, and do you think De Stael is as good as Jackson Pollock. Honest — these very questions. Sure, it’s a bit eager, but in my day the favorite literary amusement was memorizing the labels on the Sloan’s Linement package and the Prince Albert can. Fortunately, the town has not grown too fast and it has been able to form already a flimsy but promising new community.

Don’t get me wrong, the leading families don’t go around talking such heady stuff as that I’ve just related. Possibly, I carry my own world around with me. Also — that is international chitchat, and so, in Flagstaff, provincial. More important, there are already apparent the beginnings of specific local expression and concern. There are painters, writers, musicians, not connected with the college, some of them, who speak for this small place and are listened to there. Even a jazz sextet gathered from several towns in northern Arizona plays the dances all around. They are up on the latest things from both coasts and have lots of ideas of their own, and they don’t have the foggiest notion of what they are doing. Poor lambs, they are under the impression that the audiences in the Five Spot and the Blackhawk do know what’s happening.

Most important — the cowboy, the Navaho and Hopi, the vast landscape, the hard work with its own special freedom, in lumber, mining and cattle — all this is still here, giving this isolated and not very important community its own distinctive flavor.

Phoenix is another matter. I didn’t have much time in Phoenix, but all the big southern Arizona towns give the impression that their population explosion has just been too much for them to digest. They are brassy and expensive, at certain levels they even have their own kind of hard empty chic — so well portrayed in a novel of Simenon’s — but I am afraid they are still in the Modern Southwest Paleolithic, like Hollywood was in the days when its cultural center was the Garden of Allah. Unlike Flagstaff, the old traditions have all been washed away by this overwhelming influx of people. Sure, there are Hopi Katchina dolls in all the tourist junk shops — but there are really no traditions, no vested interests of any kind, good, bad or indifferent, so at least the future, whatever it will be, will not be hampered by the past.

Boom towns are by definition “open societies,” everybody has a chance to make good, as they say, it’s every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. So often in the past the devil has taken the hindmost and they have been all but a tiny minority of the population, and all the inefficiency and barrenness of the boom town has settled down permanently, locking the community in a vise of shoddy squalor.

This new boom in the desert is not that sort of thing. Phoenix and Tucson are not Butte and Anaconda — in fact, you suspect that the Phoenix Five-Year Plan envisages two swimming pools in every back yard and two pheasants in every pot. Poverty and caste rigidity are hard diseases to cure, they can be fatal to communities as well as to men. The theory is that gaudy splendor is a “self-limiting infection.” Leave it alone and someday the patient recovers by himself.

The important things is that Flagstaff, relatively poor, isolated and growing slowly by Western standards, is in every way a more truly “cultured” community than Phoenix and Tucson with all their wealth and sophistication. You want the latest painting from Paris, France? I am sure you can find somebody in Tucson to sell it to you, but outside of small circles immediately around the local colleges and the university, Phoenix and Tucson are real deserts of the mind, for the simple reason that nobody knows or cares what anybody else is doing.

I am writing these columns from notes, here in New York, just before turning homeward, and I find that, already, in the very special world of the New Southwest, most of the issues and problems that confront the older cities of the East have appeared. Today we face the prospect of learning to live creatively together or being overwhelmed in a meaningless, brutalizing mass civilization. I don’t think we are going to be so overwhelmed, not in New York, not in Moscow, not even, in the long run, in Peking. But we must never forget that the entire populations of Classical Greece and Renaissance Italy throughout the life of those flowering times of civilization, were smaller than the present population of Greater New York. We can never for a moment rest content with a civilization in which nothing happens but that the streetcars run on time and the waterclosets flush.

[April 24, 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.

Previous Month   Next Month

Index of the Columns

Rexroth Archive