San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



May 1960

New Orleans versus Pittsburgh
Jean Genet and Ornette Coleman
The Execution of Caryl Chessman
The HUAC Riot
Signs of a New Youth Revolt



New Orleans versus Pittsburgh

Real legends, the old stories of mankind, are always more real than reality. Modern legends are commercial and journalistic stereotypes and usually about as false as can be imagined. Nothing shows this more than the popularized myth of New Orleans, that ancient beautiful city full of old world charm — the Paris of the Western World — and the common picture of Pittsburgh, a city of smoke and steel, cinders in the soup and social conflict rampant in the streets. Both pictures are simply 100 percent false. However, the two cities do make a perfect example of contrast in community health and civic responsibility.

New Orleans sells itself to the world on its French Quarter. Certainly there is little else there — an incoherent and shabby Southern metropolis — Birmingham without steel mills. Although the French Quarter brings in millions of tourist dollars, the best thing, the most profitable thing in the long run in dollars and cents return to the community, would be to tear it all down and build a dozen or so modern skyscraper housing developments set in a park and recreation areas. It is a square mile or so of shabby, scabby buildings, in the worst possible French provincial taste, carefully preserved in all their flimsy outlander gentility, iron galleries and carved shutters and doorways, and inside, in the guts, sheer rot, disintegrating plumbing and cockroaches six inches long, straight out of science fiction. I wouldn’t be surprised if those cockroaches knew all about Einstein and were busy recording the follies of mankind on tiny electronicized crystals and teleporting them to Mars.

The housing problem is solved by slapping plenty of whitewash over the bedbugs, calling the sty a studio and renting it to sensitive young men from west Texas who have read too much Tennessee Williams. Cheek by jowl with the studios are Negro slums that would shame Johannesburg, and, where the colored population is solid, streets that look like they’d been paved last to spruce the city up for Beauregard’s triumphal entry. Scattered amongst this warren of bad painters, oversensitive boys and the desperately poor are hundreds and hundreds of striptease joints.

With the possible exception of Calumet, south of Chicago, there are no other places like these in America. The girls work from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. for between forty and seventy-five dollars a week and 10 percent of the drinks. They cannot leave the place, but between their numbers have to “B” the customers — a practice very much against the law in most cities. Furthermore, if they antagonize a “john” so that he leaves without spending a lot of money, the owner can fine them as much as $10. They work under names like “Tempeste Stormy” and “Leelee Sincere.” They are about half and half worn out old pros from the North and fresh and foolish kids from the piney woods and bayous whom the owners have sold the idea they are big-time vampires and headed straight for Monte Carlo.

As a friend of mine, a burleycue man I’ve known for 30 years, who took me around, said: “There’s a never-ending supply of Texans who pay the rent, and about once a week we get a couple that pay off the mortgage — but the real suckers are the girls themselves.” This sounds like a trivial and eccentric view of New Orleans, but it is a description of a truly diagnostic symptom. This is a sick city, slowly rotting away, in the grip of a state machine of social wreckers against which no local city reform administration has never been able to prevail. American cities were all like this 60 or 70 years ago, but no urban community can survive on this level today. New Orleans, like New York, has not survived. They are not urban communities but agglomerations of hostility and squalor, where man is, in almost every association, wolf to man.

What a contrast Pittsburgh is! Here beside this river, where strikers once loaded the Civil War cannon in the town square with broken clocks and switch plates and shelled the strikebreakers and Pinkertons off their barges into the river; once the ugliest and most violent city in America, riven with class war and racial strife, here an urban revolution is going on in which every class is taking part. The third and fourth generations of steel and aluminum barons often know as much about “human ecology,” the science of how and why people live together the way they do, as the professors who teach it in the universities. Unions and management have long-term plans for the future days of increasing automation. The civic services have been unified over the whole urban area.

One of the world’s most hideous slums has been replaced by a sparkling civic center. (Of course they made a nice profit turning slums into skyscrapers and parks, but the point is, they had enough sense to know this well in advance, and the slums are gone and the skyscrapers and parks are there.) Out away from the heart of town is a cultural center, the Carnegie Museum, concert halls, theaters, churches, and the university. This last is surely the most remarkable “streetcar college” or big downtown university in the country. As everybody knows, it is housed in a skyscraper, and just recently for dormitories and student activities, it has taken over a huge first-class hotel. Everywhere under the crystal chandeliers and amongst the red leather club chairs where the wealth of the Twenties once glittered, are bustling students, children of mine and mill workers whose parents are often only semi-literate.

You can feel a kind of purposiveness in the air. People on the streets seem to know exactly where they are going, just as all classes in the community have a pretty fair idea of the future. The community knows where it is going. This dynamism penetrates everywhere and can get a little wearing and excessive. The director of one of the principal city departments told me, “I’m under constant pressure from the leading citizens to be a rebel. I have to spend most of my time when I talk to them explaining that that isn’t the way you run a department like mine, where plans often take a generation to really come to maturity.” Two generations ago the junction of the Monongahela and the Allegheny was not even a city, it was a permanent battlefield of “robber barons” and “wage slaves,” piled with hovels where rats far outnumbered men, and where the sun never shone. It is not Utopia today, far from it, but at least, as a place for humans to life together it is slowly learning to make sense.

It was snowing in Pittsburgh when I arrived and the next night the town was thickly white. Once the snow came down gray. Far away to the south, under the blossoming trees, in the thick wet heat, New Orleans was moldering away. The sidewalk artists were painting the leprous buildings with their iron galleries. The poor girls were grinding and bumping, and all night long the young men out of Tennessee Williams were driving slowly up and down Bourbon Street in their sports cars and smirking at the idlers in blue jeans, and indoors in dirty beds, the artists and models and the malnourished Negroes were sleeping amongst the six-inch cockroaches.

[May 1, 1960]



Jean Genet and Ornette Coleman

What did you see in Babylon, father, father? Not an awful lot. Most of my time was spent doing programs and rounding up future program material for WBAI, our own KPFA’s new sister. The big news in New York right now is WBAI’s impact on the city. It is blowing the dust out of a lot of musty corners and whistling through a number of rat holes and the New Yorkers don’t know what to make of it. At least the Establishment doesn’t. Most of the holders of imaginary power in highbrow New York circles haven’t had a new idea since they were expelled from the John Reed Club in the late ’30s, and they persist in trying to fit us in their broken strait jackets of worn-out ideas.

The audience response, on the other hand, has been terrific. But this is all old stuff to people in northern California who have been listening to KPFA for ten years. Louis Schweitzer, the man who gave us the station, was certainly news to me. He is one of the most vital men I have ever met, and the only man of great wealth I ever heard of who is totally committed to direct action social responsibility. Just eating lunch with him is thrilling — but that’s a long story and should be a column by itself.

There is a big show of Monet at the Museum of Modern Art which will be showing up in San Francisco one of these days. It is fine to see, good to come back to Monet after many years (I grew up in Chicago, which is full of Monets) and enter once more into these paintings entirely given over to the movement of light and air. Monet is worth looking at for what he had to say on his own terms, not as an “influence” on Philip Guston.

Theater? I can’t recall, offhand, anything in the world that interests me less than the commercial Broadway theater. Once in a long while I get enticed into one of these things and I have never been able to get the joke. Off Broadway right now is pretty tame. Most of it is routine Little Theater Chekhov and O’Neill and all that. There are a couple of corny reworkings of the Classics — Don Juan and Orestes, to wit. Me, I may be over-refined, but I think they’re vulgar. Then there is Genet’s The Balcony, which is a horse of another color. Genet, as you may have read, is a reformed thief and stud-roller who learned to write in prison and who has a lovely talent for blarney that would put Jack Kerouac to shame. Most of it, besides, is about subjects of low life, nasty, brutish and short, which would scare that innocent young man out of his sandals.

This play is about a brothel whose inmates pay money to act out charades of authority. Gas men who dress as bishops, plumbers as judges, clerks as generals. (Don’t believe the news weeklies, it’s about as sexy as a VD clinic.) The exigencies of a passing revolution force them to assume their make-believe roles for real, and the old struggle of the two levels of the Social Lie rolls over and begins again. The actors are a bit highfalutin, but they create a powerful illusion. Once you have escaped from it, you immediately begin to wonder, “Is this true?” It isn’t. Society is stuffed as full of evils as a Christmas goose of prunes and nuts, but these evils are not liable to so simple an indictment. Completely rash overstatements like this are sentimental, and so the play is melodrama or farce and not great comedy. But what a gift of gab! And what theatricality! There in the small nightclub floor-show “stage” of the Circle in the Square, Genet creates an all-mastering illusion by sheer force of words. It is a little like Marlowe or Thomas Kyd, the old intoxicating Elizabethan rant. I’d like to tape it and broadcast it on KPFA. And I hope they do it here very soon.

The best thing on this trip was the music of Ornette Coleman. This is the young man who, almost single-handed, has launched one of those periodic revolutions without which jazz would become a sport of musicologists. He is playing the Five Spot to jam-packed audiences every night, rain or shine, a large percentage of them other musicians. It is significant that the top-notchers, Coltrane, Mingus, the Adderly brothers, and the rest, all think he is terrific.

The second string, especially the perennial side men of the bop revolution, think he is a fake. The reason, of course, is that they have a vested interest in their own stale novelties and are terrified of being crowded at the trough. I was a little dubious myself, and recently asked John Lewis during a radio interview, “Is Coleman really good?” He answered simply and flatly, “Yes, he is just as good as they ever come.” If you know music — can read score or whatever — all you have to do is listen. This is jazz that uses every musical resource, dissonance, polyrhythm, twelve-tone scales, polytonality, special tone color effects — everything you can find and pull out of four musical instruments.

Coleman himself, as you may know, plays a plastic saxophone with a special fleshy tone color, and he makes it do tricks like Yma Sumac. He pushes it back and forth to the absolute limits of its range, it gulps and scoops and vibrates — Paul Whiteman would have given a lot of money to have had some of these effects in the concert version of “Oh, By Jingo,” but with Coleman it is never corny, because the end in view is an enriched musical experience, not a trick.

Modern jazz is mostly harmony-oriented, most numbers are really toccatas or chaconnes — “Theme and Variations.” Seldom do you get even the rather thin melodic and contrapuntal interest of the best Dixieland.

Ornette Coleman has restored melody to jazz. Even his new drummer, Blackwell, weaves a constantly varying percussion melody around the other instruments. Hayden’s bass is even more melodic, very seldom is it just pedaling, usually something is happening, vital elements are being built into the melodic structure. Besides, like all the others, he pulls all the color out of the instrument he can get. Midway in the first number I suddenly pricked up my ears and looked at his hands. He wasn’t using the conventional positions at all, but crawling up and down the long neck of the bass like a crab. The results were wonderful. I just hope he doesn’t get a permanent bursitis. People always ask, “What is that thing Don Cherry plays?” He tells them it is a Pakistani yeti whistle or some such tale. It is a triple-curled B-flat horn which must require a superhuman head of wind to blow, especially since he plays it with a flat, dry embouchure that makes it sound like imaginary music.

All this is just to let you know, not that I am “in the know,” but that contrary to what you might have heard, nobody in jazz knows better what he is about than these four men. Most important, it isn’t a lot of scrambled Boulez and Monteverdi. It is jazz, funkier far than jazz has been in a long time. You could not only dance to it, you could roll and bump to it. It is even unconsciously “folkloristic.” The whole group is from the Southwest, and behind them you can hear the old bygone banjos and tack pianos, and the first hard moans of country blues — you can even hear modern Texas dance bands, Johnny Ace and Lloyd Price. I have not spent such nights of pure musical joy and excitement since we used to get together at Farwell Taylor’s or Jack Bryant’s cellar joint and work out the first patterns of the new jazz that came at the end of the war. For years Ornette Coleman wandered up and down the Coast and nobody would hire him. If the Hawk or the Workshop doesn’t get him here soon, I’ll rent a hall myself.

[May 8, 1960]



The Execution of Caryl Chessman

Once in a while it may do us good to look back at a catastrophe or crisis from the perspective of a few days of past time.

While I was traveling around the country observing the growth of new unity and purpose in other communities, California was marching, step by step, towards an act of social disintegration of such folly and waste that hardly an informed person believed that it would ever really happen. The victim is dead and his agony, however horrible, was a matter of brief time. Men die far worse deaths every minute. His executioners are ruined and demoralized men. The society which produced this act is now in permanent bitter conflict with itself, a conflict which shall not be resolved until the possibility of at least this form of mass psychosis is done away with forever.

Someone once said that the English Puritans objected to bear-baiting, not because of the pain it caused to the bear, but because of the pleasure it gave to spectators. He was under the impression he had scored a witty point against the Puritans. I am about as far from being a Puritan as can be imagined, but I think this principle is one of the foundations of all social ethics. Vindictiveness, terror, persecution, cruelty often ennoble their victims; they always degrade the society in which they are permitted to flourish. The society which institutionalizes them eventually perishes. They are like voluntary cancers, these institutions, and the day of reckoning is certain, and usually soon. War-crazed Assyria, Revolutionary France of the Terror, Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, how quickly the day of retribution comes! Vindictive false justice gets its own vindication from history.

I am not what is usually called a religious man, but any discussion of capital punishment demands a more or less religious approach, because it is itself a religious rite. It is the ancient rite of the scapegoat, one of the oldest ways in which society atoned for its own sins and assuaged its own guilt. Today we are no longer men of the Late Stone Age, and however much it may once have served the purpose of social hygiene, today it has turned into its opposite. It intensifies all the guilts rampant in society, it identifies every man in the community, not with acts of social good, not with penance and amendment of life, but with a deliberate act of positive evil. This is why, in the historic cases of Dreyfus, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro Boys, the Reichstag Fire Trial, the Moscow Trials, the public cry for blood has mounted, not diminished, as the conviction of the victims’ innocence spread through society. The catechism speaks of a sacrament as an outward visible sign of an inward spiritual reality. The shocking ceremoniousness of capital punishment is the outward visible sign of a kind of anti-sacrament, a real Black Mass, which drives men apart, each to his own guilty vengeance, and which is always there, gnawing at the sources of communion amongst men like a rat, like a cancer.

“It doesn’t hurt, it will be over in a minute,” the warden and the chaplains say. What has this got to do with it? Stalin, crazy with blood, at least killed his victims shamefully, in secret cork-lined cellars. The issue is not the death of a man or a few minutes of agony. We have used science to ensure the ceremoniousness of this rite.

The beginning of the Machine Age gave us the guillotine, electricity gave us Sacco and Vanzetti, biochemistry gave us Caryl Chessman, as physics gave us Hiroshima. Go back and read the eyewitness stories of the 2nd of May. What is shocking is not the gruesome death, far from painless, far from quick, far from silent, but the demonic liturgy, the ritual performance, which involves society directly in responsibility — you and me, personally, in vengeance and the absolute rejection of charity — without which, as was once observed, we are only empty vessels of sounding brass — robots, automatons.

What about our proxies, the men who took our responsibility? As happened once in the Sanhedrin, they have chosen expediency and it has ruined them. There is one man who will never be President or vice president, there is another who will never be governor, there is another who has thrown away the confidence of his race. How easy, we think, it would have been to have acted nobly. How easy to choose the greater ultimate good than the lesser immediate good. Do we? You and I, individually? Which is more important, water rights, elections, conventions, or the power to rise and become, in the words of Anatole France, “a moment in the conscience of mankind”? Over that weekend many people held before the eyes of the Governor the great example of Governor Altgeld, who destroyed himself politically by an act of moral courage and so became one of the few heroes who have ever held public office. Does this present man, now that the great opportunity has passed, turn over and over in his mind a parody of Vachel Lindsay’s greatest lines, “Sleep softly, partridge forgotten, under the red tape”?

What about the living man, the man who committed the act, who was our unbloodied hand? Let us not forget that society does not kill the criminal, some single actual man does it — not for an abstract society, but for you and me separately and severally.

And us, you and me, finally, who choose the easy way out when the way of responsibility and love is too difficult? We are the ones who suffer permanently in gas chambers and on gallows as long as they endure. The victims are soon dead. The most heart-rending words in the chanting of the Passion in the Catholic Church in Holy Week are not “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” but three terrible syllables, in answer to the question, “Shall I let this just man go, or shall I give you the robber Barrabas?” and the people answered, you and I answered, “Barrabas.”

Vengeance is sweeter than justice, and easier to come by, but it is deadly and certain poison.

[May 15, 1960]



The HUAC Riot

Just as I said last week, one thing leads to another. The important thing about the shambles in the City Hall on Friday the 13th is not Communism or anti-Communism, civil liberties preserved or violated, the Constitution or any of its amendments. The important thing is a breakdown in community morality. It is only a miracle that nobody was seriously hurt. How easy it would have been for someone to have been tossed off that balcony or slid down those marble stairs to a broken neck. The guardian angels that protect fools and drunkards, old ladies and children, policemen and college students must have been watching.

Who was to blame? As in most family quarrels, the family itself. People have compared it to the bloody riots of the 1934 and 1936 strikes. Those were probably the last real class conflicts in San Francisco, and their grislier moments were due to the use of police imported from outside the community. Those strikes were big moments in the economic history of San Francisco. They marked the change from a low-wage to a high-wage town, from chaotic to managed labor relations. Except for a lot of enthusiastic propaganda, when contracts come up for re-negotiation, everybody is satisfied with the results.

Employers and men along the waterfront and on the sea are prosperous and sassy and reasonably honest with each other. In certain East Coast ports whole trainloads, not carloads, of automobiles have disappeared into thin air, union officials get thousands of dollars as Christmas gifts, and some cargoes take over twice as long to load there as out here. The borscht and shashlik served at contract time in some quarters is just window dressing — the “class enemies” of 25 years ago get along just fine — in San Francisco.

Last time the Un-American Committee was here they met in the City Hall, and during their brief visit it was impossible to conduct community affairs anywhere around the Civic Center in a normal manner. The administration dropped a few hints that the federal government had a large supply of buildings in San Francisco and perhaps next time they might manage to squeeze in someplace else. There is no question but what the police and sheriff’s office made considerable effort to accommodate both the Un-American Committee and the demonstration they knew would appear. They were stuck with a return engagement they didn’t relish at all, and they tried to make the best of it. Not many city administrations would wire a public address system out to the street to keep the picket lines informed of the proceedings of their picketees.

What went wrong? The boys from KPFA were all over the place with tape recorders. They pulled off one of the greatest jobs of radio reportage I’ve ever heard of and deserve a Pulitzer Prize. The pile of tapes constitute one great mass of evidence. Proving what? First, that the interior of the City Hall under such circumstances is a place with a built-in riot. It is impossible to control a crowd in such a physical situation. Once the crowd becomes unruly, it becomes dangerous to itself, whatever happens. Marble corridors, staircases and balconies make fine settings for Eisenstein’s movies of the Russian Revolution. Picket lines belong in the street.

Furthermore, the City Hall is full of courts in session. This is a decorous activity demanding considerably more quiet than most churches. All crowds are by definition noisy. Frustrated crowds are very noisy indeed. The hearings should have been held in a building with adequate accommodations for the 200 or more college students who wished to attend, not picket. Certainly, the Un-American Committee should have made a representative number of passes available to them, and then, if the rest were to be frustrated, let the frustration take place at the street entrance to the building, not in a narrow corridor.

There is little question but what the police panicked and used undue force; considering the circumstances, not excessively undue force. After all, everybody is still alive, which is more than can be said for many a riot. There are a few simple questions that should place the immediate blame. What happened to Sheriff Carberry’s clearly recorded promise that the crowd would be admitted on a first-come, first-served basis? He did not renege on it, he was out to lunch. Did somebody hit a policeman with his own nightstick, and, if so, have they arrested the right man? Presumably, this will be decided in court. Was the crowd clearly ordered to leave the corridor and go to the street and was every reasonable effort made to get them out before the firehoses were used? Were nightsticks and fists used on persons who offered only passive resistance? There are nonviolent ways of handling nonviolent demonstrators. On the other hand, all amateur followers of Gandhi or Martin Luther King should be taught that “nonviolence” which directly and necessarily provokes a violent response is not nonviolence.

The worst aspect of the whole business is that San Francisco was thrown for a few ugly moments back into a used up past. How pathetic most of the hostile witnesses were! Political and economic mummies dug up from another day, bygone “youth leaders” in early senility, hopeless but perennial candidates for office, “mass leaders” whose name no working man under 50 remembers. In the eyes of hundreds of young people who had never heard of them, they were given their brief and noisy martyrdom. What purpose was served by this? The function of the Un-American Committee is to recommend legislation to Congress. Legislation to suppress Archie Brown? We all know Archie Brown and have managed to cope with him for over 30 years. We do not expect him to take over the City Hall — or, for that matter, the Longshoremen’s Union — at any time in the foreseeable future. And neither, I might add, does Khrushchev.

As a result of the arrests, a few discredited “militant defenders of the workers against the Cossacks of the Bosses” have been able to move in on some of the students. When you are soaking wet, beaten and outraged, this old line of flaming blarney can sound very convincing. It is not dishonest — it is just historically emptied of all meaning and so a dangerous trap.

Today, all over the world, a new responsibility, a new awareness, a new demand for direct and simple solutions of the fouled up, lethal dilemmas that confront mankind, a whole new wonderful awakening is sweeping over the campuses, over youth everywhere. With it have come new methods and new attitudes. Out of these new methods and new attitudes may come something of a better world. It would be a disaster, however small a one, if here in our community, even for a while, this wave of the future was sucked back into the past.

[May 22, 1960]

[For more information on the HUAC riot, see www.notinkansas.us/.]



Signs of a New Youth Revolt

Chesterton once said that ideally the daily newspapers should print every day selections from Shakespeare and Homer and the Bible and other things that were really important and that people should read regularly, and then, once every three months, put out a special supplement with a brief run-down of fires, murders, accidents, infidelities, political events — one compressed tabloid of the trivialities of the quarter.

I see his point. So much nonsense has been going on this month, at home and abroad, that I haven’t been able to get out from under the responsibilities of what we called in grammar school, “current events.” I do wish current events would let up for a while: they seem to be afflicted with some sort of spring madness. I have more important things to write about, I hope.

For one thing, just for the record, last week’s column was written before the case of the City Hall riot was closed for all sensible people by a couple of unbelievable, but I suppose only to be expected, demagogic remarks. The charge that Mayor Christopher yielded to Communist pressure “as might have been expected,” ties up all the loose ends. The plain fact is — the Mayor yielded to pressure from the Un-American Committee and the results were as anticipated. Somebody yielded to the Committee in continuing to refuse to seat all orderly people on a first-come, first-served basis, with results that certainly could have been anticipated. Saturday, when the students once more had control of the situation, nothing could have been more well behaved than their picket line.

The important thing is for everybody to understand what was seeking expression in the City Hall, and what form that expression was striving to take. The great problem in all social relations, but especially in those which involve official bodies, police, politicians, and so forth, is what is known as “cultural lag.” Perhaps by the very nature of their office, such people are usually a little behind the times. I interviewed the chief of police during the 1936 strike, and he and his specialist in the problem kept referring to the strikers as IWWs. Of course, the IWW had, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist ten years before.

Once again, in 1960, Police Chief Cahill talks about “Communist agitators.” There is no doubt but what the Communists turned out in force. Stalinists and anti-Stalinists and all the sects of the Trotskyites were there. Altogether they may have numbered thirty people — and they were so conspicuously thirty people who could not understand what was happening. They agitated the other people only in the sense of annoying them. They were museum pieces, as musty and out of date as any typical Cotton Belt Congressman would be in San Francisco.

These are new times, with new people, seeking new objectives by new methods. Something has been going on that, as so often before, the old folks have missed. For years after the last war everybody agreed that the youth of the land had lost their spunk. They were more conservative than their elders. They were interested only in security, a good job, a home in the suburbs. They never raised their voices or answered back. Those that took to the arts wrote flaccid poetry with all the rhymes in the right places, painted nice abstract pictures, wrote novels like bad imitations of Elizabeth Goudge and John Gould Cozzens. “The age,” said their professors, “of experiment and revolt is over.” Everybody was cool.

I was the first critic in the country to point out that under this cool surface of conformity there was growing up a whole little world of total dis-comformity. There was a small but significant group of young writers who rejected every value of the society in which they lived. They were so “far out” nobody knew they were there.

Well, once I had pointed them out, it didn’t take the publishers, the picture magazines, television, the movies, long to discover and exploit them. As I have said so many times since, they made ideal television “rebels.” In the words of a famous book and movie, there were “rebels without a cause.” There is no sponsor they would possibly offend. Furthermore, their values, or anti-values if you will, were just those of their “enemies,” the commercial culture hucksters, turned wrong side out, and their amusements, booze, drugs and chaotic sexuality, fast cars and hi-fi records, were identical.

A snob is a person who tries to imitate the manners of the class he imagines above himself. A Bohemian is an under- or unemployed intellectual who gives up even the necessities of the poor so that he can enjoy some of the luxuries of the rich.

The point is — a revolt of snobs is not going to make the world a better place to live; it would make it worse, and it didn’t take the youth of the land very long to find that out. Today, on campuses of all the colleges and universities of the country, if you want to label yourself a slightly dotty hick from a country high school, just break out in beard and sandals or sweatshirt and stretch pants and start talking jive.

I have come back from a long tour of American colleges and I have never seen more activity in my life, more concern, more responsibility. This is a wave of radicalism in the true sense of the word; a nationwide effort among large numbers of young people to get at the roots of the sickness and trouble and confusion that beset our time, to cut through the lies and expose the terrible dangers.

It is not political in the ordinary sense at all. The regular political parties don’t even know it is there; the old political sects of the Left and Right, the Communists or the so-called New Conservatives, completely misconceive it. They think these new students are something like themselves and that they can convert them or at least use them. Nothing could be less true.

What is taking place is a great personal awakening. It is not the work of any organization of any kind, let alone any outside or national organization. What these young people are demanding is the direct application of personal morality to the great questions of mankind. Mankind is, after all, persons, almost two billion of them. The problems facing us today are all moral problems, really: peace, the bomb, racial equality, the freedom and development of the former colonial peoples.

The last fifteen years have shown that the old political formulas cannot solve these problems. Capitalism, socialism, imperialism, free enterprise, even civilization — these big terms do not fit the case. What men need today is magnanimity and courage, operating in freedom, and nobody knows it better than the students who are speaking up on the campuses of America and England, and Korea, and Turkey, and maybe, let’s hope, of Russia.

[May 29, 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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