Opinions were like kittens, I was giving them away.
Category: History Nerd
The outlet of Nostos Nic: Historian and Archivist, to include entertaining diaries, uniquely “informative” newspaper articles, tidbits of local San Francisco knowledge, and whatever else strikes her fancy.
I recently unboxed my grandmother’s set of World Book Encyclopedia–the same set my uncles used to research school assignments. Fathom that: a time before the internet. Grandma also purchased supplemental year books, 1965 through 1984 (the year I was born), and they’re fascinating in their brevity. An entire year reduced to a series ofessays on international and domestic affairs written by journalists, professors, diplomats…astronauts.
I love this set of encyclopedias, although I didn’t need to inherit them. I already took the set I grew up using when we sold my childhood home, and DID NOT need a second clogging up valuable shelf space in my San Francisco apartment. But it was either that or the dumpster, so lo and behold–my bedroom has not one but TWO complete yet different sets of encyclopedias. Like grandmother like mother like daughter.
They say history repeats itself, but this isn’t wholly true. The pendulum of culture swings towards extremes with reliable regularity, but the faces and places and the events they unleash are always unique if not tainted by similar archetypes. We live in uncommon, unsettling times but I find solace in history knowing that we’ve been annihilated (in every sense of that word) before only to rebuild the world anew. Given the state of the world, I’m particularly interested to see how people assessed their uncommon time. It helps to know people before me also tried to make sense of nonsense, so I thought it would be a “fun” to start some #tbt posts in which I extract passages from Grandma’s World Books that resonate with the now.
This is from an essay by James R. Reston called “Focus on The Nation.” I recommend listening to The Barr Brothers’ new album, Queens of the Breakers, while mulling this over.
“‘This is a day,” Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare John W. Gardner said in October, ‘of dissent and divisiveness. Everyone speaks with unbridled anger in behalf of his point of view or his party or his people. More and more, hostility and venom are the hallmarks of any conversation on the affairs of the nation.
There used to be only a few chronically angry people in our national life. Today all seem caught up in mutual recriminations–Negro and white, rich and poor, conservative and liberal, dove and hawk, Democrat and Republican, labor and management, North and South, young and old.’
What produced this mood of self questioning and self-doubt? Was it as bad as it sounded? And why did these symptoms of something like a nervous breakdown suddenly seem so much more serious in 1967? These were the questions of the year.”
50 years ago, The Doors were touring in support of the eponymous album that cemented their position amongst rock royalty. The band’s charismatic frontman, Jim Morrison, was undeniably talented and salaciously unpredictable with sex appeal that translated well beyond his early demise. I was so enthralled with him as a pubescent teen that I hung a gigantic charcoal portrait of the lizard king above my bed. He seemed so serpentine and cool, an erratic artist singularly dedicated to the chaos of craft. Oh, how that attraction foreshadowed so many of my adult choices.
As we, residents of the future, well know that chaos drove him to an early grave yet Jim Morrison is still one of the most recognizable musicians in the world. The Doors made great music that epitomized their era–an era that people love to remember–and Morrison made for quite the photogenic sixties poster child. But the truth is that History remembers zealots best, not necessarily the best in any chose field, because zealots have a higher tendency to burn brightest just before they burn out and everyone remembers an explosion.
The cool thing about being a student and chronicler of History is getting to re-examine things you’ve always loved under a new lens. Over the last six months, I’ve been curating and creating digital content for the California History Society’s commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love. CHS just rolled out a special website last month in partnership with San Francisco Travel, and this is by far and away the most relevant, trippy, mind-blowing historical commemorative in which I’ve ever had the pleasure to participate. One series of articles I’ve been working on is titled “Who Saw the Summer of Love,” and it seeks to dispel the misunderstanding that San Francisco was inundated by a cohesive hoard of hippies; in fact, there were many different groups with their own, sometimes competing and often paralleling, agendas. There were political activists, psychedelic artists, rock and rollers, Hells Angels outlaws, environmentalists, communally conscious merchants and anarchists, and more.
In researching a forthcoming article on the Beat poets that formed a bridge between 1950s bohemianism and 1960s counterculture, I learned something about Jim Morrison that I never saw coming. Jim Morrison learned how to be cool from celebrated Beat poet Michael McClure. McClure was probably a large reason why The Doors attended the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park on January 14, 1967–the event that set the tone for 1967, and directly led to the Summer of Love. He also encouraged Morrison’s poetry, and even got it published. And if the picture above doesn’t prove to you that Morrison absorbed McClure’s cool, then the photograph below should do it. This shows McClure standing next to Bob Dylan, with Beat messiah Allen Ginsberg to Dylan’s left, outside City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco’s North Beach. Bob Dylan rightfully worshipped the Beats as the elder statesmen of cool, and he emulated their phonetic cadences in song and their style of dress. He’s also the one who staged this photo shoot, hoping to use it as an album cover. While Ginsberg followed Dylan around like a puppy–a puppy hoping to get laid–McClure kept his cool and that dynamic can totally be read in this legendary snapshot.
In November of last year I had the honor of hearing McClure read from a new volume of his poetry, Mephistos and Other Poems, at City Lights Books. He’s in his 80s now and age is most definitely taking its toll. He walked with a cane and the help of his people, and I’m not so sure it registered when I told him he is one of the greatest influences on my life–that he is the reason this San Francisco historian traveled north to become a San Franciscan. However, he was 100% McClure when reading his own poems: cool, calm, effortlessly suave and sensual as only a poet can be. Gives a girl hope for the future of her mind. And as I looked around the audience that night, I caught the eye of a handsome young fellow wearing a shearling-lined denim jacket and an old fisherman’s cap who stood above a sea of graying spectacles.
Gives a girl hope for the future of her generation.
The Women At Point Sur (1927): A Piece of the Carmel Literary Colony
As a friend of the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library (a mouthful, I know), I was recently granted first access to their AMAZING annual book sale. Just imagine the scene I found upon entering a huge warehouse at Fort Mason in San Francisco: rows and rows of tables holding old books, older books—books in every size, color, and affinity organized by topic, laid out on tabletops and in jumbled boxes stacked underneath said tabletops. Hardcovers $3, Paperbacks $1. My bookish companion and I quickly grabbed a shopping cart and got down to business.
We sifted, we sorted, we soon realized we were in over our heads. As my stack of must-haves grew, I began to notice my selections were based as much on aesthetics as they were on content, and most of them included a personalized bookplate or inscription on the front page. I love a good book, but nothing gets this archivist-historian like traceable provenance. As I mulled over this perversion when I got home and rifled through my haul, a serialized component to Nostos Algos was born: The Secret Lives of Books.
Think about how much you love certain books, and how loved books become a part of your development. Reading is an intensely personal pursuit, and book ownership is a way to display our journeys as readers; hence why #shelfie is such a popular exercise in social media-ing. My love of history stems from my love of human beings, both famous and still unfound, because everyone has a story to tell. By finding its provenance, a book becomes that much more special to me as I can visualize the hands that once held its spine, the bookshelf on which it once reserved a space, and the lives it must have touched. Inevitably, I always wonder about the sad circumstances in which it was tossed into my home. Forgotten, discarded, no longer a treasured piece of someone’s literary pie. But that’s just my melancholy run amok, and I promise this won’t be a series of sad stories!
As the inaugural post in this series, I’m delving into this copy of The Women At Point Sur that I found for sale on the website viaLibri while conducting research for another project. This book was given by its author, Robinson Jeffers, to his good friends Mattie and James Hopper shortly after its publication in 1927; the front page reads: “Inscribed for James Hopper and Mattie Hopper, / with some memories of friendship that dates / from our first year in Carmel. / With affectionate good wishes, / Robinson Jeffers. / Tor House, Carmel, California / July, 1927.” I stumbled across this book while researching Mattie’s father, Joseph A. Leonard—a noted architect and real estate developer in San Francisco and Alameda from the 1890s through the 1920s. Leonard had quite the life, but he was trumped by his daughter when she married the one-of-a-kind James Marie Hopper in 1901.
James Marie Hopper would have been hard-pressed to write a character more dashing than James Marie Hopper. Better known as Jimmy, Hopper was a British subject born in Paris, France and raised in Oakland, California. He attended U.C. Berkeley, where he was a star quarterback on the 1898 football team and marginally less well-known as “the writer of a somewhat violent editorial” at the college newspaper. He passed the California State Bar after graduation, but would never set foot inside a courtroom as a lawyer; instead, he became a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.
He married Mattie at the Leonard family home on Ellis Street. The couple then sojourned to the Philippines, where they opened schools and worked as teachers, and Jimmy used this experience as material to write his first book, Caybigan. After two years, the Hoppers returned to San Francisco where Jimmy settled into life as a beat writer for the San Francisco Call who also penned exposés for S.S. McClure’s popular muckraking publications; before long, he was a boisterous fixture of the Bohemian set. When the City was devastated by the 1906 earthquake and fire, Hopper wrote “Restless Horses”—a beloved piece of contemporary earthquake coverage that ran in multiple publications and earned him enough money to thereafter focus his energy on writing fiction. But the earthquake also compelled the Hoppers to jump ship, and they left their city in ruins for the tranquility of Monterey.
They chose to live in an area known as The Village “where a little group of artists and writers…built their shacks among the pine woods, there to practice la vie de Bohème.” The recognized founder of this literary colony was George Sterling, a handsome and athletic Piedmont poet who settled in The Village in 1905 with his wife, Carrie, because she wanted to get her husband away from the hard-partying Bohemians in the City (ahem, Jack London). They were soon joined by playwright Mary Austin and her neighbors, the Hoppers, who welcomed a never-ending parade of artists such as Sinclair Upton, a young Sinclair Lewis, and Jack London.
Everyone lived in cottages that varied in size and shape, but most were built by hand and all had large living rooms with prominent fireplaces—perfect for late night conversation. Residents of The Village were young, hip, artistic, and loved the outdoors almost as much as they loved parties. Mary Austin described the pace of life: “The dunes glistened white with violet shadows, and in warm hollows, between live oaks, the wine of light had mellowed undisturbed a thousand years.” Artists worked in the morning and spent their afternoons communing with nature and one another, drinking tea beside driftwood fires, roasting mussels by moonlight, and always talking “ambrosial, unquotable talk.” This was a place where “there was beauty and strangeness,” a place filled with people dedicated to Art and Life and Work—seemingly in that order. This was a place and a community I would give my left arm to visit today.
Unfortunately, this idyllic community proved not to be sugar and spice and everything nice. George Sterling opted to leave Carmel after his wife and fellow bohemian Nora May French both took poison and died in 1914 (as would Sterling in 1926), and the Hopper’s moved into the Sterling cottage. Around the same time, Robinson Jeffers and his wife, Una, first laid eyes on the site that would later become their home.
Jeffers was the son of a strict Presbyterian minister and biblical scholar who received his early education in Germany, Switzerland, and Pennsylvania. His father moved the family to Long Beach, California in 1903, and Jeffers enrolled in what was then the Presbyterian Occidental College before attending USC. Out from under his father’s repressively religious hand for the first time, Jeffers hit the bottle hard and fraternized with many young ladies as he fell into the haze of love. Until he met a married graduate student named Una Call Kuster in 1906, and the two began an affair which was eventually discovered (as are all torrid affairs) and made public by her attorney husband in 1912. Not surprisingly, the Kusters divorced in 1913, and Una married Robinson one day later. They intended to lay low in England, but decided on Carmel due to the outbreak of war in Europe.
Hopper began working as a war correspondent overseas with World War I gaining momentum in Europe; as always, Mattie was by his side and the couple lived in France—leaving their children with Mattie’s parents in San Francisco. When the war ended, the Hoppers returned to find their seaside Eden had been formally incorporated as Carmel-by-the Sea. At the same time, the Jeffers’ broke ground on an epic masonry home that came to be known as Tor House. In this, the home that was partially built with his own hands, Robinson would raise a family and craft most of his work while Una acted as gatekeeper, answering mail and dealing with other mundane details in their life.
Judging by our book’s inscription, the Jeffers’ and the Hoppers developed a friendship around 1919, although it’s hard to imagine how Robinson Jeffers and Jimmy Hopper became bosom buddies. Hopper was practically a golden god who wrote sweeping descriptions of the Carmel landscape like a romanticized Steinbeck, and his wife threw one hell of a party. As construction of Tor House was nearing completion in March of 1919, the Hoppers were hosting a “Gypsy supper dance” at their home. Mattie transformed her living room by covering the floor with straw, layering the floor and walls with blankets, and lighting the entire room with colored lanterns to turn the space into a Gypsy camp. Guests wore costumes and were entertained by a live orchestra while eating sweet and savory goodies the local paper deemed too good to detail. As a local townsman, Tal Josselyn, observed: “Yer got to hand it to the Hoppers when it comes to givin’ sweet doin’s.”
By contrast, Jeffers was a solitary animal living “largely within himself,” and much of his work dealt with unsavory subjects such as rape, incest, and other topics that explored “human introversion.” Una Jeffers, on the other hand, was often described as gregarious so perhaps it wasn’t the men who first became fast friends, but rather the women. Regardless of how the friendship started, it became a real and lasting one throughout the 1920s when Robinson presented James and Mattie with his newest literary achievement–the story of a minister driven mad by his conflicting desires. Not exactly the cheeriest gift in the world, but a thoughtful writer-to-writer gift nonetheless.
Knowing what we now do about the people behind the inscription, we can only imagine what this edition of The Women At Point Sur has seen. I envision the book gifted beside a warm stone hearth as the two couples enjoyed a jug of wine and a plate of oysters. I see it then finding a home beside other treasured volumes on a rustic shelf beside that same hearth. I imagine it endured untold plumes of cigarette smoke as discussions drifted late into the night. It saw children grow up, parties turn sour, arguments, laughter, and life in all its ugly beauty.
Sadly, the 1930s proved unkind to the Hoppers and Jeffers’. Robinson’s work began to dip in esteem, and the patriotism of this obtuse writer was questioned at a time when America turned paranoid as it tumbled towards World War II. The Hoppers were injured in a bus accident that may have contributed to a tragically early death for Mattie in 1935. Hopper remarried a year later, and the fate of this book–how it ended up for sale by strangers to strangers–is ultimately unknown. After his death in 1956, Jimmy Hopper was remembered by his old friend Robinson Jeffers as “the man who used to stand and talk at his garden sea gate, who loved the cold ocean and used to swim from Carmel Point to Point Lobos” so often that a rock off Carmel Beach was named in his honor.
The secret life of this book is one I envy: given by, owned by, and loved by writers in artful seclusion. Whatever the reason the Hopper children decided to let this volume go, it lived a good life under the Hopper roof. Hopefully it’s second life is also one to envy.
For those of you who don’t know, I’m a Board Member for and the Registrar and Collections Manager at the Western Neighborhoods Project (WNP)–a non-profit organization that preserves and interprets the history of San Francisco’s outside lands. Think the Richmond and Sunset Districts, Saint Francis Wood, Ocean Beach, etc.. And, in case your were wondering: yes, the term “Outside Lands” embodies more than just a music festival, and we were using the name first. But I digress…
We at the WNP have been fortunate to receive a very large collection of historic images from a private collector that depict the western neighborhoods and other areas of the City as it was seen by photographers who made a living on their views as well as your average Joes who liked to fiddle with their cameras in their free time. Some of the images have been seen before, but many more are rare glimpses of the landscape stolen from the lenses of San Franciscans just like you and me…if we had lived in the Dawn Before Internet.
We are so proud to bring these photographs to you all, and we look forward to bringing you much much more in the future. So please stay tuned, continue to check our website for updates and events, and keep in touch–we’re always happy to accomodate guests, volunteers, and generous benefactors (emphasis on generous benefactors!) at our Geary office.
A coworker recently suggested I incorporate more “steampunk librarian” content into Nostos Algos. I don’t know if I’m onboard with the usage of “steampunk”, since that’s a very distinct cultural subset, or “librarian”, since I don’t work in a library, but the man has a point. My Instagram is riddled with archives gold, but Nostos Algos is strangely devoid of the same and I mean to fix that now. In tossing around ideas, I found it difficult to pick a starting point. I encounter awesome stories every day as a consequence of the job, so how can I pick just one and run with it? Eventually, I decided to lead with a post that seeks to explain my evolution as a self-proclaimed History Nerd.
If I’m honest, I am an archivist because I landed an internship class in my final year of undergrad, and that internship turned into contract work that turned into full-time work. No master career plan, just an American History major giddy to find a field that directly utilized my undergrad degree. My major, however, chose me–the teenager that preferred an antique store to a shopping mall that grew into the young lady more at ease with geriatrics than those her own age. I am an archivist by chance, by choice, and also for the same reason I read so many biographies–an acute interest in people.
This interest has fermented with age. The longer I live, the more defined mortality becomes–fostering a fascination with the limitlessness of individual people who work against the physical limitations of their bodies, as well as the governing bodies that build their civilizations. No matter the epoch they hail from–the 1880s, the 1920s, the 1970s, or now–men and women dream big, accomplish much, fail often, and always die. This has become abundantly clear in my eight years as an archives technician, during which time I’ve processed materials ranging from Civil War discharge papers to records from the Sixth U.S. Army Environmental Office. Often I’m given a box filled with mementos that visually and textually form the arch of an entire life. Sometimes it’s just a box of discarded records from an abandoned office. In either scenario, however, the human element always shines through: in obvious ways, like an informal photograph showing a grieving graveside widower, but also in less obvious ways, like a defiantly lewd doodle on the title page of an official report.
It’s easy to think of the past as past, and as people who lived in those times as static, unrelatable figures. I believe this is a problem of presentation and perception rather than reality. This problem begins in the monotone way history is taught in lower levels of school, which, by necessity, moves quickly through centuries of stories and rarely delves deeply into individuals save for key figures who accomplished monumental things, be them good or bad. Perception is also affected by the technological constraints of the times that captured moments in black and white, moments that seem so stiff and remote in stark contrast to our digital age of colored animation; when you add differences in dress and custom it seems almost impossible to cross the historical divide. The most crucial component of misperception is an institutional bias that prioritizes the exceptional over the every day.
In their quest to acquire the best of mankind–the quintessential Warhol, that first edition Hemingway, MacArthur’s West Point cadet uniform, or Lincoln’s last handwritten speech–many museums have become palaces that honor little else besides perfection, achievement, the heights of humanity. Preserving and showcasing elite objects is a vital component to museum work, but for me and many others in the trenches, the items that excite us most are the ones that should never have survived. Items like movie tickets, catalogs, receipts, pressed flowers in a Nobody’s diary, or the likeness of President Nixon made of binary numbers and printed out by a bored computer technician in the 1970s. One military historian I know was beside himself with glee to see a pair of standard issue Women’s Army Corps socks and nylon stockings from World War II. The things that are used and discarded without a second thought by regular Joes and Janes become the most rare simply because they were the most unwanted–unwanted by those who used them, as well as the institutions pledged to protect our history.
In my time as an archivist for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, I’ve cataloged the personal effects of some of the most historically significant men of the 20th-century. Men like Brigadier General Frederick Funston–the local lady killer who killed it in the Spanish-American War, “saved” San Francisco from the devastation of the 1906 earthquake and fire (no big deal), and is the namesake of what was once known as 13th Avenue in the Inner Sunset. I’ve unfolded his pants, and preserved his wife’s family photograph album. Men like General Joseph Stilwell, commander of the China-Burma-India Theater of World War II who lost his battle with cancer while in command of the Sixth Army at the Presidio of San Francisco. I’ve cataloged his favorite rocking chair, which is covered in plush pink fabric. Men like Medal of Honor winner Colonel John C. Gresham, the officer who chose protect native women and children in a ravine while Custer slaughtered their husbands and fathers at Wounded Knee during the Indian Wars. I’ve hung his coat with care.
These were great men, but not the men whose effects I’m most honored to preserve. Call it an affection for the underdog, call it curiosity in the lesser known, call it what you want: I gravitate to voices with less volume. If you look at the etymology of the word history, you’ll see it originated as the Greek “histor”, and referred to a learned or wise man; it then evolved to “historia” and embodied narrative history, meaning “finding out”. That encapsulates my approach to history: each day I find out about a different person, place or thing, and my love of that daily discovery comes from the commonalities I always discover. People are funny, situations are awkward, and the history that those people and situations write is equally as entertaining. When I find something particularly weird and wonderful–like a late 19th-century Cavalry officer who wrote science fiction as a hobby–that captures the quirkiness of history, I jump for joy and instantly want to share it.
In conceiving this post, I inevitably listened to Bob Dylan–especially his album The Times They Are A-Changin’. Bob Dylan also loved history, and sourced many of the story lines in his early songs directly from old newspaper articles. A line from the last song on the album, “Restless Farewell”, struck me as particularly relevant to the way I mine history for moments that have slipped between the dusty cracks of the sanctioned historical narrative: “If the arrow is straight, and the point is slick it can pierce through dust no matter how thick.”
Somewhere a story is waiting, sticking out from under the dust, and I feel compelled to free it. So tune in to Nostos Algos for future gems, and be sure to follow me (@nostosnic) on Instagram and Twitter or search #historynerd for my latest nerdy posts.
While cruising across the Bay Bridge to San Ramon about a month ago, I caught a Michael Krasny interview with Marcus Shelby on NPR. Marcus Shelby–teacher, composer, bassist–is the heartbeat of the Bay Area contemporary jazz community. His deep-rooted understanding of African-American history is seen through his performance of songs such as “Harriet Tubman” and “Port Chicago,” which he uses as an exercise of cultural remembrance. The show aired on Duke Ellington’s birthday, and, after discussing the Duke’s influence, Shelby found himself awash in much deserved praise as Krasny opened the phone lines and caller after caller paid their respects. Then a caller asked him for guidance. This woman, whose name escapes me, had always appreciated, but found it hard to like, jazz, and she asked Shelby for advice on learning to love the art he had so skillfully mastered. Shelby immediately recommended Kind of Blue by Miles Davis.
Kind of Blue is a special kind of album–as approachable as it is quixotic, as revelatory as it is confounding. It might be difficult for modern listeners to understand the revolutionary concepts burned into the album’s grooves since we’re so far removed from its August 1959 debut. Since then, this type of jazz has been emulated the world over, and is now an accepted part of the American unconscious, present in our lives as music in movies and cartoons, and as the background to conversations in an elevator. But in 1959, jazz–particularly the form Davis pioneered here–was the cool subterranean art form that attracted hipsters like Jack Kerouac as well as traditional music mavens. Eventually it would transform popular culture in tandem with other revolutionary movements that prioritized spontaneity and emphasized the newness of roads less traveled.
In studying art, I’m consistently impressed with how much preparation is involved in the construction of spontaneity. It’s not a false concept, but spontaneity does require skillful and thoughtful craftsmanship in order to result in artistic genius. Before hitting the studio for his Kind of Blue sessions, Miles Davis had been experimenting with “modal” jazz which emphasized soloists over a background of one or two scales, or “modes”, instead of what jazz typically emphasized–busy chord progressions. With a few compositional sketches in hand, he gathered a group of young innovators to round out his crew: John Coltrane as tenor saxophonist, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley as alto saxophonist, Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on the kit.
As this group of musicians entered the studio, Davis laid out the parameters: the focus would be on first takes. Beginning with the opening track, the tone is set for the album as Chambers takes the lead while Evans keeps us engaged with unorthodox chords from which the rest of the music takes its cue. This is a bold choice, leading with the bassist and refusing to follow a linear path, one that validates the song’s title, “So What”–a musical call to arms in its brash repudiation of the jazz norm, and a sign of what’s to follow. “Freddie Freeloader,” actually the first track recorded during the 1959 sessions, momentously extends the swinging vibe of the first track and beautifully showcases Kelly’s contribution to Davis’ sextet. For me, the album is weighted in the center with “Blue in Green”, a song aching with simmering mood. Often described as “meditative” by jazz pundits and music theorists, the cycle of chords for this song was hashed out years before entering the studio when Davis slipped Bill Evans a piece of paper. Having written the musical equivalent for “G minor” and “A augmented” on the note, he told Evans, “See what you can do with this.” “Blue in Green” was born. This song is noirified, sultry and conjures so many clichés: dimly lit boudoirs in black and white, smoke curling around a billowing curtain, and the butt of a cigarette falling, wasted, onto a dampened empty sidewalk as its user turns away into the night.
As with all game-changing works, Kind of Blue struck a chord with an audience ripe for its message. Postwar America was searching for an identity in the 1950s as the country was entering the Cold War. Living under the perpetual threat of annihilation, much of American culture proverbially stuck its head in the sand. Families proliferated, moved to the suburbs in search of a Leave-It-To-Beaver lifestyle, and focused on the acquisition of goods and services pushed by advertising agencies in magazines and on television. There was, however, a subset of the population that remained disaffected by the Second World War–so much so that they found it impossible to distract themselves with taglines, products and the promise of a glittering American life.
Individuals in the subset I speak of were young, and they were Beat. To quote the author Jack Kerouac:
“The Beat Generation…was a vision that we had, John Clellon Holmes and I, and Allen Ginsberg…of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way–a vision gleaned from the way we had heard the word ‘beat’ spoken on streetcorners on Times Square and in the Village, in other cities in the downtown city night of postwar America–beat, meaning down and out but full of intense conviction…it meant characters of a special spirituality who didn’t gang up but were solitary Bartlebies staring out the dead wall window of our civilization–the subterranean heroes who’d finally turned from the ‘freedom’ machine of the West and were taking drugs, digging bop, having flashes of insight, experiencing the ‘derangement of the senses,’ talking strange, being poor and glad, prophesying a new style for American culture, a new style (we thought), a new incantation…”
Kerouac was a sensory addict, a lover of music who frequented hot jazz clubs in New York’s Harlem and San Francisco’s Fillmore Districts. He would write perhaps the best known Beat novel, and for this reason he became “King of the Beats”–the unofficial Beat mascot as identified by the mainstream press. This Beat novel was liberally autobiographical, called On The Road, and provided insight into a subterranean community that shunned traditional society in searching for more authentic experiences; it emphasized spontaneity and a new mode of literary thought, just like Davis’ Kind of Blue. Published in 1957, it follows the misadventures of Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac) and the classic anti-hero Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) as they mine for meaning in the American miles between San Francisco and New York City. The pair immerse themselves in the urban bowels of these two cities, where a simmering counterculture is on the brink of a full-blown boil in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
When Viking finally found the cojones to publish this epic novel, Kerouac’s importance as a postwar author was immediately evident not just for the content of his narrative prose but also for his method of delivery. As explained in his quote above, the concept of “Beat” was a communal creation based on existing concepts so, in that respect, the source of the novel’s message did’t make his literary voice unique. What did elevate his prose above that of his peers’ was a narrative style that Allen Ginsberg later termed “spontaneous bop prosody.” This style was heavily influenced by his Canuck heritage that blended French with English, his second language, but was most evidently the product of converting jazz cadences into phonetic words and complex sentence structures. The tempo of Kerouac’s writing embodied the frenetic force behind his perpetual travels–the movements that found him the figures who would inspire his content. As jazz was and is peculiarly American, his passion for the genre and its integration into his writing lent his words a unique force that paired perfectly with the rusted red, white, and blue landscape he so painstakingly painted, as well as the avant-garde characters he knew intimately and immortalized in fiction.
Just like the music of Miles Davis, Kerouac’s work was also predicated upon a “first take” ethos underwritten by a dedication to craft and persistent preparation. The problem with Kerouac scholarship is that his interviews were generally misleading, since he often drank rotgut booze to calm his nerves and enjoyed playing with his own mythology. Later interviews with the people he knew are also circumspect since they’re clearly self-interested and memory is a fuzzy, moving target–one that might be even fuzzier for a group of known drug users and jovial alcoholics. What we do know is that Kerouac told reporters he wrote On the Road in a three-week, benzydrine-driven “ball” on a single scroll of teletype; this news spread quickly, and remains a beloved creation story. Unfortunately for admirers of this myth, his official archive reveals multiple revisions of the famous novel that include wildly different characters and plot points written on traditional sheets of typewriter paper with his trusty Underwood or scrawled in his own hand. In fact, Kerouac spent most of his life obsessively developing his craft as he agonized over word choice, sentence construction, and character development. His “three-week ball” was actually the product of a lifetime of practice.
In addition, the novel would never have happened without a little help from his friends. Although a consummate devotee to the tedious work of writing, Kerouac was still searching for his literary voice which later combined a Wolfean narrative scope with the jazz constructs that dominated his journals long before he felt comfortable including them in published work. After years of approaching fiction traditionally by emulating the writers he most admired (Thomas Wolf, Ferdinand Celine), he unlocked the key to his success through an exercise called “sketching.” He came to this approach on the recommendation of Ed White, a friend who told Jack “sketch in the street like a painter, but with words” as a means to cure his stagnating depression. This allowed Kerouac to transcribe his “interior music” and gave him, as Joyce Johnson points out in The Voice Is All, “a way to write passages in which he could seize the peak moment of initial inspiration and ride it through to the end, without interrupting the flow of imagery.” This dissolved the “barrier between poetry and prose” that had frustrated him, and when Lucien Carr suggested Kerouac substitute a teletype roll for traditional sheets of paper, well, the last barrier to On the Road‘s writing was removed.
This understanding of events is directly contradicted by man historians, biographers and cultural critics point to a letter Cassady wrote to Kerouac in 1950 as the spark for On the Road in its current form. I believe that gives Kerouac short shrift and over-emphasizes Cassady’s influence on his writing. Sketching enabled Kerouac to release himself from “fiction and fear,” and helped to focus him on writing the truth with Neal Cassady, his muse, at the core of his entropic story. Writing Neal as he was instead of fictionalizing a Kerouac-Cassady hybrid for the main character, as he did in unpublished versions of novel, was the breakthrough he had resisted as a young writer struggling against an instinct to write from life when he believed the best writing was pure fiction. In the character of Dean Moriarty, Kerouac captured the reckless spontaneity used by Beat writers as an antidote to the numbness felt by a generation wasted in war, either dead on the battlefield or dying inside an over-regulated postwar society. Cassady may have been the essence of spontaneity, but it was the intrinsic freedom of Kerouac’s jazz-informed prose that enabled 1960s fee love and expression, and has continued to resonate with readers in successive generations.
I am one such member of those successive generations who found Kerouac as a teenager, and have loved him ever since. I read On the Road in high school on the recommendation of an English teacher, David Soltis, who was probably the greatest influence on my early aspirations to be a writer. I was instantly hooked, seduced by the realm of possibility inherent in Kerouac’s prose and drunk on his words like only a sheltered teen can be. I purchased every book on him or by him, and also collected recordings of Kerouac because to hear the author read his own words aloud beautifully reinforces the lyricism behind his craft. Although it would take me years to understand the import of Kerouac’s contribution to American culture, I immediately felt a connection with Kerouac’s restlessness. My teenage lust for this dead poet compelled me to wear a beret, write poetry that was bad but then got better, and reroute my family vacation to Lowell, Massachusetts so I could see Kerouac’s hometown and visit his grave.
This lust also drove me to jazz–straight into the arms of Miles Davis and his Kind of Blue, an album that continues to inspire me even while On the Road has, well, been relegated to role of a First Love. The novel’s lyricism and Kerouac’s devotion to craft continue to influence me as a writer and as an illuminated hipster hell-bent on preserving the magic of our disappearing American landscape. But as an adult woman I just can’t ignore the presence of sexism in his work (a topic for an entirely new article) or the perverse relationship between Kerouac and his mother–a relationship which ultimately formed his opinion of women as wives/mothers meant to be barefoot, pregnant, and subject to his will. This sexism taints his work form me as a 21st-century woman and writer in command of her own voice, but I still credit Kerouac’s role in my ongoing development as an artist, and, perhaps, even in my choice of men (also a topic for an entirely new article).
The Kerouac poster that hung next to my bed (next to the obligatory Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt posters) as a teen is long gone, but my vinyl copy of Kind of Blue is still a vital part of my record collection. And I’m not alone in this reverence; Kind of Blue continues to be the best-selling jazz record of all time, and is cited by many current artists–musical or otherwise–as an influence. First editions of On the Road sell for anywhere between $5,000 and $25,000, and it continues to be a contemporary pop culture presence with a movie adaptation that premiered in 2012. Teenagers will always want to read/listen to/wear something that is innately rebellious, and Kerouac will always fit that bill. Despite his many unsavory characteristics, I find myself reflecting on the last paragraph of On the Road time and time again–the one that explains his vision of America, his understanding of life:
“So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it…and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing od, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.”
Kerouac lived by one credo: the voice is all. And when an evening of writing begins to fade away, in that moment just before the coming of complete night when I’m finishing articles like this or maybe jotting down a poem (or two), I think of Jack Kerouac, I think of the power of his prose and his ornery addiction to his craft, I think of Jack Kerouac.
In October of 1940, while a sergeant, Francis Abell was assigned to duty with a mobile recruiting station that operated out of a trailer equipped with cooking and sleeping facilities for three grown men. These men toured Oakland, wooing young fellows and fillies into the service just in time for World War II.
A veteran of World War II and the Korean War, Francis was buried in the San Francisco National Cemetery after his death on December 27th, 1982.