ALTERNATIVE ROUTES AND BRIEF CHRONICLES
Beats, Bohemians And Intellectuals
The cover blurb concludes: “What is revealed by these essays is a vibrant and vital world of American literature and culture”, and for once a blurb isn’t misleading, doesn’t exaggerate and, along with the title, gives a generally fair and accurate idea of this fine book’s contents. It’s a substantial collection, long overdue, of Burns’s perceptive appreciations and explorations of mainly literary Americana, published in a wide range of UK magazines and journals between 1967 and 1998.
John Freeman, in his useful Introduction, expects that “these essays will constitute for many readers, as they did for me, an invitation to a voyage of discovery.” I’d echo his comments: the voyage takes us from the 1920s, reassessing various unfairly neglected figures like Robert McAlmon, Kenneth Fearing and Edwin Rolfe, through to one of the last Beat survivors, Gary Snyder. Years ago Snyder himself commented that “Anything that speaks truth is a protest if what’s going on around it is not true.” Now, after the not so distant, aggressively paranoid era of Senator McCarthy, various self-righteous American oiligarchs, G.W. Bush & Co., seem to be steering us all (doubtless in the latest SUVs) toward mass destruction. And such crusading cohorts may corrupt both the world landscape and the English language in the dismal process. We inhabitants of our Anglophone worlds would prefer the saving graces of justice and honesty; decent alternative visions for humanity; lives and letters not based upon greed or lies; creative dissent offering constructive criticism and radical irreverence.
So, as Allen Ginsberg tells Burns in a 1990 interview, “you always need an avant-garde, whether in politics or literature, otherwise nothing happens, nothing changes”. Yet to live outside the accepted social, academic and artistic conventions of one’s time, avant-gardists – whether labelled or derided as Beat, bohemian, egghead, outsider, and so on – often pay a heavy price. They meet more than a fair share of the final cost of what’s perceived as their subversion, enviably unearned freedom, and disengagement from or contempt for, established morality. Burns like Ginsberg knows this, although his humane democratic sympathies are generally with his flawed, fallible and often unfashionable subjects. He’s a very astute and particular critic, one not fooled by self-indulgence, shoddy work, hype or vaingloriousness.
His encyclopaedic breadth of reference and reading, refreshing scepticism and jargon-free approach are rare enough. As Freeman points out however, Burns is also a first-rate jazz critic, cultural historian, former magazine editor and, not least, a considerable if undervalued poet. A prolific and accessible poet, what’s more, whose own narratives are singularly entertaining and not obscure: such adjectives tend to arouse suspicion among our current literati. Hence Burns, in McEnroe’s admonitory phrase,“cannot be serious”. And yet he is – constantly indicating and making useful connections between politics and literature, art and life.
This isn’t of course to suggest that Burns lacks humour, or that he overstates his case for the various neglected talents and sadly blighted or abbreviated lives and careers examined in his book. Try, for instance, his 1994 essay on that absolute original Richard ‘Lord’ Buckley (1906-60). Burns’s 1963 piece about Buckley in The Guardian was the first UK article I ever read extolling this hilariously eccentric performer beloved of Jack Kerouac and Charlie Parker – and of Al Capone, who declared that Buckley was the only man who could make him laugh. In my student days I managed to get hold of Hiparama of the Classics, published by Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, but the text gave only an approximate idea of what to expect: Buckley had to be heard to be believed and savoured… Burns explains why, and looks at Buckley’s recorded legacy, placing him rightly in context alongside that other proto-hipster Slim Gaillard. Without Buckley, the whole line of alternative or committed comedy and political satire, from Lenny Bruce onward, might not have evolved in the way it has. If the 19th century French poet and absinthe-addict Charles Cros is now credited with inventing the comic monologue, it was Buckley’s mid-20th century imaginative rants and torrential jazz-based verbal improvisations which took the form into another dimension. Buckley’s erratic life and career, far from being easy or comical, is indeed a cautionary tale, like so many others in this book. Buckley’s cabaret card was withdrawn by the authorities – as also happened to Billie Holiday, Bird and Bruce – and he died prematurely burnt-out. “As much of a busted heart as anything else” said Seymour Krim, another whose sad, truncated life is sympathetically discussed by Burns. Buckley once told his friend the author Harold Humes, “it’s the greedheads that will destroy this country, the greedheads.” Humes added: “And he was right. Any other kind of head gets busted.”
Much of this collection, in fact, deals with courage and dissent. Burns writes well also about Lew Welch, last in line of that sardonic, distinctive American trio whose poetry, especially, reflected personalities unusually sharp and enigmatic, and all of whom bafflingly disappeared – Ambrose ‘bitter’ Bierce (1914), Weldon Kees (1955) and Welch (1971). Welch, Jack Kerouac’s friend, deserves reprinting and a greater measure of recognition than he received. Burns does him justice here, and possibly more than justice to lesser lights like Seymour Krim and Isaac Rosenfeld, whose abruptly curtailed lives left more evidence of promise than achievement. There are excellent pieces on various New York Jewish writers, fine critics like Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe, and novelists such as Henry Roth – still best known for his classic of the immigrant experience, Call It Sleep (1934).
Burns even persuades me to give the very different, and on the surface far less congenial, Erskine Caldwell another try. Caldwell, autodidact, and a rather anti-intellectual Southerner, when questioned about the violence in his work, could reply: “I’ve been an unwilling witness at a number of lynchings”. His most famous novels, written in the 1930s, were the hugely-selling and then outspoken Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre but on Caldwell’s death in 1987, The Times berated him for “a stream of sensationalist, semi-pornographic potboilers”. Burns sees more to Caldwell than this, pointing out that the celebrated editor Maxwell Perkins spotted him early, while estimable critics like Otis Ferguson later praised him too. Also unexpectedly, Caldwell himself described how he was first published in the avant-garde Parisian expatriates’ magazine transition. It seems he was a prolific professional who retained leftwing sympathies throughout a relatively long life, producing also several worthwhile autobiographical books and over 150 short stories. Quite a few of the latter Burns highly recommends, and his 1996 essay included here argues convincingly for the reassessment of an author rather too easily dismissed.
It’s pleasing too that he appropriately revalues the Kenneths – Fearing, Patchen and Rexroth – placing the latter, whom he doesn’t specifically write about here, as a distinct and vital influence on himself and others, and one who actually overlaps all three categories of the book’s title. In any case, Jim Burns is always informative and mostly generous and enthusiastic. His commonsense, no bullshit approach should be cherished. He never shows off, and any readers following up a previously unfamiliar writer mentioned here should find Burns an invariably shrewd and invaluable guide.
If I have a quibble, it’s that thirteen or so pages on the short-lived and all too little little magazines Migrant and Satis seem perhaps over-generous: the longevity, circulation and importance of other UK journals focussing on US ‘outsider’ literature (Jim Burns’s own Palantir and Peter Finch’s Second Aeon, for example) were far more considerable.
But Burns is a diffident and modest man who has always kept his distance from literary feuding and self-promotion. Nottingham Trent University is therefore to be congratulated on publishing this bumper selection of his criticism. There’s a serviceable Index, only very few typos; additional biographical and bibliographical material is provided often at the end of sections, and the book is most reader-friendly. In fact this reader can hardly wait for a second volume on other BB&I talents forgotten, misplaced or displaced, now unread or misread. Given Burns’s longtime interest in many of the above-mentioned, a second such collection could also prove a delight to read. John Freeman’s Introduction does hint tantalisingly that NTU might be contemplating a selection of Burns’s voluminous writings on jazz. That too would be more than welcome.
(first published in London Magazine, April/May 2003)