"...an important point here is that the historical avant-garde - dada, Surrealism etc - was deeply political and their reception was mostly seen in political terms. This is even true in my favorite area of study, the Finland Swedish Modernists, who were accused of being foreign/German instigators and Bolsheviks (even though Björling fought on the side of the anti-communist Whites during the Finnish Civil War)."
For the blockbuster special Esquire issue on the 1950s (June 1983), Frank Conroy contributed a piece called "America in a Trance." Here is a passage:
The Beats were just beginning, Kerouac, et al., and we greeted them with a certain amount of suspicion, convinced that art was not that easy. Our standards were rather high, I think. The New Critics had filled us with an almost religious awe of language. We read Leavis, Edmund Wilson, and Eliot as well, taking it all very seriously, worrying over every little point as if Truth and Beauty hung in the balance. The conservatism that colored so much of our experience did not evaporate when we dealt with literature. We defended literary art as if it were a castle under siege, in imminent danger of being destroyed by the vulgarians. In every college or university I knew anything about the most hated course was Social Science, as much a result of the incredibly rotten prose of the text as it was of our disinterest in things social.... We were neat, very neat, and sloppiness of any kind irritated us.
Most of this will strike readers of this blog as unremarkable since so many chroniclers of and generalizers about "the fifties" set alleged Beat easiness against the rigors demanded by New Criticism. And the New Critics' hatred of Social Science seems to have persuaded aspiring young literati to join the crusade against sociological (and social-psychological) interpretation. And yet, when one steps even further back, one sees that the most influential social science - epitomized by Daniel Bell's End of Ideology - formed a great political alliance with New Critical formalism. In the former case, we're talking about conservatives (of Ransom's and Tate's and Donald Davidson's stripe) coming on as centrists; in the latter case - that of sociologists like Bell (shown at right) - we're talking about left-liberals moving rightward to the post-ideological center. In that context (and perhaps only that context) Conroy's recollection of being pro-New Criticism and anti-Social Science seems odd, and only points up the passion (I would say it comes from an exhaustion with political interpretation) with which the young generationally-unselfconscious writers of that day embraced aesthetics. But--again--this embrace was a function of an urge to gain distance from the merge of aesthetics and politics that had gotten so many in an earlier self-conscious generation into trouble.
The result is the advocacy of "neat" and a distrust of "sloppy." Yet "neat" derived from victory after a very sloppy battle defending the castle against vulgarians. Think about how truly neat that could be.
For a while I've been reading the blog New Jersey as an Impossible Object written by Joe Milutis. William Carlos Williams' beloved Paterson becomes the basis for all kinds of interesting projects and thought. That very idea is enough to interest me, but there's always more of interest too. Joe's been on the road the past few months and he's been stopping at various places to speak with people about Paterson. He visited the Kelly Writers House a few weeks back where, in my third-floor office, Joe and Randall Couch and Jessica Lowenthal and I chatted about Paterson from every which way.
Now Joe has made a blog entry of this visit, and has organized sound recordings of parts of the conversation. Please go here and have a listen.
One thing the anticommunist antimodernists had right was that the poetic form of radical modernism was political; Filreis calls this the “cold war politics of poetic form.” A 1953 article by Donald Davidson targets parataxis in poetry—the juxtaposition of two images or units of sense that lack any immediately apparent connection—for its “treacherous political irresponsibility in the act of eschewing relations of cause and effect while the related elements [are] left to stand in unordered, unsubordinated lists.” Just a few years earlier, Robert Hillyer, in the widely circulated Saturday Review of Literature, assailed modernism in poetry as an “illusion of independent thought” and a “propaganda” machine of “the powers of darkness.” Writing in the Bulletin of the Poetry Society of America, Hillyer accused modernists of “a cold conformity of intellectualism” that eliminated “diversity” and insisted on “a critical censorship, in its effects like that of the Kremlin.”
Who is it that put Arthur Rimbaud and Jim Morrison together in a book? It will probably surprise you to know that its author took his academic degrees in the early 1930s. He was Wallace Fowlie, a serious popularizer of surrealism. For much more about Fowlie, take a look at my 1960 blog.
By the way, as many people know, The Doors took their name from an Aldous Huxley book called The Doors of Perception and that Huxley had taken his title from a line in William Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell": "If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite."