New York City
Somewhere just before the publication of the fourth book in Robert Caro's planned five-volume biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, it became clear that Caro had emerged as the only superstar biographer in the world. The ecstatic level of anticipation, attention and appreciation for The Passage of Power was not grounded so much in fascination with Lyndon B. Johnson as in fascination with Robert A. Caro.
This is not because Lyndon B. Johnson was not fascinating; he is incredibly so. It's because we're all aware that we wouldn't know how fascinating Lyndon Johnson was if we hadn't read Caro's earlier volumes, The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, Master Of The Senate, three sharp works of analytic interpretation that transform biography into something new, a tour de force of structured political opinion writing.
The masterpiece of the bunch remains the third volume, Master of the Senate, the story of LBJ's engineering of the historic 1957 Civil Rights Bill, which broke a terrible political stalemate that had lingered since the American Civil War. The big breakthrough occurs at the end of the book, following a long beginning sequence about the United States Senate's history of domination by Confederate-state obstructionists. In the middle of the book, Lyndon Johnson is painted at his aggressive worst, sucking up shamelessly to older politicians and destroying the career of one earnest do-gooder whose plans to improve energy infrastructure in poor sections of the country disturbed the business prospects of Johnson's Texas sponsors. But this is all a wind-up to the book's glorious ending, in which Johnson manipulates every section of the US Senate for a goal that turned out, miraculously, to be close to his heart: breaking the South's stranglehold on civil rights legislation just enough to help usher in a new era of racial integration.
Exactly sixty years ago, in May 1952, 81-year-old Zen Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki began teaching a regular course at Columbia University. 39-year-old modernist composer John Cage attended a few of his lectures, and this is the electric point of contact that starts everything buzzing in Nothing and Everything - The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant Garde: 1942 - 1962, a new book by Ellen Pearlman.
Both men were trailblazers. Suzuki is remembered today as a premier ambassador for Eastern religion in the West, and as the author of the influential books Introduction to Zen Buddhism and Essays in Zen Buddhism. But, Ellen Pearlman reveals in the first chapter of Nothing and Everything, Suzuki had not been considered a very "successful" Buddhist as a young Zen student in Japan. He found a far greater calling as a highly visible foreigner in the West than he could have ever found if he'd stayed in Japan, since his idiosyncratic personality rubbed many Zen masters the wrong way. It was Suzuki's ability to translate key Asian texts into English that gave him a foothold in the United States of America, and he eagerly grabbed the opportunity to pursue his own unique vision of a global Buddhist awakening.
John Cage had already earned a reputation as a rule-breaker in the field of avant-garde music by the time he attended the elderly Suzuki's lectures at Columbia, but it wasn't until after he was exposed to Zen Buddhism (from Suzuki and several other sources) that he was able to conceive of his signature work, 4'33, which thrilled and outraged the world of classical music with its unspeakable simplicity. The composition indicated that the performer should sit at a piano (or any other instrument) and maintain four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.
It's impossible to encapsulate modern, avant-garde and experimental arts within any formula, but Nothing and Everything's purpose is to follow a single thread of excitement among several 20th century innovators within American art, music, theater and literary scenes that was caused by a rising awareness of traditional Buddhist religion and philosophy. The first to follow John Cage were the Dada-inspired innovators of the Fluxus movement in the early 1960s, Alison Knowles, Jackson Mac Low, Num June Paik, Toshi Ichiyanagi and Yoko Ono (who, beyond the scope of this book, would eventually collaborate with John Lennon to present crystalline expressions of Fluxus ideas to the entire world, and become its most famous practitioner).
1. This looks to be pretty special:
The Tenant’s Association of the Chelsea Hotel presents a rare screening of Andy Warhol’s 1966 masterpiece, Chelsea Girls, introduced by poet and Warhol superstar Rene Ricard.
Rene Ricard is one of the few surviving members of the cast, and was a close friend and associate of Warhol from 1965 until the artist’s death in 1987. In a rare public appearance, Rene Ricard will discuss the making of the film and offer reflections on Warhol’s larger career as painter, author, publisher and wit.
Chelsea Girls was shot in various rooms in the Hotel Chelsea (and the Warhol Factory) over three weeks in the summer of 1966. Rene Ricard lived in the hotel at the time, and he remains a current resident.
Appearing in the film, amongst others, are Nico, Ondine, Brigid Berlin, International Velvet, Mario Montez, Ingrid Superstar, and Marie Menken, with music by the Velvet Underground. Filmed at a cost of $3,000.00 The film grossed $130,000.00 in its first five months of its release, making it perhaps the most successful underground film of all time It has since earned cult status as one of the most stunning and provocative cultural documents of the 1960s, and is considered by many to be Warhol’s filmic masterpiece.
Filmed in black and white and color and shown on two screens simultaneously, the film runs three hours and fifteen minutes.
At the premiere of the film at Jonas Mekas' Cinematheque, the film sequences were listed on the program accompanied by fake room numbers at the Chelsea Hotel. These had to be removed, however, when the Chelsea Hotel threatened legal action.
Today the residents of the Chelsea Hotel are fighting to retain and preserve one of the great cultural landmarks of New York City. The Chelsea Hotel is not only a historic landmarked building, but also a living national treasure, and a vital part of the intellectual and artistic heritage of New York. Residents have incurred great expense fighting evictions and what they consider to be the illegal demolition of over a hundred rooms in the historic hotel.
3. The PEN World Voices Festival is about to begin, and has a fantastic lineup.
5. I had a very negative initial reaction to the news that a team of transcendentalist video game designers from the University of Southern California has created an electronic interactive version of Thoreau's Walden (still and always my favorite book in the world). But the preview visible at the link above really doesn't look so bad. And while it's true that playing a video game is nothing like living in a cabin in the woods for two years -- well, come to think of it, reading a book is nothing like living in a cabin in the woods for two years either. So I guess I won't judge this project until I get to see it for myself.
On a recent very cold day, I dropped by Zuccotti Park, the once-rollicking site of Occupy Wall Street during its first joyous phase (before the city shut the gathering down). I wasn't surprised to find only a couple of isolated protestors hanging around on this freezing day, though I was surprised to find many cops still on the job, as if they were needed.
Despite the considerable chill in the air, everybody involved with Occupy knows that the movement has never stopped growing, and has not lost momentum. Instead, it has reacted to the loss of its original New York site by adopting an "occupy everywhere" approach. "It's still happening all over the city," said a guy tending a giveaway pile of pamphlets and Occupy buttons and a mostly empty donation jar near where I'd stopped to gaze upon the desolate plaza. "I know," I told him. I had just come from the atrium at 60 Wall Street, where the working group sessions were as active as ever. I picked up some pamphlets from his stack, including one particularly good one: Anarchism by Andrej Grubacic and the influential political philosopher and economic historian David Graeber, whose Debt: The First 5,000 Years I've been meaning to read. The pamphlet is a slightly less daunting Graeber volume, but no less relevant. David Graeber, one of the original personalities behind the original Wall Street occupation nearly six months ago, sees "anarchism" as the best word to describe the sensibility of the movement, and this pamphlet explains why. He and Grubacic make it clear in the opening pages that the goals they are fighting for will only grow organically, and gradually:
Increasing numbers of revolutionaries have begun to recognize that "the revolution" is not going to come as some great apocalyptic moment, the storming of some global equivalent of the Winter Palace, but a very long process that has been going on for most of human history (even if it has, like most things, come to accelerate of late), full of strategies of flight and evasion as much as dramatic confrontations, and which will never -- indeed, most anarchists feel, should never -- come to a definitive conclusion.
A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post titled In Gatsby's Tracks: Locating the Valley of Ashes in a 1924 Photo, detailing my search for some exact locales described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. Using the novel's text and a zoomable historical map of Queens, New York, I was able to conclude that some vivid scenes described in the book took place at the triangle where a railroad and a street converge just east of the Van Wyck Expressway and south of the town of Flushing, Queens. George and Myrtle Wilson's auto garage would have stood at this spot, and the haunting sign for eye doctor T. J. Eckleberg would have been visible at this spot too.
This blog post has become one of the most popular pages on Literary Kicks, and since I now realize that many people share my fascination with Fitzgerald's "valley of ashes" I'd like to show you the photos I took while I was researching this locale, which I'd never bothered to put up before.
1. A favorite baseball player of mine died last week.
2. Here's a fun literary site that's been making the rounds: police sketches based on descriptions of fictional characters, by Brian Joseph Davis. I'm particularly impressed by his Emma Bovary and Humbert Humbert, but I sense subconscious influence in the Daisy Buchanan: this sketch does not have the requisite bright ecstatic smile, and looks exactly like Mia Farrow in the movie.
3. Katy Perry says her song Firework was directly inspired by Jack Kerouac's On The Road. I still don't like the song but this helps a little.
(Late last year, writer Mike Norris and artist David Richardson imagined the members of J. D. Salinger's fictional Glass family, a follow-up to their earlier exploration of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Here's their take on Salinger's most famous novel. -- Levi)
If you were like me, you were a big fan of J.D. Salinger in high school. A big fan. Not only read The Catcher in the Rye, but followed that with Nine Stories, and the Glass family chronicles. Talked about the stories with your friends, contemplated the idiosyncrasies of Holden Caulfield and Seymour Glass. Went around with these characters running through your head, perhaps not quite knowing what to make of them.
Then, you moved on. I headed off to college, and I put Salinger behind me. I advanced to the Beats and other writers, and except when reading about Salinger’s death in 2010, I didn’t think much about this famously reclusive writer.
But recently I started re-reading his slim oeuvre.
Salinger’s early life parallels that of Holden Caulfield. He grew up in Manhattan, and there he attended the McBurney School. He showed promise in drama, wrote for the school newspaper, and, like Holden, managed the fencing team. Nevertheless, McBurney expelled Salinger because of his failing grades. He then went to Valley Forge Military Academy near Philadelphia, from which he graduated in 1936. It was at Valley Forge that he started writing stories.
I considered going dark today to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (along with Boing Boing, Reddit and Wikipedia), but I decided not to for two reasons. First, I don't think little sites like Litkicks will make much impact at all by going dark. You've got to be pretty huge to pull something like this off effectively. Second, my favorite President has already signaled that he will veto the bad bill, so I'll save my protest for the next good cause. And here are some literary links, many of which seem to revolve around the classics:
1. We were with her a quarter of an hour before Eliz. & Louisa, hot from Mrs Baskerville's Shop, walked in; -- they were soon followed by the Carriage, & another five minutes brought Mr Moore himself, just returned from his morn'g ride. Well! -- & what do I think of Mr Moore? -- I will not pretend in one meeting to dislike him, whatever Mary may say; but I can honestly assure her that I saw nothing in him to admire. -- His manners, as you have always said, are gentlemanlike -- but by no means winning. Most of the letters in the new collection by the genius of Steventon, England, Jane Austen, are not this juicy, but the mundanity of the writer's daily routine is also valuable to read about, and the sickness-to-death letters towards the end are quietly, tragically moving. Jane Austen's Letters, the Fourth Edition, edited by Deirdre Le Faye.
2. James Franco, who was pretty good as Allen Ginsberg in Howl, has made another film based on the life of a 20th Century poet: The Broken Tower, about Hart Crane. Slate isn't impressed, but I'll give it a chance.
3. Ezra Pound's daughter Mary De Rachewitz is trying to make sense of her father's fascist past while protesting an Italian neo-fascist party that has attempted to adopt his name.
(Last year's big counterculture memoir was "Just Kids" by Patti Smith, and 2012's might turn out to be "Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side" by Ed Sanders, an American writer, musician, happener and activist I've long admired. I'm proud to present this new interview with Ed Sanders by Beat scholar and librarian Alan Bisbort, and I'm looking forward to reading this memoir myself. -- Levi)
Ed Sanders has been a cultural force in America for the past half century. Arguably best known for his satirical 1960s rock band The Fugs and his perennially wide-selling 1971 book The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion, Sanders's appeal to readers is also grounded in his deep Beat Generation roots. As a high school senior in Missouri, he read Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and then, after a failed attempt at a college education in Columbia, Missouri, hitchhiked east to see what all the Beat commotion was about.
Sanders was founder of a legendary literary “scrounge lounge”, the Peace Eye Bookstore, remembered as a Greenwich Village version of San Francisco's City Lights Books during the hippie era; editor of the seminal Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts; publisher of works by Charles Olson and Ezra Pound; underground filmmaker (Amphetamine Head); prose author (Tales of Beatnik Glory); poet (America: A History in Verse); antiwar and anti-nuclear activist; he also seems to have known anyone and everyone affiliated with the American underground.
In his new book, Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side, Sanders ties all of his earliest threads—up to 1970—together in the most engagingly idiosyncratic memoir of the new year. Helpfully subtitled “An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture on the Lower East Side,” Fug You comes at you from all sides of this complex, rugged individual who appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1967, emerging from splatters of Pollock-like paint as “a leader of the Other Culture.”
Still placing his shoulder to the cultural wheel, Sanders, 72, is today the strongest living link between the Beat Generation, the hippies and all other underground currents that have trickled along the countercultural pipeline since then. Sadly, his partner in Fug crimes, the irreplaceable Tuli Kupferberg, died in 2010 after 86 years of stirring up trouble and mirth.
On November 17, 2011 I spoke with Sanders by phone at his home in Woodstock, N.Y., where he lives with Miriam Sanders, his wife of more than 50 years.
Alan: The events you describe in the new memoir are so rich in detail that many of the chapters and sometimes even individual paragraphs would be worthy of entire books. Did it seem this complex at the time or is this true only in retrospect? In other words, did you just get up every morning and do all these things on instinct and now look back and you can’t believe all the ties to all the things and people?
Ed: I was very young, had a lot of energy, didn’t need to sleep a lot. Plus, I really believed that I was helping to make fundamental changes in the ways the economy works, in spiritual and personal freedom. Even though there were all those deaths and assassinations, the countercultural activities fueled the idea that there was a lot of hope throughout these years up to the early 1970s, which is where I stopped the book.
I took a gang of about twelve family members on a field trip to Occupy Wall Street this Thanksgiving weekend. First, we visited the desolate remains of the famous tent city at Zuccotti Park that was raided by New York City police a week and a half ago.
The Occupy Wall Street leadership (yes, there is leadership -- they just keep away from the spotlight) has abandoned Zuccotti Park to the police. This was a smart decision, because the park itself was never meant to be more than a temporary home, and a territory battle can only be a distraction from the movement's important messages about the economy. So, Zuccotti has been left to a raggedy bunch of drop-by protesters, tourists, homeless people, persistent old-school lefties, sign-carriers, guitar players and sad-looking solo drummers. The police have surrounded the entire plaza with a continuous metal barricade fence, and I led my family through a checkpoint into the center of the concrete plaza. It was nothing like the beautiful, crowded, energetic scene I'd witnessed only two weeks before. We caught a few weak "mic check" attempts that went nowhere, and stopped to listen in on one large sitting session, an outreach/messaging conversation group, but the session barely managed to keep itself going.
A drum-banging protest march finally emerged outside the barricades around 5:45 pm on Friday evening, and my family enjoyed joining it for a noisy stroll around Zuccotti. The six teenagers in our group participated with a healthy mix of irony and enthusiasm, and together we presented three generations of support for the movement. Then we left Zuccotti Park, because I hoped to find better action in the quiet atrium at 60 Wall Street, one of many locations where small, focused groups of protesters have been holding meetings to make decisions about the future direction of the Occupy action.
We found a much more lively scene at 60 Wall than at Zuccotti Park. At least five working groups were meeting this Friday evening. The Occupy discussion groups are fully open, and my gang of tourists was able to feel welcome as we split up to listen in on various working groups. Some forbidding new signs have been put up by the lease-holders of this building, the gargoyle institution Duetsche Bank, warning protesters not to push their luck. But the mood in the atrium appeared to be as friendly and positive on Thanksgiving weekend as it had been the previous time I'd come around, before the police crackdown.