While a lot- some might say too much- has been written about poet, novelists and music of the 1960s, little attention has been given to the critics of that era, particularly non-academic types who wrote for small magazines, be they literary, cultural or political, and who, to grasp the parlance of the era, might be termed underground critics, however much of a misnomer that term might be. Some of these critics would be highly influential both at the time and in years to come, while others would be influential for a time only to fade from sight. Certainly a number of such critics during that era would influence me when it came to what I listened to, saw and read.
For instance, when it came to films, I avidly devoured articles by Jonas Mekas and Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice, the former writing about underground films, and whose taste and passion prompted me to exhibit films in San Francisco a few years later; while the latter offered an appreciation of a range of Hollywood and European films, not to mention auteur criticism. Naturally, I was also a keen reader of Film Culture, in which I read not only the aforementioned writers, but sought out the likes of P. Adams Sitney, Ken Kelman and John Fles. It was through Fles, whom I heard lecture in Los Angeles, and whose midnight screenings at the Cinema Theater I attended, that I first heard about L.A. artists like Wallace Berman and George Hermes. Then there was Manny Farber's film criticism in the Nation, though it would be some years before I would appreciate the subtlety of his exquisite writing. When it came to music, mainly jazz, I never missed articles by LeRoi Jones, Nat Hentoff, Martin Williams, Frank Kofsky and AB Spellman, in Down Beat, the Village Voice or wherever else I could find them. All, in varying degrees, were supporters of the new music- Ornette, Trane, Shepp, Cecil Taylor- and, aside perhaps from Williams, articulate about the relationship between the music and the politics from which it, to a large extent, derived. It was a breath of fresh air to also discover a couple years later publications from John Sinclair and his associates at Detroit's Artist Workshop, like Change, Work, Wh'ere and Guerrilla (for which I'd become west coast editor) which, in its concentration on jazz and blues, combined poetry, criticism and articles regarding the social change that appeared to be imminent.
So hungry was I for intelligent criticism that I often found myself at the local liquor store on Haight Street to read the right-wing National Review, edited at the time by the venomous William Buckley just because it published articles by Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner. I probably read the NR as furtively as others read the porn magazines of which the liquor store kept a generous supply.
One of my favourite magazines of that era, and one which you could not have purchased at that liquor store, was Kulchur, which came out of New York, and lasted for twenty issues, from Spring, 1960 to Winter, 1965. The magazine included two writers- Gilbert Sorrentino and Donald Phelps- who, at the time, would rank amongst my favourite critics, and whose work stands up remarkably well today. Phelps contributed to the first nine issues of the magazine, while Sorrentino appeared in issues 3 to 16. Sorrentino would also edit the magazine, as would LeRoi Jones, Lita Hornick, Joel Oppenheimer, John Fles and Marc Schleifer. Both Phelps and Sorrentino contributed a range of intelligent articles and reviews which served ammunition in any number of debates and discussions with various academic literary honchos. What's more, both were political in their outlook, though it would be difficult to pinpoint what those politics were. Were they leftists, libertarians, anarchists, or what exactly? I had no idea, and still don't.
Phelps and Sorrentino were both born in 1929 in Brooklyn. Both attended Brooklyn College. Presumably they knew each, though Phelps claims in a 1974 essay on Sorrentino in Vort, that he first encountered Sorrentino on the pages of Kulchur. Sorrentino, who a couple years earlier had edited Neon magazine with Selby, would eventually become known for his own brand of meta-fiction, the apogee of which was probably Mulligan's Stew. However, I've always been partial to his criticism, as well as to his very first novel, the incredible The Sky Changes, a road trip love-triangle novel that I read in a single sitting sometime around 1967. I also remember with fondness his articles on Hubert Selby, including Last Exit to Brooklyn, which he championed and helped edit. His piece "The Art of Hubert Selby" can be found in his exemplary book of criticism, Something Said (published by North Point Press in 1984, and subsequently reprinted by Dalkey Archives).
These days Donald Phelps' criticism has been pretty much forgotten. Now he's primarily known as a historian of comic books, not graphic novels but traditional comics, and the author of Reading the Funnies (Fantagraphics, 2001), which is well worth checking out. But his Covering Ground- essays for now (Croton Press, 1969) with a typically sparse but evocative drawing of Phelps by Fielding Dawson, another Kulchur contributor, remains, for me at any rate, a lost classic and deserves republication.
For me, Phelps was always the ultimate hipster critic: sharp, somewhat incomprehensible, passionate, and appreciative of all the writers I liked. Or maybe it was a case of my liking the writers he liked. Like Sorrentino, he covered a range of subjects, mainly literary but also political and cultural. In the first issue of Kulchur, he contributed an essay, The Muck School, about what was then euphemistically called sick comedy. While his controversial article A Second Look at Pornography in Kulchur 3, was an extended piece that placed the subject in the context of its time as well as place. In future issues Phelps also contributed articles on Dashiell Hammett, Edward Dorn, Douglas Woolf, LeRoi Jones, Peter Taylor, William Eastlake, the police and the Warren court, satire and Jules Feiffer, the films of Allan Dwan, William Buckley, the Prayers Laws and church and state, I.B. Singer, Lil Abner, Doc Savage and the Pulps, the self-immolation by a Quaker and a Catholic as protests against the war in Vietnam, capital punishment, Westbrook Pegler, Spencer Tracy, Anthony Mann, film critic Robert Warshaw, Philip Roth's Letting Go, and Pinocchio As well as appearing in Kulchur, Phelps, during the 1960s, contributed to The Nation, The National Review, Wivenhoe Park Review, The Second Coming, For Now and Rouge (where he wrote an excellent essay on Manny Farber). After that, the trail gradually grows cold. On the other hand, one can still find blog posts by Phelps at the Comics Journal site, which includes articles on Calder Willingham's End As a Man and Preston Sturges' forgotten film The Power and the Glory.
In Phelps' essay on Sorrentino, the future comic book pundit would refer to Sorrentino's poetry as reactionary and conservative, though he gives such terms a positive spin:
|Inspector Maigret and Sam Spade|
"It was a source of his basic, however abrasive strength as a critic, I think, that Sorrentino was both reactionary and, in the profoundest and most mobile sense, conservative: something but rarely encountered, liberal suppositions to the contrary; one reason being, that genuine conservatives, at least as much as genuine liberals, prize their spiritual autonomy and fluency. The impulse toward containment and sustenance of intangibles — toward, in a word, conservatism — produced, I daresay, much of the stertorous haranguing with which he laid upon targets of, sometimes, elephantine obviousness in the veldt-country of Kulchurmagazine. But it also evidently induced and projected a kind of foursquare unapologetic arrogance, and reinforcing it a reverence, which could be both refreshing and heartening; and were so, oftener and oftener among the increasingly salamander-like critiques which Kulchur multiplied with its final change of editors."