Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Underground Critics of the 1960s

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.

Donald Phelps

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.

Gilbert Sorrentino
As for Sorrentino, during  the 1960s though known primarily as a poet, published articles in Kulchur on Ron Loewinsohn, Charles Olson, Andrew Hoyem, Pablo Neruda, The Moderns anthology, and pamphlets by poets Aimé Cesare, Paul Blackburn, Clayton Eshleman, Fram Samperi, David Antin, Richard Brautigan, and Joe Brainard. He would go on to write about Denise Levertov in The Nation,  Marianne Moore in  The Park, 1968, the Reagan west in Guerrilla, Jim Brodey and Black Mountain writers in Poetry, and, later, in other publications he would produce articles on the likes of Michael McClure, Lorine Niedecker, David Antin, Louis Zukofsky Jack Spicer and Ross Macdonald.

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
"The most imposingly and movingly distinctive feature of Sorrentino’s work was always, in some of that word’s best and many of its worst senses, its reactionaries... Sorrentino’s block-like essays, often pummelingly indignant, occasionally hortatory (as, his study of the then-little-known Hubert Selby’s fiction) seemed founded on some promontory of sheer affirmation, massive response to particular occasion. In his writing, this reaction was predicated on neither barriers denied, nor barriers created; but rather, on fervent and visceral response against barriers which, correctly or not, he seemed to feel were prescribed and impassible: existing, therefore, only to be identified and either hailed or denounced — usually, the latter. Every such barrier represented, for Sorrentino, an implacable issue of taste, or candor, or esthetic integrity.

"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." 

Which makes one wonder what Phelps' politics actually were. After all, Phelps admires Sorrentino's poetry, his criticism and his first novel, The Sky Changes, though he's no fan of subsequent novels like Steelworks and Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. I have no problem with that. But I keep wondering whether  Phelps' politics might have changed over the years. And what was the story, if there was one, regarding his transformation from cultural critic to comic historian and pundit. Of course, that's what was always intriguing about Phelps. He was always elusive when it came to pinning down his politics, or figuring out exactly where he was coming from. The same could be said, to a slightly lesser degree, of Sorrentino, who, having emerged from the working class, appeared to be on the left, but used language in such a way as to make it hard to define just where on the left he stood. On the other hand, this was the early 1960s, when identification with political parties or, for that matter, popular front politics, seemed overly prosaic and part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Looking back, it seems as though the likes of Phelps and Sorrentino were writing from a world that no longer exists, one in which  ideas mattered, and the reader had to put in a small amount of work to understand and appreciate what was on offer.  But in the function and drift of early 1960s America, it was an oasis in the midst of a cultural and class-ridden desert.


Tosh Berman said...

Excellent commentary!

Anonymous said...

Nice treatment of two authors important to me in my youth. I was turned on to them by Ivan at The Book Project in Seattle. Steelwork is like the 60s in amber; a 60s without hippies, revolution or drugs--a hard scrabble, it's my neighborhood 60s. A Phelps gave heft to comics and Hammett from live's other side.

Woody Haut said...

Chas, see if don't already have it, see if you can track down a copy of Phelps' Covering Ground. Why no one has reprinted that book is beyond me.

Anonymous said...

Anyone interested in reviewing a new ebook of essays about 1960s politics and culture. Please contact changingtimespress.com for a review copy.