An Autobiographical Novel is shaped by no overriding thematic message. It is simply the record of the development of one young man in middle America during the first quarter of the twentieth century, with emphasis on the years between 1919 and 1927. “I suppose that’s the point of an autobiography,” Rexroth says. “It shows the pattern of events that have made you what you are.” That he was a very precocious, highly independent young man was crucial to his development, for these traits opened him to the burst of experimentation in art and politics that characterized the new bohemia of those years. His youthful exuberance (he was only fifteen years old when he set out on his own) led him to a varied, almost motley group of people who became over the years his teachers, protectors, benefactors, and friends.
Art, literature, politics, people—these four elements, along with science and religion, constitute the historical and autobiographical “theme” of this “novel.” Rexroth maintains that he was not “a self-educated antiorthodox precocity,” but all the evidence indicates that that is exactly what he was. He refused to attend high school classes, though he would attend lectures and concerts at the University of Chicago and he sat in, uninvited, on classes at the art museum. He was an omnivorous reader, devouring history, science, philosophy, and literature in great chunks, reading everything that was mentioned even in passing by people whom he respected for their ideas.
His favorite school, he says, was the Washington Park Bug Club. It met beside one of the lagoons in the park, where “every night until midnight could be heard passionate exponents of every variety of human lunacy.” Druids, Anthroposophists, self-anointed Roman Catholic archbishops, and people in communication with extraterrestrials spoke their minds alongside more “orthodox” dissenters—Socialists, Communists, unionists, Anarchists, Single Taxers, Catholic Guild Socialists, and Nietzscheans. It was here that he met the famous “Judge” Walter Freemen Cooling, who had read, it seemed to the young Rexroth, everything worth reading, and who would support his arguments with voluminous, and accurate, quotations from everyone from Saint Thomas Aquinas to the Hasidim. The Judge had an intricate and comprehensive theory of the universe. He believed it to be an organism of which the stars and planets were cells. The solar system was an ovary, Earth a fertilized egg, and comets rejected spermatozoa. Mankind arose as the product of Earth’s union with a wayward comet. What Rexroth learned from his conversations with the Judge was “to sit lightly, not just to human opinions but to philosophy and science, and to appreciate it all as a great work of art—man’s construct over and against the ultimately unfathomable universe.”
Rexroth’s education at the Hobo College, the Dill Pickle Club, and Bughouse Square only reinforced his conviction that an orthodox view of the universe was probably acceptable and empirically satisfying only because the majority had argued for it and consented to it. Yet this conclusion never led him to accept unorthodoxy for its own sake—he never accepted Judge Cooling’s universe, for example, or the nonsense physics of Wilhelm Reich’s orgone theory. It led him instead to be a seeker, and whatever he found was acceptable if it satisfied him personally. He felt no need, he says, to justify his beliefs...
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An Autobiographical Novel is both similar to and singularly different from any other of Rexroth’s writings. It is a “talked” book, but unlike his poetry, which was written to be read aloud, this was spoken first, then written down. Yet at best this similarity is superficial, as is the fact that some of his poetry is autobiographical or that some of this book, like most of his essays, is polemical. Nevertheless, the book belongs at the heart of the Rexroth canon.
The historical, political, and social context of the 1920’s is the milieu of the book, and as the foregoing analysis shows, Rexroth establishes the context as well as he can. He did not know most of the writers and thinkers who came to prominence during the 1920’s—Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos. He came to know some of them later, after the years covered by this book. He did know, however slightly, many of the important people whose reputations were established before the 1920’s—Lawrence, Sandburg, Russell, Wright, and many others—and, as he says, he managed to learn something from most of them. As a card-carrying member of the IWW, he was an integral part of the leftist sociopolitical scene of the 1920’s. It is this scene which he considers to have been most important historically—far more so than the Flaming Youth movement, which he considers to have been little more than a corn-belt university student revolt against Midwestern puritanism. College Humor, he points out, was founded by the literary set of the University of Illinois. The sexual and artistic freedom for which these youths agitated Rexroth and his Chicago circle took for granted.
A second milieu for the book is the decade of the 1960’s, the years in which it was written. Rexroth had lived in San Francisco for forty years by the time he published this book. His intellectual and literary friends at the time he wrote it were younger than he, key members of the Beat generation—Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and Jack Kerouac. Though they do not figure in the book, they were part of the 1960’s San Francisco context and helped to establish the milieu which created a receptive audience for the broadcast autobiography which eventually became An Autobiographical Novel.