A Life of Kenneth Rexroth

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In the preface to her biography, Linda Hamalian admits that, meeting Kenneth Rexroth late in his career, she fell under his spell. She was attracted to his seasoned good looks, his charm, and his erudition, and she could imagine the thrill of having him address poems to her as he so often did to the women in his life. She also admits, however, that the Kenneth Rexroth she discovered in her research for the biography was far different from the one she imagined. Indeed, her biography is a compelling work precisely because she captures both the lure of his poetic persona and the reality of his everyday life.

Rexroth spent most of his early years in Chicago, struggling to cope with the early death of his mother. He was eleven years old when she died, and she had already (knowing she would die) instilled in her son a code of independence and a love of literature. On the one hand, Rexroth was a tough kid, the model for one of James T. Farrell’s characters in his great trilogy, Studs Lonigan (1932-1935), an epic of Chicago’s rough Irish immigrant neighborhoods. On the other hand, Rexroth kept seeking a replacement for his mother, an image of woman as nurturer of the male ego. So needy was Rexroth in this respect that his early relationships with women often fizzled quickly as they backed away from a young man who demanded so much of them in the way of psychic support.

Charles Rexroth, Kenneth’s father, was an alluring, romantic figure, but he was rarely up to the task of supporting his family or of providing his son with an image of a man who could stand without the props of female succor. While still a teenager, Kenneth became a socialist, harshly critical of what he saw as a capitalistic, exploitative, and violent system; however, he never seems to have seriously questioned his own sexism or realized just how much his prolific career depended upon the sacrifices of his women.

In the first half of the biography, Hamalian allows this aspect of Rexroth’s character to tell itself, narrating incidents in which both his love of and exploitation of women is apparent without judging him in her own words. Gradually, as Rexroth’s ill treatment of women comes to form a pattern and to be explicitly raised by the women he abuses, Hamalian allows herself to evaluate his conduct, using such phrases as “double standard” to convey Rexroth’s hypocrisy. The evidence against him is so overwhelming at this point that the biographer’s analysis seems overdue. Indeed, Hamalian should be commended for her restraint, for she exposes the worst in Rexroth without ever losing sight of the fine points in his character or of the value of his work.

There may be several reasons for Hamalian’s tactful handling of Rexroth’s sexism. His attitudes were typical of his time: Many men presumed that women should relinquish or at least scale back their own careers to further their husbands’. Then, too, in his first marriage to the artist Andree Schafer, Rexroth seems (momentarily) to have risen above his prejudices—not only respecting her talent as a painter but also trying to live the dream of equality fostered by the international socialist movement. Whereas many men might have fled the temperamental Andree and perhaps would have been undone by her severe epileptic seizures, Rexroth ministered to her in moments of crisis, learning how to massage her forehead and sometimes ward off her worst fits. The dissolution of their marriage seems to have had more to do with their powerful ambitions and conflicting characters than with Rexroth’s attitudes toward women.

Although Rexroth remained a lifelong socialist, he soon became wary of the Communist Party and of Stalinists, in particular, for he clearly saw that they were manipulated by Moscow and had little interest in developing an indigenous socialism. Rexroth was as fearless in attacking them as he was in opposing the worst excesses of capitalism. Similarly, he did not hesitate to attack poets such as T S. Eliot and Ezra Pound both for their politics and for their poetics, favoring the down-to-earth, concrete verse forms of William Carlos Williams and Carl Sandburg.

As Hamalian charts the development of Rexroth’s poetic career, she quotes short passages from his best work conveying the charm of both the poet and the man. These gems embedded in the narrative give the biography and its quiet prose a kind of glitter, embellishing Hamalian’s sober estimates with Rexroth’s own lyrical style. The only difficulty with such an...

(The entire section is 1851 words.)