An Autobiographical Novel Critical Essays

Kenneth Rexroth


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1413 words.)