Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1413
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 to others.
Religion is a prime case in point. The more Rexroth sought for answers and truths among world religions, the more convinced a Christian he became. The more he sought among Christian sects, the more conservative his beliefs became, until finally he could assert that “Protestantism, at least in its orthodox forms, has always filled me with loathing,” and could be content as a very high church Anglo-Catholic. He carefully explains, however, that it was the liturgy, the ritualism, the ceremony, what he calls the “paganism” of Catholicism that attracted and finally converted him. Later in his life, he was to shed any commitment to orthodoxy.
The same sort of orthodox unorthodoxy informed his political beliefs as well as his theory and practice in art and literature. It is not surprising that he was an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) socialist, about as disjointed and anarchic a socialism as there was. At one point, he decided to join the Communist Party, to become part of a truly organized program and organization. The office to which he reported, however, was out of membership cards and had even lost its mimeograph. Such ineptitude thoroughly disgusted him. Still, he remained committed to socialism and the class struggle throughout his long life.
The Dill Pickle Club had social and artistic functions as well as political. Lecturers spoke on topics that ranged through politics, science, religion, and art. Jazz musicians performed there after more formal engagements, and there was a Little Theater group which put on amateur productions of plays by August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, and Eugene O’Neill. Such clubs encouraged artistic education, discussion, and trial-and-error experimentation. These were highly experimental years in all the arts—Igor Stravinsky in music, Pablo Picasso and other abstract painters in art, and Gertrude Stein and Dadaism in literature. Rexroth’s young mind was exposed to much of this ferment; indeed, the exposure became so overwhelming that again he retreated to orthodoxy, attending art classes, listening to classical music, reading masterpieces of literature—his impulse toward freedom of experimentation tempered by a willingness to learn to master the basics.
Rexroth decided to be an artist and writer at a very early age, not “because I had acne . . . or was unable to get little girls to go in the bushes,” but because his family atmosphere encouraged the choice. He was less than ten years old when the Armory Show came to Chicago, creating an exhilarating furor among his parents’ circle of friends. Indeed, one of their friends, Arthur Jerome Eddy, bought many of the paintings exhibited at the show. More than anything else, this experience convinced Rexroth that he would rather be an artist first and a writer second. He tried very hard, perhaps too hard, to become one. While he did master the basics, learning technique and style from books and copying and studying other painters while they worked, he apparently lacked the inspiration or instinct to become a visual artist. He could draw and paint, but he was better as an art critic and a poet.
Rexroth enjoyed working with words and with languages. He wrote more than a dozen volumes of poetry; many of his poems were meant to be read aloud to the accompaniment of jazz music. He translated poems into English from Greek, French, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese, having taught himself those languages.
Of the four major elements constituting the autobiographical “theme” of this “novel,” the element of people is easily the most important. During Rexroth’s formative years, though he avoided dependence on others, he was certainly influenced by them. With a personality characterized by both shyness and gregariousness, he was appealing to others both for his vulnerability and for his willingness to learn and eagerness to cooperate. By 1923, when he was eighteen, he was a regular at Jake Loeb’s Thursday evening gatherings, where he met “everybody who was anybody in the Chicago of the Twenties and everybody who was anybody who was passing through town”: D. H. Lawrence, G. K. Chesterton, Sergei Prokofiev, Bertrand Russell, Isadora Duncan, Eleanora Duse, Clarence Darrow, Ben Hecht, Eugene Debs, Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Harriet Monroe, Margaret Anderson, Frank Lloyd Wright, socialist and labor leaders such as Bill Haywood and John L. Lewis—and the two murderously thrill-seeking intellectuals who were Rexroth’s own age, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.
Yet as important as these famous people were, their influence on Rexroth was fleeting compared to that of the hundreds of unknown artists, writers, working stiffs, whores, drunks, and street people whom he seemingly could not help attracting. He is proud of this facility: “Who else ever met a revolutionary screw in prison or an Anarchosyndicalist Modernist Catholic nun bumming home from a summer spent as a migratory worker?” All these people helped make the young Rexroth into a man by alternately giving and getting, depending on him and letting him depend on them. Their trust is nowhere betrayed in An Autobiographical Novel; though, for example, there is more than a little sex in these pages, nowhere is it sex for sex’s sake, and never does Rexroth indulge in kiss-and-tell gossip.
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