An Autobiographical Novel Essay - Critical Context

Kenneth Rexroth

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.