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The carefully descriptive title of this work suggests its format: It is autobiographical in the sense that it is a factual narrative of the first twenty-one years of Kenneth Rexroth’s life—beginning actually three generations before his birth in 1905, and ending three weeks after the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1927—and it introduces and identifies dozens of people who touched upon that life. It is a novel in that, though the book proceeds chronologically, the reader is always conscious of selectivity and rearrangement, aware that Rexroth does not let strict chronology dictate form. Nor does Rexroth feel the necessity to identify specifically each character. Their function—their influence on the formation of Rexroth’s character, personality, and intellect—is more important to him than their names. This does not mean that all notable or recognizable names are not used. James T. Farrell is here, and Harte Crane, and Maxwell Bodenheim. It does mean that anyone who was likely to be injured or insulted by the gossip attending his or her identification is not named.

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The book is presented in thirty-eight generally chronological chapters; it is significant, however, that they are not titled chapters, and that they are not grouped under a series of descriptive headings as are divisions of many biographies and autobiographies. There is no attempt to impose an intellectual or ideological order on or to imply a progress to the life portrayed here. As Rexroth puts it, “If this story has a plot or a theme it is the tale of a boy’s effort to select and put in order the tools with which he would live his adulthood.”

The boy’s life began in South Bend, Indiana, shifted to Elkhart, then to Battle Creek, Michigan, and finally, in 1915, Rexroth’s tenth year, to Chicago, where he found and learned to use the tools of his adulthood. Though he lived for a time in Toledo, Ohio, after his mother’s death, and drifted at times as far east as New York and as far west as Seattle, Chicago was home base for Rexroth until 1927, when he moved to San Francisco. That move with Andree, his first wife, ends this volume of his autobiography (which was never extended).

He was in Chicago during World War I and the intellectual, artistic, and political ferment of the 1920’s. Precocious both physically (he stood well over six feet) and intellectually, he was an active part of the bohemian subculture, as a poet, a painter, and an actor and playwright. He was involved in the Dill Pickle Club, a loose organization of left-wing bohemians. Rexroth’s political concerns affected and were affected by his cultural concerns. He became an accomplished soapbox orator, often declaiming socialist poetry, in Bughouse Square in front of the Newbery Library.

The organized anarchy of Rexroth’s years in Chicago’s bohemia is communicated very well in the informal structure and tone of this book. The text was actually dictated, not written, a technique that resulted in what might well be called a controlled stream of consciousness. It was for his daughters that he dictated loosely connected tapes about his life. Somehow the tapes were picked up for broadcast over three radio stations and were finally solicited for publication. In assembling the book, Rexroth says,I have tried to preserve the spontaneous, oral character of the style and the direct simplicity of the narrative. I believe in this sort of thing on principle. . . . I have spent my life trying to write the way I talk. So I have worked over these tapes not by rewriting the transcriptions but by redictating them.


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 53

Gardner, Geoffrey, ed. For Rexroth, 1980.

Gibson, Morgan. Kenneth Rexroth, 1972.

Hall, Donald. “Kenneth Rexroth and His Poetry,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXV (November 23, 1980), p. 9.

Morrow, Bradford. Introduction to World Outside the Window: The Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth, 1987.

White, Robin. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXI (February 13, 1966), p. 5.

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