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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 11/15/2004
Vol. 2, #147
I promised readers that I would make available a copy of my first novel, The Blowtop. It had been enjoying a second edition until recently when the publisher's refusal to give me an accurate royalty statement led me to effect a reversion of rights for the work as called for in my original contract. The publisher, Moyer-Bell, was once known as one of the better of the smaller literary publishers, but has failed to live up not only to my contract but, I am told, has reneged on a number of deals arranged on behalf of its authors with The Authors Guild. In fact, The Blowtop was acquired by Moyer-Bell through a bankruptcy about which my then agent failed to warn me, or I could have acted much earlier. In any case, I expect The Blowtop to find another publisher soon enough, since, according to the critics, it is an important book. They consider that, in fact, it started the "beat" movement, providing a kind of source book for Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac when they started their early discussions in mid 1948 at Columbia University.
The Blowtop emerged from my typewriter some time in 1946, after I had taken three months off from writing Superman and Batman comics and dailies at DC. Its publication was delayed until January of 1948 fir reasins explained below.
I will start with the more detailed preface to the second edition, published by Olmstead Press in 2001.
Introduction to the Second Edition
A depression-generated youthful anarchism coupled with equally youthful creative despairs had drawn me just three years before Pearl Harbor to Greenwich Village. Eight years later, my wife was celebrating her first one-man show at Peggy Guggenheim's art of this century, our first son was being born, and this book, The Blowtop, my first novel, appeared in print. It was January of 1948.
Of those artists I had come to know well, Jackson Pollock was convinced he was the painter protagonist in this novel. He recognized, I think, the general outlines of the personality, although my real model, a less well-known painter, similarly demonstrated that fierce self immolating drive to absorb into his work the continuing agony of a world still recovering from war. Both Jackson and Attilio Salemme, the other painter, had become part of that drive to eliminate representationalism, and somehow take up into their canvasses and transfigure the detritus of World War II. They were among some two hundred very different painters whose work came to be known collectively as Abstract Expressionism. In time, they formed an annex to Greenwich
Village in the little Long Island village of Springs, the poor man's side of the upscale township of East Hampton.
For many of these artists the conjoined agonies of fame and death by suicide have been well documented and includes names like Pollock, Gorky and Rothko_ a conjunction that I came to recognize largely because I found myself, in my own struggles, living in such revealing personal and artistic propinquity to those caught in these extremes. The Blowtop was a recognition and a celebration of their struggles, especially as they meshed with my own. I confronted in this early work a state that was essentially despair.
Simultaneously, Jean-Paul Sartre and the French Existentialists were doing the same thing in France, and indeed were taking on despair as the true human condition as expounded by Sartre's publication of what I chose to call his bible of depression_La Nausee. On this point, during an interview with Harvey Breit of the NY Times Book Section, I suggested an existentialism rather different from Sartre's essentially Marxist oriented movement.
I spoke of transcendence. But this was not so much an idea to me. It was The Blowtop's own distinct fictional vision and emerged strongly in the following scene:
Giordano shook his head. He appeared struggling to lift himself above some level of obsession. "What is it? What is painting?" he demanded. "I'll tell you. It's my direct struggle with reality_with things, with space." He paused and seemed to make an effort to continue.
"Without it, I wouldn't be able to purify, to know closely the things that are left over." He stalked toward Archie, his face taut. "Don't you see it?
Archie regarded him in numbed silence. Giordano turned again to the painting, his voice rising. "Look at it! Slime and sediment!" He brought his hands together in a gesture of squeezing something. "Wrung out of life to make living clean enough to endure. What a monstrosity! Look hard at it! Isn't it horrible? There's all the filth of existence right before your eyes. God!"
Now, fifty-two years later, the novel seems even more compelling than when I wrote it. Because now I know very well the value of what Giordano called "the things that are left over." In rereading it recently, I found myself less surprised than I was when The Blowtop, under the title Le Cingle, published in Paris by Les Editions de l'Elan in 1950, became a best seller. Earlier, in New York's quirky world of book publishing, well before The Blowtop appeared in print, the owner of Dial Press returned from the war, a victim of what in those days was called "shell-shock."
For reasons known only to himself, he deliberately killed all the books his Executive Vice President, George Joel had been handling. He spitefully put a mystery jacket on The Blowtop and thus made sure that the real sense of that work would be difficult indeed for reviewers to discover. And then he killed himself.
Fortunately, that interview in the NY Times caught the attention of the French publisher.
In addition, the Saturday Review of Literature seemed to recognize beneath the false covers that there was something different about The Blowtop. Since it was presented as a mystery, the Saturday Review did run it in their mystery column at the top of the page. Under their regular heading: "Time, Place & Sleuth," they wrote most dispassionately: "Sudden death of reefer seller in Greenwich Village Saloon mildly interests police and dislocates lives of peddler's acquaintances." But then, under the heading "Summing Up," they stated: "'Routine' crime is basis of penetrating and well-written analysis of several depressing but amply realized
characters, 'artistic' and otherwise." And in their summary column, Verdict, where each reviewed mystery was usually characterized in very brief epithets such as Good; Time-passer; Plenty-tough; For the shudder-shelf; Diverting; amd the like, they offered a rather unusual one word summary for The Blowtop. "Impressive."
Well, it was something, but not enough for the book to go anywhere. And it didn't. There was only the most meager of consolations from George Joel, offered at the time he returned "all right, title and interest" in the book to me. "I thought you'd like to know," he said somewhat sheepishly, "that The Blowtop has become a kind of cult book at Columbia University." That was early in 1948.
This bit of information was meaningless to me at the time. It was to take several years before I learned that sometime in the mid-fifties the initiating personalities of the "Beat" movement. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg had begun their long discussions while students at Columbia on a revived kind of Bohemia precisely in 1948, and that those discussions involved a special focus on both abstract expressionism and French existentialism. Given these parallels, certain friends of mine found it easy to insist that Kerouac and Ginsberg had not only been influenced by The Blowtop, they had made it their bible.
Of course, the parallels, while interesting, didn't prove very much. I had never regarded the Beat movement as truly Bohemian, but rather, taking the original sense of "beat," it struck me that Ginsberg and Kerouac at Columbia appeared to have affected a kind of weariness, rather than having tried to instigate a new Bohemianism. That assumed "weariness" seemed little more than literary nostalgia for the old Greenwich Village and its now dissipating Bohemia. It's even possible that The Blowtop_which they very likely had read just because they were around during its cult status at Columbia _played some role in nurturing that nostalgia.
It seems to me too that even the work of the poet William Carlos Williams, a clear influence on Ginsberg himself, only began to show itself after the Williams legend had become text-book material by the mid-fifties. In other words, during the growth process Ginsberg's poetry went through, emerging from a sentimental and derivative 18th century diction in 1949:
Take my love, it is not true,
So let it tempt no body new;
Take my lady, she will sigh
For my bed where'er I lie
...to a more modern idiom as much as six years later, Williams may simply have been recalled as part of Allen's schooling in newer styles of poetry.
By 1955, Ginsberg, in some ways a slow starter, was long gone from Columbia. And only then did he finally produce his great epic poem, Howl, with its rich echoes of Williams. Also by then Greenwich Village itself was well into a post-war real-estate boom that had dispersed most of its artistic inhabitants into places like Soho and the East Village.
The new American prosperity, sparked by long pent-up demand, the GI bill, the ubiquity of the automobile, the efflorescence of the new Levittowns had transmuted into full-blown suburbia. Bohemian types were completely displaced by the daily commuter, the new middle-class family, the organization man and, as lamented toward the end of the fifties by David Reisman in The Lonely Crowd, and the authors of books like The Organization Man and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a dull, somewhat supine and conformist society. For Ginsberg, it was time to trot out the old Bohemian and revolutionary spirit as he had learned it from Williams.
By this time too the idea of "beat" had changed from its original sense of weariness to what the Encyclopedia Brittanica calls "beatitude." It had to be something like that. How express a poetic sense of value or, for Kerouac, the significance of sheer wanderlust without some reference point of value. In Ginsberg's case, certainly, as his poetic skills developed with such striking energy, the only direction that led from weariness was for the word "beat" to become a standin for beatitude. I would even suggest that in the transit from weariness to beatitude, it was a little like going from bad lassitude to good lassitude.
Personally, I came to admire a lot of Ginsberg's work after Howl. I never saw in Kerouac much more than a troubled and somewhat mediocre talent. But apart from the movement itself which took on new dimensions as it gathered up a variety of talented writers such as Ferlinghetti and Burroughs and numerous others, my interest here is to make clear the position of The Blowtop and in what way it may have influenced the "beat" movement.
First, I needed to establish that The Blowtop came out of the personal experience that encountered very directly the kind of Bohemia that flourished in the forties, and most powerfully immediately after the war. As a novel, it plunges head-on into the drives that led so many abstract expressionists to use their work as a way of absorbing the personal detritus the war had left with them. In the self-destruction of my artist protagonist, Giordano, a reader might well come to understand how that same burdened vision destroyed some of the best
of the abstract expressionists. They were an influential group, but largely a transitional one. In their passing, many small and inarticulated movements have been taking shape with, as yet, no clear direction. In expressing the despair that marked many aspects of abstract expressionism, The Blowtop with its own existential visions of that despair may not be quite the "beat" novel some have called it, including, oddly enough, the Canadian used book dealer who charged me an absurdly high price for a copy in good condition because he had it classified as "an early beat novel."
Certainly, such a classification can't be made on the basis of despair alone, as Sartre's existentialism treats despair. But in the notion of transcendence which I can now see so firmly woven into the story, it may indeed be not just the earliest "beat" novel, but the first of the beats to move toward that notion of inner beatitude that ultimately was to define the "beats" raison d'etre.
In reviewing this early novel of mine after not having seen it for decades, I find it rather marvelous in the way the story reveals the possibility of transcendence. I had somehow attained in that youthful work a vision that only today is becoming an active element in my awareness and the reality in which it subsists. Or what I then called "the things that are left over."
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