“Just One Damned Thing After Another”: Jack Foley as a Literary Historian

O Powerful Western Star
O Powerful Western Star

Jack Foley has been such an active and prolific figure in California letters over the past forty years that it would seem impossible to make sense of West Coast poetry without reference to his work. And yet most critics and scholars do exactly that. Foley has published on the margins of official literary and academic life. Conventional critics don’t know his work. Time will eventually correct this oversight, but I see no harm now in speeding up the historical process by offering a few observations on his singular career. I could write on half a dozen aspects of his work—most obviously his poetry and his compelling performance practices—but I want to focus on his extraordinary contributions to American literary history.Literary history is the conspicuously academic enterprise, something done on a Mellon or NEH grant in a university research library by a tenured professor with a book contract from Oxford or Yale. On my shelf I see thick volumes with titles such as The Columbia History of American Literature or The Oxford History of English Literature. There is a good reason that publishers name such books after universities. There is something essentially institutional rather than personal about the genre. The volumes usually seem more like reference books than critical histories. They customarily present the academic consensus of a particular moment. For that reason such books tend to date quickly; the borrowed opinions they reference inevitably change as academic fashions change.There are, however, a few glorious exceptions—literary histories that combine scholarship and personality, virtues that give them considerable longevity. George Saintsbury’s three-volume History of English Prosody is one conspicuous example—a study that still feels alive after 90 years. The reader may disagree with Saintsbury, but the author remains a vital presence. Likewise René Wellek’s even more monumental eight-volume History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950 presents its formidable scholarship with an oddly gentle human tone. As polymathic Professor Wellek surveys and evaluates two hundred years of Western intellectual history, he never forgets that we novices are sitting in the classroom, a bit embarrassed at not having done all the assigned reading. To the serious student, such deeply informed books prove not merely useful but invaluable. They provide accurate tours of complex subjects in which the guides communicate their passions, puzzlements, and prejudices.Yet how seldom is literary history done well. Years of fastidious scholarship and literary toil often deaden the author who must diligently push the project to its contractual end, even though the passion died midway through chapter 6. Weighed down with academic conventions and received opinion, the books usually lack both personality and stylistic distinction. The genre’s problems have only increased in recent years when such books have mostly been written by “committees of experts” (a term that should strike dread in any alert reader’s heart). Hefty official histories are now produced without any narrative line or organizing principle, indeed without any overall guiding intelligence or sensibility. Each chapter exists in intellectual and stylistic isolation from all the others. As each scholar rides his or her hobby-horse, there are inevitably huge holes in the historical record for major writers, subjects, literary forms that are currently unfashionable in academe. If the genre isn’t entirely dead yet, we can hear the carpenter sawing boards for the coffin.

California literary history has mostly been the history of cultural simplifications. No one really has known what to do with the complex and contradictory writing the state has produced. It doesn’t fit any pre-existing pattern.If literary history in general is in trouble, the literary history of California has never been out of it. No state has had a richer history over the past 125 years—since the days of Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, Bret Harte, John Muir, Mary Austin, and Frank Norris. The creative explosion eventually fostered writers as different as Robinson Jeffers, Dashiell Hammett, Jaime de Angulo, Nathanael West, John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, Josephine Miles, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ray Bradbury, Yvor Winters, William Everson, Richard Rodriguez, Kenneth Rexroth, Raymond Chandler, Amy Tan, Robert Duncan, Charles Bukowski, Joan Didion, Robert Heinlein, Maxine Hong Kingston, John Fante, Octavia Butler, and Kay Ryan. No one has ever really explained how this immense literary upheaval occurred. Or rather no one has explained it adequately. Many scholars have been eager to define the state’s literary character as long as we agree to drop the writers who don’t fit into their definitions. Other critics have been set on explaining the state from the perspective of outsiders, such as Mark Twain, Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller, or Allen Ginsberg, who came into the state with perspectives of their own and brilliantly captured some historical moment in their work. California literary history has mostly been the history of cultural simplifications. No one really has known what to do with the complex and contradictory writing the state has produced. It doesn’t fit any pre-existing pattern.

There is another basic problem with California literary history. There is so little documentation for many writers and movements. Ten years ago when I was putting together the anthology, California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present, I was struck by how little public information existed on at least half of the 100 writers for whom my co-editors and I had to write biographies. The poets were not listed in the standard reference books, nor had they been covered in earlier anthologies. The situation was especially bad for many of the women writers. Where did one find reliable information on the lives and careers of Adrian Stoutenberg, Rosalie Moore, Violet Kazue de Cristoforo, Myra Cohn Livingston, Helen Pinkerton, and even Josephine Miles? I had to track down primary sources—often searching out surviving family members and friends to establish basic facts and dates. (And since published misinformation abounds, one needed multiple sources to assure accuracy.) Except for the poets of the Gold Rush and Beat eras of San Francisco, there was little critical and biographical writing. Things are a bit better now but only a bit. Why is there still no comprehensive account of Activism, a major Bay Area movement of the 1950s? Why is there no adequate history of Yvor Winters and his many followers? For Los Angeles poets, there is often little material available beyond dust-jacket bio copy and obituaries. It is not just the poets who lack documentation. The extraordinary emergence of science fiction in L.A. from the end of World War II to the 1970s, which fundamentally changed the nature of the genre as well as set the tone for international popular entertainment, has hardly been covered, even by fanzines and websites. Most literary historians pick and chose the material they need from copious published sources. Any Californian doing a literary chronicle will have to do primary research to tell the whole story.

It will seem supremely odd to any academic that Jack Foley, an Oakland poet and critic without any institutional support or university connection, has written the most comprehensive history of post-war California poetry—a study that not only surveys the lives and work of hundreds of literary figures but also cogently addresses the wildly contradictory impulses in the state’s creative psyche. Moreover Foley has fashioned his chronicle in an innovative way that is engaging and accessible while also being unabashedly experimental.

The literary history I’ve described is Visions & Affiliations: A California Literary Time Line: Poets and Poetry 1940-2005, which was published by Pantograph Press in 2011. If you think the title is long, you should see the work itself—two folio-sized volumes running nearly 1300 pages. Arranged as a series of chronological lists mixing commentary and quotation, Foley’s work pushes forward year by year presenting, juxtaposing, and contrasting the creative ferment of post-war California in all its inexplicable profusion. Some entries consist of a single sentence. Others go on for pages. The entries also contain quotations—sometimes just a single line, sometimes several poems. There is no template for the entries, except what interests the writer.

Anyone who picks up these colorful tomes might reasonably assume that Jack Foley was slightly crazy, and that Visions & Affiliations was–the pun seems ominously inevitable—a histoire de folie. Here are two monumentally large, self-published folios devoted to a subject that few readers, even in the scholarly world, care to study. The books carefully chronicle the lives and works of several hundred writers, very few of whom are famous and many completely forgotten (if indeed they were ever noticed at all). The books are densely written, crammed with facts, citations, and quotations, idiosyncratic in organization and approach. Even the indices are selective, opinionated, informative, and frequently funny. What sort of eccentric or fanatic would spend years researching and writing such a quixotic study? It seems like a project from the mind of Nabokov’s Charles Kinbote. There is surely no market—commercial or academic—for such an enterprise, which ignores pretty much every rule of conventional literary history or standard critical writing. Any reader’s instincts would set off an inner alarm: Stay away—crazy poet on the loose!

I don’t think there has ever been a better book published about California poetry. There has certainly never been an odder one. Let there be no doubt about it. Visions & Affiliations shouldn’t work. The wonder is that these unwieldy folios are compulsively readable, intellectually provocative, and even weirdly entertaining. One simultaneously has the sense of reading an experimental work of cultural history and a highbrow literary gossip column. Visions & Affiliations represents something new and important in literary studies—not just for the study of California literature but for dealing with the complexity of cultural history itself. Foley’s work offers a new form for literary history that fundamentally revises the rules of the genre in ways that seem especially relevant at present. I don’t think there has ever been a better book published about California poetry. There has certainly never been an odder one. The oddity and excellence of Foley’s postwar chronicle are not unrelated.

In Visions & Affiliations Foley is not so much the author as the master of ceremonies who introduces and comments on an almost endless series of writers and events. About half the book is quotation, so we hear the poets themselves. Foley’s commentary is mostly factual. He sets a deliberately neutral tone—mostly, I suspect, to keep from evaluating and ranking the material he presents. (He cleverly lets the reader make those judgments.) Of course, the very fact that Foley chooses what gets recorded and quoted—as well as what each entry finds immediately before and after it—means that there is always an authorial presence, and one all the more powerful for being understated.

Listing events year by year, Visions & Affiliations has a powerful chronological momentum. Following Foley’s time line, we experience the basic pleasure of non-fiction so little present in most literary criticism, namely the sense of watching what really happened. That forward momentum is counterpointed by the entries themselves, especially the longer ones, which contain excerpts from the writers described. The essentially fragmentary narrative is further counterpointed by the constant juxtapositions of each entry with the others around it. The reader frequently wonders at the sheer oddness of contradictory things happening at the same time in the same place.

Foley’s pointillist organization puts more pressure on the reader than a standard academic history would. The method compels us to make most of the connections and judgments. I suspect that no two readers will react to the book in exactly the same way, and that odd and dynamic quality seems to me one of Foley’s great virtues. Each time I went back to look over some entry, I found myself noticing something new. This experience, so rare in current academic criticism, which habitually over explains its subjects, gave my experience with these books a special excitement. Visions & Affiliations is not only big enough for both me and the author but also sufficiently commodious for anyone else who is likely to come along in the next fifty years. This is how innovative and experimental writing is supposed to work. How rarely it actually does. And how energizing and refreshing when it succeeds.

Foley doesn’t try to reconcile the contradictions. He simply presents them as part of the historical and human record. And secretly he revels in the glorious literary chaos, as year by year, entry by entry, he compels us to accept it as well.In Visions & Affiliations Foley gets at the basic truth so often ignored in literary accounts of California, namely that this state is far weirder, wilder, and more various than any sensible history can portray. Foley doesn’t try to reconcile the contradictions. He simply presents them as part of the historical and human record. And secretly he revels in the glorious literary chaos, as year by year, entry by entry, he compels us to accept it as well. Reading this Brobdingnagian enterprise, I felt for the first time I had found a book that was true to my own experience of California’s creative welter.

Visions & Affiliations is not Foley’s first foray into literary history. He published a history of San Francisco’s Batman Art Gallery in 1995, and he has copiously chronicled the California literary scene for forty years in essays, reviews, and broadcasts. Foley has always been an unusual poetry critic. In addition to analyzing texts he has an equal fascination with contexts—especially the milieus which foster artistic creativity. (You can follow Foley’s career in Visions & Affiliations since one of the authors he presents and quotes is named Jack Foley.) In the new books, however, Foley takes the organizing principle of a time line—a fact-based, linear chronology—and converts it into a modernist form by juxtaposing and editing his entries, most of which contain quotations from the works and authors described. The critical method of Visions & Affiliations is Eisensteinian montage applied to literary history. This combination allows the text to become lyric, documentary, minimalist, maximalist, sad, funny, obscene, and pious by turns.

Another reader might classify Foley’s form as essentially post-modern, and there is some truth in that perspective. Foley’s organizing principle—reinforced by his aesthetic (yes, aesthetic is the right word in this case) of presentation through quotation—prevents there being any controlling center to his material. There is only the forward momentum of time. Foley’s form, as Arnold Toynbee said jokingly about history, is “just one damned thing after another.” Foley lets each voice, each event, have its say—sometimes tersely, sometimes at great length—without trying to integrate them in any overall thesis. But his raw energy, his careful attention to artistic vocation in all its diverse forms, his narrative method of assembling glittering fragments is too earnest and un-ironic to be post-modern. Visions & Affiliations may offer no unifying perspective, but the work has a visceral sense of teleology—the energy of the human imagination in a particular region moving ever forward in unpredictable diversity and abundance. Foley’s prose also has more in common with masterpieces of Modernist collage like The Cantos or The Waste-Land than the detached perspectives of post-modern assemblage.

James Joyce titled one early section of his Finnegans Wake, “Here Comes Everybody.” Foley could have easily used the same title in this Modernist omnium gatherum of California literati. Like Joyce he has written an epic to commemorate and celebrate his time and place—not the Dublin of 1904 but postwar California. Jack Foley is nothing if not the idealist, a rebellious idealist to be sure. No cynic spends years carefully reviewing new books of poetry without either payment or promise of academic reward. Foley shows a classic bohemian dedication to art—a rare thing in our institutional age but also the source of his feisty individuality.

It would be easy to summarize in journalistic terms the narrative of these two books. In 1940 San Francisco began to emerge as one of the centers of American poetry. (The town had been a literary center, though mostly for its prose, since the late 19th century.) As World War II and the post-war economic boom transformed California into the country’s largest and richest state, other centers developed, most notably Los Angeles. Influential figures, such as Kenneth Rexroth, Yvor Winters, Robert Duncan, Bern Porter, Weldon Kees, Lawrence Ferling (later renamed Ferlinghetti), Ruth Witt-Diamant, Jack Spicer, Jane Grabhorn, Lawrence Hart, and James Broughton appeared. They fostered overlapping human networks of writers, artists, filmmakers, publishers, and musicians—as well as political, environmental, intellectual, and sexual activists—who refashioned American literature and culture. From the Beats on, California has generated wave after wave of literary innovation. Although many of Foley’s characters are unfamiliar, his basic material, at least framed in these generalized terms, does seem familiar—the standard stuff of California literary history.

This journalistic summary, however, has almost nothing to do with the actual experience of reading Foley’s time line. While Visions & Affiliations is many things, it is neither summary nor abstract. Encountering Foley’s painstakingly detailed chronicle makes one realize how inadequate every conventional theory about California poetry is compared to its complex, contradictory, and unknowably rich reality. Foley’s phenomenological approach ultimately gives one something closer to the experience of living through literary history rather than just reading about it. The reader becomes immersed in a narrative that engages one without ever completely disclosing its full meaning. It’s just like life. Without letting us know what California poetry exactly is, Visions & Affiliations allows us to know it better. No one has ever written a more vital, comprehensive, or cogent book on the subject.


From The Los Angeles Review (vol. 13, Spring, 2013)

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