Eroticizing the Nation: Michael Rumaker’s Fiction (Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged), by Leverett T. Smith, Jr., New York: Triton, 2012, 241 pages, $18.00.
A Day and a Night at the Baths, by Michael Rumaker, New York: Triton, 2010, 127 pages, $18.00.
Robert Duncan in San Francisco, by Michael Rumaker, San Francisco: City Lights/Lost & Found Elsewhere, 2013 (edited and with an introduction by Ammiel Alcalay and Megan Paslawski), $12.95.
(Charles Olson to Peter Anastas, in conversation, 1962)
The “going-on-ness” I’ve been criticized for. But without that method of staying close to things, of “pushing the penny with your nose,” as Olson says, I don’t arrive. I don’t apologize for that method because it’s the only one, right now, with which I can operate and know that the writing’s not false, that it’s something close to the nature of myself, my own process. For myself at present I see no other approach to story. Outside of it, to try to get free of it, is casting about, a discomfort at not being there, where things can occur, lies, and not be false. That seems to be the limit, the method which demands obedience. But within it are numerable possibilities of change, of invention.
(Michael Rumaker to Robert Duncan, undated, unsent, Robert Duncan in San Francisco)
There are writers we discover, or whose work is given us to discover, who remain with us always. For me, Michael Rumaker is one such writer. When, during the summer of 1959, I confided to the painter Albert Alcalay that I was writing fiction, he handed me a copy of the Evergreen Review that contained “The Pipe,” one of the stories Rumaker had written in 1955 as a student of Charles Olson’s at Black Mountain College and that had previously been published in the Black Mountain Review.
“If you want to write in America,” Albert said, “you’ve got to read this guy.”
In 1959, America and native writing were not uppermost in my mind. I was on my way to Italy to study Medieval Literature at the University of Florence. Nevertheless, I took the magazine home because Albert’s taste in writing was wide and discerning—he’d already introduced me to Beckett and Robbe-Grillet. I was 21 and had just graduated from college, where I majored in English and classics. I’d also done a certain amount of reading outside of the canon. But I had never encountered a story like “The Pipe,” or “Exit 3” and “The Truck,” both of which Albert subsequently pressed on me.
There was a flatness about “The Pipe,” not only in the way it was written but its affect, a flatness that might have been related to Beckett’s except that Rumaker’s stories took place in recognizable though anonymous geographic locations and were devoid of Beckett’s abstraction. Their often explosive violence and the sense of menace that hung over the narratives was not Beckettesque either. It was as American as D. H. Lawrence had described the national psyche: “hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.” Or as Rumaker himself characterized “that mute and brutal fury that was everywhere like a male sickness and had no sense or meaning in it.”
If anything, Rumaker’s stories reminded me of Sherwood Anderson’s early stories, or Stephen Crane’s, two writers Rumaker had read at Black Mountain. They were not literary. Rather, they had about them a literalness that made them even more riveting and therefore more attractive to me. They created a world of their own, one I desperately wanted to enter, knew that I had to enter if, as Albert suggested, I wanted to write about America, or even simply to write in a way that allowed me to grapple with the experiences I was having as I packed fish or shoveled gurry on the often contentious Gloucester waterfront during summers in school; not to speak of my own conflicts about coming from a town I both loved and wanted to escape. (Olson would help me there, but that is another story.)
So I left for Italy, where I spent less time reading Dante and the Stil Nuovisti than I had anticipated and more of Cesare Pavese, whom I was also introduced to during that fateful summer of 1959 by Albert Alcalay’s close friend, the printmaker Emiliano Sorini, who said to me while we exchanged lessons in English and Italian, “If you love Moravia, you will die for Pavese.” Soon after I arrived in Italy, I bought two of Pavese’s novels, The Comrade (1947) and The Moon and the Bonfires (1950), becoming instantly enthralled by the Turin native’s American-inflected stories of solitary men in sun-bleached northern Italian landscapes: terse narratives that were rendered exquisitely along the delicate line between reality and symbol, that boundary from which, if you thread your way carefully along it, you can look over into either territory. What I neglected to grasp in Pavese, at first, was his insistent localism, probably because I was escaping my own in Italy. It was also important to me that Pavese, whose doctoral dissertation was on Walt Whitman, had read Sherwood Anderson and translated Moby-Dick.
When I returned to Gloucester three years later, Vincent Ferrini handed me Rumaker’s newly published novel-in-stories, The Butterfly (Scribner’s, 1962). There were other stories, too, some early ones I hadn’t yet read that had appeared in the Black Mountain Review and newer work in Scribner’s Short Story 2 (1959). It was the novel and the stories, some of which would be anthologized in LeRoi Jones’s The Moderns and Donald Allen and Robert Creeley’s The New American Story, both published in 1965, that would remind me of the innovative poetry and prose by Olson, Creeley, Denise Levertov and others I’d begun to read in 1952 in Ferrini’s seminal literary quarterly Four Winds but had no name for, even though it spoke to me like no other writing had. It was, as Robert Duncan later characterized it, “a writing that matters, that feeds a hunger for depth of experience and that will make new demands upon our understanding of human life.” Even now, fifty years later, it is difficult to describe the impact that Creeley’s stories and his single novel The Island had on me, or Douglas Woolf’s eerily deadpan fictions—Hypocritic Days and Fade Out—that were just beginning to be published. Especially, Rumaker’s first collection, Gringos and Other Stories, which Grove Press brought out in 1967. After reading these writers who would ever want to open a novel by John Updike?
It is at this point that Leverett T. Smith, Jr, Emeritus Professor of English at North Carolina Wesleyan College and curator of the Black Mountain College Collection, begins his engagement with Rumaker’s fiction and the forces and energies which underpin it. Eroticizing the Nation is precisely the kind of critical biography Rumaker has long deserved. The book is written in a clear, direct, jargon-free prose. There is no theoretical overlay to distance or deter the reader from approaching its subject head-on. Smith’s thrust is chronological, beginning with the early stories composed at the college and ending with Rumaker’s masterful Black Mountain Days, in which he describes his own coming into writing and the beginnings of his coming into himself as a writer and gay man. Smith helpfully includes enough of Rumaker’s life to make concrete his journey of self-discovery and to inform without overwhelming his incisive discussion of the fiction itself. What we have, then, is an account of the development and evolution of a prose co-extensive with the development of Rumaker’s self-understanding and identity.
Under Smith’s careful scrutiny stories like “The Truck,” “The Pipe,” “The Desert” and the “Bar,” that were later collected in Gringos emerge not only as sharp takes on American masculinity, narrated in what writer Richard Hull called “their documentary style, very sparse and detached,” but also, and more profoundly, what Rumaker himself described as “landscapes of the self.”
The trajectory of Smith’s discussion and analysis follows the path of Rumaker’s own life, beginning with the closeted though uncannily prescient studies of what he himself has described as “testosterone grimness,” stories in which men are seen, as Smith writes, “in their various relations to themselves and each other, perhaps especially the sexual. . . All these stories have as their common center the nature of maleness: they are about men relating to other men, boys to boys, fathers to sons, and sons to fathers. At the center is the desire to portray directly the nature of male sexuality.”
Smith describes these fictions as “quite clearly related to Rumaker’s own situation at the time as a gay man trying to come to terms with his gayness in an extremely repressive society,” concluding that “it is this dimension that makes the stories unusually vivid.”
An equally powerful dimension of the stories is the one provided by the characters themselves—lost soldiers trying to find their way home on empty superhighways (“Exit 3”), derelicts contending for preeminence in Southwestern wastes (“The Desert,”) urban kids acting out fantasies of power in vacant, rubble-strewn lots (“The Truck”); always with sexual undertones. In each one of these cases “Rumaker’s people are irretrievably lost,” as Gilbert Sorrentino wrote in a 1991 review of the reissued Gringos: “His characters are located in a relentless present, spatially undifferentiated, except so far as their ‘spaces’ are either starkly public or wholly empty.”
Sorrentino concludes—and it is the single most telling characterization of the stories: “The one constant in these narratives is that everyone is defined by despair. The condition of despair cannot be ameliorated and the America so defined by these lost souls is a cruel and empty one.”
It is this dimension of Rumaker’s stories that struck me those many years ago and reverberates with me today, just as the novels of Pavese had. For it was Pavese’s existentialist vision through which he created a landscape, much like Smith describes Rumaker’s, “in which men are alienated from home, from family, from each other and from themselves,” that drew me, as it did so many young writers suffering, as we did, from the Cold War malaise of the 1950s, a sense that, even in the midst of post-war prosperity, we had come to an ending. The values we had been taught in school and by our parents no longer obtained, and we could come up with no alternatives. Much of this I had acted out under the influence of the Beats, rather than articulated; leaving my country for another was a further act of rebellion. But once I was settled in Florence, reading deeply in European literature and meeting students who were politically engaged, I began to understand just what it was that had motivated me to turn my back on so much in America that my classmates seemed to be rushing toward—money, jobs, success, marriage, home ownership; all of the empty symbols of the American dream. *
At first glance one might mistake Rumaker’s stories merely as narratives of the American underclass, viewed through a purely realist or even naturalist prism. But early on Olson recognized their mythic and symbolic substrata, and Rumaker himself has spoken and written of their unconscious dimensions, particularly in his seminal essay, “The Use of the Unconscious in Writing,” where he indicates that “story can be, obliquely, a map of the unconscious, noting incisively that “the unconscious nests the actual.” Rumaker goes on to explain that “the landscapes that draw one are the landscapes of the self. Actual or imagined, the unconscious one posits itself on the physical one, inevitably permeating it.” This, then, is the key to understanding the stories beyond their often deceptive realist surfaces.
Rumaker’s unjustly neglected novel The Butterfly is another stage on the trajectory of his life as enacted in his writing. Just as I found the stories so gripping in their dramas of the masculine ego in conflict against the backdrop of American desolation, what Rumaker elsewhere calls, “the American male face, white, expressionless,” I found a greater lightness in the novel, though no less a sense of Rumaker’s continuing struggles. In this case, the young protagonist Jim is seen first as a patient in a mental health facility, suffering from an emotional breakdown that is described as presenting itself through anxiety, depression and possibly some form of schizophrenia. In reality, Rumaker’s central conflict was over his sexual identity, “my struggle with guilt and my gayness,” as he wrote in Robert Duncan in San Francisco. Though Jim leaves the hospital “programmed to find a woman and go straight,” as Albert Goldman writes of Rumaker in his 1988 biography of John Lennon, hospitalization and its clearly regressive therapy did not help Rumaker achieve the freedom he desired in being able to own and live out his identity as a fully conscious, self-loving gay man.
There is much that is important and innovative in The Butterfly, even if by the story’s end Jim—and Rumaker— do not attain the liberation each so richly deserves, though Jim has relationships (as Rumaker once did) with two women, who have been identified as Yoko Ono, later married to John Lennon, and Joyce Johnson, who once lived with Jack Kerouac. The novel is one of the earliest American fictions to deal directly and unromantically with mental health and its treatment. It contains both a critique of that culture (how many gay Americans have been cruelly and inappropriately forced into treatment in order to “go straight” and with often such tragic consequences) and a sense of the vulnerability of those behind hospital walls, as they struggle together to come to terms with their lostness and pain, in the case of gay men, “that hysteria always deep in every American male (gay or straight)” about whether we measure up to what the culture defines as male. It would be some time before Rumaker freed himself both of the personal and sexual alienation depicted in the stories and the emotional conflicts so beautifully rendered in the novel. But in two subsequent books, a novel, A Day and a Night in the Baths, and a memoir, My Saturnalia, Rumaker is seen as having finally come to terms with his sexuality and expressing that next stage in the trajectory I’ve spoken of, a liberation that in many ways is a forerunner of the gay liberation movement of the 1970s after Stonewall and the emergence of Gay Pride.
A Day and a Night in the Baths, first published in 1977 by Don Allen’s Grey Fox Press and now re-issued by Triton with a new introduction by the author, is an account of one man’s initiation into the now lost world of New York’s Everard Turkish steam baths. It's narrative arc, beginning in timidity and restraint and ending in release and joyous relief, as the narrator gives himself over to the freedom of unrestrained male partnership, is not unlike the arc of Rumaker’s own path to sexual liberation. “I felt possessed,” as he writes at the book’s conclusion, “by the revelation of what must have been the secret delivered at the ancient mystery rites, at deepest night, beneath the earth in cave-light, in the light of roots, where Eros makes us ourselves, makes us see in blindness, in sight and sense renewed. . .in erotic circlings without hierarchy.”
In these two books, Smith writes, Rumaker “probed directly his own development as a gay man and produced fictions that celebrate human—particularly gay—sexuality.” At the same time, Smith continues, Rumaker “abandoned his storyteller’s voice for the first person… When we look back at his earlier fiction through these narratives this step becomes both short and logical, though also a difficult one to take (requiring roughly ten years to accomplish),” as Rumaker confronted and ultimately conquered what Smith describes as his “predicament as a homosexual male in the 1950s”
During this period of Rumaker’s self-liberation and freedom from the equally restrictive prison of addiction, he was at work on two major novels, Pagan Days, in which he undertakes an exhaustive and marvelously Proustian excavation of his childhood in an Irish working class family during the Depression years, the family that ultimately kicked him out “for being queer and not going to church,” and To Kill a Cardinal, a brilliant and fiercely comic fable in which the double repressions of homophobia and religion are confronted.
It is also during this period, the 1970s and 80s, that Rumaker was engaged in writing what would become his masterwork, Black Mountain Days, the memoir of his years of intellectual growth at the experimental college in Asheville, North Carolina and his often fraught but deeply influential relationship with his teacher and mentor Charles Olson.
As it was for many of us upon first encountering Olson, for Rumaker it was “the personal magnetism and generous warmth, the talk of the man I responded to . . .Listening to him was like riding a magic carpet anywhere in the imagination or the world.” With Olson’s help (and Creeley’s) Rumaker began to find his voice as a writer, “my own rudimentary and inchoate sense of stirring that had no language yet, just as then, too, songs of celebratory queerness were a long way off in the learning and the making.”
As innovative as the college was, its progressivism and isolation allowing students like Rumaker to explore their gayness along with their intellectual development, Rumaker describes a subtle yet pervasive homophobic atmosphere, which reflected that of the culture at large. Yet, at the same time, as Smith writes, “at Black Mountain Rumaker had found a place where he could begin to learn to write and where he could begin to be who he was.” The book is primarily a celebration of that experience, “the most meaningful and exciting [experience] I had ever known and will probably ever know,” Rumaker writes.
Black Mountain Days, as Smith concludes, “manages both a celebration of a time and place of great creativity and an autobiographical narrative that outlines and underlines, in its depictions of Rumaker’s personal struggles as a gay man, the repressive roles afforded both women and men in the USA of the 1950s.” It is also a major American document about the coming of age and into consciousness of one of our most vital and courageous writers, a writer so essential not only for an understanding of what we have lived through, but what we are continuing to struggle with in a dangerously divided country and culture.
Robert Duncan in San Francisco, impeccably edited and with a comprehensive introduction by Ammiel Alcalay and Megan Paslowski that places the text in its own history and also in the current moment, brings Rumaker’s life from the close of Black Mountain Days to the present, even as it allows us to return to a seminal period in the writer’s life just after he graduated from Black Mountain. In October of 1956 Rumker hitchhiked to San Francisco to visit Robert Duncan whom he had met at Black Mountain. Through Duncan he was introduced to many of the major writers and artists who would comprise both the Beat Movement and what would be called the San Francisco Renaissance, poets and writers like Duncan himself, Jack Spicer, Allen Ginsberg, John Wieners and Jack Kerouac, to name only a few of the dozens of writers whose lives and work would define the opening of an authentic American counter-culture. Rumaker was on the scene for the beginning of this movement that would equally prefigure the revolutionary political, social and sexual transformations of the 1960s. Not a little ironically, while Rumaker and many of the gay men and women he met in San Francisco were trying to liberate themselves, a repressive police and political establishment was trying to force them back into the shadows. Though often heartbreaking, Rumaker’s account of these defining times is also exhilarating in its stories of creative men and women trying to break out of the double cages of Cold War repression and the oppressive sexual roles imposed on them by a society, in which, Rumaker says, “everybody from Senator Joe McCarthy on up was a terminal closet case.”
The book ends with an interview of Rumaker by Alcalay and Paslowski, during which Rumaker’s personal and literary life are brought full circle, from his composition of the early stories to the publication and reception of Black Mountain Days and Pizza, Rumaker’s stunning collection of poetry (2005), and the welcome republication of Gringos and A Day and a Night at the Baths. In the interview Rumaker also pays homage to Olson, his great teacher:
“Charles never told you what you should do, he didn’t want you to write like him, he wanted you to get to the core of yourself. . . to that person who is you… without all the pretenses of high-flown language and hyperbole. . .but to really get it down, to write as simply as possible, directly as possible, but not to leave out the complexities.”
In a lifetime of writing, Michael Rumaker has done just that.
*Pavese was driven to suicide in 1950 by political and sexual conflicts that were not unlike Rumaker’s. For the best account in English of the novelist’s influence by and deep commitment to American literature and culture, see Lawrence G. Smith’s Cesare Pavese and America, (University of Massachusetts Press, 2008).
(This essay first appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of House Organ, edited by Kenneth Warren)