Kenneth Rexroth: Poet, Pacifist, Radical, and Reluctant Father of the Beat Generation

For the exciting tale of Rexroth’s turbulent Hoosier upbringing and the mischief he got into along the way, see part one: The Midwestern Making of Kenneth Rexroth.

Photo accessed Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 120.
Kenneth Rexroth, Portrait of Andree Rexroth, accessed Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 122.

After a period of hitchhiking their way towards the West Coast, camping, and living on cold food, the twenty two-year-old burgeoning poet Kenneth Rexroth and his new artist wife Andrée, arrived in San Francisco in the summer of 1927. Rexroth biographer, Linda Hamalian, referred to them as “forerunners of the flower children who flocked to Northern California during the fifties and sixties.” In San Francisco they found exactly what they had been hoping for: a rich cultural environment without the pretense they sensed in the East Coast artistic community.

Montgomery Block, photograph, 1906, accessed Peter Lawrence Kane, “Bohemian Grave: The Montgomery Block,” San Fransisco Weekly, July 9, 2015, courtesy of archives.sfweekly.com

They quickly met other artists and writers and found jobs painting furniture. They moved into an apartment on the Montgomery Block, often called the Monkey Block, that had long housed artists and writers, including the Hoosier author Ambrose Bierce. Rexroth wrote that they had little money, but “limited needs” and were able to live “the kind of life that I’ve lived almost always since, a sort of semi-monastic life devoted to writing and painting.”

Andree and Kenneth Rexroth, “Bathers,” oil on canvas, n.d., accessed Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 120.

The young couple also spent time enjoying the lush and varied natural environment surrounding San Francisco which Rexroth wrote “kept me in California all these years.” They swam and hiked and noted the unique flora and fauna. This love for nature deeply influenced Rexroth’s writing and he worried about destruction of the natural world by developers. In later years, he described himself as a sort of early environmentalist writer:

My poetry and philosophy of life became what it’s now fashionable to call ecological. I came to think of myself as a microcosm in a macrocosm, related to chipmunks and bears and pine trees and stars and nebulae and rocks and fossils, as part of an infinitely interrelated complex of being. This I have retained.

Reprint of the WPA Guide to California (Pantheon Books, 1984) accessed Amazon.com.

By the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, Rexroth was employed by the Work’s Progress Administration (WPA) contributing to the “American Guide” series of handbooks for each state. Rexroth and several other local poets and writers created the California guide and were able to inject information on natural conservation and  into the otherwise standard guidebook.

While he had contributed scattered “cubist poetry” to what Hamalain described as “ephemeral publications” upon his arrival in San Fransisco, by the 1930s he was regularly writing and publishing work in journals and small volumes of poetry. Much of this poetry combined natural imagery with his radical leftist political beliefs and strong anti-war sentiment. For example, his poem “At Lake Desolation,”  published in the magazine The New Republic in 1935, contrasted the stillness of nature with the horrors of war. The poem begins:

Kenneth Rexroth, “Requiem for the Dead in Spain,” New Republic, March 24, 1937, 201, accessed ebscohost.com;

The sun is about to come up and the regiments lie
scattered in the furrow their large eyes
wet in the pale light and their throats cut

He explored similar themes in his poetry throughout the 1930s and became a staunch pacifist. In 1937, the New Republic journal published Rexroth’s poem “Requiem for the Dead in Spain,” lamenting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. He began the work by describing his walk through the beautiful Sierra Mountains under the stars, the tone changes as he suddenly feels sick thinking about the war. He laments:

I see the unwritten books, the unrecorded experiments,
The unpainted pictures, the interrupted lives,
Lowered into the graves with the red flags over them.
I see the quick gray brains broken and clotted with blood,
Lowered each in its own darkness, useless in the earth.
Alone on a hilltop in San Francisco suddenly
I am caught in a nightmare, the dead flesh
Mounting over half the world presses against me.

James Laughlin, ed., New Directions in Poetry and Prose (New York: New Directions, 1937), photograph accessed via Amazon.com.

That same year, the influential independent publisher James Laughlin included Rexroth’s work in his second annual New Directions in Poetry and Prose, a publication the Academy of American Poets referred to as “pivotal.” In 1940, Macmillan published Rexroth’s first major collection, In What Hour. The work was considered wholly original and cemented his place at the forefront of the San Francisco literary movement.  A reviewer for the Oakland Tribune wrote: “Rexroth is wholly and essentially a poet in the new manner. Usually a poet’s first work, and this is Rexroth’s first book, enables the acute reader to name his literary progenitors. But Rexroth’s poetical parents, if he has any, are not known.”  The critic continued, “Despite this break with tradition, or it may be, as the apostles of the modern poetry claim, because of this independence, Rexroth’s book is important and tremendously interesting.” Hamalain wrote that the poems that make up In What Hour “demonstrate his remarkable ability to render plausible the possibility of spiritual presence and a sense of unity in the natural world” despite the threats of the modern age.

Oakland Tribune, September 1, 1940, 18, accessed Newspapers.com.
Kenneth Rexroth, Marie Rexroth, wax, silica, and pigment on board, c. 1936, collection of James S. Jaffe Rare Books, LLC., accessed jamesjaffe.com

While his writing career was taking off, his marriage was dissolving.  Rexroth moved out and began a relationship with Marie Kass, a “whipsmart” nurse, who would become his second wife in 1941. While he was happy with Marie, he was devastated when Andrée died October 17, 1940 from a seizure.  He wrote of Andrée in a poem published in The Phoenix and the Tortoise:

I know that spring again is splendid
As ever, the hidden thrush
As sweetly tongued, the sun as vital —
But these are the forest trails we walked together,
These paths, ten years together.
We thought the years would last forever,
They are all gone now, the days
We thought would not come for us are here.

This idea, that love and nature could serve as spiritual refuge in troubled times, became even more significant with the outbreak of World War II and the entry of the United States into the conflict in 1941. Rexroth maintained his pacifist stance and applied for conscientious objector status February 19, 1943. Throughout the war, Rexroth worked with pacifist organizations such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the American Friends Service Committee, and the local branch of the National Committee for Conscientious Objectors. He wrote that at one point he received a notice from his draft board that his status had been changed from 4-E, conscientious objector to 1-A, available for armed service.  He wrote, “I immediately appealed. The process dragged on for over a year while the FBI investigated the claim as by law they were required to do . . . There was no question that I was a bona-fide Conscientious Objector.”

Executive Order 9066, February 19, 1942; General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives accessed https://www.archives.gov/.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, some Americans began questioning the loyalty of Japanese Americans, a large number of whom lived on the West Coast. In February 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which relocated Japanese Americans, including native born citizens, inland, away from the coast (which had been identified as the Pacific military zone) and confined them to internment camps. Thousands were forced to leave their homes and businesses.  However, some Americans, including Rexroth, opposed internment as racist and unconstitutional.

National Archives caption: Registration in San Francisco, California. Residents of Japanese ancestry file forms containing personal data, two days before evacuation, at a Wartime Civil Control Administration station. National Archives Identifier: 536056 accessed https://catalog.archives.gov/id/536056
National Archives caption: Posting of Exclusion Order at First and Front Streets in San Francisco, California, directing removal of persons of Japanese ancestry from the first section in San Francisco to be affected by the evacuation.
National Archives Identifier: 536017 accessed https://catalog.archives.gov/id/536017

Rexroth wrote in his autobiography that even before the U.S. declared war on Japan, that he worried Japanese Americans would face persecution. He wrote a letter and sent it to various pacifist groups and religious groups, stating that when war was declared, “the persecution of Japanese and Americans of Japanese ancestry, because they are marked by their color and features, will be worse than that of the German-Americans of the First World War.” He wrote in his autobiography, “I managed to persuade them to set up a committee with the absurd title of the American Committee to Protect the Rights of Americans of Oriental Ancestry.” When Rexroth and other members of the Friends Service Committee got word from a “contact in the White House” about the order for internment, they “immediately got on the phones,” and urged each person they called to call five more people. They also called university and political contacts and civil liberties organizations. While perhaps an aggrandizement, Rexroth credited this work with mobilizing opinion in the Bay Area against internment.

National Archives caption: Waiting for Evacuation in San Francisco, California. With baggage stacked, residents of Japanese ancestry await a bus at the Wartime Civil Control Administration station, 2020 Van Ness Avenue, as part of the first group of 664 to be evacuated from San Francisco on April 6, 1942. Evacuees will be housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration.
National Archives Identifier: 536065, accessed https://catalog.archives.gov/id/536065

Rexroth took more direct action as well. Again according to his autobiography, Rexroth explained a scheme that saved several Japanese-Americans, including a personal friend, from internment.  He contacted the Midwest Art Academy in Chicago, which he called a “phony correspondence school” that advertised scholarships “in cheap pulp magazines” for classes on “photo retouching, art, dress design, and knitting.” He convinced the school to sign registration papers for Japanese American students for a fee. He then contacted the “colonel in charge” of evacuation in San Francisco who agreed to provide educational passes for such students despite the school’s organization being “kind of a racket.”  He located funding through Jewish residents of San Francisco and worked with Quakers to “set up a student relocation program.” In this way, Rexroth wrote, “we started shoveling people our of the West Coast on educational passes.” The poet Robert Duncan wrote that both Kenneth and Marie were also “working in the camps . . . taking messages back and forth.”

Kenneth Rexroth, The Phoenix and the Tortoise (New York: New Directions, 1944).

Rexroth’s practice of Buddhism, Taoism, and yoga also influenced his pacifist views and actions. He incorporated this worldview, along with a belief of the transcendental power of love, into his writing. In 1944, New Directions Press published Rexroth’s The Phoenix and the Tortoise, a rumination on history and humanity’s major failings: war and its threat to the natural landscape. In this lengthy poem, there is still hope for humanity in nature and through love. While the tortoise represented the earthly and the mortal, the phoenix represented the transcendent, sublime, and immortal power of love. Likewise, the ocean symbolized nature’s power to transform and serve as sanctuary in a world threatened by war.  Literary critic John Palattella explained, “Nature’s indifference to human death is not a threat but a source of consolation, since the ocean’s one unchanging characteristic is that it changes everything.”

W.G. Rogers, “Author of the Week,”Waco (Texas) Herald Tribune, December 25, 1952, 25, Newspapers.com

While Rexroth and a small number of avante-garde writers flourished in the San Francisco area for several years, the end of the war in 1945 saw an influx of new artists and writers. Many of these new voices were drawn to the area because they had read Rexroth’s works and heard about the creative coterie he had organized: a group of rebellious writers who were exploring anti-establishment and far left politics in their literature along with other cultural critiques. Rexroth believed it was the war itself that created this cultural climate. He wrote in San Francisco Magazine:

Just as London under the buzz bombs enjoyed a literary renaissance and a profound change of social relationships . . . so San Francisco during the War woke up from a long provincial sleep and became culturally a world capital.

Rexroth also maintained what Beat scholar John Tytell called “a sort of western salon, a weekly literary gathering,” where Rexroth introduced poets to each other and hosted readings. Out of this meeting of minds came “an entirely new cultural synthesis,” which produced new movements in theater, art, and poetry. One newspaper described this literary gathering in 1948 as “the San Francisco bay area poetry forum,” but the broader movement became known as the San Francisco Renaissance. Rexroth considered the combination of political discussion, poetry, and jazz to be the foundation of the movement. Over the following decade, this San Francisco Renaissance ushered in the rise of the Beat Generation. Rexroth’s role as bandleader of the San Francisco movement was responsible for his gaining the title “Father of the Beat Poets,” though he would later reject the title and the movement.

Webster Schott, “Writers Dig the Beat Generation,” Kansas City (Missouri) Times, February 27, 1958, 34, accessed Newspapers.com.

According to the Academy of American Poets, “Beat poetry evolved during the 1940s in both New York City and on the West Coast, although San Francisco became the heart of the movement in the early 1950s.” The Beat Generation rejected mainstream culture and politics and expressed themselves through new and non-conventional forms of poetry. Beat scholars point to the salon-type meetings organized by Rexroth as essential to bringing the Beats together. In the gatherings, the Beats would explore and embrace influential themes in Rexroth’s prolific writings like anarchism, pacifism, mysticism, and environmentalism. Beat scholar Ann Charters also credits Rexroth’s writings on Asian philosophy as influencing the Beat writers’ interest in “Buddha consciousness.”

“Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bruce Lippincott, and Kenneth Rexroth Performing at the Cellar,” photograph, 1957, accessed Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Rexroth also helped establish jazz as an essential element of Beat poetry. During this period, Rexroth gained fame for combining his poetry with the music of local jazz groups. In San Francisco, he often performed at the Cellar, which became known for jazz and poetry performances and at the Blackhawk club with jazz bands like the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Two such performances were released on vinyl in 1957 and 1959.

Kenneth Rexroth, Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk, 1959, Fantasy Records, accessed garagehangover.com

Rexroth toured the country, performing regularly in New York City. According to the Academy of American Poets:

Rexroth was among the first twentieth-century poets to explore the prospects of poetry and jazz in tandem. He championed jazz and its musicians, publishing appreciations of players like Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, defending jazz in print against critics who deemed the music less than serious, and most importantly, he played in a jazz band himself, helping to define a role for the poet in the jazz world and a role for jazz in the poetry world.

“American Poet Kenneth Rexroth Reads One of His Poems as Three Musicians Play Instruments Alongside Him,” photograph, January 1, 1960, accessed Getty Images.

In the liner notes for his 1959 recording Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk, Rexroth wrote that jazz poetry “takes the poet out of the bookish, academic world” and returns the poetry to the realm of public entertainment. Rexroth believed that combining music and spoken word connected the audience and poet directly (as opposed to the mediation of the written word) and restored poetry to oral tradition.

“Poet Kenneth Rexroth Reading a Book at a Poetry Reading,” photograph
February 1, 1957, Getty Images, accessed gettyimages.com.uk

Mainly, however, it was his rejection of mainstream culture that aligned Rexroth with the Beat movement early on. For example, in 1951, in a syndicated review of Rexroth’s poem “The Dragon and the Unicorn” one critic noted that these rebellious writers were reacting to the post-war period with disgust. He stated that though in their writing style, they break with tradition, but their rebellion makes them part of a long tradition of creativity.

Six Gallery Poster, Allen Ginsberg Project, accessed ginsbergblog.blogspot.com.

On October 7, 1955, at a poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, Rexroth introduced Allen Ginsberg who read his revolutionary poem “Howl.” Scholars often point to this as the culminating event of the San Francisco Renaissance and solidification of the Beat movement. Charters described the movement as “awakening a new awareness in the audience (at the Six Gallery) of the large group of talented young poets in the city, and giving the poets themselves a new sense of belonging to a community.”

Rexroth championed many of the new writers in a 1957 article for The Nation, including high praise for Ginsberg. He described the scene at the height of the movement:

Poetry readings to large and enthusiastic audiences are at least weekly occurrences – in small galleries, city museums, community centers, church social halls, pads and joints, apartments and studios, and at the very active Poetry Center at San Francisco State College, which also imports leading poets . . . Poetry out here, more than anywhere else, has a direct, patent, measurable, social effect, immediately grasped by both poet and audience.

Fred Danzig, “‘Beat Generation’ Got that Way through Draft, Missiles, Hydrogen Bombs, Wars,” (Elwood) Call-Leader, April 28, 1958, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

Rexroth argued that the Beat movement started as a radical literary movement, but quickly turned into a “hipster lifestyle,” that is, the pursuit of fashionable trends and not larger truths. He soon distanced himself from the movement because he felt the East Coast Beats, and especially Jack Kerouac, were opportunists seeking fame and mainstream acceptance. Rexroth was quoted by a reporter in 1958 as saying, “This beat thing, which is a publicity gimmick in the hands of Madison Avenue, will die away.”

“Poet Kenneth Rexroth Reading a Book,” photograph, February 1, 1957, Getty Images, accessed gettyimages.co.uk

Regardless, Rexroth had directly influenced the Beat movement probably more so than any other poet.  In 1958, one reporter astutely wrote that Rexroth “seems to fix the entrance requirements.” Charters explained that Rexroth was one of a handful of writers who had “sown the seeds” for the flowering of the Beat movement. She refered to Rexroth as a “mentor” for the younger Beats and “the dominant force in the cultural life of San Francisco for more than half a century.”

The “Classics Revisited” series was compiled into book form, first edition in 1968. Image: Kenneth Rexroth, Classics Revisited (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1986)

Although the Beat movement melted into the counterculture movements of the sixties and rock and roll became the dominant outlet for rebellious youth, Rexroth remained a central figure in American literature. He continued to write poetry and extensive cultural and literary criticism. In addition to his original contributions, his translations of foreign poetry and his writings on literature such as his “Classics Revisited” column in the Saturday Review increased his importance to the literary world.

Kenneth Rexroth, The Alternative Society (Herder and Herder, 1970).

Writing for the Chicago Review, Rexroth scholar Ken Knabb looked back on the over 800 columns that Rexroth wrote for the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and San Francisco Magazine during the 1960s and 1970s.  Knabb wrote in admiration of the diversity of topics that Rexroth covered: reviews of jazz and classical concerts, operas, films, Chinese theater, performances of Shakespeare; discussions of art, literature, fishing, architecture, drugs, wine, Civil Rights, war, and politics; observations from his world travels; arguments for the women’s liberation and ecological movements; and criticisms of the past cultural movements through which he lived and participated. Knabb concluded that “as an ensemble . . . they add up to a social document and critical commentary of remarkable range.”

Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung, The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China (McGraw-Hill 1972)

While Rexroth had begun translating poetry from other languages in the 1950s, he dedicated more and more of his time to the task later in life. He paid special attention to translating the work of women poets starting in the 1970s in works such as The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China (1972) and The Burning Heart: The Women Poets of Japan (1977).  By this point, his own work incorporated imagery and meter learned through decades of translating Chinese and Japanese poetry.

In his review of Rexroth’s collection The Morning Star (1979), critic Emiko Sakurai praised these poems especially as “extraordinary poems, rich and sensuous, always immediate, febrile and powerful” and called Rexroth “a poet of the first rank.”  However, Sakurai had a hunch about Rexroth. He noted that “The Love Poems of Marichiko” were “ostensibly” written by a young Japanese woman. Indeed, they were actually written by Rexroth from this imagined perspective. Critics noted the transformative power his work as a translator had on his own original work and his ability to write convincingly from the a feminine perspective of his invented character.

Wolfgang Saxon, “Kenneth Rexroth, 76, Author; Ffather Figure to Beat Poets,” June 8, 1982, D26, accessed ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Upon Rexroth’s death in 1982, the New York Times described this “poet, author, critic and translator of Chinese, Japanese and classic Greek poetry” as greatly influential on later generations of writers. The Times obituary noted that he received acclaim from both radical literary and political circles as well as “honors and awards from more orthodox literary corners,” such as Guggenheim fellowships and a prestigious grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964.

Although he came to despise being called “Father of the Beats,” Rexroth created a cultural movement that influenced the voice and  worldview of some of America’s best poets. Frankly, there would be no Ginsberg or Kerouac without Rexroth. However, it is his own unique voice that will forever hold his place in this country’s literary canon. Perhaps the best summary of his significance comes from poet and publisher James Laughlin, who described his friend Kenneth Rexroth aptly as “an American cultural monument.”

Left to right: Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, and James Laughlin. Image is detail of photo by D. Sorenson, City Lights in North Dakota Conference, March 18, 1974, accessed Allen Ginsberg Project.

Further reading:

Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991).

Ann Charters, ed., The Portable Beat Reader (New York: Penguin Books, 1992).

The Midwestern Making of Kenneth Rexroth: Robbing Cash Registers and Reading the Classics

At times described as cantankerous, paranoid, and bitter, Kenneth Rexroth, the trail-blazing Hoosier poet, cajoled and harangued some of the best poets of the Beat Generation. At the same time, he worked tirelessly to promote their work. Rexroth’s own radical poetry both preceded and inspired the Beats, though at times he refused to be associated with the movement that he thought had lost its meaning by the late 1950s, and especially that “hipster” Jack Kerouac.

Kenneth Rexroth, accessed via Poetry Foundation.

As important as Rexroth’s poetry is to American literature, his life story is perhaps even more fascinating. And while much has been written about his years in San Francisco laying the groundwork for a literary renaissance in that city that grew into the larger Beat movement, little has been written about his time in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio – a period when the budding poet rubbed elbows with anarchists, burlesque dancers, criminals, and the artistic and literary elite of the Midwest and the world.

Kenneth Rexroth Home, South Bend, Indiana, 2016, accessed Google Maps

Kenneth Rexroth was born on December 22, 1905 in South Bend, Indiana. Young Rexroth’s first residence was a house at 828 Park Avenue in South Bend which still stands and will soon be the site of an Indiana State Historical Marker commemorating his life and career. In Kenneth Rexroth: An Autobiographical Novel, he described the house as “substantial and comfortable,” near to the Oliver Hotel and Mr. Eliel’s drug store. According to a 1905 article in the Elkhart Daily Review, Rexroth’s father was working as a traveling pharmaceutical salesman.

In 1908, the Rexroth family moved to a home on East Beardsley Avenue in Elkhart, Indiana, a relocation that made the local newspaper.

Elkhart Daily Review, June 29, 1908, 1, accessed NewspaperArchive.com
“Surface Car Terminal, Elkhart, Indiana,” photograph, ca. 1910, The Indiana Album.

Rexroth wrote a description of the Elkhart home as well:

This was a quiet residential street above the river where all the best homes in the town were in those days, where the patent-medicine people, the musical-instrument people, the buggy-works people, the corset people, and all the other leading citizens of the town lived in their wooden, sometimes Palladian or Romanesque mansions, and we had our own little Palladian house.

While Rexroth was born into a comfortable life, his family’s circumstances soon deteriorated. His parents, Charles Marion and Delia Rexroth, had difficulties with alcohol, chronic illness, and each other. Rexroth wrote that his mother was drinking champagne when she went into labor and bluntly called his father a “drunk” and a “constant gambler.” When he was five, circa 1910, they left the lovely house on East Beardsley due to his father’s diminishing finances. The family moved more often then, mostly renting, but Rexroth remembers living in a “run-down Victorian house” on Second Street that he believed they owned. Despite setbacks, he remembered his childhood in Elkhart fondly. His mother taught him to read early and immersed him in classical literature. He spent time at the library, learned French, explored the neighborhood, and fell in love with Helen, “the little girl next door,” when they were just six or seven. His parents were able to afford a family tour of Europe, which made quite an impression on young Rexroth.

However, his mother continued to succumb to a chronic illness that multiple doctors were unable to diagnose, and his father intensified his drinking and gambling. Sometime around 1914, when Rexroth was nine, the family moved briefly to Battle Creek, Michigan, and then to Chicago the following year, where they lived with relatives. Rexroth’s father’s alcoholism put him near death on at least one occasion and he left the family, likely for some sort of sanitarium. Rexroth moved with his mother into a small apartment and they rarely saw his father. After a painful period fighting what was likely tuberculosis, Delia Rexroth died in 1916. Eleven-year-old Rexroth went to live with his father and grandmother in Toledo, Ohio. Here, Rexroth began to seek and find trouble.

Photograph, 1916, accessed Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 120.

Rexroth had little supervision in Toledo. He began running around town with a gang of boys who would rob cash registers and, despite his young age, he ran various money-making hustles that involved running errands for “brothels, cardrooms, and burlesque shows.” He also witnessed the Willys-Overland labor strike that turned riotous. Rexroth wrote that this was a significant moment in his youth and he “started off in the labor movement.” In 1919, at this uncertain juncture in Rexroth’s early adolescence, his father also died.

Rexroth’s aunt, Minnie Monaham, retrieved the thirteen-year-old trouble maker and brought him back to Chicago to live with the rest of the Monahams. The 1920 U.S. Census shows that the nine person household was located on Indiana Avenue, but they soon moved to an apartment on South Michigan Avenue in the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Rexroth enrolled in the nearby Englewood High School. School administrators quickly expelled him for his poor attitude and attendance. It was outside of the Chicago public school system, however, that Rexroth pursued a more profound education.

Carl Sandburg, “Chicago,” 1916, Chicago Historical Society, accessed via Encyclopedia of Chicago.

Perhaps in the same manner he was able to gain access to the burlesque theaters of Toledo, Rexroth found access to the clubs of the poets and writers gathered in this Midwest city during the second wave of the Chicago Literary Renaissance. Among these were important local poets such as Carl Sandburg and Harriet Monroe, writers and intellectuals such as Hoosier-born Theodore Dreiser, and political thinkers such as famous Hoosier socialist, Eugene Debs, as well as the “big names” of the international art and literature worlds. This intellectual elite met at formal and informal clubs and locations around the city.

Rexroth also explored the radical political movements of the period at venues such as the Washington Park Bug Club, also known as Bughouse Square, which met in a “a shallow grassy amphitheater beside a lagoon off in the middle of the park,” according to Rexroth. Bughouse Square was, for a time, “the most celebrated outdoor free-speech center in the nation and a popular Chicago tourist attraction,” according to the Chicago Historical Society. Here, people with a host of different ideas would get on their soapboxes (sometimes literally) and orate to the crowds that would gather. Rexroth wrote that “here, every night until midnight could be heard passionate exponents of every variety of human lunacy” such as:

“Anarchist-Single-Taxers, British-Israelites [or Anglo-Israelite], sell-anointed archbishops of the American Catholic Church, Druids, Anthroposophists, mad geologists who had proven the world was flat or that the surface of the earth was the inside of a hollow sphere, and people who were in communication with the inhabitants of Mars, Atlantis, and Tibet, severally and sometimes simultaneously. Besides, struggling for a hearing was the whole body of orthodox heterodoxy — Socialists, communists (still with a small “c”), IWWs [International Workers of the World], De Leonites, Anarchists, Single Taxers (separately, not in contradictory combination), Catholic Guild Socialists, Schopenhauerians, Nietzscheans — of whom there were quite a few — Stirnerites, and what later were to be called Fascists.”

“Dill Pickle Club Entrance,” photograph, n.d., Newberry Library, Dill Pickle, Box 2, Folder 32, Chicago Historical Society, accessed via Encyclopedia of Chicago.

Another inspiring haunt for Rexroth was the Dill Pickle Club, not far from Bughouse Square, where artists and writers along with socialists and anarchists gathered for social and artistic experimentation. Rexroth wrote that there were independent theater productions Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. On Sunday night, there were lectures on various topics. On Saturday nights “the chairs were cleared away and the Chicago jazzmen of the early Twenties played for a dance which lasted all night.” Rexroth remembered the actors and sets as being awful but somehow they produced plays that were “the very best.” Lectures were given by “every important scholar who came through the town, and all those who were attached to the universities.”

Most significantly, however, Rexroth gained entrée to the salon at the home of Jake Loeb, where he encountered the leaders of the local literary movement, international visitors such as D. H. Lawrence, and access to books of artists and writers who would greatly influence him, such as Gertrude Stein. In his autobiography, Rexroth referred to Loeb’s home as “a more important Middle Western cultural institution in 1923 than the University of Chicago, the Art Institute, the Symphony, and the Chicago Tribune put together.” He wrote that he met “everybody who was anybody in the Chicago of the Twenties and everybody who was anybody who was passing through town.” He continued:

“Besides the famous transients, many of whom stayed in the place, the house was full every night of the cream of Chicago’s intellectuals in the brief postwar period of Chicago’s second renaissance. It seems rather pointless even to list them — any of them — because they were all there. . . It is not that I met famous people — it is that I learned by listening to impassioned discussion among mature people, all of whom were out in the world putting their ideas into effect.”

Rexroth was also starting to put his ideas into effect. Although he had shown little academic or literary promise thus far, Rexroth became “a prolific painter and poet by age seventeen,” according to the Poetry Foundation. By this point he was running from one cultural hot-spot to another, performing the poetry to which he was being exposed. He wrote in his autobiography that if he hustled he could make over fifty dollars in a weekend. He continued, “Thus began my career as a boy soapboxer, bringing poetry to the masses.”

“Self Portrait” by Kenneth Rexroth, published in Chicago Review 55.2/¾, accessed via Chicago Review tumblr.

He began working a number of odd jobs, and in his free time, experimenting with oil paints and piano. One such job was at the Green Mask on Grand Avenue and State Street. Rexroth referred to the Green Mask as a “tearoom,” but it was probably more accurately a cabaret, and it was located in the basement of a brothel. Rexroth wrote, “The place was a hangout for bona-fide artists, writers, musicians, and people from show business.” He continued, “In the Mask there gradually formed a small, permanent family of oddities who were there every night and never paid for their coffee.” Here Rexroth was able to see and perform poetry with some of the era’s best poets and musicians, both black and white, local and national. These included the “seclusive and asocial” poet Edgar Lee Masters, local African American poet Fenton Johnson, nationally-acclaimed black poet and playwright Langston Hughes, the local jazz drummer Dave Tough (who Rexroth called Dick Rough in his autobiography), and an assortment of dancers, singers, and drag queens. This group held weekly poetry readings and lectures and jazz performances. Rexroth and others began combining jazz and poetry, a technique he would become known for by the time he headed out west and one that would greatly influence the Beat Generation. He wrote that here, at the Green Mask, “happened the first reading of poetry to jazz that I know of.” About this early Chicago jazz scene, he wrote:

“I’m afraid that I can’t provide any inside information about the formative years of jazz, for the simple reason that none of us knew that this was what was happening. We didn’t know we were making history and we didn’t think we were important. . . Jazz was pretty hot and made a lot of noise. People talked loud to be heard above it, got thirsty and drank too much and made trouble, so we tried to keep the jazz small and cool . . . I remember many nights going over to the piano and saying, ‘For Christ’s sake, cool it or you’ll get us all busted!'”

Chicago Tribune, January 11, 1923, 1, accessed Chicago Tribune Archives.

As he predicted, the Green Mask did get busted. In 1923, the Chicago Tribune reported that thirty-five “Bohemians” were arrested in a raid at the Green Mask. The Tribune article stated: “The police entered the place after standing outside for some time listening to what they say was the reading of indecent poetry by George Lexington.” The owner was booked as “keeper of a disorderly house.” Rexroth was also arrested because he was considered part owner for investing some small amount of money into the place. He was sentenced to a year in jail.

Photograph, 1922, in G. A. Claussenius, The House of Correction of the City of Chicago : a retrospect covering a half century of endeavor from the founding of the institution to the present time, 1871-1921 (City of Chicago, 1922), 7, accessed via Internet Archive.

He described the conditions on his arrival to the Chicago House of Corrections, or the “Bandhouse” as it was called:

This was quite a place. It had been built back in the Seventies or Eighties, with long, narrow windows like the archers’ slots in medieval castles, and a warped and muddy stone floor where the water oozed up in winter between the paving blocks. This was the only running water in the place. Each cell was given a one-gallon pail of water once a day and provided with a battered old bucket for a privy. It was a cage-type cell house. The cells were all in the center about thirty feet away from the walls, so the only view was through the heavy iron grilles and door which looked out on brick walls and filthy windows through which it was impossible to see anything. The inner cells looked out on the tier opposite. The whole thing was built of iron, and any movement in it resounded as though it had happened inside a bell; any cough or groan or cry was magnified as if by an immense megaphone. In each cell there were four iron-slatted bunks that folded up against the wall. There were no mattresses, and each fish [inmate] was provided, along with his slops, with a filthy khaki Army blanket full of holes.

Rexroth spent the winter in these circumstances and explained that he “got a little closer to the underworld.” When he got out of the Bandhouse, he spent most of his time pursuing various young women, two of whom lived in the same building, and writing them poetry. He became more involved in local theater productions and continued pursuing radical social theories and chasing down works of avant-garde literature. He began reading more spiritual works and even spent a few months in a monastery. He also began a period of traveling and recording his observations of nature in his poetry – something else he would become known as a master of in later life.

Photo accessed Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 120.

In late December 1926, Rexroth met the artist Andrée Schafer through friends, just briefly outside their door. When his friends asked him what he thought about her, Rexroth replied, “I intend to marry her.” They began working on paintings together, both of them working on the same canvas, “like one person,” according to Rexroth. They married a few weeks later in January 1927 and left for a new life on the West Coast that spring. In San Francisco, instead of experiencing a cultural Renaissance, Rexroth would create one.

Check back next week for more about this Hoosier rebel in part two of this story: Kenneth Rexroth: Poet, Pacifist, Radical, and Reluctant Father of the Beat Generation

For more information:

Kenneth Rexroth, An Autobiographical Novel (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966).

Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991).

Robert Ingersoll and Lew Wallace’s Legendary Train Ride

Robert Ingersoll (Left) and Lew Wallace (Right). Courtesy of the Library of Congress and Literary History Blog.
Robert Ingersoll (Left) and Lew Wallace (Right). Courtesy of the Library of Congress and American Literary Blog.

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) remains one of the most influential leaders and intellectuals in “The Golden Age of Freethought” in the United States from the 1870s to the 1910s. Its adherents advocated for skepticism, science, and the separation of church and state. Ingersoll, a Civil War veteran, parlayed his success as a lawyer into an influential career in Republican politics, social activism, and oratory. Ingersoll served as a counterpoint to rising participation and influence in government of religion in the United States, delivering speeches to sell-out crowds that decried religiosity and its public entanglements. Ingersoll was also an early champion of women’s rights, influencing such early feminists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and later ones such as Margaret Sanger.

Robert Ingersoll addressing an audience in New Rochelle, New York, May 30, 1894. Courtesy of the Council for Secular Humanism.
Robert Ingersoll addressing an audience in New Rochelle, New York, May 30, 1894. Courtesy of the Council for Secular Humanism.

He also spent considerable time and energy in Indiana, a state whose own religious diversity towards the late nineteenth century expanded, including German Lutherans to Catholics and other protestant denominations. From giving lectures throughout the state to influencing some of Indiana’s well-known historic figures, Ingersoll left a profound impact on the state and its development during the Gilded Age. As an example, Ingersoll delivered lectures at the illustrious English’s Opera House several times. The Indianapolis News wrote in 1899 that his lecture on “Superstition” was well attended and that “several people were shocked by the lecturer’s utterances, and left, some of them stopping in the lobby to ‘talk it over.’ The remainder seemed to enjoy the walk.”

General Lew Wallace, circa 1860s. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
General Lew Wallace, circa 1860s. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

To get a further sense of this influence, one particular story bears recalling, which involved a train ride with an old Civil War colleague. Lew Wallace, Indiana native, Civil War general, and the author of the novel Ben-Hur, cited Ingersoll as his influence in writing the Christian epic. As Wallace biographers Robert and Katharine Morsberger noted, Wallace “had written the story [Ben-Hur] partly to refute Robert G. Ingersoll’s agnosticism. . . .” The story surrounding this influence is near apocryphal to scholars of both Ingersoll and Wallace. However, Wallace intimated the story’s veracity in the preface to a selection from Ben-Hur entitled The First Christmas.

An example of a passenger rail car, circa 1870s. Image courtesy of Trainweb.org.
An example of a passenger rail car, circa 1870s. Image courtesy of Trainweb.org.

On September 19, 1876, both Wallace and Ingersoll supposedly shared a train ride to Indianapolis to attend a Civil War soldiers’ reunion (although one of Wallace’s accounts says it was a Republican convention); both men served the Union Army during the Civil War and fought at the battle of Shiloh. Wallace recounted the highlights of their conversation in his preface to The First Christmas:

[I] took a sleeper [car] from Crawfordsville the evening before the meeting. Moving slowly down the aisle of the car, talking with some friends, I passed the state-room. There was a knock on the door from the inside, and some one [sic] called my name. Upon answer, the door opened, and I saw Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll looking comfortable as might be considering the sultry weather.

General Wallace in his study, 1899. Courtesy of the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum.
General Wallace in his study, 1899. Courtesy of the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum.

Ingersoll invited Wallace to join him in conversation. Wallace accepted on the condition that he could dictate the subject. From there, Wallace asked Ingersoll if he believed in the afterlife, the divinity of Christ, and the existence of God, with the “Great Agnostic” answering in the resounding, “I don’t know, do you?” Then, Wallace asked Ingersoll to present his best case against the doctrines of Christianity, which Ingersoll did with such “a melody of argument, eloquence, wit, satire, audacity, irreverence, poetry, brilliant antitheses, and pungent excoriation [concerning] believers in God. . . .” Ingersoll’s views of both theological and biblical skepticism shook Wallace to the core, with the latter remarking that, “I was in a confusion of mind unlike dazement.”

The title page to the first edition of Ben-Hur, 1880. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.
The title page to the first edition of Ben-Hur, 1880. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.

Lew Wallace’s own theological confusion, what he called “absolute indifference,” seemed spurred into action by Ingersoll’s words: “. . . as I walked into the cool darkness, I was aroused for the first time in my life to the importance of religion.” Thus, Wallace began his own investigation into the doctrines and traditions of Christianity, culminating in the authorship of Ben-Hur and a “conviction amounting to absolute belief in God and the divinity of Christ.” This story found its way into newspapers as well, with reporters recounting the meeting in the Terre Haute Sunday Evening Mail and the Indianapolis News. According to Wallace’s accounts and its echoes in newspapers, his evening with Ingersoll led to a full conversion to Christianity and the writing of one of the most successful religious novels of the period.

Wallace’s conversation with Ingersoll spurring him on to a religious awakening is indeed a compelling story.  However, a recently uncovered letter from Ingersoll gives cause to question the tale’s veracity. In 1887, seven years after Ben-Hur‘s publication, Ingersoll responded to a correspondent, Joseph Vardamann, asking about his role in inspiring Wallace’s novel.  Ingersoll wrote that he was “never well acquainted with” Wallace and did “not remember ever to have had a conversation with him on the subject of religion.” Ingersoll stressed that the story of their meeting on the train appeared to him as “without the slightest foundation.”

Ingersoll's letter to Joseph Vardaman, as reproduced in an 1922 issue of the Truth Seeker. Courtesy of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
Ingersoll’s letter to Joseph Vardaman, as reproduced in a 1922 issue of the Truth Seeker. Courtesy of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

For Wallace’s part in creating Ben-Hur, we know from documentary evidence that he was already well-advanced in writing the novel before the time he claimed the interaction with Ingersoll took place.  In 1874, Wallace wrote in a letter to his half-sister, “I have just come out of the court room, and business is over for the day. Now, for home, and a Jewish boy whom I have got into terrible trouble, and must get out of it as best I can.”  This letter clearly alludes to some of Judah Ben-Hur’s trials, whether being charged with the assassination of Valerius Gratus, being enslaved in a Roman galley, or surviving the sea battle.

While Wallace’s recollections with the “Great Agnostic” may have been a fiction, the story’s enduring popularity among Wallace scholars nevertheless speaks to Ingersoll’s intellectual and rhetorical power. The story of their supposed train ride in 1876 continues to interest scholars and the general public, but whether the event actually happened may be lost to history.

The Lew Wallace statue at the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.
The Lew Wallace statue at the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.
The Robert Ingersoll statue in Glen Oak Park in Peoria, Illinois. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.
The Robert Ingersoll statue in Glen Oak Park in Peoria, Illinois. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.

The Shared Humanism of Clemens and Kurt Vonnegut

Clemens (Left) was the Vonnegut family patriarch and lifelong freethinker. Kurt, Jr. (Right) was the great-grandson who carried his humanist heritage into his writing. Images courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Archives and Collections/citelighter.com.
Clemens (Left) was the Vonnegut family patriarch and lifelong freethinker. Kurt, Jr. (Right) was the great-grandson who carried his humanist heritage into his writing. Images courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Archives and Collections/citelighter.com.

The German-American community in Indianapolis, largely a product of mid-nineteenth century immigration, had a strong heritage of freethought (open evaluation of religion based on the use of reason). In particular, Clemens Vonnegut, the patriach of the Vonnegut family and lifelong freethinker, openly displayed his religious dissent through writings and community activism. This, in turn, influenced his family and the literary style of his great-grandson, novelist Kurt Vonnegut, especially the younger man’s ideas concerning God, religion, science, and ethics. The junior Vonnegut’s own midwestern brand of freethought, in the form of what literature scholar Todd F. Davis called a “postmodern humanism,” displayed a deep sense of skepticism about the irrationalism of his time, while simultaneously championing an ethical responsibility to ourselves and each other devoid of supernatural influences. Yet, true to his form as a freethinker, Kurt forged his own humanist identity. [*]

The Vonnegut Hardware Store, circa 1878. Founded by Clemens Vonnegut, the store would be an Indianapolis stable for well over a century. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
The Vonnegut Hardware Company on Washington Street, circa 1878. Founded by Clemens Vonnegut, the store would be an Indianapolis stable for well over a century. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

Clemens Vonnegut was born November 20, 1824, in Münster, Westphalia. In his early years, he studied in German public schools and apprenticed as a mercantile clerk. As recorded in the Indianapolis Press, a young Vonnegut came to the United States in the early 1830s, on assignment from his employer, J. L. de Ball and Company, which sold specialty fabrics. His year in New York convinced the young Vonnegut that America would be his permanent home. He then traveled to Indianapolis with his friend Charles Volmer to start a new life.

The Socialer Turnverein, a social club co-founded by Vonnegut, was the home of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis. Image Courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Collections and Archives.
The Socialer Turnverein, a social club co-founded by Vonnegut, was the home of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis. Image Courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Archives and Collections.

He founded the Vonnegut Hardware Store in 1852, and was considered by the Indianapolis Star as “one of the city’s most respected citizens….” Like fellow Hoosier freethinker Hermann Lieber, he was a co-founder of the Socialer Turnverein and a forceful voice for public education. Clemens founded the German-English Independent School and served on its board for over 30 years. He also served as the first president of the Freethinker Society from 1870-1875, gave lectures to the society on occasion, and even translated the celebrated agnostic orator Robert Ingersoll’s Open Letter to the Clergy of Indianapolis into German for publication. His actions and beliefs heavily impacted the inception and growth of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis.

The German-English Indepdendent School, also co-founded by Vonnegut. He would work on multiple school boards for over thirty years.
The German-English Independent School, also co-founded by Vonnegut. He would work on multiple school boards for over thirty years. Image courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Archives and Collections.

After the end of the Freethinker Society in 1890, Clemens Vonnegut continued his activism more than any former member, mostly through writing. A Proposed Guide for Instruction of Morals, published in 1900, enunciated Vonnegut’s philosophy of freethought, both in theory and in practice. This treatise also displayed a rhetorical flourish that Kurt would later cite as an influence in his autobiographical work, Palm Sunday.  Echoing Ingersoll and Heinzen before him, Vonnegut declared that, “No religious creed has any real proofs. It rests simply on assertions.”

However, that does not mean that humanity cannot be moral. In fact, Vonnegut argued the opposite:

True virtue is its own reward, which is not enhanced but rather misled by belief. Belief deprives us of the joys of this world by teaching us that we must detest them, and instead of them we must hope for a heaven. Belief forms the germ for persecution of those who differ from us in their religious convictions.

A Proposed Guide for Instruction of Morals, 1900. Published in both German and English, this pamplet by Clemens Vonnegut argued for a moral and just society without the need of superstition or religious beliefs. Courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Collections and Archives.
A Proposed Guide for Instruction of Morals, 1900. Published in both German and English, this pamplet by Clemens Vonnegut argued for a moral and just society without the need of superstition or religious beliefs. Courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Collections and Archives.

Vonnegut saw morality as the wellspring of the “intrinsic quality of human character which ought to be nourished and cultivated early, continually, and carefully.” In subsequent pages, Vonnegut explained how such “cultivation” is achieved. Public education, family instruction, physical fitness, and social activities presented the means by which individuals perfected a moral life without the supernatural. Like Ingersoll, Vonnegut’s morality was clear, traditional, based in the family, and demonstrated a moral life without the need of God. While Clemens Vonnegut presented his philosophy clearly, the events surrounding his death were anything but.

Clemens Vonnegut’s death in 1906 created somewhat of a mystery for his family, and later his great-grandson. It was said that he died in the snow . . . or so the story goes. Kurt Vonnegut recalls this story in his autobiographical work, Palm Sunday. In the winter of 1906, Clemens Vonnegut supposedly went for a routine stroll. Having lost his way, he wandered the streets of Indianapolis for hours before he was found dead by the side of the road by a search party. This story bewildered Kurt, whose own freethought can be traced to his great-grandfather and his own extended family. However, as with many family stories, this one stretches the truth a little.

Clemens did not die by the side of the road, but was rather found unconscious. The Indianapolis News reported that C. W. Jones, a local construction worker, found the 82-year-old Vonnegut nearly five miles from the city on Crawfordsville Pike. He sustained injuries to his head and right shoulder, but doctors feared that exposure to the elements might be his biggest challenge. After fighting for his life for five days, Clemens Vonnegut succumbed to pneumonia on January 13, 1906. His obituary cited his charity and love for knowledge, his activities within the Socialer Turnverein and the Freethinker Society, and his 27-year service for a local school board. True to his iconoclastic nature, Vonnegut wrote his own eulogy back in the 1870s and asked for its recitation when he died. As recorded in the Indianapolis Star, he railed against the creeds of Christianity:

I do not believe in the atonement to the blood of Christ or in the sin of incredulity. I do not believe in a punishment in a future life. I believe neither in a personal God nor a personal devil, but I honor the ideal which man has created as the tenor of all virtues and perfections, and has named God.

Until the very end, Clemens believed in the power of humanity to throw off the shackles of religion and embrace the values of inquiry and human-based ethics.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in New York City, 1979. Photo by Marty Reichenthal. Courtesy of slopemedia.org.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in New York City, 1979. Photo by Marty Reichenthal. Courtesy of slopemedia.org.

Nearly a century later, famed author Kurt Vonnegut (born in 1922 in Indianapolis) wrote in Palm Sunday that his great-grandfather’s freethought was his own “ancestral religion” and that he was “pigheadedly proud” of the heretical nature of his family. Kurt Vonnegut, a future honorary president of the American Humanist Association, carried the torch of freethought for his grandfather, and in some respects, introduced his ideas to a new generation.

In many of his works, Kurt would openly criticize religion, spirituality, and faith, so much so that it even contributed to the end of his first marriage. Nevertheless, echoing his grandfather in a 1980 speech at the First Parish Unitarian Church, Vonnegut declared, “Doesn’t God give dignity to everybody? No—not in my opinion. Giving dignity, the sort of dignity that is of earthly use, anyway, is something that only people do. Or fail to do.”

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) would become Vonnegut's most well known novel. Its open understanding of the barbarity of war, coupled with many humanist themes, continues to enthrall readers. Courtesy of In These Times.
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) would become Vonnegut’s most well known novel. Its open understanding of the barbarity of war, coupled with many humanist themes, continues to enthrall readers. Courtesy of In These Times.

His most popular novel, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), displays Kurt’s intense abhorrence of war (influenced by his own WWII POW experience) and a belief in a common humanity. Specifically, “so it goes” is a phrase that Vonnegut peppered throughout the novel, often after horrible events or even banal ones. This phrase conveys that no matter how bad things get, no matter how high one can get, the world (and indeed the universe) goes on. As an example, this passage from the novel, describing the protagonist Billy Pilgrim’s memory of a sculpture of Jesus, is fairly apt:

A military surgeon would have admired the clinical fidelity of the artist’s rendition of all Christ’s wounds—the spear wound, the thorn wounds, the holes that were made by the iron spikes. Billy’s Christ died horribly. He was pitiful.

So it goes.

“So it goes” becomes the novel’s panacea; a way for the narrator to deal with the grim realities of war without the comfort of religious beliefs. In some respects, it can be seen as a mantra for humanism.

Kurt's son Mark reading his late father's remarks of Clowes Memorial Hall in April, 2007. This event capped Indianapolis's "Year of Vonnegut" ceremonies. The author had died just weeks before he was to deliver this address. Courtesy of USA Today.
Kurt’s son Mark reading his late father’s remarks at Clowes Memorial Hall in April, 2007. This event capped Indianapolis’s “Year of Vonnegut” ceremonies. The author had died just weeks before he was to deliver this address. Courtesy of USA Today.

Kurt Vonnegut’s humanism continued until the end of his life, as displayed by an address he meant to give on April 27, 2007 for Indianapolis’s “Year of Vonnegut” celebrations (he died on April 11; his son Mark gave the address in his stead). In this address, from the posthumous work Armageddon in Retrospect (2008), Kurt espoused his continued commitment to humanism. He wrote:

Am I religious? I practice a disorganized religion. I belong to an unholy disorder. We call ourselves “Our Lady of Perpetual Consternation.” We are as celibate as fifty percent of the heterosexual Roman Catholic clergy.

Actually—and when I hold up my right hand like this, it means I’m not kidding, that I give my Word of Honor that what I’m about to say is true. So actually, I am honorary President of the American Humanist Society, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that utterly functionless capacity. We Humanists behave as well as we can, without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an Afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

This emphasis on “community” squares nicely with Clemens’s own commitments to community, both with the Freethinker Society and with his advocacy of public education. Both Vonneguts believed that the values of sociality and comradery are essential to the flourishing of a community, and you can achieve that system without a supernatural element.

Clemens Vonnegut’s humanism carried through many generations of his family and left an indelible mark on Kurt Vonnegut. The two men’s rejection of religion and the supernatural reinforced their love for humanity, their desire for community, and their commitment to the truth, no matter how horrifying it may be. Kurt’s own success as a writer and social critic would have delighted Clemens, who participated in many of the same literary pursuits and civic activities decades before Kurt was born. As such, their two lives, separated by time, nevertheless became entwined by their ideals. Their humanist legacy reinforces the diversity of intellectual and moral philosophies that embody the American Midwest throughout the 19th, 20th, and early-21st centuries.

Both Vonneguts were proud to be from Indianapolis and the city proudly remembers them.

[*] Kurt Vonnegut’s humanism may also be described as “Modern Humanism,” or “Naturalistic Humanism, Scientific Humanism, Ethical Humanism, and Democratic Humanism, [is] defined by one of its leading proponents, Corliss Lamont, as “a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion.” Modern Humanism has a dual origin, both secular and religious, and these constitute its sub-categories” (Fred Edwords, “What is Humanism,” American Humanist Association, last updated 2008, accessed March 19, 2016, americanhumanist.org).

Ambrose Bierce and 19th Century Freethought

See part one, Ambrose Bierce: The Evanescent Man, to learn about Ambrose Bierce’s early life in Indiana and how the Civil War influenced his literary work.

Ambrose Bierce (Left) had an intellectual kinship with the orator and freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll (Right). Courtesy of Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley and Indiana Memory.
Ambrose Bierce (Left) had an intellectual kinship with the orator and freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll (Right). Images courtesy of Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley and Indiana Memory.

While Bierce’s journalism and short stories garnered serious acclaim, his outspoken views on religion often made him notorious. Bierce’s own agnosticism aligned with another iconoclast of the period: Robert Green Ingersoll. Known as the “Great Agnostic,” Ingersoll was an Illinois politician and lawyer who had a lucrative career in oratory.  He gave sold-out speeches all across the country, including Indiana, that were critical of religion, Christianity, and superstition. While there is no evidence to suggest that he and Bierce met, their paths crossed numerous times in literary endeavors and their counter-cultural thinking became an indelible part of 19th century Freethought (broadly understood during the period as an open, reasoned evaluation of religion and spirituality).

Robert Green Ingersoll was one of the most well-known freethinkers of his era. His views on religion and spirituality often mirrored Bierce's ideas. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Robert Green Ingersoll was one of the best known freethinkers of his era. His views on religion and spirituality often mirrored Bierce’s ideas. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In his essay, “A Dead Lion,” Bierce defended the agnostic orator and responded to his critics. When Ingersoll died in 1899, religious and intellectual leaders all over the country paid their respects to the infidel, but they also continued their criticisms. One such scholar was Harry Thurston Peck, who argued that Ingersoll’s limitations as an intellect overshadowed his prowess as a public orator. Undercutting Peck’s opprobrium, Bierce defended Ingersoll with some clever barbs at religion. “If men can be good without religion, and scorning religion,” as Bierce wrote in the aforementioned essay, “then it is not religion that makes men good; and if religion does not do this it is of no practical value and one may well be without it as with it, so far as concern’s one’s relations with one’s fellow men.”

Of Ingersoll’s own wit, Bierce argued that it was, “keen, bright, and clean as an Arab’s scimitar.” While his pessimism may have rankled Ingersoll’s more utopian proclivities, Bierce’s essay does show a deep intellectual kinship between the two.

Literature scholar Harry Thurston Peck was a vocal critic of Robert Ingersoll. Bierce responded to Peck's criticism pf the Great Agnostic in his essay, "A Dead Lion." Courtesy of Google Books.
Literature scholar Harry Thurston Peck was a vocal critic of Robert Ingersoll. Bierce responded to Peck’s criticism of the Great Agnostic in his essay, “A Dead Lion.” Image courtesy of Internet Archive.

Another interesting connection between the two agnostics was their position on suicide. Both of them favored the practice based on what they described as ethical and reasonable conditions. In his 1894 essay, “Is Suicide a Sin?,” Ingersoll says unequivocally that “there are many cases of perfectly justifiable suicide—cases in which not to end life would be a mistake, sometimes almost a crime.”  Bierce’s essay, “The Right to Take Oneself Off,” echoes many of Ingersoll’s sentiments. In one passage, Bierce defends Ingersoll’s position:

It was Robert G. Ingersoll’s opinion that there is rather too little than too much suicide in the world—that people are so cowardly as to live on after endurance has ceased to be a virtue. This view is but a return to the wisdom of the ancients, in whose splendid civilization suicide had as honorable place as any other courageous, reasonable, and unselfish act.

Both Ingersoll and Bierce’s essays reflected a secular, humanistic view of ethics, one that divorces human actions and contexts from the religious beliefs of the past. In some respects, this put both men quite ahead of their time.

"A Dead Lion" (Right) displayed Bierce's respect for Robert Ingersoll's views. His essay on suicide , "The Right to Take Oneself Off, appeared in The Shadow of the Dial and Other Essays (Left). Courtesy of Internet Archive.
“A Dead Lion” (Right) displayed Bierce’s respect for Robert Ingersoll’s views. His essay on suicide , “The Right to Take Oneself Off,” appeared in The Shadow of the Dial and Other Essays (Left). Images courtesy of Internet Archive.

Bierce also held irreverent views on life after death. In an essay entitled “Not All Men Desire Immortality,” Bierce decries the spiritualism of his time, albeit with clever quips such as: “If we have among us one who can put over a blaze by looking at it, the matter may not have any visible bearing on the question of life after death, but it is of the liveliest interest to the Fire Department.” Bierce contemplated questions of the afterlife and spirituality as a skeptic, noting that they are “still as much a matter of faith as ever it was.” In other words, he had to see it to believe it.

Above all else, the lasting legacy of Ambrose Bierce’s free thought and connection to Ingersoll is arguably The Devil’s Dictionary, published in 1911. Originally released as The Cynic’s Word Book in 1906, The Devil’s Dictionary displays Bierce’s heretical nature in economical, but clever definitions. Some entries in his lexicon include, “Apostate: A leech who, having penetrated the shell of a turtle only to find that the creature has long been dead, deems it expedient to form a new attachment to a fresh turtle,” and, “Clergyman: A man who undertakes the management of our spiritual affairs as a method of bettering our temporal ones.” He would often include poems or short story fragments with his definitions, with funny pseudonyms like “Father Gassalasca Jape” and “Booley Fito.” Selected entries also appeared in newspapers throughout the country, and its controversial definitions even inspired critical lectures by clergymen. This work influenced journalist and fellow iconoclast H. L. Mencken, who wrote clever “definitions” in his own columns and newspapers.

The Devil's Dictionary, published in 1911, displays Bierce's wit and sardonic humor about life, society, and religion. Image courtesy of Internet Archive.
The Devil’s Dictionary, published in 1911, displays Bierce’s wit and sardonic humor about life, society, and religion. Image courtesy of Internet Archive.

Ambrose Bierce’s life and literary work speaks to an era of “lost souls,” men whose lives were shaped, or shattered, by the Civil War. Some veterans discovered interests in the spiritual, like Ben-Hur author and fellow Hoosier Lew Wallace. Others, like Bierce and Ingersoll, saw it as their life’s mission to destroy myths and comfortable illusions that crept through their society like a plague. Gifted with the power of prose, Bierce’s incisive and often tragically-hilarious writings showcase a man deeply in-synch with his own convictions. Bierce never believed in a personal immortality, but his writing’s enduring appeal has given him an immortality he may have never imagined.