A Literary Lionnby Gregory McNameenA Life of Kenneth Rexrothnby Linda HamaliannNew York: W.W. Norton;n444 pp., $25.00nKenneth Rexroth and JamesnLaughHn: Selected LettersnEdited by Lee BartlettnNew York: W.W. Norton;n292 pp., $27.50nKenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) maynwell be the greatest unread writernAmerica has ever produced, and certainlynamong the most influential.nMuch postwar nonacademic poetrynowes its origins, its way of perceiving thenworld as an object of lyrical meditation,nand its fluid idiom to standards Rexrothnset in such major works as “The HomesteadnCalled Damascus” and “ThenPhoenix and the Turtle.” Many contemporarynpoets, among them GarynSnyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Wendelln° ^^k^^ii^’^skrSjMnBerry, figure as his direct descendants.nAs much as Ezra Pound and T.S.nEliot, Rexroth helped revive an interestnin classical literature and Chinese andnJapanese poetry, and his translations,nnotably One Hundred Poems from thenChinese and Poems from the GreeknAnthology, remain standards in theirnrespective fields. Rexroth informed anynnumber of social movements as well,nfrom the Industrial Workers of thenWorid to the antiwar activism of then1960’s and 1970’s, and he lived thendefiantly unfettered life of an anarchistnartist, first in the bohemian GreenwichnVillage and Chicago of the 1920’s andn30’s, and later in San Francisco.nAlthough he is inarguably central ton20th-century American literary and intellectualnhistory, Kenneth Rexroth’snlife and work remain little known. Likenhis near-contemporary and peer EdmundnWilson, he is only occasionallyntaught in the academy, and the criticalnand biographical work devoted to himnhas until now been all of an afternoon’sn40/CHRONICLESnreading. Linda Hamalian’s newly publishednlife of Kenneth Rexroth standsnas a needed corrective, and is a welcomenaddition to the study of recentnAmerican letters.nRexroth was born in the river countrynof north-central Illinois at a timenwhen the Civil War and abolitionismnwere objects of living memory; hisnfamily could easily have figured in thenpages of Spoon River Anthology. Hisnearly life was shaped by the fashions ofnfree love, industrial socialism, andnavant-garde art that radiated from thenmetropolis of Chicago into the surroundingncountryside; following thendeath of his parents, the teenagednRexroth dropped out of school (henwould never earn an academic degreenof any sort) and plunged into the heartnof that exciting culture, befriendingnsuch men as G.K. Chesterton (whonlived briefly in Chicago) and SamuelnPutnam. Hamalian’s account of Rexroth’sneariy years is far and away thenbest part of her book, for in his untrustworthynAutobiographical Novel Rexrothngrandly glamorized his adolescencenas a petty criminal, bookishnperiod that would have done FrangoisnVillon proud. Rexroth’s Memoir is anseductive book, however, and Hamaliannnow and again is too credulousnof Rexroth’s account of events, acceptingnas fact an unlikely romance with an”Navajo princess” and other signalnmoments that were surely the inventionsnof a youthful storyteller whonnursed his fictions into old age.nFor readers who regard KennethnRexroth as an intellectual hero, as I do,nsome of Linda Hamalian’s findings willnbe disturbing: a series of adulterousnaffairs that broke one marriage after thennext, a usually concealed but unnervingnaddiction to alcohol, a violent tempernthat wormed its way through thensoul of this self-professed pacifist andnconscientious objector, and a fondnessnfor wild experimentation in matters ofnreligion and ethics, which often leftnRexroth without a center. (Rexrothnsupplemented his seminarian Catholicismnwith a diet of Zen Buddhism,nConfucianism, and Hinduism, and arrivednat his own sort of faith, onenflexible enough to accommodate hisnneed to wander both temporally andnspiritually.)nThese darker aspects are nowherenbetter demonstrated than in Rexroth’snnnfive-decade correspondence withnJames Laughlin, his publisher at NewnDirections. As Lee Bartlett’s editionnmakes clear, Laughlin often felt thensting of Rexroth’s daily worries. Mostnwriters regard their publishers withnmixed trust, but few would dare heapnthe sort of fantastic accusations thatnRexroth often did on Laughlin, as innthis letter of April 16, 1965:nYour letter is the most insultingnI have ever received from anpublisher. It is not onlyninsulting. It is fatuous, pusillanimousnand stingy. These arenthe symptoms of senility, butnnow they have overwhelmednyou. . . . What I want now is anquit-claim on all books of minenthat you publish. … A mannwho is pathologically parsimoniousnis a dangerous man tondo business with. By refusing tonfunction as a businesslikenpublisher in your dealings withnme but as a contemptuousndilettante indulging one of hisn”crazies,” you have cost me ansmall fortune.nAll this because Laughlin had dared asknfor a reasonable sample of the manuscriptnof Rexroth’s memoirs before offeringna contract. In any event, Rexrothnfollowed his outbursts with importunatenapologies, often posted the same day,nand Laughlin remained one of thenpoet’s closest friends and confidants, fornwhich he surely deserves a place in thenniche of heaven reserved for editors.nArtists are often more renowned fornthe tempestuous and intemperate qualitynof their lives than for their work.nHamalian sensibly resists the morbidnimpulse to dwell on Rexroth’s less attractivenmoments save as they figure innthe makeup of the whole man, and shenrightly spends most of her pages addressingnthe qualities that afford him anpermanent—if still too little known —nplace in American writing. She providesnan expert genealogy of Rexroth’s literaryndescendants, and she suggests thatnthe writer’s contributions to poetry, socialnand literary criticism, and versendrama will continue to exercise theirninfluence on American letters.nGregory McNamee is a freelancenwriter and author living in Tucson,nArizona.n