I admit with no reluctance to a certain weakness for old books. An old book contains two stories: its contents and whatever tales its users have attached to it over the years. Sometimes I like a book because of the way it has worn: like an old shoe or a favorite hat, books break in and become comfortable; their spines relax and their pages lie flat without effort; they smell of someone’s home—they carry the memory of the owner’s hair, his cigar, her perfume, the particular dust of the place, the residue of curtains or carpets or hardwood shelves or sometimes the faint aroma of a musty attic trunk. I look for books like that, sniff and feel for them like a hog searches for a hidden acorn, and for the same reason. As a result my house occasionally resembles an old bookshop. In order for it to function as a home, the woman who functions as my wife will sometimes request that I transfer certain of my selections to the care of others, permanently. I suppose the solution to this situation would be to reduce my intake of new old books, but that discipline would be difficult if not impossible to maintain, and the added burden of the enforcement would work a hardship upon my wife.
I have found that the best places to obtain new material for my ever-shifting collection is at library book sales. Public libraries discard quite a few good old books. It isn’t that they don’t care about books; quite the opposite. The librarians care more for the books than the patrons, but the nature of the library is such that it continually replenishes its supply; it is not an archive nor a museum but a collection for use by a public whose tastes change and whose appetites are constantly whetted by new releases from the publishing world. What this means of course is that many a worthy title goes out to the Friends’ book sale, and sometimes to my hands.
The other day I came across a small gem which had been donated to a library near me, but never saw a day of life on the shelf. One of the staff probably gave it a glance and decided it didn’t merit space. That is too bad for the library, and quite good for me.
The book is not really a book but a periodical. By way of title it is Evergreen Review, volume 1, number 2, which emerged from Barney Rosset’s Grove Press in 1957. The serious student of modern literature will by the conclusion of the last sentence have begun to feel the hairs arise upon the back of his neck; for the rest of the world, a brief explanation is in order.
The Evergreen Review was a little project of Rosset’s fertile mind; Rosset brought D.H. Lawrence’s lively story about Lady Chatterley and her gamekeeper to the American market (and the courts) as well as Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer; Grove Press existed at the bright and dangerous cutting edge of publishing from 1951 to its demise in 1985, and it was only natural that Rosset would undertake a magazine to showcase the newest bright (and dark!) lights of the time. Hence the Review, whose first issue showcased Rosset’s pals Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett and Mark Schorer, among others in 201 provocative pages.
The second issue, which rests in my lap, bore the title ‘San Francisco Scene,’ and featured a jostling crowd of Beats and fellow travelers: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl appears here, along with work by Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It is quite something even at this late date to flip to page 137 and imagine an impressionable young man absorbing these lines, obtained for one dollar American, while sucking on a Galois in the espresso-stained gloom of some college-town coffeehouse:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix . . .
That line alone is probably responsible for half the English majors of my generation, not to mention quite a bit of the most sincere form of flattery, most of which stunk badly in comparison, but that’s life: Ginsberg is as vulnerable to bad imitation as Hemingway or Shakespeare or anybody with a distinct style, and that, of course, he had in spades. There is a photograph of him in the gallery which begins on page 65, appallingly young in denim shirt, nursing the inevitable dying remnant of a flattened smoke between his fingers, staring into the camera and our souls, not a gray hair on his head, frozen in time here on these pages, which scholars will turn and read and marvel at when our grandchildren are long in their graves.
Not far before the picture gallery there is a piece by Ralph J. Gleason, ‘The San Francisco Jazz Scene.’ Gleason’s writing style was forged at the old Chronicle and honed in the dim light of cigar-box clubs; his piece begins “San Francisco has always been a good-time town. For periods it has been a wide-open town.” This is more than a music review; it is witness-journalism mated with the spare style of the noir novel, and Gleason made it work for himself and us through a career that spanned musical light-years in terms of the changes he witnessed and wrote about first-hand. Gleason would one day join Jann Wenner in founding Rolling Stone magazine; before that he would be an early champion of Lenny Bruce, Miles Davis and Bob Dylan. He lived fifty-eight years by the calendar, and he was about forty and in his prime when this piece found its place in the Review.
Jack Kerouac gives us a sample of himself in ‘October in the Railroad Earth,’ whose opening sentence runs nearly the length of a page and rambles like a dope-smoking street bum through an edgy film loop of San Francisco in a long moment that took place just back of the Southern Pacific station at Third and Townsend. This is Kerouac before the booze sets in; in the same year he will become famous from the publication of On the Road, and be unable to deal with all that. I would quote you some of this, give you some idea, but he doesn’t use periods any more than a hurricane and I wouldn’t know when to make it quit. Go see for yourself.
And so it lies here in my lap, this gem of a discard, mine for two bits to do with as I please. Right now I have been pleasing to try to describe this faded little magazine without implying somehow that the library from which it was obtained might better have thrown a call number across its narrow back and let another generation of youth become polluted by its content, but I’m not going to suggest that and if they want some of this they can probably get it on the Internet, if they can find it by themselves.