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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Nubmer 234: Kenneth Rexroth "The Bad Old Days"

The Bad Old Days

The summer of nineteen eighteen
I read The Jungle and The
Research Magnificent. That fall
My father died and my aunt
Took me to Chicago to live.
The first thing I did was to take
A streetcar to the stockyards.
In the winter afternoon,
Gritty and fetid, I walked
Through the filthy snow, through the
Squalid streets, looking shyly
Into the people’s faces,
Those who were home in the daytime.
Debauched and exhausted faces,
Starved and looted brains, faces
Like the faces in the senile
And insane wards of charity
Hospitals. Predatory
Faces of little children.
Then as the soiled twilight darkened,
Under the green gas lamps, and the
Sputtering purple arc lamps,
The faces of the men coming
Home from work, some still alive with
The last pulse of hope or courage,
Some sly and bitter, some smart and
Silly, most of them already
Broken and empty, no life,
Only blinding tiredness, worse
Than any tired animal.
The sour smells of a thousand
Suppers of fried potatoes and
Fried cabbage bled into the street.
I was giddy and sick, and out
Of my misery I felt rising
A terrible anger and out
Of the anger, an absolute vow.
Today the evil is clean
And prosperous, but it is
Everywhere, you don’t have to
Take a streetcar to find it,
And it is the same evil.
And the misery, and the
Anger, and the vow are the same.

-- Kenneth Rexroth

Hap Notes: The evil that Rexroth is talking about in this autobiographical poem is still (as he points out) alive and well and thriving all over the world, however it is particularly disheartening and discouraging that it lives so comfortably in America.

In 1918 Rexroth was a mere 13 years old but do not dismiss his observations completely as that of a disgruntled teenager. For one thing, Rexroth was extraordinarily well read by that time as he had started reading classic literature at a very early age, home-schooled by his mother – he started reading it when he was around the age most of us are going to kindergarten and just beginning to learn our ABCs. Rexroth was the ultimate autodidact and said that he read the encyclopedia from cover to cover each year ( for you youngsters this would be like reading every entry in Wikipedia every year) as if it were a novel (and in so many ways, it IS a novel if you read it correctly with each thing connected to another thing creating a pattern, like stitches in a tapestry, of the world- or at least a certain view of it.) [Side Note: My brother recently tried to sell his leather bound, gold-edged paged Encyclopedia Britannica (1990 edition) and found that the entire set was worth--- ready for this? 35¢ (thirty-five cents. No kidding!]

Chicago was going through a lot in 1918. It was the joyful year of armistice (WWI) as well as the year of several race and employment riots as the misery of workers often reached the breaking point. As Rexroth, placed in a new city after the death of his parents (he had lived in Indiana), observes the working class, he acutely observes the pain of everyday subservient work and subsistence living. (Baseball fan note– it was a year before the "Black Sox Scandal.")

The books he refers to– Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and H.G. Wells' The Research Magnificent– are two amazing pieces of literature which would surely make one see the world differently with Sinclair's scathing indictment of the meat-packing industry (hence Rexroth's seeking out the stockyards in Chicago) and Wells' amusing yet heartrending view of life in The Research Magnificent). If you have not read these classic works they are available free online here:
The Research Magnificent by H.G. Wells :
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair:

One wishes that this poem of despair for the working class, the "common man," the "working poor," was not so piercingly close to the way things are now. One hopes that the same anger and the same vow to end it is still as vivid as Rexroth's. It is only this kind of reaction and empathy that can change things. As Rexroth points out in this poem, even though the evil is "clean and prosperous," it is every bit as insidious and, by the by, becoming less prosperous every day.

Surely, as a nation, we have as much compassion and intelligence as a 13 year-old boy had in 1918? And what does that say if we don't?

Here is where we have talked about Rexroth before:

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