Suggested by several interviews on this blog over the years, our elder locals were perhaps more cosmopolitan than their children. (I didn’t say wiser.) As a fitting detour from my casual McDowell County history, in my last two posts I dipped into the story of the former nearby Black Mountain College, an unconventional institution of higher learning that closed in 1957.
Jonathan Williams (1929-2008) was one of the few NC natives to attend Black Mountain College. Williams graduated St. Albans, a college prep school in Washington DC. Then on to Princeton (FYI the fourth oldest institution of higher learning in the US) before dropping out to attend Chicago Interior of Design and Black Mountain College where he studied painting and graphic arts with Stanley William Hayter, an English painter and printmaker influenced by surrealism and abstract experiment. Not a lightweight, Hayter was celebrated with many international awards. http.//en.wikipedia.org/Williams
In 1951, Williams joined David Ruff to found the Jargon Society with the goal of publishing obscure writers. This press had a long association with Black Mountain poets who were inspired by long silences enjoyed when walking Appalachian trails, listening to country noises and to mountain people. Williams “only had to organize a bit, crystallize it,” and call it “found material.” The Jargon Society published American and British “avant garde” writers who, according to Wiki Free Encyclopedia, “push the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm, primarily in the cultural realm.” Actually, the term “avant garde” is a French term for radical and unorthodox (which scares me) but I admire the embrace of creative freedom from afar.
I love that Williams called himself a cultural anthropologist as he exaulted the process. This niche might now be led by one of my favorite NC writers, Ron Rash. Not only is he able to draw distinct word pictures, he can construct a plot with the best mysterians. He has been a long time professor at Western NC University in Cullowhee, and a 2017 recipient of the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, along with others, receiving $50,000 to support his work.
Regarding the fertile environment of Black Mountain College, it would be unfair if I did not mention Helen Auerbach Morley (born in 1916 to Russian parents living in New York). Helen was quite precocious, beginning her career early by penning verse in her childhood. Her doctor-father was descended from Hasidic rabbis, and her mother was a Labor Zionist who made certain Helen studied at the University of London. Back in New York in 1945, Helen married abstract expressionist Eugene Morley for a short time. In 1952 she married German composer Stefan Wolpe, and both taught at Black Mountain College. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilda_Morley ) Stefan Wolpe was diagnosed with Parkinsons and Morley was “greatly affected by her need to care for him until his death” in 1972.
Morley lived in New York for four decades, but her limited career really began in 1976 when she published her first collection, A Blessing Outside Us, to accolades that compare her work to the poetic greatness of Ezra Pound and T.S. Elliot. In contemporary commentary, at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/hilda-morley a critic said it was a “shameful comment on our present-day literary situation that Hilda Morley’s work has been largely neglected.” (I am guilty but I had never heard of her.) Morley wrote, “the poem of organic form molds its phrasing and spacing to conform to the pressure of the poetic content.” (Besides, I don’t know what that means.)
In an earlier post about Black Mountain College, I tagged Charles Olson who also offered a helping hand to struggling writers. Soon after assuming his leadership position in 1953, Olson founded the Black Mountain Review magazine. It may have been a groundbreaking arts magazine since it helped establish beat generation writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs, (reported by Tom Patterson on page 28 of “The Success of its own Accident,” an article in the North Carolina Literary Review, Vol II, #2 but were they significant?). Evidently Helen Worley’s work was influenced more by Wong May, a Chinese poet she met in a residency in New Hampshire in 1969, than it was by Charles Olson at BMC.
As an attraction to get new students, the Black Mountain Review magazine was a failure, not to denigrate Olson’s altruistic efforts, just the futility of the educational experiment. “By 1954, the student population had shrunk to an all-time low of nine. Meanwhile, faculty attrition in the wake of (rector) Josef Albers’ departure had left only six teachers at the school, which by this point was in debt by almost $90,000.” The dining hall and dormitories on the south end of the campus were rented out for use as a boys’ camp, and land along the edges of the college property was sold off, as were the school’s pianos and a small herd of cattle that were once part of a once-thriving farm.”
According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_S_Burroughs, another Ivy League grad was attracted to the literary reputation of BMC. William Burroughs, (his middle name was Seward), was born into a wealthy family in St. Louis, Mo. He left home in 1932 to attend Harvard, and studied English and anthropology as a postgraduate. A serious student and most probably very intelligent, Burroughs attended med school in Vienna. Along with many affected by WWII, his life changed in 1942. He was turned down by the Navy after which he “picked up drug addiction that would plague him the rest of his life.” That Wiki line sounds as though Burroughs picked up a cold, poor baby. Somewhere he had a choice. Refer back to Buckminster Fuller’s life in the last post. Bucky was also very intelligent, and had significant difficulties, but he focused on solving them.
William Burroughs was prolific; he managed to produce 18 novels and novellas, 6 collections of short stories and 4 collections of essays. He also created and exhibited thousands of paintings and other visual artworks. But much of Burroughs’ work was drawn primarily from his experience as a heroin addict. In 1943 he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouak in NY; this friendship presumably was the foundation of the Beat Generation–a defining influence on the 1960s counterculture. Interesting but not inspirational.
Burroughs was on a downhill spiral no matter how intelligent he started out. In 1951, he killed his 2nd wife in Mexico City. The evolving story claimed he dropped a gun that went off and killed her…ignoring his first story of “drunkenly attempting a William Tell stunt.” He was convicted of manslaughter in absentia and received a two year suspended sentence in the US. When he returned to the States, his friends seemed to wash over his character problems and applaud his creativity for going rogue. His friend Jack Kerouac called Burroughs “the greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift.” Norm Mailler declared him “the only American writer conceivably possessed by genius.” In 1953, Ginsberg helped Burroughs with his first novel Junkie, a confessional. Burroughs best known novel was Naked Lunch, which was challenged in court under sodomy laws. More reading about him at https://www.who2hs/.com/bio/william_s_burroughs
Allen Ginsberg was a Columbia student in NY in the 1950s before he traveled to San Francisco where a 1955 public reading of his ground breaking poem “Howl” became a counterculture hit, helped along by publicity over an obscenity charge against him as a homosexual. https://www.who2.com/bio/allen-ginsberg/ He was selected by poet Robert Greeley of Black Mountain College to be the west coast editor of the Review just in time for its last issue, according to Patterson.
Opening Lines from “Howl”: “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…”
At this point, I was very disappointed in the literary figures applauded by Olson. I expected better. I was taught in writing classes that you have to know rules before you can break them. I believe Monet and Matisse started with traditional landscapes, and evolved into their own impressionist genres. American realist painter Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) succeeded with the rules, but writer Elmore Leonard became a category of one with his inimitable dialogue. And progressive Buckminster Fuller did not try to reinvent the wheel, well, yes, he did, but actually he succeeded. Like I said earlier, if you know the rules…
Ginsberg became one of the more prominent figures in the American anti-war movement, as he also joined love-ins, and took LSD. In 1974, he won the National Book Award for The Fall of America: Poems of These States 1965-1971. Some say he was successful, and I would say that depends upon your perspective.
In a 1994 Asheville radio interview with David Horand, WCQS, Ginsberg pointed out that many of the BMC students and faculty moved to the west coast and became active in what is generally known as the San Francisco poetry renaissance, “which inaugurated that whole program of spoken poetry that…runs through Bob Dylan up through rap.” (Patterson, pg 38) “Ginsberg also notes that his poem ‘Howl,’ coincidentally published at about the same time that BMC was closing, “represented a voice of the counterculture, which Black Mountain also represented, a counterculture which had old roots in Europe, in the refugees from Hitler who knew what central authoritarianism was and were trying to preserve the old American spirit and the international spirit in the form of a libertarian bohemian world.”
“The extraordinary characteristic that set Black Mountain apart from other schools of its era was, quite simply, the open-ended, flexible, process-oriented approach to education and the arts that it consistently embodied,” Patterson wrote on page 30. “The progressive model it offered for living and learning no longer appears to have much currency in the diploma-factory realm of American higher education.”
Patterson’s summation ignores the lack of accountability to the input of thousands of teachers who established a foundation that conceivably was built on the work of many, each one making a different but valuable contribution to the individual. In my opinion, genius needs a bed to lie on. This open border process produced more societal failures than successes. Recognizing that some of us have elevated ideas that benefit mankind, most of us learn the basics from each other.
I have known excessively-intelligent people who failed to function in society without help from parents/spouses. But some of us are almost supernatural and called to excel; we mere mortals can appreciate but never emulate them. For example, I cannot imagine making Edgar Cayce’s life a pattern for success. Nor using the genius of Vincent Van Gogh as a progressive model for living. In my humble opinion, the supporters of Black Mountain College did not recognize that a successful society needs structure enforceable by laws for sustained growth.
Could be my opinion, but even the bees know the laws of nature.
Copyright @2019 Georgia Wilson