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Biographia Literaria
Phil Leggiere

Richard Kostelanetz
One Million Words of Book Notes, 1958-1993
Whitson, 1997. $90.00

 

The publishing trade has spawned a cottage industry over the past few years of "extra," "meta," or just plain sub-literary documents, issuing a steady stream of letters, juvenalia, journals, memoirs, and miscellany (seemingly everything short of laundry lists) by brand name or otherwise saleable writers. At its worst the genre smacks of exploitation, the desire to get something (anything) between covers while an author (preferably long dead) is "hot."

At their occasional best, however, such literary "outtakes" can be of interest, both for the light they shed on a writer's personality (e.g. Edmund Wilson's sexual obsessiveness as evinced in his journals or H.L. Mencken's consummate epistolatory literary politicking) and for the record of literary influences and evolution of style, voice, and thinking they illuminate. In addition to being eminently readable on stylistic grounds, Edmund Wilson's reading notes on Alfred North Whitehead, for instance, found in his journals from 1925, serve as a vital first draft of his later New Republic articles on Whitehead and the theoretical underpinning of his Axel's Castle. Allen Ginsberg's journals of the 1950s and early 60s contain seeds from which many of his later published poems grew.

Richard Kostelanetz's One Million Words of Book Notes belongs to the latter category. A systematic record, very likely the most systematic (not to mention obsessive) ever of the omnivorous reading regimen of an emerging writer from the age of 18 to middle age, (1959 to 1993, though most of the entries date before 1974), One Million Words contains immediate impressions, usually typed up on notecards within a day of first reading, on approximately 3,300 books, alphabetically arranged by author, from Daniel Aaron to Louis Zukofsky.

As an eccentric, though startlingly valid, form of literary autobiography, One Million Words provides a "biographia literaria," a record of the growth of a literary sensibility without the overlay of most more formal literary autobiography, preserving the off the cuff spontaneity, immediacy, and (presumably) uncalculated honesty of an intellectual diary. The fact that the autobiographical subject in question is in many people's opinion the most significant critic of the alternative press and avant-garde writing in our time gives the record cultural and historical weight.

All of the mainstays of Kostelanetz's literary-aesthetic universe (presented previously in books like Twenties in the Sixties, The New Poetries and Some Old, and Metamorphosis in the Arts) are extensively treated - Leslie Fiedler, Stanley Edgar Hyman, and Northrop Frye in criticism, Paul Goodman in politics, John Cage in art, and Gertrude Stein in literature. While those familiar with Kostelanetz's essays on the above will find little new ground, he includes a long previously unpublished discussion of The Tangled Bank, Stanley Hyman's most ambitious work and fascinating discussions of Paul Goodman's obscure, pre-Growing Up Absurd political pamphlets and literary work. Those unfamiliar with Kostelanetz's work will find a highly readable introduction (most entries running to roughly 200 words) to his wide range of interests and critical acumen.

Stylistically, One Million Words will come as a revelation, even to Kostelanetz aficionados. If Kostelanetz's critical prose is generally workmanlike and rather austere in relation to the formal and typographical audacity of his experimental poetry and fiction, One Million Words is perhaps the first book to fully showcase his abilities as a prose stylist and acerbic phrase maker.

Kostelanetz excels, for instance, at astutely cynical debunkings of many of the "radical chic" culture heroes of the 60s. Of Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth he writes, "This book is reportedly influential among young leftish intellectuals, especially if they subscribe to Black Power. That fact suggests that not only is the New Left dumb but it might also be deaf." Of the guru of the orgone Kostelanetz writes, "The most flattering thing I can say about Wilhelm Reich is that he writes nearly as well as Timothy Leary, for both men love to manipulate repetitiously the mythical evidence to confirm their a priori single truth."

He can be scathingly funny as well deflating both the over-rated trendy avant-gardists and the "New York Intellectual" elders who tyrannized the time. "Gerard Malanga's rise," he observes, "supports the idea that an awful poet can become more famous than an awful novelist if he flirts with the right people." Of Luis Zukofsky he quips, "After years of unjustified neglect Zukofsky stands on the verge of becoming one of America's more overrated poets," while "Richard Howard may be the most brilliant mediocre poet in America."

Lest one get the impression that the book merely uncovers Kostelanetz's nasty side, One Million Words is even more useful as a contemporary record (a "period piece" in the best sense) of the intellectual millieu of the 60s and early 70s, a period both endlessly over-hyped and strangely undervalued culturally. Many of the book's more substantial entries treat work by significant figures of the time who've since undeservedly disappeared from collective cultural memory, figures such as political critic Peter Viereck, futurist Herman Kahn, philosopher Oliver Reiser, and economist Robert Theobold. There's even a tantalizing rave of an experimental novel called Dirty Pictures from the Prom, published in 1969 by Doubleday. Whatever became of that book, and its author Earl Rauch?

One problem with the book is that, strange for Kostelanetz (an unparalleled champion of formal innovation), it's not structurally innovative enough. By employing the alphabetical structure of a dictionary or encyclopedia, Kostelanetz fails to exploit the richly evocative historical possibilities that might have been provided by a narrative (perhaps chronological) diary organization, with its charting of interactions between a writer's intellectual evolution and public history. Still, as a meticulously reconstructed record of literary coming of age in a particularly propitious cultural moment, One Million Words has carved out a unique place in the annals of literary autobiography.

 

 

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