Friday, September 19, 2014

Captain William Kidd: pirate, rum, fact, and fiction

For "Talk Like a Pirate Day," it seems appropriate to recommend a book about Captain Kidd -- who became the romantic notion of piracy for an entire genre of literature. 

May 23, 1701: Captain William Kidd is fed rum and brandy until he cannot stand and paraded in a cart through the streets of London as hysterical crowds scream and cheer. He is hanged, but the rope breaks, depositing him in a heap of mud, while other condemned men swing overhead. Still in a drunken stupor, he is pulled dripping from the slop and hanged a second and final time. 

His corpse is tarred and placed in a cage and hung on the Thames shorleline as a warning to pirates, where it would remain for nearly two years. An epitaph as abominable for its poetry as for its sentiment is nearby:
Reader, near this Tomb don't stand 
Without some Essence in thy Hand; 
For here Kidd's stinking Corpse does lie, 
The Scent of which may infect thy!!
There is no question Kidd was a pirate, since he was hired for that job by King William III himself. In their charges, the government claimed that his piracy strayed beyond  approved targets -- that is, the government felt the pinch themselves. The truth is hard to know, but it seems likely that Kidd was a scapegoat for powerful interests involved in multiple duplicities concerning the distribution of his booty.

Robert Ritchie's biography Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates unravels some strands that bind the facts of high-seas piracy with the romantic fiction that followed it. It's as lively a tale-spinning biography as Kidd himself would enjoy. The author of the Flashman series of historical fictions, George MacDonald Fraser, had words of high praise when the book was published in 1988: The most detailed record I have ever seen of a pirate voyage, with its origins and aftermath; I doubt if there is another like it.

William Kidd was born 22 January 1645. He became one of the two or three best known pirates to emerge from an era in which piracy was an enterprise as much as a threat. His checkered legacy gave rise to legends of buried treasure that still attract treasure hunters today. 

Kidd never set out to become a pirate. There is every reason to believe that his eventual trial and execution for piracy -- which has become the stuff of romantic derring-do and outfoxing authority -- was the result of an establishment cover-up, and that crucial documents that could have led to his acquittal were withheld by the British government. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

An excerpt from "Crowded by Beauty," a new biography of Philip Whalen

Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen

Here is an excerpt from Crowded by Beauty: A Biography of Poet and Zen Teacher Philip Whalen, by David Schneider, forthcoming from University of California Press. 
Whalen, along with Gary Snyder, was integral in the San Francisco group of poets who read at the Six Gallery in 1955. They were introduced by Kenneth Rexroth, a San Francisco poet of an older generation, who was a kind of literary father-figure for the younger poets and had helped to establish their burgeoning community through personal introductions at his weekly poetry readings. That night, Snyder read "A Berry Feast", and Whalen,"Plus Ca Change."
This excerpt describes Whalen's experience living as Snyder's roommate in 1952. Whalen eventually followed Snyder to become a Forest Service lookout, although as Schneider notes, Whalen "was much given, even then, to the sedentary life."

...Philip might never have found work in the mountains: sitting in that same Telegraph Hill apartment in the hot summer of 1952, Whalen read one of Gary’s regular letters, this one from a Forest Service lookout on Crater Mountain in the North Cascades of Washington State. Provoked by it, and by working (“bad anytime, but especially nasty in summer in the city”), Whalen wrote back to declare, “By God, next summer, I’m going to have a mountain of my own!”
This he did; then got another mountain the following year, and spent a third summer as a forest lookout the year after that, making this by far his steadiest, most satisfying job until many years later, when he became a “professional” man of the cloth—that is, a Zen priest. Whalen would never have read in the historic Six Gallery reading had not Snyder put Philip’s name and poems literally in front of Allen Ginsberg’s face. Philip certainly would have floundered longer with unemployment and flirted more dangerously with outright homelessness had Gary not taken care of him whenever the two were in the same town at the same time.
They roomed together in San Francisco off and on from 1952 to 1954 in a flat on Montgomery Street, above the city’s North Beach district, to which they descended together nearly nightly for beer at Vesuvio and other drinking establishments. Thus Philip and Gary came to know the writers, players, merchants, philosophers, painters, filmmakers, musicians, and scholars circling around the Bay Area in the gestation phase of the San Francisco Renaissance.
During this same period, Snyder and Whalen began going together to the American Academy of Asian Studies (now the California Institute of Integral Studies), where they heard and met Alan Watts, and later also D. T. Suzuki. From among the audiences there, they got to know Claude (Ananda) Dahlenberg, who cofounded the East-West House and later became an ordained Zen priest under Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. And from connections there, they began attending the regular Friday evening literary gatherings held at his home by the poet Kenneth Rexroth.

Snyder, Whalen and Lew Welch

Other Friday evenings found Whalen and Snyder in Berkeley for the study group with Rev. Kanmo Imamura and Jane Imamura at the Berkeley Buddhist Temple. Together the Imamuras were descended from the most important old families of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, yet they welcomed the young men, going so far in the subsequent years as to turn their little church publication—theBerkeley Bussei—over to the artist Will Petersen for a time. Snyder, Whalen, Ginsberg, and Kerouac all published early poems in its pages. The benevolent Imamura family gave both Snyder and Whalen their first contact with people actually practicing Buddhism instead of purely discussing its philosophies and traditions.
Whalen might have made his way out to the Academy or over to the study group without Snyder’s impetus, but Philip was much given, even then, to the sedentary life. As long as he could, he spent hours each day reading, writing, drawing, playing music, doodling, staring into space—wondering from time to time where and how he could find a job that wouldn’t drive him crazy. He ventured out when he needed to—for cigarettes or food or for fresh air—but he had nothing like the get-up-and-go Gary had. It is, in fact, difficult to think of anyone with the drive and sense of adventure the young Snyder had.
These qualities propelled him up mountains, up trees, down the hole of tankers, out into deserts, back into libraries, into universities, into monasteries, across the country, out of the country, across oceans; they armored him against the many outer and inner obstacles an un-moneyed young man might encounter in such travels; they sustained him as he went where he needed to go, saw what he wanted to see, studied what, and with whom, he needed to study, worked as he had to, and cut loose when he could. ...

Photos: (top) Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen sit outside a temple above the village of Shimoyama in Japan (Brancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley). (bottom) Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Lew Welch before a poerty reading at Longshoreman's Hall (Photograph by Jim Hatch).

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"MetaMaus" : a collection of Art Spiegelman's art from "Maus" [1992]

MetaMaus is Art Spiegelman's comprehensive book about the creation of Maus, A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History, the 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning story of his father's experience in a Nazi prison camp. It's a great look-behind-the-scenes at the creation of Spiegelman's ground-breaking approach to visualizing non-fiction.

The book, which includes a DVD of the complete Maus hyper-linked with source materials, is structured around an extensive interview with Spiegelman.

In a 2011 interview with David D'Arcy at The Art Newspaper, Spiegelman revealed what he called his "ambivalence" about doing press junkets for this particular work -- in essence, interviews about the interview presented in the book:
“I feel it’s a bit absurd to be interviewed about an interview, but the book came out way better than expected, so I feel protective of it. I’m in my usual situation, which I think is called ambivalence. I know I have to do something with the press. I’m not going to J.D. Salinger this one out. On the other hand, I don’t relish being in a hall of mirrors, like MetaMetaMetaMaus.”
Here, from The Atlantic online, is a selection of Spiegelman's original sketches that eventually framed the story for Maus.