Written by Paul Buhle
Wednesday, 04 June 2008
Dreams & Everyday Life: Andre Breton, Surrealism, Rebel Worker, SDS &
the Seven Cities of Cibola, a 1960s Notebook, By Penelope Rosemont,
Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 242pp, $17.
"The Seven Cities of Cibola," a Donald Duck comic from the 1950s,
offers a clue to the unique character of the Surrealist contribution
to the 1960s social movements and the mixture of popular culture with
the famed counter-cultural avant-garde of the period.
Penelope Rosemont, a lifelong Chicagoan, was part of a little circle
of artists and writers around the Rebel Worker, a mimeographed
publication of the Industrial Workers of the World ("Wobblies") that
foreshadowed by a few years the rise of a widespread New Left. She
and husband Franklin Rosemont, the mainstays of a group that has
maintained a political and artistic presence for forty years, could
be described as children of an older Chicago, a deeply working class
town with venerable leftwing traditions, anarchists of the 1880s to
the CIO and civil rights, rooted in that past with all its
complications. So much of this blue collar world has disappeared in
the last forty years. We strain to appreciate how continuous it must
have seemed even in the supposed new generational era of the 1960s,
rooted in the childhood pleasures of the 1950s, like Scrooge McDuck
(the capitalist with literal mountains of money) and Bugs Bunny
(always the trickster).
Rosemont recalls the Solidarity Bookshop as she joined its staff as a
treasure trove of libertarian dissent, anarchism, Thoreau (several
then-new friends had been teenage converts to Transcendentalism),
Beat Poetry, Old Left newspapers and the Marijuana Quarterly on the
same racks side by side. This was all a rich soup waiting to be eaten
(or drunk) by a fresh generation of free minds. Much of Rosemont's
best prose goes to the personalities, mostly Midwestern youngsters,
slightly crazy but definitely entertaining, and some real old timers
around the faded office of the Industrial Workers of the World.
Every surrealist devotee knows that Andre Breton founded the movement
during the 1920s, and that until his death, he remained its foremost
leader. Penny and Franklin actually set out for a low-cost trip to
London in Fall, 1965. Yet as young radicals with uncertain financial
resources they were denied entry and ended up with a months-long stay
in Paris, which turned out to be a life-changing experience. The
surrealist movement there was definitely facing a generational
crisis, but all the more for that reason, the young Americans were
welcomed with open arms. Breton himself, unwell but eager for the
contact (he spoke poor English, but his wife, Elisa, translated) as
much as blessed their entry. The Rosemonts were to be among the
central figures in the next generation of surrealism, and not only for the US.
The two returned to a US that was waking up, not the least in
Chicago. Initially cold to Students for a Democratic Society as
altogether too tame, they warmed as SDS grew rapidly. Penelope became
a printer in the National Office and the circle participated in all
the events of the moment, including the demonstrations at the Chicago
Democratic convention of 1968. Readers would be hard-pressed to find
a better local reminiscence of those days when, for an extended
historical moment, Chicago again became the center of radical energies.
Throughout all this, it is the personal that is most interesting and
charming. The personalities, large and small, many of them oddball in
the extreme, seemed perfectly suited to a moment in history when, as
Rosemont says, life was supercharged with developments that we
somehow expected would go on for decades. They didn't, not really.
Now a twenty-first generation wants badly to know about the inner
life of the sixties, and this book is a good place to start.
Paul Buhle, a Senior Lecturer at Brown University, was editor of the
SDS magazine RADICAL AMERICA, and is author or editor of many books
on the Left and popular culture.