We call it the "F-Bomb" or "F-Word" now in American mass media. For the sake of clarity, we want every reader or watcher or listener to know that what was said was one of the most familiar words in the English language -- the essential Anglo-Saxon obscenity whose utility and combinatorial versatility have proved to be little less than astonishing in the past 70 years -- but we don't want to actually use the word.
It may seem like hypocrisy but in essence it's our concession to the simple fact that younger family members are routinely exposed to what we do. Let their street vocabularies come from the street -- or their homes -- as long as we're being truthful to what was said.
So delicate were American sensibilities in 1948 that when Norman Mailer wanted to convey the conversation of men in wartime in "The Naked and the Dead," he came up with the euphemism "Fug." So when poet Ed Sanders teamed up with Tuli Kupferberg to form a group to "set poetry to music" and explore "ooodles of freedom guaranteed by the Constitution that were not being used," they quickly bypassed Sanders' suggestions of "The Yodeling Socialists" and "The Freaks" for their "rock-and-roll/poetry adventure" in favor of Kupferberg's suggestion, The Fugs.
By that time, the unexpurgated Grove Press edition of D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" had been in bookstores for five years and radical changes in American sensibility were being effectuated first and foremost by the publishing industry, thenceforth busily engaged in making American libraries, bookstores and bedside reading tables safe for "Tropic of Cancer," "Fanny Hill," "Naked Lunch," "Our Lady of the Flowers," "Last Exit to Brooklyn" and "The Story of O" (at least four of which are now considered literary classics).
The liberation of artistic content in America wasn't easy and no one was more crucial to it on a continuing basis than Richard Seaver, who followed the "Lost Generation" to Paris after World War II, all but discovered Samuel Beckett for English language publication and hooked up eventually with the great publishing firebrand and liberator, Barney Rosset, the publisher of Grove Press to whom so much gratitude is due for ensuring that the First Amendment did indeed apply to art (even if ragged Village poets, peaceniks and provocateurs like Sanders would be housing their literary art in a mimeographed periodical immortally called "F--- You: A Magazine of the Arts").
It took a long time indeed, for instance, for Henry Miller's legendarily rude and raw "gob of spit" at gentility called "Tropic of Cancer" to make it into unexpurgated publication in the country that give birth to eternal Brooklyn/Paris bohemian Miller.
As a genteelly rebellious and quasi-literary 13-year-old boy, I asked a beloved aunt visiting Europe to purchase me a copy of the Parisian Olympia press edition of "Tropic of Cancer," only to have her read it while she was abroad and decide I wasn't quite ready -- which, as I recall, didn't stop her from turning into a dangerous smuggler for her own benefit, just as countless American soldiers had done before her. (Then again, she may have left it on a hotel bedside table in Paris. She was very much a law-abiding citizen who valued civic order more than an adored nephew's artistic curiosity.)
Here are two hugely engaging books from the heart of America's mid-century bohemian circus -- one the memoir of one of America's greatest enablers of literary liberation and avant-gardism, whose pages teem with Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Miller, Barney Rosset, William S. Burroughs and Jean-Paul Sartre; the other a scrapbook/memoir by a rollicking beatnik, peacenik, hippie, yippie, rocker, participant and fellow traveler in most of the ways that anyone who could loosely be described as "cultural" could run "counter" to just about everything that the American mainstream purported to stand for. In Sanders' pages, you'll find Burroughs too, along with Abbie Hoffman, Frank O'Hara, Norman Mailer, Jerry Rubin and, among other denizens and stalwarts of Buffalo's 1965 Spring Arts Festival and University at Buffalo English Department, Charles Olson, John Wieners, Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) and Gregory Corso (who "smoked pot openly" requiring Olson to smoke aromatic "Asthmador cigarettes" to "mask Corso's pot" and "keep Corso from blowing us out of Buffalo." Corso later left after he refused to sign a faculty loyalty oath).
Though much of their purview is concurrent, the social distance between Seaver's Hampton discussions with Rosset and Sanders' scruffy Village doings can seem as wide indeed as the distance between the titles of the two books (Seaver's is from Zola via Van Gogh). Seaver, for instance, is droll and hugely entertaining about his efforts in Paris to keep a determined Brendan Behan from afflicting the austere Beckett with his drunken self on the grounds of their both being Irish playwrights after all. The upshot is that Behan wound up waking Beckett up at 6 a.m. and remaining with him until Beckett had to depart for a rehearsal of the career-making first Parisian performance of "Waiting for Godot." Beckett later merely registered sadness about Behan's alcohol consumption which, in fact, killed him 12 years later.
Sanders, on the other hand, is quite joyous about telling us all the goings-on while filming the film "Mongolian Cluster F---" at an apartment in the Dakota -- not to mention the decidedly unhygienic doings of Warholian "star" Gerard Malanga for the same film four pages later.
Sanders describes Allen Ginsberg at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago as being "the only bard in the history of Western civilization to have over-ommed -- that is he'd uttered the seed syllable 'Om' for so many hours trying to quell the violence that he peace-pained his voice and was omming at the end, like Froggie the Gremlin." I think Seaver -- who published Sanders in the Evergreen Review -- would feel nothing but narrative kinship.
Seaver's stories -- taking Beckett, for instance, to a New York Mets doubleheader -- tend to be a good deal more sanitary than Sanders', but in the case of both books, you have a superabundance of vintage anecdotes told and retold and polished over decades of meals, intoxicants and recreational substances of various sorts.
Which is to say that reading these books, these tales may not sparkle with the incontestable purity of uncontaminated truth, but as Seaver says in his introduction, "Time is not kind to the harried mind, filling it each passing day with the detritus of the moment, like silt at a river's mouth slowly covering the earlier levels."
In one book, you have the vaguely patrician editor-in-chief at Rosset's Grove Press -- a publishing aristocrat later at Viking and his own Arcade Press. In another, you have the rough, raucous, scruffy, poet/rocker merrily blaming a zoned-out future poet laureate of the United States -- Donald Hall -- with breaking a glass table at the apartment of poet Louis Simpson that one of Sanders' pals had actually broken.
It is, by the way, the latter book that seethes with Buffalo connections, both with Sanders' visitations and his use of the UB Lockwood Library Poetry Room for crucial research. Both are hugely engaging collections of tales of '60s glory -- Sanders' street-eye view from the Peace Eye Bookstore and Fugs concerts, Seaver's baby-sitting of genius and participation in a publishing revolution that cost a fortune to defend in court but turned everything we knew about culture and artistic freedom upside down.
Neither book is perfect, perhaps. But both are, to some of us, impossible to resist.
Jeff Simon is The News' Arts and Books editor.
THE TENDER HOUR OF TWILIGHT
By Richard Seaver
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
457 pages, $35
By Ed Sanders
Da Capo Press
424 pages, $26.99