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Berkeley as America’s Cultural Capital



Blog 10/25/11: Berkeley as America’s Cultural Capital

This morning’s blog, with the above provocative (I hope) title, is inspired by my reading last night a review in the New Yorker (issue of October 24th) of a new book about the movie critic Pauline Kael. It begins “In the fall of 1965” and writes of her at that time as “a small-time movie critic who had recently arrived from Northern California.”

Oh, the parochial New Yorkers! I subscribe to and read the New Yorker, the NYTimes, the New York Review of Books--Berkeley has never been strong in news publications (the Berkeley Barb? The East Bay Express?)

But otherwise, as a cultural capital and as the place where new cultural movements originated, Berkeley far overshadows New York, whatever they may think. Saul Steinberg, I believe it was, did a famous New Yorker cover showing what New Yorkers gazing westward see: the numbered avenues, one after the other, to the river; New Jersey across the river’ then a great expanse, and in the far distance, as I remember, San Francisco--but no Berkeley.

Back to Pauline Kael. A moment in my life that I have often recalled: I am walking up Telegraph Avenue toward campus, where I will give a lecture as a candidate for a teaching job there, and I pass on the left, several blocks before Sather Gate, the Cinema Guild, new to me; and they are showing two Buster Keaton films I hadn’t seen. It was only with difficulty that I kept walking and gave my lecture; and I decided then that Berkeley was the place to be--nothing like this in D.C., where I was living then (and where I could have stayed on to become Director of the Freer.) I learned later that the Cinema Guild had been founded by Pauline Kael and her then-husband or partner (? from memory) Edward Landlberg. She left later, moved to New York; he stayed on, and the Cinema Guild moved first to a second-floor small projection space on Telegraph south of Dwight Way, then to a theater at Haste and Shattuck. I often went to both--I remember that he had the only copies, and so was the only one to show, certain foreign films, including a great Japanese 47 Ronin film.

And Pauline Kael, as an independent critic and then as movie critic at The New Yorker, had opinions strongly different from those of other New York critics. Our writer notes this in wonderment. Somebody should tell him: because she was a Berkeley girl, stupid! The article gives information on her early life: born in Petaluma (the “egg basket of the world”--I remember well as a child driving through Petaluma on my way to

San Francisco and seeing a huge chicken, built of wood, on the roadside), she moved with her family to San Francisco, and then was an English major at U.C. Berkeley--but, the article goes on, “spent much of her free time hanging out with avant-garde poets,” and left without graduating. After an unrewarding time in New York, she “moved back to the Bay Area to live with her mother”--this was in 1946. So she must have been engaged with the famous Berkeley Literary Renaissance of the 1940s. She may have--probably did--frequent Creed’s Book Store, only a few doors outside Sather Gate then, and a gathering-place for Berkeley and S.F. literary people. And a favorite place for me, from my senior year at Berkeley High to my first years at UCB in the early 40s, and of course in the late 40s when I was a clerk there and co-wrote the chamber opera about it (see below.) Did I sell a book to Pauline Kael? I could have.

And so forth--on and on the writer goes about New York literary circles, no mention of Berkeley. Mentions of the counter-culture: where do they think it originated, for god’s sake? In Greenwich Village? I used to spend time there, during my years at the Freer in the 1950s-60s, often staying with Walt McKibben in his Greenwich Village apartment (with the subway running underneath it and shaking it noisily, interrupting one’s sleep.) Walt, who had been one of the four who sang in our Berkeley opera “A Day At Creed’s” (see for that)--Walt had moved to New York and become a successful stock analyst (!) for a Wall St. firm, besides singing counter-tenor roles and Shakespeare singing-clown parts in musical productions. So I knew Greenwich Village, although not intimately.

But back to Berkeley and the counter-culture: big cultural-literary movements in Berkeley were often shared with particular districts of San Francisco: for the Beat poets, it was with North Beach; for the hippies, it was with the Haight-Ashbury district. But always Berkeley as a center, a place of origin. I tell people who study the Beat literary movement that it originated, as they don’t seem to know, back in the early 40s. A man named George Leite, a close associate and follower of Henry Miller who was then living down in Big Sur, came to Berkeley and hung out in Creed’s--he used to bring watercolors done by Miller, not very good but attractive to some people because of Miller’s notoriety as a writer--he needed the money, and we would put them in our window for sale. (I once did a similar watercolor of my own and put it in the window with a sign reading: “This is by me, Maisie Zilch, age ten, and I think it’s just as good as Mr. Miller’s, and you can have it for fifteen cents.” The sign stayed there until someone pointed it out to Earl Schilling, the manager, who took it out--Creed’s couldn’t be disrespectful of Henry Miller!) George Leite later opened a small bookstore of his own further down Telegraph Ave. He started in 1946 a literary magazine called The Circle--I wrote a verse making fun of it and parodying it, which I will read in one of my video-lectures. Leite and his group were featured, I remember, in an article published in a mainstream journal (The Atlantic Monthly?) under the title “The New Cult of Sex and Anarchy.” These are, as I say, important forerunners of the Beats and other counter-culture movements; but does anyone pay any attention? No.

I could go on: where did the Free Speech Movement, so basic to the great hopeful opening-up of American culture in the 1960s-70s (soon to be shut down again by Reagan/Nixon/the Bushes etc.)--where and when did that originate? When Mario Savio, grad student in English at U.C. Berkeley, stood on top of a car in Sproul Hall Plaza and movingly exhorted the crowd to occupy the University’s administrative offices, which they did. I could go on into academic subjects, with art history of course central to them. I tell young people wondering where to go to study: you find out where the cutting-edge work in your intended field is being done, and go there. In art history, during the time I taught in UCB’s History of Art Dept., it was with us: our grad students could work with the likes of Svetlana Alpers, T. J. Clark, Michael Baxandall--not to speak of, for their/our special fields, such notables as Jean Bony, Joanna Williams, and James Cahill--our students now dominate their/our respective fields. Meanwhile, those who went to Harvard--children of Chinese mothers, for instance (I know one), who make sure that all their children go to Harvard--who went there for work in art history would learn the traditional kind on a high level, and lose out on the New Art History, which was going on in Berkeley. Stephen Greenblatt is now a famous Harvard professor, author of a fine book on Shakespeare’s life; but where did he develop his ideas, including his New Historicism? As a young English Dept. professor at U.C. Berkeley, where I knew him well. Charley Townes, who more or less invented the laser, and was one of the Nobel Prize winners, numbering more than at anywhere else, at UCB. And so forth.

Does any of this impress, or even interest. New Yorkers? Of course not. Their cultural vision stops with the Hudson River on one side and the East River on the other. But somebody should work to establish Berkeley’s real position as the cultural capital of America. The above is meant to suggest directions that study could take.

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