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by Alexander Dobuzinskis
Sunday, Jan. 27, 2002 at 5:43 PM
The intersection of the arts and politicts has a rich history in LA, and there's no better person to illuminate that history than author and journalist Lionel Rolfe. His book, Literary L.A., is just out in a revised and expanded third edition. Rolfe will be at Skylight Books for a book signing on Feb. 3 at 4 p.m., 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz. He was interviewed for IMC-LA by Alexander Dobuzinskis.
Fat Man Returns
Interview with Lionel Rolfe, Author of Literary LA, Fat Man on the Left,
and Bread and Hyacinths
By Alexander Dobuzinskis
intersection of the arts and politicts has a rich history in LA, and there's
no better person to illuminate that history than author and journalist
Lionel Rolfe. In his book Literary L.A.--just out in a revised
and expanded third edition---Rolfe reveals the history of L.A.'s forgotten
literary scene. From Charles Bukowski to Robinson Jeffers, Aldous Huxley
to Nathanael West, Rolfe describes the authors who made L.A. home and looks
at the stories and struggles behind the creation of a culture. Rolfe
is also the author of Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of
Utopian Los Angeles and Fat Man on the Left: Four Decades
in the Underground. Alexander Dobuzinskis interviewed Rolfe
Mark Twain is our greatest writer,
greater even than Melville. He is at least the equivalent of any writer
anywhere else in the world, from Tolstoy to Dostoyevsky. And he really
was the first California bohemian. He as known as the sagebrush bohemian,
Why are there two chapters on Upton Sinclair but no chapters on Raymond
Somewhere in the book I explain -- or perhaps John Ahouse explains --
that I decided not to write about Raymond Chandler simply because
he was the only L.A. writer anyone ever wrote about. Also, I was
a little turned off to his anti-Semitism and anti-black sentiments,
although he was an incredible writer. But I just felt I had the luxury
not to write much about him (I have a bit), because he had been done
over and over again and he also turned me off.
What sort of research did you have to do when you were writing the book?
Some of them, I did the typical research. Read autobiographies, all the
news clips I could get and I read all their books. But a lot of it,
you may notice also, came out of my own experience and my own knowledge.
So it's kind of a combination of both. A lot of the research was
done in a very disciplined kind of way, because Dick Adler, who was
the editor of the magazine California Living and the old Herald ...
would give me an assignment and gave me enough money to pay for --
he guaranteed that whether it was Nigey, my estranged wife, or me,
we'd have a piece in every week. So, it would be like being on the
staff. But we had to have a piece in so, on the writers, I would
just work 24 hours a day just reading, writing and thinking, in order
to get a story into him on Friday.
You are a big fan of Mark Twain. What do you see in Twain and do you
really think he was the first Califonia bohemian?
Yes, Mark Twain is our greatest writer, greater even than Melville. He
is at least the equivalent of any writer anywhere else in the world, from
Tolstoy to Dostoyevsky. And he really was the first California bohemian.
He was known as the sagebrush bohemian, in fact. The start of his
career was made in the Mother Lode country... I remember Ho Chi Minh
during the Vietnam War, somebody asked him "well do you hate Americans"
and he said "how can I hate the country that produced Mark Twain?"...
Mark Twain represented the left before there was a left. He was the
first anti-imperialist. He was always very much in the corner of
the working man. He got in lots of trouble in this country at the
end of his life for supporting Gorky. He was almost hooted out of
acceptance when Gorky was going to come and do a tour and so on.
He was in support of the Russian revolution. he was probably the first
voice, American voice, to come forward about imperialism ...He was like
the Beethoven of writers ... He was incredibly anti-monorchist and
in that sense defined the best of, after all the best thing that
came out of the American Revolution, which was a revolution, was it was
against monarchy. And, quite like Beethoven, he represented anti-feudalism.
He represented the coming of bourgeois democracy, where you do have
democracy in certain things. He represented a kind of scientific
enlightenment. Very much a belief in science which we don't have
now because we've seen science perverted for so many evil purposes
of the military and so on. But, he very definitely represented the
best in the American spirit.
We now have, especially since
Reagan, have made our heroes our basically businessmen -- people who make
a lot of money. Whereas I think traditionally in old Chinese culture ...
the lowest people on the totem pole were the athletes and the businessmen,
whereas the highest would be the poets, the philosophers the writers and,
I guess, the musicians.
O.k. so maybe we could describe what's a bohemian by describing what's
a California bohemian.
They're artists who experiment with love and life in all its ways, ususally
with a political perspective to the left. We now have, especially since
Reagan, have made our heroes our basically businessmen -- people who
make a lot of money. Whereas I think traditionally in old Chinese culture
... the lowest people on the totem pole were the athletes and the businessmen,
whereas the highest would be the poets, the philosophers the writers
and, I guess, the musicians. I don't know much about Chinese music.
We've flip flopped that now so that, and this was the influence of Reagan,
so that our great heroes are athletes, rock starts, which is music without
brains ... I mean it's glorification of commerce it's glorificcation of
making money the glorification of bankers. The bohemian movement obviously
represented the opposite of that because, to them, the greatest glory is
the creative person, you know whether it's writing or dancing. But
that's who bohemians are and they definitely include certain very
specific people ... you've got to include Jack London, you got to
include really Mark Twain, you have to include Steinbeck, Robinson
Jeffers was kind of on sort of a bohemian even though he didn't fit
politically. But they tend to be left.
Did you have a favorite author profiled in the book?
It changes from time to time. And also dependant on when I was doing it.
Like when I wrote about Upton Sinclair, I was really enjoying that because
I'd always loved Upton and I felt that I was bringing an author to people's
attention. I mean, everybody knew Upton Sinclair as the author of "The
Jungle." And they didn't realize he spent half a century in Los Angeles
writing about a lot of Los Angeles subjects. And a lot of his books were
written in Los Angeles ... I mean, like, his book oil, which is about
Southern California entirely, and actually about Signal Hill, was maybe
the best novel ever wriiten about Southern California. It's just
an incredible novel. And, probably as a piece of writing it's better
than "The Jungle." ... But, then on the other hand I was pretty excited
about Bukowski. Well, now of course Bukowski I did a lot of things
-- it wasn't only that night I spent drinking. I went to a couple
movie premieres where he was at and, you know, hung around different
circumstances until I was really able to spend some time with him.
And, also having brushed across him at the L.A. Free Press, where
he really first became well known.
What was it like to go drinking with Bukowski?
It was all you might have imagined. He drank, of that there was no
doubt. And he was unpredictable and enertaining as well. He's ultimately
a disturbing character, with his love of Celine and Sartre, two very
contradictory characters. I write about going drinking in one of the
chapters in the book.
The way his poems are written is almost in the dialogue of a street
character or something like that. It's not like, he's definitely not an
observor. He's almost like an actor.
He's an active participant of the street life.
So, is that a uniquely Los Angeles way to appoach the literature?
That I'm not quite sure about and, in actual fact, Bukowski is probably
a lot more European than anything and that's why they loved his stuff there.
But I guess the big thing that Bukowski gets is the sense of alienation
that a Los Angeles creates. Like Gene Vier ... the one who hooked
me up with Bukowski, felt that what he really got was -- you know
in Europe even somebody on the street has a sense of belonging. Because
of some basic structures that will keep them going and so on. Here
when we throw people out they're dead, they're gone, the're cut off,
they don't exist anymore. We have no sense of we. We have no sense
of, you know, everybody belongs in some sense. So what you get with
Bukowski is that incredible sense of alienation. And that might be
particularly Los Angeles because I think Los Angeles is even stronger
in that than other American places, you know it's the Darwinian survival
of the fittest kind of thing, which we have really incorperated into
our ethic, into our way of being as Americans, and it's just capitalism
run totally amuck.
The hippy use of drugs was typically
related to folklore. I mean everyone knew about peyote and how and why
that was used, as well as magic mushrooms. LSD was synthesized, so it was
different -- but the hippy drug thing, through Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley,
definitely had strong mythic connections.
In Oscar Zeta Acosta's "Autobiographical Essay," he writes: "Most of the
big ideas I've gotten for my lawyer work have usually come when I was
stoned... I think the acid experience is part and parcel of the radical
Chicano Movement." In your review of Zeta-Acosta's work, you briefly talk
about the drug aspect of the movement he was involved in, but you kind
of relate it to the broader culture of the 1960s. I tend to disagree,
I think the use of drugs described in revolt of the Cockroach People
was more related to the use of drugs by certain Southwest indigenous
peoples that the Chincano movement took their inspiration from. It
had a historical antecedant in a way the hippie movement's use of
drugs did not.
But actually the hippy use of drugs was typically related to folklore.
I mean everyone knew about peyote and how and why that was used,
as well as magic mushrooms. LSD was synthesized, so it was different
-- but the hippy drug thing, through Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley,
definitely had strong mythic connections.
What do you think specifically about the use of drugs described in
Zeta-Acosta's books and what do you think of the use of drugs during the
60s generally. Do you think it helped the anti-war movement or do
you think it sort of derailed the movement?
Well, there are different components. Marijuana had always been the
underground drug, especially in black culture. And it turns out it was
widely used as an asthma fighter, at the turn of the century. Drugs were
always there -- the original coke was just that. Coke Coleridge in "A
Stately Pleasure Dome," well that's very much opium. "Alice in Wonderland"
was cocaine, I think, and maybe some opium. But specifically in the case
of the Beats, pot was the drug of choice because a lot of it was
based on a reverance for black culture -- especially in music and
also in writing. There's some evidence that LSD was more intentional.
Henry Luce [founder of Time Magazine] really did push people using
LSD, which was sort of created or conceived of as a way of disorienting
the enemy. I have often wondered it was used in that manner in the
'60s because a lot of people did get permanently messed up using
LSD -- and I say that as one who used some LSD in the '60s and while
I got negative about it, I think it did help me achieve a certain
creativity in my writing that I wouldn't have had without it.
In the book, you describe some of the parallels between Zeta-Acosta's
work and Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano." Why is this? Do you think
they were both similar because they were revolutionary novels?
There are strong similarities but strong differences dictated by the
times. Acosta is writing about the '60s when, in fact, politics was messed
up a lot by mystical nonsense, some of it drug induced. In both novels,
there is this strong undercurrent of silent fascism coming of age. Lowry
is writing about Spain and its Civil War, and then Hitler taking
over in the form of Franco -- which was reverberating in Mexican
politics of the time as well. Acosta is writing about "direct
action" -- anarchist reactions -- to what was going on in the '60s.
I'm not sure I would call either one of them 'revolutionary' novels,
exactly, but they have those elements, certainly. But they reflect
radical thinking, in two different times. Remember, Lowry was a cabalist,
a mystic, but he lost some of his best friends in Spain -- you know,
that was the struggle that had all the good songs but lost the war
-- sort of like the Wobblies in American labor history.
What was your worst experience as a police reporter? ... What do you
think about the fact the Parker Center press room is completely empty now,
that there used to be a lot of reporters there and is there a change in
the way the press has covered the police in recent years?
Yeah the press room used to be -- and it looked just like that. I know
Nielson Hemmerall, who lived through the press room, used to be in City
Hall, the basement of City Hall. And when he saw that movie "L.A.
Confidential," he loved it because it took him right back to that time
and he remembered it very well. But I guess when Parker Center was
built it sort of moved the press room over lock, stock and barrell.
But there used to be a lot of people in it. Nowadays of course it's
primarily City News, which is there 24 hours a day and everybody's
saving money. But that means of course you don't have as many eyes
looking at things and you have to rely more on the official version
and you have to pretty much take what cops hand out, because who
else are you talking to? You're not talking to the people that were
arrested, you don't have the manpower to go out and do those things.
But that's just American journalism has become cruddier and cruddier
--dramatically so. And I think that pretty much coincides with the
monopolization of the press which has been going on the last decade or
So it's not a coincidence?
Oh, of course not.
What was Huxley's state of mind when he was writing "Ape & Essence?"
Meaning was he out of cash, angry at the world, what do you think was going
on in his mind?
Huxley was broke when he wrote "Ape & Essence," only because he couldn't
get royalties out of England during the war. But I think he, like a lot
of others, was very concerned about Hiroshima and the implications
of that. That was the main thing that bugged him. That's what was
going on in his mind -- what does all this death and destruction
It's basically another Los Angeles disaster book, like Nathanael West's
"Day of the Locusts." What is it about Los Angeles that spawns all these
It would have to be one of the first disaster books. Remember, Nathanael
West came later, I think. West did highly influence Joseph Heller and "Catch
22." West was a kind of Jewish alienation from things, which Huxley, the
proper Englishman, didn't have. You could look at Thomas Mann's "Doctor
Faustus" and Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano," both of which were, at
least partly, written in L.A. and say they are disaster novels. But these
weren't disaster novels in the sense of a silly Hollywood movie. They were
talking about alienation and the human condition. L.A. was sometimes a
good place for such novels to play out, or get written in, because
L.A. spawned a certain kind of alienation, what with its surrealistic
landscape (a desert next to an ocean, etc.) But in a larger sense,
the alienation came from World War II and it affected a whole world.
World War II was kind of like a cliff where the road runner goes
over the cliff but just keeps pedaling and doesn't fall until he
realizes what has happened. L.A. is a place where people keep pedaling
and don't realize the bottom has fallen out and there might not be
much of a future.
What do you think is the future of Los Angeles literature?
Depends on the future of L.A. itself and the whole society. As the
culture has gone into a great decline, sort of a corrupt Roman Circus
affair, writing has suffered. People tell me that the great writing is
now being done in Latin America. America once produced great writers
-- both Russia and America produced the great writers. I don't think
that's true right now. The question of writers out of LA is really
only a part of the larger question of where do we as a city and a
nation go from here.
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