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Novelist Jean Rhys once said, “All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.” I thought of these words a great deal while reading the expanded reissue of Robert Duncan in San Francisco (City Lights), Michael Rumaker’s fascinating depiction of 1950s gay life in that city. Not only did the writers during what we now call the San Francisco Renaissance feed the lake of LGBT literature, they also made it possible for those of us who came after them to do the same.
When Rumaker lived in San Francisco, writing about the lives of gay men and women was dangerous in a way that’s difficult to fathom in that city today. Simply being gay put you danger with the police, whose infamous gay dragnets would land large groups of men in jail on Saturday nights. While walking by some men one night without any intention of soliciting sex, Rumaker was interrogated and thrown into a police wagon, then spent the night in a cell. Days later, Rumaker’s dramatic declaration of himself as not guilty in a courtroom was a personal turning point, a moment when he was filled with “contempt and an affirmation of a different sense of pride…”
San Francisco, for all its gay vitality, was an oppressive city. As if to remind gay writers of the perils of honestly depicting their lives, during this time Allan Ginsberg’s Howl was seized by U.S. customs officials and its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was booked for publishing obscenity. (The U.S. government eventually lost the case.) To protect himself, writes Rumaker, he was “out-straighting the straights…careful not to offend, socially maintaining constant vigilance regarding my slightest body movement or gesture, or tone of voice in public.”
Robert Duncan, Rumaker’s mentor, was pivotal in opening Rumaker up to the possibilities of liberation, and he did so by example. When the two met, Duncan had already written his 1944 landmark essay “The Homosexual in Society,” in which he daringly compared the plight of homosexuals to other oppressed groups such as African Americans and Jews. Duncan would eventually enter into a thirty-seven year relationship with artist Jess Collins that ended with Duncan’s death in 1988. From Duncan, Rumaker learns a secret: “the more open, the more protected you are.” It’s hard to see how Rumaker could have written books like his autobiographical A Night and Day at the Baths, without fully understanding the essence of Duncan’s life.
The shape of Robert Duncan in San Francisco is both odd and wonderful. Divided into three sections, the first is a straightforward narrative covering several years of Rumaker’s life and his early contact with Duncan. It’s the second section that really dazzles. Entitled “Fast Takes,” this chapter is series of images reflecting Rumaker’s experience in San Francisco that range from the mundane (Robert Duncan’s “California Poet Casual” dress) to the profound (Robert Duncan “was, bravely, what he was, and kowtowed to no one…”) Fans of Joe Brainard’s I Remember might find this section especially captivating. The third section, concerning Rumaker’s arrest, reads like a gripping short story.
The new material is a series of letters between Duncan and Rumaker, and an interview between the book’s editors (Ammiel Alcalay and Megan Paslawski) and the now 80-year-old Rumaker. These additions only add to the book’s refreshingly amorphous shape, as well as its sense of urgency. The new material also gives writers some gems of advice. Says Rumaker in the interview: “If we learn anything from Shakespeare as writers it’s to put yourself in the other guy’s shoes, the other gal’s shoes, that empathy, that ability to transfer.”
Perhaps the most important line from the interview is Rumaker’s observation about Duncan that “he was all over the place, his spirit.” Critics who have faulted the original edition of this book by saying that it should be titled Michael Rumaker in San Francisco, are missing the point, taking the title far too literally. This isn’t a memoir solely about the physical presence of Robert Duncan. It’s also about the presence of his spirit that inspired those in his orbit, many of whom found the courage to add to the literary lake.
Robert Duncan in San Francisco
By Michael Rumaker
City Lights Publishers
Paperback, 9780872865907, 158 pp.