Rexroth's Chicago, Chicago's Rexroth: Wobblies, Dil Picklers, and Windy City Dada.
Rexroth spent his teenage years and young manhood as a participant and observer in the city's then-burgeoning multiracial hobohemia: the free-for-all world of social radicalism, sexual freedom, jazz, Charles H. Kerr's socialist publishing co-op, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, known as Wobblies from about 1913 on), Bughouse Square, the Dil Pickle, the Garvey movement, the African Blood Brotherhood, the Proletarian Party, Turner Hall, the Radical Bookshop, and even a little-known effort to spark a specifically Chicago variant of the international creative/destructive rebellion known as Dada. In that sprawling, adventurous, working-class counterculture, Rexroth identified himself with the twin causes, poetry and revolution, which remained his major concerns ever after.
The term "Chicago Renaissance" came much later, but the concept was advanced as early as 1907 by novelist and culture critic Hutchins Hapgood in his insightful and influential book, The Spirit of Labor. Hapgood discerned a bright new development of the "Chicago Idea" anarchism of the 1880s. He was deeply impressed by the richness and variety of the local labor movement's vibrant cultural ferment--the many open forums and debating societies organized and frequented by trade unionists; the sheer abundance and literary merit of the city's diverse radical publications; the overall emphasis on workers' education and solidarity. Here, he concluded, was a truly inspired "intellectual proletariat" whose combination of critical thought, creativity, and rebellion added up to nothing less than a "Renaissance of Labor."
Chicago in the 1910s was well known as the nation's railroad capital; it soon became the nation's hobo capital. The leading figures of the city's blue-collar renaissance, and a large part of its rank and file, were hoboes--more precisely, hobo intellectuals: migratory workers who had seen the country coast-to-coast, and in many cases had traveled around the world. Most of them had read widely--astonishingly so, given the precarious conditions of the hobo life--and could discourse wisely on the ancient classics as well as up-to-the-minute modernists. (1)
The hobohemian renaissance had enthusiastic supporters in Hyde Park to the south and Maywood to the west, but its vital center was unquestionably the Near North Side, an area then called Towertown, after the quaint water tower that had survived the catastrophic 1871 fire. In its heyday Towertown teemed with lively coffee houses, tearooms, vegetarian cafes, free-speech forums, bookstores, art galleries, little theaters, little magazines, and poetry readings, and it played host to the the finest soapbox culture in us history. A ritzy neighborhood a generation earlier, by 1910 the well-to-do had long since fled to the North Shore, many miles away, to distance themselves from a potentially insurgent working class. (The 1886 Haymarket affair had terrified the city's ruling elite.) In the 1910s and 20s--indeed, well into the 30s--the stately old mansions on Clark Street and Dearborn were rundown rooming-houses inhabited primarily by hoboes; (2) down-on-their luck circus, carnival, and theater folk; burlesque queens; comedians; grifters; occultists; runaways from all over; and a sizeable sprinkling of the certifiably mad. For Rexroth, these "lumpen entertainers" were "the loveliest people Western civilization has produced," and he credited them with providing the Near North Side with "both solidity and fantasy of a sort that artists and writers will never be privileged to encounter socially again." (Today the Near North Side is among the most gentrified neighborhoods of Chicago.)
Chicago anarchism, hit hard by the 1886-87 Red Scare, began to recover in the early 90s, and was flourishing again by the turn of the century. French anarchist Paul Ghio, visiting the city in 1902, reported a large anarchist meeting primarily attended by Poles, but also by Germans, Hungarians, and Czechs. The English-language group was small, but by the 1910s it was clearly enjoying a resurgence. In the next two decades the local Free Society Group was one of the largest and most active anarchist groups in the country. Free Society speakers such as Lucy Parsons and Sam Dolgoff also spoke at Bughouse Square and other venues. In Rexroth's Chicago years, anarchism was a significant part of the city's intellectual atmosphere.
The IWW, however, was a vastly larger movement, and was itself rather anarchistic, especially in the view of the more authoritarian Marxists. It had two central aims: to organize the entire working class into One Big Union, and to abolish the wage system (that is, capitalism). The IWW was much more than what is usually meant by the term "labor union" and was recognized by many observers (Rexroth among them) as the single greatest revolutionary workers' organization in American history. (3)
The IWW was founded on Chicago's Near North Side in 1905 and maintained its international headquarters in the city all through its heroic years and its long decline following a disastrous 1924 split. In the 1910s and 20s, Wobbly influence on the local hobohemia--and on the city's broader intellectual milieu--was huge. The crowd of 30,000 that turned out in 1915 for labor organizer Joe Hill's funeral testifies to the union's impact. Even in the hardest times, Wobs set an example of no-compromise point-of-production audacity that stirred the hearts and minds of working people everywhere. Emphasizing workers' creativity and direct action as opposed to electoral politics, they won many labor battles that made other unions run and hide. Above all the Wobblies left a vigorous emancipatory legacy with their militant spirit of solidarity, exemplified by the motto "An Injury to One is an Injury to All" and the splendid songs of Joe Hill, T-Bone Slim, and others.
Rexroth's involvement in the IWW was slight and sporadic. He does not appear to have been much of a meeting-goer, much less an organizer, and he didn't play a significant role in any of the union's major struggles. Like many soapboxers he idolized, he made a habit of being behind in his dues. Rexroth's admiration for Chicago's "ozone orators" was boundless, and his own modest contribution to the IWW cause was as a soapboxer.
First-class soapboxers were more than mere speech-makers; they were persuasive reasoners, gifted storytellers, stand-up comics with a knack for improvisation, and serious researchers. It was not unusual for them to spend five hours looking through books and journals at the Newberry Library in preparation for an hour's talk in the late afternoon. The soapboxers Rexroth especially appreciated were major figures: John Loughman, Eddie Guilbert (often spelled Gilbert), Rickey Lewis (who liked to supplement his talks with songs, accompanying himself on guitar), and Edward "Triphammer" Johnson (who, in addition to his IWW lectures, enjoyed discoursing on Kierkegaard). They were often mentioned in the daily papers, and several of them appeared in fiction: Loughman, for example, shows up in a lengthy passage of Studs Lonigan. Others were just as good: Frank Midney, "Whiskey" Jimmy Rohn, and the great female speakers Lucy Parsons and "Red Martha" Biegler, a union printer who also ran a rooming-house for hoboes. In the pre-television age, the soapboxer was often regarded as an entertaining and educational intruder in an otherwise dull daily routine.
Years later Rexroth described this phase of his teenage years:
In those days the soapbox was still a most important working class--or at least migratory working class--educational institution. If you were any good, it was possible to make quite a decent living. There was a regular city circuit--two corners on West Madison Street, the Haymarket, a wide area where [Navy] Pier is now, the Bug Club in Washington Park, and Bughouse Square on North Clark Street in front of the Newberry Library. I never became one of the stars, but if I made all of these points over a weekend I could always pick up a minimum of fifty dollars--a lot of money in those days for two days' work for an adolescent boy.
Passing the hat to raise funds was an important part of the soapboxer's job, but young Rexroth was also committed to "spreading the word" and advancing revolutionary struggle. Especially interesting are his recollections of speaking in Chicago's African American neighborhoods. Noting that "the Abolitionist heritage" was "one of the strongest factors in the shaping of [his] mind," and that several of his ancestors had been active in the Underground Railroad, he--along with some IWW friends--became interested in the Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey movement, as well as the more explicitly revolutionary African Blood Brotherhood. Indeed, he emphasized:
It was only the group around the Chicago IWW office and the independents, my soapbox friends, in all America radicalism, who had any sympathy for Garvey. All the Socialist and radical and progressive groups condemned him to a man ... I used to soapbox quite a bit with Garveyites and later with the African Blood Brotherhood, of which I was a sort of honorary member. This was the first that I had ever penetrated to the Negro working- class South Side, so different from the world of jazz or the Talented Tenth. An old man named White who had been a high school teacher in the South and I used to pitch together. I would recite some poetry and give a little talk--I used to recite my friend Fenton Johnson and the other poets of the Negro renaissance. [...] White always opened his talk by saying "My name is White, and that's the only thing about me that is, except my teeth and a few hairs that I can't do anything about," and he would take off his hat and show his gray hair. Then he would go on with a long speech about the wonders of the Sudanese kingdoms and the ruins of the Mines of Ophir and the glories of African sculpture and its influence on Cubism. The first time he ever cut loose with this on the soapbox I almost fell over, because I had no idea he had any such knowledge. Like many educated Negroes he was a very cultivated man behind a mask of "country" talk.
For fellow Worker Rexroth, as no doubt for many other youngsters in the movement, soapboxing was as much a matter of learning as of matter of teaching. He was proud that his real schooling was picked up at the Wobbly Hall and Bughouse Square, and that his best teachers were worker-intellectuals, grizzled revolutionists, and seasoned hoboes. The stories they shared with him, the ideas they suggested, the books they recommended or gave him were decisive elements in Rexroth's intellectual growth. Genius is where you find it, and the future author of The Dragon and the Unicorn seems to have known where to look.
Education at its hobohemian best, replete with provocative lectures, heated debates, and the most sophisticated heckling in town, were specialties of the Dil Pickle, a non-alcoholic free-speech nightspot run by an ex-Wobbly named Jack Jones. A retired hard-rock miner with a yen for philosophy and the arts, Jones called himself an industrial anarchist. Always playful, he ran the Pickle as an informal university of applied nonconformity. Housed in an old barn in Tooker Alley (a little over a block away from the Newberry Library) it featured serious lectures by college professors, scientists, and scholars along with the unlimited eccentricity provided by a large staff of soapbox sages, mostly Wobs or former Wobs, real characters one and all. Among the habitues of the Pickle were many youngsters who would became well known: James T. Farrell, Saul Bellow, and Rexroth himself. Controversial subjects were welcomed: the Russian Revolution, psychoanalysis, homosexuality, birth control, atheism, political corruption, and the need for social revolution in the us.
Listening to old Wobblies, soapboxers, and Dil Picklers was central to Rexroth's education, but from early on he was also an avid reader. As he emphasizes in his memoirs, the place of honor among the books were "the various classics from the Charles Kerr Socialist Library." He discovered these at the age of eleven or twelve on a Michigan farm owned by two women in their late sixties and their mother, in her nineties; all three were "extreme left-wing socialists, who didn't believe in voting." ("All my life," Rexroth commented, "radicals of the old American type have turned up for me in the most unlikely places.") He went on to describe himself as "a boy raised on the Charles H. Kerr library of Socialist and revolutionary classics"--a series that included works by Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, William Morris, Peter Kropotkin, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Edward Carpenter, Paul Lafargue, and many others. In the heyday of Gene Debs's Socialist Party and the IWW, hundreds of thousands of young people were brought up on these books.
Charles Hope Kerr, the son of militant abolitionists, founded the firm in 1886, a few weeks before the police attack on Haymarket. By the early 1900s his publishing co-op was the largest producer of socialist literature in the English-speaking world, and an important influence on the nation's--and especially Chicago's--radical intellectual life. Although the Kerr Company has been the subject of several scholarly studies, no one has yet detailed the extensive connections between the publishing firm and its working-class and hobohemian milieu. Rexroth is one of the few to have recognized these connections; in his autobiography he calls attention to the fact that the founders of the Dil Pickle Club included not only Chicago IWWS and a few artists and writers, but also "the people around the Charles Kerr Socialist Publishing Company."
Rexroth's many admiring references to the Kerr Company, and to such major and then-still-living Kerr authors as Mary Marcy, Bill Haywood, Anton Pannekoek, Austin Lewis, and Eugene Boudin, suggest not only the intellectual breadth of the "hobohemian culture" but also how crucial that defiantly dissident culture was for young Rexroth himself. The soapbox "stars" who most impressed him were themselves thoughtful students of the Kerr publications, as were an appreciable part of their audience. (Nels Anderson's 1923 study, The Hobo, lists fifteen books widely read by hoboes; all but one was published by Kerr.)
The Radical Bookshop on North Clark Street was equal to the Pickle as a Wobbly and hobohemian intellectual hangout, and it held a place of special importance in the education of young Rexroth. The shop was run by Howard and Lillian Udell, "philosophical anarchists," and their two young daughters, Geraldine and Phyllis, and was located in a storefront in North Side Turner Hall, a notable radical workers' watering-hole as far back as the Haymarket days. The Radical Bookshop was "staked" (as hoboes would put it) by Kerr, who provided a large selection of titles, old and new, on consignment. In addition to socialist, anarchist, and IWW literature, shop stock included a wide selection of the modern poetry and fiction. Especially significant for the life of the community, as Rexroth tells it, was the Udells' decision to start "importing the avant-garde poetry of the Twenties from France and Germany and Russia." The place never had a cash register but it did have a loyal and sizeable clientele. "Regulars" included radicals, poets, writers, artists, dancers, and actors.
Bughouse Square, the Dil Pickle, and the Radical Bookshop were the most ebullient and intellectually stimulating places on the Near North Side--some would say, in all Chicago. But dozens of other places added to the area's vitality and diversity. The Blue Fish, the Green Mask, the Gold Coast House of Correction, Seven Arts, the Temple of Wisdom, and The House of Blazes were all within a few minutes' walk of the Pickle. Frequent large gatherings (called "at homes") were conducted in the spacious residences of prosperous friends of hobohemia. At Jacob Loeb's place, Rexroth met IWW poet Charles Ashleigh, Sherwood Anderson, Clarence Darrow, Gene Debs, Isadora Duncan, John Fitzpatrick (head of the Chicago Federation of Labor), Bill Haywood, Alexandra Kollontai (from the Russian Bolshevik Party), Japanese Marxist Sen Katayama, Carl Sandburg, and anarchist Carlo Tresca. Together these clubs and forums demonstrated the deep and profound liberating influence of the revolutionary IWW and the broader soapbox counterculture.
Rexroth generally preferred to hang around older folk rather than people his own age. Newsman Lionel Moise, Bertram L. Weber, and G.G. Florine were among his best Towertown friends. Moise, the epitome of the hard-boiled reporter, is said to have taught Hemingway how to write. Weber and Florine were poets, playwrights, and pranksters. All three had written for the IWW press in the 1910s, and Weber even had a song in the union's famous little red songbook. As Rexroth recalled, "Everybody in Chicago in those days of any importance in the arts considered himself a Red," which in those days meant an IWW. This trend was not limited to poets, artists, journalists, and dilettantes, although there were plenty of those. More than a few editors at Chicago's dailies had red IWW cards in their pockets, and a great many trade-unionists were openly "doubleheaders"--they carried a red IWW card in addition to their AFL card.
The hobo working-class character and carnivalesque overtones of this floating community differed radically from the middle-class bohemias of New York and other cities. Rexroth, writing of North Clark Street in the 1920s, pointed out that "a world less like Greenwich Village would be hard to imagine." He considered it his good fortune to have lived in Chicago at a time when the IWW was a dominant moral and intellectual force, and he clearly cherished his memories of those exciting years. However disillusioned or cynical some of the ex-Wob soapboxers may have become, he had to respect their deep-down "irreconcilable intransigence"--their readiness, "whenever there was a hot strike or a free-speech fight," [to] "volunteer their services." For years, he carried a red card, and to the end of his days he upheld what he liked to call "the philosophy of the IWW." As he later summed up his Wobbly experience, "It is not a bad thing to have grown up in a circle in which practically the only virtues were loyalty, magnanimity, and courage."
Rexroth boasted that none of his relatives, or their close associates--many of them avowed socialists--ever became orthodox Leninists. Instead, he wrote, they "became dissidents of one sort or another, leaders of the Proletarian Party or the more outlandish Trotskyist splinter groups." Somewhere along the line he developed a high esteem for the Proletarian Party, a small Michigan-centered Marxist educational group, best known for its popular Proletarian University in Detroit. The Proletarians were expelled from the Socialist Party in 1919 for being too revolutionary, and shortly afterward took the initiative to form the first us Communist Party. A few months later they were expelled again--this time for "Menshevism," for not being revolutionary enough. The Proletarian Party was the only party that was one hundred percent working-class; the Socialist and Communist parties always had a disproportionately middle-class membership, not to mention an embarrassing number of millionaires.
Rexroth considered the Proletarian Party "the most highly developed Left Marxist group in America." Few historians would agree with that assessment, but it should not be dismissed out of hand. For decades PP founder John Keracher's pamphlets were soapbox best-sellers, and the core of many workers' libraries. The leading PP theorist, German-born printer Carl Berreitter was noted for his translations of the German Marxist scholar Franz Mehring. Berreitter may also have been the first us Marxist to familiarize himself with the publications of the Frankfurt School.
Rexroth was an active participant in practically every phase of the 1920s Chicago hobohemian counter-culture. He was one of many, a youthful trouper, swelling the crowd, sharing the fun, freely joining in the discussions and debates, content to be part of the game as a rank-and-filer. But his mid-1920s experiment with a Chicago-based Dada movement was significantly different. The movement was largely independent of Rexroth's other associations; it can be considered his most original contribution to the Chicago Renaissance.
In his memoirs he introduces the subject rather modestly. "About this time [circa 1924-25] Lawrence Lipton, Sam Putnam, and I organized Chicago's deliberately abortive Dadaist movement which we called the Escalator." It began, as such things must, with a bombastic and far from comprehensible declaration, the "Escalator Manifesto" (which was evidently drafted by Rexroth and Lipton; with possible involvement by Putnam). It is not clear whether this text ever appeared in print, so here it is, surely one of the least-read avant-garde manifestoes of the twentieth century:
Escalator is the backfire of the hindbrain against the conflagration of reason. Escalator is the cordon sanitaire against gangrene and good sense. Vive la France! They shall not pass! Escalator is against pince nez and diapers. Escalator is the moon in a puddle of mud. Children cry for it. Escalator is the wet dream of a corpse tickled by rats. Escalator is the ass on the altar, the pope's jock-strap, the smudge on the nose of Madame President. Escalator is the horse's tail raised in adoration of the Emperor. Escalator is a ribald charivari at the marriage of Righteousness and Virtue. Escalator rips the umbilical cord from the corpse of piety. Escalator cuts the nerve of sophistication.
What was Escalator? Rexroth himself provided a historical sketch:
We wrote freely associated poetry, gave lectures in which we read antiphonally from The Critique of Pure Reason and the telephone book, while shills in the audience set off alarm clocks and shot at us with blank cartridges. We made collages out of rubbish [and also arranged a dance recital. [...] Everybody was masked and in leotards, did handsprings and flip-flops, and all killed each other with rolls of folded newspapers and bladders, struggling over a broken bicycle. The music was Bach's "Air on a G String" and "Cohen on the Telephone," both accompanied by two trombones which made them completely inaudible except, as they say nowadays, at "random" instances. We put Roger Vitrac's The Painter on the Dill Pickle stage, with a pathetic imitation of a Meierhold automatic decor designed by me and built by Jack Jones. All the participants in the movement were known as Escalator and were numbered. Escalator No. 1 was a little schizophrenic who swept the floors at the Dill Pickle. Not only were the people numbered, but the pictures and poems and demonstrations were numbered, too. The works of art were on an equal footing with human beings. We inaugurated the movement with a parade up and down the escalators in The Fair, a Chicago department store; all of us wearing rented evening clothes, Halloween false faces, plug hats, and carrying open black umbrellas.
It proved to be a short-lived movement. "The trouble," as Rexroth put it, was that Escalator was becoming "a great social success just as we began to realize that we were being silly and dated. So after one last all-night party [...] we buried the Escalator movement for good." Social success it may have been, but that success was fleeting. The only other reference to Escalator that I know of is a mention in a hilarious poem by Lawrence Lipton, "I Was a Poet for the FBI":
In Chicago I joined the Escalator Movement under the name of Gertrude Stein and nobody suspected anything. From a poet named Rexroth I learned about six different kinds of sex, all of them subversive.
Escalator contributed little or nothing to the international Dada movement, which had in fact dissolved a few years earlier, and Rexroths admission that it was "silly and dated" was on the mark. (Memoirs by Sherwood Anderson, Emanuel Carnevali, Ralph Chaplin, Ben Hecht, Gorham Munson, Sam Putnam, Charles Shipman, Vincent Starrett, and William Targ do not mention Escalator. Geraldine Udell had no recollection of Escalator when I interviewed her in 1987; nor did bookseller Harry Busck when I interviewed him the same year.) Viewed from another angle, however, Escalator can be said to have accomplished something after all. Irrelevant as it was in the cultural and political struggles of the time, Ecalator lifted Rexroth and Lipton out of the older hobohemia, and left them at the doorstep of a newer, youthful, international avant-garde. "Here I was," Rexroth reminisced in his memoirs, "part of the scene, just like Tristan Tzara, even if it was only Grand Avenue in Chicago."
Rexroth led a long, eventful, and productive life on the West Coast, in communities vastly different from the rollicking hobohemia on the shores of Lake Michigan. The space he devoted to his Chicago years in his memoirs suggests, however, not only how much his early experiences meant to him, but also how deeply his association with IWWS, soapboxers, and Dil Picklers continued to influence his outlook and activities in later years. In a declining Towertown, young Rexroth seems to have found his "grounding" in life, and it appears to have "stood him in good stead." He wrote to Lipton in January 1953, "No one means more to me than my friends from my Chicago adolescence. I remember them all and feel the closest sort of bond with them." Lipton wrote back a few days later, "We're both bastards of the same dam, and her name was Escalator."
1/ All unattributed quotations by Rexroth are from the expanded version of An Autobiographical Novel, edited by Linda Hamalian (New York: New Directions, 1980).
2/ The literature on hoboes is vast, and most of it is unreliable. Despite its condescension and conservatism, Nels Anderson's The Hobo (University of Chicago Press, 1923) is still useful. For the radical IWW hobo intellectuals who influenced Rexroth, see Joyce Kornbluh, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1998) and Franklin Rosemont, Joe Hill: The IWW and the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2003).
3/ On the history of the IWW, in addition to the titles cited in footnote 2, see also Fred Thompson, The IWW: Its first Seventy Years (Chicago: IWW, 1976), and Salvatore Salerno, Red November, Black November: Culture and Community in the IWW (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989).
4/ Franklin Rosemont, ed. The Rise & Fall of the Dil Pickle: Jazz-Age Chicago's Wildest & Most Outrageously Creative Hobohemian Nightspot (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2004). Originally called Dill Pickle, the shorter one-1 spelling was adopted later, purportedly as the result of a trademark dispute.