Jack Foley has been such an active figure in California letters over the past forty years that it would seem impossible to make sense of West Coast poetry without reference to him. Yet most critics do exactly that. Foley has published on the margins of official literary life. Conventional critics don’t know his work. Time will correct the oversight, but there is no harm in speeding up the process by offering a few observations on his prolific career. There are singular aspects of his work that deserve attention, especially his experimental poetry written for and performed by multiple voices. But poetic innovation is what one expects from a Bay Area Beat. What astonishes the reader is Foley’s critical prose. No one expects a Beat poet to write a major work of literary history or to develop a radically new and revelatory approach to the genre.
Literary history is an academic enterprise, something done on a Mellon grant in a research library by a tenured professor with a book contract from Oxford. On my shelf I see thick volumes with titles such as The Columbia History of American Literature or Oxford History of English Literature. There is good reason that publishers name such books after universities. The genre seems inherently institutional. The volumes resemble collectively compiled reference works more than expressions of personal critical engagement. Literature is an affair of individual sensibility—both in its creation and criticism. Literary history, however, requires the author to reconcile personal opinions with the broader external consensus. That is one reason why such books date quickly; collective opinions change as intellectual fashions change.
There are a few glorious exceptions—literary histories that combine scholarship and personality, virtues that give them considerable longevity. George Saintsbury’s three-volume History of English Prosody (1906) is one conspicuous example—a study that still feels alive more than a century after its publication. The reader may disagree with Saintsbury on a particular point, but the author remains a vital and provocative presence. Likewise René Wellek’s monumental eight-volume History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950 (published from 1955 to 1986) presents formidable scholarship with a gentle human touch. As polyglot Professor Wellek surveys two hundred years of Western intellectual history, he never forgets that the students in his imaginary seminar are a bit embarrassed at not having done all the assigned reading. Such erudite but engaging books prove not merely useful but invaluable. They provide comprehensive accounts of complex subjects in which the authors communicate their passions, puzzlements, and prejudices.
Yet how seldom is literary history done well. Years of fastidious scholarship and editorial toil often deaden the author who must diligently push the project to its contractual end, even though passion died in chapter three. Academic conventions also weigh upon the style and structure. Critical fashions mire it in short-term concerns. The genre’s problems have increased in recent years, as more surveys have been written not by individuals but committees of experts. Hefty official histories now appear without any unifying narrative line or organizing principle. Written by different authors, each chapter exists in intellectual and stylistic isolation. Pursuing their individual interests, scholars leave gaps in the historical record omitting major writers and subjects. If the genre isn’t dead yet, we can hear the carpenter sawing boards for the coffin.
If literary history in general is in trouble, the history of California letters has never been out of it. No state has had a richer legacy over the past 125 years. Starting with Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, John Muir, Mary Austin, and Frank Norris, California letters began with explosive originality. Thousands of miles from the arbiters of good taste, the West Coast fostered generations of innovative writers who would not have emerged elsewhere. The California canon includes authors as different as Robinson Jeffers, Dashiell Hammett, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Nathanael West, John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, Josephine Miles, Ray Bradbury, Yvor Winters, William Everson, Richard Rodriguez, Kenneth Rexroth, Raymond Chandler, Amy Tan, Robert Duncan, Charles Bukowski, Joan Didion, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Maxine Hong Kingston, John Fante, Octavia Butler, and Kay Ryan. No one has ever adequately explained how this immense literary upheaval occurred. Most scholars have sought to define the state’s literary character by ignoring the writers who don’t fit into their theories. It is easier to explain Rexroth in isolation than to account for the simultaneous presence of Jeffers, Winters, and Duncan. Other critics have tried to construe California letters from the perspective of charismatic outsiders, such as Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller, or Allen Ginsberg, who came into the state with agenda of their own and captured important historic moments in their work. California literary history has mostly been the history of cultural simplification. No one knows what to do with the complex and contradictory writing the state has produced. It doesn’t fit pre-existing patterns.
There is another basic problem with California literary history. There is little documentation for many writers and movements. Ten years ago when I compiled the anthology, California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present, I was stymied by the lack of reliable information for many of the 100 writers my co-editors and I selected. There were no biographies or critical studies. The poets did not appear in reference books, nor had they been covered in earlier anthologies. The situation was especially bad for the women writers. Where did one find reliable information on Adrian Stoutenberg, Rosalie Moore, Violet Kazue de Cristoforo, Myra Cohn Livingston, Helen Pinkerton, or Josephine Miles? We had to track down primary sources—often searching out surviving family members and friends—just to establish basic facts. Moreover, since misinformation abounds, we needed multiple sources to assure accuracy. Except for the Gold Rush poets and Beats, there was little critical or biographical writing. Research is easier now, but only a little, despite the vast resources of the internet.
Why is there no adequate account of Activism, a major Bay Area movement of the 1950s? Why is there no history of Yvor Winters and his influential Stanford School of poets? Why is there still no comprehensive account of Ishmael Reed and Al Young’s multicultural Yardbird movement? For many Los Angeles poets, there is little public material beyond dust-jacket bios and obituaries. It is not just poets who lack documentation. The extraordinary emergence of science fiction in L.A. in the decades following World War II changed the nature of the genre as well as transformed global entertainment. Yet this creative renaissance has been covered haphazardly, mostly by fanzines, pop profiles, and amateur websites. Literary historians generally select and shape their material from copious secondary sources. Californians writing about their native state still have to do primary research to tell the basic story.
It will seem supremely odd to any academic that Jack Foley, an Oakland poet without any institutional support or university connection, has written the most comprehensive history of post-war California poetry—a study that not only surveys the lives and work of hundreds of literary figures but also cogently addresses the contradictory impulses in the state’s creative psyche. Moreover Foley has fashioned his chronicle in an innovative way that is both engaging and unabashedly experimental.”
(from his essay, " 'Just One Damned Thing After Another,'
Jack Foley's Literary Time Line")