The Correspondence between Ann Charters and Charles Olson about History and Herman Melville
Ann Charters and Charles Olson
Tavern Books ($17)
by Patrick James Dunagan
In 1992, Penguin Books published The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters. Through the rest of the decade and beyond, the book has served as a gateway for countless readers to writings by numerous members of the Beat Generation. That Charters served as editor of the volume is no surprise; ever since her 1973 biography of Jack Kerouac she has been writing and editing books on the Beats. Before making her mark as Beat scholar, however, Charters published her slim yet meaty Olson/Melville: A Study in Affinity with the small press Oyez in 1968. Unlike her books on the Beats, which provide a beginning point of entry for nearly any reader, Olson/Melville is a rarer breed of book best appreciated by readers already dedicated to exploring the work and life of poet Charles Olson (1910-1970), rector during the final years of the now legendary creative arts-focused Black Mountain College and author of The Maximus Poems.
Olson’s 1950 essay “Projective Verse” is the most widely read and recognized of his works; it’s commonly taken to represent the defining statement for those post-World War II poets writing in the outside-the-academy vein as presented in Donald Allen’s anthology New American Poetry: 1945-1960. Yet Olson’s 1947 study of Herman Melville, Call Me Ishmael, is arguably a far more vital and groundbreaking piece of writing. Olson wrote his M.A. thesis at Wesleyan on Melville and began tracking down Melville’s dispersed library, locating volumes in secondhand bookstores and attics throughout New England and New York. He continued his studies towards a doctorate on Melville at Harvard only to abandon them in the process of writing his dissertation. Olson’s primary area of focus was upon the influence that Melville’s reading of Shakespeare played in shaping Moby-Dick. Olson understood that Melville’s discoveries while reading Shakespeare had drastically altered Moby-Dick, and he felt his own writing stymied by the formal expectations at Harvard. He wanted to convey the disruptive connections he’d discovered and knew accomplishing that meant leaving the university. Within the following few years, Olson turned the material gathered for his dissertation into a book which moves freely between the author’s creative will and analytical endeavor.
With Olson/Melville: A Study in Affinity, Charters looks at Call Me Ishmael and how Olson’s work stands in relation to Melville. Compared to more academic studies on Olson there’s a touching quality, an inviting aura of sorts, surrounding this book; used copies regularly pop up for sale around the San Francisco Bay area, offering a reassuring reminder that not all studies of poetry must tidily fit into the rubrics of academic writing. It’s a compact book as well, possessing a personal feel which mellows out the more scholarly passages. This effect is due in large part to the inclusion of photographs Charters took of Olson in and around the environs of his hometown, the one-time fishing mecca of Gloucester, MA, which serves as the inspirational locus for The Maximus Poems. In fact, the photograph of Olson on the beach used on the cover of the University of California Press edition of The Maximus Poems is from this same set—a cropped version decorates the covers of Olson/Melville. On the front are the rocks along the water’s edge while on the back Olson is seen gazing upwards off camera, his beefy fingers holding the ever-present filterless cigarette to his lips.
Over forty years later, Evidence of What Is Said revisits the period of time surrounding the writing of Olson/Melville. Although billed as presenting letters “about History and Herman Melville,” the book contains a good deal more than just that. There’s an introduction by Charters, a nifty memoir that reviews matters arising in the correspondence just before, during, and after the writing and publication of Olson/Melville, including details in regard to her visit with the poet in Gloucester. This is followed by the correspondence itself. Any reader familiar with Olson’s letters will find them much as expected: bombastic and energetic, often fragmentary, never dull. Disputing a claim Charters makes regarding a similarity of argumentative purpose between Olson’s handling of the Freudian trope of killing the father in the “Moses” section of Call Me Ishmael and cannibalism in the opening “First Fact” concerning the travesty of the sailing ship Essex, Olson drives home a clear message: “creatively, one does not repeat.” He would have completed his book as a dissertation if he intended using such rhetorical structure to prove his argument. Charters also includes her brief personal essay “Melville in the Berkshires,” written during the same period as the letters with Olson and undertaken with the “creative freedom and imagination” she found within his work.
In addition, an expanded number of the original photographs, many of which appear to have been previously cropped, are included. It turns out that Olson scholar George Butterick, who edited the complete edition of The Maximus Poems after Olson’s death, was staying with Olson at the time, helping to order the poet’s papers and gathering material for a never realized biography of the poet. In these additional photos he is seen walking with Olson on the streets of Gloucester. The description given by Charters before the trio heads out for a walk is a classic Olson scene:
That afternoon, Charles, George, and I never budged from the kitchen table while our talk went on and on. We consumed endless cups of coffee and, as the hours passed, quite a few shots of Cutty Sark. Late in the afternoon the weather turned chilly. Olson put on an old brown corduroy jacket and George disappeared briefly into his room next door to put on a shirt before we went outside for a walk. Olson had agreed to let me take photographs of him in his Gloucester neighborhood, and I was eager to take advantage of the light during the late afternoon sunshine. . . .
. . . Olson had met the choreographer [Merce Cunningham] at Black Mountain College in 1955, and he gracefully demonstrated the way that Cunningham had taught him to walk with his weight distributed evenly on his two feet.
On the opposing page a snapshot taken by Butterick following behind Olson and Charters shows the pair strolling along a waterfront walkway, the poet’s 6’8” frame towering over the rather petite Charters in a light dress and sandals as Olson firmly plants his feet flatly down one in front of the other, legs slightly crossed, with his arms jetting down and out from his sides. The image is of a monsterish ballerina moving light as air. Added to the essays and letters, such photos make Evidence of What Is Said a book to be cherished by readers interested in all things Olson.