Spectacularly dismal or dishonest lives often make for great reading, as witness this biography of minor-league poet and beatnik guru Charles Olson (1910-70).
Olson's poetry was either ignored or reviled by the poetic tastemakers of his own generation, including writers of such diverse tendencies as James Dickey, Robert Bly (who termed "Maximus," Olson's magnum opus, the work of "a Babbitt in verse" and "the worst book of the year"), Thom Gunn, Louis Simpson, Louise Bogan and Marianne Moore, who called Olson's patented postmodern "projective verse" "weedy and colorless, like suckers from an un-sunned tuber."
That Olson managed to carve out his own special place in the history of postwar American literature, despite a virtual critical consensus against his poetry, is a tribute to his knack for creating disciples. If his peers would have none of him, he knew how to appeal, in a Pied Piper-ish way, to the nascent counterculture of the '50s and '60s.
At Black Mountain, an experimental college in rural North Carolina, Olson was a pioneer in the dismantling of the college core curriculum and its replacement by a kind of autodidacticism that differed little from autointoxication. He was, in short, the high priest of high times, and Tom Clark's biography is a balefully fascinating account of both the man and the milieu he did so much to form.
Olson grew up in Worcester, Mass., the son of a Swedish immigrant postal worker--to a height, by age 18, of 6-foot-8. His accomplishments as an undergraduate at Wesleyan earned him a fellowship to that university's graduate school, where he selected as the subject of his MA thesis Herman Melville, an author only then beginning to receive his critical due. Olson's most lasting achievement over his entire lifetime may well be having tracked down 124 books, some heavily annotated, that had constituted the core of Melville's library.
Once he had his MA, Olson began to lose steam. He taught a while, then entered Harvard, where long stretches of sloth and procrastination were followed by manic bursts of overexcited, underdeveloped brainstorming, a pattern he would maintain throughout his life with sloth the ascendant force.
With the exception of three weeks on a fishing boat at age 26 (which he mythologized to Melvillean dimensions in his poetry), and an office job during the war, Olson scarcely did a lick of work, except to write poetry and prose only marginally publishable and to "teach" in the filibustering manner of a barroom philosopher.
His domestic requirements were met by his two common-law wives. In their absence, he mooched meals where he could. He was an egregious sponger and a tenacious uninvited guest.
His professional life was one long application for grants. To his credit, he could be generous with the alms he took in: A substantial part of his first Guggenheim was spent on a horse that the poet gave to a girl who loved riding. She kept the horse but dumped the poet. Later women were not so wise.
After dropping out of Harvard, Olson took up a bohemian life in New York, trying to write an ever-more-inchoate tome on Melville (who came to look more like Olson with each draft) and living on the savings of his doormat of a girlfriend, Connie Wilcock, who would continue for more than a decade to be the very model of the adoring, acquiescent and ill-used wives that feminist legends are made from.
When the war began, Olson, terrified of military service (needlessly, for he was to rejoice in 4-F status, thanks to his height), took a job in the Office of War Information at the invitation of New Dealer Alan Cranston. This led in turn to a role in F. D. R.'s 1944 election campaign.
When F. D. R. won and Olson wasn't given the job of postmaster general, Olson initiated his career as freeloader and professional guest. When these resources failed, he had Wilcock, who took a series of menial jobs. "Connie's jobs would not only provide their economic wherewithal," Clark notes, "but reinforce the compartmentalization of their domestic patterns. . . . Charles now routinely remained at his desk over his books and papers until dawn, seldom stirring from bed until midafternoon . . . as Connie wearily trooped in from her long day of breadwinning. . . .
" 'Charles himself did absolutely nothing but write, talk, and read,' says a friend (Frank Moore). 'I do not recall his once washing a dish or sweeping the floor. Connie did everything.' "
He was, of course, unfaithful--at first only in an epistolary way, but eventually on a one-night-stand-per-annum basis with a woman, Frances Boldereff, who had won Olson's heart by reading and admiring his poems. Only now, pushing 40 and having given years to his 119-page book on Melville, did Olson turn to poetry in a serious way. Many of these early poems served a double purpose, addressing his muse with such calculated ambiguity that both Wilcock and Boldereff could suppose herself the muse in question.