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Last Updated: 09/14/2010George Hitchcock: An Important Legacy for an Absurd World
Pandora Hopkins offers a personal and insightful homage to George Hitchcock, the poet, editor, and North American cultural icon, who died last month at the age of 96. Hopkins' focus is on Hitchcock as a master of the absurd, an example to follow when faced with "the irritations of being alive in a world of comic reality".
This past August 27, George Hitchcock—the influential poet, actor, playwright, editor and publisher—died at the age of ninety-six. He left us an important legacy of literary works, as well as his personal imprint on the many writers he nurtured as students or published while co-editor of the San Francisco Review (1958-1963) and he founded Kayak in 1964 and developed it into one of the most important literary magazines in the country. Hitchcock was an unflappable believer in the wisdom of story-telling over the claims of nonfiction veracity, and my personal conversations with him sometimes involved his arguments for persuading me to transfer from what he regarded as a lesser form of written communication. This much we know: that his poems, short stories, and plays have not followed him to the grave but continue their vital powers to enlighten.
However, this particular ode to George Hitchcock is not going to address his literary significance, a matter that has been well attended to elsewhere. Instead, I have chosen to highlight a strategy George used to advantage for dealing with the irritations of being alive in a world of comic reality. Let’s look at his method for handling that bane of an editor’s responsibility: the rejection slip. Unsuccessful submissions to Kayak, elicited—in addition to the boilerplate message: “I am sorry to inform…, etc.”-- a copy of one of his collection of grisly nineteenth-century wood engravings, chosen, in Hitchcock’s words, for their “appropriately ghastly or ironic” message. Some authors took this treatment in stride, as did the one who wrote:
Here are some new poems. If, God forbid, you are so foolish as to reject me again, please send me a new rejection slip. I already have Gentlemen in Icy Crevice (2), Wolf Attacking Innocent Youth, and Gentleman Being Forcibly Escorted Down Stairs. How many of them are there, anyway? I intend to collect them all like baseball cards (Hitchcock 2003 281).
While the absurd comparison served as a balm for most, not all of the rejected hopefuls were able to appreciate the humor. However, Hitchcock was philosophic: “The ones who are terribly insulted you wouldn’t want in the magazine anyway” (Hitchcock 2003: 275).
Hitchcock was not afraid to laugh at himself. In the early days of Kayak, he asked the author Robert Bly to contribute “some prose” for the next issue. Bly asked if “I might do an attack on his first ten issues. He thought that would be a good idea.” Hitchcock later reprinted Bly’s unsparing assessment in his anthology, One Man Boat (Hitchcock 2003: 269).
Our nuclear world offers an unprecedented potential for global catastrophe, while, at the same time, its human occupants continue to act in ways that may be defined as, well, human. Some favorite absurdities spring immediately to mind—e.g. cash payments by the U.S. to the Taliban that assure the Afghan war’s continuance (Schifrin 2010; MacKenzie 2009); a huge budgetary discrepancy between the State and Defense Departments ($52 billion and $664 billion respectively) that permits Washington to hire more military band members than foreign service officers (Robert Gates quoted in Blain 2009); and—well, the reader can easily supply numerous other examples. Irrational behavior in the higher governmental echelons is nothing new, of course. But the main point of this note of appreciation is to highlight George Hitchcock’s method for combating it. I am referring, of course, to his stunning success in using comedy to throw into complete disarray an intrusive interrogation by the Subcommittee of the Committee on Un-American Activities sent to investigate him. His testimony is on public record and reprinted in One Man Boat.
Humor, as we all know, has always been an easy way to humiliate and thus offers a lazy method for condemning without proof; a violent strategy, humiliation is almost always involved in cycles of vengeance. Hitchcock’s brand of humor was not of this nature; it was self-effacing and non-confrontational, as demonstrated in the above examples. His irreverent, irrelevant or seemingly quixotic answers to the Un-American Committee members served to alert the public to the triviality or impropriety of their questions which were actually designed to demean him or elicit information about others. One of his initial remarks—his response to a routine question about his occupation—has become famous, a part of the folklore of academia:
Hitchcock: My profession is a gardener. I do underground work on plants.
This was not exactly a complete fabrication. Hichcock, from an early age, supported his writing by landscape gardening. Responding to a loaded question, Hitchcock parried: “Counsel knows perfectly well that this type of question is an attempt at entrapment and I have no intention of answering.” To the question: “Were you a member of the Communist party yesterday? You said you were not today,” Hitchcock answered: “That is a delightful question. Am I directed to answer it?” Upon being told yes, he politely refused, citing the first and fifth amendments.
Hitchcock used the first and fifth amendments in support of his refusal to answer most of the questions put to him; at one point he added the third amendment—on “the grounds that this hearing is a big bore and a waste of the public’s money.” When asked to describe its content, he responded: “I am not a lawyer. I leave that to you. I just throw it in.” Later, he informed the committee that his attorney had just informed him that the third amendment involved the quartering of soldiers during time of war. No one offered a comment and the subject was changed.
While Hitchcock remained cool and aloof throughout, the Committee Chair showed some discomfort at one point: “This is serious committee business. You may think it is funny, but we do not.”
By the end of the interrogation, George Hitchcock had clearly managed to turn the tables on the Committee; he was in such complete control that he actually issued an invitation to the members of the Committee. Again, to quote from the Congressional Record:
The Chairman; What Is this Independent Socialist Forum, Mr. Hitchcock?
Hitchcock: It is a forum devoted to nonsectarian and nonpartisan discussions and education around Socialist subjects…. We would be very happy to invite you Congressmen, if you would like to come.
The poet Marjorie Simon wrote a poem about the intensity of a poet’s powers of observation: “… he watched…he witnessed…[then]
in his room
with nothing else to do
he gave eyes to his pen
brought to light
Veins below tissue
capillaries of the heart….” (Simpson 1985: 13)
The poem is called Voyeur. I do not know whether the poet is meant to be George Hitchcock, but it could be. Marjorie Simon and George Hitchcock were partners for over thirty years, and they shared that particular brand of wry but penetrating poetic humor that Hitchcock used so adeptly to confound the Committee on Un-American Affairs.
George showed us how to do it; it is up to us to put that knowledge into effect in an absurdly, capriciously dangerous world.
Glain, Stephen. 2009. “The American Leviathan” The Nation, (Sept. 28)
Hitchcock, George. 2003. One-Man Boat: The George Hitchcock Reader Ashland, Oregon: Story Line Press.
Mackenzie, Jean. 2009. “Who is funding the Taliban? You don’t want to know.” Global News Journal: Reuters. Article originally appeared in GlobalPost as part of a special series: Life, Death, and the Taliban.
Schifrin, Nick. 2010. “Report: U.S. Bribes to Protect Convoys Are Funding Taliban Insurgents. “ ABC News: World News. (June 22)
Simon, Marjorie. 1985. The Long Distance Oatmeal Eater. Aptos, Cal.: Jazz Press.
Pandora Hopkins taught at Yale University, Rutgers University and CUNY (the City University of New York) before moving to Mexico where she is writing a book, tentatively called House of Cards and the Subliminal Truths That Are Holding It Together. She also co-directs (with Victoria Fontan) an oral history project, “Voting With Their Feet.” A particular research focus on the political consequences of cross-cultural perception was also manifested by her book, Aural Thinking in Norway (Plenum, 1986); it is a study of the cognitive nature of aural transmission through an analysis of the Hardanger fiddle tradition of Norway.