Louis Simpson, now at age 86, is one of the last survivors of the generation of poets who saw military service in WWII, and lived to tell the tale during the post-War boom, when polite, polished versifying was still the honored approach to literary distinction and notoriety. He shared, with Anthony Hecht and Karl Shapiro and Delmore Schwartz, a Jewish heritage which both sharpened his sense of ethnic peril, and provided a somewhat uncharacteristic (for American poets) cosmopolitan sense of European cultural connection. As a Jewish American poet, Simpson enjoyed a sort of spiritual dual citizenship which enabled him to view American cultural paradigms from a position both in- and outside of context, not unlike that of Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, or Elia Kazan.*
This sense of the alienated insider is in many respects Simpson's saving grace; his best work, collected in his Pulitzer Prize winning At the End of the Open Road [Wesleyan: 1963], uses the impression(-ism) of disorientation--common to many veterans of the War, as a rhetorical platform to criticize cultural excess and embarrassment, while re-stating the terms of the multi-cultural diaspora which all Americans share. As a Jew, he is both a part of, and apart from, the history of American literature: His thematic componants include both Walt Whitman and Sholom Aleichem, Ellis Island and The Golden Gate. What this suggests in concrete terms is a divided allegiance, between, on the one hand, the intellectual sophistication the New Critics, the Fugitives, etc.--which would be expressed as a contempt and impatience with the Beats, European New Wave Cinema, etc.--and a pragmatic belief in the social conscience of the 1930's, a populist attachment to middle class values, equality and opportunity, on the other. That these apparently somewhat incompatible tendencies might somehow coexist without conflict is perhaps the central underlying preoccupation of his work.
The "end of the open road" for Simpson was, in effect, a teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley, in the early 1960's. California was "the end" of the continent, and the last outpost of the symbolic "westering" escape and exile of Americans from the "old world" of Europe. Simpson saw it as the climax, the epicenter of a sort of final testing of American dreams and promises, not least (one supposes) his own.
In order to understand the mood of the time in which this book was written, it's necessary to suspend one's sense of the continuity of history. This suspension is not unlike the so-called "suspension of disbelief" which readers (or audiences) are asked to perform whenever they read a piece of fiction, or view a dramatic action. We tend to think of history that's far enough away from us to be viewed with disinterest as having a fixed, finished (one size fits all) quality. But the cultural milieu is rarely that simple, and there are usually at least five ways of looking at any period in history, picking out this set of facts, or that sequence of events, to demonstrate whichever point of view the speaker, or writer, wishes to emphasize. Popular accounts tell us that the 1960's represented a revolt of the younger generation against the staid capitulation of their middle-class forbears, a revolt which set the stage for a whole new revanchment of policy and direction, moving into the decades of the Seventies and Eighties. In one sense, this was a return to the principles and spirit of the 1930's. The Depression had unleashed a powerful backlash of the majority in America and Western Europe, against the excesses of big capital and uncontrolled industrial exploitation. World War II, and the subsequent economic prosperity of the 1950's, had driven this populist sentiment underground, and--especially during the McCarthy Era--had brought about a strong reactionary backlash against the American Left, fueled by the Cold War, accompanied by a lingering guilt over the failure of socialism in Russia. It seemed, circa 1960, as if a generational split along these lines was taking place. In politics, philosophy and the arts, there were harbingers of another wave of liberality. Figures like Simpson--a war veteran and graduate of Columbia (MA and PhD)--tended to see the world in terms of a conflict between order and disorder, developed versus undeveloped, raw and cooked.
Thus he accepted the formalist, academic poetics of his day, and tried to interpret, digest and incorporate events unfolding around him in terms of dilemma and resolution.
Whatever it is, it must have
A stomach that can digest
Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.
Like the shark, it contains a shoe.
It must swim for miles through the desert
Uttering cries that are almost human.
Simpson's reaction to the Whitmanic embrace of the limitless experience of America's vast variety implies that the poet must sacrifice his "humanity" in order to hold such conflicting elements. Such engorgement will transform, even pollute, the mind of an artist. Indeed, Simpson, who was a fellow undergraduate student with Allen Ginsberg at Columbia, published a parody of Howl--
I saw the best minds of my generation
Reading their poems to Vassar girls,
Being interviewed by Mademoiselle.
Having their publicity handled by professionals.
When can I go into an editorial office
And have my stuff published because I'm weird?
I could go on writing like this forever...
At the End of the Open Road is bracketed by two poems addressed to the state of America towards the end of the 20th Century, and they define, for Simpson, his place at this watershed moment in his career, as well as the state of the union at that point in history, perched on the continent's edge, in California--
Here I am, troubling the dream coast
With my New York face,
Bearing among the realtors
And tennis-players my dark preoccupation.
There once was an epical clatter--
Voices and banjos, Tennessee, Ohio,
Rising like incense in the sight of heaven.
Today, there is an angel in the gate.
Lie back, Walt Whitman,
There, on the fabulous raft with the King and the Duke!
For the white row of the Marina
Faces the Rock. Turn round the wagons here.
Lie back! We cannot bear
The stars any more, those infinite spaces.
Let the realtors divide the mountain,
For they have already subdivided the valley.
Rectangular city blocks astonished
Herodotus in Babylon,
Cortez in Tenochtitlan,
And here's the same old city-planner, death.
We cannot turn or stay.
For though we sleep, and let the reins fall slack,
The great cloud-wagons move
Onward still, dreaming of a Pacific.
This is, outwardly, comic writing, bald and sheepish, but it sets the tone for the entire collection. Simpson portrays himself as an ambassador from the Eastern establishment--his "dark New York face"--and regards California as part playground, part exploited paradise. The Eastern seabord was once the promised land for generations of European immigrants, but California is like a never-never land of empty dreams, except our dreams keep on going like "cloud wagons" sailing West toward the orient. Our arrival doesn't quench the wanderlust that seduced our forefathers across the vast continent, it merely stirs more ambition, more anxiety.
In the concluding poem of the book, "Lines Written Near San Francisco," Simpson closes the intimations laid down at the beginning, with a distillation of the separate observations and images he has laid out--in Part 3--
Every night, at the end of America
We taste our wine, looking at the Pacific.
How sad it is, the end of America!
While we were waiting for the land
They'd finished it--with gas drums
On the hilltops, cheap housing in the valleys
Where lives and mean and wretched.
But the banks thrive and the realtors
Rejoice--they have their America.
Still, there is something unsettled in the air.
Out there on the Pacific
There's no America but the Marines.
Whitman was wrong about the People,
But right about himself. The land is within.
At the end of the open road we come to ourselves.
Though mad Columbus follows the sun
Into the sea, we cannot follow.
We must remain, to serve the returning sun,
And to set tables for death.
For we are colonists of Death--
Not, as some think, of the English,
And we are preparing thrones for him to sit,
Poems to read, and beds
In which it may please him to rest.
This is the land
The pioneers looked for, shading their eyes
Against the sun--a murmur of serious life.
But the ending seems so tame! "A murmur of serious life." Whatever could he mean? The restless journey, begun 500 years ago in Southern Europe, to discover a new route to the fabled Indies, the entire arc of our efforts and investigations, ends here, on the California coast, facing the seeming endless expanse of the Pacific. Unless, by "serious," we are meant to understand our burden to the given, to the limit of our fantasy, our striving--a single earth, one humanity, no escapes, no El Dorado, no nirvana, no Xanadu. Only the settled condition of our common purpose.
*It's also of note that Simpson was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and didn't come to the U.S. until 1940. I haven't read his memoir of his early life, but the fact of his foreign birth and upbringing probably also contributes to Simpson's difference--i.e., being as much a "citizen of the world" as of America proper.