Book Review: Surrealism, Rebellion and the 1960s

Dreams & Everyday Life: Andre Breton, Surrealism, Rebel Worker, SDS & the Seven Cities of Cibola, a 1960s Notebook, By Penelope Rosemont, Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 242pp, $17.

"The Seven Cities of Cibola," a Donald Duck comic from the 1950s, offers a clue to the unique character of the Surrealist contribution to the 1960s social movements and the mixture of popular culture with the famed counter-cultural avant-garde of the period.

Penelope Rosemont, a lifelong Chicagoan, was part of a little circle of artists and writers around the Rebel Worker, a mimeographed publication of the Industrial Workers of the World ("Wobblies") that foreshadowed by a few years the rise of a widespread New Left. She and husband Franklin Rosemont, the mainstays of a group that has maintained a political and artistic presence for forty years, could be described as children of an older Chicago, a deeply working class town with venerable leftwing traditions, anarchists of the 1880s to the CIO and civil rights, rooted in that past with all its complications. So much of this blue collar world has disappeared in the last forty years. We strain to appreciate how continuous it must have seemed even in the supposed new generational era of the 1960s, rooted in the childhood pleasures of the 1950s, like Scrooge McDuck (the capitalist with literal mountains of money) and Bugs Bunny (always the trickster).

Rosemont recalls the Solidarity Bookshop as she joined its staff as a treasure trove of libertarian dissent, anarchism, Thoreau (several then-new friends had been teenage converts to Transcendentalism), Beat Poetry, Old Left newspapers and the Marijuana Quarterly on the same racks side by side. This was all a rich soup waiting to be eaten (or drunk) by a fresh generation of free minds. Much of Rosemont’s best prose goes to the personalities, mostly Midwestern youngsters, slightly crazy but definitely entertaining, and some real old timers around the faded office of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Every surrealist devotee knows that Andre Breton founded the movement during the 1920s, and that until his death, he remained its foremost leader. Penny and Franklin actually set out for a low-cost trip to London in Fall, 1965. Yet as young radicals with uncertain financial resources they were denied entry and ended up with a months-long stay in Paris, which turned out to be a life-changing experience. The surrealist movement there was definitely facing a generational crisis, but all the more for that reason, the young Americans were welcomed with open arms. Breton himself, unwell but eager for the contact (he spoke poor English, but his wife, Elisa, translated) as much as blessed their entry. The Rosemonts were to be among the central figures in the next generation of surrealism, and not only for the US.

The two returned to a US that was waking up, not the least in Chicago. Initially cold to Students for a Democratic Society as altogether too tame, they warmed as SDS grew rapidly. Penelope became a printer in the National Office and the circle participated in all the events of the moment, including the demonstrations at the Chicago Democratic convention of 1968. Readers would be hard-pressed to find a better local reminiscence of those days when, for an extended historical moment, Chicago again became the center of radical energies.

Throughout all this, it is the personal that is most interesting and charming. The personalities, large and small, many of them oddball in the extreme, seemed perfectly suited to a moment in history when, as Rosemont says, life was supercharged with developments that we somehow expected would go on for decades. They didn’t, not really. Now a twenty-first generation wants badly to know about the inner life of the sixties, and this book is a good place to start.

Paul Buhle, a Senior Lecturer at Brown University, was editor of the SDS magazine RADICAL AMERICA, and is author or editor of many books on the Left and popular culture.