According to Kenneth Rexroth, the San Francisco Renaissance — the literary and countercultural movement that prefigured Black Mountain, the Beats, and the hippies — “owed more to Robert Duncan than to any other one person.” Following the publication of his first book of poetry, the self-mythologizing Heavenly City, Earthly City (1947), Duncan functioned as shaman of an emerging aesthetic grounded in magic, polytheism, and sexual freedom, a role that he cultivated in weekly Berkeley literary salons. For his biographer, Ekbert Faas, the mystic-poet Duncan was a harbinger of the coming cultural revolution, the iconic “guru” figure who, in the late 1940s, pried opened the door to the late 1960s.
Born in 1919, Duncan was raised by adoptive parents, eclectic California spiritualists who interpreted his dreams, encouraged his literary endeavors, and gave him a sense of a sacred life on just the other side of our profane existence. Once he discovered himself to be a homosexual, his cause as a writer was to denounce “dead Christianity,” white-collar conformity, racism, sexual repression, and the exploitation of the working classes. “By the mid-1940s,” writes the critic Tom Christensen, “he had consolidated in himself the lore and experience of the social outsider. But rather than style himself an antihero or a social rebel, he sought to reach the general reader, whom he wished to serve as intermediary of larger but forbidden worlds. Duncan rejected the notion of a small, elite audience of initiates for poetry; the goals of art were to raise awareness and compassion in the mainstream audience”— to change the world through an accessible yet utopian art.
It is Ekbert Faas’s achievement in Young Robert Duncan to bring us a complex, full-length portrait of this remarkable poet at midcentury, when was at the height of his powers and the postwar, postmodern world we now live in was just being born.
With 36 pages of black-&-white photographs and an appendix collecting six early uncollected prose pieces by Robert Duncan, including “The Homosexual in Society” and “Love: A Story”
This book is terrific: I rank it among the top two or three literary biographies I have read. I thought I knew Robert, but I found I hardly knew the first thing about him. [Faas’s] historical and objective biographical perspective . . . effects a kind of cultural canonization that Robert’s heroic courage, intrepid eccentricity, and aesthetic integrity can sustain. I predict the book will prove to be one of the cardinal elements in Duncan’s posthumous literary reputation.