Tuesday, 5 November 2013
Olson and Andrews
One of the key figures in American Smoke, apart from William Burroughs, whom Sinclair tracks down to his home in Lawrence, Kansas, is Charles Olson, poet and critic, denizen of Gloucester, New England, which is also visited for the book.
Reading this, I was suddenly reminded of my three enjoyable years at the University of Leicester in the early 1980s when I decided to take two years of American Studies to supplement History and the History of Art. The American Studies department at Leicester was a peculiar institution indeed and would probably never be allowed to exist in today's rigorously instrumentalized academic climate. Most of the department was flamboyantly gay (one tutor frequently dressing in full Leatherman outfit - he once dozed off in the middle of a tutorial after a particularly heavy night) and then there was Lyman Andrews.
It was the reference to Olson that brought him back after thirty years, as he'd recommended that we read the poet's work on Melville and Moby Dick (Call Me Ishmael 1947, can't remember if I did or not) - one of the few reasons I'm glad I took the course is that I got to read that wonderfully rich novel. I found some material on Andrews online which pretty much chimes with my memories of his demeanour and behaviour. He clearly had little interest in teaching - his lectures were often shambolic - and it was not uncommon to turn up for an afternoon tutorial to find him passed out in an alcoholic stupor on the floor of his study. He could come alive if the subject was one of his favourite writers - he certainly amplified my interest in Hemingway.
After a hurried session he would invite you to the student union bar so that he could continue with his daily drinking schedule. If he really fancied you it would be the university academics' own bar, whose portals I penetrated a couple of times - on one occasion eminent sociologist Laurie Taylor was holding court there much to Andrews' disgust. He would then ply you with pints of snakebite in the hope that you might accompany him home to his shared student house - reader I stoutly resisted. What I didn't realise at the time, being a hopelessly callow youth, was that he had an earlier reputation as a decent poet (once poetry critic for The Sunday Times - those were the days) had met the likes of Burroughs and Ginsberg and partied with some key figures of the sixties. His Wikipedia entry mentions his 'colourful' life at Leicester. A blog entry by a fellow student at Leicester (did I know him at the time?) gives a sympathetic and ultimately sad account of his life: ending up as a recluse in a Nottingham YMCA where he died in February 2009.