January 22, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

The Joys of Local Reading #2

Today is sunny but chilly by Berkeley standards. The wind is blowing a cold front in. A good day to take the car to the carwash. All week I have been looking forward to tracking down 2029 Hearst, where a 27 year-old Robert Duncan and 21 year-old Jack Spicer hashed out with each other (or, rather, against each other) what magic and poetry meant to them. So on my way back home, car glistening, I detoured my way to the address. The house is cream with teal trim and a salmon-colored gable. It is clearly a rental house for Cal students–the exterior looks pretty run down and the cars in the driveway are covered in band bumper stickers. Duncan lived in this house in 1946 with a young couple, Hugh and Janie O’Neill and, with Spicer and a few others, made a small community interested in experimenting with magic and language. Tarot cards and crystal balls featured prominently. Duncan was often the leader, reciting poetry or, according to Kevin Killian and Lew Ellingham’s biography of Spicer, “direct[ing] them in impromptu performances of Shakespeare or Gertrude Stein.” Once during a visit to Berkeley, E.M. Forster attended a party in his honor at 2029 Hearst. He was “wan, shy” and “mumbling until Duncan [“] broke out the gin.”

Eventually sexual and personal tensions broke up the Hearst group. Spicer moved to 2018 McKinley and formed his own intellectual circle with the other men in the house. Duncan couldn’t keep away, and soon co-opted Spicer circle and took it as his own. Spicer was furious at Duncan, and not for the last time.

It is a bit hard to reconcile the present day image of the house with its literary past. There is nothing to distinguish it from the rest of the houses on the block. One cannot help but wonder how many places there are like this, places that might not have capital “H” historic value, but with a unique and fascinating story nonetheless? I am encouraged by this house because it shows that remarkable places are all around us. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every residence had a log of everyone who lived there over time, so that we could see whose ghosts we were walking amongst?

I consider knocking on the door and telling the occupants about this house. I don’t, of course, because for one thing I don’t really do things like that, and secondly I don’t out of fear that if I did, they would not care about the house’s history or think it irrelevant to their lives. It is more romantic to imagine that through the years, completely ignorant of this house’s significance, undergraduate poets have frowned over their words in this house, trying to get them right, while the ghosts of Duncan and Spicer frowned over their shoulders.