In Prose and Poetry: Berkeley literature then and now

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In Allen Ginsberg’s 1955 poem “A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley,” he writes,

“All afternoon cutting bramble blackberries off a tottering brown
fence
under a low branch with its rotten old apricots miscellaneous under
the leaves,
fixing the drip in the intricate gut machinery of a new toilet;
found a good coffeepot in the vines by the porch, rolled a
big tire out of the scarlet bushes, hid my marijuana…”

Give or take the marijuana, and trade the blackberries for abandoned mattresses, and this could be any sticky August day when students back from summer come to inhabit another temporary dwelling in Berkeley for the year — in 1955, 2014 or any year in between. Despite nearly 60 years of distance between this poem and the present, Ginsberg’s Berkeley is distinctly familiar.

With the endless march of protesters in and around Sather Gate, ever-present throngs of harried students swarming Main Stacks and almost eternally 55 degree weather, Berkeley oftentimes feels timeless. Again and again, the school and its surrounding city have been the physical inspiration for stories and the the setting of fictional dramas — a whimsical place for the Beat Generation writers of the 1950s and ‘60s, and a continuous home of poets, writers and students of English literature.

When we wander the halls of Wheeler or Dwinelle, or stroll down Telegraph and Shattuck in search of a cheap burrito or brief respite or inspiration, we are walking with literary giants, both dead and alive. We can quite literally walk with them at the Berkeley Poetry Walk on Addison Street, where former poet laureate and UC Berkeley professor Robert Hass memorialized famous poetic works associated with the city in the early 2000s.

During the school year, this literary past is daunting — ever-present but submerged beneath scores of required reading that typically draws those of us that study literature far from Berkeley, to the histories of ancient civilizations and the epic works of early English writers. Students from other disciplines similarly lack the time. Given this, The Daily Californian will be undertaking its own crash course in unique Berkeley fiction and poetry this summer, exploring a different piece from Berkeley’s literary past each week.

Joan Didion, another great writer to emerge from Berkeley’s literary canon, wrote in her 1976 essay “Why I Write”:

“During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract.”

We hope to take on some of this late-adolescent energy to explore the ideas of Berkeley this summer. It is our hope that this dip into the city’s literary past draws a connection to the Berkeley of lost generations and today’s city and students.

Here’s the list, if you’d care to read along. We welcome reader involvement as we work our way from the 1930s forward.

Pageant of Youth – Irving Stone – 1933

The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac – 1958

Reality Sandwiches, by Allen Ginsberg – 1963

The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon – 1966

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion – 1968

The Drifters, by James Michener – 1971

Imaginary Speeches for a Brazen Head, by Philip Whalen – 1972

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers – 2000

Addison Street: The Berkeley Poetry Walk, edited by Robert Hass and Jessica Fisher– 2003

Mathematicians in Love by Rudy Rucker – 2006

Poetry by Jack Gilbert, who died in Berkeley in 2012

Summer reading, Berkeley edition: An opportunity to connect with and recreate our city’s literary past and present.

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