Down as Up, Out as In:
Ron Sukenick Remembers Ron Sukenick


JR Foley

Ronald Sukenick's Down and In descends into a paradisal hell of sex, art, and money: plenty of the first two, none of the third -- or...golden pots of it, if the media decide you make good copy, and the markets find you marketable.

     Money is what you get for Selling Out. To Sell Out is to be a shmuck, "an idolater of Things, a consumer at the feet of the Golden Calf" (12). So Not Selling Out was a big concern among anti-shmucks at Midwood High (Brooklyn, NY) in the late '40's. Newly arrived on middle-class Ocean Parkway from tough working-class Gravesend Avenue, young Ronny Sukenick had no particular politics beyond a raging annoyance with folk-singing, folk-dancing, and leftish-talking upwardly mobile doctors- and lawyers-to-be. "Every bright kid in Midwood in the middle of middle-class Brooklyn is campaigning his ass off for Henry Wallace" (13). But try debating in favor of socialized medicine! "You'd think I'd got up there and told them -- ultimate insult -- that they were `bujwah.'" The hail of sarcasm and scorn drives the arriviste more than off-stage. In Brooklyn there might not have been much of an alternative to the "caution, conformity, and mercenary values" (12) of "those who assumed the moral superiority of leftish views while maintaining shmuck-materialist values about money, success, and sexuality" (17). But any "moderately well-informed kid around 1950" (12) knew that just across the Manhattan Bridge lay a Village where money was not important -- and just as important, sex was not "a commodity you traded for marriage" (13). ("The value of art," says Sukenick, "is taken for granted." (17).) So Ronny would light out for the Territory of MacDougal and Bleecker Streets -- and with his ex-Yale Art School fellow anti-shmuck sister Gloria at the San Remo -- drop down and into the underground.

     But Life in the Underground as Down and In recounts it yields precious few biographical facts about Ronald Sukenick himself. He gives us enough to locate him at any particular time, and certainly makes us intimate with his attitude. Like Dos Passos in USA, however, he's essentially a Camera Eye -- or, better, a voiceover listening to the answers of fellow subterraneans he focuses the Eye upon. ("I always seem to assume the position of an outsider looking in, even when looking in at outsiders" (14)) The book is actually a collective memoir, or "collective autobiographical experiential history out of which an art-literary movement came," and the point of the account is to "justify [that experience] as a legitimate creative sphere" (275).

     It's a wonderful, enthralling read that succeeds in placing l'hypocrite lecteur vicariously at a crowded table in every dark teeming bar in '40's-'60's Greenwich Village, eavesdropping on everyone, famous, brilliant, and otherwise.

     The individual memoirists include the well-known: Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Judith Malina, Robert Creeley, Ted Joans, once-upon-a-time-Fugs Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg, Diane Wakoski, Jackson MacLow. Like most underground denizens, though, more of the memoirists range from the less well-known (Village Voice writers Howard Smith, John Wilcock, and Ross Wetzsteon, performance artist Carolee Schneeman, poet-novelist-editor Carol Berge) to the obscure. (Supplementing live voices are anecdotes from the writings of Amiri Baraka, Diane Di Prima, Yuri Kapralov, Bill Amidon, and others.) Gloria Sukenick helps her brother remember the lower-than-obscure, all-but-forgotten -- suicides most of them -- whose self-obliteration shows both the rebellious risks and sometimes unforgiving consequences of rejecting the great world of the Golden Calf for the purity of marginalized resistance.

     One of the first Villagers to captivate the Midwood renegade was "a blonde girl sitting, knees crossed" at an open-house potluck dinner in Sheridan Square.

I say "girl" though she must be at least five years older than me and way ahead. She's wearing her blond hair short and straight and is the first woman I've seen dressing in what I later come to think of as existentialist style -- black stockings, black sweater, pallid makeup. Marilyn Duport, whom I will come to know on and off through the years of her short life, is starlet-pretty and Bohemian-sexy, and one of the nicest people I'll meet in the underground scene. Poised, if not a little detached, as if skating maybe on thin ice... (41)

     Noticing the youngster's stare at the cigarette she is rolling, she smiles warmly, he goes over and gets his first taste of marijuana.

Marilyn assumes an easy camaraderie with me, despite my age, in the spirit of the giant cooking pot upon the stove. It's us against the world of gray flannel and attache cases, I feel, the crumbling solidarity of the underground against the triumphant middle class, the doomed fellowship of resistance, the poverty and isolation of losers. The romance of it, the bitter pathos of it. (41)

     Once, in a cabaret straight out of Jack Kerouac's The Subterraneans, he runs into her again, and she takes him on a little Village odyssey from cafeteria to jazz club to all-night diner, "the grimmest joint of all," looking for one guy after another she usually finds in each place.

She's wearing black turtleneck and jeans, cheeks peachy beneath chic pallor, very blond, very stacked. If you're a neophyte, like me, you too would probably be wowed and a little awed by Marilyn because she's so hip, so carelessly in. Looking at her you know she's the kind of woman who can have anything she wants. Except that the way she comes on is like she doesn't want anything. (60)

     But keeps looking for it from club to cafeteria to grimmest joint of all. Finally, "with a resigned smile," she takes the neophyte "still further east and up broken stairs through cat piss corridors to her cold-water flat, scrofulous kitchen linoleum with tub in center, living room-bedroom jungled with green plants" (63).

In fact, no more than fifteen years later, after the last of several acid-induced institutionalizations, Marilyn would be out of friends, money, and places to live. One vagrant night she asked an acquaintance in Brooklyn if she could crash in her apartment. When she was turned down Marilyn walked up to the roof and jumped. You would have to realize then that the inverse of her openness and generosity was an underlying acceptance of a darker fate.... (41)

     Marilyn Duport, near the beginning of this exploration of the underground, lives a cautionary tale of its high stakes. Although successful artists like Jackson Pollock can destroy themselves, too, the "myth of Bohemia," notes Sukenick, paraphrasing its 19th century chronicler, Henri Murger, "can be devastating for hangers-on who have no strong artistic vocation providing a purpose for that kind of life."

The problem [for Marilyn] was that she needed not only to seek [her freedom] but to define it as well, requiring an open and experimental attitude toward experience as demanding as that which an artist, working at the cutting edge, must maintain toward his or her art. (63)

     Defining freedom is, in part, what the collective voices of the underground here recorded are always doing. Sukenick orchestrates them for his own purposes; but noting the many failures of definition, he reflects:

When I discover the underground, I see it solely as an enclave providing the chance for a principled resistance to an unacceptable status quo. It will take some years for me to desentimentalize the underground, differentiate the interesting from the merely seedy, and begin to acknowledge its darker, unredeemed, infernal aspects. It might be argued that tapping the infernal is necessary to release the darker powers of consciousness that energize art, but not everyone is an artist and not everyone can handle it. (65)

     Tapping the infernal without merely going to seed is a task Sukenick did not set himself in the early years; but defining freedom was very much a task, especially beyond the Village as he went off to Cornell and later Brandeis. Defining freedom is also inventing or reinventing identity, an ordeal for which the stakes only kept increasing for Sukenick on the one kind of campus, as well as for fellow subterraneans and artists on the other.

     Guided by Gloria and Marilyn and others, the young Sukenick had observed how older habitues of the underground coped with various challenges to identity. Maxwell Bodenheim and Joe Gould were living legends of the old entre deux guerres Bohemia.

Bodenheim drifts into the Remo, poet and novelist, relic ... Gloria points him out, bummy looking, a local fixture, selling his old books.... [Painter and poet Ted Joans remembers:] "Bodenheim would wander around with maybe five or six copies, hardcover copies, of his book Naked on Roller Skates. `Give me thirty-five cents, son, I'll sign it, thirty-five cents.'" ... In the Remo Bodenheim is this very minute reciting one of his poems over at the bar, which he does for drinks, when he's abruptly interrupted by the sound of a sea gull piercing the bar noise.
     Joe Gould, Harvard 1911, small, bald, toothless, gray-bearded, frail, is standing in the middle of the room, strung over his shoulders his cardboard sandwich sign that advertises poems for sale from his "Oral History of the World," carrying a huge bundle of papers, presumably the "History" itself. Gould puts down his papers and starts flapping his arms while making sea gull noises -- he can imitate sea gulls. He stops when someone buys him a beer. He stops to drink the beer. Gould says he understands the language of sea gulls and claims to have translated Longfellow into Sea Gull. For this talent he has earned the name Dr. Sea Gull.
     ... It's not the oddball quality of these figures that attracts me, but rather the way they throw themselves on the mercy of others, their willed destruction of pride, self-respect, and even ego itself. If you are seeking distinctions from the aggressive egoism of the 1950's success cult, Gould and Bodenheim are especially instructive examples.
     Both Bodenheim and Gould were "clowns in a certain way," says [Seymour] Krim. "I mean bitter clowns, to make a dollar." (28-30)

     Bitter clowns.

     And at the opposite end of the underground there was, just five blocks to the east and north, the Cedar Tavern, nearly lightless retreat of the Abstract Expressionists, relaxing after a hard day at the studio, talking shop over beers on the verge of international fame. Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, Willem De Kooning, Joan Mitchell, many others. For the young Sukenick going to the Cedar for a beer

has ... the power of a ritual that puts me in communion with the gods. I stand and watch the blur of activity, people talk to me casually, and though I have no idea who they are, I'm aware that, as in the Homeric epics, any disreputable-looking half-drunk bullshit artist might turn out to be an Abstract Expressionist Apollo, Dionysus, or even, hopefully, Aphrodite. You have the feeling that everything has become an open question that everybody is trying to answer at once from the bar up front to the wooden booths in back. (53)

     The blur of people will soon not only catch the attention of TIME-LIFE-LUCE, and so the rest of American society -- they will become to the world of art what America, since winning World War II, has become to the entire world. And not long after, commercial artists like James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns will leave advertising behind, "moving successfully into serious painting, a development that helped fuzz the distinction between the art underground and the commercial mainstream" (55). And also pressed the underground toward a crisis of identity beyond the hopes or despair of the old bitter clowns.

     At Cornell and especially Brandeis Sukenick faced a similar crisis. It was easier at Cornell, where he and some friends made their epochal choice before they knew the consequences. Of course, they did know that in the McCarthy-paranoid, sexually buttoned-down ‘50's it was risky to publish, in the very first issue of The Cornell Writer (November 1953), an "aggressively sophomoric" story by Sukenick; they did not expect that the single word "birdshit" would throw the whole campus into an uproar, with the university president wishing to expel them without a hearing. (They got a hearing; most of the English Department, including Vladimir Nabokov, did stick its collective neck out for them; and after weeks of uncertainty they got off with only a warning.) Sukenick later told Esquire: "I grew up under the assumption that you had to live underground – lie, present a facade, never say what you really thought ... Nothing seemed possible. We were scared and threatened and defiant" (77).

     The incident did not keep him out of Brandeis, whence he ventured next. "I was at Brandeis in disguise," Sukenick says, "presumably to earn a doctorate I had no intention of getting. Actually I was there because my teaching fellowship both supported me and spared me for two years from the military efforts of an inimical regime, and, more important, because this academy was dominated not by academics, but precisely by the intellectuals I assumed were the vanguard of the underground, and whom I took to be in tune with my real self" (96).

     Many of these vanguard intellectuals were refugees from the Nazis, like Herbert Marcuse and Abraham Maslow. But Sukenick was stunned to hear his teachers -- Irving Howe and poet J.V. Cunningham in particular -- try to persuade him to "choose security," because a writer's life was "precarious," and become "a good academic" (97) who writes on the side. It is best to quote Sukenick at length, as this is the core issue of the whole book.

     At stake here was that vague humunculus I chose to call my real self, independent of middle-class definitions of success and failure. This was the phenomenon vulgarized at the time as "identity crisis," but it was a real issue and it will remain a real issue. Is the American personality simply the sum of success-driven responses to the network of cultural pressures? Or is it the stubborn assertion of a virtuous independence, however unexamined? Horatio Alger or the Lone Ranger? Is there such a thing as a real self, and if there isn't, what makes life worth living? Consumption of products? Liberty and justice for clones? Social welfare for pods? ... (97)
     ...In the schizoid dialogue of the American psyche, the real self is Emersonian, passive, innocent, and spontaneous, while the public self needs to be aggressive, power oriented, and politics....[T]he idea that it's sometimes better to be negatively capable than positively impotent was still news unless you happened to be a certain kind of artist.... (98)
     ...I did not know yet that in America artists and intellectuals are necessarily different sorts of critters, committed to the schizy split that pits the real self against the public self, even when the two selves are part of the same psyche. A public self, insofar as it is divorced from the emotional life, which it puts to one side in the interests of calculation, policy, and power, can register feeling of any kind only in a limited way. In such a situation, the creative arts will always have a potentially subversive force, the more so the more they are innovative and unassimilated at the public level. The effect of such art can be disruptive and without regard to received ideas of what is right and good, as conservative critics and authoritarian regimes are well aware. American intellectuals have tended to be sociopolitical in orientation, and do their best to redirect the erotic force of art toward their concerns with good and bad, right and wrong.... (99)

     The sudden media attention received by the Abstract Expressionists of the Cedar Tavern forced "real selves" to face the dilemma of "public selves" or at least public images thrust upon them by well-heeled non-artists who not only found them good copy but could smell the money in their paint. They were good copy in part because their work was already big money in the arts market and soaring fast. How the painters dealt with their own several identity crises is beyond the scope of this essay (or indeed of Down and In); and while Sukenick gives a good deal of reflection to how individuals in the next group of subterraneans, the Beats, dealt with their several shocks of fame, I pass over that, too. But one big difference between the Abstract Expressionists and the Beats is that the former were (passively) discovered, but the latter were actively self-promoted, certainly by Allen Ginsberg, himself a drop-out from an ad agency.

     On the old question of selling out Ginsberg's attitude was quite fresh: "Selling out is one of those cornball ideas that people who didn't have anything to do got hung up on. I wouldn't have minded doing it if I could find what to sell out to. Geniuses don't sell out, in the sense that genius bursts the bounds of either selling out or not selling out" (122). His own advice, to Jack Kerouac in point of fact, was that "the less selfish course is to risk corruption by the world, sell out, and `turn shit to gold'" (82).

     Sukenick notes that, yes, there is "a difference between selling and selling out....Why shouldn't everybody have the chance of buying into a good thing once it's discovered?" (39) Selling one's wares – paintings, poetry chapbooks, novels, songs – does not necessarily involve divorcing one's real self from a false but more marketable public self, or at least disguising one's real self in order to make the sale. Ginsberg is a fine illustration of real self made into public self – and that success certainly shattered the apparent market demand of the conformist ‘50's to keep the underground self invisible. But that very success carries a new risk to the artist. If selling out is, in Steve Katz's definition, "doing something for someone else, rather than for yourself or your own vision" (239) -- and Ginsberg certainly sang his own vision, not some sponsor's -- the succès de scandale of flaunting a forbidden life-style may paradoxically betray the art anyway. "...[W]hen you start selling yourself, you may stop selling your art and wind up selling your life style" (39). (One can argue that Ginsberg managed to do both, but his own later self-assessment is severe: "Allen Ginsberg, you blew it! ... Don't follow my path to extinction!" ("After Lalon").)

     Unlike the Abstract Expressionists who, despite their public success, avoided celebrity, Ginsberg sought it out, albeit on his own terms, and this for Sukenick represented a turning point in the development of the artistic underground in America. Eighty years earlier, in 1870's Paris, "a handful of clever entrepreneurs started a series of Bohemian cabarets whose function was basically to vend Bohemia to the middle class" (119). As Ginsberg and friends drew new media interest to Greenwich Village, tourists, merchandisers, and real estate speculators began pouring money into Bleecker Street, and raised rents as well as allergy to middle class values drove artists and writers, Sukenick among them, to the Lower East Side.

     By this time Sukenick had made the choice confronting him at Brandeis. Although he continued to teach college from time to time, and dutifully completed his Ph.D. dissertation on Wallace Stevens (later published as Wallace Stevens: Musing the Obscure (New York University Press, 1967)), he opted for the "precarious," dropped out of academic life, took a flat at E. 12th and Avenue B, and resumed writing fiction.

     I ... remember a sense of community during those days on the East Side....The neighborhood was for a while the model of the American melting pot, polyglot with Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Blacks, White Russians, Puerto Ricans, Italians, and us [writers, painters, underground film makers, performance artists, musicians], all willing to live and let live with, even, a certain amount of neighborliness....
     When I start writing my first novel, Up, a book about the East Side that is a combination of autobiography and invention, I realize that that place and time is one in which we can in fact partly invent our autobiographies, in which life is not something imposed on us but a process in which we are creatively involved. The distinction between art and life in the book is reduced to a quibble of form only partly out of theoretical considerations. It's also a consequence of the kind of life that, after decades of alienation, we are finally positioned to lead. What critics don't realize when they foam, or even effervesce, about "Postmodernism" in fiction is that it did not come out of arbitrary literary considerations but out of a kind of life. It is a way of living in which you participate in a communal imagination, rather than having to struggle continuously with an intrusive public vision imposed by the mass market. "Use your imagination," I tell my students these days, "or someone else is going to use it for you." (149)

     The smaller community of artists and writers found new places to meet (the Tenth Street Coffee House, Les Deux Megots, Stanley's) and perform (Café Le Metro, St. Mark's Church). They also found a common enterprise in "[d]issolving the boundaries between art and life":

...the breakdown of conventional limits for the imagination places art in the service of the actual, to the enrichment of both. In the hands of a skilled social critic an analysis of the part imagination plays in what we call reality helps demystify our experience. In the hands of an untutored teen-ager zonked on acid, or a monomaniac theoretician trapped by an idea, the results will be predictably vulgar. (149-150)

     The general "push of the creative community [in the Lower East Side] to democratize high culture" also ran the risk of promoting vulgarization, with commercialism either close behind or leading the charge. This happened in several ways. The advent of the Hippies in the mid-sixties resulted directly from, and further stimulated, the mass media image of Village Bohemia:

     It's an exaggeration, but one that has truth, to say that the Hippies who were then beginning to drift into the East Village were picking up on the hedonistic side of the artist's life, elaborating on Beat culture, without themselves having the intense drive for accomplishment characteristic of the Beats or of any serious artist. These people were not interested in the artist's life – they were living as if art were life, given over to pleasure and excitement without practical consequences. This may have been partly the result of a too-literal take on the problematic relation between performer and audience, between art and life itself, that was one of the innovations to come out of the art of the sixties. In a nontraditional country like America, where art has constantly to justify itself, if art is too closely identified with life, one of the inevitable reactions you're going to get is "All right, if art is life, who needs art?"... (170)

     One result of the advent of the Hippies was their increasing desperation to pay for drugs, and even bread, which led to the selling of whatever could be sold, ultimately their own bodies in prostitution. While this was nothing new in the underground, never before had it happened on such a scale. Certainly the influx of Hippies upset the delicate symbiosis (or truce) of artists and locals on the Lower East Side; and to an extent Sukenick is clearly saying, "There went the neighborhood!" His attitude is not so simple, though, partly because he witnessed daily the human cost to the Hippies themselves, who in many ways relived what earlier immigrants to the neighborhood had suffered. Still, selling oneself remained the Ur-meaning of selling out; and in the larger picture Hippies represented a massive invasion of the margins by the mass market. But Sukenick sees the Hippies as more symptom than cause. What troubles him much more is what writers in particular had been doing for some time to undermine their own underground.

     As early as 1957, if we use the publication of Kerouac's On the Road as a marker, the subterranean-as-hustler began emerging from the underground into the klieg lights of the marketplace. The type of this hustler for Sukenick is not Kerouac or even Ginsberg, but Norman Mailer -- himself assuredly not a subterranean, but very much an apologist for the "White Negro" Hipster, as he saw him. Sukenick asks Seymour Krim whether "selling out" was a concept that would have meant anything to Mailer.

After The Naked and the Dead, [Krim answers,] unlike the rest of us, [Mailer] was always conscious of having been a best-selling writer, and will always be conscious of it. It became some kind of standard for him. I mean you could talk literature all you wanted but he was very conscious of the power, of the reality of that, which does not come to most literary writers. So he always wanted to straddle those two worlds. (113)

     These two worlds -- the underground and the marketplace -- Mailer straddled as a fascinated observer (distilling some of his observations into a column for The Village Voice). He was always looking for new psycho-social terrain to reconnoiter and to project himself into -- for contact and an imaginative firefight at least, but chiefly to keep testing, pushing, recreating himself in all kinds of new circumstances. Somewhere in Advertisements for Myself he writes that the first duty of an artist is to create himself. Sukenick may or may not take issue with that dictum (he does not address it) -- but he certainly takes issue with advertisements for oneself, with crafting and projecting a public self, and always keeping a weather eye on the marketplace. Mailer materializes in Down and In whenever Sukenick speaks of the devil of playing to the market. But he sees Mailer, too, as merely symptomatic. Seymour Krim himself had announced, in the essay "Making It!" (circa 1959-60), that "[m]iddle-class ideals of success once curled the lip of the intellectual; today he grins not, neither does he snide ... The only enemy today is failure, failure, failure, and the only true friend is -- success!" (112) (also in What's This Cat's Story?: The Best of Seymour Krim, ed. Peggy Brooks, Paragon House, New York, 1991; p. 35).

     Emerging access to the bestseller list constituted one temptation to estrangement from the underground-as-refuge-from-the-middle-class. More subtle temptations also emerged. On the Lower East Side (already adopting a new Hippie name, the East Village), the cafe community of poets, where (as Sukenick quotes Andrei Codrescu) "everybody paid for their own coffee and they felt that they could be as obnoxious as they wanted to be" (154), fell apart for the same reason, and regrouped at St. Mark's Church as a stage and audience. "Poets became more like performers, even entertainers, rather than artists engaged in dialogue with other artists" (154). Show biz could not be far behind.

     But when show biz arrived, it came not as anyone expected. It came, with startling twists, as Andy Warhol.

     ...Warhol's serial photo silk screens of Marilyn Monroe are about as sentimental as Fords coming off an assembly line, each one a different color but each one the same as every other.... Carolee Schneemann refers to his ... vampiristic invention of art as commodity that was absolutely correct for the cultural moment, an art that was superficially available but that lacked the sacred quality of art that satisfies underlying human needs. Peter Schjeldahl, on the other hand, admires the fact that Warhol's art... had "no anguish, no doubt, no apology, no existentialism, no expressionism, nothing except what it was." (221-222)


     Warhol deflated the mystifications connected with high culture, but at the same time he devastated the adversary position of avant-garde art in relation to the middle class, the position that in America had generated the avant-garde's vitality, if not its reason for being. As Schjeldahl says, "he was the prophet of the embrace, of the integration of the avant-garde and the middle class." There's also the point of view that, as a young artist who was part of his entourage says, "everyone took Andy seriously as an artist because he sold," a remark in itself indicative of the new criterion he promoted. (222)

     Warhol did not promote in a vacuum (even if he was himself, in Schneemann's words, the kind of "vacuum that attracts"). He thrived in a particular, hospitable setting which was all of hip NYC in a single bar/cafe called Max's Kansas City – known to intimates as The Store. It was a Store in every way – and while it was a place where the artists and writers of the underground sold themselves to reps and agents of the mainstream, the mainstream could never love it, but Sukenick did. "Part of the Max's scene was a quality Studio 54 would later pick up on that was alien to an artists' bar, so in a way what you liked about it was what you didn't like about it. I must be doing something wrong." (206) The whole narrative of Down and In leads us to The Store.

     Lovingly but unsentimentally Sukenick evokes The Store from morning to night to very wee hours of next morning.

     Max's was the result of a lot of factors that came together at the same time. It was the change in the gallery scene, from Abstract Expressionism to Pop, Op, Minimal, Conceptual, and Color Field painting, at the same time pop music tastes were changing out of folk music, jazz, and blues into a new kind of rock 'n' roll, when fashion was going through important changes in exhibiting the body, when there was a strong underground film scene, when Off- and Off-Off Broadway theater was exciting, when the antiwar movement was gaining momentum and the civil rights movement was important.... (203-204)
     Nobody knows all the things going on in Max's, there's too much going on, and it's going too fast. Jim Morrison is sitting at a round table and he has to piss but he's very lazy and drunk and he doesn't want to get up. There's an empty wine bottle on the table and he holds it under the table, pisses in it, and then puts the cork back. "And we're getting up to leave," [says Danny Fields,] "and he says to the waitress, who's all agog at the idea of serving Jim Morrison, `I couldn't finish this bottle of wine, why don't you take it home?'" She thanks him profusely....At another table a chimp with shades appears to be reading the wine list. At another table a buxom woman says she's hot; her boyfriend says, "Take your shirt off, nobody'll notice." She takes her shirt off and sits topless for half an hour, forty-five minutes. Nobody notices. And it's real crowded. The waitress comes and takes her order and doesn't notice: "Yeah, whadda you want?" ... (230-231)
     Warhol had his own scene in the back room that represented a sharp break with the past and its values....One regular describes the difference between the front room and the back at Max's as that between a relationship and a blow job -- the front clings to old habits, the back is much more impersonal. The back room, in its feeling of cool, its pansexuality, its nouveau commercialism, its mystification of the superficial, its sense of staginess about the emotions, spreads the seed of the future: Pop, Punk, New Wave....Warhol sweeps in, five or six people in his entourage, with a lot of waving and yelling back and forth to the tables, to take possession of the big round table in the back room, the center of attention....Warhol, who hardly ever talks, holds silent court among the faithful in a grouping that one photographer with an eye for composition thinks of as the Last Supper....Mickey [Ruskin, the owner] lets the back room do its own thing. He goes out of his way not to go in there because if he does he knows he's usually going to have to stop something. Anything from a striptease to drugs under the table to the frequent "chick-pea wars" conducted with the dried chick peas in the bowls on the tables....(221, 223-225)

     Yes, and "an incredible amount of culture business was going on," too, Sukenick says. His roving camera eye takes it all in. But it takes in a much larger picture, too.

>     What was important for people in Punk and New Wave was image. For previous subterraneans, image was incidental to a vision of change in society and the self, while for these newer movements image was an end in itself. Insofar as the inner life was concerned, it was important only in order to exorcise it through a kind of ritualized psychodrama, whether in slam dancing or performance art. Image is safe because it's disembodied--you get around better as an image than you can as a self. It allows you flexibility and ironic distance, and it allows you to reject an idea without taking its alternative seriously either....(270)

     For Sukenick, the reduction of self to image is precisely what he's been fighting against since Cornell, if not since Midwood High; and in the marvelous circus of contradictions that is The Store he faces afresh the old underground crisis of identity. For he too, with the publication to rave reviews of his first novel, Up, has been propelled into image-hood as well, and he enjoys and plays with it even as he fears: "I must be doing something wrong" (198). The example of Norman Mailer offers itself as Bad Angel, as the example of others like actor Peter Coyote, then a Digger out of San Francisco (as well as S.F. Mime Trouper), plays Good Angel. Sukenick did not meet Coyote till the '70's, but the Diggers were active in the late '60's East Village. Coyote joined the Diggers after the Mime Troupe won an Obie in New York for one of their productions.

>     "...And that sort of blew my mind, [Sukenick quotes Coyote as saying,] because here we were critiquing the middle class and they were giving us medals. And that really helped to make us see that anything that you paid for in America could not be radical. That when people bought a ticket at the door, they knew that they were going into a business. If they didn't like the content of the play, they were still reassured that there was nothing fundamentally antithetical to the values of business, because we were up there making a living.
     "So one of the reasons that `free' evolved was to take things out of the frame of reference of commerce. Free was the guiding force of the Diggers. The Diggers did everything for free. We fed people for free, we got the crash pads and the medical clinics for free. But free in a deeper sense also meant no identity. The Diggers were always anonymous....(187)

     Sukenick reflects that: "In a country such as ours, with a tenuous attachment to tradition, it is possible that concepts like `free identity,` and `twenty-four hour improvisational spontaneous self-creation,' are more than symptoms of a brief period of the underground, but stand against a culture in which the reality of self is constantly defined and redefined, and finally called into question, by the complex of exterior circumstance, by `reality.'" (198)

     The implied challenge for Sukenick was to avoid selling out self like a Warhol "Superstar" on the one hand; avoid reducing self to a "bitter clown" like Maxwell Bodenheim and Joe Gould on the other; enjoy personal liberation (especially sexual), dealing honestly with all the consequences of that, pleasant and otherwise; and still, as a determined artist, complete important, innovative work ... that won't make money.

     Down and In is never mere nostalgia trip; it does not look backward only. In his extended reflection over the final chapters on The Store, Sukenick raises memoir to something very close to manifesto; indeed retro-charges everything that's gone before with the question of the underground as adversary culture. Defining what the underground was and how "adversary artists" must redefine or re-realize it in changing circumstances is what Sukenick has been orchestrating his subterranean voices to address.

     Sukenick makes three large points: (1) the underground is independent, not alienated from mainstream culture; (2) it is inside, not outside, society; and (3) it's a stance, not a place.

     A cultural underground sustains the distinction between artistic achievement and worldly success, even when envious of the rewards of that kind of success. The underground audience of peers and hip critics may not be disinterested, but it probably provides the most authentic consensus today for artistic success as such in a culture increasingly dominated by commercial factors. This is in part because an underground calls status quo values into question rather than reinforcing them, thus asserting an independence of judgment. An underground is neither necessarily a physical place nor a particular life style, but precisely this mutinous attitude. It is an attitude conspired in by dissidents inside the establishment and those at its fringes, without participating in the dependent duet with the middle class called alienation. A true subterranean feels no remorse about his divorce from the middle class, which was not a matter of alienation but enthusiastic choice....Underground art is defined by a kind of consciousness for which social values are, to begin with, problematic, always to be questioned....[S]ubterraneans at bottom don't give a damn about the ordinary goals or even conventional decencies of society, which they will often ignore in pursuit of excitement, joy, knowledge, or seemingly inexplicable self-destructive adventures of the psyche conducive to, among other things, releasing the imagination.
     One consequence of such an attitude, however, is a distancing from the mainstream, encouraging along with other influences a critical perspective on middle-class values. It is from this vantage point of difference, rather than alienation, that an underground serves as part of the conscience of a culture, and a culture may be measured by the degree to which it can accommodate such a critical force.... Cultural undergrounds ... can free themselves of political cant and ideological rectitudes to make their judgments as they will. When an underground loses that kind of independence it is no longer an underground. It has lost its adversarial freedom, it ability to mount a critique of the culture....(240)

     Sukenick declares that "we can no longer pretend that the underground is positioned outside society. We now have to realize that no one is outside society."

Even the most marginal minorities are conditioned by the social discourse, dropping out of which is not an option. You cannot drop out of that discourse, you can only change it. Even outsiders must acknowledge they are inside in that sense. The Postmodern individual and especially the writer, according to critic of the avant-garde Charles Russel in his recent Poets, Prophets & Revolutionaries, `now experience and articulate themselves self-consciously from within the social complex from which, nevertheless, they may still feel alienated and of which they may still be critical....There can be no simple opposition to culture, no transcendent perspective or language, no secure singular self-definition, for all find their meaning only within a social framework.' (pp. 264-265)

     It's simply a fact that, since the '60's, American society has, up to a point, changed to accommodate the "critical force" of the artistic underground. Sukenick quotes Suzanne Zavrian, who worked simultaneously in the mass market (Pocket Books) and the small press world, on `younger elements of the adversary culture':

"...They're in the mainstream and they're taking the mainstream and they're holding it up and they're saying, `Look at what this garbage is.' Instead of being outside and attacking you're attacking from inside, and maybe that is one of the answers. If you listen carefully to them, what have you got? You've got every banality and every cliche juxtaposed and you just recoil in horror from the whole society, and that's what a lot of these kids are doing. And what they're doing actually is being rebels within the culture itself and being successful at it commercially. And that's a whole new twist.'

     (Zavrian was speaking in the post-Punk early '80's, long before Grunge, "Alternative," and all their heirs and assigns. I doubt an update would change her view.)

     Where, then, can you find the underground, post-Warhol?

>     The drop-out must now be replaced by the hold-out, working stubbornly in the wasteland of the mass market, ruthless in his effort to define and dominate his appropriate territory. He (or she) is not on the make. Money is insufficient reward and celebrity is an insult. He may be a loner or not. The hold-out may prowl with a pack on the impoverished margins of the culture or he may emerge from within the heart of the establishment, where you will know him only when he makes his move. He may find refuge in the tenements of the city or the underground of the psyche. He uses whatever he can use, cultural guerilla tactics or lobbying and applied grantsmanship, to call into question the values of the status quo. An adversary culture must now acknowledge a more complex situation than it has faced heretofore, requiring more sophistication and less indulgence in image and flashy gestures of style. No more Lone Ranger, silver bullets, or white horses. The hold-out looks just like you, and could be you. (265-266)

     Lest this sound like wishful thinking, Sukenick gets down to practicalities, albeit difficult ones. The first is: organize.

>     ...At the start of the seventies the squeeze was on from both profit and nonprofit institutions in the culture to neutralize creative life. From secret government suppression, as of the underground presses, to exclusion or co-optation, as of the literary arts, the situation left few options between surrender and organization. And, since the opportunity to organize was at hand, if you didn't do it, you knew somebody else would, maybe even some ghoul who actually enjoyed doing it, someone with culture commisar potential, or culture czar, as the case may be. In a country of organizations, it's hard to avoid them if you want to exert any amount of economic or political control over your creative life, rather than leaving it to people who have no idea about -- or perhaps contempt for -- what you're doing. And maybe the most important payoff of the effort of organization is the network of associations it produces, with its consequent broadening of cultural vision. (258)

     There's an element of seizing the means of production in this. "Considering the process of production part of the reality of any work of art immediately resolves the schizoid conflict between purity of art and the experience out of which it comes" (274). He quotes art critic and activist Lucy Lippard:

"There are a lot of activist artists who are doing long-term works which incorporate working with political groups, working with media analysis, teaching, writing, all kinds of things that are all part of what you're doing which is totally aside from making an object. Making an object is the matrix of what you're doing." (274)
What Sukenick himself has done is help found the writer-controlled small press, Fiction Collective (now FC2), establish the American Book Review covering innovative fiction and poetry mainstream reviews ignore, participate on the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, teach, and do anything he can, not to raid the mass market, but rather "cultivate your own market" (269). "Having your own audience of like-minded sympathizers as a base is one of the best defenses against being killed by mass-market success, should the occasion ever arise" (269).
A creative community with its own criteria in resistance to the business establishment is essential to any kind of alternative culture. This quality is the minimal requirement for a culture underground. (273)

     (In the '80's when he wrote Down and In Sukenick did not consider the possibilities of the Internet for extending the "creative community" and cultivating "your own market" worldwide. But when those possibilities exploded in the '90's, he was quick to reconnoiter, assess, and take advantage. His observations as well as new work (and some old, like his second novel, Out) can be found at such websites as Alt-X ( and FlashPøint ( ).)

     Ultimately Down and In is about going down and into "unconsciousness" (which Andrei Codrescu tells Sukenick is the "enemy") and wrestling it up to consciousness -- wrestling the real self free of socially imposed, but unself-conscious, images of self. To the extent that Down and In is an Odyssean descent into the underworld of the underground of the '40's, '50's, and '60's, the whole purpose is to seek directions for the present and the future of an adversary culture – not just for the "real selves" of Sukenick and friends but for "you," Hold-out Reader. So Sukenick takes readers down and in with him to seek directions together. Unlike the proclamations of the Futurists and other avant-garde art movements, this is manifesto by process. And the process is necessarily open-ended, the directions not definitive but suggestive, provocative. It is then for us, readers who would be artists, on our own to make our way ... Up and Out.

Ronald Sukenick helped inaugurate the premier print issue of FlashPøint with a public reading on 17th Street, Washington, D.C., in late 1995. His interview, The Rival Tradition, reproduced in the on-line FlashPøint #1, continues to be one of the most popular pieces we have presented. In the same issue he also gave us "life/art: static story for small screen". All the page citations in this article refer to the Collier Books paperback edition of "Down and In: Life in the Underground," Macmillian Publishing Company, New York, 1987.

JR Foley is also the author of "The Short Happy Life of Lee Harvey Oswald" in FlashPøint #6, "night patrol" in FlashPøint #5, "Lost in Mudlin" in FlashPøint #7, "A Visit to Szoborpark" (elsewhere in this issue), as well as "The Too Many Deaths of Danny C." in FlashPøint #9, and "Our Friend the Atom: Walt Disney and the Atomic Bomb" in FlashPøint #10. A somewhat different version of this essay appears in "Musing the Mosaic: Approaches to Ronald Sukenick," Matthew Roberson, editor, State University of New York Press, Albany, 2003.