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  • The Way You See the Text
  • Steven Wingate (bio)
Bob Brown
Roving Eye Press
56 Pages; Print, $29.95
Gems: A Censored Anthology
Bob Brown, ed.
Roving Eye Press
131 Pages; Print, $14.99
The Readies
Bob Brown
Roving Eye Press
96 Pages; Print, $14.99

It is tempting to see historical avant-garde and conceptual literatures as precursors to later works—the metafictions of Steve Katz and Ronald Sukenick as enabling antecedents to David Foster Wallace, or concrete poetry as a harbinger of digital poetics. This approach spawns narratives of aesthetic evolution that help us contextualize avant-garde movements, allowing us to see how they are selectively embraced by the mainstream over time while still passing on their thorniest questions to future generations of experimenters.

Yet, it can also prevent us from looking at works in their own historical context. That temptation will be strong with the work of Bob Brown, Modernist provocateur and member of Gertrude Gertrude Stein’s circle, whose work is being revived under the banner of his Roving Eye Press and the editorial direction of his biographer, Craig Saper. Because Brown’s work presages today’s electronic reading practices, it is easy to see him as a mere visionary. But this underestimates the strong challenge Brown made to the very idea of literary sense-making, which, the three books in this re-launch shake to the core with a deep questioning of the act of reading itself.

Chicago-born Robert Carlton Brown (1886-1959) was a multifarious writer whose work included pulp novels, concrete poetry, and Socialist manifestoes. He is best remembered for his relationships with major figures from the American expatriate avant-garde in Paris, many of whom he knew and published during his stint in France from 1929-1932. Gems (1931) is a ribald desecration of the kind of poetry anthologies commonly read to children at that time, turned by Brown into both a critique of censorship and a work of impromptu pornography. He uses well-known “gems” of poetry—Browning, Pope, Coleridge, etc.—and selectively blacks out words as a censor might, thereby tempting readers to fill in the blanks with words of their own devise. Here’s Longfellow:

And thus she among her girlsWith, and mildSubduing eubd rude village churlsBy her angelic

Readers will add what they will, prompted by the censor’s blackout, and the essays that precede these “gems” suggests that Brown would prefer such additions to be salacious. “You can read into these poems what you will,” he writes. “It’s a test of just exactly how filthy your mind is.”

This is a brilliant provocation, and it came at a time of heightened censorship in the US—not to mention Prohibition. Brown, in the chapter “Book-Legging,” equates purveyors of pornographic literature with purveyors of forbidden his writing here, reminiscent of Nathanael West, is the strongest in the set. But, Brown is not after mere ribaldry; he has something to say about the effect of censorship on literature. “One great good of censorship,” he argues, “is its tonic action on the imagination. The fancy of man when given few facts to work upon must make the most of what truths seep through and invent others for its satisfaction.” Brown also contextualizes Gems in the development of an American idiom in the early twentieth century. Censorship and prohibition circa 1930 came at the same time as a distinctly American vernacular was arising from the massed language of immigrants, when the country began establishing its literary identity. Regardless of what one thinks of Brown’s conceptual writing, his ideas on the relationship between censorship and literature deserve to be more known.

The Readies (1930) is Brown’s best known work because it presages our current digital forms of communication; in it we see the conceptual roots of texting, Amazon Kindles, and digital poetics. Brown first announced his plans for a “reading machine” in the journal Transition, pronouncing that “The written word hasn’t kept up with the age” and exhorting us to “Revolutionize reading and a Revolution of the Word...


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