- Family Chronicle
476 Pages; Print, $18.00
At the age of eighteen, Martha King enrolled at Black Mountain College in the mountains of North Carolina for three months in the summer of 1955. Her acceptance letter was a postcard from Charles Olson, famous poet and rector of the college, saying: "Come with what money you have in hand and what you are used to for cooking." What she found was a campus that included a collection of one story clapboard houses and a library surrounded by "neck-high weeds" abandoned by its librarian. The lower campus with its often-photographed Adirondack-style lodges was already shuttered. She claimed a small room uphill in the Studies building and participated in theater and weaving classes. She hid when she was supposed to be critiqued in her painting class.
When she wanted to return for the fall semester, her parents threatened to sue the college. When she refused to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where her family lived, she was told to learn a trade. For her, this meant typing classes in Durham. She saved enough from a typing job to move to San Francisco on her way to Australia. In San Francisco she met Basil King who had attended Black Mountain College for five years and was twenty-one years old. Within the year, they had married.
And so begins the King family chronicle.
Beautifully written, with a poet's concision and an artist's knack for character Outside/Inside is the story of a couple struggling in New York City to keep a roof over their heads and food on their table and a studio space for Basil to paint in. But it is also a story of friendships with poets like Paul Blackburn and artists like John Chamberlain. The people named in this book lived in New York City in the '50s and '60s, drank at McSorley's (men only then) and the Cedar Bar, frequented each others' parties and art openings, and at times, helped each other out financially or with tips about dealers and collectors and museums. They also mourned each others' premature deaths—Frank O'Hara's on Fire Island when he was run over by a beach taxi, for example.
A leitmotif in the book is the presence of Black Mountain College graduates and attenders with their acute sense of being the real artists, the intellectual artists, the Intelligent ones. They had learned color theory from Josef Albers and weaving from Anni Albers. They had rubbed shoulders with such as Robert Rauschenberg and Stefan Wolpe. They were a cohort. And many of them were inscribed in the Black Mountain College bible—Martin Duberman's history of the college.
Martha and Basil King spoke to him at length on tape. Then they realized there might be repercussions if their comments were incorporated [End Page 23] into the book. Duberman erased them but used their insights anyway. This erasure meant Basil was not invited into some of the Black Mountain shows, a cause of anguish for these two people who were so identified with their experience of the college.
This exclusion is the book's turbine, the source of its intensity. For example, one of the high points of this book is an exact transcription of Basil and Martha chatting about Charles Olson. I quote:
No, he talked so much you felt you understood everything. But I—we all—knew we really didn't. Sometime after that I had a huge argument with him. It went on for months. I said that when Rimbaud said, "Women nurse men home from hot countries," he was talking about his father. That nearly everything he talked about was about his father and not about himself. I said, I'm seventeen, too, and I know what he was doing. Olson said no.M:
I think you were right.B:
But I didn't understand everything. It's a funny connection, because Charles himself continues to be an enigma...