Monday May 24, 2021
Lionel Trilling: 'What is Batman?'
These guys knew before Trilling (from Detective Comics #27)
“Ginsberg wrote to Trilling from shipboard in Sheepshead Bay, off Brooklyn, to ask whether he'd had a chance to read a long poem he had given him. In order to fit in with his shipmates, he reported, he had purchased some Batman comic books—and 'I brought here my beloved Rimbaud.' Trilling commented positively on the poem. 'Your mention of Rimbaud,' he added, 'crystallized my impulse (a slow one) to know more about him and I am now the next name after yours on the library card of the Starkie biography [the Irish writer Enid Starkie's biography of Rimbaud came out in 1938] you so warmly recommended to me. I doubt he will ever be my ”beloved Rimbaud“ as he is yours or that I will ever even understand how he can be yours; but if I cannot be affectionate to him I at least need not be ignorant!' He added, 'What is Batman?'”
-- from correspondence between Columbia professor and cultural critic Lionel Trilling and one of his students, future “Howl” poet Allen Ginsberg, in the mid-1940s, as reported in Louis Menand's “The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War: A Cultural History of the Cold War.” (Ginsberg's response in the next letter was: “Batman is second on the bestseller list of semiliterate America.”) Ginsberg had joined the U.S. Maritime Service, prep for the Merchant Marine, after Columbia suspended him for a year for drawing pornographic images and ironic anti-Semitic slogans in the dust along a windowsill as part of a feud with a maid, whom Ginsberg suspected of anti-Semitism. The Beats, in general, do not come off well here, but then I've never been a big fan. Menand's book is recommended. It's makes me aware of how much I don't know.