Ginsberg in Wichita
Wichita State University sits high up on a hill overlooking the valley of the Arkansas River. From windows on the upper floors of the buildings on the western edge of the campus, one can see the river as it winds its way through the center of the city three miles away.
From 1887 until 1926, the site was that of Fairmount College, a private school with ties to the Congregational Church. One building still on the campus dates back to that earlier time. In 1926, by a vote of the citizens of Wichita, the college became The Municipal University of Wichita. It remained WU until 1964, when it became WSU – Wichita State University – part of the Kansas state system of junior colleges, colleges, and universities.
During the period of 1950-1955, when the early Wichita group was in college, the school was municipally owned, and had a student body of a little less than two thousand. By the time Allen Ginsberg came in 1966, the University was a state school and enrollment was just under ten thousand.
When WU was a municipal University, the administration was very sensitive to the local power structure in the city. After all, the school was financed by a city tax levy, and needed continuing political support from the business community. The University president was, thus, as much a social and political strategist as an educational leader – and tended to err on the side of caution when it came to anything that might be controversial. The faculty, on the other hand, could be quite liberal when it came to such matters.
We encountered this official wariness when we first tried to publish Provincial Review, in 1951. To finance the magazine we first took over the University Writers’ Club – to provide ourselves with legitimacy – and then went to the President of WU, Harry Corbin. We read him some of the poems and showed him the cover – and he agreed it was a good idea, but was “not sure” how much of the student body as a whole would be interested in it; and he said, besides, that appropriations had already been made for the year. It was a classic political balancing act.
Joanie O’Bryant, faculty sponsor of the Writers’ Club, then suggested we go to the Student Council for the money – so Dave Haselwood and I went to the Student Council and made an eloquent plea. They, also, were unsure how it could be justified as a service to the student body as a whole, but with Joanie on our side (as a member of the Board of Student Publications), they voted to make a loan of $300 to us under the condition that the Board “supervise” the publication. This we quickly accepted – with little intention of paying the money back or actually allowing any editorial interference. Of course, as it turned out, we didn’t publish the magazine for other reasons, but the political lesson was learned, never-the-less.
The second time we encountered official caution was in 1954 when we were selecting short films for the WU Film Society. One of the films we previewed was Fireworks, a rather vivid gay film. It was gently suggested to us by our administration advisor, Jim Sours, that the film was rather intense and might not be quite suitable for our purposes. Interestingly, most on the committee had already come to that conclusion on their own. The fact that the suggestion had been made by a faculty member, however, gave Bruce Conner the pretext he needed to advertise the film as “The Film Banned By Wichita University” when he showed it later at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
By the end of the decade, censorship, explicit or implied, seemed to be pretty much a dead issue – the University subsidized literary magazine, Mikrokosmos, for example, was printing all kinds of “forbidden” words in its prose and poetry. As the University moved out from under municipal control to state status, one would have assumed that the issue of academic freedom was settled – at least with respect to the arts.
However, a new area of conflict had arisen, in the form of Cold War politics: the fight against internal Communist influence in education.
The John Birch Society
The assault of the John Birch Society on Wichita and its educational establishments began quietly enough on November 2, 1959, in a letter from Mrs. Kenneth Myers to the Wichita Eagle. It was a stealth offensive, not mentioning the John Birch Society itself, which had its national organizational meeting on December 9th of 1958 and distributed its “Bible” and declaration of war, The Blue Book of THE JOHN BIRCH SOCIETY.
But in the next few months, the Birch Society came out of the closet, and the newspapers’ letter columns were flooded with letters both advancing its cause and denouncing it. It all came to a head in October of 1960. For the Birchers it was a holy war against “the Kremlin”, “so called Democratic processes”, “hard-core Communists”, and “ultra liberals”. [Mrs. Robert H. Lowe, “Public Forum”, The Wichita Eagle, October 15, 1960]. For those opposed to the Society, the posture of the Birchers raised the specter of Mein Kampf, and neo-Fascism. [Frank L. Vannerson, “Public Forum”, The Wichita Eagle, October 13, 1960].
One of the first Wichitans to come out publicly for the Society was Fred C. Koch, a man who had made his billions in oil – ironically, developing oil fields in the Soviet Union, and who now headed Koch Industries and was a member of the national board of the John Birch Society. Interviewed by the Wichita Eagle, Koch was asked if there were any Communist activities in Wichita. “There is not much of a problem here,” he replied; but went on to say, “One sometimes finds evidence of it in schools. But it’s bound to creep in.” [“Birch Society Leader Warns of Red Danger”, The Wichita Sunday Eagle, October 16, 1960].
Asked about reports that students had been told to spy on their teachers and report them to the Society, Koch denied any knowledge of such “spy activities” in the schools and universities in Wichita. He did, however, admit that “information on conditions in some classes had been submitted by students on a strictly voluntary basis.” [“Birch Society Leader Warns of Red Danger”, The Wichita Sunday Eagle, October 16, 1960].
Koch revealed that a Wichita attorney, Kenneth L. Myers, was one of the Society’s leaders in the city, and stated that Roman Catholic Bishop Mark Carroll was in agreement with the Society’s views. He also revealed that there were six John Birch Society chapters in Wichita, with a combined membership “in excess of 100”. Then the newspaper quoted a startling statement from Robert Welch, founder of the Society:
“[…] I believe every man in this room [at the organizational meeting] clearly recognizes-democracy is merely a deceptive phrase, a weapon of demagoguery, and a perennial fraud.” [“Birch Society Leader Warns of Red Danger”, The Wichita Sunday Eagle, October 16, 1960].
Later it was revealed that two other local leaders were Love Box Company owner Robert Love (also a national board member) and attorney Leonard F. Banowetz. The Society also picked up support from a motley crew of fringe segregationists, a local American Legion Post, and such anti-tax protesters as real estate developer Willard Garvey and his conservative publication, Wichita This Week. By a twist of fate, my brother-in-law, Brad Hammond – a liberal – got himself hired as Editor of Wichita This Week in early 1962 and printed several subversive articles written by me under a nom de plume.
A film strip, Communism on the Map, was the tool the Birchers were using to spread the fear that Communism was going to take over the world unless drastic measures were introduced to fight it. Birchers were getting the filmstrip shown at churches and civic groups, and were attempting to browbeat the schools into showing it in classes. On October 23, 1960, the Wichita Sunday Eagle printed an editorial blasting the Society’s methods:
[“‘Communism on Map’ Not Whole Story”, The Wichita Sunday Eagle, October 23, 1960: 4A].
This editorial spelled the end of the Society’s influence in Wichita. The Birchers had been served notice that their crusade would not have the support of the main-line business and social leaders of the community.
Robert Love fired off a desperate letter to the paper to try to stanch the wound, but the damage had been done. Increasingly, articles appeared in the paper exposing the radical nature of the Society. Of a book entitled The Politician, which founder of the Society Robert Welch had written and circulated to his closest associates, one article said:
“It claims that Mr. Eisenhower’s brother, Milton, is the President’s superior in the party and that a dozen other highly placed government men are either out-right Communists or tools of the party.”
Such outrageous claims by the Birchers were enough to dissuade most from supporting the Society, and gave strong ammunition to its opponents.
Dr. Lawrence Shepoiser, Superintendent of the Wichita Public Schools, labeled Communism on the Map “purely propaganda”. He went on to say that it was “highly emotional and poorly documented”. [“Film Viewed As Propaganda”, The Wichita Eagle and Beacon, October 28, 1960: 5B].
In December, the Birchers played their trump card: Operation Abolition, a biased film about the student riots against the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in San Francisco. This breathed new life for a very short time into the anti-Communist movement in Wichita, and through-out December and January the Public Forum was again full of pro and con letters. But by now the Birchers were widely viewed as crack-pot “vigilantes” and Robert Love was reduced to defending the film by saying in print, “I don’t particularly care if there were some so-called ‘distortions’ or ‘discrepancies’ in the film […] support the HCUA.” [Robert Love, “Public Forum”, The Wichita Eagle, January 18, 1961].
By March of 1961 things had gotten so bad for the Society that candidates for the Board of Education and City Commission elections were scrambling to disassociate themselves from the Society:
Southwest Civic Council session, as well as 16 of the 17 City Commission candidates.
[…] Questions were asked […]
One that caught the school board candidates point-blank was: “How many of you are members of the John Birch Society?”
No one admitted belonging.
(The Birch group, apparently self-appointed guardian of Americanism had been rumored to be trying to place several candidates on the Board of Education. Several city teachers are said to be out of favor with the society.)
[“John Birch Society Gets Cold Shoulder”, The Wichita Eagle, March 1, 1961: 3A].
Three candidates even took out ads in the paper denying that they were associated with the Birchers. Fred Linde and W. H. Kolins’ ad stated: “WE ARE NOT AND WE HAVE NEVER BEEN MEMBERS OF THE JOHN BIRCH SOC. WE ARE NOT ENDORSED BY THEM, NOR ARE WE IN SYMPATHY WITH THEM.” [“A Joint Statement”, The Wichita Eagle, March 13, 1961].
By November of 1961, when Robert Love agreed to a debate in the University Commons Auditorium with Dr. Jack Robertson, assistant professor of economics at the University of Wichita, the show was almost over. From the account of one attending the debate, Robertson devastated Love’s position, and the audience applauded him enthusiastically for it. [Conversation between Mel Schroeder and Lee Streiff, January 21, 2000].
There was one last gasp of the anti-Communists, however. In December of 1961, they were able to influence The Wichita Symphony Society into not bringing a Russian pianist in to play at a performance. The Wichita Eagle editorial was full of ridicule. It began:
Yes sir! It decided to deny a Soviet musician the chance to subvert Wichitans with Red piano music.
In just two years, the assault of the Birchers was over, and their cause was the stuff of mockery.
“O frightful Bard!”
The February 14, 1966 issue of The Sunflower carried a front page story with the news that Allen Ginsberg would speak at the University on February 21st, under the auspices of the Dialectica Club – the campus philosophy organization. Also on the front page, ironically, were announcements about “Egghead Week” – a week of “intellectual activities” (sponsored by Mortar Board, the senior women’s honor society) – which would start on the 21st of February; and about the tenth annual WSU Fine Arts Festival to be held from April 24th to May 7th. A special guest composer who was a Pulitzer Prize winner and two-time Guggenheim Fellow was to be the highlighted celebrity of the festival, and there was to be a discussion of his book Analysis and the Creative Process.
The theme of Egghead Week was “A Many Splendored Vista”. Among the speakers was to be Dr. William Nelson of the English Department, lecturing on “The Cool Culture”. Two “experimental” films: Mass and Omega Alpha, by one of my former students, Joanie Robertson, were also to be shown. Of the films, the article said:
The theme of “Mass”, which [was] shot entirely in a junk yard, is man’s search for religious meaning in a highly mechanized continually accelerating society. […] A project for a WSU existential class “Omega Alpha” is an attempt to re-create the experience of absurdity–existential angst […] .
Bruce Cutler, “poet-in-residence and author”, was to be the guest speaker at the scholarship breakfast which “climaxed” the week’s activities.
Interestingly, Ginsberg, who was crossing America at the time under a Guggenheim grant and was available, and was a poet and author listed in Who’s Who, was pointedly not invited by the University administration, or even the English Department, to speak to the students anytime during Egghead Week.
In fact, he had had a difficult time even finding a sponsor when he made his willingness to speak known. According to The Sunflower article:
Ginsberg himself supplied another reason why the English Department said it could not invite him: as there was a Spring Festival being planned already, they did not want to “concentrate on anything else”. When asked about that excuse, Merrill agreed that it was true that they “did not want to interfere with the publicity of the Spring Festival.” [“Poet Allen Ginsberg Slated to Speak for Dialectica”, The Sunflower, February 14, 1966: 2]. Of course, more publicity was being generated from the refusal.
Next, Mel Moorhouse, Chairman of the Forum Board – the guest lecture board, was asked why that body could not invite Ginsberg. His reply was that “all of our commitments are [already] made.”
In the midst of this merry-go-round, someone floated the rumor that Ginsberg himself had decided not to speak because no one would pay him to. [“Poet Allen Ginsberg Slated to Speak for Dialectica”, The Sunflower, February 14, 1966: 2]. In all of this, Ginsberg was a model of reasonableness throughout. Of the refusal of the English Department to sponsor him, he dismissed the slight by saying, “there is no point in anyone feeling unhappy about it.” [“Philosophy Club To Sponsor Beat Poet, Allen Ginsberg”, The Sunflower, February 21, 1966: 1].
But the worst was yet to come.
The February 23rd issue of The Sunflower revealed what had gone on behind the scenes before the reading could take place. Roger Irwin, who was a graduate fellow and instructor in the Philosophy Department – and “a personal friend of Ginsberg” – charged that the University administration, in the person of Dean of Liberal Arts Kelley Sowards, had issued a warning to Ginsberg that amounted to a limitation on freedom of speech. [“Instructor Claims Free Speech Violated In Warning To Poet”, The Sunflower, February 23, 1966: 1].
In fact, it appeared that a formal meeting had taken place, attended by Sowards, Lt. Bobby Stout of the vice squad, Ginsberg, and Ginsberg’s lawyers:
Sowards introduced himself as a representative of the University and said he would have to stop the reading if the language went out of the bounds of propriety.
When questioned, Sowards said there was no question of legality or constitutional freedom concerned. According to Dr. Sowards, Ginsberg was allowed to speak on campus only through courtesy extended him by the administration and the administration held the privilege [to] rescind this courtesy. “The last thing we wanted was to have a nationally known figure arrested on campus,” Sowards said. “We wanted to handle it ourselves.” [“Instructor Claims Free Speech Violated In Warning To Poet”, The Sunflower, February 23, 1966: 1].
The implication in Sowards’ remark is that it was the intention of the police to arrest Ginsberg if there was any obscenity, and that the University was merely trying to avoid that possibility. This does not square with what the police themselves had to say about the matter:
The vice squad, when questioned by attorneys early Monday, said they were coming out to the university. Stout said he was under the impression there would be some one at the reading who would decide if things were “out of hand.” These University people would be the ones to sign a complaint for Ginsberg’s arrest if this action was thought necessary. [“Instructor Claims Free Speech Violated In Warning To Poet”, The Sunflower, February 23, 1966: 2].
Thus, the police had no intention themselves of making any judgment or acting on their own initiative. They would act only if “someone” at the University signed a complaint.
The issue had apparently been settled by a compromise between Ginsberg and the University: he would tell the audience before the reading began “that the content might be obscene and anyone who thought they would be offended should leave.” [“Instructor Claims Free Speech Violated In Warning To Poet”, The Sunflower, February 23, 1966: 2]. This brilliant ploy caught the University in a bind: no one who could have signed a complaint – because they were offended – would be there to sign one.
The tactic worked: of the over three-hundred people present at the reading in the Campus Activities Center Ballroom, no one left – and no one signed a complaint. [“Instructor Claims Free Speech Violated In Warning To Poet”, The Sunflower, February 23, 1966: 2].
The rumor about Ginsberg’s demanding payment was also put to rest: Dan Garrity of The Sunflower reported that Ginsberg had confided to him that “My secret plot was to bribe them into letting me read.” Though in an amicable settlement, “[…] the Philosophy department arranged for him to speak at no cost to either party.“ [Garrity, “A Poet’s Pilgrimage…”, The Sunflower, February 23, 1966: 5].
However, a faculty member, Dr. Genova, chided the administration about the matter:
Although Ginsberg explained that he was not offended by the University in not offering to sponsor him on campus nor pay him for his performance, Dr. Genova said it is unfortunate that WSU had no honor to give the poet, like many other universities across the nation. Dr. Genova reported, “Ginsberg was asked to speak on campus by the philosophy club only when it became apparent that the Student Forum Board was not interested in sponsoring him, and that the English department would not support him.”
“Allen came to speak at the University as a favor to Wichitans.” [“Instructor Claims Free Speech Violated In Warning To Poet”, The Sunflower, February 23, 1966: 2].
After it was all over, Dr. Sowards tried to put the best face on the affair, and recoup some of the University’s soiled reputation: “The whole thing worked out nicely – a huge success [… ,]” he said. [“Instructor Claims Free Speech Violated In Warning To Poet”, The Sunflower, February 23, 1966: 1].
During his presentation, Ginsberg was critical of the Mid-Western attitudes he had encountered during his visit. In speaking to Dan Garrity of The Sunflower, he especially zeroed in on how Wichita had treated its poets and artists, citing Michael McClure by name among others. He also told The Sunflower:
The solution says Ginsberg “Kansas must love its own body before it is to be reborn. People must be free to embrace each other to break the spell that hangs over the vortex.” […] The only way to end the brain drain of artists and other free thinkers is to make an end of present politics, invite the wild ones back and give them lots of money and set them loose on the town.
[Garrity, “A Poet’s Pilgrimage…”, The Sunflower, February 23, 1966: 5].
Though more will be said about Ginsberg’s interpretation of the Vortex later, it is interesting to note that in these remarks he alludes to a “spell” that hangs over the Vortex – suggesting that the Vortex itself is not inherently malevolent.
Among the people particularly skewered in “Wichita Vortex Sutra” is Robert Love. [Ginsberg, 1988: 778].
where anxiety rings
the University with millionaire pressure,
lonely crank telephone voices sighing in dread,
[Ginsberg, 1988: 395].
It is not a matter of record where Ginsberg may have heard about the pressure and its source, but Love’s previous attempts to influence the University administration make such an assumption at least likely. Ironically, Love was later to disassociate himself from the John Birch Society – though not, we can assume because of Ginsberg’s influence.
Student reaction to Ginsberg’s visit was mixed. He was certainly applauded by the audience at the reading, and was well received by several faculty members at the University when he spoke to their individual classes at their invitation. Editorial comment in The Sunflower was lukewarm, however, and while admitting that “many of the ideas which were attacked by Ginsberg may well need attacking” the editorialist went on to assert that “he was no pied piper for this campus.” [“Editorial ‘I’s’”, The Sunflower, February 23, 1966: 4].
Several students wrote letters to the paper, and nearly all were pro-Ginsberg, though some were done tongue-in-cheek:
Long live the cocoon! [Sam Ramey, et al., “Readers Speak…”, The Sunflower, February 28, 1966: 2].
This means that, although I talk as if I am for free speech, I am really against having dirty beatnik poets speak in Wichita and run the risk of befouling the (sic) Klear (sic) Kansas mind.
[Travis Skiles, “Readers Speak…”, The Sunflower, March 2, 1966: 4].
Other, longer and more serious letters backing Ginsberg also appeared.
In the conflict with the John Birch Society, faculty members at the University acquitted themselves well – without assistance from the administration. Many faculty members belonged at the time to the Unitarian Church: John Millett, Jim Sours, Martin Reif, Marshall Ruchte, Dick and Betty Welsbacher, Jack Robertson, Charles Statler, Bob Frazer, Paul Gerling, Josh Missal, Jackson Powell, James Ruoff, Salvatore Russo, and Mary Jane Teall, among others. Acting together with the attorneys, public school teachers (who did have administrative support), and other like-minded persons in the congregation, these University people were part of a mutually supportive group that actively opposed the Birchers in a number of ways.
Such was not the case in the Ginsberg situation. With the action largely taking place out of sight of the media, and happening within a week’s time, there was no general recognition of a serious threat to the basic principles of academic freedom having taken place until it was all over. In the end it was clear, however, that a critical problem of a failure of professional ethics had been exposed in the University community.
This Section first appeared in a slightly different form as Chapter 7 of The Vortex Souvenir Book, by Lee Streiff, © 2000.
“Birch Society’s Aims, Functions Examined”, The Wichita Eagle, October 27, 1960.
“‘Communism on Map’ Not Whole Story”, The Wichita Sunday Eagle, October 23, 1960.
“Editorial ‘I’s’”, The Sunflower, February 23, 1966.
“Egghead Week Opens On Campus Feb. 21”, The Sunflower, February 14, 1966.
“Film Viewed As Propaganda”, The Wichita Eagle and Beacon, October 28, 1960.
Garrity, Dan. “A Poet’s Pilgrimage…”, The Sunflower, February 23, 1966.
Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems 1947-1980, © Harper & Row, New York, 1984.
“Instructor Claims Free Speech Violated In Warning To Poet”, The Sunflower, February 23, 1966.
James, Betty. “Readers Speak…”, The Sunflower, February 28, 1966.
“John Birch Society Gets Cold Shoulder”, The Wichita Eagle, March 1, 1961.
Linde, Fred and Kolins, W. H. “A Joint Statement”, The Wichita Eagle, March 13, 1961.
Love, Robert. “Public Forum”, The Wichita Eagle, January 18, 1961.
Lowe, Mrs. Robert H. “Public Forum”, The Wichita Eagle, October 15, 1960.
Myers, Mrs. Kenneth. “Public Forum”, The Wichita Eagle, November 2, 1959.
“Philosophy Club To Sponsor Beat Poet, Allen Ginsberg”, The Sunflower, February 21, 1966.
“Poet Allen Ginsberg Slated to Speak for Dialectica”, The Sunflower, February 14, 1966.
Ramey, Sam, et al. “Readers Speak…”, The Sunflower, February 28, 1966.
Robertson, Joanie. Mass (1964) and Omega Alpha (1966), films.
Schroeder, Mel. (Interview with Lee Streiff, January 21, 2000).
Skiles, Travis. “Readers Speak…”, The Sunflower, March 2, 1966.
Vannerson, Frank L. “Public Forum”, The Wichita Eagle, October 13, 1960.
Welch, Robert. The Blue Book of THE JOHN BIRCH SOCIETY, 1959.
“Wichita Is Saved Again!”, The Wichita Eagle, January 16, 1962.