James Byron Dean - 2/8/31 - 9/30/55
On September 30th, 1955, the popular young screen actor James Dean was driving his new Porsche 550 Spyder convertible towards a racing event in Salinas, California. Using newly acquired earnings from his two movie roles in Rebel Without a Cause, and East of Eden, he'd been buying fancy racing cars and competing in amateur and professional racing events, with some success. Racing had become a passion for him. Proceeding in stages towards Salinas, he was speeding at 85 mph, and had already received one speeding citation earlier that day, when, trying to beat another oncoming car to a cross-over intersection, his vehicle impacted a 1950 Ford Tudor coupe head-on, in a horrific crash.
Dean sustained serious injuries, and was pronounced dead on arrival at a hospital in Paso Robles early that evening.
For those too young to remember him, James Dean [2/8/31 - 9/30/55], had taken Hollywood almost by storm in the 1950's. In his first movie role, as Cal in East of Eden [Warner Brothers], directed by Elia Kazan, he blossomed overnight into a major star in the current "Actor's Studio" "Marlon Brando" mold, with a kind of sullen, smoldering eccentric persona that captured perfectly the confused, rebellious, over-emotional, adolescent spirit of early Beat Era youth. This role was followed closely by Rebel Without a Cause [Warner Brothers, 1955], in which Dean played the classic mixed up teen-ager, a gang-member with a death-wish and a flashy fragile sexiness that drove fans wild: Drag-racing, switchblades, sex, booze, delinquency--all the vital ingredients of the underground frustration with the conservative middle-class world of 1950's America. And in his third major role, and his last, he reprised this persona one more time in Giant [Warner Brothers, 1956, released after Dean's death], playing a poor white neighbor of a big Texas ranch family who strikes it rich and rises to prominence as a super-rich, emotionally wounded, but morally debased, oil baron.
In his private life, Dean followed a parallel path. He liked to be on the edge, and automobile racing was the perfect vehicle for it. Reports concerning his love-life are contradictory, and clouded, but it seems probable that he was mildly bi-sexual, and enjoyed relationships with both women and men. Fatally handsome, and with a charming combination of flirtatious sexiness, and feinting vulnerability, he had his pick of partners. Audiences projected every kind of obsessive regard upon him. If he had not died when he did, there seemed almost no limit to the dimensions his career might have attained.
But like the fallen heroes of history and literature, Dean's early death made him into a classic romantic idol, in the Keats/Shelley mode, and in this sense, the perfect subject for elegy and memorial. His funeral on October 8th, 1955 in Fairmount, Indiana, was attended by more than 3000 mourners. America had lost one of its true media heroes, and a movie-star legend of major proportions was born.
In our media-obsessed contemporary milieu, it may be difficult to realize how unusual and novel the idea of turning a movie matinee idol into poetic subject matter would have been in 1955. The movie promotion system was already well into high-gear in the 1920's, and it only grew bigger over the succeeding decades. But famous figures from popular music, the cinema or the theatre weren't commonly regarded as "serious" personifications in highbrow art forms like opera, poetry or drama.
In the early 1950's, the original New York School Poets--John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest--who of course weren't known as that then, and certainly didn't think of themselves as a "movement" at the time--were experimenting with form, and seeking new strategies to express the meaning of their time. As Gay writers in the immediate post-war period, O'Hara, Ashbery and Schuyler (not to speak of Edward Field, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Goodman, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, John Wieners, Jonathan Williams, and James Merrill, to name a handful), they were seeking to express themselves using either older traditional structures and themes, or by adapting exotic European models, or simply by trying something new.
O'Hara, a lyricist, a social creature, voluble and daring, ventured to declare his homosexual nature directly through his poetry. Trained in traditional literary styles and models (he won the Hopwood Award at the University of Michigan as a graduate student in the M.A. Program, before moving to New York in 1951), he was attracted to the revolutionary writings of the French Surrealists (as well as to Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Reverdy), the (early Soviet) Russians (especially Mayakovsky), and was strongly influenced as well by the new painting of the period (Abstract Expressionism etc.). Also, particularly, he was moved by cinema, and was keenly aware of the relationship between the cultural counter-currents, and the the ways that movies might mirror or inspire changes in the zeitgeist. As a progenitor of a rising Gay consciousness, he was acutely sensitive to the subtle revelations of behavior and coded cues that might be revealed on the silver screen. Gays had traditionally enjoyed the ironic privilege of identifying with both the male and female protagonists, with the femme fatale stereotype who draws men to her sexuality like a moth to the flame, as well as the male heart-throb who functions in both genders/dimensions at once. In the case of James Dean, the sexual ambiguity of his "underground" reputation did nothing to discourage this kind of fantasy-projection.
During 1955, O'Hara had spent a good deal of mental energy meditating about the persona Dean portrayed in East of Eden. It wasn't simply that Dean was gorgeously endowed with a photogenic face, and a rustic, lyrical (almost balletic) physical grace; O'Hara saw aspects of his own emotional development in Cal's (Dean's) intuition of his own difference, a metaphor for O'Hara's homosexual awakening, with associated guilt and confusion. O'Hara saw in the narrative a psycho-drama of his own emotional history, and when Dean was killed, he responded predictably by attempting to address the tragedy as a personal loss--not merely as a private projection, but as an allegory for society's condemnation of homosexuality, with Dean as the symbolic martyr to the cause of sexual emancipation.
It didn't matter that Dean mightn't have been a full-fledged homosexual; what mattered was how O'Hara felt about him. Inspired by the death, O'Hara re-read Milton's Lycidas, Tennyson's In Memoriam, and Shelley's Mourn not for Adonais, as warm-ups for a serious attempt at an elegy on the late young actor's demise.
The poem O'Hara eventually completed has entered the canon of post-war American verse as an artifact in its own right. O'Hara's own tragic and bizarre death--run over by a dune buggy on the beach at night [7/24-5/66]--enhances the poem's interest, in retrospect--an ironic parallel.
For James Dean
Welcome me, if you will,
as the ambassador of a hatred
who knows its cause
and does not envy you your whim
of ending him.
For a young actor I am begging
peace, gods. Alone
in the empty streets of New York
I am its dirty feet and head
and he is dead.
He has banged into your wall
of air, your hubris, racing
towards your heights and you
have cut him from your table
which is built, how unfairly
for us! not on trees, but on clouds.
I speak as one whose filth
is like his own, of pride
and speed and your terrible
example nearer than the siren's speech,
a spirit eager for the punishment
which is your only recognition.
Peace! to be true to a city
of rats and to love the envy
of the dreary, smudged mouthers
of an arcane dejection
smoldering quietly in the perception
of hopelessness and scandal
at unnatural vigor. Their dreams
are their own, as are the toilets
of a great railway terminal
and the sequins of a very small,
very fat eyelid.
I take this
for myself, and you take up
the thread of my life between your teeth,
tin thread and tarnished with abuse,
you still shall hear
as long as the beast in me maintains
its taciturn power to close my lids
in tears, and my loins move yet
in the ennobling pursuit of all the worlds
you have left me alone in, and would be
the dolorous distraction from,
while you summon your army of anguishes
which is a million hooting blood vessels
on the eyes and in the ears
at the instant before death.
the menials who surrounded him critically,
langorously waiting for a
final impertinence to rebel
and enslave him, starlets and other
glittering things in the hog-wallow,
lunging mireward in their inane
moth-like adoration of niggardly
cares and stagnant respects
paid themselves, you spared,
as a hospital preserves its orderlies.
Are these your latter-day saints,
these unctuous starers, muscular
somnambulists, these stages for which
no word's been written hollow
enough, these exhibitionists in
well-veiled booths, these navel-suckers?
Is it true that you high ones, celebrated
among amorous flies, hated the
prodigy and invention of his nerves?
To withhold your light
from painstaking paths!
should be difficult, as his was hard.
Nostrils of pain down avenues
of luminous spit-globes breathe in
the fragrance of his innocent flesh
like smoke, the temporary lift,
the post-cancer excitement
of vile manners and veal-thin lips,
obscure in the carelessness of your scissors.
Men cry from the grave while they still live
and now I am this dead man's voice,
stammering, a little in the earth.
I take up
the nourishment of his pale green eyes,
out of which I shall prevent
flowers from growing, your flowers.
--March 1956 Poetry Magazine
In searching for metaphors for his sardonic, smoldering indignation against the generalized prejudice of the cultural machines of taste and permitted behaviors, O'Hara extemporizes a collective persecution originating in a kind of Hollywood of the gods--all the machinery of production-executives, publicity departments, gossip columnists, fellow aspirants and groupies and parasites to fame and talent--and imagines that he is "this dead man's voice" from the grave ("a little in the earth"), who will "prevent flowers from growing, [their] flowers."
As a plateau in the historical progression of literary archetypes, it's probably among the very earliest examples of the use of a modern public media figure. One might have imagined that George Gershwyn, or Dylan Thomas, or some similarly early casualty could have inspired some of the same kind of classical martyrdom. But Dean wasn't just a talented actor, he represented the struggle of a whole society to come to terms with some of its biggest demons. The exploitation and debasement of talent, the relentless inquisitiveness into privacy, the corruption of innocence, the ephemeral (and empty) fruits of success. Youth identified with him as an ambassador of its own adolescent frustrations and thwarted desires.
The poem's openly fatalistic, petulant, depressed mood struck a new chord in O'Hara's poetry, one which would come to seem familiar in his work as it developed over the next decade. Its impassioned rhetorical flourishes ("the ambassador of a hatred" "I speak as one whose filth is like his own" "lunging mireward in their inane moth-like adoration of niggardly cares and stagnant respects paid themselves"), on the precarious edge of sense, are just barely admissible as serious writing. They owe more to the work of someone like Neruda, for instance, than they do to any American literary examples (except, perhaps, a work like William Carlos Williams's Kora in Hell). Bringing in a real pop cultural icon allowed O'Hara to perform a kind of exhibitionism which was a characteristic of his nature, drawing friends and acquaintances and figures from the New York art and music scene into the sphere of his public utterances. Like Ginsberg's Kaddish (for his mother Naomi), For James Dean strives for rhetorical extremities which are well beyond the bounds of "good taste" and proper practice. "Nostrils of pain down avenues of luminous spit-globes" evokes a kind of adolescent futility, of self-pity and impotent dejection, wallowing in a sort of fashionable, camp melancholy.
But it also makes for an effective poetry. What is especially effecting is the combination of high address ("I speak as one" "you still shall hear" "I take up the nourishment") with the over-the-top imagery ("the sequins of a small, very fat eyelid" "a million hooting blood vessels" "muscular somnambulists"), which produces a quality of barely controlled distress, or stress-induced nighmare-visions. But O'Hara's intelligence never permits the complete loss of control, and the poem ends on a determined, albeit mordant note: "I shall prevent flowers from growing, your flowers."
If any teenager could have expressed the suppressed projection of the "cool" empathy, of the tragic "hip" shape Dean's life and romantic death embodied for them, it might have signified something of what O'Hara's poem conveys. Its level of ambiguity is such as to partially conceal the true nature of its point. Dean was among the earliest figures of the Teen Idol craze, not a rock music or torch singing musician, but an enormously charming but "immature" actor, just feeling his way in a difficult profession. O'Hara, too, was in many ways a struggling young writer, finding his way to the means to express what was, for him, his artistic eidelon.