Franklin Rosemont (1943-2009)
— Michael Löwy
POET, ARTIST. HISTORIAN, editor, labor militant, musician, amateur ornithologist and surrealist activist Franklin Rosemont, who died on April 12 at age 65 refused the limitations that civilization, especially under capitalism, attempts to imposes on us all. Not a “one dimensional man,” he was inspired by Charles Fourier’s ideas of what humanity could aspire to. He wrote, “All I know defiance and dream, the rest just comes naturally. A ‘Success in Life’? Don’t make me laugh! If you’re looking for me there, you’ll have to look elsewhere.”
Born in Chicago October 2, 1943, Franklin was on his first picket line before he could walk. His father was one of the leaders of the strike against Donnelley’s printing firm and his mother the jazz musician Sally Kaye Rosemont was President of Organized Women Musicians.
Active in the Civil Rights movement, Franklin protested the segregated schooling idea of the Willis Wagons [named for the notorious Benjamin Willis, head of the Board of Education who set up trailers for overcrowded segregated Black schools — ed.] and attended Roosevelt University in the ‘60s. There his mentor, the African American scholar St. Clair Drake, author of Black Metropolis. encouraged him to explore further his own radical ideas and he met John Bracey, Jr., Robert Green, Tor Faegre and others with whom he would form an Anti-Poetry Club and establish Solidarity Bookshop and its IWW journal, the Rebel Worker.
Fascinated by far-reaching ideas of surrealism, in 1966 Franklin and his partner and comrade Penelope traveled to Paris where they met André Breton and participated in the activities of the Parisian surrealist group. This experience became a turning point in their lives. Back home, Franklin and Penelope founded the Chicago Surrealist Group (1966). They were soon joined by Paul Garon who became one of the mainstays of surrealism. Garon brought an encyclopedic knowledge of the blues and a whole-hearted identification with the oppressed whose poetry of revolt in the blues he wrote about extensively.
They were joined by others and the Chicago group became and still is a lively group of revolutionary thinkers, artists, and poets. For Rosemont and his friends, surrealism, the world of the marvelous and of the poetic imagination, was intimately linked to the struggle against the infamy of capitalism and the dream of an emancipated humanity.
Deeply committed to the radical labor movement, Franklin Rosemont joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and in 1964 was one of the leaders of an IWW strike of blueberry pickers in Michigan. In fact, he would be inspired by the Wobbly spirit to the end of his life. He became close friends with several of the IWW’s greatest characters from the post war years: Fred Thompson who was imprisoned for criminal syndicalism and later became the IWW’s chief historian; Carlos Cortez who went to jail rather than serve in the military and later became a renowned woodcut artist; and Jenny Lahti Velsek who attended the IWW’s Work People’s College, played the accordion and never abandoned the cause — “We aren’t going to give the Boss class the satisfaction of our giving up.”
Franklin and Penelope joined the Students for a Democratic Society (1967) and took part in the struggles around the Democratic Convention in 1968 when the “whole world was watching” on TV at least.
Soon Rosemont began a long and fruitful association with Paul Buhle, together they published special surrealist issues of Radical America in the 70s and later issues of Cultural Correspondence. Rosemont’s surrealist magazine Arsenal/Surrealist Subversion, humorous, iconoclastic and lavishly illustrated, began to appear in the 1970s. In 1976 Franklin, Penelope, Robert Green and their friends organized the World Surrealist Exhibition, the largest international exhibition ever, with the participation of 141 contemporary surrealists from 33 countries.
Surrealist Subversion and Charles H. Kerr
Among the many surrealists tracts written by Rosemont:, an early one, Mods, Rockers & the Revolution anticipated the youth rebellion to come. The Anteater’s Umbrella — A Contribution to the Critique of the Ideology of Zoos (1971) was a passionate defense of animals and the wild. One that has been printed and reprinted is his Karl Marx and the Iroquois on the social organization of Native Americans and its enduring importance; and one of his most impressive, written with David Roediger, Three Days that Shook the New World Order attacked miserablism and appealed for the support of the Los Angeles rebellion of 1992.
This tract was translated into French, Italian and Spanish and widely discussed. These tracts and others were collected in Surrealist Subversions, Rants, Writings & Images by the Surrealist Movement in the U.S. (2002) edited by Ron Sakolsky with an extensive introduction that analyzes the contributions of U.S. surrealist thought.
Franklin Rosemont was a militant anti-racist and an enemy of “whiteness.” In 1996 he edited a special issue of Noel Ignatiev’s journal Race Traitor called Surrealism: Revolution Against Whiteness, which documents the Surrealists’ solidarity with the struggle of colonial and oppressed peoples of color from the 1920s through the 1990s. Rosemont with the urging of Douglas Kellner established a Surrealist Revolution Series at University of Texas Press. A book he just finished, coedited with Robin D.G. Kelley, Black, Brown & Beige, Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora, is an magnificent salute to our African heritage.
Rosemont helped to reorganize the world’s oldest radical publisher, Charles H. Kerr Company, originally established the same year as Haymarket, 1886. The Charles H. Kerr Company became, once again, a major publisher of leftist works, from C.L.R. James and Paul Lafargue to Lucy Parsons. Among Franklin’s friends and correspondents were Herbert Marcuse, Studs Terkel, Robin D.G. Kelley, Philip Lamantia, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Dennis Brutus, Nancy Joyce Peters, Guy and Rikki Ducornet, Lenora Carrington and many others.
The books of his friends also made major contributions to U.S. radical thought. He worked closely with fellow-surrealist Paul Garon, author of Blues and the Poetic Spirit, the historian of racism David Roediger, author of Wages of Whiteness, Peter Linebaugh, author of The London Hanged and Paul Buhle who recently developed Rosemont as a cartoon character in the books he edited with Harvey Pekar on the Wobblies and Students for a Democratic Society.
Rosemont’s commitment to revolutionary thinking also inspired his work as an historian. He coedited with David Roediger the volume Haymarket Scrapbook, a beautifully illustrated hommage to the struggle and memory of the Chicago anarchists and revolutionaries hanged in the 1880s. His remarkable book, Joe Hill, The IWW & the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture, recently translated into French and published in Paris by the C.N.T., is a brilliant essay not only on the life and death of Joe Hill but on the subversive culture of the Wobblies.
He also edited, with famous laborlorist Archie Green and other friends, The Big Red Songbook, a magnificent history of the IWW developed through its songs. The IWW was not only a fighting but a singing union of the working class.
Rosemont never separated scholarship from poetry, or poetry from revolution. His books of poetry include Lamps Hurled at the Stunning Algebra of Ants, The Apple of the Automatic Zebra’s Eye and Penelope, and his marvelous fierce and funny drawings, paintings and collages graced surrealist publications and exhibitions internationally.
The Spirit of Radical Freedom
I met Franklin Rosemont by chance in the 1980s and since then we have been in regular contact; I visited him and Penelope in Chicago and we shared our passions and ideas in lively conversations which lasted hours and days. My book in the Surrealist Revolution Series Morning Star, Surrealism, Marxism, Anarchism, Situationism, Utopia was just released this Spring (2009). We had many plans for the future including an anthology of Surrealism and Marxism and another on Surrealism in Latin America.
Rosemont embodied powerfully the spirit of radical freedom, the spirit that (according to Walter Benjamin) Europe had lost after Bakunin but the Surrealists found again. Rosemont stood out as an individual, embodying the maxim that “In a society divided against itself, only those who strive to make themselves anachronistic can solve the riddle of history. Only those who are out of step and know the reason why are truly contemporary. The resolution of such contradictions is what surrealism is all about.”
Franklin’s many friends and comrades in Chicago, in the United States and around the world, are grieving for his loss. In Paris the venerable Maurice Nadeau comments in La Quinzaine Littéraire, “Long Live the Chicago Surrealist Group!” Rosemont will be remembered as an illuminating presence in this dark period that he would label “capitalist christian civilization propped up by technological nightmare.”
I think Franklin would call on us to remember the last words of Joe Hill before being shot by the firing squad, “Don’t mourn, organize !” But also in Rosemont’s own words, let us remember that “Freedom and equality cannot be realized by a revolution hostile to poetry...as authoritarian illusions recede, new emanicipatory models of revolution are emerging. Surrealism itself is an active factor, helping to revolutionize the idea of revolution. What is needed is a revolution that is unafraid of poetry, a revolution determined from the very beginning to lessen the gap between poetry and ‘reality’ — our aim is the total liberation of humankind and that liberation will be in harmony with the natural world.”
ATC 141, July/August 2009