Word On The Street: Poets On Brooks Brothers

It is remarkable how many references to Brooks Brothers appear in discussions of mid-century American poetry, most of them critical. As the discipline of creative writing grew, more poets found work in the academy. Critics of this new system and the poetry it produced liked to describe these poet-professors as dressed in Brooks Brothers, a mainstay of md-century campus style, in order to cast them as complacent versifiers, conformists, and pedants. “The poet as the sentimental professional rebel had vanished,” Horace Gregory noted in 1955. “[I]n his place was the young instructor of English in privately endowed colleges wearing a Brooks Brothers uniform.” More recently, the scholar Jed Rasula recalled “the Brooks Brothers poet chalking out metrical patterns to classes of buzz-cut Ivy Leaguers,” who “personified authority and control.”    

Kenneth Rexroth

None of these slights, though, rose to the fury of Kenneth Rexroth’s elegy, “Thou Shalt Not Kill: A Memorial for Dylan Thomas.” Rexroth’s target was broader than the poet-professors (though, as we will soon see, he also disliked them). Enraged by Thomas’s death, Rexroth wildly castigated those he held responsible for it, including establishment figures from Henry Luce (“Henry Luce killed him with a telegram to the Pope”) to T.S. Eliot (“Old Possum sprinkled him with a tea ball”). Building in vehemence, the poem ends with curses and accusations:

You killed him! You killed him.

In your God damned Brooks Brothers suit, 

You son of a bitch.

The last line names the suit the murderer wears, but not the murderer himself. The beat poet and co-founder of the City Lights Booksellers and Publishers Lawrence Ferlinghetti explained Rexroth’s curious strategy. Ferlinghetti called the poem:

[a] vicious indictment of consumer culture: “You killed him, in your God damned Brooks Brothers suit.” Of course, Dylan killed himself with liquor, but symbolically Rexroth nailed the inhuman forces and greed in American society.

In sum, “the God dammed Brooks Brothers suit” symbolized all that Rexroth thought was wrong with American culture circa 1953. 

When Rexroth performed the elegy, one less-than-impressed audience member cheekily announced his plan to send the poet the gift of a Brooks Brothers suit. Others were more appreciative. Ferlinghetti named Rexroth as the beat poets’ “paterfamilias” and Allen Ginsburg credited “Thou Shalt Not Kill: A Memorial for Dylan Thomas” as “the catalyst for Howl.” Tellingly, Rexroth also invoked Brooks Brothers when he gave Ginsberg some advice on another poem that Ginsberg had shared with him, a precursor to Howl, “It still sounds like you’re wearing Columbia University Brooks Brothers ties . . .  You know, it’s too formal.”  (Elsewhere Rexroth more harshly condemned “Brooks Brothers Boys who got an overdose of T. S. Eliot at some Ivy League fog factory.”)

Horace Gregory

The clothes that the Beat writers wore undercut this association of Brooks Brothers with artistic timidity and irrelevance. William S. Burroughs [top image], the strangest and most disturbing writer of the group, dressed the most conservatively. An interviewer described the impression that Burroughs made, “He wore a gray lightweight Brooks Brothers suit with a vest, a blue-striped shirt from Gibraltar cut in the English style, and a deep-blue tie with small white polka dots. . . He might have been a senior partner in a private bank, charting the course of huge but anonymous fortunes. A friend of the interviewer, spotting Burroughs across the lobby, thought he was a British diplomat.” In short, that Brooks Brothers suit made Burroughs, a thin man with a piercing look, hard to place. 

Allen Ginsburg

Laurence Ferlinghetti

Allen Ginsberg offers a more complicated example. The first image of Ginsberg that comes to mind is the famous 1960s counterculture figure dressed in dungarees, with a wild beard, long balding hair, and thick glasses. Yet Ginsberg was also photographed during the 1960s in a white oxford-cloth buttondown, knit tie, and dark jacket. In the 1980s, Ginsberg adjusted his style. As he described it, he decided to “try some more elegant clothes. I went to the Salvation Army and bought all sorts of Brooks Brothers suits and pretty soon was all dressed up like a professor. And people treated me nicely befitting my age.”  In a letter to fellow poet Philip Whalen, Ginsberg proudly elaborated on the virtues of these Brooks Brothers suits, “I have this immense Salvation wardrobe accumulated here in Boulder over 10 years—delightful Brooks Brothers indestructible suits, myriad regimental striped ties, ill fitting and also neat-hung blue and black blazers with silver buttons.” Photos also show him wearing a blue blazer, gray slacks, a blue oxford-cloth button down, and a conservative red and blue striped repp tie, all of which fit the poet fairly well. Perhaps Ginsberg was lucky enough to find that outfit at Salvation Army or perhaps he didn’t care to admit he bought it elsewhere. 

In 1958 the poet and critic Delmore Schwartz rejected the beat poets’ “attack on the Man in the Brooks Brothers suit” as “a form of shadow boxing.” “His conformism is limited to the office day and business hours: in private life—and at heart—he is as Bohemian as anyone else,” Schwartz claimed. Schwartz overstated the case; the beat writers rebelled against America’s sexual, political, spiritual, and pharmaceutical mores to a degree few of their contemporaries approached. Yet it is also true that rebellion and conformity cannot easily be untangled from each other. 

“Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work,” Flaubert advised his mistress. Flaubert’s recommendation applies to clothes. Burroughs wrote hallucinogenic, cut-up novels while wearing suits that made observers mistake him for a banker or a British diplomat. Ginsberg composed scandalous poems while dressed like the professors he mocked as “ghostly Academics in Limbo screeching about form.” To see Burroughs and Ginsberg attired in “delightful Brooks Brothers indestructible suits” is to appreciate the impressive versatility of those clothes, undeniably traditional yet attractive to these iconoclasts. Ginsberg and Burroughs hardly seemed less themselves when wearing them. Those Brooks Brothers suits and how they wore expressed their personalities: their contradictions and eccentricities, their refusal to live, write, and dress as others expected. — DAVID CAPLAN

David Caplan is the Charles M. Weis Professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University

15 Comments on "Word On The Street: Poets On Brooks Brothers"

  1. Flaubert’s adage about being “regular and orderly in your life” is a quote that I referenced in discussing the duality of appearance and reality with the erudite Mr. Chensvold on this forum.

    Thank you so much Professor Caplan for giving sartorial style the respect it deserves. In academia, any discussion of clothing, style, or fashion is considered trivial, trifling, and non-germane to themes in literature or art history. Men’s style is the red-headed step-child of fashion.

  2. Trevor Jones | November 20, 2020 at 9:49 am |

    Fascinating examination. Really liked the addition of Flaubert’s quote. He has so many beautiful ones to pick from, but this is surely towards the top of the heap. I think it’s funny the original hipsters thought of Ivy as a corporate and Establishment, and modern hipsters might look at it as the uniform of “real” poets. Tides turn — but we knew that already, thanks to the poetry, of course.

  3. Charlottesville | November 20, 2020 at 11:24 am |

    Dr. Caplan – Thank you for another well-researched and well-written post. Quite a treat on this cool Friday morning.

    It is interesting that Ginsberg was drawn to much the same attributes that drew many of us to Brooks Brothers back when it was still an Ivy bastion: delightful, indestructible suits and regimental striped ties. The observation that people once found the clothes respectable is not entirely out of place today either. I am regularly complemented on the sort of outfit Ginsberg describes even in this age of fleece vests and untucked shirts that have never seen an iron, but the compliments don’t usually come from colleagues who are more likely to smile and make a good-natured joke.

    I wonder whether there is any chance that academics, wanting to rebel against the conformity of perpetual Casual Fridays, may take up tweeds and ties again. Probably too much to hope for, but one can dream.

  4. “Men’s style is the red-headed step-child of fashion.”
    How terribly appropriate.

  5. William S. Burroughs was the only one of these men I ever say or said hello to. I the 1980s in Lawrence, Kansas one could see Burroughs walking down Massachusetts Street or in a coffee shop. He usually dressed well although crumpled. Occasionally he wore dungarees, workboots and field jacket, not weird, he had a reputation for shooting and guns. He did seem to have a thing for sweater vests.

  6. Vern Trotter | November 20, 2020 at 9:25 pm |

    William S.Burroughs came from a quite wealthy family in St. Louis. His grandfather, an inventor, started the Burroughs Adding Machine Co. which became the Burroughs Corporation. He sold the company for full market value in 1929 just before the stock market crashed. The family lived in wealth ever after. William S., the poet, graduated from Harvard in 1936 and never had to work for a living. He wore Brooks all his life. Tragedy hit when ,while drunk, he was playing William Tell and attempted to shoot a drink from her head with a pistol. Killed on the spot. Likely because of family wealth he served no jail time.


    Being “Regular and ordered in your life,” was used by Samuel Pepys in his diary to record his bowel movements also, I believe.

  7. Vern Trotter | November 20, 2020 at 9:31 pm |

    Shot and killed his wife.

  8. Beat literature and poetry is mostly awful. Free form, scribbled, and unedited. But because of the accompanying style, including flannel shirts and beards and work boots and dungarees, and the mood of the times, it fit in… and was largely regarded by the cool crowd as a bit of genius.

    I would say they were trying to summon the ghost of Whitman, but that would be generous…and inaccurate

    I’ll take Yeats, Wallace Stevens, and T.S. Eliot any day. And Dickinson and Frost, of course.

  9. I’ll take Yeats and T.S. Eliot for sure. The Beats were really not that significant.

  10. I miss writing poetry. I published a few in my mid-twenties, including in a glossy newsstand magazine called Poet, back when such a thing was feasible. Have been thinking about trying it again. In fact, I think I shared something here a year or two ago; perhaps it was National Poetry Day or something.

  11. S.E.:

    Call me a “pedantic contrarian” but the Beat poets (especially Ferlinghetti) were the most cool, original, creative, Bohemian style icons in the history of literature.

    “Free form, scribbled, and unedited” is a description that could be applied to jazz or an Expressionist Basquiat painting. The world would have been much sadder if there had never been a Dizzy Gillespie or Jean-Michel Basquiat.

  12. @Mitchell

    I get your point and agree that they contributed to a the overall vibe of that moment– the “Cool” thing especially. As a cultural force, they were profoundly influential–no doubt about it.

    It’s interesting — the American version(s) of Cool. It seems there are entire portions of this country that remain oblivious to the energy of Cool (it’s a likely unfair but safe guess large portions of the rural Midwest fall under this category). We know when we see it, and it’s likely that people who were never regarded as Cool (as younger people) resent the hell out of it–and seek to downplay, degrade, or destroy it.

    There isn’t a universe where Trump could be considered Cool. From his hair to his suits to his awkward mannerisms to his defensiveness to his professional persona, he may be one of the more UN-Cool presidents we’ve ever seen. Whereas Obama, from the self-possessed compusure (“calm, cool collectedness”) to the quick wit to the easy flow of his walk, was probably the Coolest president since JFK. And let’s not pretend we don’t know what we’re talking about. Of course we do.

    Most American haven’t a clue about policy. They cast votes largely based upon personality/temperament/persona. Which means a good case can be made that the rubes and yokels, oblivious to Cool, sometimes win out. Sometimes they don’t.

    Most American citizens I know aren’t Cool and aren’t concerned with Coolness. They don’t come by it naturally. But this doesn’t mean they don’t envy it–or resent people who naturally possess it.

    I would say that it’s when Ivy re-claims Cool (note the old Norman Hilton ads– perfection) that it’ll enjoy a resurrection. But I know better. Too many Americans are UN (even ANTI) Cool for Ivy (as a genuinely Cool thing) to make a strong comeback.

  13. All this said, the Cool may take heart.
    Don’t think you’re not noticed for your Coolness — you most certainly are.

    So, put on your old Norman Hilton “country jacket” and maybe sockless Alden tassel mocs…walk out on your front porch, tune into some Bill Evans, light a pipe, and pour yourself a glass of good Scotch.

    The masses who walk by, pasty and sweat-panted, will absolutely, definitely notice.
    But they may also resent the hell of you– hold you in contempt.

  14. @S.E.:

    Hear, hear; well said!

    To borrow a phrase from Old School Tie, “We Are Old Men Who Are Dressed Like Fashion Gods”.


  15. Old School Tie | November 21, 2020 at 2:34 pm |

    Thank you for the citation. Perhaps we ought to update to something along the lines of “We Are Old Men Who Are Dressed Like Fashion Demagogues”. In terms of “cool” presidential acts, I think nothing can touch “…now watch this drive”, no matter how ill-timed it happened to be. Nothing.

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