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.”
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.”)
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 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