About 20 years ago, I was sitting in the comfortable, cluttered University of Oregon Archives talking with Keith Richard, the university archivist.
I was a freelance writer constantly digging for story ideas, and visits with Keith often turned up good leads. "Somebody should write about those conscientious objectors," he said.
"What conscientious objectors?" I asked.
Keith showed me a set of flat files containing all manner of booklets, broadsides, leaflets, cards, and letters. I picked up a booklet with a plain brown wrapper, and it fell open to a page with a glossy photograph glued to it, showing a snapshot of a man.
He looked like a madman with shoulder-length, matted hair and a thick, dark beard sticking out like an overused whisk broom. He was looking down from the camera with a faraway stare. Not dangerous, perhaps a bit unsettling. He was a poet, and this was his book. His name was Glen Coffield, and I'd never heard of him.
I flipped to the inside jacket leaf, where the publishers wrote their blurb. At the bottom it said, "When asked for a photograph, Mr. Coffield submitted one; we match his audacity by printing it."
The jacket also contained a kind of mission statement: "As for our purpose, it is simple enough. These are the years of destruction. We offer against them the creative act."
It was published in 1944. I didn't even know there were conscientious objectors in World War II. And I had read a lot of history.
I picked up another booklet, this one a stark black and white. It looked strangely familiar, with a large white block pasted onto a black background, the title and author's name inside the white block. I was sure I'd seen it before, but I didn't recognize the author: Kenneth Patchen. And the title I would certainly remember having seen: An Astonished Eye Looks out of the Air.
Then it hit me: it had exactly the same look as Allen Ginsberg's Howl, the iconic solid block design of the City Lights Pocket Poets series. The only problem was that Ginsberg's book was published in 1956, and Patchen's was made in 1945.
What were these things doing in the archives at the University of Oregon? And who were these conscientious objectors who published books?
I had stumbled onto a story that would take 20 years from idea to publication, that would introduce me to writers and artists as good as any more famous names, that would take me to marvelous collections in libraries and private homes, and also force me to rethink my own ideas about war and peace and the role each of them plays in our society.
Some 50,000 religious and political objectors refused to fight in what is often called "The Good War." Many served as medics and noncombatants; others were issued deferments. About 12,000 were assigned to 150 camps across the country, doing work similar to the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s: planting trees, building roads, digging ditches, or restoring agricultural land. In the cities, they worked at mental hospitals or in poor neighborhoods. Some of them were even guinea pigs in medical experiments.
The group whose story I encountered was at Civilian Public Service Camp (CPS) #56, just south of Waldport on the central Oregon Coast. There, about 100 men spent their days planting trees on logged-off hills, crushing rock to shore up muddy roads, and fighting forest fires during the dry summers — 50 hours a week, for no pay beyond room and board.
A core group of 20 or so writers and artists spent their nights writing books, producing plays, and making art and music — with almost no money or resources. They called themselves the Fine Arts at Waldport, and their focus was not so much on the current war, but on what kind of society might be possible when the shooting finally stopped.
"Here on the edge," they wrote, "we can only watch...and bide on the time when what we are, and that for which we have taken this stand, can be tangent again to the world."
They didn't just bide their time. They found an old letterpress printer at a secondhand shop, hauled it back to the camp, and cleaned it up, then printed some of their work and sent it out across the country to other CPS camps and independent bookstores, under the imprint of the Untide Press.
Perhaps most amazing was the amount of sheer talent in this tiny group: poet William Everson, later known as Brother Antoninus, "the Beat Friar," for his involvement with the Beat movement of the 1950s; violinist Broadus Erle, founder of the New Music Quartet; fine arts printer Adrian Wilson, recipient of a MacArthur "Genius Grant"; Kermit Sheets, cofounder of San Francisco's Interplayers theater group; William Eshelman, president of the Scarecrow Press; architect Kemper Nomland Jr.; and internationally renowned sculptor Clayton James.??
Other notables published by or involved with the Fine Arts Group included artist Morris Graves, poet William Stafford, Kenneth Patchen (who, I learned after first discovering his book in the archives, was a fiery antiwar poet), and iconoclastic author Henry Miller.
This is where it gets really interesting. After the war, a number of the camp members went to San Francisco and plugged into the earliest stages of what would eventually come to be known as the San Francisco Renaissance — a concentration of poetry, drama, and music that transformed the city and, to some degree, the country.
Key people came together here: William Everson joined Kenneth Rexroth's "Libertarian Circle" and later became, along with Robert Duncan and Philip Lamantia, a kind of triumvirate symbol for the new poetry giving voice to the new thinking.
Rexroth poured fuel on the fire with his indefatigable promotion. Henry Miller gave a nod to the new generation from his cliff-top cabin at Big Sur.
A Sorbonne graduate named Lawrence Ferlinghetti opened a paperback bookstore in North Beach and named it City Lights. When Patchen handed him a copy of his Astonished Eye book, Ferlinghetti took the cover design and launched his Pocket Poets series with his own Pictures of the Gone World.
The story of what happened after East Coast Beats such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac arrived has been documented by people far more knowledgeable than me. Very little attention has been given, however, to the role conscientious objectors played in preparing the ground for them.
San Francisco had been mixing the ingredients of social change for some years before the Beats arrived; Kerouac and Ginsberg and their friends had been searching for a place where their catalytic energy could take hold. It was that conjunction of opposites, of the East and West Coasts, that sparked the change, Everson said. "They came to San Francisco and found themselves, and it was their finding that sparked us."
One could conceivably make the case that without this spark the 1960s scene in San Francisco would have been very different: that the great gatherings in the Haight-Ashbury district wouldn't have happened without Ken Kesey's "acid tests," in which participants drank Kool-Aid laced with LSD while psychedelic images were projected onto a giant screen and music was played by a band calling themselves the Grateful Dead.
And one could say that Kesey might never have left his home in Oregon for San Francisco if he hadn't read On the Road, and that Kerouac's novel wouldn't have had the reception it did if Ginsberg's Howl hadn't already drawn attention, and that Ginsberg wouldn't have written his poem without the liberating experience of Rexroth's San Francisco Renaissance, and that Rexroth's dream would have gone nowhere without the influx of COs from the West Coast camps after the war, and that their pacifist ideals wouldn't have achieved full articulation without the cohesion and purpose of the Fine Arts at Waldport. But this is only speculation — and can never be anything more.
What we do know is that these things did happen. And it wasn't only in San Francisco. Across the country, throughout the 1960s and beyond, as ideas of peace and nonviolence were manifested in action, the individual choices made by Waldport COs in those dark days of World War II were being repeated by others on a larger scale. From the civil rights and feminist movements to early environmental awareness, education, conscription, incarceration, nutrition, mental and social health, communal living, art, and society — nearly all the great social and cultural changes of the 1960s and '70s were part of life at the Waldport camp in the 1940s.
The largest issue was, of course, peace. Those of us who came of age in the 1960s and '70s recall that famous scene when John Lennon spent a week in a Montreal hotel room, playing music and telling young people through the news cameras to do something nonviolent in protest, such as staying in bed or growing their hair for peace.
Which brings us back to that photo I stumbled upon 20 years ago, the one of Glen Coffield looking like a crazy man. Except he wasn't crazy; he knew exactly what he was doing. Over the course of the past year, during the darkest days of World War II, he had refused to cut his hair or shave. He was doing it for peace.
Steve McQuiddy will present a slideshow at Powell's City of Books on October 23 at 7:30 p.m.