“The Only Power You Have is the Power to Discriminate”: Robert Crumb On Writers
Robert Crumb, or “R. Crumb,” as he is widely known, was the founder and undisputed leader of the Underground comix movement, a collection of “rogue” artists whose critical and subversive views often satirized American culture in the 1960s and 1970s.
One of the elements that makes Crumb’s work so compelling is that he knows what he is skewering. The man was, and is, widely read and has a rich background in all of the arts, including, but certainly not limited to, artists, both comic and traditional, and writers, both famous and infamous. Though deeply troubled and eccentric, (to say the least), Crumb’s observations are often interesting and worthy of consideration.
Here is what he has had to say about writers:
“I think he was a good commentator on the late 19th century. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn don’t do that much for me. But his later stuff, he gets more cranky as he gets older. His critique gets more interesting. When I was 15, I read What Is Man? and it made a profound impression on me. It changed my life. It’s all about predestination versus freewill. He was a big believer in predestination. He didn’t think we had any free will. And he puts down religion and everything. I was, at that time, still a Catholic believer when I read that. My brother Charles and I found that book on the floor in an abandoned house along with some other moldy books. So I took it home and read it. Afterward, I told my aunt about it. She was a strong Catholic — the whole family was Catholic — no one ever questioned anything. So I told my aunt about it and she said, ‘Oh, can I read that? That sounds interesting.’ So I lent it to her and about a week later she was over at our house and she said, ‘You know that book you lent me? I burned it.’ [laughs] So that’s my experience with Mark Twain.”
“Yeah, when he was in social situations, he desperately wanted to numb himself with alcohol. He was very uncomfortable around people; a very solitary guy basically. He wanted to get laid and all that but… [starts laughing] The last time I saw Bukowski, he came to this party in San Francisco, it was a poetry reading. And these two women that I knew (Susan and Jane, I actually did a comic strip about them,) they just kind of closed in on Bukowski. One was talking to him in one ear and the other was talking to him in his other ear. He was standing there with a beer bottle in each hand and getting drunk as fast as he could. And the last moment I saw him, they were leading him off to the bedroom. That’s the last time I ever saw Bukowski.”
“I love Burroughs also; a great writer. But his best writing is his straight-ahead prose. He wrote all this crazy fantasy stuff, which I think he was encouraged to do by this other beatnik writer, Brian Gyson, who, for some reason Burroughs admired. Gyson was, I think, a jive-ass, bullshit kind of guy. Burroughs, I think he lacked confidence in his own writing, because when he wrote straight prose it didn’t sell well. When he wrote Junkie, and that came out, it didn’t sell well in the beginning. And then he wrote this other book, Queer, around the same time in the early ’50s and he couldn’t even get that published. That wasn’t published until the 1980s. And Queer is a great book. Both Junkie and Queer are great. They’re both written in this very dry, prose style. And his little thin book called the Yage Letters, which were letters he wrote back to Allen Ginsburg while he was in South America looking for this psychedelic Yage plant. That’s a great book; great stuff. But the problem is, there’s not enough of that, not enough of his straight-ahead prose. He just didn’t think it was any good because he either couldn’t get it published or it didn’t sell. So then he wrote this gimmicky thing called Naked Lunch, which is mostly fantasy stuff and not very interesting to me, and that sold well. He made his reputation on Naked Lunch.
“I never actually read the Diary of Anne Frank, but I visited her house in Amsterdam. It was interesting. On the wall of her attic room where she lived there’s still these pictures of movies stars of that period taped to the wall, movie stars that she was romantic about. That was the thing that touched me the most, that you saw this typical, young girl of the time with these glamour-boy photos taped to the wall in her room. Yet, you know, just because she was Jewish, they took her away. Humans can be cold-blooded that way. And on a large scale. In fact, it’s easier to be collectively cold-blooded. That removes one from individual responsibility. ‘Just doing my job, taking this harmless young girl away, putting her on the train to Auschwitz. It’s just a job, but, hey, it’s a noble cause, cleansing our country of these defective creatures. They have no morality, these Jews. They are a malignant virus in our nation. Our leaders have told us so. We know it to be true.'”
“I’ve never spent much time reading his stuff. But he was an interesting character. My brother Charles used to love his stuff. When he would get drunk, that was one of the authors he would recite. [Overly dramatic reciting voice] ‘I think it was his eye. Yes it was this, he had the eye of a vulture.’ My brother Maxon did an illustrated publication of Edgar Allan Poe. He likes Poe also.”
For more on Crumb’s take on other artists, musicians, politicians, and more, visit the website Crumb on Crumb. Crumb himself appears in a fascinating 1994 documentary about his life. If all you know of Crumb is Fritz the Cat or Mr. Natural, check it out.