Letters revealing the enduring friendship of two “beat chicks.”
In 1990, poet, children’s book author, and memoirist Jones (Writing/New School; Doing Seventy, 2007, etc.) published How I Became Hettie Jones, which recalled “sixties bohemia” and her marriage to poet and activist LeRoi Jones (later, Amiri Baraka) and featured figures such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Joyce Johnson. “Scholars have tended to heroicize ‘beat chicks’ who lived through that scene and got out alive,” she writes; her memoir was both testimony and corrective. Urged by friends to continue her story, Jones has chosen to select from 40 years of correspondence with Helene Dorn (1927-2004), an artist and ex-wife of poet Ed Dorn. Like poems, Jones says, letters “offer voices.” However, readers unfamiliar with the writers would be well-served by contextualizing information, including a more detailed introduction to the volume and to each of the 17 chapters. Jones does provide some narrative linking the letters but not enough to round out a coherent story of each woman’s life. What does emerge is an inkling of the friendship, understanding, and empathy between the two women who saw themselves as “Babes in Boyland.” Both were raising their children alone, and both struggled financially and artistically. Jones, living in New York, had more opportunities: she taught writing, gave readings, and made publishing connections. Dorn, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, seems more isolated. Some letters are just a few lines, some appear to be excerpted, and some were sent as emails, a challenging medium, especially for Dorn. The letters include mundane events such as car and computer trouble; opinions about books, movies, and art shows; gossip; commiseration about illness, housing troubles, and the challenges of aging; and, occasionally, politics. In 1988, for example, to support Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, Jones vowed to buy no more grapes. In 1989, she describes her experience at a pro-choice rally in Washington. Both were overcome with dismay after 9/11.
A fertile trove that needs a stronger framework.