October 21, 2013

Review: The Cool School: Writing from America's Hip Underground

The Cool School Edited by Glenn O'Brien
Available now from Library of America
Review copy

When THE COOL SCHOOL was pitched to me, I feel in love with the concept.  A collection of writing by the original hipsters, about what it meant to be cool.  And not just the Beat poets, but jazz men and comedians and more, including people outside the movement who criticized it.  The pieces range from prose fiction to poetry to nonfiction, from excerpts to complete works.

I think Glenn O'Brien did a decent job of assembling a plurality of voices.  Names reoccur between pieces, giving a real sense of how the scene fit together and how people from different groups knew and thought of each other.  Figures like Bird, Charlie Parker, loom large as their trailblazing influence is taken in and reflected.  There are several black writers, and author there is no editorializing aside from short introductions to each piece, it is easy to see some of the tension around white men copying black slang, music, and attitudes.

There are several women included in the anthology, although not Carolyn Cassady, possible the best known female Beat generation writer.  The blurb mentions the "sexually excluded," but they were less in the anthology than I expected.  Allen Ginsberg is the most notable exception there.  (I triple checked the table of contents just to be sure I hadn't missed a piece from him.)

The writing is arranged by chronology, I believe, which works fairly well.  It allows for a clear progression of ideas.  Sometimes I wished for another arrangement, as Del Close's piece on vocabulary would've been great at the beginning.  I could read large chunks of THE COOL SCHOOL at once, but did prefer to take breaks.  While there are a great many voices on display, the anthology's raison d'ĂȘtre is pieces that explore the scene.  It takes awhile for any sameness to set in, but it does if one tries to devour the whole anthology at once.

I enjoyed THE COOL SCHOOL.  I am always in favor of primary sources, and I liked the range presented here, even if I did think the net could be cast even wider.  I was familiar with some of the writers, like Miles Davis, Frank O'Hara, and Lenny Bruce, but there are also several where I'll have to seek out more of their work.  THE COOL SCHOOL is a great introduction to a generation, and a nice reminder that the fifties weren't all poodle school and milkshakes.  There were people shaking things up and making their voices heard.


  1. Was I mentioned..because I am definitely cool, hip and caffeinated! :snort: This sounds like a wonderful collection, and I like that you were able to read large chunks at a time, although this is the type of book I usually read a chapter or story at a time.

    1. XD. Yeah, I was surprised how much I could read at a time.


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