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Michael Rumaker Biography

Michael Rumaker comments:

Nationality: American. Born: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1932. Education: Rider College, Trenton, New Jersey; Black Mountain College, North Carolina, graduated 1955; Columbia University, New York, M.F.A. 1970. Career: Visiting writer-in-residence, State University of New York, Buffalo, 1967; Lecturer in Creative Writing, New School for Social Research, New York, 1967-71; writer-in-residence and Lecturer, City College of New York, 1969-71, 1985. Awards: Dell Publishing Foundation award, 1970. Agent: Harold Ober Associates, 425 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10017.



The Butterfly. New York, Scribner, 1962; London, Macdonald, 1968.

A Day and a Night at the Baths. Bolinas, California, Grey Fox Press, 1979; published in German as Ein Tag und eine Nacht in der Sauna. Berlin, Verlag rosa Winkel, 1995.

My First Satyrnalia. San Francisco, Grey Fox Press, 1981.

To Kill a Cardinal. Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Mann Kaye, 1992.

Pagan Days. Nyack, New York, Circumstantial Productions Publishing, 1999.

Short Stories

The Bar. San Francisco, Four Seasons, 1964.

Exit 3 and Other Stories. London, Penguin, 1966; as Gringos and Other Stories, New York, Grove Press, 1967; as Gringos and Other Stories: A New Edition, Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Mann Kaye, 1991.


Schwul (Queers), translated by Wylf Teichmann and Dirk Mülder. Frankfurt, März, 1970.


Prose 1, with Ed Dorn and Warren Tallman. San Francisco, FourSeasons, 1964.

Robert Duncan in San Francisco. San Francisco, Grey Fox Press, 1996.



By George F. Butterick, in Athanor 6 (Clarkson, New York), Spring 1975.

Manuscript Collection:

University of Connecticut, Storrs.

Critical Studies:

"The Use of the Unconscious in Writing" by Rumaker, in New American Story edited by Donald Allen and Robert Creeley, New York, Grove Press, 1965; article by George F. Butterick, in The Beats edited by Ann Charters, Detroit, Gale, 1983.

Story can be, obliquely, a map of the unconscious, its terrain and peopling. The intense preoccupation with the physical, with the self and with story, sets up an involitional force which is the unconscious, its contents moving parallel with the known contents as the narrative progresses. A rhythm, as car gears meshing, grabbing and jibing, each causing the other to move, to prompt and to yield the substance and power of each—an absolute rhythm of movement, instantaneous, going …

* * *

Michael Rumaker's reputation rests upon an astonishingly small output, and a number of later efforts—among them My First Satyrnalia, To Kill a Cardinal, and Pagan Days—have failed to attract significant critical attention. Yet he demonstrates virtuosity, versatility, and sophistication, all traits which normally suggest the maturity of experience. Rumaker must be counted among postmodernists who deliberately call attention to the artifice of their writing: with these fellow-writers he achieves his effects mostly through style, especially in the brilliantly clear rendering of the world of objects, his created milieu regressing to primal states of being and manifestations of the unconscious. What sets him off from his counterparts is his willingness to work within the apparent constraints of traditional fiction, so that his stories may be mass-read (and perhaps misread) as easily as those of Stephen Crane or Mark Twain.

Rumaker is best within the short story form, particularly when writing of "natural" men in raw settings. His three best stories, "Gringos," "The Pipe," and "The Desert," depict intuitive men—misfits, cast-offs, wanderers—who create temporary "societies" with each other which threaten imminently to explode. They fight, lust, drink, and sometimes kill each other, yet at their most bizarre or violent they remain intensely human, and, for that reason, are interesting, even likeable, though grotesque. In "Gringos" a young American named Jim teams up with a friendly, blustering sailor in a small Mexican town. Jim agrees to share the sailor's room and hospitality; they saunter through the streets, dodge the aggressive prostitutes, drink, turn down a young male prostitute and finally "purchase" a girl (sailor's treat). At the night's end, they are attacked by Mexicans with knives, but they fight them off and return home. Simply as experience, this account is brilliantly realized, but from the start the mutual hostility of the intruding Americans and the impoverished Mexicans, the sink-hole quality of the squalid town, the oppressive atmosphere of cripples, pornography, exploitation, and homosexuality all point to a descent into the hells of our own making. "The Pipe" is even more vividly a landscape of the unconscious, projecting myth and symbol without obtruding upon the bare narrative. Five men wait by the mouth of a huge pipe. A dredgeboat anchored in mid-river will soon blow submerged waste into their midst; these scavengers will then extract the pig-iron and other "valuables" in which they trade for a livelihood. Waiting, they tease and brag, swap stories, talk sex; the idiot-boy Billy amuses his companions with an elaborate re-enactment of finding an infant's legless corpse within the muck. The "blow" comes, the men scramble among tons of oozy waste and Sam and Alex (who had found the dead baby) quarrel over a disputed find. A sudden burst of violence and Sam is dead. Bunk, who was earlier denied a drink from the common bottle because of mouth-sores, brushes the swirling flies from Sam's wound and covers his head with a sack. As the men leave, the circling chicken hawks land near the pipe and strut among the slime toward the body. Two other impressive stories, entirely different in locale and plot, deal with a group of young thieves in Camden, and suggest an incipient novel which never materialized.

In The Butterfly, a twenty-eight-year-old man (emotionally, a seventeen-year-old boy) fearfully re-enters society after two years in a mental institution. Different again from Rumaker's other fiction, the novel's cloistered atmosphere and simple story line hazard the risk on each page of descending from pathos to bathos yet rarely do so. Jim moves from the loving protection of a sensitive doctor to his love affair with a Japanese girl; the love affair fails, but only because Eiko, too, is disturbed and, unlike Jim, is fearful of loving someone. His courage in risking further disappointment is rewarded when he meets Aice and their love develops without mishap. There are perhaps too many significant, detailed dream-sequences, and the novel abounds with symbols—yellow balloons rising to the sun, birds hunted by thoughtless boys, flat rocks skipping across streams—but the sensitivity of the protagonist and the aptness of the imagery sustain a novel as delicate as haiku. Rumaker here avoids dramatizing a subject intrinsically pregnant with drama and, as with his stories, invents the form and language necessary to his ends.

—Frank Campenni

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