Jonathan Williams (poet, publisher, raconteur, and eclectic collector of kindred spirits) has produced this inventory of poets, painters, writers, and artists whose only commonality is their unequivocal distinction. And what a world it is, populated by his friends, some alive and some dead, people he knew, and people he wished he had known; famous people (Ezra Pound, Henry Miller, Paul Strand, Buckminster Fuller, William Carlos Williams), people who should be famous but aren’t (Basil Bunting, Frederick Sommer, Aaron Siskind, Wendell Berry, Charles Olson, James Laughlin), and the gravestones of some who were once famous, are now interred, and whose memories he’d have us honor (H.P. Lovecraft, Wallace Stevens, Erik Satie, James Thurber). Musicians, writers, composers, and geniuses of Outsider Art (Howard Finster, Elijah Pierce, Keith Smith) are all here, alive and kicking, in Williams’s heaven of prodigies.
This self-contained galaxy, this “home-made world” of extraordinary personalities captured on film and then decoded in extended captions, presents people of genuine accomplishment who are never going to be feted in the pages of People or interviewed on Oprah. As Davenport writes, “He is not a journalist looking for feature stories, nor a critic with an agenda, nor a lion hunter collecting names to drop. A cultural anthropologist? I see parallels with Ruskin finding forgotten painters of the Trecento.” Here is the flip side of America, where fame seldom intersects or coexists with true talent, and where the truly gifted often inhabit their own domains, hermetic, unseen, unheralded, but always present in the creative flux of our cultural landscape.