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Faculty Profile: Ron Loewinsohn

by Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
posted July 15, 1998

Ron Loewinsohn was a beat poet in San Francisco in the 1950s. Now he's teaching English N166: The Beat Generation for the eight-week Summer Session that started June 22.

In 1959, before he went to college, Loewinsohn's book of poetry, "Watermelons," was published by Leroi Jones with an introduction by Allen Ginsberg and a prefatory letter by William Carlos Williams.

"I have insights on the beat writers from knowing them and coming of age with them," says Loewinsohn.

"I can show the young students of today why the beats were so revolutionary, why they challenged the establishment and stirred up such antipathy. Values and assumptions have changed so much. Profanity is now quite acceptable, whereas quite limited profanity meant an obscenity trial for Ginsberg.

"I cover how the beats are the same as and different from other American writers, like Whitman," says Loewinsohn. "What do we value in literature? How do we come to a consensus about this? When 'Howl' was first published, it was considered outrageous. Now it's part of mainstream American literature. How does this come about? I want my students to have an intellectual appreciation of beat literature as well as an emotional response to it."

In 1961, while making his living as a printer, Loewinsohn was invited by SF State Extension to teach a poetry workshop. "That experience made me realize that I wanted to teach," he recalls.

Loewinsohn earned his BA from Berkeley in 1967 and his PhD from Harvard in 1971 with a dissertation on the early poetic development of William Carlos Williams.

Joining Berkeley's English faculty in 1970, he has been here ever since, often teaching Summer Sessions classes. This summer he is also teaching English N132: The American Novel.

Loewinsohn is writing a book on the beats, tentatively titled "You Talkin' to Me?" and is working on his third novel. His first, "Magnetic Field(s)," was one of five finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1983.

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