American painter, poet, critic, translator, and playwright Kenneth Charles Marion Rexroth was born in 1905 in South Bend, Indiana. After being expelled from a Chicago high school, Rexroth worked as a soda jerk, clerk, wrestler, and reporter to support himself. Although he attended the Art Institute of Chicago, he was largely self-educated in the literary salons, nightclubs, lecture halls, and hobo camps he frequented in the 1920s. In his youth Rexroth traveled extensively in the United States, Mexico, and Europe, and backpacked frequently in the American wilderness. During this time he worked as a forest ranger, harvester, fruit packer, factory hand, and mental institution attendant. He also became something of a political radical, allying himself with various avant garde and leftist organizations, and developing what would become lifelong interests in eroticism, anarchy, mysticism, and Eastern philosophy. In the 1940s New Directions published Rexroth's first poetry collections "In What Hour" and "The Phoenix and the Tortoise." Both works encapsulated Rexroth's pacifistic, anti-establishment ethos, represented his interest in the natural and erotic, and alluded to classical poets from the East and West.
In the late 1940s, Rexroth launched the San Francisco Renaissance, promoting the work of poets like William Everson, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Denise Levertov on a weekly radio show. His poetry and lifestyle also clearly influenced Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and other Beat poets, though Rexroth would eventually come to disapprove of the Beat movement, and was displeased when he became known as the father of the Beats. In the 1960s, Rexroth brought national public attention to world literature poetry in translation through his "Classics Revisited" column in the Saturday Review and his anthologies of Chinese and Japanese poetry. Recognized by the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964, he went on to publish collections of his shorter poems and longer poems in 1967 and 1968. From 1968 through 1974 he taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In 1974, he received a Fulbright scholarship to study in Japan, and in 1975 he received the Copernicus Award from the Academy of American Poets in recognition of a poet's lifetime work and contribution to poetry as a cultural force. Rexroth died June 6, 1982 in Montecito, California.
The papers of Kenneth Rexroth, American poet and activist, comprise manuscripts, notes, printed material, publications, correspondence, and ephemera related to poetry, writing, speaking engagements, and teaching, primarily from the last decade of his life; also included are correspondence, manuscripts, drawings, photographs, and edits compiled by Geoffrey Gardner for a Kenneth Rexroth festschrift published in 1980. The collection is partially processed.