Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Herman Munster, Pragmatic Beatnik: A Guest Posting by Angela Sorby

A while back, one of P&PC's summer research interns happened upon the following choice clip from the popular 1960s CBS TV show The Munsters in which "jolly green giant" Herman Munster (played by Fred Gwynne) is called on to recite some beatnik poetry while hosting a totally rad shin dig at his pad with a bunch of cool wanna-be beatnik cats. Unsure what to make of his performance, we dropped a line to Angela Sorby (pictured here), Associate Professor of English at Marquette University and author of the P&PC "highly recommended" study Schoolroom Poets: Childhood, Performance, and the Place of American Poetry, 1865-1917. Take a gander at the clip here, then check out Sorby's commentary below.

Dear Angela,

So, like, what's the deal with Herman Munster's performance?

The P&PC Office


Dear P&PC,

In August of 1965, Marie Jordan wrote to Negro Digest magazine, objecting to the Beat poet LeRoi Jones's Afrocentric vision; Jordan insisted that “the first duty of any writer, be he black, white, or green, is to be continually striving to develop and improve his craft and artistic skill.” Jordan's letter does not acknowledge that at least one green poet emerged from the crucible of the Civil Rights era: Herman Munster, whose verdant hue enabled him to register anxieties about integration—and about poetry—on network TV. Like The Addams Family and The Beverly Hillbillies, The Munsters depicts awkward social mixing within neighborhoods, and Munster's green skin enables him to act as a racialized other while ducking the politics of black and white.

Literary histories of the 1960s, such as Conrad Aiken's Twentieth-Century American Poetry (1963), tend to be chrono- logical, nationalistic, and largely white. But Munster's performance offers a pop counterdiscourse that is fluid, transnational, and multicultural, including an anonymous sixteenth-century British rhyme (“Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary”); a bit of nineteenth-century didacticism (Sarah Josepha Hale's “Mary's Lamb”); a phrase from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's “Psalm of Life” (“Life is real! Life is earnest!”); a snippet from Rudyard Kipling (“Fuzzy Wuzzy”) and some snatches from the R & B star Louis Jordan (“That chicken's not too young to fry”). And, of course, the whole poem is recited to the beat of an African drum, recalling Allen Ginsberg's “Negro Streets” of Harlem. Munster's poem, then, is a compressed prĂ©cis of verses that circulated orally and that are understood as available for use by non-elite speakers. Indeed, his final trope on Longfellow (“If you're cold / turn up the furnace”) recasts Longfellow's romanticism as pragmatism, and sums up Munster's implicit ars poetica: do what works.

And his poem does work, at least for his TV audience —and this is a rare moment. Ordinarily, poetry on TV is a source of embar- rassment and discomfort, and indeed in the beginning, Munster's wife Lily says apprehensively, “I think he's going to recite.” However, Munster does not recite, exactly; rather, he channels fragments of popular poetic history, recombining them into a kind of monster mashup that makes the familiar new—without making it unpalatable or threatening. By the end, one bearded spectator enthuses, “Man! That cat is deep.” But Munster succeeds, not because he is deep, but because he is practical and syncretic. The point of Munster's poem is not to express his romantic self-identity (despite his genealogical relation to Mary Shelley), but rather to establish a social comfort zone—a green space, neither black nor white—where the oral tradition can thrive, and where poetry is, at least potentially, a popular art, grounded in the practice(s) of love and theft.


Angela Sorby


milly said...

This is so great! Such interesting history and a very smart reading, Angela.


Unknown said...


Larry Arnold PhD FRSA said...

Talk about reviving dead threads, but this is a living memory to me, I often think back to the Munsters and I loved that episode which is also fresh to me. I do have a certain relation to poetry and performance poetry myself going back to my University days, when when I instituted a poetry competition in the student journal essentially to deflate over intellectualised notions of art and poetry, around the same time I entered a Vogon poetry competition (Qv H2G2)where I failed to win, it being argued that there was actually a case for arguing that my entry for an appalling poem was actually "art" That was all back in the 1970s so closer to the Munsters than the Munsters are to the present.