Like a Rolling Stone

Critic and feminist thinker Ellen Willis is being honored with a conference and a posthumous collection of her rock writing. Scott McLemee wonders what took so long.

April 27, 2011

This coming weekend's conference on the late Ellen Willis -- essayist, radical feminist, and founder of the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University -- begins to look as if it is going to be rather a big deal. It coincides with publication by the University of Minnesota Press of Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, which, besides doing wonders for the reputations of Moby Grape and Creedence Clearwater Revival, is going to consolidate Willis’s role as a figure young writers read, and reread, and dream of somehow becoming. Originally the conference was planned for a small meeting space somewhere in downtown New York, but it’s been relocated to the Tishman Auditorium at NYU, which holds 450 people. Five years after her death, this is Ellen Willis’s moment

As someone who began reading her work almost 30 years ago (to an 18-year-old Velvet Underground fanatic, any collection of essays called Beginning to See the Light needed no further recommendation), I am happy to think so. And as someone scheduled to speak during the first session -- but nowhere near finishing his paper -- I am terrified to think so. Meanwhile, the organizers keep reminding the panelists that the event is being moved to a bigger venue, due to popular demand. And would we please be sure to get there on time? Maybe they are afraid of an unruly crowd; the warm-up act needs to get on stage without undue delay.

So, yes: a big, anxious deal. Though mostly a celebration. A small sampling of her work is available on a website run by her daughter, although this is no substitute for the three collections of essays on social and cultural matters that appeared during her lifetime.

Speaking of which, somebody at the conference needs to address the issue of how it happens that Out of the Vinyl Deeps is only appearing just now. Why is it only in 2011 that we have a book demonstrating that she was one of the best rock critics of the 1960s and ‘70s? Those decades have been mythologized as the era when rock writers of gigantic stature -- Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, Nick Kent, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Richard Meltzer, and Nick Tosches -- thundered across the countercultural landscape, sometimes doing battle, like dinosaurs. (Big, stoned dinosaurs.) You can find collections of work by all of these guys, and ardent fanboys ready to debate their respective degrees of eminence. In fact, I listed them alphabetically to avoid that sort of thing.

There were only a handful of pieces on rock in Willis's first collection of essays (and none in the subsequent volumes, which focused on feminist theory and cultural politics), but they were stunning. Anecdotal evidence and personal experience suggest that rereading them repeatedly was not an uncommon response. And when you did, you heard (and felt) songs by Bob Dylan, or the Who, or the Velvet Underground, in ways you never had before. She was as insightful as any of the dino-critics -- and a much better writer than some of them -- yet Willis never really figured in the legend.

With dozens of her writings on popular music now gathered between covers, this will change. But again, what took so long? This must be explained. (The possibility of an all-male species of dinosaur was unlikely in any event.)

Most of the pieces in the new book appeared in The New Yorker, to which Willis began contributing in 1968. A few months later, in response to the prevailing and otherwise intractable sexism of the New Left, she started the influential group Redstockings along with Shulamith Firestone, who soon wrote The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970).

It was another Redstockings member, Carol Hanisch, who coined the phrase “the personal is political.” And on a personal-political note, I will mention that reading Firestone’s manifesto as a teenager scared the hell out of me, in a salutary way. The trauma had passed by the time Willis collected her own feminist writings in No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays (Wesleyan, 1992) -- a volume it is particularly interesting to read alongside Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America (University of Minnesota Press, 1989), for which Willis wrote the introduction. Clearly this sort of material is still upsetting to some people. A blogger named Doug Phillips, for example, blames Ellen Willis and the Willis-ites for “promot[ing] ultra-radical lesbian-feminist politics, trans-sexuality, and mother goddess worship.” Like that’s a bad thing.

While her libertarian worldview would certainly accommodate transsexual lesbian pagans in its conception of the good society, anyone who actually reads Ellen Willis will learn that she was, in fact, an enthusiastically heterosexual atheist who, at some point, accepted monogamy in practice, if not in theory. None of which will give Doug Phillips much comfort. But apart from specifying her exact position within the culture wars, the stray bits of personal information in her work are interesting for what they reveal about Willis as a writer.

Some of her most memorable pieces were in the vein of what used to be called the New Journalism, in which the reporter’s subjectivity is part of the narrative. But this amounts to only a small part of her output. The proliferation of memoir may be an indirect effect of feminism (“the personal is the literary”), but the role of the “I” in Willis is rarely confessional. Her essays, while usually familiar in tone, tend to be analytic in spirit. The first-person is a lens, not a mirror.

As mentioned, Out of the Vinyl Deeps is Willis’s fourth volume of essays. Following the last one she saw through the press, Don’t Think, Smile! Notes on a Decade of Denial (Beacon, 2000), she published a fair amount of uncollected material and was working on an interpretation of American culture from the perspective of Wilhelm Reich’s psychoanalytic theory. So perhaps there will be another posthumous volume at some point.

If so, it would be her fifth collection -- and her sixth book. Like most readers, I have always assumed that Beginning to See the Light, from 1981, was her first title. (It was reprinted by Wesleyan in 1992.) But almost 20 years earlier, Willis published another book. She did not list it in the summary of her career appearing in volume 106 of the reference-book series Contemporary Authors (Gale Publishers) and seems never to have referred to it in print. Indeed, I wondered if the Library of Congress cataloger didn’t make a mistake by listing Questions Freshmen Ask: A Guide for College Girls (E.P. Dutton, 1962) as written by the same author as No More Nice Girls. After all, there could be two Ellen Willises.

And in a way, there were. I’m still trying to figure out the relationship between them -- how the one became the other.

On page 4, the author of Questions Freshmen Ask explains her qualifications for writing the book: “As a graduate of Barnard College, I feel I have had the kind of experience that enables me to provide the answers to many of your questions. Since Barnard is on the one hand a small women’s college and on the other, part of a large coeducational institution (Columbia University), I am aware of the problems of both types of schools.”

The entry for Ellen Willis in Contemporary Authors notes that she graduated from Barnard in 1962. The 20-year-old author occasionally turns a phrase or writes in a rhythm that will sound familiar to aficionados of her older self -- and the introduction by Barbara S. Musgrave, class dean of Smith College, commends the book as “written so engagingly it gives something of the flavor of college ahead of time.”

It is certainly a time capsule. Exhibit A: “Most colleges estimate that books will cost you in the neighborhood of seventy-five dollars a year.” Exhibit B: “Freshmen often resent all the new regulations under which they are asked to live…. The fact is that your college is less interested in your individual welfare than in the smooth running of the community as a whole.” (Fifty years later, the in loco parentis rules Willis has in mind are long dead. And the administration's communitarian motives count less than its interest in not getting sued.)

Some of the advice remains valid -- especially the parts about the need to budget time and money. And the occasional bit of historical context can be glimpsed between the lines. The author’s freshman year would have been not long after the Sputnik launch. The push was on to expand access to higher education so that the nation would not be overwhelmed by superior brainpower. Willis is explicit about offering guidance to girls who will enter college with no idea what to expect, because their parents didn’t go.

“In the old days,” she writes, “when money or an influential relative seemed almost a ticket of admission to the campus, a student didn’t have to be too purposeful about college. A girl could shrug and say she wanted to go to college, well, because all her friends were going and it had never occurred to her not to go. But times have changed, and you can’t afford to be aimless -- not if you want to justify the admissions director’s faith in you.”

As with a recommendation to “be a good sport” about nitpicky campus rules, this stress on living up to the expectation of an authority figure is hard to square with the later Ellen Willis. But there are passages in which (with abundant hindsight, admittedly) you can see the fault lines.

“No matter what you eventually do after you graduate,” she writes, “you will want to have a mind that’s alert and full of ideas. There will be books you want to understand, important decisions to make, leisure time to fill. With the mental resources your education provides, you will be able to enjoy life more fully….”

Here, the Willis fan thinks: Yes, I know this author. But then you hit a passage like this: “If you spend four years at college single-mindedly preparing yourself for a television production job in New York, and then end up marrying an anthropologist who has to live in the Middle East, what have you accomplished?”

The drive for autonomy vs. the destiny of matrimony: the center cannot hold. Five years after Questions Freshmen Ask: A Guide for College Girls appeared, Janis Joplin recorded her first album and Ellen Willis wrote the first piece in Out of the Vinyl Deeps: an essay on Bob Dylan that is more rewarding than certain books on him that come to mind. Whatever it was that transformed Ellen Willis in the meantime, it almost certainly involved a record player.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top