Kenneth Rexroth

1905 (South Bend, Ind.) – 1982 (Santa Barbara, Calif.)

Rexroth was an extraordinary autodidact, who seems to have met everyone everywhere. He said he wrote poetry to seduce women and overthrow capitalism; and helped make San Francisco, as Chicago made him. Lawrence, Prokofiev, Russell, Anderson, Sandburg and Frank Lloyd Wright were all met at a radical midwest salon. The ‘country boy’ Armstrong and Yancey both turned up at a club he was involved with (“we didn’t know we were making history”). He first met Ferlinghetti in Paris, liked Léger, thought Desnos wonderful, presided over Ginsberg’s legendary reading, disliked Kerouac, thought Rivera dreadful, and turned down Nin’s invitations to dinner.

Kenneth Rexroth knew…

Richard Steele

1672 (Dublin) – 1729 (Carmarthen, Wales)

Steele and his schoolfriend and brother-in-arms Addison pretty much invented a mode of engagingly witty yet serious journalism, whose wide influence can be felt even today. He knew both Jacob Tonsons, dining with Tonson the elder as a sort of editorial consultant, or sometimes just to get his bills discounted. He wrote a prologue to one of Vanbrugh’s plays. Swift, Pope, Young and Berkeley were all among his circle of contributors. Pope and he had a warm mutual respect; Swift (under the pen-name Humphrey Wagstaff, to Steele’s Isaac Bickerstaff) started as a good friend, though the relationship later deteriorated.

James Mill

1773 (North Water Bridge, Scotland) – 1836 (London)

Moving to London, Mill met Bentham, becoming his close friend and enthusiastic supporter. He gave his son John Stuart Mill an extremely rigorous home education, dedicated to grooming him as his own and Bentham’s intellectual successor (not surprisingly, this hothousing led to the son’s mental breakdown). Mill was responsible for persuading his close friend and frequent visitor Ricardo to publish what became his most important work on economics. Dumont (like Ricardo) was another member of the circle around Bentham. Mill’s job at the East India Company, where he supervised Peacock, enabled him shamelessly to help his son.

William Hazlitt

1778 (Maidstone, England) – 1830 (London)

The 20-year-old Hazlitt met and was strongly impressed by Coleridge, and visited him in the Lake District, incensing Wordsworth by his brazen pursuit of local women. Shelley, Byron and Southey were among the radical writers Hazlitt befriended in London, while Stendhal, a fellow-spirit, was met in Paris. Hazlitt rented Bentham’s house, suggesting to him that his own theories were over-rated (Bentham evicted him over unpaid rent). Charles Lamb, a particularly staunch friend, acknowledged that Hazlitt’s conversation was matchless despite his truculent quarrelsome humour, inflicted on everyone. Hazlitt called the matricide Mary Lamb the only truly sensible woman he’d known.

Tobias Smollett

1721 (Dalquhurn, Scotland) – 1771 (Livorno, Italy)

Hume knew Smollett, describing him as a coconut, rough outside but full of kindness within. It’s unclear whether Smollett actually met Handel, who wrote music for his unproduced play Alceste; though Handel describing him as a “damn fool” for arguing with the management (Rich or Garrick) of the Theatre Royal is well-noted. When Smollett visited Edinburgh, Smith visited him. The Hunters and Goldsmith were friends, and Johnson, Sterne and Garrick used to lunch with him in Chelsea, Johnson getting him to intercede with the navy when his black servant Barber ran away to sea. Sterne immortalised Smollett as ‘the learned Smelfungus’.

Thomas de Quincey

1785 (Manchester) – 1859 (Edinburgh)

De Quincey got to know his hero Wordsworth and Coleridge (whom he had met previously) after leaving university without a degree, and moving in to Dove Cottage in the Lakelands, formerly occupied by Wordsworth. Coleridge also introduced him to Southey. Having run out of funds, de Quincey moved to London and started writing for Lamb’s ‘London Magazine’, where ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’ first appeared (Hill once found him hiding in the East End from drug-induced imaginary enemies). Carlyle became a fast friend, despite strongly opposing views; Clare described him as “something of a child overgrown.”

Rabindranath Tagore

Rabīndranāth Ṭhākur

1861 (Calcutta, now Kolkata) – 1941 (Calcutta)

Yeats and Pound met Tagore when he first brought his poetry to England, and led the adulation that ensued: Yeats wrote a preface for him, though he later recanted his enthusiasm. Elmhirst and Tagore set up a progressive school in Bengal, Tagore later staying with Elmhirst in Dartington and helping get that school started. He held widely-reported conversations with Wells in Geneva and Einstein in Berlin. Ocampo put him up in Buenos Aires, where they became close friends, though probably not lovers. Zweig only met him for half an hour, when Tagore changed trains in Salzburg, but was deeply affected.

Rabindranath Tagore knew…

Paul Valéry

1871 (Sète, France) – 1945 (Paris)

Einstein, Bohr, Bergson and de Broglie were personal friends and correspondents. Louÿs introduced both Mallarmé and Gide to him: he became Mallarmé’s protégé, regularly attending his literary evenings. He met Curie in Spain, Rilke in Switzerland, and Conrad when inaugurating a plaque marking Verlaine’s London lodgings. Degas introduced him to his future wife, Breton asked him to be his best man, Honegger collaborated on an opera-ballet, and Tailleferre on a cantata. Stravinsky felt he thought too much about thought. Later in life, Gide persuaded him to publish the poetry he’d written years earlier.

Paul Nizan

1905 (Tours, France) – 1940 (Audruicq)

Nizan is today remembered best for his politically-engaged fiction. Sartre and he met at school, later becoming constant companions. Aron became a friend when studying at the École Nationale Supérieure. Guterman was a colleague in the ‘Philosophes’ group of marxist intellectuals, founded by Lefebvre, for one of whose works Nizan wrote a foreword. Aragon and Rolland were friends as well as colleagues, and Malraux particularly close. Sartre was responsible for rescuing Nizan’s reputation a decade after he’d been accused of treachery by his communist allies (including Lefebvre). It was Nizan’s suggestion that led Lévi-Strauss to São Paulo, where he taught philosophy.

James Leigh Hunt

1784 (Southgate, England) – 1859 (London)

Hunt and Coleridge went to the same school. Lamb (a fellow stutterer) was among his London literary/journalistic circle, as were Shelley, Byron, Procter and Hazlitt, who contributed to his radical journal ‘Yellow Dwarf.’ Byron visited him in gaol after he lampooned the Prince Regent. He kept a bed made up for Keats in his library, introduced Shelley to him, and fell out with Haydon over a loan to Keats. Shelley and Byron got him to join them in Italy, but Shelley drowned and Keats soon went on to Greece. He later championed his friends Thackeray and Tennyson, and kept a piece of Shelley’s jawbone on his desk.