Franklin Rosemont met André Breton in 1966 and this became a turning point in his life. A celebrated, poet, artist, historian, editor, and surrealist activist, he died on Sunday April 12 at age 65. With his partner and comrade of more than four decades, Penelope Rosemont, he cofounded in 1966 an enduring and adventuresome Chicago Surrealist Group, making the city a center in the reemergences worldwide of that movement of artistic and political revolt. Recently, he has been editing a series on Surrealism for the University of Texas. Morning Star: Surrealism, Marxism, Anarchism, Situationism, Utopia by French intellectual Michael Löwy was just published this spring.
Rosemont was born in Chicago October 2, 1943 to two of the area's more significant rank-and-file labor activists, the printer Henry Rosemont and the jazz musician Sally Rosemont. Dropping out of Maywood schools, he managed nonetheless to enter Roosevelt University in 1962. Already radicalized through family traditions, his experiences with the miseries inflicted by the educational system and his intense study of momentous political works and comics, prepared him to enter the stormy left culture of Roosevelt.
The mentorship of the African American scholar St. Clair Drake and his relationship with Penelope led him to much wider worlds. He "hitchhiked 20,000 miles" even as he discovered surrealist texts and art. Soon, with Penelope, he found the surrealist thinker André Breton in Paris. Close study and passionate activity characterized the Rosemonts' embrace of surrealism as well as their practice in art and organizing.
In the 1960s when he was in his 20s he was active with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the Rebel Worker group and Students for a Democratic Society, Rosemont helped to lead an IWW strike of blueberry pickers in Michigan in 1964 and began a long and fruitful association with Paul Buhle in publishing a special surrealist issues of Radical America in 1970 and later Cultural Correspondence. Lavish, funny and barbed issues of Arsenal/Surrealist Subversion began to appear in the 70s.
The smashing success of the 1968 world surrealist exhibition at Gallery BugsBunny in Chicago announced the ability of the Chicago surrealists to have huge cultural impact without ceasing to be critics of the frozen mainstreams of art and politics. This show led to a host of regional exhibitions, culminating in the World Surrealist Exhibition in 1976, an international exhibition of unparalleled breadth, with 141 contemporary surrealists groups in 33 countries.
The Rosemonts soon became leading figures in the reorganization of the nation's oldest radical publisher, the Charles H. Kerr Company. Under their leadership, the Charles H. Kerr Company became, once again, a major publisher of leftist works, from C. L. R. James and Paul Lafargue to Edward Bellamy and Lucy Parsons. That work continues today. In this and in providing coordination for the surrealist Black Swan Press, Rosemont helped to make Chicago a center of nonsectarian surrealist creativity.
A friend and valued colleague of such figures as Herbert Marcuse, Studs Terkel, Leon Despres, Arturo Schwarz, Mary Low, and Clarence John Laughlin, the poets Philip Lamantia, Diane di Prima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Dennis Brutus, the painter Lenora Carrington and the historians Paul Buhle, John Bracey, and Noel Ignatiev, Rosemont's own artistic and creative work was almost impossibly varied in inspirations and results. He was close friends with Guy Ducornet, Rikki Ducornet, Nancy Joyce Peters, Michael Löwy and many other artists and writers.
He also worked closely with fellow-surrealist Paul Garon, author of Blues and the Poetic Spirit and the historian of racism David Roediger, author of Wages of Whiteness. Without ever holding a university post, he wrote or edited scores of books while acting as a great resource for a host of other writers.
He became perhaps the most productive scholar of the hidden history of labor and the left in the United States. His spectacular study Joe Hill, The IWW & the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture began as a slim projected volume of that revolutionary martyr's rediscovered cartoons and grew to a giant volume providing our best guide to what the early twentieth century radical movement was like and what radical history might do. The French edition of this work on Joe Hill appeared earlier this year in Paris. His coedited volume with David Roediger Haymarket Scrapbook stands as the most beautifully illustrated labor history publication of the recent past. His books on Chicago’s hobohemia The Rise & Fall of the Dill Pickle Club and From Bughouse Square to the Beat Generation sparked a renewed interest in that era. With Archie Green who was last year honored by the Smithsonian he edited The Big Red Songbook.
In none of this did Rosemont separate scholarship from art, or art from revolt. His books of poetry, include Lamps Hurled at the Stunning Algebra of Ants, The Apple of the Automatic Zebra's Eye and Penelope. His activity at with the Wobblies at Solidarity Bookshop were illustrated in cartoon format in a book by Harvey Pekar edited by Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman. The SDS activity of he and Penelope were illustrated in another cartoon format book by Pekar and Paul Buhle, Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History. His marvelous fierce, whimsical and funny art work graced countless surrealist publications and exhibitions. A memorial will be announced.