The beatnik of Greenback Lane
As a teen, Arthur Winfield Knight photographed famous authors. Later, he taught creative writing and edited Beat-era anthologies. Now the Citrus Heights resident writes novelized bios about mavericks and iconoclasts.
I think I realized that I was a workaholic when I was living with Murdock on Frederick and Clayton Street in Haight-Ashbury. I was a senior at San Francisco State, dating a Jewish girl who told me, “You don’t’ know how to relax. You even work at playing.” I knew she was right. Almost everything that I did had a purpose.
—From The Golden Land by Arthur Knight.
Arthur Winfield Knight is an unassuming man in his early 60s who lives in a modest neighborhood in Citrus Heights with his wife and writing partner, Kit. Knight, a retired professor, taught English and creative writing at California University of Pennsylvania at California, Pennsylvania, for 27 years.
“It was my fourth job in four years,” Knight recalls. “And I thought that I better get tenure, which in those days was three years, and then it would show that I was a good citizen and not just a drifter.” East Coast gold seekers who got as far as western Pennsylvania before giving up had named the college town; they could write home and tell relatives they had made it to “California.” It seemed reasonable that Knight, a Petaluma native, could never leave his Western roots.
Knight still talks like a professor; his blue eyes flash with excitement when he discusses authors, literature and Hollywood, or tells Beat anecdotes. He talks about everyone but himself, even though he has published over 2,000 poems, 50 short stories and seven novels. Knight’s latest, Blue Skies Falling, is a bio-novel about director Sam Peckinpah driving around the American West with his dying wife trying to cram a lifetime into a road trip and postpone death until a more convenient time.
While his colleagues at CUP were content with tenure and going through the motions teaching uninspired students, Knight and Kit were editing beat-era anthologies, including Kerouac and the Beats and The Beat Visions. Knight’s work has been translated into Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Serbo-Croatian and Spanish.
Knight took an early retirement in 1993 at age 55 and moved back to Petaluma. His wife, Kit, wanted their daughter to be a fourth-generation Petaluma High School graduate. In October 2000, they moved to Citrus Heights, because they’ve always liked the Sacramento area and Petaluma just didn’t feel right.
“Maybe you just can’t go home again,” Knight says. “Petaluma is not a friendly place—70,000 people and it doesn’t even have a movie theater? That’s probably a Guinness World Record. It’s such an odd place; I was not sorry to leave, but my house did appreciate a lot and we could buy this one.”
In retrospect, Knight made a good choice. “It’s fashionable to put down Sacramento,” he says, “but I think a lot is happening here. You could argue that more is happening here in live theater than in the Bay Area. You got a million people in greater Sacramento, so there’s a lot going on. I just like the physical feel of the place. I like the rivers, the warm weather in the summer, I like driving to the post office down Greenback, I see snow up in the mountains and it’s beautiful. It’s a real place. There’s a diverse culture here, it’s large but it still feels like a small town. Walking across the street in Sacramento isn’t an existential decision. I know that I’m going to make it across. I like that feeling.”
When Knight was
14, he joined his high-school camera club and immersed himself in photography, buying the best cameras and lights he could afford. He received a provisional driver’s license at 14 and started meeting authors around then. “There was a local Western author in Santa Rosa named Tommy Thompson, who later ended up being a story editor for Bonanza,” Knight says. “I called him and asked if I could photograph him, and he said, sure. Authors didn’t get free photos like movie stars. He said, ‘Why don’t you photograph L.P. Holmes in Napa and Will Cook in Vallejo?’ ”
Soon Knight was driving all over California seeking out authors he could photograph. He always tried to contact them first. “I just picked up the phone and called them,” Knight says. “I guess I’m gregarious.”
Henry Miller said to come down for 10 minutes; Knight ended up staying for four hours and had lunch with him. “He told people 10 minutes because he could get rid of them if he wasn’t interested in talking to them,” Knight recalls, chuckling.
Aldous Huxley was the only person that he just walked over to his house and knocked on his door without calling. Knight got his photo. He can’t recall anyone who turned him down. Some would put him up at their homes when it was too far for him to drive back to Petaluma.
While still a teen, Knight began haunting Los Angeles, snapping photos and hanging out with Hollywood insiders and actors. “From being a kid to being a 60-year-old man, nothing changed,” Knight says about the film industry. “It’s hard for me when people say unkind things about Hollywood. I don’t know—maybe it is a shitty place, but the people that Kit and I met there, the people that I met there when I was young, have always been pleasant. Probably more pleasant than most people would be at Wal-Mart.”
By the end of his teens, a couple hundred of Knight’s photos had ended up in Playboy, Saturday Review, the Saturday Evening Post and on book jackets. He decided that he was going to be a writer.
“I was 19 years old and I decided that I was going to write a novel,” Knight recalls. “And I wrote five pages a day, every day, seven days a week until it was done. Later on, I set it on fire. You write about what you know, and at 20, you don’t necessarily know a lot. Getting drunk and rocking and rolling—that’s about it.”
He enrolled at San Francisco State University, where Walter Van Tilburg Clark, who wrote The Ox-Bow Incident, was the chairman of the creative writing department, and Mark Harris (Bang the Drum Slowly) was a professor. In 1958, only three schools in America gave degrees in creative writing: Stanford, the University of Iowa and SF State. “In those days, it was cheap to live there,” Knight says. “I lived in Haight-Ashbury and paid $95 a month.”
The Beat Movement was pretty much over by then; the hippies were years away. “I was too young to be a beatnik,” Knight says. “I could have been a baby beatnik, I suppose. I don’t think beatniks were beatniks. Nobody is beat now. Lawrence Ferlinghetti says he wasn’t beat, Rex Roth, Gary Snyder … but these were people who were doing things. People that we think of as beatniks now were staying home and writing. The people who hung out in coffeehouses dressed up like Maynard G. Krebs from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, wearing black pullover sweaters and berets [and] spouting bad poetry, were weekend beatniks. The more radical your views are, the more you should want to lead a kind of quiet life. Nobody was more dissident than William Burroughs, and look how he dressed.”
Knight’s work can be controversial because of the erotic nature of his writing. The couple’s poetry compilation A Marriage of Poets was translated into Serbo-Croatian and broadcast in Yugoslav radio in 1988 in its entirety. In England, it won an award for poetic language at the All England Drama Festival in Shropshire, but it was banned in Wales for its lavatory language. “Wales and Shropshire are like Yolo County and Sacramento County—they are adjacent,” Knight says. “So in one place, it was poetic, and another, it was obscene.”
But California and the American West are where Knight is at his finest. The Knights logged over 200,000 miles across the West during summer break, eschewing interstate highways for state routes, stopping in little towns and staying in mom-and-pop motels. “Some motel has an ad that says, ‘You’re not going to get any surprises.’ Well then, why go? You may as well stay home,” Knight explains. “I’d rather stay in a dump than a Holiday Inn. I like to go where real people go in the community. America is very homogenized, but it not as homogenized as we think—if we look a little bit. There are still places out there, at the top level and dumps and in between. We try to see an America that’s as real as possible. We like to go into little bars and hang out and talk to people. They are always friendly and willing to talk about their town. A guy in Louisiana showed us his Ku Klux Klan card—that kind of stuff is interesting. Whatever you take in, at some point it ends up in a novel, poem or story.”
Knight has written bio-fiction and fictional diaries of American criminal icons John Dillinger (Johnny D), Jesse James (The Secret Life of Jesse James), and Billy the Kid (Twenty-One Notches). “I think too many people are too complacent, and people who are dissidents appeal to me,” Knight explains. “I think that Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and people like that epitomize the rebel. I write to stay sane, to make sense of a world that sometimes seems pretty chaotic, and if I write it down, then I understand the world a little better, and my relationship to it and myself and the people around me.
“Writing is a process of discovery,” Knight adds. “I like to know my characters as well as I can, and the locale, but I want some surprises along the way, or it just wouldn’t be interesting.”