REVIEW & COMMENTARY
note: "One good man I met in Northport...was Adolph Rothman,"
writes Jack Kerouac in a letter to a friend in 1963. Though
Rothman died in 1998 before we had a chance to talk with him,
interviews with his wife Barbara Rothman, as well as figures
as diverse as sister Shirley Gershen and cousin Arthur, student/friends
Dan Richman, Peter Lownds and Bob Spong, and even former US
Congressman-turned-author Bob Mrazek, suggest a figure of
force, culture and character that would well have repaid the
attentions paid to him by the Beat author.
Rothman was a teacher and scholar beneath his rough, clam-digger
exterior is a fact known to more than a few of his acquaintances.
He was a poet too - a fact less well known. "We don't
wear our art on our sleeve as do the Coffee-House kind,"
wrote Rothman to Richman in the 1990s. But with his funeral
in 1998, that may have begun to change somewhat: a volume
of his poems printed for the occasion revealed a writing talent
of formal dignity, careful culture, and restrained power.
lives and works of many associates of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg
and WS Burroughs - arguably the Beat generation's core figures
- are well documented. And now, thanks to an off-hand comment
in one of Kerouac's personal letters, a portion of the story
of another such character - Adolph Rothman - is, just a few
years after his death, being gathered.
can't believe how much interest there is in my brother Adolph,"
said Gershen recently. "It wasn't like this when he was
to the fond recollections of acquaintances of Adolph Rothman,
from California to New York, the story of this most colorful
figure - whose presence was felt in Greenwich Village, Northport
and further afield - is being preserved.)
According to Shirley Gershen, Adolph's younger sister, seven
years younger than him but a person who was there when the
Rothman kids were growing up in Brooklyn, Adolph had a singular
nature - which she recalled cropping up at summer camp in
the Catskills. "I remember my brother catching fish,
and keeping them in the bathtub in the cottage," said
Gershen. "Adolph was always a different sort of person."
different-ness, distinct even in the youthful memory of his
sister, was a feature that carried through Adolph's adult
years: as a teacher, student of linguistics and indigenous
cultures, Melville aficionado, film maker, and clammer on
the North Shore of Long Island - and may have been a key to
what attracted Beat novelist Jack Kerouac (a resident of Northport
Long Island during the late 1950s and early 1960s) to him.
souls were connected," recalls Barbara Rothman, reflecting
on the relationship between her husband and Kerouac. "They
understood each other - they were tortured by the same things."
aside, Adolph Rothman was able to establish a rapport with
other writers, artists and musicians who frequented Greenwich
Village haunts in the 1950s in NYC. Or so says his cousin
Arthur Rothman, an artist living in Manhattan, with whom he
started "hitting the bars" like the White Horse
Tavern after the end of World War II. "He was a man's
man, a big guy," said Arthur. "People liked him.
He looked like a rough and ready character, but he was more
the intellectual type. We ran into Delmore Schwartz there,
and Dylan Thomas. One time we sang with the Clancy Brothers
in the back room."
didn't hurt that once he established a home on the North Shore
of LI, Adolph made it a practice to haul sacks full of clams,
over his shoulder, to Manhattan, where he would cook up a
big stew at one or another of the downtown bars. Rothman also
brought the downtown art scene back to Northport. "It
was always fun with Adolph," said Barbara Rothman. "He
would bring a lot of people from the village out here to Northport."
Lee Krasner came to visit. Peter Leventhal would come to clam.
The couple knew Peter and Lafcadio Orlovsky, whose family
lived in Northport. "The whole gang of them would get
together and talk, like at Stanley Twardowicz' artist loft.
It was a man thing - they would wrestle and have fun, until
someone got hurt."
he was friends with Jack Kerouac.
should be noted right away that Adolph Rothman (ca 1925-1998)
was a Columbia graduate who came to the Northport in the 1950s,
where in addition to befriending Jack Kerouac he impacted
the lives of a number of young people and artists for forty
years. But the Kerouac connection is a key one in understanding
the importance of his experience in the small town.
and Jack spent a lot of time together," said Barbara.
"They did everyday things - drinking, talking. For example,
Jack liked Flamenco music and Adolph knew someone who played
Flamenco at a Spanish Restaurant in Huntington." Additionally,
Adolph would drive Gabrielle Kerouac, Jack's mother, to the
store for food shopping.
the two men explored their mutual love of language together.
"He liked the way Jack used language," said Barbara.
"One time, for example, we were living on Makamah Beach
and Jack was there with us. We went to take a walk on the
beach, and Jack began mentioning the smell of the wild grapes.
It was beautiful, the way he described it."
did Adolph come to Northport? "Adolph never wanted to
live in the city - he was allergic to the city," said
Arthur. "Northport was such a pretty place." Added
Barbara: "The place reminded him of Herman Melville,
and Moby Dick."
SOCIETY OF CLAM DIGGERS
The Moby Dick connection is no incidental one, says Dan Richman.
"I think Adolph's interest in Moby Dick was that it was
an invocation of the implacable grandeur of the sea,"
said Richman, who was deeply influenced by Rothman in his
late teens and continued to correspond with the man for thirty
years as he established a career as a writer and contractor
in San Francisco. "In Northport he engaged in a struggle
of his own, a struggle in the dangerous and awesome theater
of the sea."
the 1950s and 60s, there were a lot of clam diggers in Northport.
"Understand, there were 1300 commercial licenses in the
town of Huntington, and a lot of them were in Northport,"
recalls Peter Hendrickson, a childhood friend of Richman's
and a man who traces his family history in the Northport area
back to colonial days. "There were a lot of boats and
a lot of clam diggers. They were an individualistic bunch."
Hendrickson, who spent years on the waters of Northport harbor
and the greater bay area, recalls personalities like Ellis
Wood, who lived in a power boat and worked marginal shellfish
areas. "We called it arming," said Hendrickson,
a lifelong Long Island resident. Then there was a female clammer
named Whip, "the only woman clammer I ever knew. Her
boat was neat as a pin. Whip kept her hair short - from far
off, you couldn't really tell she was a woman. I remember
she used tobacco to numb the eels before she caught them."
And there was "Piss Clam Charlie," who would dig
steamers. "That's hard work," said Hendrickson.
"You have to have a certain knack. If you're not careful
by the time you dig the hole they've gone too far down."
Rothman stood out even among such rough and ready characters
as these, say those who knew him...in part because of his
physical size, in part because of his singular demeanor -
but also because he was apparently a darn good clammer. "Adolph
was a mythological figure, a superman clammer, to us kids,"
recalls Peter Lownds, now an actor, author and professor in
Los Angeles. "We were kid clammers in Northport, we did
arming too, going out in the evening to the places where the
clammers had their beds, places that weren't legal but where
the clammers would plant clams and knew they would be able
to go back and harvest them." Adds Bob Spong, who is
still a bayman on the waters of Northport Harbor: "Adolph
was a very striking guy, with his beard and moustache, clamming
in waders, working the rake backwards like a harness clammer."
recalls another reason Adolph stood out: his friendliness
"He was no loner," he noted. "He loved the
companionship. Adolph loved being part of the society of clam
These days people who recall Adolph Rothman on the streets
of Northport tend to recall him for his connections to clamming
society. Many are unaware that he was a teacher in the local
schools off and on in the fifties and sixties. And one who
made a strong impression in the schools, it seems: in fact,
Rothman quickly established a reputation for his unorthodox
methods as a teacher.
of Adolph's distinctive qualities as a teacher, it seems,
was his inspirational, wide-open approach. It was an approach
that won him life-long loyalties from some of his students
- but often, also landed him in hot water with the 1950s era
school administrators. "Adolph Rothman was my favorite
teacher going through public schools," said author and
former US Congressman Bob Mrazek. "I had a number of
fine teachers, but he was the most inspirational to me. Adolph
made me believe in myself." Rothman taught Mrazek at
the Woodbury School, sixth grade, in a time "when you
had one teacher all day. I remember him encouraging us to
use our imagination. His style was definitely unorthodox."
Adolph taught in the Commack schools, where Barbara Rothman
was a speech therapist. "He was the world's best teacher,"
she said. "The kids loved him. When he taught them about
germs, he set up a boxing ring in the classroom, and the white
blood cells would fight against the germs. They did movies
on poems, like Miniver Cheevy. The kids would hang around
after school with him - they didn't want to leave."
not all the kids felt that way. "He sure broke the model
for an elementary school teacher in Huntington, New York in
1956," said Mrazek. "Every other teacher I had at
Woodbury was straightforward. I felt like I could take on
any challenge after meeting him, but he didn't impress all
the kids that way. I know there were complaints."
intellectual curiosity and earnestness informed his life outside
of the schools as well, and impressed people like Dan Richman,
who got to know Adolph - and Kerouac - in the late 1950s at
the Northport dock, and for whom the teacher/clammer was like
a foster father. "I had been reading Moby Dick, and I
got to talking with him about it," said Richman. "You
know, a lot of young people think they discover things. Now
here was this grown man who was living it, was enthusiastic
about it. He talked to me as a human being. It was an epiphany
for me, at the age of 18, to meet a man like Adolph Rothman."
much so, it seems, that he kept up a correspondence with the
man through the 1990s. And as Richman made preparations for
publication of a collection of his poetry entitled "Farming
in San Francisco" recently, he dedicated the book to
Richman's fond recollections of Rothman? "How we first
met when I was eighteen, you ten years older, at the Northport
dock in mid-winter, the harbor frozen, the wind cruel, my
middle-class head full of Melville, amazed to discover an
adult, an adult! who was passionate about a book about a whale.
Adolph as a clam-digger, a Jewish clam-digger, who had to
fight his way into acceptance by the others. About how through
the years he opened me to classical guitar and film-making,
and most important, the dark and mysterious history of words,
the words of the many languages with which you were more than
the time they went with friends to the Vietnam Peace Demonstration
in DC and Adolph helped "levitate" the Capitol Building
with Allen Ginsberg.
The dedication in Dan Richman's volume of poetry reads "To
Adolph Rothman, in the certain knowledge that wherever he
is he has already learned the language."
This is not hyperbole. Adolph was a keen student of culture
and language from early in his life, and as time went on he
became immersed in the etymology of words, and the study of
indigenous cultures - the "fellaheen" celebrated
by Kerouac and others.
interest, recalls sister Shirley, goes back to Adolph's Army
days. "He was sent to Panama to guard the Canal, and
that's how he got interested in Spanish and Central American
culture," she recalls. "Adolph took lessons in Spanish,
and he got so good at it he taught Spanish."
recalls that one of Rothman's passions was the study of words.
"He would trace words to their origins, but not like
you ever heard before," he said. "He would go to
the Egyptian, to the Sanskrit. I learned how strange language
is, that it's just difficult for us to see that because we
use it all the time. The image that flashes through my mind
is that every word has an ancient history - and that there
is a deep connection between all the languages."
embraced a lot of things," explained Barbara Rothman.
"He was collecting indigenous languages in Central America,
places where people didn't even speak Spanish. We were living
in a VW Camper, he would learn crafts, make movies. He would
make friends with guitar makers, they would make us guitars."
For several years Rothman had a base of operations in Guanajuato,
a town known for its exceptional colonial architecture, where
he took an interest in translating the Chilumbalu, an ancient
myth of Mexico. "He wanted to save those languages because
the native people were being killed off, especially in Guatemala."
Barbara remembers traveling to Central America with her Adolph
and her children Adrian and Paul, living in a volkswagen bus
at times. According to Adrian, Adolph Rothman was known by
some in these countries, affectionately, as "El Hombre
Grande Con Mucho Pelo Blancs."
POETRY OF ADOLPH ROTHMAN
In later years, Adolph Rothman continued his travels, until
deteriorating health finally caught up with him. "When
Adolph died a year or two ago, we went out on Bob Spong's
boat to spread his ashes in Northport Harbor," said Barbara
Rothman. During the ceremonies, she read from Walt Whitman's
poem Goodbye My Fancy. "Whitman writes, 'Maybe it is
you ushering me to the true song, who knows,'" she said.
"That fancy could be a lot of things - creativity. The
creativity - and involvement in literary pursuits - was for
most of Rothman's life a hidden aspect of his life. Copies
of his personal correspondence donated to the Northport Historical
Society by Dan Richman contain uncollected poems of Rothmans,
and are frequently peppered with references to Dryden, Shakespeare,
Keats, Chaucer, Marianne Moore and of course his favorite,
the extent to which The Muse played a hand in Adolph Rothman's
life became more clear at his funeral. That's when a small
booklet containing a group of Rothman's poems, entitled Sonnets
for Surfers, was distributed. "Adolph worked for a long
time at it," said Barbara of the taut, formalist poems.
"He messed around with them up until he got sick."
Among them is this:
BEACH, RINCON, PUERTO RICO'
is the final moment of the light,
The doubloon-spitting-sea churns up its gold;
The sun disk flowers then falls...and now the night
In lavender chants exequies. Behold!
The surfers have now paddled past the reef
And rest within the heavings of the sea.
Hoorah! All havens gone, at last they're free
Of land, of love, of family, of grief.
summer boys rise up like kings of old
To greet her coming, mother of us all.
See as she comes, herself her self enfold.
Rise up! and ride that raunchy mare 'til foam
Gathers at her flanks and at last she falls
On this dark beach to which she has come home.
these interviews, Barbara Rothman was quick to point out details
of the photo on the back of the booklet - a color view of
Adolph in Guatemala "holding a puppy," she explained.
"We were staying at this house, across a little bridge
past an orange grove, a Spanish style house. The lady who
owned it rented it to us." There was a dog that came
with the house, she recalled. "The second year we were
there the dog had puppies, and someone had fed them poison.
All of them were very sick. Adolph would put them in his back
pack every day, and go up the mountain on this path to the
druggist for something to give them. He would cook them a
special mixture every morning. But they all died, one by one.
That puppy was the last of them."