Papers of Cultural Critic Ellen Willis, 1941–2006: Now at the Schlesinger

Ellen Willis_courtesy of Nona Willis Aronowitz
By Pat Harrison

In 1968, after Ellen Willis had published a single article about music—the story of Bob Dylan’s career in the context of folk music, folk-rock, psychedelic music, and the British renaissance—the New Yorker hired her to be its first rock critic. Willis had worked on the Dylan piece, “Before the Flood,” published in the counterculture magazine Cheetah, for five months, and it showed. Her views were complicated, ambiguous, and illuminating. She was already writing as a cultural critic, not limiting herself to music. “Dylan has exploited his image as a vehicle for artistic statement,” Willis wrote. “The same is true of Andy Warhol and, to a lesser degree, of the Beatles and Allen Ginsburg. (In contrast, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe were creatures, not masters, of their images.)” Insightful stuff, especially from a 26-year-old.

The Schlesinger Library acquired Willis’s papers in 2008, after Nancy F. Cott, the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the library and the Jonathan Trumbull Professor in Harvard’s history department, contacted Willis’s widower, Stanley Aronowitz, who is a distinguished professor of sociology and urban education at the City University of New York. Processing of the Willis papers was made possible by gifts from the Radcliffe College Classes of 1950 and 1968.

Cheetah MagazineCheetah MagazineAmong the 10 boxes of Willis’s papers are correspondence, diaries, drafts of articles, artwork her daughter Nona Willis Aronowitz made as a child, short stories, unfinished novels, and an original copy of the Cheetah issue containing the Dylan piece (see back cover). There’s also a brief note that Simone de Beauvoir sent to Willis at Rolling Stone—where she was a columnist from 1976 to 1978—regretfully declining an invitation to be interviewed. 

In 1969, while Willis was writing for the New Yorker, where she remained on staff until 1975, she and other New York feminists founded Redstockings. The name came from combining “bluestockings” (for intellectual women) with a color that signaled their leftist politics. Redstockings’ manifesto and principles, contained in Willis’s papers, may sound over the top to contemporary readers (“All men receive economic, sexual, and psychological benefits from male supremacy. All men have oppressed women”), but they are true to their time. Willis eventually focused more on feminism, family, and politics than on rock music in her writing.

Joni Mitchell's Blue: What hit me first was that the freaky voice had found its purpose. Before, it had just been there; now Joni was controlling it, using it to express an exploratory urgency that her lyrics confirmed. Blue was less a collection of songs than a piece of music divided into sections. —1973

Jenny Gotwals, one of the library’s lead manuscript catalogers, who processed the Willis papers, notes that some of Willis’s views differed dramatically from those of other second-wave feminists whose papers also reside at the library. “It’s great for the library and for history that we have this spectrum,” Gotwals says. Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, for example, campaigned against pornography, whereas Willis was a leader in the anti-antipornography camp. In a column for the Village Voice, Willis famously wrote, “In practice, attempts to sort out good erotica from bad porn inevitably come down to ‘What turns me on is erotic; what turns you on is pornographic.’”

Interest in Willis was renewed in the spring of 2011 when the University of Minnesota Press published a collection of her articles edited by her daughter. Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music contains 59 of Willis’s essays, most of which originally appeared in the New Yorker. Nona Willis Aronowitz, an associate editor and writer at Good magazine (where one of her recent articles was “Campaign Kids: Jon Huntsman’s Daughters and the Politics of Family”), says that she decided shortly after her mother’s death to compile the book.

The Velvet Underground: What it comes down to for me— as a Velvets fan, a lover of rock and roll, a New Yorker, an aes- thete, a punk, a sinner, a some- time seeker of enlightenment (and love)(and sex)—is this: I believe that we are all, openly or secretly, struggling against one or another kind of nihilism. I believe that body and spirit are not really separate, though it often seems that way. I believe that redemption is never impossible and always equivocal. But I guess that I just don't know.1979

“Right after she died, there were a lot of obituaries online and in print about her writing, and a big chunk of them remembered her music writing,” Aronowitz says. “I didn’t realize she had such a cult following in the music world. When I was born, she had already left rock criticism behind and was more interested in feminism and politics and foreign policy.” It became clear to Aronowitz that her mother had been a pioneer in rock criticism, and “that she was one of the first and one of the best.”

Willis taught journalism at New York University beginning in 1990 and founded its Cultural Reporting and Criticism program in 1995. In April 2011, Aronowitz and a couple of Willis’s students organized a conference to celebrate the publication of Aronowitz’s book. Titled “Sex, Hope, & Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Writings of Ellen Willis,” the conference was held at NYU. Speakers included Robert Christgau, a reigning rock critic of the 1960s and 1970s, and Daphne Brooks RI ’11, an English and African American studies professor at Princeton University, who was thrilled to find the Willis papers at the library during her Radcliffe fellowship and used them to consider Willis’s relationship to black feminism in a piece she presented at the conference.

In her talk, “Soul Surfer: Riding the ‘Then, There’ and ‘What Might Be’ of Ellen Willis’s Second Wave,” Brooks first pondered a photograph of Willis from the 1960 college issue of Mademoiselle that she had found in the Schlesinger archive. Brooks marveled over discovering “this image of a nearly 19-year-old Ellen Willis in a smart shirtwaist dress, her lovely curls shaped into a neat New Frontier coiffure, sitting face-to-face with the genius, celebrated Lorraine Hansberry.” Willis was a junior at Barnard College when she won the Mademoiselle competition to serve as a summer guest editor of the magazine. She chose to profile Hansberry, a 30-year-old playwright who had triumphed a year earlier with A Raisin in the Sun, the first play by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway.

Janis Joplin: It occurs to me that perhaps Thelma and Louise is the memorial Janis deserves. And with that thought, I grab my Joplin in Concert album off the shelf—the one with the cover picture of Janis wearing funny round glasses and feathers in her hair and an immortal smile—and play "Get It While You Can" at top volume. This above all is Janis's message to the world: Don't turn your back on love.—1993

Brooks noted that Willis was more engaged with white male musicians such as Dylan and the Rolling Stones than with black artists and feminists, but she also pointed out several moments—such as her profile of Lorraine Hansberry—when Willis broadened her scope. While Brooks celebrates Willis’s pioneering work, she also declared that she wished “that Willis had gifted us with more extraordinary pieces on women—and especially women of color who rocked the democratic ideals of freedom and pleasure like she heard and saw in Janis [Joplin]. I wish that we had Ellen Willis articles that saw the outlaw rebel spirit in Etta James riding up and down the open interstate highway 5 like the road warrior journeyman Dylan in her definitive piece on him.”  

Willis was only 64 when she died of lung cancer, in 2006, but her voice lives on in her work. Younger feminists are becoming aware of her, not only through Aronowitz’s book and the three collections of essays published during her lifetime—Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll (Knopf, 1981); No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays (Wesleyan University Press, 1993); and Don’t Think, Smile! Notes on a Decade of Denial (Beacon Press, 1999)—but also through web postings (see below). Feminists of any age might welcome Willis’s commentary on contemporary culture right now.


Ellen Willis Online

Nona Willis Aronowitz maintains a site where she has posted much of her mother’s writing and several photographs of her: http://ellenwillis.tumblr.com. The e-bookstore Emily Books is also spreading the word about Willis with its blog at http://emilybooks.tumblr.com/.

Search Year: 
2011