Jump to Content

Collection Guide
Collection Title:
Collection Number:
Get Items:
Lew Welch Papers
MSS 0013  
View entire collection guide What's This?
PDF (118.51 Kb) HTML
Search this collection
Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Biography
  • Publication Rights
  • Preferred Citation
  • Acquisition Information
  • Restrictions

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Lew Welch Papers
    Identifier/Call Number: MSS 0013
    Contributing Institution: Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego
    9500 Gilman Drive
    La Jolla, California, 92093-0175
    Languages: English
    Physical Description: 2.6 Linear feet (6 archives boxes and 1 card file box)
    Date (inclusive): 1943 - 1971
    Abstract: The papers of an important member of the West Coast Beat poetry community. Lew Welch's papers include correspondence, poetry, prose, plays, essays, songs, scrolls, and notebooks. The collection as a whole contains information pertaining both to Welch's personal battle with recurring depression as well as his struggle to construct a Beat poetry that might do justice to his notion -- inherited from his hero, William Carlos Williams -- of "The American Idiom."
    Creator: Welch, Lew

    Scope and Content of Collection

    The Lew Welch Papers document the life of an important member of the West Coast poetry community. The materials cover the period 1943 to 1971 and are organized into four series: 1) CORRESPONDENCE; 2) WRITINGS; 3) REVIEWS AND ANNOUNCEMENTS; and 4) PERSONAL AND BUSINESS RECORDS.
    The CORRESPONDENCE series is organized alphabetically, and includes materials from Donald Allen, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen. Of particular biographical importance are the 18 folders containing letters from Welch's mother, Dorothy Brownfield Welch. Mrs. Welch wrote her son regularly from 1943 to his death in May 1971.
    The WRITINGS series is subdivided into sub-series of "poetry," "essays," "prose and plays," "scrolls," "songs," and "notebooks." Within the "Poetry" subseries are notes, revisions, and alternate versions of Welch's published material, as well as those poems that remained unpublished. The subseries "Essays" includes carbons and xeroxes of Welch's pieces for The San Francisco Oracle and The Realist. Also included are pieces entitled "Expose the Bones of Rhetoric," "Language is Speech," and "The Use of Poetry," each of which provide the reader with a clear understanding of Welch's strategies for constructing a poetry in the "American idiom." Also included in this subseries is an essay dedicated to William Carlos Williams ("Early Poems and Long Thing for WCW," 1950), as well as Welch's 1950 Reed College BA thesis, "The Writing of Gertrude Stein: Its Nature and Principles." The "Notebooks" subseries is highly useful as a passage-key into the inner workings of Welch's writing praxis. Included are 10 notebooks, each containing notes, rough drafts, and outlines -- the materials from which later poems were generated. Of particular historical importance is the 1971 spiral-bound notebook with an entry dated 14 May 1971: this is believed to be Welch's final note before his suicide or disappearance into the wilderness.
    The REVIEWS AND ANNOUNCEMENTS series contains xeroxes and originals of reviews both of Welch's work and by Welch on other poets' work. Included are xeroxes and originals of announcements for readings at the San Fransicso State Poetry Center, San Quentin Prison (with Richard Brautigan), and others.
    The PERSONAL AND BUSINESS RECORDS series contains miscellaneous documents such as Welch's Grove Press contracts and his Pacific Coast Clerks Union book. Of particular interest is a photocopy of a "Statement of Opposition" to the Vietnam War. The statement is endorsed by Welch, Robin Blaser, Jack Spicer, Gary Snyder, Robert Creely, Robert Duncan, and Joanne Kyger, all of whose names appear typed, but not signed. The photocopy itself is signed by Philip Whalen and Allen Ginsberg, and is dated 15 July 1965.
    Although the bulk of the collection was acquired from Donald Allen in 1974, additional materials were received from Allen in 1978. The later additions have been integrated with the materials from the first accession.


    Although Lewis Barrett Welch's life was marked by uncertainty and a lack of permanent goals, he gained an enduring position in the world of literature through his writings and personal influence.
    Welch was born 16 August 1926 in Phoenix, Arizona, to Lewis Barrett Welch Sr. and Dorothy Brownfield Welch. Mrs. Welch was the daughter of a wealthy Phoenix surgeon. Lew Welch claimed that he began suffering mental breakdowns while still a baby, about which he once told David Melzer, "I went to the loony bin when I was fourteen months old. . . It is the world's record. Even among my beat generation friends. I have the world's record. I copped out, I went crazy, split, I said 'forget it!'"
    Following the birth of Welch's sister his parents marriage broke up, and Dorothy Welch moved the family to California in 1929. Welch was three at the time, and for most of his childhood his mother moved from town to town in California. He attended schools in Santa Monica, Coronado, La Mesa, and El Cajon. In Palo Alto Welch finished high school.
    While still in school Welch enlisted in the Air Force, and he entered the Force following graduation. He spent less than a year in the service and then returned to California, where he enrolled at Stockton Junior College. While at Stockton he met James Wilson, a teacher who encouraged him to write. It was Wilson who suggested that Welch study at Reed College, a school in Oregon with a reputation for a progressive faculty and student body.
    Welch entered Reed College in 1948, and the following year moved into a house with Gary Snyder; the following year they were joined by Philip Whalen. By the fall of 1949 Welch was co-editor of the school's literary magazine and was writing constantly. He wrote his senior thesis on Gertrude Stein and graduated in 1950.
    The period following Welch's graduation was marked by turbulence. During the summer of 1950 he planned to move to Chile, and he asked his mother for a $1000 loan for the trip. By fall he had changed his plans and remained in Oregon. Late in the year he met William Carlos Williams, who was to become Welch's hero. Welch went to visit Williams in New Jersey and ultimately rented an apartment in New York City. His initial enthusiasm for the city soon diminished, however, and after a brief stay in Florida he moved to Chicago. There he enrolled in the Master's program at the University of Chicago. Again, he quickly became discouraged and depressed, and in 1951 suffered a nervous breakdown.
    Welch dropped out of school and began undergoing psychoanalysis.
    He lived a relatively tranquil life for the next five years, and in 1953 he went to work preparing ads for Montgomery Ward. Shortly thereafter he married Mary Garber.
    For a number of years Welch showed his poetry only to close friends. With the emergence of the Beat movement, however, Welch's friends Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder began receiving national attention. Welch's desire to devote himself completely to his poetry was revived. He transferred to the Oakland office of Montgomery Ward and soon became a part of the San Francisco poetry scene. In 1958 he was fired from his job. His marriage fell apart soon after.
    At the same time, however, Welch's poetry was beginning to meet with some success. Donald Allen included one of Welch's poems in The New American Poetry -- the important anthology published in 1960. That same year Welch's first book, Wobbly Rock, was published. He was drinking heavily during this time, but he continued to write extensively. For a time he lived with his mother in Reno, Nevada, and then in a cabin in the Trinity Alps. He moved back to San Francisco in 1963, and in 1965 published three books.
    In 1965 Welch began teaching a poetry workshop offered through the Extension program of the University of California at Berkeley. Despite his burgeoning success, Welch's bouts with depression and heavy drinking continued. After the breakup of another relationship in 1971 Welch returned to the mountains. On 23 May 1971, Gary Snyder went up to Welch's campsite and found a suicide note in Welch's truck. Despite an extensive search, Welch's body was never recovered.

    Publication Rights

    Publication rights are held by the creator of the collection.

    Preferred Citation

    Lew Welch Papers, MSS 13. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego.

    Acquisition Information

    Acquired 1974, 1978.


    Original scrolls located in Box 7 are restricted; photocopies must be used instead. The most fragile scroll, a 1961 version of "Din Poem," has been scanned. The digital version may be viewed, upon request, in the Special Collections & Archives reading room.

    Subjects and Indexing Terms

    Allen, Donald, 1912-2004 -- Correspondence
    Brautigan, Richard -- Correspondence
    Brownfield, Dorothy -- Correspondence
    Doyle, Kirby -- Correspondence
    Moore, Marianne, 1887-1972 -- Correspondence
    Snyder, Gary, 1930- -- Correspondence
    Upton, Charles, 1948- -- Correspondence
    Welch, Lew -- Archives
    Whalen, Philip -- Correspondence
    American poetry -- 20th century
    Scrolls (Visual works) -- 1961-1964