Because I Was Flesh
Truth Is More Sacred
Edward Dahlberg is one of the shrewdest, most rugged and interesting “failures” in American letters. One might almost say that in publishing his new autobiography, Because I was Flesh, at a vigorous sixty-four, Dahlberg had exhausted the possibilities of failure in our time, the rhetorical possibilities anyway. Nothing much left for him now but success. Notwithstanding the evidence of his sensible, clean-cut features on book-jackets, or the striking portrait by James Kearns in Can These Bones Live, he never tires of spooking us with intimations of his lacerated Lazarus-face, his pariahhood, his Ishmaelic solitude in a machine-made wilderness. How awful to meet Mr. Dahlberg! The man who knew and appreciated Randolph Bourne, belonged tangentially to the Stieglitz circle, befriended Tate, Josephine Herbst, Herbert Read, and Charles Olson; was befriended by Lawrence and Ford and warmly received by Eliot despite a warning from F. S. Flint that “Tom does not like Jews,” is clearly the victim of some demon of good sense that not only kept him working through three eras of changing tastes but guided him to the best compromise with those tastes. He anticipated Saul Bellow of Augie March in his serio-comic pilferings from the classics, he was way ahead of Fiedler in the love-and-homosexuality gambit about American literature, and he easily wins a prize as the loudest James-and-Eliot hater of them all, “I blame Eliot for nothing except the books that he has written.” (Thanks a million—TSE.) And lastly, he has made as big a personal thing out of Wisdom as John Kennedy made of not wearing a hat. I say it with respect and admiration.
The deceit in Dahlberg’s compromises is more apparent than real. When it isn’t the protective canniness of the self-educated love child of a lady barber from Kansas City, Missouri, it is probably reaction against an ever-threatening success as some kind of intellectual Barnum. He might well have become a distinguished editor of encyclopedias, anthologies, or textbooks. He is, indeed, a literary reactionary with a large, inclusive range. His quotations are often his own, original and amusing, and even at its lowest ebb his magpie classicizing (one envisions the Dahlberg Notebooks in 48 folio volumes) has a nonsensical charm, as when he tells us that Max Stedna’s horse in Kansas City had “more patience than Seneca.” Is patience the virtue for which we esteem Seneca?
But he chose to be a writer, and the alert impresario in his nature knew well how to invest and re-invest the modest capital of absorbed egotism without which no “creative” writer could hope to function. Which is one reason why Because I Was Flesh will probably be judged his best book and why it beautifully illustrates the principle of feedback in its reworking of Bottom Dogs, his first success of 1930; an Arcadian romance full of “gents,” “rounders,” “fellows,” “drummers,” where people “dance with pep” making “keen dips,” where the tenderly regarded hero is called Lorry and his fellow inmates at the Jewish orphanage are Shrimp, Spunk,…
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