The Edward Dahlberg Reader
Epitaphs of Our Times: The Letters of Edward Dahlberg
Edward Dahlberg, the distinguished crier in the wilderness and long-time literary martyr, has now attained the double dignity of an Edward Dahlberg Reader and a collection of his letters under the resonant, somber title of Epitaphs of Our Times—the former published by New Directions, the latter by Braziller. These are projects which, as we learn by reading the Epitaphs, have been some time in contemplation. They have a history, and indeed contain some part of it themselves, after the fashion of a snake eating its own tail; for in reading the Epitaphs, we are privileged to participate in an epistolary quarrel with Allen Tate over which letters to Mrs. Tate should be included in the volume before us. Did Mr. Tate indeed kick Mr. Dahlberg out of the house over this issue? It is regrettable that we do not have the full story. It is perhaps more regrettable that we have any part of the story at all. But it is nice to think of the book as containing at least part of its own prehistory, and to contemplate the possibility of its expanding in the other direction through infinitely widening ripples of recriminatory correspondence. Tristram Shandy was scarcely more entangled in the intricate act of explaining himself when he found he had to live two years of biographical time in order to cover six months of autobiographical time, and was thus outstripping his own pen by a proportion of four to one.
FOR ALL THESE fascinating speculations, it is impossible to keep from feeling that, in the division of Dahlbergiana with Braziller, the house of New Directions has come out—metaphorically speaking, of course—top dog. The Reader is a bundle of snippets, to be sure; but it includes all the best and next-best passages from all the best of Mr. Dahlberg’s books. Over the years, he has not been a grandly prolific writer, nor has his vein of inspiration flowed at all smoothly. He has been engaged in striking a precarious, not to say ephemeral, literary balance; his approaches have been various, his inspirations wayward. His achievements are therefore very decently represented by excerpts. There are even fifty pages of letters in the Reader. Some are identical with those in Epitaphs; some are completely different; some are essentially the same but different in their transcriptions of individual words or passages, as well as in their cuts and omissions. At a rough estimate, the editors seem about equally incompetent at reading Mr. Dahlberg’s text and equally indifferent to the problem of presenting it accurately. They rarely indicate omissions; they have no compunction about substituting a word they like for one they don’t—and as their tastes differ, so do their texts. At least the reader of the Reader can be reasonably confident that outside the “Letters” section he is getting prose more or less as Edward Dahlberg wrote it. He is also putting a little less money into a lot more baskets; his chances of …
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