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Ajax’s Sheep

In response to:

Crier in the Wilderness from the August 24, 1967 issue

To the Editors:

Pascal says that man is malicious and Robert M. Adams proves it in his review of The Edward Dahlberg Reader and Epitaphs of Our Times: The Letters of Edward Dahlberg in your issue of August 24. Quevedo would describe his ruse as “the singular miracle of self interest;” were Mr. Adams clever enough to ruin me, he might secure advancement in the Department of English at Cornell University. He falls upon me as mad Ajax did, mistaking the sheep for Agamemnon.

Mr. Adams has rigid canons about the novel, but is an acolyte of Joyce who disavowed all of them. The cult of the same obtains in American letters, and if you don’t regard Henry James and Fitzgerald with “holy assinity,” you can’t be any good yourself.

His spleen is just short of billingsgate; in one place he rails at me because I am an egomaniac. Having a more tender nature than he surmises I am willing to share this word with him, and let him be the maniac and I the ego.

During my darkling periods, I somewhere or other had the effrontery to maintain I always have been a truthful author, and that has sorely bruised him. Obviously he and that homeless fellow, Honesty, have never been friendly toward one another.

Despite his accusations, I had long seizures of conscience. When Ferlinghetti of City Lights wanted to reissue Bottom Dogs, I told him it was my obligation to unknown readers to impugn such fiction, and I commenced a short prologue with Tolstoi’s marvelous admonition: “Many men write books, but very few are ashamed of them afterwards.”

I wrote the first anti-Nazi novel, Those Who Perish, in America, for which I received $200. When Hitler was dictator, Fisher Verlag offered to translate Bottom Dogs and From Flushing into German but I declined.

My guerdon for making books has been so negligible that I told one man that when a writer earns as much as a charwoman, we will have a U.S.A. Utopia.

Mr. Adams complains because my volumes are not sustained by which he means he does not approve of their brevity. Bottom Dogs is 269 pages long, From Flushing to Calvary about the same, and only half of The Sorrows of Priapus was published; the second part will come out in January or February. Very compassionate, I might be forcing a reader, weighing 90 pounds, to handle an elephant folio.

Mr. Adams is positive the epistles, Epitaphs of Our Times, were composed for posterity, a mute headstone. This disgruntled chuff despises my references to other poets, and reluctantly I secure the aid of Fielding who declared that there is nothing wrong with your remark except it is untrue.

What can I do with this truss of cavils? He is angry with Mr. Seaver, Mr. Laughlin, and Mr. Carroll. Could I find a minion for this wretched soul I would do so to quiet him.

My steadfast foe states nobody should be encouraged to publish my letters, but he is so fond of them that he reproaches Edwin Seaver, my literary editor, for patching a few sentences by putting in words here and there, which Adams forlornly says is not Dahlberg. Had my hackney any self-esteem he would not viciously assault himself by exposing his fusty scribbling. Here is a scantling of his dross that every prentice to letters should eschew: “has nourished a quite remarkable tolerance of schmaltz,” “a sentimentalist converts to a thick slice of ham,” “reduces to a cycle of stylistic tic.” One of his gallows similes is: “Like a Coney Island distorting mirror, the device of a collected correspondence,” “expanding in widening ripples of recriminatory correspondence.” Here is another seraphic line of this pedagogue: “Mr. Dahlberg has not been much of a test-passer.”

He says I am dated because I love my mother; he is alluding to that dry sherd, Because I Was Flesh. I suppose he beats his father, mother, sisters and uterine brothers in order to be stylish and chic.

Another pedantic ulcer which plagues him when he peruses my books is that I allude to the ancients, and he falls into the dust as he does not know whether my quotations are false or not. Am I also to bear the onus of his ignorance? Besides, the works of Sir Thomas Browne and Robert Burton are gorged with citations. Rabelais frequently mentions Antisthenes, and other pholosophers of the Stoa. Suppose these immortal authors tell us that one thought said to have come from Ovid is an aphorism by Apuleius. Does it matter so long as the adage is memorable?

What irks him is that I do not admire Joyce. Long ago I thought that Joyce had broken the vertebrate of English. My purpose is to revivify the language, and I am of the mind that a highly civilized commonweal depends upon the purity of the tropes and the genuine idioms borrowed from Swift, Thomas Deloney, Thomas Nashe, a peasant or an artisan and are not the uncouth neologisms coined to increase the cupidity of the cartel. It is a gargantuan misfortune that a professor is no more eloquent than a porter or a scullion. In spite of his animosity toward my occasional archaisms, he risks what the up-to-date grammarians would assert is obsolete. Mr. Adams speaks of “kitchen-middens” which should be kitchen-midden. Swift believed only a parlour-maid had the right to mis-spell words.

His vocabulary is also soporific; in several lines he repeats faded and fading three times, and in a gawkish phrase he reiterates intent twice. It would not be amiss to advise him to study Ben Jonson’s Poetaster.

He seems to surmise that I grieve all day long because the public neglects me. We have a wizened audience for truthful books. A dead author is valuable merchandise, but a live one generally is put in our cold storage of attica. Besides, is he unfamiliar with the lamentations in the epistles of Baudelaire? He received scanty praise in the press and beseeched Saint-Beuve to rescue Les Fleurs du Mal, but this moldy critic thought it a hazard to be his advocate. Seventeen copies of Stendhal’s L’Amour were sold, and ten of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarasthustra. To go back to the ancients, Aeschylus went into voluntary exile because an award he felt he had earned was given to a puny versifier.

He stoops to a pun, the vermin of the petit-bourgeois and the daily rags, hoping he can kill a book of mine. He dismisses Reasons of the Heart, which he alleges was omitted, “for reasons of the head.”

Always the witling, and is not American humor an oxymoron? He slyly suggests that I mock the reader, and when I delineate a portrait of a celebrated figure, I am not plain.

Why he abuses me for not producing more books when he hates what I have already done is an enigma for fleas. But I have published 15, and moreover, would he cast off Surrey, Wyatt and Sir Walter Raleigh who wrote far less than I did?

He prattles about forms, pseudo forms, depth and perspective, and what do they mean? All I can answer is that after hours of discipline I might by chance discover a genre or a squib. Like those who positively have no imagination, he is sure a real author has a magical scheme in his mind when he commences writing; alas his head is void. Or as Flaubert held: “But if I am becoming stupid, it is Lucian, Shakespeare and the writing of a novel that are the cause.”

It may be fatuous to trouble about this weanling, for should I eradicate him, the same fools with different names will take his place.

Since Mr. Adams proclaims I do not dote on modern book, my reply is that if this carrion review is literature, nothing remains, or as Thucydides says, “Better the Pelasgian ground left waste.”

Edward Dahlberg

Sag Harbor, New York

Robert M Adams replies:

La Rochefoucauld or is it Beaumarchais says you can’t please everybody, and so far as my review of Dahlbergiana is concerned, I’ll buy some of that.

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