The Carnal Myth A Search into Classical Sensuality
The Leafless American
“Man must eat fables, or starve his soul to death.” So writes Edward Dahlberg, and he has a right to the oracular pronouncement, because it has been his consistent goal as an imaginative writer to transmute his own experience into fable. To this end he has taken his life, his misfortunes, his wanderings, his encounters and memories, and subjected them to the deep-heat treatment of creative meditation until they have yielded their essence. And if the result is not very much in quantity—one masterpiece, two or three near-misses, and a shelf of volumes whose interest is mainly ancillary—no one will carp except the enthusiastic tyro who has not yet learned that art, unlike commerce, does not reckon a pocketful of small change to be the equivalent of one gold coin.
Dahlberg, like his coeval the twentieth century, has lived through at least two phases. In the first he was a mordant realist, exposing to the world’s eye the scabs and toerags of the modern industrial pariah. This was the Dahlberg who could wring from D. H. Lawrence an essay that began,
When we think of America, and of her huge success, we never realize how many failures have gone, and still go, to build up that success. It is not till you live in America, and go a little under the surface, that you begin to see how terrible and brutal is the mass of failure that nourishes the roots of the gigantic tree of dollars.
Lawrence’s introduction to Bottom Dogs, after that arresting start, very quickly ceases to have any relevance to the book and becomes one more tissue of large Lawrentian generalities about “the collapse of the flow of spontaneous warmth between a man and his fellows,” about “repulsive consciousness,” and the rest. Certainly the novel gave Lawrence an excellent pulpit. The story Dahlberg has to tell is another matter. It is the story of poverty, illegitimacy, insecurity; the shabby rooming-house, the grimy street, and the cheap dance-hall with its promise of promiscuous sex and its crop of humiliations and frustrations. Bottom Dogs is an interesting book in the vein of the proletarianizing Thirties; in itself, one would hesitate to rate it more highly than that; with its quick, vivid scene-setting, its no-nonsense spelling of “nite,” “enuf,” even “brusk,” it belongs with the work of Farrell, Bodenheim, and the even more forgotten writers of that era.
Dahlberg wrote two more books in this vein: From Flushing to Calvary (1932) and Those Who Perish (1934). I have done no more than glance into Those Who Perish, which did not attract me but must be given, at least, the credit of being one of the earliest attempts to cut through to the cancerous core of German Nazism. But From Flushing to Calvary is an excellent book, taking the story of Dahlberg’s youth to its tragic culmination in the death of his mother Lizzie. In the five years since Bottom Dogs, Dahlberg has grown considerably as …