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, Bah, Mugsy, Mooty and Prunes. Eheu fugaces! and to think that Lawrence in his famous Introduction found it “objectionable,” giving himself a gold star for having had the courage to praise it. One man’s nostalgia is another man’s Céline. As a matter of fact, the new version is hairier and smellier than the original, closer to Lawrence’s description, but also, at least through the Kansas City episodes and everything concerned with his mother, more cheerful, assured, stronger, and more visible. He has learned how to tap his pride as well as his disgust in his mother’s scatterbrained vitality and kindness. I realize that these late versions of youthful works are not often successful, although Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra is a pertinent case of how they may be, at least in part. Certainly the change of tone and style between Bottom Dogs and Because I was Flesh is as dramatic as any such change in Verdi. It doesn’t happen often in American writing, but as I say this is the age of feedback, of reflexive selfconsciousness. What Dahlberg discovered in the intervening years was the superior interest of his mother’s life and character to his own. His own was literary, after all; in the jewelled show-case of his later manner, she reigns absolutely in all her homely virtu. Herbert Read finds her portrait “as relentless, as detailed, as loving as a late Rembrandt.”
The autobiography is too good an example of the transmutation of style into substance to be quoted piecemeal. Read’s analogy is accurate enough. A very casual browsing might raise a smile at the thudding Biblicisms, the “paps,” “ballocks,” etc., the inverted Johnsonisms about virtue and vice and the epigrams à la Rochester or Montaigne, but only a brief immersion convinces you that all this panache is neither flattery nor hightoned evasion but a profound gallantry toward his subject, the minute passion of a Rembrandt for the flesh of a Saskia. Such a detailed and monumental physicality has never yet graced our fiction except perhaps in the celebration of whales, or our poetry except possibly in Whitman where sex, as the man said, resembles the mating of buffaloes. We may still be totemistic, and Dahlberg’s Lizzie may become a splendid totem under his hands. In any case, the style beautifully distances the humanity; if the former is harmlessly sentimentalized, the latter is de-sentimentalized with courage and conviction.
Dahlberg’s shrewdness is a literary man’s equilibrium as he is alternately chronicler, critic, prophet, wit, and buffoon Perhaps the chief of the many contradictions amongst which this author sits like a sun-baked Moabite amongst his wash-pots is that his great friend, Sir Herbert Read, has a low opinion, or none at all, of the twentyish, “Jewish,” speakeasy humor that saves Dahlberg from most of his vices, that at least approaches Nathanael West of Balso Snelt in learned mordancy and early Stevens in its sometimes sublime (and of course, serious) diffidence.
Truth Is More Sacred, an exchange of letters about Joyce, Lawrence, James, Graves, Eliot, and Pound, is a largely pointless and occasionally just plain disagreeable undertaking, little more than a solemn parody of the private exchange the two men might have had, with mutual benefit to themselves, thirty years ago. But it has great symptomatic interest. “As for his poetry,” Read replies to some fatuous remarks by Dahlberg on Graves, “I recognize its cleverness but it never moves me: it is essentially a-musing, a word which has nothing to do with the Muse, but means to stand animal-like with your muzzle in the air.” To which Dahlberg has the only retort when he observes elsewhere that Hercules was educated by Chiron the centaur, half-animal and half-man. What choice is there, in this strange book, between the ultra-refined Bloomsbury bucolic humanism of Read, which misses the target as often as it hits it, and Dahlberg’s corybantic rage at authors whose intentions he is seldom aware of, let alone their accomplishments? Read’s response to Dahlberg’s description of Joyce as a “Gargantuan urinal” is pleasant enough: “I do not think of you as a feral beast, ready to bite the tradesmen of letters, but rather as a druid, still hiding in the desecrated grove…” But Dahlberg isn’t buying the druid bit, and when the small orgy of demolition is over we find poor Read, bloody and bowed, somewhat absurdly describing himself as “a modest and uncertain laudator temporis acti…” The rift has become a chasm: Bloomsbury and the Village are no closer than before. The role of humor in modern literature has been ignored in both practice and precept, and somehow read, who extravagantly praised Dahlberg’s style in an introduction to Can These Bones Live (1941), is too kindly to hoot at his school-marmy treatment of James and Eliot as it should be hooted at. The book is the most dignified piece of noncommunication I can recall.
But it does serve as an impressive epitaph to the anti-scientific, anti-rationalist humanism that both men share with some of their victims. One itches to jump to the defense of science and reason, however much more one may like Joyce, Lawrence, James, etc., than they do. As a whole literary philosophy, their line of thinking seems to have been exhausted by Yeats and his generation. In surviving with his prejudices intact, Dahlberg reveals the hollowness of a prosy irrationalism. All it boils down to is that he prefers Classical and Renaissance science to modern science because he finds them more colorful and accessible; he studied them when his mind was more open to new ideas. He shows by his violence, like nobody else, how Yeats’s authority was supported by dream, magic and incantation, how the Tragic Vision, which a critic like Stanley Edgar Hyman can comfortably tuck into his intellectual baggage along with Frazer, Freud, Marx, and Darwin, is little other than straight Yeats, and how this powerful aristocratic reaction has had to yield either to a more vehemently literary, archaizing reaction like Dahlberg’s or else to inclusion in Hyman’s sort of rationalist pantheon. The point being, I suppose, that science itself, or the literary man’s view of it, has changed, in extending itself so far into technology as once again to change human nature. We are what we do (Aristotle says), and technology is now a considerable part of what most people do. At any rate, the play of thought and action between science and technology has become more accessible, more enjoyable. Perhaps we see better than anyone could when Read and Dahlberg were doing their heavy thinking, years ago, how the energies of science can be turned against uniformity and cheapness—the great possibilities of a “peace” based as much on technology, i.e., reason, as on fear. If we can accept peace on such terms, much of Dahlberg’s hot-gospeling for Art and Beauty will seem as quaint, in time, as Pater’s. So let us reach a comradely hand to Mr. Harold Wilson of the Labour Party: thou shalt shrive me, O Science, and I will be whiter than Snow.
Dahlberg’s other and far better critical book, Can These Bones Live, is given depth and force by hatred of war and statism. It pays eloquent tribute to whatever in Thoreau, Melville, Bourne, Sherwood Anderson and his other enthusiasms made for a peaceable alliance between man and nature, and damns whatever in American life separates men from sexual and domestic happiness. Here is the “Jewish”-humanist Dahlberg at his courageous best: the sections on Thoreau and Bourne are first-rate. Art is forgotten in discovering how certain writers bore witness to human possibility.
I confess, a bit sheepishly, that the book I enjoyed most of the seven of his I read was the first half of The Sorrows of Priapus, an almost unfailingly delightful compendium of crank natural history dug out of the classics, inimitably written; an organon of wonderful nonsense, a genially bilious bestiary not for children.
The crocodile is a modest brute whose penis and testicles are internal, and he could be regarded the peer of saints did he keep these members there.
The landrail is sluggish and abhors its wings, though it appears to be a disciple of Pythagoras. It is found in the corn-fields, clover and among the brakes, but its craw is filled with snails. Such food is not for a warrior or thinker.
Dahlberg can accomplish more—or less—with his “but” and “though” than any writer I can think of—the reward of simple living and high thought. Just when we hoped that Pythagoras had found a new disciple!
The Flea Of Sodom (1950) is a minor work, when he was just getting the feel of post-war optimism and uncertain what tone to take. Some of it is high-rhetorical, gem-studded wisdom-writing of unsure focus; the best of it a hearty satire on Russophilic New York of the Thirties:
The bestial centaur could not be more insolent than the collectivist. It was a radical credo to be a boor; courtesy was for dreamy utopians, single-taxers, lucystoners, libertarians. A marxian, who lay in his chair all day waiting for Prague, Madrid, Barcelona to fall, never got up when a visitor arrived, because he believed in equality.
The tables were occupied by a few marxists eating vile bread upon which they pasted mustard or ketchup. The spear of Menelaus never destroyed as many men as these harpy sauces.
Chucklesome enough, these antics of the marxian poet, Thersites Golem, his girl, Andromache Lucy, and their rich bourgeois patron, Pilate Agenda. But he was too close to it all for the satire to work up much steam—Dahlberg as dutch uncle, all-seeing caleteria comic, simmering with a very sociable scorn.
Priapus, Flesh, and Bones are the books to have. In the first two he quietly drops his affected disdain for naturalism; in Priapus through a slyly oblique kind of natural history, in Flesh through a passionately amused commitment to his one secure fable—his own early life.
March 19, 1964