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 finding something to please him are, consequently, a good deal better.
Dahlberg is not, in fact, an easy writer to like. In his later manifestations particularly, he is the paradigm of an artist operating in that bad faith of which modern French criticism makes so much. He is given to vociferous protests about his own genuineness and authenticity; and to make it the more exemplary, he vigorously denigrates almost all his contemporaries and most of his predecessors. He exercises unabashedly a whole gamut of “soft” emotions, from self-pity to mother-love, of which modern literature has been consistently mistrustful. His style often calls attention to itself with the mannered word, the archaic rhythm, the stylized phrase. He is addicted to quotations, pseudo-quotations, and wisdom which has traveled a long way from the sages to contribute very modestly indeed to our sophistication. Read Good Books, Be Kind to Gentle and Sensitive People, and Don’t Sin Against Nature—it is all so earnest and emphatic you scarcely see how it can fail to be profound. Like Rousseau, in whose footsteps he seems to be treading in many ways, Mr. Dahlberg propounds these gems of wisdom half-seriously, half in the expectation a reader will see through or around them. He is, like Rousseau, a bit of a buffoon and charlatan; it is not always easy to know when one is laughing at him and when with him. Thus when his chosen effects come off, as they now and then splendidly do, the effect is almost miraculous, like an Aeolian harp which after much random jangling strikes a rare and complex chord. Clearly the chord would not be so complex nor so resonant if it did not appear as the carefully timed climax of a large, elusive, probably empty game with which we were just becoming impatient.
In spite of its failure to produce an epic, our age is one in which the long-winded have flourished; in spite of a crying need for redemption, it likes to look hardboiled. On both scores, it has been a harsh season for Mr. Dahlberg, who has always been a short-winded writer and has nourished a quite remarkable tolerance of schmalz. The Reader accurately reflects these qualities. Because I was Flesh, Mr. Dahlberg’s extended tribute to his mother, is his one sustained achievement, and it is, accordingly, represented at length; somewhat more than half the book is here, 129 pages out of 234. The other writings are given more perfunctory treatment. Sorrows of Priapus is awarded thirty-three pages, Alms for Oblivion forty-five pages, Flea of Sodom thirty pages, Can These Bones Live sixteen pages, Truth Is More Sacred eight pages, plus three pages of poetry and fifty pages of letters. (Reasons of the Heart, doubtless for some good reason of the head, is not represented.) It seems worth making this deplorably pedestrian inventory in order to emphasize that, though Mr. Dahlberg was indeed born with the century and has been complaining of public neglect for many years now, hardly any of the vintage Dahlberg that makes up the Dahlberg Reader was in print ten years ago, and much more than half the book is less than five years old. The honorable society of Strong Finishers has a new member, and this is a cheerful thing to see; but much of the rhetoric about genius suffering fifty years of heartless neglect is, clearly, in bad faith.
An associated point has to do with Mr. Dahlberg’s persistent predilection for half-forms, pseudo-forms, and fragmented forms. He is fond of the lay sermon masquerading as literary criticism, autobiography under the guise of a character sketch, collections of unverifiable quotations, packets of curious lore doubling vaguely as curiosa; no book is quite what the going categories or its own appearance seem to promise. The Reader represents a really bizarre assemblage of heteromorphic productions, and this fact suggests a restless, uncommitted quality of Mr. Dahlberg’s genius which has not only made it hard for other people to grasp his intent, but has rendered him a cranky, intractable commentator on the intent of others. He is particularly arch in dealing with such men as one would think, on the face of it, Edward Dahlberg should be attracted to. It is easy enough to understand his despising Joyce, Eliot, and Pound as desiccated, unfeeling fellows, rewarded far beyond their merits by a culture that has no use for Heart. But Henry Miller, William Carlos Williams, and D. H. Lawrence as well? And why so fierce a diatribe against Melville, whose romantic evocations and consciously fraudulent rhetoric are the very image of his own? Look who’s talking. One is reminded of a malicious saying often heard around universities, that Professor X’s lofty professional standards are bearable only because he is quite incapable of living up to them himself.
WHAT THEN is the real nature of his achievement? Mr. Dahlberg is not far from defining it himself when in a letter to Isabella Gardner he writes: “Quicksilver is most useful in an ass’s skin, for everything must in some way be covered if the naked truth is to be found and deeply felt” (Epitaphs, p. 210). In his best work, as in modern literature as a whole, myth functions as a way of giving depth, perspective, and perhaps order to the chaos of raw experience. In this very broad respect he is at one with Joyce, Eliot, Pound, and even Wallace Stevens—to whom he refers, with characteristic generosity, as “this deceased vice president of an insurance company” (Epitaphs, p. 279). But Dahlberg is a bit special in using by preference decayed and faded myths; they take in his work the shape of scraps and rags rather than skeletal structures, and he uses them to call meaning into question as much as to assert it. He will lavish on a description of Kansas City the mythologies of thirty different historical garbage-middens; the effect is ultimately disintegrative and phantasmagoric. He himself, with his air of faded and vaguely fictitious gentility, presides over a special bric-a-brac cosmos, an elegiac rhetorician with a special weakness for the fading effigy of an almost unrecoverable impression. He is as close as Kansas City has yet come to producing a Proust. Like Proust, he plays one perspective against another, nostalgia against disgust, innocent illusion against bitter revulsion, distance against closeup—all to an artful, doubtful, and highly literary effect. At his best, Dahlberg is a contrived, entangling writer, a much sophisticated product.
This sort of writer may or may not be to one’s taste, but he is, I think, the last sort of writer who should be encouraged to publish his collected correspondence. A mere egomaniac becomes a frightful bore; a mannered prose writer reduces to a cycle of stylistic tics; and a sentimentalist converts to a thick slice of ham, when a decade of his correspondence is laid out in an unrelenting line. Like a Coney Island distorting mirror, the device of a collected correspondence selects for emphasis just those mannerisms one can least afford to exaggerate further. It is a cruel test, and Mr. Dahlberg has never been much of a test-passer. But give him his own deck of cards and his own game, for he will play no other, and it seems likely he will prove in the end an authentic American artist. Like reversed magnets, these three words repel one another as much as they attract; and that’s Mr. Dahlberg for you, too.
August 24, 1967