“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 a writer: his language is suppler and stronger, his range is wider, and though the story dives deeply into tragedy it also swings out into wild farce. Dahlberg is emerging as an artist; he is no longer tempted to stick at the menial ambition to describe things; he wants to make something.
A long silence followed. Dahlberg attempted to take up the autobiographical theme once more, but got no further than a fragment short enough to be published in a magazine (Bitch Goddess, 1936). Perhaps the drying-up of his accustomed vein brought on a crisis in which he withdrew into some unguessed at wilderness to re-examine his art. Whatever happened, Dahlberg now undertook the task of re-shaping his mind, sloughing off his earlier personality as a naturalistic enragé, and emerged again shortly after his fortieth year with the evidence of having turned the corner.
The new Dahlberg, as manifested in his book of essays Do These Bones Live (1941), is fiercely contemptuous of photographic realism and naïve documentary truth-telling. “The American writer does not express the world, but copies it and lets it sieve through him. There is no more dismal misconception of creation, or de-energizing act, than this sieving of the times.” Dahlberg is as good as his word. From now on, his work moves away from the frontal scrutiny of life that characterized his bioscope days. What he seeks now is the mythical dimension. He becomes, in fact, a modern artist.
“Modern,” that is, in the historical sense. Most of the writing produced nowadays is post-modern or, as it is sometimes called, “contemporary.” The modern movement in literature, which Dahlberg joined some time between 1934 and 1941, and of which he and David Jones are now the two senior representatives in English, was largely concerned to transmogrify experience into myth: to give to everyday episodes that range of implication which animates the great anonymous world-explaining stories of mankind. “Man must eat fables, or starve his soul to death.” Somewhere in that decade, Dahlberg contrived to renew his vision, to see the world afresh and clothe it in a new basic imagery.
Do These Bones Live is a crucial book in the graph of Edward Dahlberg’s development, because in these essays we can see the author marking out his new territory. He has now, finally, penetrated beyond the streets and warehouses, the machine-like crowds and the crowding machines, to the life that exists behind this and is primordial. Pushing beyond the superficies of “literary” or “social” criticism, he goes in each case to the inward nerve. Totalitarianism, for example, prompts the reflection:
The craving for a dark age is eternal: the Apocalyptic Whore who comes to save man is the rotting, pullulating Attila, Tamerlaine or Hitler of his own devouring blood. The storm-trooper is but the decayed tempest of self-loathing. Darkness is ubiquitous: the communist machines that free the enlightened Russian proletariat are the rational devils that obsessed the revolutionist. Petersburg, Dostoievski’s or Stalin’s, is the cold, rational theoretic city—the megalopolitan ditch in which the abstract biped overpoweringly rots, alone.
The Marxian logic of exorcism and taboo is a national surrogate for ancient blood rites. The public hate-festivals which all dictators hold are based on homeopathic magic: books and effigies are burnt in the same spirit as images of fat and grain, made to resemble an enemy, are buried by primitive people. National memorial hymns are used to arouse cult-like superstitions about other peoples. Class hatred is a substitute for human sacrifice: the masses, through state victory chants, book burning, giant war parades or tanks, airplane maneuvers, robotized phalanxes of soldiers, devour their enemies…. Like a pharaoh, man lies in his tomb with a pancake and cornmeal god at his side and so embalms his heart and brain, not knowing that they alone can rise from the grave and make him immortal.
Dahlberg’s early novels dealt with the theme of alienation, loneliness, separateness. They showed Lizzie clinging to society by the precarious handhold of other people’s bunions, double chins, sagging breasts, stubbly chins, and unwanted pregnancies, and her son forced by the hailstorms of the world into a relationship with her that was too close for comfort, so that he longed continually to be free; yet when circumstances did free him for a time, it was always into some hell like the Cleveland Jewish Orphans’ Home. These disadvantages would have sunk an ungifted man, turned him permanently into a grumbling failure. In Dahlberg’s case, the disadvantages became the title-deed to his own birth-right. During his period of re-thinking, he rejected the dominant assumptions of the modern world, including its cultural assumptions, and by a paradox this catapulted him into the imaginative world of Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, and Rilke. That he drew his own map of that world is owing to another important element in Dahlberg’s character as an artist: his Jewishness.
When Dahlberg contemplates his own troubled and tragic beginnings, the imagery that naturally comes to his mind is predominantly Biblical. Almost any page will yield examples:
Who is my father? was my continual liturgy. Was I got upon the knop of a little hillock, like Gargantua? It did not matter. Not where or how, but who? Has not the pismire a sire? Eber was born unto Shem, and Cush begat Nimrod, but who begot me? In an old midrash it is told that birds are fashioned out of marshy ground saturated with water. Was my origin similar, or did I come out of the loins of the maggot? We live in an unfilial age, and though the son curse the father, he ranges the whole earth looking for the Cave of Machpelah, where lie Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
In any other writer this downpour of Old Testament references would be a matter of mere stage-setting; but not in Dahlberg. He has forced the meditation of his life into mythical shape, just as Yeats did. The story of his wanderings is, to him, a legend no less brimming with fabulous significance because it happened within living memory and to him personally.
How or when I came to Needles, California, I do not know. What had I gained from my misfortunes? I crept into coal cars, and snow, hail and rain were my roof. When I had to flee from a brakeman with a club or from a plainclothes man, I would slink into a town of asphalt taken from the Dead Sea. Trudging over countless guts of cement that ran like slag in Gehenna, I stuffed my scabrous shoes with newspapers. My suit was a sickness; the moth sighed in my shirt and trousers. I was threadbare, hungered when I ate and imprisoned when I was free. I swallowed sleet, wind and confusion. Was I wandering on a peopleless comet without herbs, grass or ocean? How much punishment can the body take without corrupting the spirit? Could I feed upon my sores and not stink? My hair fell out in large clumps, and when I viewed the miserable remnants of my boyhood, vultures appeared. I moaned for my youth, for I was only nineteen at the time; baldness had come upon Gaza and my bones sang in the cinders and waste places of Jerusalem.
Because I was Flesh succeeds in the tremendous undertaking of mythologizing modern America, as thoroughly as Joyce mythologized Dublin. The concreteness of Dahlberg’s descriptions should reassure us that this was brought off at no crippling cost to non-metaphorical truth. Kansas City in 1905 is there, in all its vigor and noise, its smells of horses, trees, and men. Try reading the opening paragraphs to the sound of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Kansas City Stomp,” recorded in 1928 but clearly reflecting the idiom of the early Dahlberg days. It is still a rustic town, still smelling of oats and sweat, but very fast and with money about. It must have deserved Dahlberg’s tribute: “Homer sang of many sacred towns in Hellas which were no better than Kansas City, as hilly as Eteonus and as stony as Aulis.” The juxtapositions come naturally to him; they are as organic as those in Symbolist poetry.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: “Stet- son!
You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!”
Dahlberg’s alienation from the modern world is not, like Eliot’s, the alienation of a Brahmin, but of an outcast. The contrast is important to the biographer, but hardly at all to the reader of literature, since each came to his true home: the primordial world of the imagination.
These general reflections on Dahlberg seem to me the best way of reviewing his recent books. Neither The Leafless American nor The Carnal Myth will rank as important among their author’s works. The first is a collection of Dahlberg’s essays and book reviews edited by Harold Billings. It includes two long meditations in verse which reveal that Dahlberg, like many writers who are richly rhythmical in prose, is not a natural verse-writer. The book’s chief interest is that it provides one more statement of Dahlberg’s uncompromising attitudes, which are not in themselves very unusual except in the thoroughness with which he holds them. He hates industrialism, urbanization, the flight from nature, the denial of the body, the standardization of materials and landscapes, the forgetting of beliefs and reverences. Which of us does not? Is anyone comfortable in the world as it is today? But while most of us try to find survival strategies within this world, given that it is here and is not going to go away, Dahlberg faces it frontally and tries to curse it out of existence. The result may not be war, but it is magnificent, and certainly cathartic.
The Carnal Myth is the completion of that three-part work whose first two sections appeared as The Sorrows of Priapus (1957). Taken as a whole, the work constitutes a ramble through the immense territory of myth and folklore in search of metaphors that throw light on the inner nature of man, and in particular on his basic impulses toward copulation and warfare. It appears to be written with one eye on seventeenth-century English models, notably Urn Burial and The Anatomy of Melancholy, books which many readers have loved but from which I doubt they have learned much except incidental nuggets of information and the general habit of reflectiveness, both of which I grant to be important.
The third book is a Festschrift or critical nosegay, edited by the devoted Mr. Billings, who knows Dahlberg’s work very well but must, I think be discouraged from setting up as its official vendor; his admiration is uncritical, his prose too like a parody of the master’s. Many of the essays he has gathered are genuinely useful; in particular, a general conspectus of Dahlberg’s earlier work by Jonathan Williams, a sound critical perspective on Because I Was Flesh by Josephine Herbst, and—perhaps most interesting of all—an analysis by Joseph Evans Slate of The Sorrows of Priapus which, relating the book to the genre of the Bestiary, combines some fascinating literary history with a critical bearing on Dahlberg’s work as a whole. If Professor Slate is right, The Sorrows of Priapus is a major work and I, who am not convinced of this, stand revealed as what Dahlberg would call “a jobbernowl”: a consummation devoutly to be wished.
January 2, 1969