On F. W. Dupee (1904 – 1979)

Fred Dupee
Fred Dupee; drawing by David Levine

“I have liked being miscellaneous,” Dupee roundly declares in the foreword to The King of the Cats (1965), sounding a note of defiance, of boyish stubbornness, where to the ear of a different author an apology might have been called for. “Fred” was taking his stand as a literary journalist, a flâneur, a stroller, an idle saunterer, in an age of academic criticism, of “field” specialists on the one hand and fanatic “close readers” on the other. The shorter pieces of The King of the Cats, originally written for magazines, seem at first to bear out the confession: He turns from the letters of Dickens to a life of Sir Richard Burton, to Behrman’s reminiscences of Max Beerbohm, to “the secret life of Edward Windsor,” to the letters of Yeats, to Kafka’s letters to a Czech woman he was going to bed with, to Chaplin’s autobiography. Quite a variety.

Yet Dupee was no butterfly, no moth singeing his wings at the flame of letters, no boulevardier. Or, rather, all that random sensuous delectation was both real and a masquerade. The King of the Cats was less miscellaneous than it appeared. It was not a series of peeps into literary shop windows where the mannequins were being undressed—stately Henry James, naughty Nabokov, Charlie the Tramp. In all its diversity that collection had a remarkable unity, which may or may not have been intentional—a unity of matter as well as of manner and style. Even the most fugitive of those essays (and there is always something fugitive, some touch of “light housekeeping” in Dupee’s approach) is pinned down by slender ties to its fellows like Gulliver stoutly bound by the Lilliputians. The point in common, the trait d’union, is that Dupee’s “remarks,” as he called them, tended to be about letters of authors, biographies of authors (La Rochefoucauld, Sir Richard Burton), autobiographies of non-authors (Chaplin, the Duke of Windsor), late works of authors (Thomas Mann, James Agee), rather than about the primary work of authors. The big exceptions were Gertrude Stein, Proust, Nabokov, and Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, which fitted, however, into the overall Dupee pattern by being, itself, a prose-verse hybrid of autobiography and self-portraiture.

No doubt the unity I speak of was partly imposed by editors, who “typed” Dupee as they do any regular contributor. He was the right man to send a volume of Casanova to, a posthumous work of Jim Agee’s (he knew him; they were at Yale at the same time), anything marginally to do with James, Proust, or Kafka, and, above all, any curio coming to light in the collector’s corners of literature, e.g., a new, unexpurgated translation of Petronius’ Satyricon. The only misfit (from that point of view) I find in The King of the Cats is a review of J.F. Powers’s Morte d’Urban. Had I been an editor at Partisan Review then, I would not…

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