Dahlberg, Edward (Vol. 1)
Dahlberg, Edward 1900–
An American novelist, poet, and essayist, Dahlberg is the author of a notable autobiography, Because I Was Flesh. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-10.)
Dahlberg does not employ the saturation technique of the Naturalists, the relentless accumulation of tiny detail, but is much more impressionistic…. Dahlberg's vernacular is the language of city streets. It is in itself debased, so that it can express only the debased…. It still transmits to the reader shocks of crude sensation, for instance, of jumping a freight train, of sleeping for the first time in a flop-house, or of not having eaten for two days. And above all it communicates hopelessness, the hopelessness of the … lives of the bottom dogs, men and women who can sink no lower in the social and economic system….
Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 153-54.
Dahlberg's poems have something in common with Whitman's, but the range of subjects is less wide than that of Song of Myself; instead, they aim for the kind of immediacy achieved in William Carlos Williams' In the American Grain, a book much admired by Dahlberg….
Wholly unconcerned with the topical and trivial, [Dahlberg] is interested only in the fundamentals of human life. Of these he speaks with an openness that recalls the work of Whitman, Dreiser, and Lawrence. He writes from the inside with the conviction that a man's writing must be consistent with his nature. This moral attitude might seem to limit Dahlberg as a writer, for there is always something harsh and disagreeable in the prophet with glittering eyes. Yet his best work is always sympathetic: his first-rate literary intelligence, which is his gift and achievement, redeems him…. With Dostoyevsky Dahlberg acknowledges that whereas in morals two plus two equals four, in art, they always total five. In part, Dahlberg's significance derives from his attempt to reconcile the two, knowing all along that his task is impossible.
Frank MacShane, "Alms for Oblivion and Others," in The Southern Review, Vol. III, No. 3, Summer, 1967, pp. 788-95.
Dahlberg [in The Carnal Myth] is closer to Sir Thomas Browne, both in style and in many aspects of content: his pervasive use of recondite learning, his concrete embodiment of abstract wisdom; his wonder at ancient prodigies; his juxtaposition of present and past; his sense of human life as a wonder, a sorrow, and an irony, and his knowledge of how human hopes cruelly outrun their realization.
Melvin Lyon, "Man and His Sources" (© 1970 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), in Prairie Schooner, Spring, 1970, pp. 81-3.
Dahlberg, Edward (Vol. 14)
Mr. Edward Dahlberg's Can These Bones Live is an American classic, even if only a few people know it; but what kind of classic, it is difficult to say. Criticism as we write it at present has no place for it, and this means that I shall probably not be able to do justice to my own admiration. Mr. Dahlberg, like Thoreau whom he admires more than any other nineteenth-century American, eludes his contemporaries; he may have to wait for understanding until the historians of ideas of the next generation can place him historically. For we have at present neither literary nor historical standards which can guide us into Mr. Dahlberg's books written since Bottom Dogs, which was published more than thirty years ago. It is significant that he has repudiated this early, naturalistic novel, in spite of the considerable admiration that it won and still retains among a few persons. Can These Bones Live may be seen as the summation of a three-part visionary and prophetic work which includes The Flea of Sodom and The Sorrows of Priapus.
We shall get nowhere with Mr. Dahlberg if we begin with an enquiry into his influences and his philosophy; this kind of thinking would inevitably be reductive. We must return repeatedly to the text to ponder hundreds of aphorisms, epigrams, and paradoxes which add up to an intuitive synthesis of insight which defies logical exposition. The immediate tradition in which Mr. Dahlberg finds himself (he did not find it or deliberately construct it) is American, and it has a span of more than a century: his mind plays back and forth between Henry David Thoreau and Randolph Bourne, but that the vision has this American...
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It is time to stop thinking of Edward Dahlberg as a sport in American letters, whose principal achievement would appear to be his unique style. When critics today talk about Dahlberg's style, they are usually referring to his late work; his early work of the Thirties is usually regarded as a stylistic phase that Dahlberg had to outgrow in order to achieve his maturity. The mature style reveals itself to best effect in Because I Was Flesh … in a prose a-dazzle with rich metaphor, erudite allusions to religious and pagan mythologies, passionate attention to the rhythms and music of the periods…. Dahlberg's mature style is a strategy for distancing himself from and yet, paradoxically, possessing the myth of his life; and that this purposeful use of an ornate, idiosyncratic style is one characteristic he shares with, say, Walt Whitman, Augie March, and scores of other American writers and Ishmaels. (p. 64)
Much of the slang in Bottom Dogs dates the book ("Those micks were sure-fire slingers, no spiffin"), threatens to trivialize it, but finally can be endured by a sympathetic reader. More significantly, much of the book is written, as Dahlberg says …, in a "rough, bleak idiom."… We can recognize at once that the loathsomeness of the observed world is in the naturalistic tradition everywhere evident in American letters between Maggie and Last Exit to Brooklyn…. The naturalistic impulse, so strong in the Thirties, was by no means the exclusive possession of that period. Nor was the use of "the rude American vernacular," so much favored by early proletarian realists…. Dahlberg's free use of this vernacular, combined with his predilection for the harsh bottom-dog world of America that he had experienced at first hand, suggests immediately his important position on the eve of the Depression with its subsequent vogue of proletarian realism and naturalism…. Dahlberg's language of disgust, his imagery of rot and decay—and most importantly—his pioneering exploration of the bottom-dog milieux of flophouses, hobo jungles, and freight cars certainly places him in the vanguard of that school. In his first two novels [Bottom Dogs and From Flushing to Calvary] Dahlberg charted in original fashion the territory that was to become painfully familiar in so much of the radical literature of the Thirties. (pp. 65-6)
What may strike a contemporary reader at once is the uncertainty of the narrative voice in Bottom Dogs. There is much inconsistency, e.g., in the spelling and use of the slang, and the narrator falls in and out of his bottom-dog idiom rather erratically—a reflection, surely, of the author's uncertainty about his point of view toward the material at hand. And that, of course, is the crucial issue; what is Dahlberg to make of the lives of his chief protagonists, Lorry and Lizzie Lewis?
These lives, so intertwined that we may call it this life, is the subject of Dahlberg's early fictions—and of Because I Was Flesh, which he calls an autobiography—and this life, even in outline, is an eccentric one. (p. 66)
The elements of the life [portrayed in Bottom Dogs] are bizarre, marginal: a calculated study in alienation and displacement. A lady barber? A Jewish lady barber in the heartland of America in the "Teddy Roosevelt Days" (as the first chapter in the saga is called)? A Jewish illegitimate non-orphan orphan? What indeed to make of this matter, and how to come to terms with it? That is Dahlberg's subject in the early days, and if the voice is occasionally uncertain, we should remember that the territory he pioneered was only fully claimed in the Fifties—in the wake of Saul Bellow's Augie March, that other Jewish illegitimate nonorphan orphan from the American heartland. A measure of the distance we have come is that Augie could unself-consciously proclaim his America identity...
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"Autobiographical books are plain, honest perjury," [Dahlberg] remarks in Alms for Oblivion. The present is an absolute sphinx and the past an equally grim riddle: "We never learn anything, but simply call old errors by new names." Doomed to repetition, "we only do what we are," and what we are is hopelessly duplicitous. Man's nature is vicious, "politics mutilates the individual," and knowledge is intellectual pride, a deluded comfort, since it does not influence our behavior. Above all, we are the miserable prey of our erotic furies.
Character, Dahlberg insists like a hanging judge, is intransigently fixed; devious, murderous, guilty of eating his own nature, a Cain bearing the stigma of his separation, man seeks atonement in vain. This blunt determinism, gleefully condemning all explanations of motive as corrupt self-interest, is hardly an inducement for composing a memoir. Not surprisingly, Dahlberg calls Because I Was Flesh "an autobiography of my faults" and, like a Missouri Rousseau, confesses his vices, defects, and "flinty heart," thus validating to himself that the self is an emotional Mojave Desert.
Dahlberg, reluctant to admit that he has much of a central consciousness ruling over the sequences of memories that could comprehend his life, chooses a flexible structure. Because I Was Flesh, he announces, is a "memoir of my mother's body." Lizzie Dahlberg is perceived from the outside, with Edward Dahlberg's suffering shifted to the charged prose style. Strict chronology has nothing to do with the psychological poetry of the mother-son relationship; that exists in the timeless realm of myth and dream.
Finally, Because I Was Flesh is also a portrait of the American artist as Proteus: porcupine, vagabond, fox, saintly fool, and "crazy waif of the Muse." By reviling himself for his shameful failings—inconstancy, unruly will, impotence of feeling—Dahlberg licenses his performance as the prophetic scourge of the world's follies. As he tells, ruefully and comically, the story of his (and his mother's) endless humiliations, he embroiders fact with fiction. He becomes the dervish of words, an author of wisdom literature for a world in which such wisdom is useless…. Because I Was Flesh is thus a calculated leveling of our individual and collective self-esteem; heroism or a scrap of self-knowledge enters our consciousness only through the occasional windfalls of art. The morally examined life is a necessary fraud. (pp. 473-74)
Because I Was Flesh is a masterpiece of Oedipal obsession, a poetic memoir of primal sunderings and rages. At its heart, as at the heart of all Dahlberg's writings, lies his exasperated love for his mother Lizzie and his quest for knowledge of his father Saul, a feckless womanizer, whose desertion is the other unappeasable demon of his childhood….
Where Oedipus at Colonus achieved a mysterious grace, Dahlberg's nomadic spirit remains bruised, defiant, wise in the lore of antiquity yet without that fundamental self-awareness that might reconcile him to his bereaved past. Yet paradoxically Because I Was Flesh converts Dahlberg's long internal exile into the consoling power of myth. A Book of Lamentations, it moves in a shower of aphorisms between comedy and prayer….
In the rich iconography of the autobiography, Lizzie acts Mary Magdalene and Mater Dolorosa to Dahlberg's Jesus, Hagar to his Ishmael, and Delilah to his Samson. She dominates the book as effortlessly as she does her son's emotions. (p. 474)
[Dahlberg's] paralyzed will demonstrates for him the finality of our stricken, fallen natures: character is genetic fate. Our incestuous desires and guilt, our original trauma, like shrapnel in the soul, fester to the end of our days. The myth of recurrence triumphs. "Eros goes as far back as Chaos," Dahlberg tells us. Sex is force, not sentiment, as amorally destructive as Henry Adams's dynamo. (p. 479)
If "the miracle of perception is bound up with the miracle of love," as Dahlberg claims, he is self-condemned to dwell in the "dungy caves of the Cyclops." And, indeed, Dahlberg's artistic career has drawn sustenance from an absolutist's dogma of impossibilism. Loathing separation, he destroys the intimacy he craves with a violent compulsiveness and lives in "boreal solitude."… "Nobody ever overcomes the phantasms of his childhood. The man is the corrupt dream of the child." This self-fulfilling prophecy universalizes his destitution. It is the moralist's meager solace. The rhetoric is magnificent, but is it true?
Our reason may be deformed and our will enfeebled, and we may be estranged from ourselves as from others, but, as Edwin Muir has remarked, "Without forgiveness our lives would be unimaginable." Fortunately, Dahlberg's art is wiser than his philosophy. For like Muir, he has understood that the imagination is potentially an instrument of immortality. In the twined life of mother and son, he has woven a web as subtle and intricate as the fatal pattern that tied Hippolytus and Phaedra. When "gibing Pilate," the spokesman for the moral average, counters Lizzie's angry question, "Why am I miserable, while others who are pitiless and contemptible are so...
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Like Bottom Dogs, [Dahlberg's] early novels, From Flushing to Calvary and Those Who Perish, were socially committed. They arose from his own political experience of the opposed extremities of Stalinism and Nazism. More deeply, they were fed by his own anger at injustice. They were written in a colloquial style suited, as was thought, to the proletariat that was supposed to be reading New Masses. These novels received critical attention but they showed no artistic growth, so Dahlberg, who meanwhile had fallen out with the Communists and who had genuine literary ambitions, ceased writing and began to read. Repudiating writing that had an immediate social purpose, he entered a period of...
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Dahlberg, Edward (Vol. 7)
Dahlberg, Edward 1900–1977
Dahlberg, an American novelist, poet, and critic, is known for his idiosyncratic style and literary opinions. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
The modern novel, the very modern novel, has passed quite away from tragedy. An American novel like Manhattan Transfer has in it still the last notes of tragedy, the sheer spirit of suicide. An English novel like Point Counter Point has gone beyond tragedy into exacerbation, and continuous nervous repulsion. Man is so nervously repulsive to man, so screamingly, nerve-rackingly repulsive! This novel [Bottom Dogs] goes one further. Man just smells, offensively and unbearably, not to be borne. The human stink!
The inward revulsion of man away from man, which follows on the collapse of the physical sympathetic flow, has a slowly increasing momentum, a wider swing. For a long time, the social belief and benevolence of man towards man keeps pace with the secret physical repulsion of man away from man. But ultimately, inevitably, the one outstrips the other. The benevolence exhausts itself, the repulsion only deepens. The benevolence is external and extra-individual. But the revulsion is inward and personal. The one gains over the other. Then you get a gruesome condition, such as is displayed in this book.
The only motive power left is the sense of revulsion away from people, the sense of the repulsiveness of the neighbour. It is a condition we are rapidly coming to—a condition displayed by the intellectuals much more than by the common people. Wyndham Lewis gives a display of the utterly repulsive effect people have on him, but he retreats into the intellect to make his display. It is a question of manner and manners. The effect is the same. It is the same exclamation: They stink! My God, they stink!
And in this process of recoil and revulsion, the affective consciousness withers with amazing rapidity. Nothing I have ever read has astonished me more than the "orphanage" chapters of [Bottom Dogs]. There I realised with amazement how rapidly the human psyche can strip itself of its awarenesses and its emotional contacts, and reduce itself to a sub-brutal condition of simple gross persistence. It is not animality—far from it. Those boys are much less than animals. They are cold wills functioning with a minimum of consciousness. The amount that they are not aware of is perhaps the most amazing aspect of their character. They are brutally and deliberately unaware. They have no hopes, no desires even. They have even no will-to-exist, for existence even is too high a term. They have a strange, stony will-to-persist, that is all. And they persist by reaction, because they still feel the repulsiveness of each other, of everything, even of themselves.
Of course the author exaggerates. The boy Lorry "always had his nose in a book"—and he must have got things out of the books. If he had taken the intellectual line, like Mr. Huxley or Mr. Wyndham Lewis, he would have harped on the intellectual themes, the essential feeling being the same. But he takes the non-intellectual line, is in revulsion against the intellect too, so we have the stark reduction to a persistent minimum of the human consciousness. It is a minimum lower than the savage, lower than the African Bushman. Because it is a willed minimum, sustained from inside by resistance, brute resistance against any flow of consciousness except that of the barest, most brutal egoistic self-interest. It is a phenomenon, and pre-eminently an American phenomenon. But the flow of repulsion, inward physical revulsion of man away from man, is passing over all the world. It is only perhaps in America, and in a book such as this, that we see it most starkly revealed.
After the orphanage, the essential theme is repeated over a wider field. The state of revulsion continues. The young Lorry is indomitable. You can't destroy him. And at the same time, you can't catch him. He will recoil from everything, and nothing on earth will make him have a positive feeling, of affection or sympathy or connexion. His mother?—we see her in her decaying repulsiveness. He has a certain loyalty, because she is his sort: it is part of his will-to-persist. But he must turn his back on her with a certain disgust.
The tragedian, like Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, still dramatises his defeat and is in love with himself in his defeated role. But the Lorry Lewis is in too deep a state of revulsion to dramatise himself. He almost deliberately finds himself repulsive too. And he goes on, just to see if he can hit the world without destroying himself. Hit the world not to destroy it, but to experience in himself how repulsive it is…. He covers the great tracts of prairie, mountain, forest, coast-range, without seeing anything but a certain desert scaliness. His consciousness is resistant, shuts things out, and reduces itself to a minimum.
In the Y.M.C.A. it is the same. He has his gang. But the last word about them is that they stink, their effluvia is offensive. He goes with women, but the thought of women is inseparable from the thought of sexual disease and infection. He thrills to the repulsiveness of it, in a terrified, perverted way. His associates—which means himself also—read Zarathustra and Spinoza, Darwin and Hegel. But it is with a strange external, superficial mind that has no connexion with the affective and effective self. One last desire he has—to write, to put down his condition in words. His will-to-persist is intellectual also. Beyond this, nothing.
It is a genuine book, as far as it goes, even if it is an objectionable one. It is, in psychic disintegration, a good many stages ahead of Point Counter Point. It reveals a condition that not many of us have reached, but towards which the trend of consciousness is taking us, all of us, especially the young. It is, let us hope, a ne plus ultra. The next step is legal insanity, or just crime. The book is perfectly sane; yet two more strides, and it is criminal insanity. The style seems to me excellent, fitting the matter. It is sheer bottom-dog style, the bottom-dog mind expressing itself direct, almost as if it barked. That directness, that unsentimental and non-dramatised thoroughness of setting down the under-dog mind surpasses anything I know. I don't want to read any more books like this. But I am glad to have read this one, just to know what is the last word in repulsive consciousness, consciousness in a state of repulsion. It helps one to understand the world, and saves one the necessity of having to follow out the phenomenon of physical repulsion any further, for the time being. (pp. 411-14)
D. H. Lawrence, "Review of 'Bottom Dogs'" (1929; originally published as a foreword to Bottom Dogs by Dahlberg), in Selected Literary Criticism, edited by Anthony Beal (copyright © 1932, 1936, 1955, renewed 1951 by Frieda Lawrence; copyright © 1923 by Thomas Feltzer, Inc., renewed 1960 by Angelo Ravagli and Montague C. Weekly, 1964 by the estate of the late Frieda Lawrence Ravagli; reprinted by permission of The Viking Press, Inc.), Viking, 1955, pp. 407-14.
Few Americans would write a book of aphorisms today. Living the bitter end of romanticism—a belief in the power of meaning over means—we mistrust ingenious forms. Deliberated style makes us suspect heartlessness. But an American has just produced a richly written book of aphorisms [Reasons of the Heart], and not surprisingly he is one of our most lonely, singular moderns: Edward Dahlberg.
An aphorism is, literally, a setting of bounds, a definition. Like other forms in the literature of brevity—the maxim, the epigram—it is often witty. Even when its meaning is not witty, it may achieve its compression through a play of words that makes us smile as at an elegantly solved puzzle. Sometimes the aphorism is simply a succinct observation or sketch. Frequently it is didactic. (p. 4)
Many of Dahlberg's aphorisms are witty condensation at its best, insight and word-game together, employing balance, antithesis, paradox: "Acquire one enemy solely to know someone cares for you." Some are shrewd comments on character and the politics of the heart: "If you meddle in other people's marriages you may lose a friend but acquire his wife." Some are sharp diagnoses of his times: "If boys do not grow into men, all our women will be children." Many sections are not aphorisms but passages of prose-poetry on given subjects, rich jumbles of allusion and wisdom. And sometimes he says things one has never heard before: "How naive a man feels when he admits that he is depraved."
Sometimes Dahlberg lapses. His recherché diction becomes opaque and arbitrary. He can rumble, blunt his point or obscure it; occasionally he merely mouths noble sounds. His characteristic failure is the forced diction and wit of a sterile exercise in rhetoric. He also falls into some of the obvious snares of aphorism: platitude and the dressing-up of trivia. When he repeats the familiar, you read, nod dutifully, pass on.
Yet it is enthralling to see him often rescue truisms that tongues have worn smooth. Some quality of diction, rhythm, tone, saves them. This is the triumph of style itself. And since the style is the man, it is in Dahlberg that the answer lies. (pp. 5, 16)
He is a pessimist because he knows that all of life, its glories and failures, are grounded in sensuality. He comes back continually to the power of desire, the price it will pay, the price it demands. He is unromantic in this: he doesn't see man's mainspring of passion as good if only the world wouldn't warp it. Nor does he think it evil. He believes it, simply, as a fact like the rain, the sun—behind all birth, change, destruction. Do you curse or praise the sun, the rain? Then, how man's sensual nature? If there are key aphorisms in this book, they are: "What man's head would do is always defeated by his scrotum" and "Every time a man has a thought he dies a little, and his prepuce dwindles." Dahlberg's mind shuttles between the antipodes of desire and a stale mouth….
Often his hortatory complexities recall Donne, the poet-preacher whose bitterness and warmth were also those of a sensual man alive to regret, whose life's lessons were also burned into his bones, making him somber and sardonic, witty and kind with sensual pessimism. Sometimes Dahlberg sours into misogynous rant, which is ungenerous and thus unbecoming; just as his diction may become labored, so his pessimism may become a truculent pose.
If he falls at times below the mark, he also rises above it—past wit, past insight, past shrewdness, to a vatic poetry that is the final reach of art. "The body dies, and is interred in the ground which rises and sinks just as the grass keens and laments because the bones are never totally dead. Rivers disappear, ravines expire, and glens grow weary and emaciated, because death itself is just another song of life." "God invented evening to cover human shame, and he parted the waters to make man dream."
And this is the special prize within the prize: In a book of aphorisms that are usually all one could ask, there lies embedded an art beyond aphorism. (p. 16)
Arno Karlen, "Obsessed with Words," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 19, 1965, pp. 4-5, 16.
Labels have had difficulty adhering to Edward Dahlberg. With his first book, "Bottom Dogs" (1929), he was reckoned a "proletarian" novelist. Since then, his fiction has gone on to other concerns, and he has distinguished himself also as an essayist, critic and philosopher. Now, at 66, he appears in this collection ["Cipango's Hinder Door"] as a remarkable poet. Very likely he has been one all along.
Dahlberg is a rare figure among American writers: a man of letters in the European sense, a versatile performer in more than one genre. His work has yet to enjoy the attention it merits, an unfortunate situation which, I would guess, his poetry will do little to correct. Dahlberg's poems are not readily likable. Packed with learned allusions, written in free verse with intermittent paragraphs like prose, they abound with querulous injunctions ("Do not mention the Universe to me"). The tone is apocalyptic, often like that of the prophetic books of William Blake. ("The garage is a house of villainy, and there repose the carcasses of iron and tin.") (p. 16)
He is … one of the inspired namers of American poetry, who (like Wallace Stevens) loves to rotate an exotic name upon his tongue. He would have been happy, one suspects, in the role of Adam in Eden, given the task of finding names for all the animals. His allusions seem never to be mere name-dropping. Track them down, and they turn out to be abbreviations. The title of his book is another name for America, Cipango being the name of a fabulous Asian country, for whose outlying islands Columbus mistook the West Indies.
Apparently, Dahlberg's theme is the discovery of a new world—the rediscovery, to be exact…. The rediscovery of America is another name for a discovery of himself. (pp. 16, 18)
Most of the time,… to read Dahlberg is to feel transfixed by the eye of some Ancient Mariner who grips one's lapels with a terrible urgency. The nightmare he has to tell is hard to ignore. (p. 18)
X. J. Kennedy, "A Voice in Verse," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 19, 1966, pp. 16, 18.
Edward Dahlberg's imagination is rich in history and myth; his style is fresh in allusion and muscular with verbs. The best of his work, alive with incantatory rhythms and a prophetic tone, generates the power of psalm or prayer. In the title poem [of Cipango's Hinder Door], celebrating the innocent antiquity of the western hemisphere, Mr. Dahlberg combines impeccably cadenced free verse with short prose paragraphs in a remarkably successful contrapuntal structure.
As these generalizations imply, this book transcends egocentricity. In a foreword, Allen Tate calls attention to the recurrent myth of Cain and Abel, which, he says, suggests "that the historical past (Abel) is dead and that it can live again only in the timeless intuition of the poet." That seems an oversimplification, partly because other mythological and historical symbols recur—Greek, Central American, North American Indian—and partly because Mr. Dalhberg invokes the past of the race for more specific reasons. (pp. 403-04)
Although Mr. Dahlberg's shorter poems are not wholly successful, chiefly because his power needs space in which to gather, through cumulative rhythms and allusions, I deeply respect this book. Cipango's Hinder Door, February Ground, and Walt Whitman, growing from genuine spiritual experience, achieve that Shakespearean quickening of speech that distinguishes poetry from artifice…. (p. 404)
Donald W. Baker, in Poetry (© 1967 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), March, 1967.
Over the years, [Edward Dahlberg, the distinguished crier in the wilderness and long-time literary martyr,] 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 [in the Edward Dahlberg Reader].
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…. [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.
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. (p. 36)
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 …). 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 [in Epitaphs], with characteristic generosity, as "this deceased vice president of an insurance company"…. 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 ties; 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. (pp. 36-7)
Robert M. Adams, "Crier in the Wilderness," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1967 NYREV, Inc.), August 24, 1967, pp. 35-7.
[Any] newcomer, even one experienced in biblical, classical and English literature, who comes upon Edward Dahlberg for the first time in "The Carnal Myth" (A Search into Classical Sensuality), will find him heavy going. His style has been described by various writers as "craggy, hard-bitten, granite, bony, hieroglyphic, patrician". This book is (as Dahlberg himself says of "The Sorrows of Priapus") "A book for brave readers and poets", which ordinarily means "caviar to the general". Furthermore, the subtitle is misleading—if that were its aim, it fails. Of the 121 pages, the last quarter are devoted to Spanish pioneers and their defeat by the ruggedness of the terrain, a wonted Dahlberg theme; but not by sensuality. Besides, the author's sensual passages elsewhere could all have been excised without loss to his ever-growing reputation as a writer of distinction. As he himself well says, "Sex on the printed page is usually a great bore"; and "A little dirt goes a long way"….
Strangely, there is a striking resemblance to Karl Marx in the texture of Dahlberg's prose. Both writers were "have-nots" envious of more fortunate contemporaries and suffering from ever-present frustration. And both, as a result, were prodigious readers (Dahlberg says he "spent twenty years in libraries"); and both came up with a mass of often uncorrelated oddments of allusion, myth and reference which have no strict bearing on the subject, but which inspire amazement and even awe (omne ignotum pro mirifico) in less travelled readers.
Naturally, Dahlberg's style is a continual reflection of past experience. He was the illegitimate son of a "Lady Barker", the superbly described Lizzie, whose feline protectiveness was the only affection he knew. For him, brought up in the loneliness of an orphanage, struggling not so much to exist as to persist—for him, as Josephine Herbst writes, "the craving for affection was a hidden ache"…. His background (Lizzie had been a Polish Jewess) led him to the Bible and the matchless English of the King James translation; his style, which Kay Boyle pronounces "cadenced, occasionally archaic and consistently splendid English", rings with the measured beat of the Book of Proverbs. Indeed, aphorisms abound: "Lineage is our nemesis, foretelling our shames" is an example of scriptural lineage; and personal frustration appears in "strife and confusion haunt men until their death".
Echoes of classical poetry abound, too; for example in the dactyl-cum-iamb sentence endings, e.g. grief from the mountain, Nimrod in gypsum, laden with honey, cobblers in Orcus.
Dubbing himself as an Ishmael, an outcast, by reason of his unhappy early years, Dahlberg chooses for preference authors who were loners like himself, especially Thoreau. But all this arbitrary election, based on personal experience, tends to make his observation and criticism subjective rather than objective, revealing rather than canonical. Sometimes, indeed, with results bordering on the ridiculous…. (p. 118)
Nevertheless, he is and will remain the joy of English professors and, maybe, of a Hippie age which welcomes a speaker equipped with his own new language. (p. 119)
Ambrose Agius, O.S.B., in Best Sellers (copyright 1968, by the University of Scranton), June 15, 1968.
Edward Dahlberg continues to be one of the most unaccountable forces in American letters, a phenomenon that every critic seeks, in one way or another, either to justify or dismiss. Even critics who are theoretically quite opposed to examining a man's work as a pendant to his life find themselves worrying over how Dahlberg got to be this way….
The problems Dahlberg raises for the critic are certainly not intellectual. In The Carnal Myth, a continuation of an earlier volume, The Sorrows of Priapus, he expands his unfashionable but easily understood views. Once again he retells and discusses bits of history and mythology from ancient Greece and Rome and America during the early days of the Spanish conquest and attempts to make this material edifying. His moral analysis reveals: that sexuality is permanently at war with man's higher aspirations and must be disciplined; that human companionship is a great good, though difficult to find or keep; that instinct is often more trustworthy than reason; that accumulating wisdom, however, is an honorable, if vain practice; that each person's character is so inflexible it cannot be significantly improved; that the machine age is an abomination; and that life is tragic. Although Dahlberg's grasp of these ideas often seems shaky, the ideas themselves are probably as good as those that have inspired most writers.
What puzzles, infuriates or delights everyone is the style. Dahlberg started out in 1928 writing a highly colloquial social protest novel, Bottom Dogs, which he later came to denounce for its "rough, bleak idiom." After publishing two more novels in the same vein he resolved to become "a man of letters and an eremite to do so." He then entered a long period of teaching himself a new language, an amalgam of 17th-century prose, moralizing in the style of La Rochefoucauld and queer classical learning. The effect of this language is in turn unintelligible, beautiful and ludicrous….
Exotic reading lists are an enduring passion with this man, and, in a letter to poor Anthony Kerrigan, Dahlberg sternly orders him to read "Macrobius, Pausanias, Herodian, Suetonius, Clement of Alexandria, Josephus, the Moralia of Plutarch, the Elizabethans, the writers of the Comedy of the Restoration, Livy, Thucydides, Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, Dryden's Essays, Ruskin's Praeterita, Herzen, Saint-Simon, Pliny, Strabo, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and sundry other authors and savants." To prove that he has read these and sundry others, Dahlberg doesn't mind breaking the flow of an argument and forcing one obscure allusion to ride piggy-back on another. (p. 19)
[In] The Carnal Myth Dahlberg is obviously trying to make points and to develop them, and his bright, irrelevant after-thoughts only dull or conceal his arguments.
Occasionally Dahlberg's learning provides the occasion for a beautiful effect…. Far more frequently, unfortunately, Dahlberg's erudition makes him look a fool. (pp. 19-20)
The doggedly archaic, pedantic style is often so clumsy that Dahlberg can scarcely communicate coherently with friends about practical matters. In a letter to Donald Paquette and his wife Dahlberg asks them to make out a check to a starving writer, but can't bring himself to write a word like "check," a word Sir Thomas Browne never knew; the only, ludicrous way out of the quandary is to say, "The two of you could make out to Richard Newman." Words like "car" or "truck" are equally foreign to Dahlberg and he must report in another letter: "Coming back in a ramshackle machine and colliding with a mechanical leviathan we by a miracle escaped death."
Posing carried out on such a scale seems so pretentious and screwy that it is no wonder critics keep asking how Dahlberg got to be this way. If he was affected as a young writer, it was only in the way all enthusiastic beginners are. Could it be that D. H. Lawrence, who wrote the introduction to the first novel, Bottom Dogs, wounded Dahlberg deeply when he said of the main character, who was patterned after Dahlberg himself, "The young Lorry is indomitable. You can't destroy him. And at the same time, you can't catch him. He will recoil from everything, and nothing on earth will make him have a positive feeling, of affection or sympathy, or connection"? What must Dahlberg have thought as he read that his account of his years in an orphanage proved to Lawrence "how rapidly the human psyche can strip itself of its awareness and its emotional contacts, and reduce itself to a sub-brutal condition of simple gross persistence"?
Significantly, Dahlberg wrote about the orphanage experience again, years later, in his new fancy style. In the second account, Because I Was Flesh, he was taking no chances. This time no one would be able to say either the author or his younger self was devoid of awareness or emotional contacts or "connection." In fact, Dahlberg has "connected" his orphans to every name he could come up with in Greek mythology and the Bible….
With unwearying persistence, Dahlberg matches up every grim, dehumanizing aspect of the present with a reassuring reference to something similar but grand in the past, as though demonstrating that there is nothing new under the sun, nothing uniquely repulsive about his own experience.
Curiously enough, this technique is effective and beautiful in Because I Was Flesh, which is his best book. (p. 20)
"Emotional displacement" is the sort of evasion we encounter everywhere in life and can accept in literature only in the characters, not in the author. From the author we expect a steady, fearless vision of the experience, no matter how painful. What's more, the frank vision is precisely what Dahlberg does give us in Because I Was Flesh. Only after he has fully rendered the real-life event does he modulate into the myth.
The use of mythology works not because it disguises the experience but because it amplifies it. To let the present reverberate in the past is no problem for Dahlberg, who disbelieves in history: to him "there is only decay, and no time…. The centuries that divide one from Jesus and Brutus contain no time. We still hear the tinkling of the sheep bells at Mamre, and Abraham continues to sleep beneath the terebrinths just as Saul sits and broods underneath a tamarisk…."
When the acutely felt, personal experience is missing, however, as it is in The Carnal Myth, when there is no narrative of the present to be amplified in the past, then the writing becomes incoherent, an exercise in arrogance—Dahlberg claims that Americans need vital myths to live by, but surely we don't need those old myths, couched in that pretentious language. As Alfred Kazin has said: "As a thinker in the abstract, Dahlberg is not very interesting; his own life is his most dependable text…." (p. 21)
Edmund White, "The Dahlberg Dilemma," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1968 by The New Republic, Inc.), August 3, 1968, pp. 19-21.
I have read The Carnal Myth six times and I now feel confident that I understand its main outlines sufficiently well to write a review of [this book, his most eloquent and esoteric work]. Dahlberg's cause, his importance, lie in his ingrained suspicion of the rationalistic, scientific heritage which has imprisoned intellect in our time. He knows, instinctively—and this is the virtue and defect of his autodidactic limitations—that above reason and the soul or spirit stands what Dante called "il bene dell' intelletto," that is, the good of the intellect, the light of wisdom which is a perpetual source of interpretation and transformation. Dahlberg intuitively knows that the method of this form of intellect is the explanation of myths, the presentation of symbols, the search for ancient wisdom. And this is precisely the form taken by The Carnal Myth….
Dahlberg is famous, or infamous—depending on the degree of the critic's tolerance for heretical opinion—for his attacks on modern literature. Yet his new book, The Carnal Myth, is a magnificent example of the montage method used with a brilliance that the self-proclaimed modernists might reflect on with advantage. It is precisely the tension between his love and veneration for the wisdom of the past and his battered, reluctant immersion in the present that imparts a note of conflict and longing to these queer, astoundingly evocative mosaics of quotation, garnered and set out on the page with an originality that pedestrian scholarship could never achieve. In this sense, he is a true modernist, like Eliot, Valéry and Joyce: he cannot settle down comfortably in an uncomfortable epoch. Tradition is not a lifeless institution for him but rather the reminder of tragedy that goads him to feats of incomparable juxtaposition and analogy….
The difficulty of interpreting Dahlberg can be located in the fact that he is a religious writer without a religion, or rather in search of one…. He is doing what D. H. Lawrence said American writers must do if our unfledged continent is ever to find its soul: he is ransacking our primeval past to find the roots of a new religion. He himself is not sure, like all true prophets. (p. 504)
His books are worth the trouble of meditation, of rereading, of pondering over again and again. I myself wonder whether he knows fully and intimately the profundity of his own wisdom. He is indeed like a seer whose vision sometimes escapes himself; the delight of the imaginative transport blurs the clarity of perception. At times one has the feeling that he believes America can be saved only by an ancient past, that the Indians and their ceremonies and rituals are meaningless to us, that spirituality can only come from elsewhere. He is an aesthete in religion too, and perhaps that is why he mistakes his own wisdom for a lesser thing than it is. The truth is in his rhythms, his eloquence, not in his explanations.
But once it has been said, even in this confused clairvoyant manner, it is quite clear to all. It is true that America has never been redeemed by the spirit, by the bene dell' intelletto. Dahlberg is important because he points a new way….
Dahlberg is a lone searcher for the true myths of human destiny in our violent, barren, raddled land. He says: "Man is the animal who thinks, but he cannot employ his intellect without losing his reason, which is why Cristóbal Colón saw mermaids in the waters near the Antilles, or how Plato conceived the Timaeus." From such statements, American criticism, if it were really mythical in orientation, could evolve a new corpus of thought and revelation to counter the materialism and sensationalism growing on all sides. (p. 505)
Raymond Rosenthal, "Dahlberg: A Prophetic Wisdom," in The Nation (copyright 1968 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), November 11, 1968, pp. 504-05.
"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….
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….
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…. 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….
Dahlberg's early novels dealt with the theme of alienation, loneliness, separateness…. [His] 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 birthright. 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…. 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. (pp. 13-14)
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….
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 Leafless American] 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….
[According to Joseph Evans Slate,] The Sorrows of Priapus is a major work;… [if he is right,] I, who am not convinced of this, stand revealed as what Dahlberg would call "a jobbernowl": a consummation devoutly to be wished. (p. 14)
John Wain, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1969 NYREV, Inc.), January 2, 1969.
In the 30s, Dahlberg gave up the novel for the adage—the neoplasm, as he might say, for the bone and gristle of Truth. "I had to relinquish the world for a proverb," he was to write in The Flea of Sodom (1950). The world did not care for his books—in great measure, I think, because Dahlberg did not care for the world. Thin and pale, his novels sickened on a reluctant realism, and Dahlberg was right to try something else….
He was out for more than the proverb; he was ambitious to break "the Bread" of "the Fable." If he spurned The Sun Also Rises as "pothouse fiction" and The Great Gatsby as "newspaper realism," and found Faulkner a famine, it was only in part because he preferred the salt of a maxim; in the main it was because he viewed almost all contemporary literature as a betrayal of the imagination, "the only Holy Grail for mankind." Already half a sage, Dahlberg now tried to will himself into a seer. He had, he said, to lose reason for allegory; he hungered "to be mythic." He would help bring "the Spirit and the Redemption" to America.
A sour century after Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, the ambitions of Dahlberg have not been easy to realize. (p. 27)
The truth is that Dahlberg is more a prisoner of his time than he knows. On balance he is a nihilist; his final word for life is "illicit." If he has made so much of "eloquence and style," if he tends to identify these with "the imagination," it is because he has been able to care so very little for any substance, any subject. He has said again and again that literature is love, but his own heart has been almost eaten away by chagrin. "Chagrin is the honey and the teacher," he observes in The Carnal Myth; but judging from his nastiness in [The Confessions of Edward Dahlberg]—to Edmund Wilson, Charles Olson, and indeed nearly everyone he has known—chagrin must rather be called the gall.
Of course there is no disappointment without love; but it is our love for ourselves, not for others, that makes us bitter. Here Dahlberg's trust and affection, his sense of proportion, crumple in the heat of hurt pride. (p. 28)
An illegitimate child, perhaps never loved enough,… Dahlberg has developed a thirst for recognition that not all the love in the world could slake. No wonder his "subject" has so often been himself—his lusts, his career of chagrins, his superiority to those who block and defame him. Unable to leap out of his hurts in his novels, he has done so momentarily in some of his maxims, as also in passages of literary criticism—notably the remarkable fourth and sixth chapters of Can These Bones Live (1940). But the pull of his chagrins is relentless, and Dahlberg has repeatedly fallen into the form for which he is in fact least fitted, the memoir.
By now Dahlberg has told selected miseries of his life several times, and in The Confessions he comes back to them once again, as if to a rosary of woes. To those who know his other books, much of this one will be a trance of déjà vu. Parts II and III, on the 20s and 30s, echo Alms for Oblivion (1964) and pieces of other volumes. And Part I, on Dahlberg's prentice years, follows Bottom Dogs, From Flushing to Calvary, and Because I Was Flesh.
Still, Part I is a curiosity and surprise, the white elephant of this latter group. It attempts something that seems new in English, though heralded by The Flea of Sodom: the memoir as allegory…. The procedure piques, entices. At the same time it demonstrates the obvious: that allegory and autobiography can be mixed only to the detriment of both. Tied to his life like the tail of an erratic kite, Dahlberg's allegory is too personal, too up and down, too unsure to be autonomous or complete. On the other hand, the allegorical element makes the memoir rise too high. Not only Dahlberg but all the characters speak in an abstract aphoristic vein…. (pp. 28-32)
In rejecting "the world for a proverb," Dahlberg left himself with only his wisdom and his bruised vanity to love. Yet it is both a duty and a pleasure to note that in at least one book, labelled an "autobiography" at that, Dahlberg did get out of himself, very wonderfully. This is Because I Was Flesh, which, judging from the recent Tri-Quarterly Festschrift, his admirers have agreed to call his masterpiece. In substance a biography of his mother, the Jewish Polish immigrant who ran the Star Lady Barbershop under a viaduct in Kansas City, it is the one Dahlberg book in thirty years that is more than a bowl of fragrant proverbs; it is seamed together by love. Here the world meets the proverb, and neither is relinquished for the other. "Literature … is hallowed remembrance," Dahlberg once wrote; and in Because I Was Flesh he showed what truth was in his words. (p. 32)
Calvin Bedient in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1971 by The New Republic, Inc.), February 6, 1971.
Edward Dahlberg is virtually unassimilable into any ordinary literary category, and partly for this reason, he has never in a long career commanded anything like a wide audience; has remained, not even a writer's but a critic's writer. A onetime novelist … who repudiated the form, he was never a critic or scholar as these terms are sanctioned where the definitions are made (the Academy); and certainly he has never turned his hand to any of the accessible and digestible subgenres. He has stood fast on his heavily-mortgaged marginal ground, like one of those demented old farmers pitchfork in hand against the insurance agents and sheriff's deputies, persisting through the years in his fanatical efforts to turn what anyone but he could see was a desert into some kind of garden; and he managed, God knows how, to cause some curious flowers to bloom there, flowers that eat flesh, can't be transplanted or cross-pollinate.
Dahlberg is not only a critic's writer, he is a critic's problem. The jeremiad is his characteristic tone—the tone he's as it were happiest with; his place and time are Middle America, New York, Europe in the '20s and '30s, the scene often the dark side of America; his principal subject, really his only one, is himself: his books are episodes in an unending quest for self-definition. Yet although some of his books, and parts of others, are autobiographical, episodic rather than systematic, they are forever veering toward legend and fable….
In short, Dahlberg is a crank in a peculiarly American grain, a solitary who sets himself intransigently against all contemporary literary conventions and traditions, and rails against the mainstream and all its tributaries as they churn unheeding past….
The sticking point in Dahlberg's work is that old devil Style—a term that sounds fatuous these days, fit for the classroom, women's book clubs, and the columns of the provincial press. Yet in Dahlberg the style is the man, the man the style…. Dahlberg's [style] is "literary" in every sense, both high and invidious; and the language-stock, the word-hoard, along with the distinguishing rhetorical devices, are related to contemporary speech only by remote cousinship. The models are in the main Elizabethan and Seventeenth Century, with gleanings from other sources; the almost exclusive taste is for the arcane and recondite. Archaisms rumble across the page like coaches-and-four. Dahlberg, though formally educated (as schoolmasters say), writes like a man who has never heard English actually spoken, and who, supposing it is an extinct language, and loving it all the more for that reason, has undertaken to construct a usable language, viably literary though pretechnological, out of such works as one might once have found in the libraries of eccentric, bookish country gentlemen long since, alas, dead. Such a language will go jug-jug to dirty ears, but for certain purposes it may, dexterously employed, be superb…. [But] apart from the pleasures of listening to a master of invective anathematize the forked beast's and the world's irredeemable vileness, how you feel about Dahlberg will depend finally on how his language registers on your ear. (p. 497)
Having renounced the errors of Modernism in all its forms, and taken to prophesying against moneychangers and scribes, Pharisees and Philistines, Dahlberg required a language appropriate to his purposes as Ezekiel's was to his—and did not so much evolve the one which marks him as the Cain of Letters as find it waiting for him in his own Qamram caves, which are somewhere to the Northwest or Southeast of Kansas City. And wonder to behold, it works! it works! In the desert God promised him a miracle if he would adhere, alone among men, to all the strictures of Torah; then, though he could not speak, the Lord would give him the gift of tongues. And it came to pass. And men marveled. (p. 498)
I find the fiasco wonderfully funny, weirdly delivered from what should have been slapstick by the crazy spiraling elevation of style and given a kind of tilting monumentality by it. It's still demented, but raised now to a forlorn splendor and nutty dignity. Take him all in all, Dahlberg is the first Comedian of our letters, a cast of one, a ragged, tattered but noble clown. (p. 499)
Saul Maloff, "Edward Dahlberg—Pariah," in Commonweal (copyright © 1971 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), February 19, 1971, pp. 497-99.
Though born in 1900, Edward Dahlberg is a phenomenon of the Sixties, a veritable phoenix risen from the socio-idealistic flames which in the Thirties consumed many writers and left them inarticulate ashes. Nine of his sixteen books prior to The Confessions were published in the [Sixties]; only two appeared in the Fifties, one in the Forties, and four—three of which were his only novels—in 1930, 1932, and 1934.
His increased visibility owes much to the late English writer Herbert Read, who—deeply affected by the anarchism, romanticism, antirationalism, and style of Dahlberg's Can These Bones Live (1941)—wrote a preface to the 1947 British edition of the book. This was the first of Read's kindnesses to a man who, like himself, had been an orphan; Read wrote more prefaces for him, interested publishers in his work, and collaborated with Dahlberg in an epistolary exchange on modern literature—Truth Is More Sacred (1961)—in which the latter excoriated modernism and such representative figures as James, Lawrence, Joyce, and Pound.
In [the United States] Dahlberg's reputation was expanded by the approbation and generosity of poet-critic Allen Tate, one of the original Southern Agrarians of the Twenties. Reviewing the 1960 re-issue of Can These Bones Live, for example, Tate praised the "visionary and prophetic work" for its "antihistorical" perspective and its stylistic "sources in Hebraic and Classical cultures," concluding that "one may learn more about the human condition in our time from this book than from a dozen labored sociological tracts."
There are passages of great beauty in Can These Bones Live, for Dahlberg was, as he remains, an extraordinary manipulator of the English language. He had rejected his proletarian novels, his radical activism, and his political journalism of the early Thirties, had turned away to steep himself in the Old and New Testaments, in Shakespeare and other Elizabethans, in classic American writers of the nineteenth century, and in the American moderns Randolph Bourne and Sherwood Anderson. Inspired by Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature (1923) and Williams's In the American Grain (1925), Can These Bones Live is the literary and cultural criticism of an impassioned lyric poet who disdains the "critical humbug" and "esthetic-scientific vocabulary" of "those homunculous gods, Croce, Kant, Bosanquet, I. A. Richards," and trusts his solar plexus. Dahlberg's baroque exuberance marks a return to the florid style of Melville and, beyond him in time, of Puritans Cotton Mather and Nathaniel Ward, whose fervid prose, like that of Dahlberg, is rich in rare and archaic diction, allusions to and quotations from more ancient savants, paradoxes, contradictions, factual errors, misinterpretations, impatience with contemporaries, and powerful self-assertiveness. (p. 28)
Extravagant anti-Americanism and antimodernism … pervade Dahlberg's … works…. Books dominated by the Dahlberg "I" are really fictions of one man's travail, weakness, and strength in a world dominated by "plebs," "mass-men," and "garage proletariat." The Confessions contains familiar Dahlbergian material; he has declared that each new book is a reworking of those already extant. The cultural critique now appears more patently shallow, dated, and redundant, querulous rather than helpful. How one man survived commercial temptation, false friends, venal reviewers, academic prostitution, national vulgarity, Puritan inhibition, partisan dogma, and rotten literature to find happiness and wisdom in Greek and Latin writings. Central American mythology, and the music and sense of English is the true story of The Confessions. It has an American flavor.
In Alms for Oblivion (1964), Dahlberg wrote that "we live to confess our faults, and that is scripture and literature." The Confessions is bestrewn with moral wisdom in encapsulated, aphoristic form, complete with citation of prescribing authorities where not Dahlbergian in origin. Only in the Sixties would this Talmudic-patristic mixture of aristocratic, anarchist, conservative, and populist herbs be regarded as sufficient seasoning for a caldron of scripture. Nevertheless, there are wonderful pages which compensate for Dahlberg's constricting egotism, social insularity, superficial representation of individuals, and the masks of allegory and abstraction behind which he shields too many people and events. Chapter eighteen, for example, is a magnificent paean to the Word, that basic element of all literature. Furthermore, Dahlberg has a profound sense of humor. One hopes that he will stop overdramatizing himself and return to the outer world occasionally, as he did so successfully in writing about his mother in Because I Was Flesh. (p. 29)
Brom Weber, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 6, 1971.
Although by the end of the nineteenth century the existence of an American literature distinctive in idiom, temper, and cultural implications was generally recognized, after the First World War a number of major American authors sought further to define and project what they believed to be the authentic national strains of American life and letters…. Dahlberg, with the stance of an Old Testament prophet, castigated Puritan asceticism and diabolism as well as nineteenth-century pessimism and moral ambiguity. Wrestling zealously for a generation with the issues of a national style and values, he seems to have placed his deepest confidence in a literature which would issue from what he termed the "moral intellect," the "carnal heart," and a rapport with the American earth.
If indeed Edward Dahlberg was the "most hated man in American literature," as he himself maintained in a letter to Lewis Mumford in the early 1950s, he apparently accepted his status with pride as well as resentment. Consistently over the years he conceived of himself as a descendant of the great heroes or prophets from classical and Biblical times whose lot it was to be spurned or ignored because of their affirmation of unpalatable or transcendent "truths." (pp. 381-82)
[Since] by his own testimony as well as by the judgment of his friends he appears variously as iconoclast, exorcist of the Black Mass, screaming Jeremiah, and Grand Inquisitor, his assessments of American literature often incline toward a negative mode; and yet in this negative increment, as in satire, an ideal perspective inheres as an impelling force. (p. 382)
[In] his self-appointed mission to cleanse the Augean stables of literature, Eliot and Pound evidently seemed to him to require his most unrelenting labors. Often he linked them together in joint defilement. (p. 383)
Utilizing for critical leverage both linguistic patterns and quasi-mythic assumptions, he dubbed [William Carlos] Williams the "Paterson rock poet," whose pervasive rock imagery, counterbalanced by that of the river and the sea, issues in a symbolic enhancement of inhumanity and death. Conceding that authorial skill, invention, and originality are abundantly present in Williams' work, Dahlberg nevertheless concluded that an excess of such qualities can "slay the spirit." Indeed, Williams became for him a culminating and salient exemplar of those characteristics which seemed to him to inhere in the "wild, watery men" like Melville who are America's most impressive writers: an addiction to watery coldness, a moral ambiguity or nihilism, an outdoor homelessness, a frontier love of violence, and a lack of vision. In the marriage of water (death) to the stone (fortitude) in Paterson Dahlberg found a symbolic absence of moral volition and a typically indigenous reflection of "supine pessimism and dingy misanthropy." Such qualities, he apparently supposed, were the perversions which in part had transformed American literature into a humbug Black Mass. (p. 384)
Among [the] alleged victims of the Puritan heritage treated in Can These Bones Live, Melville held the greatest fascination for Dahlberg—primarily, no doubt, because he could find much of himself reflected in another Ishmael who, as isolato and wanderer, had "died to America"…. Yet also in Melville as in Williams he found the elements of both the Black Mass and the authentic vision of American letters. By the late 1930s Melville had become for him "a veritable Tamburlaine of our imaginative wisdom" by transcending a provincial emphasis on locale and by touching some "forgotten substratum" of larger human experience. A few years later, however, apparently owing to a shift in his own psychic needs, Dahlberg began to disparage Melville as a Christian artist who had assassinated his "pulses," and by the 1960s both Tamburlainean and Christian identifications had yielded to a more comprehensively negative image: that of the voice of the "demonic," of America's aboriginal temper and energy, of its unreflective passion for the leviathan as "epical." Moby-Dick was accordingly construed (somewhat unconvincingly) in Alms for Oblivion … both as a "book of monotonous and unrelenting gloom" and also as an example of America's "wizened, intellectual literature." The absence in the novel of amours, doxies, trollops, and trulls seemed characteristically American to Dahlberg in that "Melville, Whitman, Poe, and Thoreau loathed the female." Moreover, berating Melville as a "hydromaniac" for his emphasis on the sea and ignoring his diverse and richly symbolic use thereof, Dahlberg again utilized the quasi-myth by which he sought to diminish the poetry of his friend Williams: imaginative addition to water issues in "a Babel and a confusion," "destroys filial affection," and "maddens the intellect." And such, in part, are the constituents of the Black Mass. (pp. 385-86)
Despite his disclaimers of either moral or religious allegiances, Dahlberg has increasingly revealed a critical stance which implies both a moral concern and an assumption of his own cognitions as being mythically if not divinely derived….
It was probably from a complex of … assumptions that in Alms for Oblivion … Dahlberg deplored the "underground nihilism in modern man" and affirmed that though the poet need not have an explicit creed or religion, he must express "one character." (p. 388)
In Dahlberg's view,… America had never achieved a genuine civilization—a "human civilization that is sane, civil and moral"—but had leaped from frontier strength to decadence and had become, paradoxically, "a young nation already in its dotage." Amid his "pulseless stone buildings" and his defoliated cities the American, Dahlberg prophesied, must surely go mad and spill blood "if only to have pigment in his life." (p. 389)
In his resistance to his own technological age and in his resurrection of essentially Transcendental assumptions, however, Dahlberg evidently underestimated the difficulties of reinstating a mythic or primordial sensibility in American culture. Indeed, his own mythic perspectives derived from tuition rather than intuition, from learning rather than primary experience, from recorded revelations of the past rather than such transporting personal visions as even Emerson experienced. (p. 390)
What kind of literature, then, did Dahlberg in sum envisage to help redeem the national character? If one should project the various lines of his dicta, censure, and literary practice, into what affirmative configuration would they emerge? In the largest context he would insist on an imagination sensitized and shaped by the ancient myths as well as by the Judaic-Hellenic concepts and arts which, in his view, had cumulatively provided a valid and humane vision for Western culture. In what he often regarded as the virtually sub-literary continent of America, he would find the soundest matrix in the rugged Western landscapes and the agrarian Midwest, since through an elemental touch with these the writer might counteract the denatured, inhumane, and rootless life of the cities. For the heroic national image he would return to the temper if not always the behavior of such sturdy ante-bellum figures as Jefferson, Boone, and Jackson; and for a national ethos of sanity and community he would give priority in setting and metaphor to the solid land with its moral struggles as opposed to the fluid seas with their implications of Narcissism, moral ambiguity, and the death wish. Abjuring rationalism, pragmatism, and Puritan asceticism, the American imagination could then through the revelations of intuition and the pulses most fully embrace and portray in both men and women the "carnal heart," with its admixture of vital force and peril, of tragedy and regeneration. As for style: the plain old words with their rich accretions of experience would form a sufficient base for the disciplined and receptive imagination to create the "communal song of labour, sky, star, field, love." With such a holy song of affirmation, Dahlberg implies, American literature would no longer be a "humbug Black Mass." (p. 392)
Benjamin T. Spencer, "American Literature as Black Mass: Edward Dahlberg," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1974, Hofstra University Press), December, 1975, pp. 381-93.
The reader's orbs extrude. The storm of words [in "The Olive of Minerva, or the Comedy of a Cuckold"] bedews his danksome brow. Why this vexatious assault of verbal wind, this lewd stew of aphorisms? How to comprehend the sorrow of Abel, the bitter protagonist of this philosophical tale—"part Elizabethan madcap, part Chaucerian fabliau." How to understand this acidulous cuckold and exile from New York who "had a starless sky in his veins," while the "pravity of melancholia gorged his head," and why? Voix de raison: "Don't try." Agenbite of inwit: "But I have heard its author called 'the literary phoenix of his generation.'" D. H. Lawrence said of one of his books, "Nothing I have ever read has astonished me more." Voix de raison: "Think about that Lawrence quote a bit." (p. 130)
The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), March 22, 1976.
Edward Dahlberg … embodied literature's transition from Dickens to Saroyan and Steinbeck. In Europe in the 1920's, with such notables as Robert McAlmon, Richard Aldington and Hart Crane, Dahlberg transposed his early life into the naturalistic novel "Bottom Dogs" (1930)—"dunghill fiction," he later called it. He soon changed his style from proletarian to sophomoric, and over the past half-century he has published 20 books of fiction, criticism, letters and autobiography.
Dahlberg's fiction soon reached its modest limits, and those writers who had seized on his "Bottom Dogs" style worked it to death in the service of Communism, while his later style found no imitators. His critical writings and theoretical pronouncements about myth and culture, as well as his autobiographies, kept his name before the professional followers of American literature, however, and he has spoken his mind about a wide spectrum of writers—from past masters such as Melville, Whitman, Rimbaud, Verlaine and Henry James to such contemporaries as Joyce, Pound, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Gide, Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling.
What he has said about them—in prose often reminiscent of The Manchester Union-Leader—has been consistently hostile, vituperative, personally insulting and wrong. ("If Lionel Trilling really loved literature he would stop writing.") But in the age of Joyce, Pound and Eliot literary and mythological allusions dazzle many readers, and mere survival is itself a great persuader: Dahlberg has become at once a neglected, forgotten author and a respected elder statesman of our culture.
The fashionable attitude toward that culture is derogatory, as Trilling pointed out, and in ["The Olive of Minerva"] Dahlberg aims many a barb of trenchant wit at this target. Here he is, for instance, explaining why the hero of this novel left the Big Apple: "He had gone out from that steel and glass Gehenna, New York. Billingsgate was rife in the mouths of the street-gamin, the navvy, and the rabble intelligentsia of the academic dumps of America. New York was doomed; whores were in all five boroughs…. Courtesy was regarded as a malaise of a meacock grout-head."
Is this complex irony—billingsgate scolded in billingsgate; Elizabethan diction (from a time rich in abuse, rudeness, and whores) chastising a similar time; discourtesy discourteously derided? Or is this merely bad writing, overripe triteness?
Through the years Dahlberg has said much about sex: women are lecherous, unclean, untrustworthy and castrating; men are their victims. "The highest man," he wrote in "The Sorrows of Priapus," "will have no scrotum." Such notions also infest the present work, in which a cardboard figure named Abel is sent to Majorca to join several others while Dahlberg writes pop-song epigrammatic wisdom at us. "Every man who is Abel is also Cain," he observes, "for there is nothing good in man that is not bad"; "it's futile making a journey because fleeing is the same as standing still."
Dahlberg's wisdom is often incomprehensible: "Who seeds one's failures save men; lunatic Alexander of Macedon was advised not to conquer Scythia, since he only would be ravaging poverty." And most of it dwells on sex: "Void of misogamy, he cowered when he considered the paps; the uterine tribe is spiteful"; "a Majorcan cannot produce anything except hags. After a foreigner has sojourned on this blessed isle for six months, he is impotent"; "it is custom for all chambering females to assume a modest carriage. Besides, virtue in a woman is plagiarism. O what a yoke of misfortune is a spermal man."
Dahlberg's gawdawful thesaurus style of writing is incapable of expressing ideas, narrating stories and describing scenes; its only function is to call attention to itself. His humor is similar and is illustrated by his use of names: the characters include El Medico Muchas Pesetas, Father Moses Rodriguez y Caracol, Lais O'Shea and Don Miguel Gomez Menos o Mas. They all live in No Hay Nada.
A book review that praises as well as blames is balanced and therefore persuasive. Many of this novel's big words are used correctly; many of its sentences are grammatical; some of the paragraphs are coherent; and there are very wide margins: the book is not so long as it seems. (p. 20)
J. D. O'Hara, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 18, 1976.