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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