Fielding Dawson Essay - Critical Essays

Dawson, Fielding

Dawson, Fielding 1930–

An American short story writer, essayist, and former painter, Dawson has been associated with the Black Mountain Review and Caterpillar.

Fielding Dawson's first collection of short stories [Krazy Kat], covering the past fifteen years, brings us all a dashing, volatile, multi-radial work: a continuous, fluid work in which, however, the best of the stories have the sharp linear focus, the crystalline acuteness, the expressive grace which only mobility, governed by awareness can bring. It is a joy to read these stories all together; the more so, because one's split impulse—to linger ruminatively over each story, and to keep zipping along—corresponds to the movement of the stories themselves: each one an attempt to see and render a life-movement, a vignette, a situation, a thought, with that intent muscular grace which is Fielding Dawson's style. Indeed, when these stories fail, it is because, emotionally, Dawson—too intent and too open to associations—brings conscious will too much to bear on perceiving; thus choking the emotional fluency, producing a strained and haranguing tone.

In this book, however, the best holds the majority: and what it brings us is, in a very certain sense, an art of the unfinished, a running chronicle of the unfinished: "unfinished" in the sense of unpossessable. The completeness of Cheever's fiction, or Updike's, it seems to me, too often makes of the reader an absentee landlord: the "owner" of an art-work which his ego has safely assimilated, without any sacrifice to the work's burden of understanding. The same may be said of many another, and worthier, western artist than Cheever or Updike. But Dawson's writing, with that of a relative few but shining contemporaries (among them, Harry Lewis, Edward Dorn, Hubert Selby) presents an art, the evolution of personal journalism (not that vinyl-surfaced parajournalism we hear so much about) which insists on the reader's participation, his willingness to follow the fusings and branchings of Dawson's map. Every story in this book can be taken as a man's effort to locate and articulate himself, to understand the boundaries, while sacrificing as little as possible of life's mobility. (pp. 34-5)

I have written that Dawson's failures seem to me failures of an over-determined consciousness, constantly seeking the correct name for both object and experience; thus, at times, losing the larger human reverberations, the reality, for the narrower actuality. This problem seems to me, in some of the later stories, compounded by his increased using of psychoanalytic terminology: categorical terms which he must try to impose on the crepuscular flow of his imagery, and the quick grace of encounter which marks his best work. These terms, handed from above, so to speak, repeatedly, at worst, thicken and slow down the movement of the work; and add to one's sense of emotions too strenuously summoned.

The use of this language and this perspective challenges the stresses of experience with the stasis of categories. But still, even in its sometimes unsatisfactory results, this formulation, too, belongs to the peculiarly heroic mode of Fielding Dawson's writings: heroic, in that he elects to write from the peak of his judgment and reflex. Heroic, too, in his perception that writing, as extension of life, comprises a series of decisions recorded as gestures. Taken successively, these gestures make up the action which provides his stories' tone, as well as their content. So any language which he has incorporated into his experience, which serves the active function—instant clarification—of language, is part of the equipment, and to be used accordingly, as appropriate.

So Dawson's writing, good or bad, can be called action writing in the most permeative sense. It enlists the process-rhythms of painting and choreography in the rippling, guileless complexity of his typical prose. Sometimes, it comes out merely pretty and a little unctuous; much more often, you get that physical delivery of the intricate, through rhythm, which marks some of the greatest Irish prose writers—the Joyce of Dubliners, or James Stephens—as well as, at best, Americans like Ring Lardner. (pp. 35-6)

Best of all, Fielding Dawson is a journalist in that word's constantly essential, all-but-forgotten meaning: he is both a seer and a messenger, a bringer of news: not impaled by the present, but sped by the energies which converge in the present—Fielding Dawson with the news. (p. 36)

Donald Phelps, "Fielding Dawson with the News," in Caterpillar, Fall, 1970, pp. 34-6.

Open Road and the earlier stories in Krazy Kat/The Unveiling (1951–1968) are trials in Dawson's discovery of his own idiom of information, his own inclination to manifest language as inventive as the new poetry, his attempt to understand where linearity can be dislocated—where, as Michel Butor puts it, "the thread breaks, becomes entangled". He wanted to differentiate character but avoid the traps of fixed identity (and with it the freudian claptrap of total individuation as an aim) and of characters as things….

Gradually Dawson invented procedures of flow, interruption and leap, and what Butor calls "a spectrum of harmonic dates". His major limitation is a classic one: how much the 'I' of memoir-fiction can tell of himself and other people, how much can he know, how to resist boring interior monologue. Dawson learned to make the limitation work for him, to draw the reader into a scene in which signs and clues can be rapidly exchanged and patterned within a steady sense of being told a story which turns out to be also an enquiry into survival. His compassion and insistent thrust of self move out from an assumption that we all begin in ignorance of our condition, have to learn it, and have to learn that "limits are what any of us are inside of". The artist accepts responsibility for articulacy, for slowing down and speeding up life processes for examination. Read together Dawson's diary episodes and dreams, made into stories, indicate aims: to achieve contentment without callousness or stupid assent, and not to interfere through leading comment. A main horror is to feel nothing is happening as time draws a man on in boredom, mechanism and waste. Intimations of mortality urge throughout Dawson's work: it must be now or never that we love, paint, write, taste, drink, field that ball, strike. It is exactly this vertical appreciation of the linear time-space that produces the form of his energy. (p. 48)

Eric Mottram, "A First Appreciation of Fielding Dawson," in Vort #4, Fall, 1973, pp. 43-53.