Sadakichi Hartmann Critical Essays

Introduction

Sadakichi Hartmann 1867-1944

(Full name Carl Sadakichi Hartmann) American poet, playwright, essayist, short story writer, novelist, and lecturer.

An American man of letters, Hartmann's work spans a complex field of subjects. He was a poet associated both with Walt Whitman and the French Symbolists, a leading critic of the nascent art of photography, a prominent member of the bohemian society of Greenwich Village at the turn of the century, and later a somewhat more peripheral figure in Hollywood society. A world traveler and lecturer, he launched innovative productions of his own plays and more classic material on stages across the United States, appeared in the film The Thief of Baghdad with Lionel Barrymore, and generated many volumes of art criticism.

Biographical Information

According to Hartmann, he was born on November 8, 1867, on the isle of Desima in Nagasaki Harbor, Japan. His mother, who was Japanese, either died in childbirth or shortly thereafter. Carl Herman Oskar Hartmann, his German father, sent Sadakichi, which means "fortunate if constant," and his older brother Taru to stay with their wealthy uncle in Hamburg, where they were educated. Some time later, the elder Carl Hartmann returned to Germany and married a widow with two daughters from a previous marriage, at which time Sadakichi was sent to the Naval Academy at Kiel. He ran away almost immediately to Paris and was disinherited by his family. Having no other resources, and being only fifteen years old, Hartmann made his way to America, to search out his other, less socially prominent uncle in Philadelphia. While working odd jobs of all sorts, Hartmann pursued an education in art as best he could, studying briefly at the Spring Garden Institute and the Mercantile Library. When he discovered that Walt Whitman was living in nearby Camden, he made his way there and introduced himself sometime around his seventeenth birthday. Whitman and Hartmann became friends, seeing each other often over the following eight years, up until a year before Whitman's death in 1892. Hartmann published Conversations with Walt Whitman three years later, and his poetry of this period strongly shows Whitman's influence. After Whitman, the next great influence on Hartmann's art was French Symbolism. Hartmann visited Europe on no less than five occasions between 1885 and 1892, primarily to train as an actor, and it was during this time that he was first galvanized by innovations in French poetry, particularly in the work of Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé. Returning to the United States, he championed Symbolism to his friends among the New York literati. At the same time, Hartmann pursued his desire to act and to write for the stage. He traveled to Boston from his home in New York to involve himself with the thriving theatre scene there—it was in Boston that his controversial play Christ was first performed. In 1891 Hartmann married Elizabeth Blanche Walsh, with whom he had five children. During their marriage he also pursued a romantic affair with Anne Throop, a New England poet, with whom he had a son, and, in 1911, he took a young artist named Lillian Bonham as his common-law wife. They lived together at Elbert Hubbard's artist colony in Roycroft, New York, until 1916, producing seven more children. By this time, Hartmann's artistic energies were flagging. After 1916, he took up residence in San Francisco and attached himself to the theater community there. He returned to New York in 1919. Then, in 1923, he relocated again, this time to Los Angeles, where he met John Barrymore and appeared, through Barrymore's influence, as a magician in the classic fantasy film The Thief of Baghdad with Douglas Fairbanks. In 1924, Hartmann moved to Beaumont, California, hoping that the desert air would alleviate the symptoms of his asthma. This would be the pattern of Hartmann's later life: moving back and forth across the United States, seeking out friends, and writing less and less. He finally set up house in a one-room shack he built himself at the edge of the Morongo Indian Reservation in Banning, California. The FBI occasionally looked in on him during the war to make sure he was not spying for either of his parents' native lands. Finally, shortly before the atom bomb fell on his place of birth, Sadakichi paid a visit to one of his daughters in St. Petersburg, Florida, and died there on the November 21, 1944.

Major Works

While it was his involvement with Whitman that initially drew Hartmann into poetry, he found his particular voice in Symbolism. He wrote a great deal of critical material promoting Symbolism in the United States in his capacity as art critic for the Daily Tatler in 1896, in articles for the National Review, and in his own paper the Art Critic, among others. He also wrote the introduction to Whisperings of a Wind Harp, a collection of Symbolist poems by Anne Throop. Hartmann was also writing Symbolist poetry of his own, including his ambitious Naked Ghosts, dedicated to Mallarmé. His break with Whitman is clearest in Drifting Flowers of the Sea, and Other Poems, in which there are also a number of poems in the traditional Japanese tanka style, which was to be Hartmann's next aesthetic focus. He released, through Guido Bruno, publisher of Greenwich Village magazine, a chapbook entitled Tanka, Haiku, Fourteen Japanese Rhythms in 1915; this would be re-released in revised additions as Japanese Rhythms. His most socially conscious poem, My Rubaiyat, originally published in St. Louis in 1913, would be reissued by Bruno in 1916. Hartmann's poetry is characterized by a Poesque sense of inevitable decay, and an oppressive sense of the hopelessly unaesthetic dreariness of everyday city life, but, at least in My Rubaiyat, he also bemoans the inequality with which women were treated, the strong contrast between rich and poor in the United States, and the increasing militarism that would bring the America into the First World War. Hartmann also wrote plays, including a cycle of Symbolist dramas about major figures in history: Christ, Mohammed, Confucius, Buddha, and Moses. He also wrote a surrealist play entitled Baker Eddy. Hartmann produced a collection of short stories in 1899 entitled Schopenhauer in the Air, and a second collection entitled simply Seven Short Stories in 1930. He also wrote a novel, The Last Thirty Days of Christ (1920), which dealt with Jesus and Judas in particular. Hartmann was a critic of distinction. In addition to his three brief journalistic ventures, Art Critic (1893-1894), Art News (1896-1897), and Stylus (1910), he published scholarly books on Shakespeare, James McNeill Whistler, Japanese art, and contemporary American sculpture. Of all his critical work, however, his most important contributions were the many essays on photography that he submitted to journals under a variety of names, and which are collected in The Valiant Knights of Daguerre (1978). These essays and lectures were among the first fundamental critical works on photography in the world, the fruit of his longtime association with photographer Alfred Stieglitz.

Critical Reception

Whitman was the first to notice Hartmann's talent, giving him much personal encouragement and sending him into the literary world with his endorsement. But, overall, Hartmann enjoyed the recognition of his peers without being widely popular or well-known. Christ, his first Symbolist drama, drew praise from Mallarmé and condemnation from nearly everyone else, mostly owing to its scandalous nude scene. His Last Thirty Days of Christ was praised by Ezra Pound, who went on to mention Hartmann in The Pisan Cantos and in his Guide to Kulchur. Nevertheless, it was in his critical work and journalism that Hartmann made his mark most publicly, and, as self-appointed ambassador of Symbolism to the United States, he was briefly embraced as a prominent member of the American art scene. Hartmann had a propensity to gather groups of artists around himself, such as the Margery Winter circle in Los Angeles, which included Ben Berlin, Raymond Brossard, Ronald Paintin, and Einar Hansen. For the most part, his influence emerged indirectly, in the work of those who knew him personally.