Jonathan Lethem, “The Disappointment Artist: Edward Dahlberg’s Recipe for Crocodile Tears” (from Harper’s Magazine, 2003)
My Aunt Billie (1918-94)—Wilma Yeo to her readers, to the world, to you—was among the first human beings I remember. Her Kansas City apartment is the site of one of my earliest, murkiest memories: Seated on a carpet, I wept at seeing, on television, a depiction of a forest fire, one that routed a herd of panicked baby animals. Aunt Billie’s twin daughters, then young teenagers, laughed at me for crying. In the memory, which plays like a length of corroded celluloid—grainy, broken at both ends, but reliably identical each time—Aunt Billie sweeps in, rescues and consoles me, lightly chastises her daughters.
I lived with my parents in Kansas City, on the campus of the Kansas City Art Institute, from 1965, when I was two, until 1968, when my parents returned to New York City, and each of three or four of my earliest memories takes place there. Another involves television: Taking shelter during a tornado warning, with my parents and a couple of their friends, in the basement of our stone house. George Burk, another painter then on the faculty at KCAI, and my father’s best friend, brought for entertainment a six-pack of beer and a portable black-and-white, on which we watched The Monkees while the storm passed harmlessly. Yet another Kansas City memory is of seeing my first film in a theater: Yellow Submarine. Counterfeit Beatles, animated Beatles, forest fires seen but unreal, tornadoes real but unseen—may one plead, Your Honor, postmodernism as an involuntary condition?
That is Kansas City’s whole place in my life: a small, strange place. Aunt Billie’s place in my life is larger. She was my first writer. And, although my father was a painter and I was trained for a career in his footsteps, as a visual artist, I somehow knew from the first to sit at the feet of any writer I encountered. Aunt Billie was primarily an author of children’s books, but her resume boasted articles in Reader’s Digest and The Saturday Evening Post, as well as a biography of Thomas Hart Benton, Maverick with a Paintbrush, which, though written simply enough for young readers, is solidly researched and a contribution to Benton studies. Her Mrs. Neverbody’s Recipes (J. B. Lippincott, 1968; the title page notes: "The following poems were first published in Humpty Dumpty’s Magazine") was the first autographed book in my collection, which before I was even out of my teenage years had grown to include inscriptions from Allen Ginsberg, Robert Heinlein, Norton Juster, and Anthony Burgess. I was a nerdish and sycophantic kid, let me be the first to say. I revered writers, and still do. I loved my Aunt Billie.
So did my father, who’s still around. Sibling bonds were strong among my father and his three sisters and two brothers. They grew up together on a Depression farm in Missouri. But Aunt Billie (the second oldest) and my father (the runt) enjoyed a particular lifelong kinship as the two "creative" types. Their closeness defied and outlasted my father’s repeatedly throwing over the Midwest for, in turn, Columbia University, the Army, Paris (on a painter’s Fulbright), and New York again.
On the telephone my father still shouts, gives only rudimentary news, and suspects all he hears, feeling, perhaps rightly, that long-distance calls are a sham apparatus. He and Aunt Billie maintained their intimacy by writing letters. One day not long ago, my father asked if I’d ever heard of Edward Dahlberg. I had some familiarity with that name, but I couldn’t imagine why he wanted to know.
"Have a look at this," he said, and handed me the letter.
Dearest Brother—first of all I should say that I write this in an ego-centered search for an identity that I lost in a class at UMKC taught by Edward Dahlberg, a writer in residence for this semester. To describe him is impossible—I’ve read most of his autobiography now BECAUSE I WAS FLESH, and have a little more comprehension of this individual who emerged from a poverty stricken childhood in Kansas City where his whore-mother was a Star Lady Barber and he had no father—his book is the story of Lizzie Dahlberg—his mother—whom he loved with repulsion. This man, an intellectual Alexander King—in both looks and attitude—bitter, bitter sweet (and I don’t use the term intellectual in the bannal method of today) has verbally crucified every member of the class who dared open his mouth—and to read a work of ones own! Sheer folly. He is a man of letters and so well acquainted with Dreiser, Swift, Mather, Taylor, Stendhal, DeBalzac, Unamuno, Dryden, Gissing, Ruskin, Morris, Ford, Coleridge, Anderson, Baudouin, Flaubert, Keats, Gill, Read, Chestov, Thoreau, Rozanov, Merjkowski, Tolstoi Swinburne, Hulme, Williams, Heywood, Jastrow, (all of the Bible—though he disclaims Religion) Weaver, Meyers, Garland, Berkman, Goldman, Delacroix, Dostovsky etc but not many more—that he is astonishingly like a walking library—He calls James and Brecht scribblers—says nothing worth reading has been written ‘en contemporary…. no doubt it would seem to be a mistake to sit two hours twice a week in the mezermizing world that he weaves for I can no longer write a word—should my life depend upon it.
That’s the whole of the first, unparagraphed page. There are seven more. The letter—still in my possession—is written on onionskin, the words carved in ink by a manual’s keys. Rich with delirious typos and misspellings (Dostovsky and Chestov!), and hasty cursive annotations and ellipses, as well as a torrent of weirdly antique name-drops (Alexander King, Jastrow), but above all eloquently desperate, the letter radiates human intellectual panic like pheromones. Each time I read it I feel the thrill of unsealing a time capsule, and of awakening my aunt from her deservedly peaceful slumber.
The year of the letter is 1965, identifiable by Aunt Billie’s stated age and some family chatter on the last few pages. Wilma Yeo was forty-eight, still three years from placing Mrs. Neverbody’s Recipes, her first book, with Lippincott, when she had her bracing encounter with Dahlberg.
Edward Dahlberg (1900-77) was born, illegitimately, in Boston and raised in Kansas City (Dahlberg: "let me admit it, I hate Kansas City"). His tormented coming-of-age, split between a Jewish orphanage and the home of his mother, the barber and adventuress described by Wilma Yeo, is the center of both his first novel (1930), famously introduced by D. H. Lawrence (Dahlberg: "I wasn’t influenced by Lawrence at all! Not at all! That’s a small, wanton, niggardly conjecture!"), and his late memoir, Because I Was Flesh (1964). Where Dahlberg is remembered, Because I Was Flesh is accounted his masterpiece. His career was split. There were three novels in the thirties, full of ancient slang and proto-Hubert Selby grubbiness, good enoughto make him a signal figure in the largely forgotten—and, by Dahlberg, regretted—proletarian movement; then some years of wandering, followed by reinvention as a crypto-classical mandarin stylist, no longer committed to fiction but to literary-historical essays, memoirs, mythological poetry, and fulmination. In this late phase, Dahlberg enjoyed (a uniquely inappropriate word) a reputation as an underground hero of American writing—an unwilling father to Beats ("I have no feeling about these boys. But they are doing what was done thirty years ago and they imagine they are avant-garde. You can be scatological in any century; it is not news. Or a dung-eater anytime; it is an old habit") and a figure legendary for his auto-exile, his excoriating intolerance of other writers. Dahlberg routinely broadcast, on every channel open to him, a galactic disappointment with his own career and with the bad flavor that living had left in his mouth. He died in 1977, his last jottings satires of the television commercials that had come to fascinate him.
I’d known the name, faintly. Working in used-book shops, I’d fondled a few Dahlberg tomes before slashing their prices or consigning them to bins of the never-to-be-sold. I associated him with the agony of the rebuffed career, the refused book. In used-book selling one becomes a dowser of the underground river of refused books, and the dowsing rod twitches like the second hand of a clock. Expertise is knowing which few, of the thousands flung to posterity by their flap copy, anyone would ever actually pay to read. So, Dahlberg: a guilty association, another titan I’d dissed by thinking him a drag on the retail flow.
Aunt Billie’s letter concentrated my attention. Dahlberg’s, it seemed, was a shrill, vibrant voice clinging to the edge of the collective literary consciousness—just. As I asked around, seeking to see how his name played among my best-read friends, the answer was always the one I’d have given myself: Dahlberg, oh yeah, always meant to find out what he was about. I located a biography, The Wages of Expectation, by Charles DeFanti, and Edward Dahlberg: A Tribute, a festschrift assembled by Jonathan Williams; the most recent item was "Broaching Difficult Dahlberg," by Lydia Davis, an essay published in Conjunctions that circles Dahlberg without actually plunging in. Davis interrogates older writers still bearing grudges against Dahlberg, confirming the testimony of the biography and of many of Dahlberg’s own ostensible supporters: this was a more than moderately difficult man. Dahlberg’s tendency to be recalled but unread made him a bizarre discovery: a writer whose reputation was either blinking out of existence at the exact moment I’d located it, or, weirder, a writer whose reputation was somehow frozen in the act of blinking out of existence.
The more I looked, the more it seemed that Dahlberg’s compulsion for taking out his monstrous disappointment on any human within striking distance was the only reputation left, dragging the books distantly behind it. Charles DeFanti details how Dahlberg denounced as unworthy, at various times, Charles Olson, Theodore Dreiser ("If I had reread his books I would have had to assail him"), Robert Graves, Edmund Wilson, and dozens of others, all attempted friends or sponsors of Dahlberg’s career. Here’s Paul Carroll, in his introduction to The Edward Dahlberg Reader, witnessing a Dahlberg performance at a cocktail party given in his honor: "What he said about Hemingway, Faulkner, Eliot, Edmund Wilson, Pound … was univocal, brilliant,sour, erudite, and unanswerable…. Only the cadence of his sentences … seemed to keep Dahlberg’s words from becoming a scream." The list can seem endless, but to eliminate any uncertainty Dahlberg sweepingly denounced not only the whole twentieth-century shelf but the nineteenth century’s as well, locating the corruption of American literature well before Melville. As for his personal relations, he made himself famous for his cold shoulder, arranging elaborate fallings-out so persistently that William O’Rourke, a student and disciple, eulogized him this way: "Edward Dahlberg wrote 18 books and one masterpiece that will endure; at the end of his long life he had less than six people he would have called friend." Perhaps my Aunt Billie had had the privilege of having her head bitten off not by some average writing-class ogre but by the greatest head-biter of all time, the Ozzy Osbourne of writing-teaching.
When you listen to him talk—where do I, a woman of forty eight, with so little time (comparatively speaking) (and he answers—"there is no such thing as time"—Life is an error and death the only truth etc.)—Fit into this picture? His theory that only children are knowing—and that we innundate our minds with every passing minute and thus die with each experience—never able to change our life’s destiny one drop—never again able to attain what we lost through living—is near a parallel that I have long ago reached—and the reason I want to write for children and believe that is the hardest writing to do.
She then adds,
But when I try to discuss writing for children, he says there is no such thing—write what you have to say and pray to God that children will read it … Now this is fine—I go along—but how can I go when I have suddenly lost the way to anyplace at all? I write you this because, knowing how many classes you have sat through—where undoubtedly this same kind of person, taught—I wonder if you can help me. I guess what I want you to say is Don’t Listen To Him, but its too late for that because I already have. How far should one go in deciding what ones personal limitations are, and settling for less than perfection. If I read all of these things (I don’t literally mean every book, but read, say for a year or two) and quit writing (as I seem to have anyway) do you think I would be happier (ugh what a weak word—of course the only happiness is satisfaction or joy in work in progress—and the ability to move on to the next job without looking back with too many weakening day-dreams.) But just when I thought I was going along so great—I’ve stubbed my mental toe! On a rock! You know that for several years I’ve been reading deeper things—I can finally read poetry—a little—after years of trying to…. I can recognize good passages—I’ve learned the effectiveness of small words—found the art in brevity—doubted the adjective—learned to discriminate in the varying shades of words …. increased my sad little vocabulary some…. but can one really know what is good unless one has long looked upon perfection until anything less seems shoddy and factory made.
To attempt to read Dahlberg, as I began to do, is to find oneself reading about him instead. For a writer whose persistent epiphany was isolation ("All intelligent Americans are extremely alone"), and whose obsession it was to decry the charlatanism of comradeship among writers ("I am not looking for disciples. Jesus did not even know what to [do] with the apostles, and they had such dull auditory nerves that they could not hear what came from his soul"), Dahlberg is nevertheless one of the most introduced writers of all time. The parade of ushers begins, of course, with Bottom Dogs. It turns out that Lawrence’s essay was commissioned; Davis characterizes it as "unwilling," DeFanti as "squeamish if not somewhat petulant." Reasonable enough: Lawrence’s envoi to Dahlberg’s career concludes, "I don’t want to read any more books like this."
Lawrence there inaugurates a great tradition: Dahlberg is routinely assassinated by his own apologists. Here’s Gerald Burns, in an afterword to The Leafless American (a book consisting of a hundred pages of Dahlberg, a preface by Robert Creeley, and an introduction by Harold Billings, on top of the afterword!): "I had heard he was down on blacks, and the reason seems to be that they have made bastions of our apartments and robbed us of the parks…. [He] says the faces of their children show why they do not yet have a civilization." Karl Shapiro, from Edward Dahlberg: A Tribute: "His petulance and misunderstanding of the Modern are one thing; his disgust for … modern art and literature must be brushed aside; but his blind loyalty to himself as poet, prophet, and l’inconnu—these are his birthright, by all means." Jonathan Williams, in the same book, gratuitously disinters what may seem a too telling review by Alden Whitman in the New York Times: "Dahlberg is outrageous, a deliberate striver for shock value, a magpie who delights to show off his gleanings from the classics, a bombast on occasion, a writer of ponderous nonsense and almost insufferable ego." Well, ahem.
These same supporters compensate by overstatement. In this, they have encouragement from Dahlberg’s style itself. His absolutism is recapitulated everyplace he’s remembered. Paul Carroll: "Is there any author living who is even in the same country as Edward Dahlberg in the moral grandeur and violence of his writings?" Ronald Johnson: "I wonder sometimes whether we deserve an Edward Dahlberg to reprimand us and cajole us." August Derleth: "He is as much a genius as anyone of whom I can think, past or present…." To invest in Dahlberg is to adopt scorched-earthism.
In a letter dated September 2, 1964, anticipating his departure from Ireland for Kansas City, to teach my aunt’s class, Dahlberg wrote: "Good teaching is apocalyptic talking."
Again, Wilma Yeo:
There is a young man in the class who looks so much like you, Dick, that when I watch his eyes as he reads (as he made the grave mistake of doing) one of his poems—I am where you are! Drivel! says the old prof! Pure drivel! You don’t even know that you don’t know anything—read, read, read!!!! I, of course, had thought it quite good. He will say, Did you bring a paper? On what book?—"
"It’s a creative paper?"
"How do you know it is creative? Oh well, read it."
Then he interrupts about the second word and says, "Forgive me, I don’t want to be rude but that is asinine and purile and we don’t have time to waste on it." or "that word makes me want to vomit." I know you say, why listen? but he has something to say. His book is good—his soul is bitter. A boiled prune without hope or belief. Since I can’t write, I have been drawing—This is something I understand why I can’t do well, and so I can enjoy it.
My aunt then describes some other published writers at Dahlberg’s mercy, including Alice Winter, author of The Velvet Bubble, and Frankie Wu, a poet who had already placed work with The New Yorker:
He doesn’t know any of the three of us have ever sold anything and wouldn’t care if he did, for he believes that writing to sell is as morbid as you feel that commercial art is—and that could easily be true, but writing is of so little use in a file cabinate … anyway Frankie typed off this same poem and handed it in—a non-poem, he said, with three good lines in it—but he is interested in Frankie—partly because he likes orientals and thinks America would be better off if we had let them in—and maybe a little because of that poem, but he was so intense in his critisizmof it, in front of the class that she was ill afterward—Frankie has a rare disease and spent four years in an iron lung—her husband Dr. Wu is a quite famous brain surgeon or she would probably not be alive. It is a disease of the nerve endings and sometimes affects her as if she had been drinking. If he is too cruel to her, Alice or I shall probably tell him to go to hell, kindly—for he is easily hurt—as people so often are, who persist in brutal frankness.
There! It was out and said, if only at the last moment, as though Wilma Yeo could no more bring herself to omit her diagnosis than she could bear to judge her teacher: a boiled prune, easily hurt. Or, in the words of Josephine Herbst: "There is so much that is paradoxical, quixotic, contrary about Edward Dahlberg…. Is it possible always to agree with him? Or to share his exclusive literary tastes? But there is consistency even in his inconsistency…. What writer is less afraid of absurdities or willing to show himself as ridiculous?" What compelled my Aunt Billie, then, beyond her necessary rejection of what he told her—evidently, "quit writing"—was Dahlberg’s vulnerability. Wasn’t that right, and couldn’t it be enough? Wasn’t Edward Dahlberg not-so-secretly tender, and didn’t his genius spring from that pained source, in a very Wound and the Bow sort of way? Perhaps I could forgive him, and begin to read him.
Perhaps I was about to do so. But then I found the next two pieces of evidence in my search. First, a letter from Piers Paul Read, who studied under Dahlberg at Columbia in 1967 and whose father, Sir Herbert Read, was one of Dahlberg’s staunch supporters:
My misgivings about Dahlberg as a teacher were amply fulfilled. He had a bullying manner and a total intolerance of any writing but his own. He had read my first novel … which had already been published by this time and rejected it as worthless in front of the class. … We more or less made up the quarrel…. He was not, however, a man to be ignored and he continued to bully me—saying, at one time, in front of the class, that I was responsible for my father’s cancer because I had been married in Strassbourg!
My second discovery was a memoir by William O’Rourke, who, incredibly, had been part of the Kansas City class my aunt attended. He paints the scene in Dahlbergian tones: "Women filled his classes. Cameoed dowagers with rouged jowls and red velvet capes, young brittle-lipped girls whose pens took notes nodding like steadfast crochet needles." Women, it needs be noted, are the great Dahlbergian sore point. Dahlberg’s greatest subject was his mother, and his lifelong Waterloo was his own sexual appetite—his seven marriages, various imputations of harassment and physical abuse, and his whole raging ambivalence about sex: "A man may want to study Mark, or Paracelsus, or go on an errand to do a kindness to an aged woman, but this tyrant [the penis] wants to discharge itself either because the etesian gales are acerb or a wench has just stooped over to gather her laundry…. The head is so obtuse as to go absolutely crazy over a pair of hunkers, which is no more than a chine of beef." And, as elsewhere, his admirers eagerly hoist him to the heavens on this petard. Thus, O’Rourke continues:
The writing class had decomposed to a half dozen. Another male, a speech teacher … and an assortment of female poets. Dahlberg sat with his legs crossed with gray exhaustion over his face … when a woman volunteered to read a children’s book she had written. He had spoken against the children’s dilutions of the Classics before, but consented with alarm for there was no other offering during the period. She began:
"Winnie was a puppy who looked like a mop and rode the elevators of downtown Kansas City until everybody knew his name …"
Edward Dahlberg, American artist, sat with his head shrouded by his hands.
She continued: "He would walk around the Plaza, for he lived with his master in an apartment …"
"Stop," he said, hardly audible. "Stop. Please."
Stop, please! indeed. In my exaggerated relish and mock-horror at uncovering Dahlberg’s heroic monstrosity I was becoming a student of Dahlberg myself, another slave pining for his lash. Worse, in my compulsion to vengeance on my aunt’s behalf, I resembled not a follower but old grudge-nurturing, injury-cherishing Dahlberg himself.
That the writing workshop, the sort led by an established writer and populated by aspirants, is a site of human longing and despair is undeniable. Fear and loathing, the grosser undercurrents of hostility, fratricidal and patri- or matricidal impulses, fox-in-henhouseish preying on one’s own potential successors, those are more like secret poxes—venereal flare-ups, to use a metaphor beloved by Dahlberg. The famous teacher who steals from his students—that’s a story going around. Alternately, one hears of the writer with the former protege, one extensively favored with opportunities, opened doors, who’s now, after publication, brushed his mentor off but only after making an unacknowledged appropriation of signature aspects of the elder writer’s live-performance shtick. Typically, in our correct, passive-aggressive era, hostility has gone underground. The last remaining interrupters, ranters, tantrum-artists—and a handful do still roam the creative-writing landscape—are mentioned with the tittering that disguises our uneasy awe. No one approximately my own age will tell even his or her worst students, as Dahlberg often apparently told even his very best, that they are simply not a writer, that they ought to give it up. And every one of us feels a queasy guilt at this hesitation; are we perhaps only leaving that job to be done by some subsequent disenchanter—an editor, or a series of rejection slips, a teacher braver than ourselves?Are we like bogus farmers, raising crops already scheduled to be destroyed in some government buyout?
No one can say. So we smile in the classroom and work out murkier feelings among ourselves. Tongues scarred with bite marks, then loosened by a little red wine, wag in late-night gripe sessions. A few teachers circulate excerpts from the laughably inept, others memorize the unforgettable lines. A prize-winning poet shocked me years ago, explaining casually, almost sweetly, that the majority of her students could be shown how to write an adequate, competent poem—the problem was that few of these poems would ever be anything but too "boring" to read. The ferocity and finality of that modifier wasn’t lost on me. A cheery type (at least by Dahlbergian standards), I like many of my students personally. Their striving mostly stirs me, often inspires me, sporadically breaks my heart. Yet I participate in the venting, too, and the whispered framing of guilty questions: Is it for more than the paycheck that we go on propagating this farce?
We are all of us, students and teachers alike, stranded in the breach between the violently solitary and elitist necessities of High Art—exemplified, in our time, by professional Bartlebys of the William Gass or Cynthia Ozick type—and the Horatio Alger wishfulness of so much writing advice, the self-actualizing egalitarianism of Writer’s Digest. Yet, faced with this ubiquitous hunger even to be allowed the attempt to make oneself a writer—so human and poignant, so profoundly benign—what does it mean to install a Dahlberg in a classroom and permit him to maul a Yeo? What’s the value of the dissident writer, one who exiles himself from contemporaries, audience, and apprentices, in the cultural marketplace ? Why do we—why did my aunt—seem to cherish our brushes with Dahlbergs, even as we encourage their victims to complain them out of the profession?
Edward Dahlberg—for I’ve finally begun to read him—was a genius, sure. Having penetrated the haze of remorse around his career, I’ve joined the tinny chorus: Because I Was Flesh, his memoir of Kansas City childhood and orphanhood, but most of all a portrait of his disreputable, unbearable, and resolutely life-embracing mother, is a great book. Great in the saddest and simplest way, for Dahlberg has arrayed an armor of rhetoric to fend off his pain, and everywhere the armor proves inadequate. Because I Was Flesh is a catalogue of defenseless defenses, of feeble snarling assaults on implacable, if erratic, love. It shows Dahlberg’s baroque scalpel turned inward, for once. Dahlberg would certainly have loathed our contemporary culture of brandished trauma. Yet brandished trauma is his legacy:
She did not know what to do with her life or with her feelings. She toiled because she was afraid to starve, and because she had nothing else to do; but her will was too sick to love the child of her lust. He was so skinny and yellow that his nose seemed to cover his face; and all the obduracy that was in her short, round neck had passed over to him. If he saw a speck on the wall, he imagined that it was the ordure of flies. When he looked at the greasy, rotten oil-cloth on the table, he would not touch his scummy soup. His mind gave him intolerable pain when he thought of the back alley that lay between 8th and 7th where he had seen gross rodents. On occasion, when he heard the chirruping of rats in the basement of the building or in the rear of the shop, his face grew more peaked and rancid, and he buried his head in his arms and retched. Lizzie was unable to comprehend his nausea, for like most people of her class in the Midwest she found a certain amount of rapture in looking at vermin. Often the lady barbers spoke at great length about loathsome creatures, and the boy listened and could not leave off hearing what made him green and sick for weeks. All that Lizzie could understand was that the child of her profligacy vomited and that he would grow up ugly …
Because I Was Flesh is all the more moving for how late it comes, for the sense that Dahlberg had had to taunt himself into writing a masterpiece by declaring himself a neglected master for thirty years before he’d written one. And how fascinating, how instructive, that his first pass at the material of his great book is rehearsed in such different form in Bottom Dogs. All the "proletarian" moves of that first book—the wallowing sociology, the overemphatic slang, now so quaint—serve to show how useless the consolation of any sort of crowd, or movement, or fraternity with his fellow man, would ever be to Dahlberg in the long run. Although Because I Was Flesh may seem to be written in a more "pretentious" style, compared with the ostensible street-authenticity of Bottom Dogs, it is the later book that wrecks the earlier’s pretensions. Screw the proles, Flesh says: I want my mama—except my mama, and my yearning for her, are beneath my respect.
In his other work, Dahlberg was only a bizarre, sometimes hypnotic stylist, and a writer who forgot to love anything better than his own failure. His literary and cultural criticism, Can These Bones Live, Leafless American, and others, is worse than useless; it’s corrupt—poisoned by his reeling distress. His parable of disenchantment with the left, The Flea of Sodom, is unreadably arcane—for a lucid portrait of the intelligentsia’s sad contortions in the 1930s, better you turn to Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey or Paula Fox’s The Western Coast. Beyond the autobiographical books, only The Sorrows of Priapus, a kooky diatribe against the human body and sexual desire, is worth a look, and that because it reveals a gift for comedy, a voice so overwrought with self-alienation it anticipates the morbid hilarity of Donald Antrim or Ben Marcus:
The phallus is a slovenly bag created without intellect or ontological purpose or design, and as long as the human being has this hanging worm appended to his middle, which is no good for anything except passing urine and getting a few, miserable irritations, for which he forsakes his mother, his father, and his friends, he will never comprehend the Cosmos.
The problem is that, apart from his childhood, Dahlberg had just two subjects: his own career’s undervaluation and the emptiness of existence. Since he was American, contemporary, and literary, it is largely contemporary American literary existence that is decried, but one quickly sniffs out how ready he is to spread the bad news to cover anything his gaze was alerted to: home, travel, youth, age, company, loneliness, and girls, girls, girls. D. H. Lawrence, in a letter written out of exhaustion with the younger writer’s preening complaints: "for HEAVEN’S SAKE LEAVE OFF BEING UNLUCKY—you seem to ask for it." Dahlberg reportedly quoted the line with pride. He recognized early that despair was his gift, and he gave it freely—in fact he’d sling it at your departing back.
So, despite the lasting beauty of the one towering book, the fame of Dahlberg’s terror campaign through literary culture is no mistake. His failure was greater than his greatness: Dahlberg was a disappointment artist. His virulence against professional glad-handing was only a matter of dynamiting fish in a barrel, as any cheap joke about logrolling blurbists has by now more than demonstrated. Dahlberg’s deeper dissidence was against reassurance and consolation, even in their purest forms. That when he considered Hart Crane and William Carlos Williams and Theodore Dreiser he saw only their failure was a confession of pain; the deepest he could afford to offer as to how little writing a masterpiece had assuaged the howling loneliness of that needless stint in the Kansas City orphanage. If only a handful of readers, or garlands, was too few, a million readers, or ten million, could never have been enough.
Dahlberg’s special achievement was to take this rage and leave it raw, to refuse to professionalize it. Gilbert Sorrentino wrote:
Dahlberg’s bitterness and sourness are familiar to many readers, as is his scornful treatment of writers whose work offends his sensibilities. His near to comic reactionary positions on anything and everything are equally well known. But what does it matter after all? … You can find no meaning in Dahlberg, none that you can’t get from a thousand lesser writers. Mailer is a titanic thinker next to him; your mailman or boss has more enlightened or informed ideas. There is nothing in Dahlberg except his greatness: he is the real thing…. The only thing that you can do with him is read him.
Again, as everywhere, the objections come first: the comic reactionary positions.
In that comedy, Dahlberg continually offered to explode the myth of absolutist genius even as he sought to extend it. Dahlberg wed the kill-the-father imperative, the famous anxiety of influence, to the truism that a man is only as big as his enemies. Therefore, if one wished to be the greatest writer of the twentieth century, simply make an enemy of the whole of contemporary literature. Dahlberg spent the first two thirds of his life measuring his fellows by Melville and finding them not only wanting but bankrupt. Then, in his late fifties, in an act of almost majestic inconsistency, he turned on Melville, declaring his "failure" as well. By doing so, Dahlberg comically exposed the faulty premises in that whole rigged game: to exalt himself he’d forged the obligation to hate greatness. Relishing literature’s variety of methods and discourse—watching a thousand flowers bloom—simply wasn’t an option. Dahlberg left himself no margin to consider that Faulkner, Beckett, Joyce, and so many rejected others might be his life’s companions, his colleagues, his company. Not to mention his masters. Not to mention enjoyable "reads."
Novelists pin their disgust to straw men every day, in this or that review. Others weep for the Death of the Novel. The Herculean instinct to clear the stables prospers in us all, from time to time. Loathing other writers, whether they be one’s teachers or students or colleagues, is likely as basic as Freud’s "narcissism of minor difference," which explains that we are obliged to denounce those most similar to us, because the resemblances are too telling of our vulnerabilities, our wants. Only Dahlberg did us the favor of tipping his narcissism of minor difference into the realm of absurdist tantrum-art, sustained for a lifetime. And what he did in burning down the veil of diffident fraternity he did for the writing classroom as well. Other Famous Monsters of Creative-Writing Land have been known to craft their intolerance into seductive S&M ritual, binding apprentices to grueling discipleships invariably destined for wrenching betrayal. Not Dahlberg. He was as revolted by the students who were turned on by his abuse as he was by those who resisted. Every head had to come off, every supplicant cast into wilderness. If all of us writing teachers are emperors with no clothes, it was Dahlberg who railed in starkest agony of that fact, rending his invisible garments to tatters until his constituency was forced to bellow at him that he was naked.
In 1965, the year of the letter, Wilma Yeo founded the Kansas City Writers’ Group, which dedicated its 1994 anthology, Beginning from the Middle, to Yeo, just before her death. The foreword explains: "Every piece of this book is a commitment from people who love words and love to write. In 1965, Wilma Yeo began a class for people who needed encouragement with writing…. Lawyers, nurses, teachers, psychologists, editors, artists, chemical engineers—theseare some of the professions in our group. But when we meet together, our real life is simply writing." The dedication quotes Yeo’s credo: "In offering a critique, you must be honest and kind. To be dishonest is to be unkind. And, to be unkind is to be dishonest to yourself and your art." Here is the sort of nurturance Edward Dahlberg resolutely denounced as false. Yet by his absolute rejection of her offer of discipleship, so excruciatingly detailed in the letter, Dahlberg authorized a forty-eight-year-old woman—instantly, it would appear—to declare herself the kind of writer, and writing teacher, she needed to be. My aunt had already doubted the adjective and/earned to discriminate in the varying shades of words, and she didn’t need what Unamuno or Ruskin, not to mention "Chestov" or "Dostovsky" or Dahlberg, had to tell her, in order to go forward. The woman could spot a boiled prune when she met one. This is the last poem from Mrs. Neverbody’s Recipes:
MRS. NEVERBODY’S RECIPE FOR
MAKING CROCODILE TEARS
To a slice of hanky-panky
Add some artificial cranky.
Moisten well with canned boo-hoo.
Flavor with a spoof or two.
Drip this slowly—as it falls
Roll it into little bawls.
If you’re careful, while they’re cooling
You can spread on only-fooling.
(This recipe is not worthwhile
Unless you are a crocodile.)
Do you feel the generosity, perhaps even forgiveness, in that last parenthetical couplet? I do. Let it be said: attending creative-writing classes ennobles the brave dreamy souls who populate them, publication is a sweet and harmless church, and a minuscule handful of (presently unknown) persons will write something worth reading even during their lifetimes, let alone after. Edward Dahlberg, Worthwhile Crocodile, contributed one book readers may wish to retrieve from the bog of his disappointment, rage, sheer unpleasantness—or they may not wish to bother. His failure, though, is immortal.
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