Another of my teachers was Edward Dahlberg (1900-1977) whose name my professors never uttered. Instead, I learned of him from an itinerant guitar player of unlikely bookishness who showed up in 1973 and abruptly disappeared. Within two years I had acquired and read nearly all of Dahlberg’s books, and within another two he was dead. I’ve met few readers who know his books, even the best and best-known among them, the memoir Because I Was Flesh (1964). Dahlberg reminds me of his contemporary Basil Bunting (1900-1985) in his obscurity and neglect, his contrariness, brilliance and late flowering.
I took Can These Bones Live (1941) off the shelf to reread his chapter on Thoreau, and stayed up too late reading the entire book. Dahlberg says foolish things about the author of Walden, overstating his eminence as a political thinker, but he also understands some of the important things about Thoreau:
“He went wherever life sent him and made no credo of his private experience. He recorded it beautifully, and, if we have eyes, we can profitably read it and then pursue our own private follies, tinctured by his.”
Those who make credos of their private experience are delusional and often psychopathic. Thoreau without the refulgent gift of language is a crank, no more. “If we have eyes” is a vexing qualification for readership. Most of us substitute prejudices and big ideas. Thoreau demands of readers the same attentiveness he lavishes on words and the natural world. I like the notion of being “tinctured” by Thoreau’s follies. Dahlberg writes:
“Thoreau eschewed all doctrine and all saviorism. Whitman’s humanitarian bathos, his democratic rhodomontade -- `I will not exclude you until the sun excludes you,’ – was wholly alien to that quieter individual.”
If Dahlberg is suggesting Whitman was a blowhard, we can’t argue with him. But to accuse the man who volunteered for more than two years as a nurse to sick and wounded Union soldiers of “humanitarian bathos” is cheap and cynical. He also misquotes the line from a bad poem, “To a Common Prostitute.” Dahlberg’s refreshing refusal to demarcate a writer’s life and work will infuriate born-again New Critics, but so be it. Common readers have no such scruples. Dahlberg echoes Keats later in the Thoreau chapter:
“Great lives are moral allegories and so soon become deniable myths because we cannot believe that such good men could have existed in such an evil world.”
Calling Dr. Johnson and Dr. Chekhov.