“He even abandoned his chaotic notetaking and writing. Television became both his pastime and his obsession: his last writing efforts were madcap and pathetic attempts to parody TV commercials.”
This is Edward Dahlberg (1900-1977) in 1974, just a decade after publishing Because I Was Flesh, one of the great American memoirs. The reporter is Charles DeFanti in The Wages of Expectation: A Biography of Edward Dahlberg (1978), a chronicle of unrepentant crankiness relieved only by occasional bouts of brilliant prose. Dahlberg had no talent for fellowship or contented living. He alienated seven wives and, sooner or later, every friend and admirer. This same savagely unhappy man, at the conclusion of Because I Was Flesh, can write of his mother Lizzie, proprietor of a Kansas City barbershop:
“When the image of her comes up on a sudden—just as my bad demons do—and I see again her henna hair, the eyes dwarfed by the electric lights in the Star Lady Barbershop, and the dear, broken wing of her mouth, and when I regard her wild tatters, I know that that not even Solomon in his lilied raiment was so glorious as my mother in her rags. Selah.”
Forty years ago, when a friend first told me about Dahlberg, the source of the attraction was his formidable bookishness, his dedication to literary tradition (in the Battle of the Books, he stands with the ancients), the bracing quality of his best prose and his strict policy of non-alignment, a refusal to run with any fashionable literary pack. All of those reasons stand, untouched by DeFanti’s documentation of Dahlberg’s monumental unpleasantness as a human being. Here’s how Dahlberg chose to encourage the poet Isabella Gardner:
“What I want to say to you is very simple: shun modern books. Go back to Beginnings: ritual will heal a line, a stanza, your whole head; you need symbols, Isis, Hathor, Typhon, the Kabala for your image and vision. Go to school with some Master, Ovid, Plutarch, Livy, Tacitus, and you will then find the river back to your own identity.”
Eccentric? Probably, but also excellent advice rooted in Dahlberg’s own experience. No one starts writing ex nihilo. All of us have mentors, models and precursors, living and dead. Dahlberg is one of mine. For this reason and others, reading DeFanti’s book has been not disillusioning or disheartening but merely sad. I couldn’t have imagined Dahlberg, the author of Can These Bones Live and one-time friend of Sherwood Anderson and Allen Tate, even watching television, let alone writing parodies of commercials.