Saturday, December 12, 2015

`No Words Well Arranged without Vigor'

When not insufferable, cranks serve as healthy correctives to mindless optimism, regimentation and namby-pamby cant. When I first read Edward Dahlberg (1900-1977) more than forty years ago, part of the attraction was his inveterate contrariness. Whatever it was, he was against it, to paraphrase Groucho. Dahlberg was flamboyantly learned and well-read, and, by mid-career, the wielder of a rococo prose style. His first three books, all novels -- Bottom Dogs (1929), From Flushing to Calvary (1932), Those Who Perish (1934) – were crudely naturalistic and “proletarian,” reflecting Dahlberg’s brief membership in the Communist Party. He renounced all that, quit the party in 1936 and refashioned himself as an American cousin to the sixteenth-century English prose masters. He also rejected Modernism in all its guises. Here he is in his essay on Henry James:

“The modern author does not plead his cause with Waller, or Skelton, or Langland or Chaucer, but instead turns to that cockatrice of modern nations, the newspaper, which has hatched words that send the imagination to the vomitories. Coleridge had suggested that there ought to be an Index Expurgatorious of worn-out phrases and banalities.”

There you see the quintessential Dahlberg: histrionic archaisms, name-dropping, pathological absence of humor and a germ of unsentimental truth. Newspapers are badly written, and many writers model their prose on journalism’s clichéd vocabulary and rhythms. The passage comes from Truth Is More Sacred: A Critical Exchange on Modern Literature, a volume he co-wrote with Herbert Read (1893-1968), an English poet and critic at least as thoroughly forgotten as Dahlberg. The format is epistolary counterpoint: Dahlberg writes a letter to Read condemning a modern writer – Joyce, Lawrence, James, Graves, Eliot, Pound – and Read writes a letter defending him, at least in part. Reading Read's replies, one is reminded of a wife apologizing for her husband’s public gaucheries.  He seems faintly embarrassed by his friend. In the Joyce letter Dahlberg puts on his Jeremiah robes and set the volume's tone:

“What our age lacks most of all is sense and health. There can be no just words well arranged without vigor. `I swear upon my virility,’ testifies François Villon. That a great deal of modern verse is senseless, and belongs in the spital-house, only an enervated fool will deny. Few are strong enough to eschew a diseased book.”

Note the sexual suggestion, always present in Dahlberg, who must have been hell on women. In the first sentence of his Joyce retort, Read says: “When I read your letter I do not think of you as a feral beast, ready to bite the tradesmen of letters, but rather as a druid, still hiding in the desecrated grove, hissing his imprecations into the dusty track of the marauders.” Faint praise. Sanely, maturely, perhaps naively, Read urges Dahlberg to “recognize the true enemies of art, who are not a few cowards in our own ranks, but the barbarians outside the gates,” and proves himself no abject worshipper of the Moderns. Of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake Read says, “the obscurities seemed to me to be masks for sentimentality.” Dahlberg replies with another letter in which he dismisses Ulysses as “a Gargantuan urinal without the laughter of Rabelais.” 

Dahlberg’s worth is in the reevaluations he prompts in us, his readers, and in the less over-written passages in his prose.Under his critical sway, we are encouraged to reexamine long-held assumptions. No critical judgment, even the most analytically acute, is definitive. Dahlberg’s customary humorlessness lapses on rare and welcome occasions. Here he is on James again: “The names of his termagants represent the weight and persuasion of their hinder parts: Fanny Assingham [a character in The Golden Bowl], a shrewish tautology, Maud Manningham [The Wings of the Dove], and Mrs. Brigstock [The Spoils of Poynton], acres of shrewd buttocks, are as close as he comes to Sir Toby Belch or Andrew Aguecheek. Aside from the names of such dry, pecuniary beef [pork?], there is no anatomy or wit in the novels.” Dahlberg is wrong, but amusingly so.

Eventually he turned against everyone, including Read. His old age was bitter and solitary. By the end of his life, Dahlberg was reduced to watching television all day, according to his biographer, Charles DeFanti. His final acts of writing were parodies of television commercials. Dahlberg’s finest book remains his first volume of autobiography, Because I was Flesh (1964), largely because it is less about him than about his mother, Lizzie.

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