Wednesday, June 14, 2017

`Capable of Any Folly'

Forget consistency. It’s not in our nature. Who hasn’t already contradicted himself before getting out of bed in the morning? Among writers, the purest example I know of this human quality is Edward Dahlberg (1900-1977). Dahlberg is probably best read when we are young and most susceptible to contrarianism in words and acts. I still read him, against all good sense, because I first read him when I was twenty. Nostalgia? Not exactly. There are plenty of writers I first read at that age and wouldn’t touch today (Exhibit A: William Gaddis). I see the faults of Dahlberg the man and writer as I didn’t then, and acknowledge them. Beneath the often florid life and prose I perceive some essential wisdom. As Michael Perkins writes in “Edward Dahlberg: A Portrait from Life” (Notre Dame Review, 2011):

“In the time I knew him I loved him better than I loved my father, but he was a deeply flawed man, and a deeply flawed writer. As a man he was mercurial in his moods, touchy, ungrateful, homophobic and racist; as a writer his rhetoric often reached the page without passing through his intelligence. He could be a windbag. But he was also gracious, generous, and open with the young man I was. He was an authentic grand old man of American letters, the kind they stopped making when Creative Writing Programs became ascendant in the literary world.”

Perkins met Dahlberg at a reading in 1967. He was twenty-four; Dahlberg, sixty-seven. Perkins says he “apprenticed” himself to the older writer. Many young men are predisposed to father-figures and hero-worship. Knowing the man in the flesh must have been exhausting and rewarding. In his revised diary from those years, Perkins says the books he remembers best are Because I was Flesh (1964), Can These Bones Live (1941) and Alms for Oblivion (1967). The first, an autobiography, is his masterpiece, in part because he gets some distance on himself by focusing on his mother and writing with a cooler eye. It begins memorably, with echoes of Homer:

 “Kansas City is a vast inland city, and its marvelous river, the Missouri, heats the senses; the maple, alder, elm and cherry trees with which the town abounds are songs of desire, and only the almonds of ancient Palestine can awaken the hungry pores more deeply. It is a wild, concupiscent city, and few there are troubled about death until they age or are sick. Only those who know the ocean ponder death as they behold it, whereas those bound closely to the ground are more sensual.”

The prose grows overheated but the chill of honesty keeps things from blowing up. Those first sentences always remind me of the opening to Virgil Thomson: An Autobiography (1966): “To anyone brought up there, as I was, `Kansas City’ always meant the Missouri one. . . . You did not speak of Kansas City, Kansas, often . . . or go there unless you had business.” Geography is central. For all the recycling of Burton and Browne in his prose, the Dahlberg passage reminds us of the Midwestern roots he shared with such one-time friends as Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson.

Most of his friends, sooner or later, were “one-time.” He had a gift for alienation. Inevitably, Dahlberg dumps Perkins. When he reads Charles DeFanti’s biography of Dahlberg, The Wages of Expectation (1978), Perkins learns that “what had happened to me was not unusual. As time passed my favorite book of Edward’s became Reasons of the Heart [1965], his aphorisms. Edward was a maker of profound sentences. I turn to them now when I remember my old friend.” Here are the first and second aphorisms in that collection:

“A painter can hang his pictures, but a writer can only hang himself.”

“One who is enough of a simpleton to become a writer is capable of any folly.”

Dahlberg was at least as impossible a man as Evelyn Waugh, and who would choose not to read Sword of Honour for the sake of correctness, political or otherwise?

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