Tuesday, April 17, 2018

`Just As My Bad Demons Do'

Even cranks, on occasion, should be listened to. Chief among American literary cranks worthy of attention is Edward Dahlberg, a writer I prize in spite of himself. He was pretentious and tediously bitter and angry, turning sooner or later on everyone who befriended him. You would never trust him around your sister. But a reader has written to thank me for having recommended Because I Was Flesh (1964), Dahlberg’s masterpiece, an “autobiography” devoted to his hapless mother, Lizzie, a Kansas City “lady barber.” Born illegitimate, Dahlberg is good on the American underclass without towing the Marxist line, though he briefly joined the Communist Party in the nineteen-thirties. His first book, Bottom Dogs (1930), is a novelistic treatment of the same material as Because I Was Flesh, but written in a crudely “proletarian” manner. Because I Was Flesh works because Dahlberg largely forgets himself and concentrates on Lizzie:

“My mother was born unfortunate, and she was pursued until her end by that evil genius, ill luck.  The Psalmist says, `No one can keep his own soul alive’—nor anybody else’s either. We despair because we are no better and are not consoled that we can be no worse. A life is a single folly, but two lives would be countless ones, for nobody profits by his mistakes.”

Such people seldom get serious attention from writers uninterested in propaganda. Exceptions are Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, who numbered, briefly, among Dahlberg’s friends. His purpose is darker than mere belles-lettres. In the paragraph that follows the one cited above, Dahlberg writes like a faithless Isaiah:

“I do not go to her grave because it would do her no good. Though everything in the earth has feeling—the granite mourns, the turf sleeps and has fitful nights, and the syenite chants as melodiously as Orpheus and Musaeus—it would be idle to say Lizzie Dahlberg, whose bones still have sentience, is what she was. She is and she is not, and that is the difference between the trance we call being and the other immense experience we name death.”

At the risk of sounding sententious, Dahlberg echoes the language and rhythms of the King James Bible in the final paragraph of Because I Was Flesh:

“When the image of her comes up on a sudden—just as my bad demons do—and I see again her dyed henna hair, the eyes dwarfed by the electric light in the Star Lady Barbershop, and the dear, broken wing of her mouth, and when I regard her wild tatters, I know that not even Solomon in his lilied raiment was so glorious as my mother in her rags. Selah.”

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