Saturday, July 12, 2008

Revisiting Edward Dahlberg's "Because I Was Flesh"

Because I Was Flesh was the first book I owned by Edward Dahlberg. I bought it in the fall of 1964 from Gordon Cairnie, at the Grolier Book Shop on Plympton Street, in Cambridge, shortly after it was published by New Directions. Until then I had not read anything by Dahlberg, although I recognized his name from Charles Olson’s dedication of the “Christ” chapter in Call Me Ishmael to “Edward Dahlberg, my other genius of the Cross and the Windmill.” But when I caught sight of the book’s distinctive dust jacket photograph of a shoeprint in the sand, as I browsed among Gordon’s “new arrivals” on a small table near the front of his cluttered but welcoming shop; and when I opened the beautiful red, cloth-bound volume with its attractive type faces, laid paper, and letter press format to Dahlberg’s first sentence—“Kansas City is a vast inland city, and its marvelous river, the Missouri, heats the senses.”— I knew I had not only to read but to posses this book.

“Good choice,” the ever attentive Cairnie commented when I brought the book up to his desk for payment. “Just don’t let Charlie know you bought it,” he added, referring to the well known rift between the two writers, who had been competitively close since they first met in an East Gloucester boarding house, on August 9, 1936, while Dahlberg was on vacation from New York and Olson was preparing to enter graduate school at Harvard. By the time I acquired Because I Was Flesh, it had been nearly nine years since the two friends last communicated, when Dahlberg, on November 24, 1955, had written a final letter to his former disciple, a letter which concluded “in a rebuke, in love and sorrow.”

Naturally I said nothing to Olson, who never once referred to Dahlberg during the many years of our friendship. But as soon as I returned home to Rocky Neck, I opened the book and began excitedly to read. Having spent the previous several years immersed in Beat and Black Mountain writing, I found Dahlberg’s richly biblical and classically allusive prose a bracing antidote to Kerouac, Ginsberg and even Olson. As a young English teacher and graduate student, I immediately recognized Dahlberg’s absorption in the stately cadences of Elizabethan prose, particularly that of Sir Thomas Browne, echoes of whose Hydriotaphia or Urne Buriall and Religio Medici I discovered, along with allusions to both the imagery and diction of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Webster, the Euphues of John Lyly and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. But these allusions and occasional direct quotations were no mere borrowings or decorative effects in an otherwise highly original style. Dahlberg had internalized the major works of these canonical writers, along with Homer in Chapman’s translation, the pre-Socratics, and the Latin and Greek texts of Alexandrian philosophy, not to speak of the theology of Origen and Augustine. And when he came to write, what resulted was not affectation, as one might assume, given the range and eclecticism of the texts I’ve referred to, but a prose that was entirely unique—direct, resonant and breathtakingly beautiful:

Would to God that my mother had not been a leaf scattered everywhere and as the wind listeth. Would to heaven that I could compose a different account of her flesh…Should I err against her dear relics or trouble her sleep, may no one imagine that she has not always been for me the three Marys of the New Testament. Moreover, whatever I imagine I know is taken from my mother’s body, and this is the memoir of her body.

It was this language, then, that held my attention, along with Dahlberg’s acute sense of place. Kansas City, where he grew up with his widowed mother Lizzie, a “Lady Barber,” emerges in his pages not only as a quintessential American mid-western, riverine town in all the specificity of its streets, drug stores, slaughter houses, tenements and bordellos, but also as one of the generative places of the earth:

Kansas City was my Tarsus; the Kaw and the Missouri Rivers were the washpots of joyous Dianas from St. Joseph and Joplin. It was a young seminal town and the seed of its men was strong. Homer sang of many sacred towns in Hellas which were no better than Kansas City, as hilly as Eteonus and as stony as Aulis. The city wore a coat of rocks and grass. The bosom of this town nursed men, mules and horses as famous as the asses of Arcadia and the steeds of Diomedes…Kansas City was the city of my youth and the burial ground of my poor mother’s hopes; her blood, like Abel’s, cries out to me from every cobblestone, building, flat and street.

Although I was moved by Dahlberg’s account of his and his mother’s many misfortunes in this first reading—the eccentricities of her endless suitors, her struggle to retain what she felt was a necessary “respectability” as a woman who cut the hair of cowboys and traveling salesmen—and though I found the story of young Edward’s horrific incarceration in a Jewish orphanage in Cleveland nearly impossible to bear, what riveted me especially was the language I’ve spoken of. And its music remained for many years in my head.

But now, forty-four years later, when I revisit the book, which critics Alfred Kazin and Allen Tate both called “one of the great American autobiographies,” I’m once again taken by Dahlberg’s language, especially in a time when our own has become increasingly debased and trivialized. In this second reading, I’m even more fascinated and delighted by Dahlberg’s clear mastery of authors and texts once so central to our own self-definition. But what emerges in greater relief for me, though it was always resonant, is Dahlberg’s stunning sense of the social and the political. For when I first read Because I Was Flesh I was unaware of the author’s beginnings as one of our finest proletarian novelists; and it wasn’t until I had read Bottom Dogs, his first novel, published in 1930, with an introduction by D. H. Lawrence, who wrote that Dahlberg’s “directness, that unsentimental and non-dramatized thoroughness of setting down the under-dog mind, surpasses anything I know,” that I began to understand the political underpinnings of Because I Was Flesh in Dalhberg’s early radicalism.

What is Bottom Dogs but a first telling of the story of Edward and Lizzie in the most extraordinary plain American English, so reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson’s? In 1964 I had read little Anderson, perhaps in college only the deeply affecting Winesburg, Ohio, and I was unaware of how important his novels and stories had been to the young Dahlberg, just as they were to the youthful Faulkner and Hemingway. But when you come upon the opening sentences of Bottom Dogs—“She moved from town to town, selling hair switches, giving osteopathic treatments, going on again when she felt the place had been played out. In this way she hoped to save a little money and establish herself in some thriving city. She had taken Lorry with her wherever she went.”—the echoes of Anderson’s diction and narrative mastery, especially in his masterpiece, Poor White, a stunning novel of small town failures and broken dreams narrated against the backdrop of emerging industrialization, are unmistakable, along with Dahlberg’s sharp sense of outrage over the kinds of oppression that he and his mother and so many others experienced as the country moved from a human-scale agrarian way of life to an alienating market economy.

So in revisiting Because I Was Flesh I find the echoes of Anderson along with Dahlberg’s ever-present social consciousness, though perhaps less stridently expressed than in his first book. It’s as if the two sensibilities, the lovely, direct Andersonian voice of the middle American storyteller and the rueful, politically seasoned awareness of the mature Dahlberg, have interpenetrated in the context of Dahlberg’s exquisite late and more classical style, creating a new dimension of understanding and a greater, more tragic depth to his narrative. Yet the long-suffering figure of his mother Lizzie remains; and in dramatizing the story of their painfully conflicted life together, Dahlberg has given us one of the great accounts in literature of the relationship between a son and his mother:

When the image of her comes up on a sudden—just as my bad demons do—and I see her dyed henna hair, the eyes dwarfed by the electric lights in the Star Lady Barber Shop, 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.

(This essay first appeared in the June 2008 issue of Context, published by Dalkey Archive Press, with many thanks to editor Martin Riker.)

Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Walker in the City: Isaac's First Fiesta

(Photograph by Benjamin Anastas)

It should have been a more joyous occasion. My son Ben and I were taking his 19-month-old son Isaac to his first St. Peter’s Fiesta. My mother had accompanied my brother and me when Fiesta started up again after the war, and I, in turn, took my own three kids, beginning in the 1960s. If you count the fact that my mother, born in Gloucester in 1910, had attended the earliest Fiestas in the1930s, four generations of our family have been celebrating the Feast of St. Peter with our Italian friends and neighbors.

As I’ve said, it should have been a happier time. Though a bit overwhelmed by the crowds along the midway, the music from the rides, and the amplified voices announcing games of chance, Isaac seemed to take to Fiesta. Eyes shining with wonder, he refused to be carried by his father or me, rushing instead among the legs of those on their way down Beach Court to where we could watch the seine boat races and greasy pole contest from the shore.

Returning to Commercial Street, we decided to walk to Fort Square for a better view of the events and so that Isaac, who loves to play in the sand boxes of New York's city parks, where he lives, could fully enjoy Pavilion Beach. On the way there I pointed out the old Birdseye plant with its iconic white tower to Ben, where, from 1928, his grandmother worked as Clarence Birdseye’s secretary. On our way back to Fiesta we walked around Fort Square to Charles Olson’ house, where we got a picture of Ben, Isaac and me in front of the commemorative plaque to Gloucester’s great poet.

That afternoon we walked all over the Fort, from Beach Court to Fort Square. We shared fried dough and Ben shot a few baskets to see if he could win a stuffed animal for Isaac. What came home to me during our walk, along with the powerful sense of attraction I’ve always had for Fiesta and for the Fort itself, where I once worked on fish, was the fact that if we allow a Marriott resort hotel or any other kind of hotel to be built at the Birdseye site without serious design and environmental impact restrictions there could be unforeseen consequences.

Prospective developers have already expressed reservations about this traditional marine industrial neighborhood (one was quoted in the Gloucester Daily Times as saying, “When our guests arrive we want them to know they’ve arrived somewhere”); and one wonders how many of their guests will want to spend a lot of money to stay in a busy neighborhood full of trailer trucks and early risers. What will be the impact of the new hotel on Pavilion beach, which is public and protected as such under Chapter 91? And while I can imagine some hotel guests enthralled by Fiesta, will others on vacation be annoyed by the noise, the crowds, or the smells from the working waterfront—the engines of the fishing vessels, the early morning activity of taking on ice?

During our walk I tried to envision the Fort with a fancy upscale hotel in its midst. All I could think of was that the hotel might ultimately displace the neighbors, the neighborhood, the Fiesta, and all the traditional kinds of single and multi-family housing on the Fort. Once the hotel was in place there could be even greater pressure for gentrification or condos. Then, quite covertly, we would have the beginnings of Newport right in the heart of the waterfront.

I'm not suggesting that a hotel couldn’t be tastefully designed and located in the Fort. One approach might be the concept of a small adaptive reuse hotel that kept the Birdseye tower. These "boutique" hotels have become increasingly popular. Still, I’m concerned about the potential for "collateral damage" in the neighborhood as a consequence of outsize development. I couldn't stop thinking about it as I walked with my little grandson and his father—three generations of Anastases enjoying Fiesta (a forth if my mother, who first took me, were still alive, and a fifth if you include my grandfather Angel Polisson, who also took me)—and suddenly a great sadness came over me, a terrible sense of loss.

What should ultimately have been an occasion of unalloyed joy with my family, my grandson’s first Fiesta, prompted a bittersweet reverie, in which I could imagine all that has meant so much to our family and every other Gloucester family of Fiesta and of the Fort itself, swept away from us if we are not vigilant about protecting our heritage and the very places in which it lives and breaths. Viva San Pietro!