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
“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
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
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:
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
So in revisiting Because I Was Flesh I find the echoes of
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.)