Revisiting Edward Dahlberg’s Because I Was Flesh

Context N°21

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 former 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 rhythms of Elizabethan prose, particularly that of Sir Thomas Browne, echoes of whose Hydriotaphia or Urne Buriall and Religio Medici I discovered on nearly every page, 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 every-where 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.

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