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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Touching pitch : a reader's garland for Edward Dahlberg Whittaker, Edward Keith


The work of Edward Dahlberg has not greatly been studied. One book about him exists, another one or two (that I am aware of) are in preparation. Too few book reviews, the other criticisms of his efforts, are interred in the pages of various literary periodicals which date back to 1930. In presenting his own appreciation of Dahlberg, Jonathan Williams writes, "God knows, I do not have the prodigious knowledge of classic literatures clearly necessary." Nor do I. Before I commenced this essay I was bidden to "cover the ground". This year, Mr. Dahlberg published a book which I received in the mail after I had completed my work. Of course, no critic with a soul, or a grain of sense, feels that his work is ever done, or that he has done is definitive. Whoever does feel this contributes mightily to the plague of cultural lockjaw which mortally endangers the free expression of all honest men everywhere. This present work is tentative, necessarily. I offer here for it few excuses but rather an intent to expand and (hopefully) improve it, later. I presume that in his search for his identity — he might say, in his hunt for what to write and for how to write it — Edward Dahlberg has had near him always the advice tendered by Sir Philip Sidney's muse: "Fool...look in they heart and write." Dahlberg's earliest works were autobiographical novels, written in what he much later referred to as the "abominable tongue" (BD, p. iv), the proletarian rudeness made fashionable after World War One and especially in the 1930's, too often truant from learning and a slave to its own moment. Following the autobiographical sketch Dahlberg has placed in a letter to Robert M. Hutchins (BOOT, p. 22), we see that what was to hand (or to ear) for these apprentice books did not suffice to inform our author who he must be. Josephine Herbst has written, [Bottom Dogs’] limitations set hardened boundaries beyond which Dahlberg was fated to pass or to lose his integral vision in the meaningless violence of typical American fiction. But more like a European writer than any American, he was willing to go down to rot, if need be, in order that he might come up again in a rebirth more central to his vision of an imaginative beyond. (ED, p. vi) Do These Bones Live was published in 1941, after Dahlberg had been silent seven years. (This volume was twice revised — first in England in 1947 where it was called Sing O Barren: and again in New York in 1960, under the title Can These Bones Live.) His style had changed utterly during that time. His concerns had become more universal than personal and perhaps for that, more immediate; his cadences were richer, the better to focus upon what had had come to realize must hold his attention — his Origins. These he came to understand culturally, the Old World heritage the New World had too easily sloughed away. The more Dahlberg searched for himself among the records of the long past, the more resonant with them — as in The Flea Of Sodom (1950) — his style became. What could be more simple? "Le style est l'homme même.” Origins of Americans, whose feet should touch this incontinent, are as much “savage" as "civil". Novelist of himself, as Ortega says man is, Edward Dahlberg proceeded to discover in The Sorrows Of Priapus and The Carnal Myth both the epical annals of the Europeans who revealed the New World to the Old and also the legends of the Indians, they who were first to contact their white "discoverers", who first shook them with the brute fact of terra incognita. Except for the very obvious change in styles between his first four novels and Can These Bones Live, I have found it appropriate to treat all of Edward Dahlberg's work as one great book. (This has meant eschewing dates of publication in the process of quite an odd sort of cross-reference; the ideas in Truth Is More Sacred had likely been brewing in Dahlberg's mind for thirty years — it is an unavoidable historical accident that they saw daylight in 1961. Said the Russian poet Fet: I know not what I myself shall sing, But only my song is ripening.) "A novelist is always writing the same book; for he is born to make the perfect poem or novel." (LA, p. 17) My assumption explains?, why this essay is not entirely lineal — quotations from one book illuminate dark questions posed by another. Timidly, I might also say that some of Dahlberg's books are in part less essential to his development than others (I hesitate to say categorically,"his progress," for Dahlberg has consolidated or rather fructified his ideas and opinions; he has rarely changed them). The most important works are Can These Bones Live, The Flea Of Sodom, The Sorrows Of Priapus, The Carnal Myth, and Because I Was Flesh. But this is total conjecture and beyond a few phrases of explanation, my assertions would get lost and frozen in a semantic blizzard. What is cause and effect? Dahlberg's two books of essays (Alms For Oblivion, The Leafless American), some of the poems in Cipango*s Hinder Door, his critical exchange with Sir Herbert Read (Truth Is More Sacred), and his aphorisms — Reasons Of The Heart — certainly could not have been done apart from the other books listed earlier. However, Dahlberg's mythography is more central to him — and this, I repeat, is naught but the most elemental and dangerous hunch — in that it provides a base of self-knowledge that facilitates that secondary activity which is a more conventional and recognizable literary and social criticism. After years of study and many hazardous forays into the jungle of the public print, Dahlberg returned to himself (and to his mother), prepared at last with his adjunctive assurance about that part of him which uttered habitually the wisdom of the millenia in the periods of the seventeenth century, to tell the story of his own person. As always, it was an inevitable act. "...I have come to that time in my life when it is absolutely important to compose a good memoir although it is also a negligible thing if I should fail." (Because I Was Flesh, p. 4) My composition has a plan. Think of a man in a whirlpool: the centre of it is himself yet he is surrounded by a vortex of alien matter which closes upon him steadily. He must free his body from the workings of the funnel, must thrash his way up and out of its constrictions. Yet his contact with it is the only means he has to disengage himself from its whorls, which work counter to all his efforts. Does it not greatly behoove him to learn its processes, to understand its duplicities as quickly as possible, so as to overcome (or try to overcome) its attempts ever to suck him down? I have arranged in chapters my account of the work of Edward Dahlberg and this has been its scheme: an Introduction about the impossibility of critcism; Chapter One — some words of a kind concerning an epistemological problem and its solution, the process of metaphor; Chapter Two — literary criticism (those authors and attitudes to whom Dahlberg first travelled to find himself, and also those past whom he had to fight his way); Chapter Three — socio-political criticism; Chapter Four — the diligent search for the myths of peoples of the Old World and the New; Chapter Five — the memoir of the body; a Conclusion, in which (among other matters) alternate ways of approaching the subject are suggested. In fine, the "whole body and intelligence" described at the start of Chapter Two is tracked throughout and is treed by Chapter Five. The knowledge of self is inextricable, at last, from the knowledge of others. The tale of that process/proposition in terms of the life and art of Edward Dahlberg is the burden and (if indeed there is any) the progression of my essay. I mentioned in my tiny description of the first chapter of this essay that it concerned an epistemological problem — indeed, my entire composition, because of the nature of its subject (and because of what I hope is my sympathy for that subject) is concerned with an epistemological problem. Which way does the cyclone/anti-cyclone revolve? How does man make his what is all a-round him? How does man know himself best; by heart, by head? Must he seek to move or to cease whirling, so that he may learn? What leavens him, merely that which fetches him? Does he do what he desires? What is movement, choice, stillness, action? How does he know? Everything comes in twos, good and evil, pleasure and asceticism, life and dying. Hermes is the god of eloquence, and this winged courier brings the right words to the mouth of the poet, and he also tells him when he is to die. There is no writing, or life, or teaching that is good that is not also heavily impregnated with death. (CM, pp. 21-22) The vorticist is Edward Dahlberg, the struggling and anguished Western man, indestructible Laocoon by virtue/vice of his own skin, senses, organs, blood, and bones (and those of the quivering World around him), fervently desiring tranquillity and ever chary of (it as?) the Void.

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