Last week I asked about your favorite poems, and I really enjoyed the stream of responses which included, in the order in which they were posted: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T. S. Eliot, "High Flight" by John Gillespie Magee, Jr, "The Height of the Ridiculous" by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Matthew 6:25 - 34, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" by Walt Whitman, "The City in Which I Love You" by Li-Young Lee, "Poem In October" by Dylan Thomas, "Constantly Risking Absurdity" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, "A Supermarket in California" by Allen Ginsberg, "l(a" by e.e. cummings, the entire "Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman, "Herbsttag" by Rainer Maria Rilke, "Death Fugue" by Paul Celan, "Cloud" by Vladimir Mayakovsky, "The Waste-Land" by T. S. Eliot, "What a Piece of Work is Man" (from "Hamlet") by William Shakespeare, Sonnet 130 by Shakespeare, "The Second Coming" by W. B. Yeats, "Kaddish" by Allen Ginsberg, "Power" by Gregory Corso, poems by Jane Kenyon, Anne Sexton, Christina Rossetti, Carl Sandburg, "Wild Swans at Coole" by Yeats, "The Drunken Boat" by Rimbaud, "Sonete Postrero" by Carlos Pellicer, "Sonnet" and "Masa" by Cesar Vallejo, "in Just-/spring" by e. e. cummings, "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg, "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe, "When i consider how my light is spent" by John Milton, "The Purist" by Ogden Nash, "Nothing Gold Can Stay" by Robert Frost, Sonnet 116 by Shakespeare, "As The Mist Leaves No Scar" and "The Reason I Write" by Leonard Cohen, "So I said I am Ezra" by Archie Ammons, "This is Just to Say" by William Carlos Williams and "Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams" by Kenneth Koch, "And Death Shall Have No Dominion" by Dylan Thomas, "In Society" by Allen Ginsberg, "Acquainted with the Night" by Robert Frost, "13 Ways of looking at a blackbird" and "The poem that took the place of a mountain" by Wallace Stevens, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" by Randall Jarrell, "Fern Hill" by Dylan Thomas, "Mending Wall" by Robert Frost and "Love is a Dog from Hell" by Charles Bukowski.
The first one mentioned (by none other than my LitKicks co-editor Jamelah) happens to be my own favorite. T. S. Eliot began writing his poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in 1910, when he was a 22 year old philosophy graduate student. Five years later it was published in Poetry Magazine, and it became his first famous work.
Here, Dyson addresses the question of what it is that the level-headed narrator sees in his friend, the shady millionaire Jay Gatsby. Carraway, who takes pride in facing realities -- claiming that he is "five years too old to lie to [him]self and call it honor" -- is nonetheless driven to abandon his "conscious moral instinct," which would lead him to see through Gatsby's thin veneer of respectability. The latter's claims that he is the son of "some wealthy people from the Middle West," and that he was "educated at Oxford," are obviously fraudulent. Yet, while the narrator remarks that he "knew why Jordan Baker believed Gatsby was lying," he cannot bring himself to hold the title character in contempt. This is because Carraway is too captivated by Gatsby's "romantic promise," seeing him as a secular saint, or messiah figure. Indeed, Gatsby is regarded as a "Son of God" by the narrator, who seeks deliverance from the harsh realities to which he has grown accustomed. Similar faith is placed in the romantic heroes in Jack Kerouac's On The Road and J.D. Salinger's Seymour: An Introduction. In On The Road, Sal Paradise sees his buddy, Dean Moriarty, as the "saint of the lot" by virtue of his knowing "IT." Likewise, in Seymour, the title character is recognized as a saint, with visions of a Christ-like "Fat Lady". As with the idea of romantic promise, IT and the Fat Lady are both abstract notions -- or, to use Dean's phrase, "imponderables" -- which neither the narrators nor their romantic heroes seem capable of defining in specific terms. This is, perhaps, because the significance of these imponderables lies in the very fact that they are not of the "real world." Rather, they seem to exist outside their respective presents, in ambiguous realms governed by "the past and the imagination". As such, they are seen as romantic and holy truths, unfettered by realistic constraints. It follows that the "saints" who embody these truths appear as innocents: sheltered and out of touch with the "inexorably unromantic real world[s]" they inhabit.
Gatsby's facade of innocence is supported by his lavish, yet secluded lifestyle on West Egg, Long Island. As its name suggests, West Egg resembles a protective "shell," in which the romantic hero appears shielded from the falseness and depravity of the 1920s. Indeed, even the Jazz Age revelers who attend his parties have no contact with Gatsby himself. Because nothing is known about him, he appears remote and flawless. This is the case, at least, until he falls for Daisy Buchanan. Daisy and her husband, Tom, serve as embodiments of modernist moral decay: the former, with her tinkling, artificial laugh, and the latter, with his overt racism and brutality. Despite wishing that the world would stand "at a sort of moral attention forever", Carraway has resigned himself to the company of these "careless people". Nonetheless, he yearns to recapture a pre-modernist sensibility, which he perceives as morally superior to that of his own time. For this reason, he permits himself to buy into the stories that depict Gatsby as mythic figure from America's idealized past. Perpetuated by both Gatsby and his guests -- the ones he never sees -- these stories are far more fantastic and, indeed, far more innocent than the man they profess to characterize.
Like Gatsby, Dean Moriarty is a man, seemingly without a past of his own, who becomes associated with the mythic constructs of an earlier age of innocence. Indeed, Sal's depiction of him -- as a displaced, fatherless cowboy from the American West -- hearkens to the pre-modernist figure of Tom Outland in Willa Cather's The Professor's House. Each of these characters transcends the limits of white, mainstream society. Tom ultimately finds himself in communion with the souls of deceased Native Americans. Dean, similarly, achieves a mystical awakening, or epiphany -- indeed, he "gets IT" - while "digging" a performance by a black jazz musician.
At this point, Dean speaks of having "no time now," implying that his epiphany has taken him outside his present reality. His statement poses a direct challenge to the despair that Quentin Compson faces upon losing his grasp of time -- and, in turn, his hold on reality - in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. From Quentin's perspective, the loss of time is a case of reducto absurdum. Dean experiences it as a reduction as well for, in approaching it, he becomes increasingly inarticulate. Ultimately, he is rendered an "imbecile." However, he is not an idiot, like Benjy in The Sound and the Fury, but, rather, a "holy fool". Thus, the reduction Dean undergoes is not a descent into absurdity. Instead, it is a path to ultimate spiritual fulfillment. This is why, in the eyes of Sal, Dean achieves his holiest moments by becoming completely incoherent to those around him, including, even, the narrator. Like his hero, Sal desires to escape the trappings of his time, the wantonly commercial and morally static 1950s. However, as noted by the critic Arnold Krupat, he is "far behind Dean on the road to IT and holiness." It is while on this road, of course, that Dean is "in his element," traveling outside of time, with no final destination.
Seymour Glass also travels outside of time. He turns his back on fifties' bourgeois society by refusing to relinquish his boyhood role as a commentator on the "It's a Wise Child" radio show. Depicted, by his brother Buddy, as a King Arthur's round table for the prepubescent set, this program is used to represent Seymour's lasting sense of innocence. It is an innocence which, in Buddy's eyes, lends Seymour the stature of a mystical sage. Unlike Dean's brand of mysticism, which reduces him to a fool, Seymour's raises him into the level of a high priest. He delivers verbose, "spontaneous" homilies, which translate the Christian Gospels into showbiz rhetoric -- with the figure of Christ represented as "the Fat Lady" -- and which combine these teachings with Zen Buddhist concepts of spiritual transcendence. Through this strange juxtaposition of religious faiths, he succeeds, according to Buddy, in exposing the limitations and hypocrisies of his age. The latter has faith, moreover, that Seymour will ultimately transcend these worldly barriers altogether and come to rest on "Holy Ground". "Is he never wrong?" Buddy asks, seeing himself and others, by comparison, as unenlightened and sinful.
In fact, Seymour and the other romantic heroes are not as sinless and innocent as they appear. Rather, each shows himself to be susceptible to worldly corruption. This presents problems for the one who has, in effect, canonized him. Faced with the prospect of disowning his hero, each narrator instead chooses to remain faithful to him. In attempting to shield him against detractors, the narrator infuses his religious fervor into the Judeo-Christian role of a "brother's keeper." This response is in keeping with what Krupat calls "the great principle of Beat faith...that life is a constant religious experience."
When confronted with the knowledge that Gatsby has not spent his entire life locked away in his gaudy shrine on West Egg -- that he has instead made his wealth through illicit dealings with the most notorious racketeer of the time, "the man who fixed the World's Series back in 1919" -- Carraway shows his loyalty by not betraying this secret to Tom Buchanan. The narrator's silence stands in contrast to the later accusations, which he directs at Tom, concerning the death of Myrtle Wilson. By this point in the novel, To m has discovered Gatsby's secret for himself and has exposed the romantic hero in front of Daisy, causing her interest in him to vanish forever. Significantly, Carraway sees the contemptuous reactions of Daisy and Tom as more reprehensible than the deeds which provoke them. In this way, Carraway shows a marked prejudice towards Gatsby, whose flaws he wishes to cover up, versus the Buchanans, whom he desires to see exposed. Carraway, then, is not an objective, detached narrator -- "one of the few honest people he has ever met" -- who sees things entirely as they are. Rather, as noted by Jordan Baker, he is a "bad driver". This means that his vision is as blurred as that of the other characters in the novel. Carraway's "misseeing" leads him to chase after Gatsby's green light as though its brilliance were not, in fact, worldly and orgiastic in nature, but, rather, sublime.
Sal, likewise, chooses to remain silent when his beloved Dean is derided by their friends in Denver as more deadbeat than beatific. Dean's loss of holiness is linked to his having left the road and entered the real world, in which he is expected to assume mainstream responsibilities as a husband and father. Unlike the characters in The Great Gatsby, Dean is seen as an excellent driver. Indeed, as previously noted, the road is where Dean reigns supreme -- where he, in effect, gets IT, and is understood as holy. By contrast, in the real world, he is labeled a shiftless "goof": the worst thing he can possibly be, according to Norman Mailer in his essay, "The White Negro." In his narration, however, Sal tempers this accusation with the adjective "holy," thereby showing his ongoing faith in Dean, despite the latter's obvious flaws.
Seymour's flaws, like Dean's, manifest themselves with regard to women. He momentarily abandons his childlike lifestyle by marrying a worldly young lady, well-versed in Freudian theories "and all that crap." According to Buddy, she and her mother "misinterpret" Seymour's spiritual sagacity as psychobabble, and force him to be analyzed. It is the analyst, Buddy defensively maintains, who drives Seymour to the ultimate form of transcendence: suicide. Seymour's wife and his analyst, conversely, maintain that his final act is only further evidence of his already disturbed nature. Regardless of his motivations, however, Seymour ends his life far afield from the "Holy Ground" that Buddy hoped he would one day reach.
Each of the other romantic heroes likewise fails to sustain and fulfill the spiritual promise which his narrator perceives in him. Ultimately, however, this failure is blamed not on the hero himself, but on his society. Faithful to the end, each narrator depicts his hero as a victim of external, worldly forces, which far exceed his own demonstrated capacity for corruption.
In his book, The Great Gatsby: The Limits of Wonder, Richard Lehan writes that Gatsby's death is blamed on "the careless people," specifically Daisy and Tom, who exist on a plane of "moral abandonment," reminiscent of T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland". In line 134 of this epic poem, faceless, paralyzed figures cry out despairingly, "Whatever shall we do?" Similarly, the characters in Gatsby, excluding the romantic hero, have no sense of what to do with themselves, either physically or spiritually. Indeed, they have no sense of direction; this is what makes them such bad drivers, on a physical level, as well as bad people, devoid of conscience.
A lack of direction, or vision, can also be blamed for what happens to Dean at the end of On The Road. He gets abandoned on a New York street corner because of the spiritual short-sightedness of Remi Boncoeur, Sal's French-American friend. Like Louie Marsellus in The Professor's House, Remi is a figure of cosmopolitan worldliness, seemingly at odds with the all-American innocence embodied by Tom Outland and, of course, by Dean. Failing to see Dean as a saint -- a holy fool -- Remi instead dismisses him as just another of Sal's "idiot friends."
If Dean, Gatsby, and Seymour are presented as victims, however, they are not seen as having suffered in vain. Rather, they are treated as martyrs by their respective narrators. At the end of each narrative, the hero's name is evoked and repeated, presumably as a means of keeping his vision alive, in the hope that it will one day bring enlightenment to the world.
For the time being, however -- in the harsh light of reality -- such vision may seem no more enlightening and beatific than that emerging from "the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg." It may, in fact, appear false, and those who champion it may seem guilty of blind faith. If this is the case, then "Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found" is not God, as Krupat indicates. Instead, he is merely a bum: one of the many casualties of the "road," which does not point the way towards enlightenment. At least, this is what Amiri Baraka, and other critics of 20th century romanticism, would probably have us believe. Nonetheless, it can be expected that the appeal of romantic visionaries -- the Deans, Gatsbys, and Seymours -- will remain alive and potent so long as there are those, like the narrators, who accept realities, but who are always on the look-out for salvation from them.
According to Eliot, rather than losing an authentic interpretation, we actually gain it through distance. We may then apply such a temporal relativism to "The Waste Land" itself, saying that in our perception of Eliot's poem, we have a temporal advantage over the poet, as his time is historical to us today. Remaining on the relationship of past and present, now in Eliot's point in time (1921-22), we may elucidate his ordering device for relating disparate subjective modern experiences to a more coherent (albeit ugly) past. In this way, subjective and objective perceptions--past and present information, different classes, places, and times--act as mutual supports, a piling up of equivalent and contrasting metaphors and allegories of the modernist poet's predicament. However, such a future-oriented approach breaks down into ambiguity and multiple interpretations. In the first place, the interpretations differ in whether the critic wishes to expand upon "The Waste Land", if he or she decides to take a personal responsibility for post-modernity's own impotence and sterility, or decides, more academically, simply to decipher a now-historical modernity alone.
Finally, in introducing "The Waste Land", we must comment upon its structure, and its themes. The structure has been likened to a constellation of stars, spatial as opposed to linear, but this can be misleading, not to mention two-dimensional. Despite what some say, interpreting "The Waste Land" does leave a sense of at least partial linear movement. As to the themes of "The Waste Land", there is a lack of thematic clarity, but this, in my view, is Eliot's intention, and at least leaves room for redemption, if it doesn't guarantee it. The lack of clarity may be due to the said ambiguous linear movement and also to the absence of an immediate narrative in the poem's main body, though some clarity may be found in the poem's references to external texts.
When the caged Sibyl is asked her desire, she replies "I want to die," which evokes not just a world-weariness and absence of redeeming joy, but also invokes the eastern radical anti-materialistic philosophy of nirvana, in which one achieves a complete freedom. The self, we discover, is in fact imprisoned by its own very existence, and can become free only through its willed destruction. We come to see that it was the Sibyl's desire for a worldly immortality (an immortal self) which condemned her to eternal decay.
The dedication to Ezra Pound then harks back to the Troubadour poets of twelfth-century Provence, who "represent the origins of great European traditions of high poetic art which go hand in hand with a refined but invigorated sexuality." This allusion to refinement will appear again in "What the Thunder Said", and this necessity for willed self-control (and a controlled desire) is one major element needed for redemption.
In the beginning of "The Burial of the Dead" we hear a "voice of propriety" that wishes to halt all new movement, change, or development. This sterile propriety wishes to remain in the darkness, the twilight consciousness of winter, to avoid the suffering and oncoming rending pains of approaching new birth. Stylistically speaking, this desire is unsuccessful as the poem quickly continues on, morphing into another voice, which alludes to a meeting with Countess Marie Larisch. Death by drowning is evoked (l. 8), which symbolizes the ancient narratives of sacrificial death, always necessary before renewal. However, in the present tense of metonymic details, and real time happenings, such renewal, though alluded to, seems entirely absent: "I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter." (l. 18)
The next section (l. 19-43) momentarily retreats to the original voice, but quickly ruptures into "you know only / a heap of broken images..." which makes clear both the modernist's practical predicament, and the formal structure of "The Waste Land" itself. Such montage-imagism, a "heap of broken images" represents the incoherence of modernist social structures, and the mind it creates in its citizens. Spring, traditionally a seasonal process of rebirth and sexual and spiritual potency, is now perceived as painful. The lost love and desire of Tristan in lines 30-34, followed by the similar but more subjective and direct failure in the hyacinth garden, ending in "Waste and empty is the sea", suggests here that such a renewal will not occur in the modern Waste Land. Other interpretations go further, to suggest that such a renewal will never occur. However, we must keep in mind that such a renewal depends upon a very real individual participation--a self-sacrifice that modern man avoids.
With Madame Sosostris (ll. 42-59) we discover how much ancient myth has been devalued and we are given the reason for modern misery and decay. Madame Sosostris does not portray useless myths, rather, she displays complete blindness towards myths in their real, quite fruitful meanings. Madame Sosostris is so telling because she does not possess the real meaning of such myths at all; she tells us to "fear death by water", which symbolizes how much such myths have been forgotten. Avoiding such a death of self is to avoid renewal and remain in a living death. Myth in the hands of Sosostris becomes empty superstition, devoid of any personal self-sacrifice. There are intimations of redemption, and this may be symptomatic of Eliot's reservations about overtly romantic optimism, blind hope, or easy, painless solutions.
Now, in lines 60-76 we see contemporary society, and it is not surprisingly deemed unreal. Clock-time, and a perpetual twilight of "brown fog" have overtaken seasonal changes of light and dark. It seems that man and woman have entered into a wasteland of twilight and are now unable to return to either darkness or light. Like the Sibyl, they are unable to die, and with the absence of deep feelings, they are barely alive, due to mere avoidance and a lack of true sacrifical meaning (honesty). Society has found itself to be "neither living nor dead". This, in terms of Eliot's historical position, may be the witching hour of civilization as it may still be today, or it may be an experience of the rending pains of new birth.
"A Game of Chess" begins with a style reminiscent of seventeenth and eighteenth century literature. By Eliot's time, a very experientially different urban twentieth century, such a convoluted, luxurious, smooth style seemed unworthy of praise. A psychological interpretation of this matter of literary taste would point us again towards the modern neurasthenic. Clock-time, and a quickening society, was coupled with growing populations in machinated, cluttered, unreal cities that cinematically flashed the senses with commodities and advertisements, all of which became fragments of a new man-made artifice: consumerism, and the beginnings of TV culture. This broadcast-consumerism along with a routinized, conveyor-belt approach to production, would help to send the mind into cognitive dissonanc e, anxiety. Indeed, such a modern dislocation of the senses from intensely felt experiences was, according to Eliot, rooted in this eighteenth century literary tradition, which initiated such a dissociation of emotions and their immediacy. Such a style is mirrored in lines 111-172.
So much have the senses been disassociated that the transformed Philomela's bird-song of romantic passion is now heard by "dirty-ears" as a mere "Jug Jug", or a call for raw, physical sex--intimacy without feeling. We hear disembodied voices (ll. 111 -137) close to nervous breakdown, but even then, they remain unaware of their plight. They avoid the rain, a water-symbol of salvation and redemption that, unbeknownst to them, is urgently required. On top of everything else about "The Waste Land", is the fact that such a plight is unfelt, and therefore inescapable, at least for those who do not bring such anxieties to the sunlight. We might then see these first two sections as the initial stages of a cathartic process.
In the beginning of "The Fire Sermon", the season skips back to late autumn, or early winter:
"The river's tent is broken; the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed."
We are reminded of The Fisher King, maimed and impotent, his land approaching its consequent decay. The seemingly timeless state of affairs here by the river blurs into modernity with the mention of horns and motors (l. 197) and there is a sense of approaching watershed. But the core of this section (ll. 187-204) is the allusion to Verlaine's Parsifal and how the Knight, questing for the Grail that will renew spirituality, is tempted by sensual music, which is reminiscent of the temptations of Christ in the desert before his death and resurrection. What follows is a reminder that such a tempting sensuality has fallen down to basic impotent desire--"Jug Jug" and the rape of Philomela.
The Unreal City still under a brown fog, flashes again into consciousness, but this time it is in full winter that we find it, though it has barely changed.
Next, we are introduced to Tiresias, the poet's anti-self who sees all impersonally. It is through Tiresias that we have been conscious of the Waste Land. The poem is his. However, there is one parallel possible between Tiresias and Eliot. Both are unable to affect any direct change. In the hyacinth garden, Eliot experiences the very feeling--he becomes the experience. If the problem is that we are removed from real experiences and feelings, and the goal is to diagnose, then such impersonality must be contrasted with the healthy state of experiencing direct emotions, whether they are positive emotions or not. It is no surprise then that such a lover's scene as this (ll. 230-247) is the opposite of the lovers and scene of the hyacinth garden.
In "Death by Water" Madame Sosostris is overcome because there occurs what we had been told to fear--a death by water. There is a sense of peace in such annihilation, but the death does not end "The Waste Land". In what follows, we are also shown a Christ-like figure post-resurrection, the first explicit sign within the main body of the text that intimates an occurrence of resurrection, of redemption. Perhaps then, this same figure that has drowned, is returning again, purified and refined.
"What the Thunder Said" directly appeals to Eastern philosophy, more specifically, Hinduism. The word "after" repeated three times (ll. 322-25) seems to suggest that something has been overcome, perhaps what has just passed, a death by water. What follows is more death (ll 327-330). We could interpret this as a rather radical assertion that "The Waste Land" is no longer a description of decaying, but rather, it is a portrayal of a civilization already dead. Indeed, the desire for water and the uncertainty of the post-death stage reaches a critical climax at line 366 - hallucination, illusion, deranged perception takes over, and with the signalling "co co..." from the rooftop cock, illusion and hallucination departs the poem.
Rain gathers at last (ll. 396-400), and there is excited anticipation. The thunder speaks: DA, DA, DA. The syllable reminds us of Jesus' use of 'Abba' or Daddy to describe his intimate relationship with a Father God. But the Eastern interpretation is three-fold, developing into Datta, Dayadhvam, and Damyata, meaning, respectively, "give", "be compassionate", "self-control". In the first instance--Datta--Eliot brings us back to the hyacinth garden, suggesting that only by this surrender do we exist. The sorrowful realization here is that perhaps such a revelation has come too late for the speaker, that the paralysis experienced in the hyacinth garden was an inability to give love, to surrender one's self to another completely. Thus these lines seem to suggest love to be the proper means and motive of giving. In the second instance--Dayadhvam--Eliot links the absence of compassion to the problem of solipsism and egoism--"each in his prison / thinking of the key". Again we hear the suggestiveness of a moment's surrender, and how pride blocks participation in love and perhaps leads to displaced revenge. In the third instance--Damyata--we are urged to control ourselves, like manning a boat upon a calm ocean with the help of the wind, as the heart seems to respond happily to controlling hands.
Indeed, this is a rather different, far more positive interpretation than is usually given to this section of "The Waste Land". Eliot possibly leads us to believe that our private experiences are truly only our own, but, in terms of the Eastern philosophy which he evokes, such a perception is only true because we live in a world of samsara, the only escape from which is nirvana. But the prescriptions are ambiguous, and dogged by the past-present state of the modern Waste Land where people do not recognize such redemptive meaning. But speaking out more radically now, if we maintain an absence of salvation, we have to realize what we are really saying, and be responsible for the consequences of our words--proposing no salvation essentially condemns all futures to desolation.
In the final section, we meet the Fisher King again, and a crumbling society. There is an individual desire to order one's own land. At line 427, we are reminded of purgatory's refining flame, supported by "DA", where self-control, compassion, and giving up one's self (all in love) are healthy forms of passion, renewing desires, refined burning. This refinement overcomes the sterile avoidance of the voice of propriety (ll. 1 - 7; 19 - 20), the improper desires of emotionless sexuality (ll. 218 - 248) and emotionally detached existence in general (ll. 111 - 138). The swallow reference (l. 428) is reminiscent of Philomela, and of sadness, but with the hope of renewal, and intimations of spring again. We see that "The Waste Land" has been a process of personal maintenance--"These fragments I have shored against my ruin". The process has also been one of warning, that the references to the past are not an attempt to escape, nor mere romantic nostalgia. This leaves us one choice, to turn and embrace the future. The thunder speaks again and we end in a peace which lies outside understanding, a nirvana-like state of positive nothingness, and a sense of completion--"Shantih shantih shantih".
With the poem's ambiguous intimations of salvation leaves an interpretation that salvation will not just occur, nor will it be automatically achieved by a mere movement of time. Redemption is left up to the will of individuals to create it. Essentially, when critiquing "The Waste Land" we must bear this self-willing in mind. Many interpretations choose not to find salvation, others choose to be more positive. The poem leaves these two doors open.
Thus, one must maintain hope and the way towar ds salvation, especially in this post-modern point in time, where, if anything, the modern neurasthenic has reached paranoia levels, and permanent states of drudgery, induced by the sedentary, sedative, and dissociated visual-feeds from the popular culture. What the thunder said should not only be remembered as an ethic, but also lived as an individual life. This is the only way to escape the prison of the self, and renew our feelings, to reacquaint them with direct experience, to experience shantih, a peace beyond understanding.
We will give our lives completely every day.
FOR THIS IS THE ASSASINS' HOUR."
-Arthur Rimbaud, Drunken Morning
"The revolution was in his poetry from the beginning and to the end: as a preoccupation of a technical order, namely to translate the world into a new language."
Many people are familiar with some, if not most of, Hemingway's biography. (God knows there's been plenty written about him by some very legitimate and authoritative sources over the years.) So, after a little digging, I've compiled a brief biography for the uninitiated, in the hopes that a fresh look may shed light on why his popularity has waned in recent years.
Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1899, the second of six children of Dr. Ed Hemingway. At a young age, he sounded like a gifted child. As a three and a half year old, his mother described him, in part, as follows:
"Ernest Miller is a little man - no longer lazy - dresses himself completely and is a good helper for his father. He counts up to 100, can spell by ear very well. He likes to build cannons and forts with building blocks. He collects cartoons of the Russo-Japanese War. He loves stories about Great Americans - can give you good sketches of all the great men of American History."
Ernest's mother taught him music and creativity and took him to concerts, art galleries and operas. His father taught him survival skills, physical courage and endurance, and imparted to him a strong love of nature. By the age of twelve, he was singing in the choir at The Third Congregational Church and was making his first attempts at writing. During high school, he showed a penchant for English, but remained uninterested in other subjects. It was at The Oak Park and River Forest High School where he began writing articles for the school's paper.
Upon graduating high school, he wanted to join the armed forces but was forbidden, ironically so, by his father. Instead, he applied for a job as a journalist, and in October 1917 began working for the Kansas City Star. At The Star, he learned that professional reporters told the way things are. They didn't ramble; they declared what was. The idea was to tell the readers what had happened, but first a man had to go out and find what was happening. This experience, no doubt, influenced his later writing.
Still with a yearning to be involved with WWI, in April of 1918 he applied for a job as an ambulance driver in Italy for The Red Cross and was accepted. He quit The Star after serving as a reporter for only six months. Hemingway arrived in Milan in June 1918, and as soon as he disembarked, an entire munitions factory exploded. His initiation into the war was that of picking up dead bodies and carrying them to the mortuary. Two days later he was sent to Schio, in the foothills of the Dolomites, where he was far away from the front. Having a keen desire to be closer to the action, he signed up for canteen duty; provisioning troops on the battlefield. On July 8th 1918, he was struck by Austrian artillery and machine gun fire, six days before his nineteenth birthday. His knee and foot had been injured and he had to return to Milan for hospitalization. Two months and numerous operations later, he was able to walk again with the aid of crutches. He was awarded a silver medal of valor, for saving the life of another man after he was injured. In October, Hemingway reunited with his regiment, but jaundice forced him to return to Milan for hospitalization. By January 1919 he was back in America with 227 scars of war on his leg.
It was while being hospitalized in Milan, that Ernest fell in love with Agnes Von Kurowsky, an American nurse stationed there. The two carried on an unconsummated affair, which ended when Agnes encouraged Ernest to return home. Later, concerned about their age gap--she was seven years his senior--she sent him a "Dear John" letter, informing him she'd found someone else. His war and love experiences would be recounted ten years later, in 1929, in his epic WWI novel, A Farewell To Arms, as well as Three Stories and Ten Poems.
Back in America, while working as a reporter for The Cooperative Commonwealth, Hemingway met Elizabeth Hadley Richardson, whom he later married in September 1920. She was twenty-eight. By living frugally and saving their meager resources, shortly after their wedding they moved to Paris. By January of 1922, they were living in a squalid apartment on the rue du Cardinal Lemoine, where Hemingway set to work writing on a novel. He visited Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, both of whom greatly influenced his writing. He and Hadley traveled to Italy, where, as part of the press, he met with Mussolini. Upon returning to Paris, Hemingway left for Constantinople for three weeks to cover the war between Greece and Turkey. Hadley, furious, stayed behind. When he returned he was covered in bug bites and his hair was so filled with lice that his head had to be shaved.
Soon Hadley became pregnant and it was during this time that she and Ernest made several trips to Pamplona, in northern Spain. These jaunts became the foundation for Fiesta, which became The Sun Also Rises. They traveled to Canada so that their son, John Hadley Nicanor could be born on American soil. By this time, Three Stories and Ten Poems was completed. In January 1924, Hemingway resigned from professional journalism to concentrate solely on writing novels and returned with his family to Paris. The Hemingways traveled throughout Europe, Spain, and Switzerland during their five-year marriage. During this period Hemingway also produced The Torrents of Spring. Hadley eventually separated from Ernest after learning of his affair with then Vogue editor, Pauline Pfeiffer. All royalties from The Sun Also Rises went to Hadley. In January 1927 they were divorced, and Ernest married Pauline in May of that year. During this turbulent time in his personal life, he produced Another Country and Men Without Women.
While honeymooning for three weeks on the coast of France, Ernest cut his foot, which became infected with anthrax. Falling into depression and desiring to complete a novel about the war, he desperately wanted to return to America. The two landed in Key West, Florida, where Hemingway fell into a comfortable routine of fishing, writing, and drinking. Key West became his base, with occasional trips to Europe. In 1928, Hemingway's father, suffering from diabetes and angina pectoris, shot himself in the head.
A Farewell To Arms, his novel about the war, was completed and topped the bestseller lists, which enabled Ernest to send money home to his widowed mother to help her with caring for her two youngest sons. Interestingly, a dramatization of the novel opened in New York and failed after a three-week stint. The movie rights, though, garnered Ernest $24,000. Pauline had become pregnant and gave birth to their first son, Patrick.
Hemingway's health, evidently, was a continual thorn in his side. He had regular sore throats, kidney pro blems, hemorrhoids, and failing eyesight. In 1930, he suffered serious injuries in a car accident: a broken right arm, a cut right eyeball, and a gash in the forehead among others. In 1931, Death in the Afternoon was finished, and Pauline gave birth to their second boy, Gregory Hancock.
During one 65-day marlin-fishing trip to Cuba, Hemingway again took ill and returned to Key West to recuperate from bronchial pneumonia. Winner Takes Nothing was completed, and then came his first safari to Africa where he again took ill with dysentery and a prolapse of the lower intestine. After being away from his family for seven months, he returned to Key West to write Green Hills of Africa. More detachment from his family came with the purchase of a fishing boat, which he named The Pilar, and subsequent fishing excursions with his friends. In 1935 he won a fishing competition off the island of Bimini.
In 1936 he met Martha Gelhorn, a journalist, with whom he had an affair and traveled to Spain with to cover the Spanish Civil War. In 1937 and 1938, while in Spain he wrote To Have and Have Not and his play, The Fifth Column, which was written in a Madrid hotel while under gunfire.
In 1939, Ernest and Pauline had separated, and again, while suffering from guilt and depression, Hemingway penned For Whom the Bell Tolls, which sold a staggering 500,000 copies in the first five months. The movie rights were sold to Paramount for $150,000 three days after publication. After obtaining a divorce from Pauline, he married Martha in November of 1940. Their relationship strained over Ernest's jealousy of Martha's career, and he found himself living in Finca Vigia, Cuba, while his wife was a war correspondent in England.
In 1942, Hemingway created the Crook Factory, a private undertaking whose mission was to investigate pro-Nazi factions in Cuba. In 1943, the organization was disbanded and Hemingway concentrated his efforts on hunting German U-boats by trolling on his boat day and night, returning to land only to stock up on food and fuel. In March of 1944, at Martha's beckoning, he traveled to England and was involved in another car accident, with several newspapers incorrectly reporting his demise. In May of '44 he met Mary Welsh in London and fell in love. From June to December of '44 he was attached to the Third Army, but also went on bombing raids and reconnaissance missions with the RAF. He was tried for court-martial for violating the Geneva Convention, but once his name was cleared he returned to the front and experienced heavy fighting in Hurtgenwald in November-December of '44. By January 1945, he returned to Paris with Mary, his marriage to Martha finished.
Hemingway returned to Finca Vigia in March 1945. Once again suffering from guilt and depression over his third failed marriage, he fell into a routine of alcohol and indulgence. He again was involved in another serious car accident. In March 1946 he married Mary Welsh. At this time he began working on The Garden of Eden and Islands in the Stream, both eventually would be published posthumously.
With the death of many of his close friends, including his second wife Pauline, his mother, and his editor, Max Perkins, Hemingway's drinking increased, his health deteriorated, and his writing came to a standstill. Ernest and Mary traveled to northern Italy to relive his early WWI days. It was here that he met and fell in love with Adriana Ivancich, which inspired Across the River and Into the Trees, a novel panned by the critics. He bounced back a few years later with The Old Man and the Sea which garnered him the Pulitzer Prize in May 1953, along with critical acclaim once again.
In June of '53 he traveled to Europe and Mombassa, where he conducted a ritual courtship with a young Wakambu girl. He was involved in two plane accidents, the second of which was so serious that news of his demise was once again reported in the papers. (I swear this guy had nine lives!) He returned from Cuba only partially recovered from his injuries. On October 28th, 1954, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was too ill to travel to Stockholm to receive the award, but held a party at his home in Finca Vigia. He was in Europe from September '56 to January '57 and set sail for Spain in May of '59, one month after Fidel Castro entered Havana with his troops. He returned to Havana in November of that year and declared his support for the revolutionaries. In spring of 1960 he completed A Moveable Feast, his memoir of life in Paris in the twenties.
In July 1960 he left Cuba for the last time. Already showing signs of mental illness, his health collapsed and he was forced more and more to rely on alcohol. In August he traveled to Spain, but cut his trip short to return to Idaho. He was admitted to the Mayo Clinic for the first time in November and stayed one month. Three months later he was admitted again, this time for two months. With his memory failing, he found he could no longer write.
In fashion with his father before him, on Sunday, July 2nd 1961, in a log cabin in Ketchum, Idaho, Hemingway pulled the trigger of his double-barreled shotgun, killing himself instantly.
In the end, I think the modern perception of Hemingway is one of male chauvinism, bravado, and machismo, which perhaps has led to his current downturn in popularity. But in reality, this only portrays a partial truth of the individual. Though he was a man of "airs" and exuded brash confidence and authority, he also was very shy and embittered from his lack of good health and his perceived failing of living up to his father's ideals of succeeding at everything. No doubt, his failed marriages caused him much anguish as well. He was also a romantic at heart, a fact that simply cannot be ignored when reading his work. Touching portrayals of his three sons and various wives are plainly evident, especially in his later works, much of it expressing regret over lost loves and lost time. Dig beneath the surface of Hemingway's somewhat pompous celebrity and overconfidence, and you'll discover a multi-faceted personality.
Despite the fact that it is popular these days not to like Hemingway, nothing can take away from the fact that he was an originator, a master of his craft. Though much of his success as a writer in the first half of his career can be duly credited to Max Perkins, Hemingway's words and style have spawned numerous imitations, and his work has stood the test of time, influencing generations long after his death; truly the hallmarks of a great writer.
It seems that every generation has its own disillusionment with society in one way or another, and I think that today's generation, with its share of war, terrorism, and cynicism, would benefit greatly from examining Hemingway's body of work. The underlying current of romanticism in his writing serves as an ideal to strive for, a ray of hope that, despite the turmoil around us, something good can happen in the end. And, if nothing else, it serves as a glimpse into a life that was meant to be lived to the full. Hemingway not only had the guts to write about it, but he had the guts to live it as well.
On a personal level, Hemingway filled a void during my youth that no other author did. He accomplished things that I wished I could've accomplished and took me to places where I wished I could go; whether it was fishing in the Pyrenees, hunting wild game in the shadow of Kilimanjaro, trolling for marlin in the Gulf Stream, or running with the bulls in Pamplona. His sometimes glaring shortcomings aside, Hemingway was an individual who wrote larger than life because he lived larger than life. And for that reason, this writer will always be down with Hemingway.
The poetry of E.E. Cummings* is easily recognizable, even for the literary novice. While many immediately associate the work of Cummings with the liberal use of lowercase letters and acrobatic word arrangement, the depth of his writing goes beyond this, both in form and meaning.
Edward Estlin Cummings was born October 14, 1894 in Cambridge, Massachusetts to Edward and Rebecca Haswell Cummings. Edward Cummings was highly educated and became the first professor of sociology at Harvard College; his history of divinity school training also groomed him to become a minister of the Unitarian church. Rebecca Haswell Cummings was one of the more socially adept women of her time and came from a distinguished family line of religious, political and even literary importance. Growing up in Cambridge during this time (and having such a strong place in local society) was a definite advantage for Estlin and his childhood has often been described as idyllic. The family spent summers at Joy Farm in rural New Hampshire, where young Estlin became interested in wildlife and the scenery of the countryside. These scenes of a happy childhood and his appreciation for nature would be described in many of Cummings' popular poems.
Cummings was encouraged to study literature and record his thoughts and stories in a journal. His mother hoped he would become a poet like another famous Cambridge son, Longfellow, and read Dickens and Stevenson aloud to the entire family. He had an education both at school and at home that placed a heavy importance on the arts, and he later recalled memorizing long excerpts from classic stories and poems. During this time, Estlin Cummings also began sketching and painting scenes from tales that he had read or stories he wrote, merging his literary and visual creative abilities at an early age.
Cummings attended Cambridge High School and became heavily involved in the Cambridge Review, in which many of his early stories and poems were published. Many of the early pieces were not extraordinary and did not show the confidence that would exude from his work in later years. Still, the early exposure to the world of public praise and publishing undoubtedly shaped Cummings' attitude on everything from typesetting to experimentation with form.
In September 1911, Cummings entered Harvard and remained there for five years. He earned degrees in Literature and English and had a mostly classical education. He had an exceptional knack for translating poems and interpreting lyric poetry. He studied under several respected Shakespearean scholars of the time and became skilled in allegory as well as other narrative devices in which he drew on his traditional Cambridge upbringing and the parables of his father's sermons. Cummings also expanded his writing in other areas, writing many short essays and prose pieces in addition to the works he published in the literary magazines of the school, the Harvard Advocate and Harvard Monthly, of which he became the editor-in-chief.
In 1916, Cummings began to take a more serious interest in modern art styles, studying Cubism and Impressionist artists. In his writing and artwork he demonstrated that he very much wanted to be a part of the modern art movement. During this time he developed the style that he is most known for today. Feeding off the influence of revolutionary artists such as Cezanne and sculptor Henri Gaudier-Breska as well as studying the styles introduced by poets he admired (Pound, Whitman and Sandburg), Cummings experimented with the arrangement of words, syntax and letters to produce a unique visual experience within the lyrical elements of poetry. He became a craftsman of his work, carefully constructing each word and line to perform double duty as verbal expression and art. He often exaggerated sounds by repetition and coordinated lines and words to mimic the actions they described:
Cummings eventually moved to New York and took a job in the publishing division of Collier's as a desk clerk. The menial tasks the job required didn't exactly appeal to him but he did find time to create more poetry in this setting, writing on current events and offbeat topics such as the death of Buffalo Bill ("Buffalo Bill's defunct"). In his spare time, he explored the city and began to paint with a renewed vigor.
When the United States entered the war in 1917, Cummings made the decision to avoid the draft and volunteered to serve with the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service in France. He was excited by the prospect of adventure and felt this service would best match his pacifist nature and intellectual upbringing. He soon left for France and found himself on essentially a five-week holiday in Paris due to a series of organizational mishaps. Cummings' experiences in France during this time left an imprint on the young man and became the topic of many controversial pieces. Cummings and his comrade, Slater Brown, found themselves exploring the adventure and sexual freedoms of Paris, attending burlesque shows and delving straight to the heart of the society of prostitution. He and Brown found two companions this way, Marie Lallemand and her partner, Mimi, whom they treated more like traditional dates. These interludes were detailed later in lines such as "the dirty colors of her kiss" and "wanta spendsix dollars Kid". After some time in the city, they were called back to duty and found themselves in the midst of the tedious routine of life in an inactive military unit.
Perhaps because of his experimental artistic personality or his political beliefs, Cummings did not seem to fit in well with his unit and tension began to develop. Cummings freely spoke of his distaste for the other men in the unit, and wrote numerous letters of complaint to his family back in the US. French authorities censored the letters of both Brown and Cummings and they soon found themselves under the heavy scrutiny of authorities. After being interrogated and refusing to turn his back on Brown, Cummings was detained and eventually interred in a French Prison Camp for three months. Oddly enough, he found that he was accepted into an alternate society and the experience of life at Depot de Triage at La Ferte-Mace would become the basis of his first book, The Enormous Room. Eventually Cummings was set free through the assistance of family friends. He returned to the United States on January 1, 1918.
E.E. Cummings decided to make his way back to New York and rented a studio in Greenwich Village. He reconnected with his circle of Harvard friends as well as returning to his university patron, Scofield Thayer, who encouraged Estlin in both writing and painting. Cummings spent more time painting than on his poetry and produced the painting "Traffic" for Thayer who was interested in procuring a cubist piece. Thayer also urged the Dial to publish Cummings' poetry. The poetry was met with disdain, but the editors published his work after much debate.
In the summer of 1918, Cummings was drafted into the U.S. Army and was sent to Camp Devens, near Cambridge. He was ultimately discharged in early 1919 on the grounds that his occupation was suffering. It was, however, during this time that his love for Elaine Thayer, the wife of his loyal patron, had become too great to ignore. Many of Cummings' most celebrated poems of erotica and love were written for Elaine during this time period (most notably "I like my body when it is with your", "along the brittle treacherous bright streets" and "my love is building a building").
Thayer soon found herself pregnant with Cummings' child and gave birth to a daughter, Nancy on December 20, 1919. Elaine was still married to Scofield Thayer and Cummings was the father of a child he was not able to acknowledge. After a time, the Thayers divorced and Estlin and Elaine reunited in Europe and were married in 1924, divorcing less than a year later. Cummings spent the next few decades estranged from the child that had become the focus of many sketches and written pieces.
The Enormous Room, Cummings' account of his wartime experience, was published in 1922 and the book received critical acclaim for its unique handling of such a serious and potentially morose subject. His poetry was also becoming more well known, being featured not only in the Dial, but also in Vanity Fair and other literary and political magazines of the time. In April 1923, a selection of Cummings' poetry was published under the title Tulips & Chimneys.
Over the next few years he had organized and edited enough of his pieces to produce two new volumes of poetry, XLI Poems and &. His literary success was evident at this time and XLI Poems and & were more popular than his first collection. During the 1920s and 1930s Cummings also wrote comic sketches for Vanity Fair and exhibited his paintings in several independent art shows.
One of the most interesting aspects of Cummings' work is his versatility. In addition to the works mentioned above, Cummings wrote plays, travelogues, prose pieces and satire. As an artist he was prolific in not only his painting, but also in his sketch work. In many of his poems, it is evident that Cummings had a sharp sense humor. He often used parody, puns and dialect to create humorous, yet scathing social commentary in his work. His art career was not immune to his wry wit. In one art show, he entered a doormat from the front step of his family home.
After a brief marriage to socialite/model Anne Barton, E.E. Cummings became acquainted with photographer, actress and model Marion Morehouse in 1932. The two found a strong connection with each other and while it is uncertain that they were ever legally married, they would remain together until Cummings' death in 1962. She moved into Patchin Place and accompanied him at Joy Farm in New Hampshire where he spent most of his later years. Cummings' relationship with Morehouse became the subject of many of his poems and she was often found posing for his paintings and sketches.
Cummings' writing was not always well received. He was used to getting mixed reviews and strong reactions from the public as well as literary critics. Eimi, a prose collection based on his travel diary in Russia, came out in 1933 and received brutal reviews. The American Spectator declared it "The Worst Book of the Month". Many of the criticisms focused on the radical style of writing and obscure typography contained in the 432 pages instead of the political sentiments expressed.
Throughout the next few decades, Cummings found a new angle for his career as he began speaking and reading his poetry at colleges around the country. He enjoyed the attention and found that public readings provided a new outlet for his creativity. It is interesting to note that while Cummings was more exposed to the public and his appearances were well-attended, it is during these later years in life that he also gained the reputation of being a curmudgeon and his views became more close-minded and ill tempered. Many times he wrote out his racial and religious opinions, sometimes to the dismay of his editors and peers.
By the mid-50s, Cummings' osteoarthritis had started to take its toll on his ability to get out and do all of the readings he was requested to do. Much of his poetry in his final years dealt with his views on aging and death in a lyrical, but matter-of-fact manner ("old age sticks", "Now i lay (with everywhere around"). Aside from his continuing to work on his poetry, Cummings divided his time bewtween Joy Farm and Patchin Place (in Greenwich Village) painting and spending time with Marion and his family. Cummings experimented with form and meaning up until the very end, producing two final volumes within his lifetime: A Miscellany, a collection of short prose pieces and 95 Poems, a book of fresh poetry from the creative veteran.
Edward Estlin Cummings died Sep. 3, 1962 of a brain hemorrhage after splitting wood. His literary style marked him as one of the most revolutionary poets of the twentieth century. He was accomplished as not only a writer, but also as an artist and social commentator. Cummings' body of work includes several volumes of poetry, two short plays, and prose work in addition to his collection of journals, sketchbooks and letters. A collection of fairy tales by Cummings was published in 1965 and many recordings of his readings are still available.
(NOTE: the common lowercase spelling of Cummings' name is not used here, as it was largely a convention of editors and publishers. The E.E. Cummings Society has requested that the author's name be printed with capitalization.)
Some 70+ years following his controversial death, the legacy of Harry Crosby remains unclear, his contributions to poetry, literature, and art still questioned by literary scholars and art historians. There are those writers on 1920s literary Paris who, when deigning to mention him at all, depict a "playboy", a dilettante, a spoiled expatriate dappling in "the arts" because they amused him. The eminent critic Malcolm Cowley has used Crosby as a symbol of the rise and fall of the Jazz Age itself (see "Exile's Return"), eagerly pointing out the many excesses of his short life as being indicative of the essential shallowness of the man, and by extension, the age. Others, however, see in the Crosby character a figure of great complexity, someone devoted to the arts, to poetry, to quality literature, and to the celebration of Creativity in all its guises. This brief article attempts to put down some of the facts of his life without joining too vehemently the debate on the literary merits of his written work or the sincerity of his character and enthusiasms. It will, however, place him squarely in the epicenter of 1920s Jazz Age Paris for that is where he lived from 1922 until his death in 1929.
Crosby was a native Bostonian, born into one of the city's prominent banking families on June 4, 1898, and raised with all the comforts and expectations of privilege that wealth brings. By most accounts he was an unremarkable young man, excelling neither in the arts nor academia and, much to his father's chagrin, demonstrating no interest in or penchant for business. Neither did he pursue sports with any fervor although he was a fine runner and participated in track at the St. Marks School. Like many of his equally well-off peers, his teenage years were basically carefree. With a good-natured personality and enthusiasm for hijinx, Harry could get away with such practices as hurling water balloons at pedestrians from the third floor windows of his home at 95 Beacon St.
Like tens of thousands of his generation, however, his life would be changed forever by participation in the single most devastating event the world had known to date, the Great War (World War I). With several of his close friends, Crosby joined the American Field Service Ambulance Corps and was sent to France as an ambulance driver. Though by no means as dangerous as the role of common trench soldier, being an ambulance driver was hazardous in its own right. The ambulances themselves were notoriously temperamental and slow-moving, and the roads to and from the front lines, in addition to being rutted, potholed tracks, were subject to artillery barrages on a frequent basis.
On November 22, 1917, one such barrage landed within yards of Crosby's ambulance, completely destroying it and gravely injuring one of Crosby's closest friends. Miraculously, Crosby himself was uninjured but the experience proved to be a turning point in his life. What had once been a great "adventure" had turned into something more of a nightmare and his inexplicable escape from death marked the moment when his inner world turned to the mystical and he began to chart a personal cosmology based upon sun worshiping and suicide. While the war in France had liberated him from the stuffy confines of Boston, surviving the destruction of his ambulance liberated him from a fear of death. From that time forward, Crosby would court death, almost taunting it, and extol the glories of suicide.
The boy who'd left Boston eager for experience, returned a man far older than his twenty-one years. Older, perhaps, yet no more responsible and even less inclined to settle into the role prescribed for him by his upbringing, that of a banker's son. Youthful mischief gave way to drunkenness, scandal and family outrage. Though he acceded to his father's demands that he enroll at Harvard and earn a degree, he didn't fit into Boston society and eventually would accept a bank position in Paris, arranged for him via connections with his uncle, J.P. Morgan. Not, however, before becoming infatuated with, and pursuing with dogged persistence, a married woman several years his elder, Mary "Polly" Peabody. In May of 1921 he threatened suicide if Polly did not break off her marriage. Shortly thereafter, she began a formal separation from her husband and, eventually, she would marry Crosby. As both of them hailed from prominent Boston families, the outrage their union caused was shrill and predictable, but it didn't bother Crosby in the least. Shocking the society mavens of Boston would become a sort of hobby of his.
In May, 1922 Crosby arrived back in France, in Paris, and took up his position with the Morgan, Harjes & Co. Bank. But, more importantly, he began the life that would ultimately place him firmly in the center of the extraordinary literary and artistic revolution that was unfolding in 1920s Paris. He quit the bank forever on December 31, 1923 and threw himself single-mindedly into the occupation of poet, reader, and, later, publisher. In the course of these new endeavors he came to know many of the artists and writers we associate most with that era, including, among many, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Kay Boyle, Archibald MacLeish, Hart Crane, Sylvia Beach, Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Crosby shared a number of similarities with the American expatriate community of France (similarities that Malcolm Cowley endeavors to exploit in constructing his theories of the age in his seminal early study of 'Lost Generation' writers "Exile's Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s" (1934)), among them WWI field service in the ambulance corps, a penchant for drink, a disdain for puritanical American values, and an appreciation of art & literature. However, Crosby differed from many of his comrades in at least two significant ways, differences not discussed by Cowley because, had he done so, Crosby would not have fit so neatly into his tidy symbolic package.
First of all, Crosby spoke and read French fluently. This alone sets him apart from nearly all the major American artists & writers of the time and it allowed Crosby to read Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and other giants of French literature in their original language. More importantly, it afforded him the opportunity to move in far wider circles than most of the American and Canadian expats, who by and large, socialized among themselves. Crosby's range of contacts, friends, and acquaintances exceeded that of most foreigners and extended beyond English-speaking Bohemian circles.
Secondly, Crosby came from money. Whereas many of the expats who flocked to Paris did so because the exchange rate allowed them to live relatively comfortable lives on a fraction of the money it would require to live in the States, Crosby had no such concern. Despite his avowed dislike of Boston society and the culture of privilege he came from, he had no compunction about exploiting his family's wealth to live a lavish, indulgent lifestyle and to pursue the artistic life he considered vastly superior to a life focused on the accumulation of money.
Many literary scholars portray Crosby as little more than a playboy on holiday but this is inaccurate. From 1925 on, he became an independent student of art, literature, and writing. Keeping disciplined working hours, he read widely and thoroughly, endeavoring to make up for all he'd missed in high school and at Harvard, and wrote with a singleness of purpose worthy of some of the more respected writers of the period. Weighing the literary value of his output is beyond the scope of this biographical essay but it is true that, in a short span of five years, he produced a considerable body of work consisting of poetry, journals, and essays, some of it published in various literary journals of the era (Transition, Hound & Horn), and much of it appearing under the imprint of the Black Sun Press. "Shadows of the Sun", his collected journals, remains one of the great published diaries of the 20th century.
Crosby, however, defies simple titles like 'poet' or 'publisher' or 'expat'. He was all of those things, of course, but moreover he was a character, one of those classic eccentrics whose charisma, charm, and audacity both attracted and repelled. As noted, Crosby emerged from WWI a changed man. Once he moved to Paris, he never looked back. And his companion, Polly, also once a staid practitioner of Boston social decorum, went along for the ride. At the end of 1924, the two of them, already committing themselves to the practice of writing and the exploration of art, decided that Polly needed a more literary name. They decided upon Caresse in part because, in conjunction with the name Harry, the two names formed a cross when joined (one vertical and one horizontal). This became their symbol and they would have the Crosby Cross stamped in gold on the leather spines of their hundreds of books. Naturally, the name change further scandalized their respective families but it also served notice that Caresse, too, had abandoned all pretext at Boston respectability. "'Yes' is my favorite word" she wrote in her autobiography "The Passionate Years" and it was this spirit of brash go-forwardness that served as the perfect catalyst for Crosby's unflagging enthusiasms.
Together they founded what would ultimately be regarded as one of the finest small press publishing houses of the 20th century. It began as something of a vanity press as both of them wanted to see their writings in print but were skeptical of the process of mainstream publishing as well as of what they saw as the indignity of submitting their words to others for approval. How much easier it would be, they thought, to print their own books in small editions and be able to control not only what was printed but also the appearance of the works themselves. In April of 1927 they established Editions Narcisse which, after several books, was renamed the Black Sun Press. By mere serendipity they happened upon a printer's shop not far from their apartment at 19 rue de Lille. The printer, Roger Lescaret, made his living printing wedding invitations & funeral notices and had never before produced an entire book. That didn't dissuade the Crosbys from striking a deal with him and Lescaret would be the Black Sun's master printer for the duration of the enterprise.
Whereas their initial thought was to publish their own work (which they did), it occurred to them as well to publish other writers that interested them, and they actively solicited work from their friends and from writers they admired. Their list, as it comes down to us today, is impressive by any standards. Over time the Black Sun Press would bring out works by James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Kay Boyle, Hart Crane, Rene Crevel, Archibald MacLeish, Marcel Proust, D.H. Lawrence, Henry James, Eugene Jolas, and Oscar Wilde. The books themselves are elegant yet understated and are marked by clean lines, sharp typeface, and fine inks and papers. Generally published in small editions (anywhere from 10 or 20 copies to several hundred copies), some works were published in both a "limited" edition (with more elaborate design and more expensive materials) and a "trade" edition, also limited in number but perhaps not signed by the author, or not numbered. Most were issued in slipcases.
The Crosbys life together in Paris was, by all accounts, hedonistic, indulgent, eccentric. It was not uncommon for them to host small dinner parties in their giant bed and for everyone to end up in their huge bathtub together, bottles of iced champagne near at hand. Harry was an enthusiastic user of hashish and opium (which he called "Black Idol"), and a profligate gambler. He loathed paper money and once paid D.H. Lawrence for a story in gold coins he had smuggled into France from the United States. He refused to wear a hat, often wore a black carnation in his lapel, and was known to lacquer his nails (fingers and toes). On a trip to North Africa in 1925, he had crosses tattooed on the soles of his feet. He loved books and had an extensive library, particularly following the death of the family friend Walter Berry who left his own library of 7000+ books to he & Caresse. However, at times feeling burdened by the excess of such holdings, he would amble through the used book stalls along the Seine and, when no one was looking, slip rare first editions of Rimbaud or Wilde into the stacks.
He also had numerous affairs and gave nicknames to the women in print - "The Lady of the Golden Horse", "The Fire Princess". It was a practice that was grudgingly accepted by Caresse and in time she would have her own lovers as well. He developed his own personal cosmology which revolved around the worship of the sun and he would spend hours sunbathing naked in the sun atop the turret at the estate they rented outside Paris. And finally, he extolled the idea of suicide, referring to it constantly in his diaries and even setting a date for a joint suicide with Caresse, October 31, 1942. He imagined his death occurring violently, an "explosion into sun". In 1929 he began flying lessons and dreamed of crashing his airplane, the bright rays of the sun full in his eyes as he plummeted to earth.
It was not Caresse, however, who would finally share Crosby's "sun death", but one of his mistresses, Josephine Rotch Bigelow, "the Fire Princess", and it would not come in the roaring descent of a plane but rather in the sharp crack of a pistol shot to the temple. The circumstances are disturbing and can be found in some detail in the one full-length biography of him, "Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby" by Geoffrey Wolff. The date was December 10, 1929.
Crosby's life and literary legacy defies easy dismissal, despite the unseemly nature of his suicide. The more one examines the details of his enthusiasms and the authenticity of his passions, the more one must devise a place for him in the literary and artistic canon of the 1920s. His most enduring contribution, most would say, was the Black Sun Press itself. With a list of authors representing the Crosbys' literary foresight, even the most ardent dismissers of Harry Crosby the man reluctantly grant credence to Harry Crosby the publisher. The books themselves continue to elicit praise for their fine craftsmanship and their elegant design, and, now exceedingly rare, are highly coveted and command significant prices on the rare book market.
Less agreement among literary historians can be found regarding his other major contribution, the remarkable journals he composed and published in three volumes, "Shadows of the Sun". The diaries date from January 1, 1922 to December 9, 1929 and are a compendium of Crosby's eccentricities, enthusiasms, obsessions, poetic inspirations, affairs, indulgences, friends, mystical ruminations, etc. In addition, they chart a course through that remarkable time and place, Paris in the 20s, and many recognizable artists & writers appear, from Joyce to Hemingway to Kay Boyle to Alistair. The journals are rich in his personal cosmology of sun worshiping and references to suicide abound.
The diaries have been criticized by some for what they lack: psychological profiling, tortured introspection, documentary-style recording of events, etc. But the criticism is founded on critics' expectations of what literary diaries SHOULD be. Read with an open mind, the diaries form an extraordinary narrative of vignettes and musings, written in a unique prose style that simulates Crosby's own personality. It is a style of clarity and energy, with long sentences stitched together by the use of "and" evoking an extended exhalation, a long clean sharp breath of words and imagery.
One final aspect of the Crosby life, one that has been academically & biographically overlooked, was his enthusiasm for photography. He was an eager experimental photographer and perceived the medium as a viable art form. One unsubstantiated rumor holds that Harry Crosby gave Henri Carter-Bresson his first camera. While such an assertion is unlikely, it is true, nonetheless, that Crosby knew the young Cartier-Bresson and that they spent some time together making photographs and talking photography at the Mill the Crosbys rented at Ermenonville, outside Paris. The visual record of Crosby's photographic output resides at the Morris Library, Southern Illinois University, in Carbondale, IL.
Anyone interested in learning more about Harry Crosby, Caresse Crosby, and the Black Sun Press is encouraged to consult Geoffrey Wolff's biography (noted above), or to seek out "Shadows of the Sun" (now out of print but once put out by Black Sparrow Press in the late 1970s).
So Daedulus designed his winding maze,
And as one entered it only a wary mind
Could find an exit to the world again
Such was the cleverness of that strange arbour
-Ovid, Metamorphoses (viii)
O rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.
There can't have been more than three or four people who have ever read "Finnegan's Wake" in its entirety from cover to cover, and it's likely only one of them even truly understood it. That would have to be its author, James Joyce.
The inimitable Dorothy Parker is often known more for her sharp wit and cynicism than for her actual work. As with many literary figures, Parker's life was filled with drama and personal darkness, which often came through in her writing.
Parker was born Dorothy Rothschild August 22, 1893 in West End, New Jersey (now known as Long Branch) to a Jewish father and Scottish mother, J. Henry and Eliza A. (Marston) Rothschild. Dorothy had three considerably older siblings and felt lonely as a child. While the Rothschilds were a relatively affluent family, Parker recalled an unhappy childhood in later interviews. This unhappiness, along with the early deaths of her mother (who died when Parker was not yet 5), stepmother, brother (who went down with the Titanic) and father, would construct the framework for her dark cynicism and tendency toward morbid thoughts.
Although her father was Jewish, Dorothy attended Catholic school until age 13, at which time she was enrolled in an exclusive private school where she discovered a love of language and literature as well as political issues and current events. She also began to write and recite poetry during this time, and was instructed on proper enunciation. In 1908 the founder of the school died, and Dorothy's formal education ended at age 14. A short time later Dorothy's father died, and she went to live in a boarding house in New York at 103rd and Broadway, working her way through the summer playing the piano at a dance school. It was during this time that she had her first poem ("Any Porch") published in Vanity Fair. She then secured a job writing captions for Vogue, where her wit began to peek through in captions such as "Brevity is the Soul of Lingerie, as the Petticoat said to the Chemise". Sensing that Dorothy required more meaty subject matter to match her incisive wit, the editors transferred her back to Vanity Fair. There she wrote a variety of features and was hired as a drama reviewer, replacing P.G. Wodehouse. Parker gained her initial recognition with her columns for the magazine as she continued writing her short stories and poems.
Dorothy Rothschild married Edwin Pond Parker in 1917. Eddie Parker was a Wall Street broker from a distinguished family and a recent enlistee into the US Army. Eventually her husband was called to duty overseas and she continued her life and career in New York. In 1919 she met up with two recent hires of Vanity Fair, Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood. She connected with the two editors instantly and had lunch with both almost daily. Parker found a mentor and friend in Benchley, who guided her by introducing her to the style of journalistic writing. These lunches with Benchley and Sherwood at the Algonquin Hotel became the basis for the now famous Algonquin Round Table.
Parker continued to write for Vanity Fair and became an integral member of the Round Table, trading barbs and intellectual criticisms with her contemporaries in the New York drama and journalism circles. The group engaged in spirited battles of wit and during a game of "I Can Give You a Sentence," Parker reportedly quipped. "You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think." As she honed her writing skills (and her humor) in her work as drama reviewer for Vanity Fair, her reviews became more acerbic and in 1920 she was fired from this position for such outspoken criticism. Parker went on to become the drama critic for Ainslee's magazine and began submitting freelance work to Life. By this time Parker had quite a widespread reputation and experienced a span of high productivity, writing essays and sketches for publications such as Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal. She continued to be a part of the New York social scene and found herself finding acquaintances and business connections with the likes of Lillian Gish and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. (Note: Parker would later select the works for Viking's Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald.) At the same time, Parker began to drink heavily and her marriage to Eddie Parker (who was also an alcoholic) deteriorated. She became depressed and found it difficult to write material that pleased her. In 1922 Dorothy Parker had an affair with the emerging playwright Charles MacArthur, who it turned out was having multiple affairs with other women. Parker found herself pregnant with MacArthur's child and subsequently had an abortion. Shortly after, she first attempted suicide by slitting her wrists. This pattern of depression, affairs, suicide attempts and recovery would continue throughout Parker's life, though she still maintained high popularity and a steady workload.
In 1926 Dorothy published a collection of her poems, Enough Rope which was well received by the public and critics alike. This collection included Resume, One Perfect Rose and the still-famous News Item in which Parker quipped, "Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses". In the next few years, she signed on to review books for The New Yorker, a position she attained through friends from the now disbanded Round Table. She signed her columns "Constant Reader" and demonstrated yet again her sweet delivery of biting sarcasm and incisive wit. In a review of A.A. Milne's The House at Pooh Corner Parker remarked "that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up."
It was also during this time period, as "Constant Reader", that many major events in Dorothy Parker's life and career took place. In 1927 Parker became more vocal in her socio-political opinions and she joined in the protest against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. (Parker was ultimately arrested and released). She eventually divorced Eddie Parker in 1928 and in 1929 Dorothy Parker won her first major literary award. Parker's short story "Big Blonde", which told the all too real tale of an aging party girl, won the O. Henry Memorial Prize for best short story.
Over the next decade Parker was busy writing for the stage and screen. She worked with MGM and Paramount as well as for film legends Cecil B. DeMille and Irving Thalberg. Parker wrote and collaborated on many screenplays, dialogues and even popular lyrics of that time. She maintained her journalistic connections by doing freelance work for past employers and other magazines such as Harper's Bazaar and Cosmopolitan. In 1933 she met Alan Campbell, a young Broadway actor who shared Dorothy's sense of humor and interests. Campbell, eleven years her junior, shared her Jewish/Scottish heritage and was an avid fan of Parker's writing. Despite rumors that Campbell was bisexual, the two were married the following year. The couple headed to Hollywood where they teamed up to write dialogue and storylines for various film scripts. The most popular was undoubtedly A Star Is Born and their screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award. While Parker contributed to countless stage and film productions, her only film appearance is in Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur, where she is featured in a short scene with Hitchcock.
Parker's political causes gradually became more a focus of her life. She declared she was a Communist and helped to found not only the Screen Actors Guild but also the Anti-Nazi League. The Spanish Civil war was one of her most passionate interests, she wrote and spoke out in support of the Spanish Loyalists.
In 1944, Viking published The Portable Dorothy Parker, which received mixed reviews. The book was a relative commercial success, but perhaps due to the world climate, Parker's work was more harshly judged by critics as being shallow and dull. In the years that followed, Parker struggled with depression and alcoholism. In 1947 Campbell and Parker divorced, but would later remarry. By 1949, Parker had been blacklisted for her political associations and eventually pleaded the First Amendment in hearings when she was asked if she were a Communist.
The events in both her personal and professional life began to take their toll on Parker, as she slipped further into depression. She found writing increasingly difficult and was rarely pleased with the projects she did complete. Work was scarce, but by the mid-fifties, things took a slight turn upwards as A Star Is Born was remade, starring Judy Garland. Overall, however, it seemed as if Dorothy Parker's days of being a famous and admired wit were over. She had published several collections of poetry and short stories, in addition to her work in magazines and in Hollywood, but none seemed to match the excitement and interest that Parker attracted in her first years in New York.
In later years, Parker returned to writing book reviews for Esquire, echoing her earlier work at Vanity Fair. She reviewed 208 books over the course of six years. Parker's reviews for Esquire were just as acerbic and clever as her previous columns as "Constant Reader" even if more curmudgeonly so. (It is interesting to note that in her review of Kerouac's The Subterraneans, Parker gives her opinion of the Beat Generation: "I think as perhaps you have discerned, that if Mr. Kerouac and his followers did not think of themselves as so glorious, as intellectual as all hell and very Christlike, I should not be in such a bad humor.")
After many years of moving back and forth from Hollywood to New York, Dorothy returned to the city of her youth a final time in 1963, and moved into the Hotel Volney. This same year she found Alan Campbell dead of an apparent overdose. She completed a few last projects, publishing her last work in November 1964. Bitter with age and mostly blind, she is often reported to have agreed with the assessment that she had outlived her usefulness. Most of her contemporaries and friends had died years earlier, and it is ironic that a woman so drawn to pessimism, who had attempted suicide at least four times, lived into her seventies.
Dorothy Parker died of a heart attack on June 7, 1967 in her room at the Hotel Volney. She willed her remaining estate to Martin Luther King Jr. and her cremated remains were eventually buried at the NAACP headquarters in Baltimore.
Fitzgerald went to Princeton in 1913. He was a success, befriending Edmund Wilson and moving with vigor in the literary circles of the university. After an unhappy love affair, during which he first realized his 'heightened sensitivity to the promises of life', Fitzgerald left Princeton, only to return in the next autumn. However, during his time away, many of his friends had left, and he quit to join the army.
Whilst stationed at a base in Alabama, he met Zelda Sayre, a beautiful socialite. They fell in love and Fitzgerald returned to New York to earn money so that they might marry. Fitzgerald gained a position at an advertising company, but this did not pay enough for the luxury-loving Zelda, and she called off their engagement. Fitzgerald, heavily depressed, left for St. Paul to carry on with the novel he had begun at Princeton. It was published as This Side of Paradise in 1920 and received immediate critical and public acclaim as the defining novel of its generation. F. Scott married Zelda with the proceeds.
F. Scott and Zelda began to live the high life that they had both always aspired to, driving cars into the fountain outside of the Plaza Hotel in New York and living off champagne. Fitzgerald's next novel, The Beautiful and the Damned (1922) already shows Fitzgerald's weariness of the duality of his existence - both profound writer and shallow socialite. Because of the jaded nature of the work, it was received less well than his debut.
The couple moved to France to escape their New York lifestyle. They mixed with such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. The Riviera was later to form the setting for Tender is the Night. It was whilst in France that Fitzgerald completed his greatest work, The Great Gatsby (1925). After this point, life for the Fitzgeralds went steadily but inexorably downhill. Scott began to drink more heavily, and Zelda, depressed by Scott's condition, lost her battle with depression and in 1930 and 1932 had mental breakdowns.
Tender is the Night was finished in 1934 and detailed the breakdown in relations between a psychiatrist and one of his patients. It is Fitzgerald's most world-weary novel. Bankrupted from his drinking and Zelda's sanatorium fees, Fitzgerald signed on to work for film company Metro Goldwyn Mayer, but was sacked because of his drinking. His last novel, The Last Tycoon, remained brilliant but unfinished when Fitzgerald's riotous life caught up with him. He died of a heart attack at the age of 44.