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Alms for Oblivion

Alms for Oblivion

with a foreword by Herbert Read
Copyright Date: 1964
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 180
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  • Book Info
    Alms for Oblivion
    Book Description:

    This volume makes available in book form a collection of seventeen essays by Edward Dahlberg, who has been called one of the great unrecognized writers of our time. Some of the selections have never been published before; others have appeared previously only in magazines of limited circulation. There is a foreword by Sir Herbert Read. The individual essays are on a wide range of subjects - literary, historical, philosophical, personal. The longest is a discussion of Herman Melville’s work entitled “Moby-Dick - A Hamitic Dream.” The fate of authors at the hands of reviewers is the subject of the essay called “For Sale.” In “No Love and No Thanks” the author draws a characterization of our time. He presents a critique of the poet William Carlos Williams in “Word-Sick and Place-Crazy,” and a discussion of F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Peopleless Fiction.” In “My Friends Stieglitz, Anderson, and Dreiser” he discusses not only Alfred Stieglitz, Sherwood Anderson, and Theodore Dreiser but other personalities as well. He also writes of Sherwood Anderson in “Midwestern Fable.” In “Cutpurse Philosopher” the subject is William James. “Florentine Codex” is about the conquistadores. Other essays in the collection are the following: “Randolph Bourne,” “Our Vanishing Cooperative Colonies,” “Chivers and Poe,” “Domestic Manners of Americans,” “Robert McAlmon: A Memoir,” “The Expatriates: A Memoir,” and an essay on Allen Tate.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-6202-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)

    I REMEMBER that early in my career as a writer an unknown well-wisher wrote and begged me to give up my critical activities and confine myself to the kind of literature for which my gifts were better suited, namely, imaginative literature. I was told I had an eye for concrete particulars and little ability in philosophical generalizations. I was reminded of this admonition when I read the first pages of Edward Dahlberg’s essay on Allen Tate, for there he describes, if only obliquely, his own practice in criticism. It appears that he too has no love and perhaps little gift...

  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-2)
    (pp. 3-15)

    I HAVE NOT KNOWN TWELVE GOOD MEN – plain, honest Galilean fishermen of the soul – but I have been the familiar of twelve talented ones. Alfred Stieglitz, to whom seven or eight volumes of fine writing were dedicated, had genius, but he was not a good man. We are so double in our values that it is necessary to say this. An artist should have some kind of single personality and there ought to be a oneness about a book or a deed; but faces, writing, and acts are no longer very reliable.

    Stieglitz had the most gifted countenance I have...

    (pp. 16-19)

    THE INK PUNDITS OF OUR COLLEGES and the grammar boys of the magazines do not have the animal health to understand or even to smell the American midwest. Anderson’s life is a fable of the old rural, wooden midwest, land of fine trees, sunflowers, and highgrass towns and streets. Anderson’s father had a harness shop in Camden, Ohio, and when the family fell into inconvenient, but not immodest, want, his mother took in washing. Poverty was not sick and dirty and brutal, but was still warm, like noondays, and there was energy in the washtub, the porch steps, and the...

    (pp. 20-27)

    BOOKS ARE WILD BEASTS or brackish water or dead ravines. It is hard now to find a book that one can depend upon, and in which branch is bough, bird is bird, and apple talks like apple. Books are more mixed and dirty than ever, and though there is rot and swinepen in every poet, the old Levitical differences between fungused places and unclean froggish things and the arbute and gillyflower are gone. There is so much lion and jackal mischief in our morals, and man at best, as Hamlet says, is indifferent honest, that the poet is no longer...

    (pp. 28-44)

    MANY PEOPLE ASSUME that one age is not worse than another, and that men are not more rigidly ruled by conscience in one generation than in succeeding ones. We have been witnessing a terrible decline in government, scruples, morals, and education. Who can compare the present men in Washington with Jefferson at Monticello, going about in a soiled dressing gown, and in rubbishy house-slippers, maintaining his residence only because his creditors were kind? What rough frontier Seneca can take the place alongside Andrew Jackson who returned to the Hermitage in Tennessee with ninety dollars in his wallet? God bless a...

    (pp. 45-50)

    I FIRST HAD THE GOOD LUCK to exchange words with Robert McAlmon in Paris at the Coupole. He was a tubercular bantam with sharp, querulous hair and a thin, exasperated mouth. Everything about him was scant except his prodigal heart and his vocabulary of four-letter words. He was the most obscene man I had ever met. Like every expatriate he had a furtive, underground passion for America, which he would pause to anathematize while mentioning such writers as William Carlos Williams, Lautréamont, or George Antheil. He was the epitome of the self-appointed exile who hated the antiseptic, epicene American town...

    (pp. 51-59)

    THE EXPATRIATE AMERICAN was a heroic Thersites who had come to Paris to be obscene. He detested beauty, a good prose style, sense, health, and learning, and suffered as much from happiness as he did from boredom. He fled from America because he hated middle-class virtue, nice principles, and success. Nothing in our times has become so unattractive as virtue. I would rather take hellebore than spend a conversation with a good, little man.

    Nature makes us miserable in everything we do, and the American author in Europe felt doomed because he had so little preparation for his task. He...

  10. FOR SALE
    (pp. 60-67)

    GENIUS, LIKE TRUTH, has a shabby and neglected mien. Our poets – the sea-vagabond Melville, the impecunious Quaker Whitman, Thoreau the pencil-maker, Anderson the Ohio town newsboy, and Dreiser the poor Hoosier – came from seedy families. Their books have the character of the oceanic fallow, of sumac, or a wooden river hamlet. The raiment of a book is poverty and the winds. A poet comes to the city to get his thoughts published, but there is always in him some wild Platte, Dakota, or Rocky Mountain peak to resist the simpering vices of trade and deceit. Writing is conscience, scruple, and...

    (pp. 68-72)

    WHAT IS MOST APPALLING in an F. Scott Fitzgerald book is that it ispeoplelessfiction: Fitzgerald writes about spectral, muscled suits; dresses, hats, and sleeves which have some sort of vague, libidinous throb. These are plainly the products of sickness. A farm road, a glebe, a plain, and an elm breed charity and pity, which the fiction of groundless city surfeit and nausea lacks. There is nothing left in the urban, peopleless novel but the national smirk, and that is what the billboard eye of the oculist inThe Great Gatsbyreally is. It is the closest that Fitzgerald...

    (pp. 73-76)

    THE SMALL LIFE OF POE by Dr. Thomas Holley Chivers was perhaps finished in 1857, a year before Chivers’ death, and has been mummified in the Huntington Library until recently. As an ode in prose to Poe, it is false, orphic sublimity, but the homage is tender and just and comes from a quick, interior nature alien to gross matter. Despite the biographies of Poe, and his current revivification, the author of “The Raven” still stands as a great, ruined obelisk in American literature. His genius is a monumental waste; his marvelous tales, gothic cabala, are transhuman and inscrutable.


    (pp. 77-78)

    WILLIAM JAMES WAS AN ACADEMIC PARADOX; he was a sparse man and a lifelong neurasthenic who was also the Chautauquan evangelist of health and energy. He had a summer home in New Hampshire with fourteen doors, all opening outward, as he said. James hated the desiccated pedagogue upon whom he has had such an enormous Influence. For all of his plain extroversions he was, perhaps, asub rosacutpurse philosopher who not only took from Charles Peirce the word “pragmatism,” but Peirce’s doctrine. Peirce, unable to get a university appointment because he was supposed to be a rough and thorny...

    (pp. 79-86)

    THERE IS NOTHING like Tolstoi’s essays and letters on a human commonwealth save Randolph Bourne’sUntimely Papers.There is less cult and American geography in Bourne, the hunchback from Bloomfield, New Jersey, than in any other of our writers. He died at thirty-two in 1918, and did not have time to feel the vast, wild weight of American place. Underneath our genius, which is not really political, is the crust of cult, for we turn every doctrine into a Bible, sex, or geographic screed. What Herzen, the nineteenth-century Russian social apostle, said is true of the United States: “Revolution just...

    (pp. 87-90)

    MRS. TROLLOPE, A LADY OF BREEDING from the London drawing rooms, arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi River on Christmas Day in 1827. She saw many primeval, forest settlements, bleak merchant towns, and industrial gray cities in the new republican Utopia. Her book on theDomestic Manners of the Americansmade her the object of scandalous newspaper caricatures, and tavern and curbstone guffaws. She had a clear, acerb mind and her only sin was that she had told the truth, and what is worse, what she wrote is still just.

    The difference between Mrs. Trollope’sDomestic Mannersand Twain’s...

    (pp. 91-103)

    SUNSET HAS FALLEN upon American letters, though it is less than a hundred years ago that we had a meadowy, daybreak verse and essay. It looked as though we were on the verge of some unusual sunrise; the land was pasture; Thoreau’sWaldenwas a woodland lesson and prayer in how to live without wasting the human spirit. Whitman was like a large, sacred heifer, lowing over the heads of the communal sons and daughters of these states. We were an agrarian people, smelling of the harvest and orchard and of good, savory cattle stalled and colonized together. Now we...

    (pp. 104-107)

    FATHER BERNARDINO DE SAHAGUN, a Franciscan monk of Mexico, started hisFlorentine Codex,a work on the Aztecs, in Tepeopulco in the sixteenth century. He had attended the famous university at Salamanca where the modern, passionate visionary and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno taught in our own time. Sahagun’s Mexican history, in twelve books, consisted chiefly of hieroglyphs drawn by the Indians, and their interpretation in Aztec. The original Mexican codex was trilingual: Nahuatl (Mexican), Spanish, and Latin. The famous Fanny Bandelier translation is from the Spanish of Bustamante, but theFlorentine Codexis a literal translation from the Aztec, containing...

    (pp. 108-114)

    THE MATERIALS OF THE INDIAN MANUSCRIPTS show remarkable culture; the Aztecan papyrus was of the fabric of the agave whose maguey leaves were employed as thatch for the roofs of the houses and as indigenous food and drink. The Mexican idolaters built Tenochtitlan, meaning cactus on a stone, which is modern Mexico City. Their primitive language, their gods, and their raiment reveal an understanding often far in advance of our own civilization; it is told that the Indians Columbus took as vassals and friends had devils embroidered on their dresses which bore the likeness of owls, and that they called...

    (pp. 115-142)

    NOBODY CAN DECEIVE A MAN so well as he can gull himself, and I do not blame anybody else for my own folly. My thought is to spare others, although I know that there is hardly a man on earth who will take advice unless he is certain that it is positively bad. As for myself, I am not homesick for the fusty books I worshiped as a youth; I am no victim of that most scurrile of all ruses, nostalgia. Let me guard what is sacred, and raze to the ground the stupid, indolent Thebaid of my past because...

    (pp. 143-166)

    “IS LITERARY CRITICISM POSSIBLE?” Allen Tate queries. There is a noble despair in this question and those who refuse to ask it are pragmatic “porkers in tears.” That we do not know what we think we know is no quibble; it is the tragedy of man endeavoring to attain knowledge that is beyond the powers of his feeble intellect. Let me then, as I commence this essay upon Allen Tate, admit that I am a Sisyphean failure, for whatever words I may roll up the Cordilleras will fall down on my head again.

    Tate has elected to examine theBiographia...