What kind of people were they, our parents I mean; what sort of lives
did they lead when not busily tending to the needs of oh-so important
little you and me? The contrast between one reality and another
generates dramatic tension, the stuff from which books are made,
ranging from “as told to…“ celebrity ghost jobs to the happy
discovery of an outstanding writer who just happens to have a parent
worth reading about. The example that pops immediately into memory is
Yael Dayan’s memoir of her father, the one-eyed Israeli general. A
parent-child relationship may not be the only short-cut to biographical
insight, but it sure doesn’t hurt: Samuel Johnson is obviously a
surrogate father to Boswell; I think the two of them even comment on it
at some point.
These familial biographies range from the payback of the “Mommie, Dearest” variety, where the author does a Menendez brothers job on his or her progenitors, to sappy home movies in grainy 8mm. Somewhere in between comes the account written to “put the record straight”. One of the oddest I’ve read is Anthony West’s life of his father, H.G. Wells, which is really a point-by-point refutation of everything that his mother, Rebecca West, said about him. (I find the son’s version convincing. Rebecca West lived long enough to ensure that her residual vindictiveness would be imprinted in the academic canon by wholesaling it to American graduate students thrilled to death at being taken into the confidence of one of feminism’s founding mothers.)
Tracking down and resolving a posthumous enigma is another common off-the-shelf premise for parental portraits, though a bit done to death. Who was that girl in the frock and ringlets and why did Dad keep her picture stashed away all these years? Off we go on a quest in which the biographical narrative emerges as a function of the unraveling riddle, which is likely a secret, or even a surprise, only to the subject’s children.
There is, however, one book I know of that breaks with all of these conventions in making the leap from biography shelf to Literature with a capital L. No quest involved, no revelations, no case to be made for the prosecution or the defense. A book in which a souped-up, custom-louvered version of the English language is needed to carry the high-voltage charge that comes from the fact that Edward Dahlberg was his mother’s son, which is the only thing, really, that Because I Was Flesh wants to tell us.
The book is currently out of print, though I suspect it may not be for much longer since novelist Jonathan Lethem has written it up in the trenchant lead essay of his new collection “The Disappointment Artist”. In the late 1960s Lethem’s Aunt Billie wrote a series of letters detailing the abuse that she and her fellow students were subjected to in the Kansas City creative writing class that provided the ogre-ish Dahlberg with more of a living than he ever made from literature. In his essay, Lethem predicts that Dahlberg will someday be remembered on the strength of “the lasting beauty of one towering book.” That’s about right, I think.
He opens grandly:
Kansas City is a vast inland city, and its marvelous river, the Missouri, heats the senses; the maple, alder, elm and cherry trees with which the town abounds are songs of desire, and only the almonds of ancient Palestine can awaken the hungry pores more deeply. It is a wild, concupiscent city, and few there are troubled about death until they age or are sick. Only those who know the ocean ponder death as they behold it, whereas those bound closely to the ground are more sensual.The pipe organ from which Dahlberg coaxes his high Baroque prose swells into the opening cadences introducing Lizzie, a woman utterly luckless in a life spent trimming men’s hair and massaging scalps in a business that could have been lucrative, though it never would have been considered respectable by polite KC society – nor did it pretend to be. Lizzie sidelined as a de facto madam and abortionist for her stable of lady barbers, who did not see themselves as whoring for their codger customers so much as offering them an upfront sample of what they would be delighted to deliver to anyone improvident enough to ask for their hand in marriage. And if not, breach of promise suits were pretty common in that day and age.
Lizzie was just as luckless in her affections. Her penchant for worthless rats did not exhaust itself when the future author’s possible father decamped with their savings, the first of many chasers of chippies and four-flushers to whom she gave her heart. Fruit peddlers found she would much rather believe their solemn pledges than finger the squishy produce. Her girls knew she knew they were stealing from the cash register. Lizzie was Jewish, no small deal for that time and place, and kept her telltale nose behind a barbering chair set far from the door.
Lizzie was Edward Dahlberg’s mother:
She did not know what to do with her life or with her feelings. She toiled because she was afraid to starve and because she had nothing else to do, but her will was too sick to love the child of her lust. He was so skinny and yellow that his nose seemed to cover his face; and all the obduracy that was in her short, round neck had passes over to him…All that Lizzie could understand is that the child of her profligacy vomited and would grow up ugly….Did Dahlberg love her back? Could he spare her a crumb of affection? Respect? Pity? Apart from mortification over her lowlife barber business and despair over her recurrent folly in men, he never lets on what his own feelings were. He would probably have answered that his schtick is literature, not Mother’s Day cards, and he would be right.
When the son is eleven, he gets packed off to an orphanage in Cleveland at the insistence of his mother’s latest dirtbag paramour. The six years he languished there battling the Irish Micks from Kinsman Road and the slums of Superior Avenue and eating green-pea hash on Thursdays are compressed into a single narrative stream, like Thoreau did in Walden, and recounted without wringing the reader’s hanky for him. When Dahlberg returns home,. the character who until now has been written about in the third person as “Lizzie’s boy” “the adhesive child” or just “the boy” has become a person, has become an “I”.
In the harrowing bits about the Jewish Orphan Asylum the florid prose interspersed with Biblical tropes that Dahlberg slathers throughout the book is mostly kept to a trickle When it does leak out, it can spoil a beautifully wrought paragraph like this:
They were a separate race of stunted children who were clad in famine. Swollen heads lay on top of ashy uniformed orphans. Some had oval or oblong skulls, others gigantic watery occiputs that resembled the Cynecephali described by Hesiod and Pliny. The palsied and the lame were cured in the pool of Bethesda, but who had enough human spittle to heal the orphans’ sore eyes and granulated lids? How little love, or hot sperm, had gone into the making of their gray-maimed bodies.It would have meant a great deal to me if he could have done without the Cynecephali, but what can you expect from a writer who throws around words like “limbeck” and “lorn” to keep us on our toes. And how much of the erudition is for effect when he talks about a “kabbalistical staircase” and later a “kabbalistical black suit”? In what, if any, sense can they be said to be so? Still and all, I’ll go to bat for any writer who apostrophizes the city of Los Angeles as “the sewer of Sodom”. By the way, the last of Lizzie’s great deceivers, Tobias Emeritch, is — go ahead, sue me, kill me, I’ll say it anyway — as good of a Dickensian walk-on as Dickens ever came up with.
But as far as I’m concerned all stylistic affectation is forgiven and forgotten when you run into a passage that just makes your hair stand on end, like this paragraph about Lizzie sinking into old age:
Despite her resolution to remain alive, every new day was a terror to her. By two o’clock in the afternoon she had gained part of her battle against the morning; then she would snatch the remnant of a petticoat from the floor of the clothes closet and wipe the scum of lotion from her cheeks, If she happened to step upon an old corset cover she would pick it up and clean her shoes with it. She could not part with anything; she hoarded buttons, a piece of chemise, a smutty chamois or powder puff, a hair switch, half a razorstrop. They represented her life, which was over.Unevenness of accomplishment is the least of the sins that Dahlberg may be expunging in whichever afterworld he has been confined since 1977. Lethem got his Dahlberg horror stories from his aunt; I got a couple of good ones from people in Mallorca, where he left a blaze of stink in the early 1960s. All accounts depict a ferocious hater of the human race who despised its attempts at writing literature, a man seven-times married who couldn’t stop ranting against the tyranny of sexuality that enslaved him. Insofar as they were both brilliant misfits and incredible pains in the ass, Edward Dahlberg is a lot like Frederick Rolfe a.k.a. Baron Corvo, who was granted posthumous absolution in a book that is still the gold standard for modern biography. If Dahlberg ever gets the biography he deserves, it will also be on the strength of a single book.
Outing Dad and Other Sins of the Familial Biography
Happily Never After, or, The Rubbish Tower