Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Made of Paper: Edward Dahlberg

Edward Dahlberg was a difficult character, a perennial misfit and a touchy misanthrope. Born out of wedlock to an itinerant lady barber, Dahlberg’s mother left him in an orphanage when he was 12.  He left this hard life for another one five years later, drifting around the western part of the U.S. before going into the army at the end of World War I. Back in America again, he enrolled first in U.C. Berkeley and then took a degree in philosophy from Columbia University. His extensive reading and his university studies bought him into a world apart from that of his hardscrabble childhood and youth.
Having no vocation but literature, Dahlberg made his way to Paris in the 1920s where he became part of a generation of expatriate writers. He joined the Communist Party, making his mark as a “proletarian” writer in Bottom Dogs, a novel based on the orphanage and his early bumming around his native country. Even then he was no party line conformist.  D.H. Lawrence, a writer whose distinctive brand of politics aligned with no socialist agenda, wrote the foreword to this novel. Lawrence also recognized Dahlberg’s legendary pessimism, reportedly exclaiming, “For God’s sake, Dahlberg, cheer up!”
The conventions and shibboleth of Communism accorded ill with Dahlberg’s independent personality and his growing intellectual elitism. By 1936, perhaps disgusted by Stalin’s purges as well as by his rejection of ideological regimentation, Dahlberg  denounced Communism as “necrophilic” and left the Party. He began to develop a unique style of writing, an elaborate and carefully wrought epigrammatic prose.
I found Dahlberg’s two masterpieces when I was rambling through the shelves of the old San Francisco public library, attempting to make up for the deficiencies of a late-twentieth century university education.  The essays he first published under the title Do These Bones Live? (later re-titled Can These Bones Live?) scrutinized European and American writers from the perspective of a despairing Hebrew prophet.  His autobiography, Because I Was Flesh, unsparingly examined his tawdry upbringing and his crotchety nature, but it managed to transmute these into visionary writing and to find in literature a justification for his existence. Dahlberg was certainly no saint, but Because I Was Flesh is one of the great works of confessional literature, a descendant of the Confessions of St. Augustine.

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