An Evening With Langston Hughes
To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson,, the need to know who one is and as well where is a biological premise of all life forms. As long as poetry embraces that subject as a cognitive instrument of survival it can never be entirely irrelevant to its natural audience . We don't usually think of poetry as a manual to explain these enigmas but this is what many people from Homer to the Bible, from Milton to Goethe, have offered and found in poetry
. If poetry were merely abut “expressing one's feelings”as pedants teach in America or making beautiful sentences as one hears in MFA programs it would be as marginal as the institutions that might offer it in this country claim it is. In fact, the impetus to look for persuasive answers about who and where one is in America when poetry is shut down moves to areas where it can function. In the late 2oth century much of this attention went not to poetry but to rock music and watershed films ostensibly made for children like the Terminator, Matrix and Robocop series
One can make such a mediation central to all life impolite, criminal or blasphemous but one can't eliminate it altogether in human life or for that matter any life. Our machines don't care what or where they are They are exempt from such curiosity. As difficult as it might be for White middle class people to find such explanations of their place in the cosmos in poetry, prose or films, the problem is exacerbated among the Americans of color in the United States. That quest was at the nub of the life and work of L
Langston Hughes was actually half White, a quarter Jewish, from Kansas small town life yet nurtured by nurtured by White middle class education; these mischievous realities never distracted him from taking up his trek through mortality as a Black man who seemed iconically simpler than he was. Like many Americans who were identified by others as well as themselves as Black . He looked at times to Communism, at other moments to homosexuality worlds as places of refuge from national definitions that would have otherwise defined him as a sub-human fit to be a porter or cotton picker. He looked to extant Black culture selectively for some of his models.
In his middle age as national attitudes toward people of color changed in some parts of America notably some of its big northern cities, Hughes, once a prince of the 1920s New York Harlem Renaissance, a Stalinist fellow traveler, and so on was giving the demi-legitimacy of having a column in the then Liberal New York Post He did his Jesse Semple columns there much as Jimmy Cannon had run his Two Head Charley columns.
They were as beautifully and densely written as Cannon's artful pieces. Whether Hughes could ever be a journals in the manner of Damon Runyon or Ring Lardner as Cannon sometimes plainly ways was a mater of debate. Runyon himself was actually from Colorado but even in matter of function some pure acts of the imagination are more cr4dible than others.
I don't think Post readers reacted to Hughes Jesse Semple every-man stories as they did to Runyon, Cannon or Ring Lardner's urbane ironical prose because the Post audience had no access to the world Hughes was writing about. Besides that Hughes never had a popular tone and didn't write down. to suit anybody Moreover his Semple stories had a poetic density and irony that were more heavyweight than Post readers were accustomed to.
After he died he was an icon of poetic movements that attempted to give poets of color a place in the legitimate American cultural world. A few of his verses were taught in New York high schools along with the equally not quite pure African Nikki di Giovanni, one who supposedly legitimized Black women. .
Hughes' long and interesting life would have disposed anybody to be the ironic and whimsical personality he was in person as well as in print. He was certainly an intellectual heavyweight with a lot of talent, qualities that would have been difficult to embrace in America were one any color at all. Self invented, from Kansas he did not have a Southern accent, He spoke inn a kind of hipster New York Harlem style with a mellifluous baritone voice He was clearly of mixed race, light skinned, had straight hair, was clearly to anyone of color or lacking such severe epidermal tints a person of mixed race of some kind. His various peregrinations through the intellectual landscape led him to embrace an American high Black culture based on jazz, urbanity, and roguish circumstances in which the law, police and legitimate institutions were hardly one's allies.
Growing up a person of color in America might not be other than politically difficult as it was for Langston Hughes but it also might be the burden of anyone living in any implosive notion of who is legitimate. Such institutions are an enemy to anybody of any color or lack of it who has any kind of singularity. That might be a very ancillary concern of anyone who has to live in a world where one's institutions define one as a lout or candidate for lynching while one lacks the means to demonstrate one is otherwise. In this sense Langston Hughes speaks for everyone who has any kind of originality or singularity at all, even a trivial one . Since most or all of us are to some degree singular his journey through life if we are honest isn't at all alien to us.
A a Brooklyn boy I had plenty of access to writers in poetry and prose offering explanations of who and where I was. I also had the raucous oral poetry of the Brooklyn streets to nurture me me in the wisdom of the boulevards. The Brooklyn Public Library offered a fair run of all the poets and prose writers I could take in as long as they didn't write in Brooklyn like Henry Miller or suggest a carnal world existed beyond Brooklyn genteel toffs of a quality that would have were it legitimate made America a very different observable place than it was.
As a White man but a Jew I had a different ad more elusive kind of illegitimacy than Langston Hughes ever did. I could probably manage to be in a room of legitimate Anglo-Saxons for a half hour or even months before anyone noticed I wasn't quite White. Still I had a parallel development in my own pilgrimages to anyone who wasn't part of the racial elite of that day. None of us including Langston Hughes were alone in such inner treks. It was hard to be Irish, Italian, Greek, German or Polish. One of my friends of Syrian descent said he felt lucky to come from an ethnic group nobody had noticed enough to slander. The United States has always had such a narrow standard of acceptable legitimacy in its citizens that even beyond slavery and ordinary racism the harvests of such natural instability weren't all that different though White people are less likely to be lynched or killed by the police for no reason. . Only the details change.
Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out that as limited in rule as the government was in America, social relations at the middle ad bottom tended to be more autocratic than they were in despotisms. The tiers of legitimacy and illegitimacy are nurtured by a feeling at the bottom of the society that something among them might serve as some fulcrum of propriety. This might have been ameliorated or changed to a degree by a few generations of Americans who have watched the same television programs, They all embrace the same reality in a chair. The concrete and gobbling pap as a way of life tends to have that reductive quality.
Yet any reductive system is going to perceive any singularity in us as antagonistic to its cartoon purposes . If is power to enforce a simpler notion of oneself and one's environs is built on a fear of the diversity of Nature no civilization can ever eradicate, it also can never stop trying to reduce us all into formulaic integers whether it is in social relations, sex manuals or mathematics. . Given that it's not surprising that many Americans, poets or not poets, of any color have lived lives either as rogues or as shadowy moons orbiting around various causes of their time that promised one that one could be an equal citizen on an equal playing field. the genius of commerce at its best provides us all what we want. The celebrities of the Harlem Reinsurance found such refuges from the prevailing racism of their day was hardly a direction that didn't resonate in some way outside the world of people of color.
It's very easy in a sense to shut down poetry and prose that needs to be printed, in books, sitting perhaps in a library run by the genteel. That's probably why censors have concentrated on such easy oppression as closing down operas, theatre and various kinds of public assembly. Langston Hughes was an adaptive personality who wrote articles , memoirs, novels and plays as well as poetry He also was looking for a base for public in the sort of urban life one found in Harlem. For the same reasons he also was exploring the demi-monde worlds that were superficially egalitarian from Communism to homosexual hermitages.
It's the same labyrinth that had produced genius like Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. It offered a realm that didn't shut one down if one had talent and industry. One the other hand Hughes in promoting a world of Black folks living without self-hatred or shame didn't often nurture the idea that everyone of any color who had singularity were persecuted by the institution of that same realm who found them all antagonistic. T the observable reality was different of course. There was only one Langston Hughes.
In any case I never would have met Langston Hughes at all had one of my colleges on my Parks job, Arnie Rubin, asked me to take in a woman's basketball game in Lansing, Michigan in the Fall of 1958. Arnie's wife Betty Rubin, was premiere basketball player of her time. Arnie wanted my opinion of the quality of the play in that Lansing gym. He knew I was going to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and thought it might be easy for me to take a bus to Lansing and savor the quality of the play. I took that bus one weekend and took in the game, held I think in a high school gym. I noticed as I approached the building that Langston Hughes was reading in a public library across the street from the edifice. A
After the game was over I wandered into the library and found the snug room in the cellar where Hughes was reading. Then I had some conversation with him afterward. He had no airs, wasn't hard to get to know instantly. He had that quality one finds in many poets of being immediately available like a three year old child to the world. He was at once transparent and detached, as alone as my poets are, very much a casual ironist. He must have felt very much in a strange land in Lansing Michigan.
One should say something about how marginal the Arts always were in all of Michigan. The Midwest is a a survivalist culture that is more interested on how to extend their lives materially at all, not all that likely to resonate with reflection on any subject more than perpetuating their existence. One could hardly get a good meal in a restaurant in the Midwest in the 50s. There had been a good run of excellent Midwest poets from James Whitcomb Riley to Carl Sandburg, novelists from Sinclair Lewis to Ben Hecht, but few in the Midwest had ever heard of them.
College towns like Ann Arbor, Michigan were islands of provincial European culture with an Anglophilic focus at least partially because nobody including the local institutions had run a hue and cry to legitimize the native brand of poetry and prose, one that had attempted to define who and where anybody in the Midwest was or had been. There might be a resident virtue being a provincial that the Midwest of that time comfortably wallowed in. after all those who are knowledgeable and sane are responsible for their lives in a way everyone else is not. Educated fools at the University of Michigan studied poets who were haters of democracy an America like T.S Eliot and Ezra pound, hardly lovers of common people or the racial elements in our countrymen that were remote from a claim to privilege from having English ancestry,. None at Lansing or Michigan State University had such airs. Yet nobody in the Midwest made any effort to offer an alternative.
When I would sit with the two resident poets of Ann Arbor, Robert Bly and Donald hall in the Hopwood Room where Avery Hopwood, a once famous playwright had donated some money to establish a room filled with oak tables, chairs, varied quarterlies and dusty books on shelves an environment for creative writers to talk, Hall and Bly would state rather bitterly their outreach as harpers was limited to organs like the Beloit Poetry Journal. They were simply denied a public and put out to stud in a polite way. Robert was barely hanging onto a job at Ann Arbor as an adjunct. Donald hall had a lower echelon professor's job. This was the wonderful world Langston Hughes was excluded from.. Alan Seager, the one great prose writer the University of Michigan had on its staff would commute in from his home in the Detroit environs. He was very bellicose as Bly and Hall about how he was treated by this school. He made a point of talking like a truck driver.
Nobody of course could make a living by selling their verses to the Beloit Poetry Journal or any of the other quarterlies that were littered randomly on the tables of the Hopwood Room. I am suggesting politely that Langston Hughes didn't miss much by being ignored by the White world of culture. They all felt lucky they could pay their bills at their teaching jobs. They were hired to influence young people to be like themselves. The University of Michigan was the most elevated realm for the literary aristocracy in the whole state.
Lansing, and Michigan State University were a football spas that embodied the survivalist values of the area. They were regarded by educated Michigan citizens as cloddish. Langston Hughes never made it to even a one time appearance at the University of Michigan. We got Paul Tillich, Reinhold Neihbur, even a senile John Crowe Ransom. Anybody who had any sort of native taste for the culture of his own country unless he had buttressed himself with the image of Abraham Lincoln like Carl Sandburg was anathema to the provincial humanist honchos at the University of Michigan.
Of course England in real life was nothing like the view of it from Michigan. England after all had gone Socialist in 1945 and was in the 50s developing the kind of twist and shout values of their bottom culture that a few years later produced the Rolling Stone and the Beatles. Students at the University of Michigan read T.S. Eliot by day and danced to Ray Charles at night. Black culture could take refuge in the illegitimacy of nocturnal ritual.
I brought to Langston Hughes' reading my complete ignorance of any native poetry by any poet of any color. The University of Michigan never brought itself so low as to insist that anyone majoring in any of the humanities study even in one course the Arts of any kind of their own contrary. I suppose in this way it ws like those fabled universities of medieval Europe who only taught their youngsters in Latin and were unobtrusively unhappy that the Roman empire had ever fallen. It quietly portended as much as it could that it still existed.. Still there it was. If one wanted the green card that brought one a white collar desk job one had to go through four years of such indoctrination. It's no exaggeration to say that direction in American life produced the 60s. It's also true that the 60s swept away most of the Black high culture that Langston Hughes had resonated to. Enough people in America felt they needed a departure from being third rate fictional Englishmen of some imaginary Edwardian era to take up sex, drugs and rock and roll as a more legitimate alternative to such fantasy than it had ever have been in the 50s.
Well , enough of such dour rambling meditations about the egregious follies of the past
The autumn day in 1858 I got off the bus in the center of Lansing, a fairly small and clean town, walked up a hill in its northern area and saw on one side of the gradually elevated street the gym with the woman's basketball game I had been looking for, was one with clean air and blue skies. . On the other side a library was advising discreetly the Langston Hughes' reading, I paused and wondered whether I should attend it. I had nothing better to do. . The basketball game had attracted about 500 people . Maybe they had nothing better to do either. When I strolled into Langston Hughes' event the crowd was barely 25 people, all of them White and female, nearly all over fifty, looking as if they were part of the local Browning Society. I don't think that fazed Langston Hughes. Black poets and novelists are accustomed to having largely or competely Whtie audeinces. Often they were also female and ovoerripe. Poetry readings and perusing any novels at all aren't part of Black popular culture. I don't know how many Afro-Americans were living in Lansing; I suspect there weren’t too many of them.
Langston Hughes was a very good reader of his work. By then he stressed more lyric and personal poetry than his easterlies more social and political concerns. He read ad talked to me in an urbane New York Harlem accent that showed no sign he had been born and raised in Kansas. He was paunchy, wore glasses, had straight black air slicked and combed back onto his large square head,. he wore the standard suit jacket and different colored but ark pants of the Bohemian world of New York of the time .He was paunchy, wore glasses, had straight black hair slicked and combed back onto a large square head. He seemed genial, bemused, detached. He wore the standard suite jacket and formally dark pants of the Bohemian world of New York of that time. H certainly wasn't folksy or casual in his appearance and manners. He was very friendly, warm almost ironical about himself. He had traveled a long way from Harlem after all to be in Lansing, Michigan.
We talked afterward in a amiable way. I suppose he was happy to meet somebody from New York in the middle of Lansing. He was a very fluent talker. One had the detached sense from him as a loner that one gets from many poets. They spend a lot of time by themselves. They see the world as farther from them than most people who aren't Artists do. One felt that Hughes had entered a world log ago that was not his own one which he had mastered well enough but was not his natural place of residence. We talked mostly about music. I was familiar with the downtown bop scene. He was less knowledgeable about it.
He didn't live long enough to appreciate the irony of it but Langston Hughes was not anymore an obvious candidate to to one of the icons of legitimizing popular Black culture at all; he was simply if improbably a great poet and thinker whom others found attractive after his death to use for their different purposes when they were trying to construct a respectable past from its yesterdays for Black popular humanities in volume. Langston Hughes was made simple after death. . He had come up from difficult circumstances in Kansas and had met He wasn’t even quite Black in the way that darker skinned Afro-Americans were. He was more like the Creoles of mixed race one met among New Orleans musicians who had come up to New York later to play at Jimmy Ryan's on 52nd Street. He would have felt at home in Creole culture. Like all of usu he had had many personal losses but he had a kind of Creole geniality that kept his relations with the world exquisitely civil.
There seems to be some question as to whether Hughes was a homosexual at all. He knew many homosexuals and was a friend of Carl Van Vechten. Whatever the case Hughes was elegant but not a queen in his manners as James Baldwin was. One could always see James Baldwin with his entourage in the Family Circles of the Met Opera in the 50s, one of a crowd of such fancieiris of High Art. Hughes loved High Art but he was a loner who never attracted a crowd. Hughes was slightly fey in his manners; that could be interrupted as the kind of civility many Black people of the time affected to distinguish themselves from the populace. Hughes was a genuine aristocrat more than a lot of White Americans were. He came from a feudal culture of largely rural and semi-literate people who where, as Richard Wright put it, the peasants of the area. He certainly didn't identify with any of them. He had little interest in the Delta musical culture that extended itself into the dance halls of the time.
After his death Langston Hughes became to many people an icon of the sort that happens often in American literature is more honored and admired than read. If one were to make a historically accurate icon of Langston Hughes one might say he was part of the Afro-American class of brilliant people in all large groups who after the Civil war were able to meet any challenge whatsoever and become the geniuses they were. That is not particularity a quality one should associate with color or lack of it. One could after all say the same of Galileo or Beethoven. There are always some people in any large group they have resources within themselves that are stronger than the forces that aim to diminish or destroy them.
I would estimate that the sheer quantity of Black people of that type were larger than let us say the upward mobile fake aristocrats of London in 1800. We just don'[t hear about them. Such a notion accepts that Hughes came from: a rural world that tried to keep people of color servants if not quite slaves and yet ws valuable to squelch the top run of them from making their way to Chicago or New York.
Ironically the side of American Black culture that Hughes was trying to seperate himself from became a kind of global musical idiom through its travels to Chicago's South Side and then its adaption by the Rolling Stones and Beatles in England of its signature raw swagger. Hughes was part of another strain of Afro-American culture that produced poets, novelists, the Modern Jazz Quartet, bop and a social elegance all the more impeccable because it was invented as a remedy from coming from rude origins. Some of this development can be observed in Black geniuses of various kinds in the American mid twentieth century become idols of a simplicity posthumously because as the dead they possibly could be of use to suggest to children that there was a history of Black genius that had influenced the world with their singularity in volume. There was all of that but it was in music, not poetry. Black music made money Black poetry didn't .
The truth was that American oppression of Black people was to put it civilly, pretty severe. There were thousands of lynchings even during the 1930s. Only the very strong and brilliant among them made it through all the pits and lairs waiting for them. Hughes like the players of the 50s and 60s always wore formal attire. They all sported good suits, were dressed to suggest there was nothing about them that savored of the popular and the grim world of the street. It all buttressed along with their sometime allegiance to Communism a general desire they had quite understandably to be perceived as illegitimate mature contributors to the general American culture.
Rather curiously to the degree that vertically tiered world of racism and elitism existed at all it was based on an unstated Hellenistic sense of being more elevated than a life lived in purely concretely. When the time came in f America for the Hellenistic Gnosticism at least culturally to collapse dunner the assaults of the concrete populist siege not only in the West but all over the planet, it fell not because, as Hughes had hoped, the populace could be elevated or wanted to be, but because the elite could take up a capacious descent to live a concrete life in which all actions and thoughts from violence to sanctity had an equal value. If sometimes that made all actions and reflections equally trivial to its fashioners of action it was built into the laws of Nature that always look for an equalizer, sometimes in sex, sometimes in force, that such a rank resolution would happen one way or another.
My guess is that at some point the future is going to look at Langston Hughes quite differently than he is being viewed currently. In this system we're all either craven banalities who are leading lives we are told we should live rather than our own, freedom is selecting one ontological cliche over another one, or we are in some sense alienated from the inherent oppressive forces of organized human life. Langston Hughes might be for everybody.
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I met Maxwell Bodenheim briefly a few months before he was murdered in the winter of 1950s. He was the main talker in a Greenwich Village bar, the Kettle of Fish, a Sullivan Street tavern where Bodenheim he was known to spend his evenings after he was kicked out of San Remo in MacDougal Street.
I wanted to sample at first hand the demeanor of a poet whom I had heard much about as an adolescent from Ben Hecht’s books. I had read a few of his verse in Oscar Williams’ paperback anthology of American verse. I was impressed bay his exquisite talent for fashioning lapidary verse. I also had come across a pulp edition of Naked On Rollerskates which showed me he was an adept at producing gritty, funny and carnal prose. He had a talent for erotic innuendo that was amusing and notable.
It was a very cold night when I walked up Bleecker Street and took a left turn to approach the Kettle Of Fish in them idle of the block. I wasn’t even of drinking age but nobody paid much attention to such laws in that part of town. One could order a Horse’s Neck, a drink of ginger ale and lemon which looked like vaguely some kind of cocktail. I did.
Certainly bars in the Village were known for their talkers and roistering clientele of Bohemian drinkers. The White Horse was the most famous of them since Dylan Thomas imbibed there when he was in town. One should say New York was town of hard drinkers who looked forward to getting soused among convivial company while sharing acrid and wry comments about the general dilemmas of existence. The 50s was not a joyous time in New York or it its stews serving liquor. People seemed to live with a kind of presumptive pain needing aspirin whether or not they had money.
The Kettle Of Fish wasn’t that kind of bustling social bar. It was closer to the Bowery which inched up past Houston Street; it and bordered on the derelict population who resided at the Broadway Central Hotel. It was in the middle of a dark, dull stet that had no other spas of entertainment. It was a neighborhood Village bar for serious inebriates who lived only a few blocks from its environs. It didn’t cater to tourists or even anyone from the West Village or Midtown.
Turning the corner at Gertie’s Folk City and walking down toward this very local shabeen was all by itself an etude in moving from a very active set of gaudy blocks filled with hipsters and urban veterans of an imaginary Appalachia.
Bars in those days didn’t have television sets the main amusement was raucous talk. One went to a tavern for social conversation, not to watch sports events thousands of miles away in the company of other strangers. A bar was a place where a man could get away from his home life. It was pretty much a male realm. Women lone in bars were sluts there to be picked up. they weren’t in the joint at all for the clever talk.
Beneath its small neon marquee, the Kettle Of Fish itself was on the left of the chamber; it had some customers hunched over it anonymously. Bodenheim himself occupied one of the central tables in the place. He was standing most of the time. He had on his restless and dark face an unforgettable mark of rage that animates his oddly tanned and choleric visible epidermis in a very terrifying way. He was thin, bony-faced, had lank brown hair and scarlet abrasions on his face that came from slumbers on the New York streets. Most horribly as I saw him I had the feeling that his countenance had settled into a visage of scorn and dry rage as if it were a mask and not a human face at all.
His nugget-like brown eyes were very bright; they almost popped out of that lacerated and anguished domino; it was the most alive part of his image. He wore as the Village Bohemian did then a suit and even had a tie if they were showplaces ,stained and shabby. He probably had slept in them. There was an odd formality about him that was a counterpoint to his dyspeptic and raucous parlance. I can’t recall anything he said except he had a powerful and animated talent for casual invective.
To be honest Bodenheim seemed paranoid and crazy to me. Even at fifteen I found him repugnant as though he were infected with some loathsome disease. He certainly made one instantly alert. I can’t say he was notably an agreeable soul to have in the vicinity. He seemed to be caring his neck continually as he looked around blearily under the very bright lights in the bar for old and new enemies.
I felt for no reason at all afraid of him. He wasn’t a literary character in a Ben Hecht novel anymore but a real person who was clearly capable of I knew not what. Since Bodenheim was plainly taking in the whole of the room with his hawk-like mein I couldn’t be entirely invisible as I had wanted to be. I shuffled as unobtrusively as I could over to the bar and ordered a Horses Neck in a very quiet voice. I was close enough to the tables to listen to Bodenheim without being other than a bit of furniture in the garishly lit cavern.
I presume that Ruth Fagan, his lover, and Harold Weinberg who killed them both in a nearby flophouse were there but I don’t recall them. Bodenheim seemed to have a circle of light around him. He really had strong charisma.
Much of what Bodenheim said on that evening wouldn’t have seems strange to many Village bar roisterers in the 50s. One heard no end of dissent and nihilism from the grunting aficionados of these local taverns as much as one could savor the same thing in more august and measured style whereon e to read the poetry and magazine stories of the time. Depression was for that age among intellectuals the only intelligent way to feel about the living in this abysmal world. New York hipsters felt deeply, severely and terminally isolated.
Bodenheim was among these angry melancholics quite a celebrity if one in the bar knew anything about literature. He had been nationally famous for decades both as a poet an novelist. If anyone made fun of him it was the small beer-drinking neighborhood churls who didn’t fathom his raucous and sometimes intemperate orchestration of his own decline. Falling apart to intellectuals in those days was almost a conventional literary ritual.
I listen to this nocturnal performance of Bodenheim with some amusement but never went back to the Kettle of Fish for more of his sour and ironic rants. I was just a kid and certainly never had anything I might say to him. If anything I felt glad to get away from him as I would a suppurating and wounded invalid in a hospital.
A few months later When I read in a tabloid the details of Bodenheim’s demise in a double murder it occurred to me that somebody must have dispatched him finally for saying the wrong thing to somebody prone to violence. I was disappointed when it came out that their friend Harold Weinberg had killed both the poet and his girlfriend, Ruth Fagan, for personal reasons that had nothing to do with Bodenheim’s startling gift for invective. Since all three were Kettle Of Fish barflies it was even amusing that Weinberg, a former mental patient, had muttered as he was being taken away that he should be honored since he had justly disposed of two Communists.
When most people expire there rarely is among any posterity to reevaluate them with the different if equally arbitrary handles upon reality of another age. Bodenheim’s fiction and verse seem to have been written by two different authors. Myself, I felt Bodenheim was not only a fine poet but a very good novelist who was misread in deep ways by his own age as either an Exquisite or a Socials Realist. I think he was a wry and very amusing ironist. It’s what Ben Hecht saw in him.
All we have after the demise of any writer is what they have left us from the moments when they were writing words on a page. I think Bodenheim is much more interesting than many a novelist with a bigger reputation; he was gifted with vigor and a very amusing carnal wryness. If it often came out in life in more earnest invective we don’t have to worry about that side of Bodenheim anymore.
More than half a century later thinking about my image of Maxwell Bodenheim, I wonder about how much my perception took him in accurately as he was. I have a near photographic memory; I cant bring back that evening as easily as I can observe the present. I can inhabit the Kettle of Fish of 1950s like a ghost even though it is the bar that is the ghost, not me.
It’s not that I doubt that he was in his last years a carouser or drunk, or that Ben Hecht’s portraits of him in Count Bruga and A Child Of the Century weren’t a warts and all quattrocento portrait of Bodenheim. It’s that I don’t think anyone could be that much of a bibulous gadfly and Dionysian all the time and have written seven well crafted novels and thousands of very good poems. I’ve written novels myself; they take sitting power, lots of sobriety and endurance in a way few occupations do.
I think Bodenheim’s novels are really quite good; unfortunately he lived in a time where realists generally might be best selling writers as he was for a decade and still looked upon by the nosily high art folk in the magazines and colleges as sly and intelligent pornographer.
Had Bodenheim written the same very acridly funny novels in the late 50s or 60s he would have been seen as an unflinching deep thinker. In any case the physical act of producing them reveals he was alone as a monk, sober and hard working a good deal of the time. It was likely that much of his Bohemian life was a way of getting away from a much more austere and sober side of him. If one doesn’t believe that, let him explain how Bodenheim wrote even one novel.
These same critics also pooh-poohed Bodenheim as a poet with the same unfairness and probable envy. It’s simply not true that he was minor and merely derivative versemaker. He had a voice, and a curious counterpoint to him oscillating between the exquisite and the carnal which no professor was able to place in some view of American poetry as a realm with its roots in English life. It didn’t help his reputation of course in those same gaudily anti-Semitic circles that he was Jewish. Edna St. Vincent Millay, another talented Village reveler, got off a laded among these folk in the hermitage because they liked her middle name. They weren’t happy with his Assassin side either.
By the late 60s and 60s everybody was at least trying to write in a Japanese manner Bodenheim had flourished in when it was totally unfashionable. I can remember the racist scorn in my life times even in the early 50s about anything from Japan or china. Being Asian wasn’t okay in America anymore than Fu Manchu was until a few years after Maxwell Bodenheim died. Now it’s a banality.
Thirdly Bodenheim on the evidence had an ability to engage women that Ben Hecht leaves out of his portraiture. If three or four women killed themselves or mat with violence of some sort as after a liaison with him he must have had the rare ability arouse strong bonding with women. That isn’t a quality of people who are too destructive and self involved to care about anybody. Women do thrive on rapt attention. A man has to be a politician to have the same hungers. Bodenheim must have been able to care about women and listen very well to them. he certainly was amiable, lyrical and supportive, not abusive to him as he could be to men.
Of course that’s not as simple and attractive an image as a pencil sketch of a swaggering restorer like Paul Verlaine with his eye on the sublimity of the stars as Hecht describes him; it isn’t mutually exclusive with those qualities either. I think. My guess is that one day Bodenheim will find his readers. He really is a singular writer, not merely who looks up at the sable beauty of the cosmos from a noysome sewer but a scrambler, a lover and a richly garrulous wit.
He’s also not the first American writer who had a drinking problem or who died broke.