IN LOVE, IN SORROW
The Complete Correspondence of
Charles Olson and Edward Dahlberg
Edited with an Introduction by Paul Christensen
Paragon House. 231 pp. $22.95
BY ENFORCING his dictum, "The test of a man's character is his ability to remain my friend," Edward Dahlberg, prominent gadfly and curmudgeon of American literature, ended his days in virtual isolation, after writing one unquestioned masterpiece (the autobiographical Because I Was Flesh), two significant works of literary criticism, and a dozen other books ranging from fascinating to bathetic to bizarre. Striking examples of his genius for mutilating friendships are available in Paul Christensen's edition of the correspondence between this "savage poet of sentence design" (Irving Rosenthal's epithet) and Charles Olson, father of Projectivist verse and the rector of Black Mountain College in its twilight years. Olson, 10 years younger, was a sensitive, moody 6-foot-8-inch-tall leviathan (enthralled, not without irony, by Herman Melville), while Dahlberg was building his credentials as a literary Jeremiah, and was happy to find a disciple and sounding-board. The two inspired and berated each other in a volatile relationship that began in 1936 and lasted 20 years.
With both convinced of the bankruptcy of American literature, Olson persuaded Dahlberg that America's link to the English classics lay in the writings of Melville: since Olson had examined annotations about Shakespeare in Melville's manuscripts, Dahlberg could not deny the evidence. The trouble was (to paraphrase writer Paul Metcalf, Olson's friend and Melville's great-grandson), that both Olson and Dahlberg wanted to be Ishmael, the sapient yet doomed orphan-hero of Moby-Dick. The two ultimately dissonant personalities cast verbal thunderbolts as the paleoconservative Dahlberg (recovering from his humiliation as a Marxist-primitive-realist) whets his sword against Olson, "exuberantly displaying without comment the incipient forms of his wild Projectivist verse." Christensen's introduction helps us through the bumpy course of the letters, as Dahlberg works to get Olson published, even while they traveled in opposite directions stylistically, Dahlberg evolving his trademark "baroque" style (heavy with inkhorn terms, and high-falutin' learned allusions), while Olson began to abandon " 'closed' or a priori structures," hoping "to demonstrate the experiential primacy of imaginative works."
Olson, unfortunately, showed consummate bad judgment in seeking a father figure in a man who, after a vicious betrayal by his own illegitimate father, spent much of his life, in writing fiction and in seven marriages, reliving his crippling relationship with his mother. By itself, the psychopathology in the Dahlberg/Olson friendship is enough to maintain the reader's fascination, but Christensen wisely de-emphasizes clinical aspects in order to evaluate the literary issues surrounding these two bizarre American writers. The literary "debts" of the one to the other become a recurrent sore point in the correspondence. While Olson earnestly insisted that Dahlberg had brought him to the fundamental realization that "one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception" (see his essay on "Projective Verse"), Dahlberg acknowledged Olson for leading him to Melville. Dahlberg's recognition came later in life (he was a "posthumous celebrity" by his own account), while Olson evolved as a hero of the avant-garde until his early death from cancer in 1970.
Though this is a fascinating story, the wisdom of presenting it in this form is questionable. Christensen delivers his message in a tidy 25-page essay, after which he sets forth unevenly edited texts of whole and fragmentary letters he has uncovered. However, in 1982, John Cech scrupulously documented the Dahlberg-Olson relationship in his study, Charles Olson and Edward Dahlberg: A Portrait of a Friendship, which includes abundant excerpts from the letters, including at least seven absent from this edition, which can hardly claim, then, to be "complete." Complaints about this omission were aired when Christensen published his work earlier in Sulfur magazine. ANOTHER serious problem is that Dahlberg's writing needed as much editing as that of Thomas Wolfe, and, like Wolfe, he was wise enough to allow revisions by sympathetic editors. (In Dahlberg's case, these included James Laughlin, Stanley Burnshaw, Rlene Dahlberg and Edwin Seaver). The nuggets in his raw letters can be overshadowed by the spasmodic overwriting and grating self-pity for which Dahlberg is easily satirized. Early on, Olson flatters Dahlberg by aping his style and the letters acquire a similar stiffness that is both eerie and flat. Later, as Olson emerges from his shadow, it seems as if Dahlberg is writing to a fencepost. The former acolyte replies to increasingly incensed and stodgy reprimands with gonzo puns and "caitiff jargon," which Dahlberg detests (he has no idea, or desires not to know, that Olson is "experimenting"). In The Maximus Poems, this style rings prophetic; here, unbalanced by his anger at Dahlberg, Olson, like his mentor, alternates between kowtowing and blaming, preening and breastbeating, all to childish effect. Gaps in information are wide, references are obscure, and even fans of the two writers will need a Webster's Unabridged close at hand.
Part of the problem may be that Paragon House has not yet found its editorial sea-legs. A property of the Rev. Sung Myung Moon's Unification Church, Paragon has been willing to take risks unusual in the industry today. (A wonderful offering in May was Guilty of Everything, the autobiography of Herbert Huncke, Father of the Beat Generation and the "oldest living junkie in New York"). Closer screening will be required for redundancy and inaccuracy, however, if the press hopes to tap the tiny market for high-end scholarship. Charles L. DeFanti is a professor of English at Kean College and author of a biography of Edward Dahlberg.