Edward Dahlberg is an unparalleled stylist among twentieth century writers. The chief reason to read his 1941 book of essays on literature, Can These Bones Live, or any Dahlberg book, is to see this style on display. He writes with the muscular certitude of Sir Thomas Browne or Herman Melville, casting off aphorisms as easily a normal writer does commas. Randomly flipping through pages, I come across gems such as these:
“Good and evil are inseparable; beast and man are sewn together with threads of heaven.”
“Our artists are American Ishmaels doomed to be cut away from the human vineyard. “Call me Ishmael,” prophetically utters Herman Melville in the first line of Moby Dick. We are brute, giant pathfinders, without a remembrance of the past or tradition, discoverers of brand-new nostrums for sex, life, science, art and religion.”
“There are planetary reaches and saturnine chasms in man unknown to the hedonist and the naturalistic Preacher of Pity. Spikenard, cypress and the myrrh of Lebanon dilate the nostrils and free the aching pores: sated, the Epicure sheds tears but has no ashy, cindery grief.”
“Thoreau’s life is a half parable: to be pure he cast out the devils, but entered the swine.”
Writers of this kind of lean, unflinching prose are a nearly extinct breed, a breed that has been dying since the late 19th century. Today, the dominant style is either conversational and informal, or else abstract and scientific. The former involves much hand-wringing, geniality, and the sense of “taking the reader on a journey,” while the latter abounds in abstruse jargon and passive constructions. We all could learn a few lessons from Dahlberg.
As to the content, Dahlberg takes on the realm of literature, focusing especially on America. He continually returns to Herman Melville, Sherwood Anderson, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, Edgar Allen Poe, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Don Quixote, William Shakespeare, and Jesus Christ. He also makes forays into social realism, singling out Randolph Bourne for praise. Dahlberg’s positions on these writers are contradictory, overblown, and frequently insidious. For example, his equation of Christ and Quixote in “The Cross and the Windmills” is one of the most spiritually vile anti-Christian polemics dressed in the garments of piety. Dahlberg is also a well-known misanthrope, hating woman for her nature, and man for his enthrallment to woman.
Nonetheless, good literary criticism is made of such villainy. Strong statements made in unrelentingly powerful prose – such is the stuff of which legends are made.