Samuel Fisher Dodson: Berryman’s Henry: Living at the Intersection of Need and Art

Dodson, Samuel Fisher (2006), Berryman’s Henry: living at the intersection of need and art, Rodopi
ISBN 9789042016897

For a poet as accomplished and unique and, ultimately, well-known as John Berryman, the field of scholarship focused on his work is remarkably small. Apart from a handful of monographs published in the 1970s and 1980s, Berryman’s work has largely been neglected although now and then a new work surfaced, such as Mariani’s biography Dream Song; The Life of John Berryman in 1990 and Recovering Berryman, edited by the invaluable Richard J. Kelly, in 1993. It is only during the past few years that we can witness something close to a renaissance of John Berryman. In short succession, books like After Thirty Falls: New Essays on John Berryman, edited by Philip Coleman and Philip McGowan, Philip Coleman’s own Berryman’s Fate (which I’ve not yet been able to procure) and Samuel Fisher Dodson’s Berryman’s Henry: Living at the Intersection of Need and Art were published and more are being prepared for publication. Much as I applaud this renascent interest in what must surely be one of the best and most significant American poets after the Second World War, the limited breadth of previous Berryman scholarship demands original readings, readings that draw more from Berryman’s own poetry and thinking than on previously published scholarship. Perceptive critics such as Tom Rogers, writing about “The Life of Berryman’s Christ” in After the Fall have achieved just that and a careful look at that collection and individual articles elsewhere reveals that there are more of those kinds of critics around. Sadly, Samuel Fisher Dodson isn’t one of them.

In his book, Dodson attempts to write a comprehensive study of the Dream Songs. Not a definitive study, mind you, but one which discusses the whole of the Dream Songs, pointing out how they cohere as a whole, what individual motifs are and how they resurface throughout the Songs. As far as I know, as a book-length study devoted exclusively to the Dream Songs, Dodson’s book is rare (the ubiquitous Gary Q. Arpin has written the only other one); I assume you would also be hard pressed to find another book (apart from Haffenden’s Commentary perhaps) that discusses the same amount of Songs. Clocking in at about 170 pages, it’s only to be expected that most of the songs mentioned only get a brief treatment, usually by having a verse or two quoted in defense or support of one of Dodson’s arguments. Dodson also provides rather sweeping accounts of the genre of the epic and the elegy, quoting copiously from a handful of books on the subject, such as Peter Sacks’ The English Elegy. He tries to make a case for Berryman as one of the greats by placing him in the tradition of Homer, Virgil and Dante, an attempt that, while interesting, even intriguing in concept, is executed in a confused and confusing manner. Dodson’s wild mixture of names, of major and minor characters, is less a sustained and reasoned argument and more a riff on books and ideas. It is quite fitting that this is part of the “Prologue” (Dodson’s book has both a “Preface” and a “Prologue”), since the flawed methodological thinking it betrays informs much of the rest of the book as well. Nevertheless, Dodson’s book is comprehensive and it is one of the most extensive studies of the Dream Songs, so far, even though I found it of little use as a work of Berryman scholarship.

Dodson’s book focuses on four major areas, which correspond to his four chapters: Berryman’s language, Berryman’s father, Berryman’s elegies and Berryman’s answers to the existential questions. Although this structure makes sense, Dodson makes very little use of the possibilities of building one chapter upon the results of another. Indeed, the reader is frequently led to wonder whether Dodson suffered a mild kind of amnesia while writing his study. To pick, almost at random, one example out of many: in the first of these chapters, he remarks upon Berryman’s use of the pronoun and discusses “the freedom [Berryman] discovered when he allowed his narrating persona to refer to himself in first, second and third person”, explaining lucidly enough how this mechanism works in Berryman’s poetry and to what ends Berryman uses it. Two chapters later, however, as he discusses different drafts of a dream song and notes that a first person reference has been replaced by a third person reference, these insights are all out the window. Instead, it now turned into a personal choice to better hide grief and feelings. At no point in the book are changes like this ever explained. A similarly baffling case is presented by Dodson’s shuffling about of Berryman and the persona (personas?) of his poems. At no point in the book does Dodson take some time to elaborate upon the relationship between Henry and Berryman; make no mistake, he frequently remarks upon it, but the conclusions he draws from these remarks vary from chapter to chapter. Dodson is content to let the rhetoric of his chapters form the methodology of his book, whereas I hoped to see the reverse taking place, especially with a complex poet like Berryman.

The complexity of Berryman’s work is nevertheless well served by that first chapter, which does a good job of explaining some important aspects of Berryman’s language and form. The fact that a closer look frequently reveals flaws, mistakes or superficial readings doesn’t change that. The chapter is most valuable in its discussion of the poetic form of the dream songs, providing a very good overview of the variations and the constants in Berryman’s use of the form he invented. In other areas, however, Dodson’s performance is less than satisfactory. In his discussion, for example, of Berryman’s use of blackface, Berryman’s source on blackface, Carl Wittke’s Tambo and Bones: A History of the American Minstrel Stage, from which one of the epigraphs to the dream songs is taken, is not mentioned (it doesn’t surface in the bibliography either); a theory, however, which isn’t uncontroversial, from what I gather, that reads minstrel shows as white parodies of black parodies of whites, which is a concept with interesting but difficult implications, this theory is nonchalantly introduced in a footnote, while the main body of the text is kept surprisingly free from any trace of other research. In writing about as brilliant a scholar as Berryman, who drew from multiple sources and who could be relied on to provide a complex and glitteringly ambiguous statement on many topics in his work, this is almost insulting. Dodson proceeds to elaborate on the way that the Dream Songs attack racism, but his failure to include research into blackface causes him to miss a few central points, two of which are these: One, Wittke’s book is very interesting. It’s not reprinted today because, from what I read of it so far, it’s faintly racist, Wittke writes approvingly of blackface, he invokes the burnt cork circle with longing. Since Dodson correctly points out Berryman’s concerns with racism, this is an interesting tangent worth pursuing. Another tangent can be derived from the confluence of Berryman’s use of blackface and of his complex evocation and identification with Jews (“The Imaginary Jew” is not just an early story of his, the phrase also resurfaces in the Dream Songs). Even a cursory research into blackface and minstrelsy would have uncovered the intriguing relationship between the Jewish experience in America and blackface (as discussed, for example, in Michael Rogin’s helpful study Blackface, White Noise). None of this is part of Berryman’s Henry and economy does not appear to be the probable reason for that absence.

That was slightly insulting to Berryman, since it ignored the intellectual wealth and strength of his mind, but a different aspect, Dodson’s discussion of Henry’s obsession with sex is problematic in a different way because it ignores a direct reference by Berryman himself. Now, I am not yet sure about the extent to which different parts of Berryman’s work can be connected and whether the author’s intention should carry any weight at all in a work of literary criticism, but since Dodson clearly has no comparable qualms, he must be judged by his own standards. Upon mentioning sexuality, Dodson tells us that Henry “uses sex as a way to feel both alive and needed” and maintains that “Henry’s clouded view that sex will reinforce his ego is revealed for its hollow premise”. I suggest that this reading tells us more about Dodson’s prejudice and boudoir morals than about Berryman’s attitude as expressed in his work. I’m referring, of course, to a rather famous passage in Berryman’s unfinished and only novel Recovery. Berryman describes the protagonist Alan Severance (who, according to Dodson, is Berryman’s “most thinly veiled” persona) as having been “a rigid Freudian for thirty years, with heavy admixture however from Reich’s early work”. It’s easy to see that a consideration of Reichian psychology would shed much light on the issue of sexuality, especially on the scholarly foundations of the aforementioned “hollow premise”. This is not to say that, overall, Dodson may not be right, but that claim, without recourse to Berryman’s sources and his frame of reference, is just utterly baseless. These two instances are not the only ones where Dodson treats Berryman like a hysterical woman instead of a serious scholar, but, apart from the last chapter, where religion gets the exact same treatment, these two are the most blatant and bothersome cases.

The next two chapters are less problematic overall but also less interesting. In the first of these chapters Samuel Fisher Dodson sketches Berryman’s relationship to his father, not failing to mention Paul Mariani’s Courtney Love-esque theory about John Smith’s apparent suicide. This biographical knowledge is then tied into a reading of the Dream Songs as a continuous conflict with paternal figures, a continuous attempt to provide an elegy to his father and the struggle with his own role as a father. While one may take issue with the nonchalant mixing of biographic and literary fact, doing so is pretty orthodox in the realm of Berryman scholarship, so Dodson is hardly to blame. In fact, this chapter is neatly done, with discussions of letters, older drafts of dreams songs. There is little here that exceeds previous scholarship but since the book attempts to provide an introduction of sorts to the Dream Songs, there doesn’t need to be. The only bigger flaw that becomes more obvious in a chapter that is less fraught with other problems, is Dodson’s use of sources, especially those sources that do not talk about Berryman or the Dream Songs. Throughout the book, Dodson quotes extensively from books on the form of the elegy, for example or on the predicament of modern American poetry, at the beginning of the fourth chapter he even spends half a page retelling Pär Lagerkvist’s Barnabas (which is not a book on Berryman nor does Berryman ever refer to it in any way), but he makes no actual use of these quotes. Frequently there are stunning insights or interesting ideas in these quotes but Dodson is apparently content handing them to us. It would make next to no difference to the rest of the text of you were to cut these quotes from it, so little use does Dodson make of it. Each and every one of these quotes feels like an afterthought, added moments before the deadline, not disturbing yet also not enhancing Dodson’s thinking.

What I said about the second chapter, “I repeat that & increase it” (to quote John Allyn) in respect to the third chapter, which is the most stringent, well-constructed and, at the same time, dull of Berryman’s Henry‘s chapters. Here Dodson carefully, slowly and scrupulously recounts Berryman’s elegies, showing how mourning and Berryman’s oft-quoted “epistemology of loss” have as much a part in their construction, as Berryman’s self-image as a writer, and Berryman’s grappling with death. Again, he doesn’t expand the field of Berryman scholarship in any significant way, and again, he is upstaged by the people he quotes, such as Albert Gelpi. Where Gelpi interestingly claims Berryman as a “Neoromantic” who believes “that the word can effect personal and social change” (quoted by Dodson!) Dodson seamlessly goes on to tell us that Berryman “used the elegy to isolate his grief in a world that wants him to move on”, a much less interesting, much less trenchant observation, an observation, indeed, that’s barely worth making, especially since it’s not the first time in the book he’s made a comparable claim. However, it is this chapter’s function to prepare the ground for the last chapter, which is about belief, doubt and death.

Dodson has correctly assumed that question of salvation, of belief, of religious doubt, questions that border on theodicy are most central to Berryman’s literary work. I share that opinion. Berryman’s poetry is deeply invested in theological thinking, as “The Search” from the collection Love & Fame demonstrates, which recounts a lifetime of research. Now, I am aware of the fact that Berryman’s religiosity has frequently been badly served by his scholars, even as insightful and valuable a critic as John Haffenden insists upon all religious reference to be largely personal, secular in nature, leaning towards disbelief; how skewed his opinion in this respect is becomes clear when he reads the Karl Heim reference in “The Search” as proof of Berryman’s need to disbelief, that Berryman “allows that Jesus is an enthusiast”, when that exact reference, if anything, is proof of the opposite, as Tom Rogers in his aforementioned essay pointed out. Dodson, like Haffenden and many others (including historians such as Jennifer Michael Hecht in her study Doubt: A History) confuses doubt with disbelief. Earlier I mentioned the disregard that some critics have for Berryman as a thinker; this disregard is most blatant in this area. Although numerous allusions to Pascal and Kierkegaard should clarify the role of doubt as religious doubt, as part of a religiously informed thinking and search that takes place within the bounds of Christian lore and thinking, although, as Haffenden, in his “Appendix 2” to his Commentary points out, there is a good deal of thinking about Buddhism (similarities with the work of American Catholic Thomas Merton, author of The Seven Storey Mountain are undeniable, though his Asian Journal was published a year after Berryman’s death) in the songs as well. Dodson is similarly wrong and unfaithful to Berryman when he maintains that “Henry rejects God because he sees suffering in the lives of so many”, instead of raising both the question of theodicy and drawing a connection to the Dream Songs’ epigraphs, among which, as he mentions himself, is a quote from the Lamentations. The role of the lamentations has, I think, been severely underestimated, mostly due to the disregard for the complexity of Berryman’s thinking. His reference to Celan in Dream gives his game away. Both the lamentations, as well as the Book of Job, which Haffenden correctly recognizes as another of the poems’ Biblical sources, are, in turn, connected to the death of Henry’s father, mourning and the genre of the elegy. It all ties in with the blackface and Jews and modern horrors as well and is, indeed, the best and most fruitful angle from which to do Berryman scholarship.

None of this, which is in plain sight, is taken up by Dodson, although he prepared the ground for it. One reason may simply be sloppy research. Not only does he not use a good deal of existing Berryman scholarship, he’s also not thorough in his own. This is the only explanation for his reading, in the conclusion of his book, of a stanza in the “11th Adress to the Lord” as containing “praise toward an early Christian Martyr, Germanicus and a loyal servant, ‘Polycarp (…)’”. In fact, the stanza contains a direct quote (minus an ‘and’) from Kirsopp Lake’s translation of the Martyrdom of Polycarp, who is a servant to the Lord. Now, Dodson’s formulation is ambiguous, it could refer to both, but it’s likely he did not understand or research the allusion. However, Dodson’s resistance here is understandable, if not excusable. He needs to create a secular Henry, a modern, disbelieving protagonist who wants to believe but can’t, in order to sustain his thesis which is that Henry is a modern Everyman. This is where he finds Berryman’s significance and it is not a bad place for his study to end up. This study that I have been so dissatisfied with might be palatable or even enjoyable to a novice of Berryman’s work. It’s not a bad work, as introduction; the task has been daunting enough and kudos to Dodson for taking it on. What is a problem is his riding all over the poet he’s so centrally concerned with. He is a thrifty scholar, giving Berryman only as much space as his skewered methodology allows him. He needs Berryman to be a sufferer, a pained secular Christ figure, almost, and the way he pounces on those instances where that aspect of Berryman/Henry becomes clearer is almost distasteful. John Berryman is an exquisite poet and a complex thinker, who thinks through his poetry, frequently, and he deserves a critic who reads him on his own terms, who takes him seriously.

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5 thoughts on “Samuel Fisher Dodson: Berryman’s Henry: Living at the Intersection of Need and Art

  1. Pingback: American Poetry - Page 2 - World Literature Forum

  2. Didn’t know what to expect, and was genuinely surprised at the length of the post on something that you seriously didn’t like! Damn, does this mean your review of Dan Brown is gonna be 10,000 words long?

  3. Pingback: Berryman, Unearthed « shigekuni.

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