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Edward Dahlberg:
The Sorrows of Priapus

The Sorrows of Priapus , by Edward Dahlberg. New York: New Directions, 1957.

Manners are custom insofar as they represent continually and generally reaffirmed notions of value. We shoot to kill. We think to act effectively. The world is nine-tenths to be found in the way one moves through it, be that with resistance, longing, good nature, or whatever other possibilities of attitude exist.

For a writer this problem of "manners" converts, partly, to that of "style"—of which Stendhal said, it is the man. In America there are no very actually customary writers such as the English have. From Melville on, those men who have managed a formal distinction have done so with great labor, and Moby-Dick sweats a composite language of completely singular kind. It would seem that the American writer has constantly to refind, and, equally, to redefine wherein lies the value of the words he uses. Awkwardly, and persistently, this is what they seem to me to have done: Whitman, James—utterly unlike otherwise—and in our own time, Pound, Williams, Crane, Faulkner et al. To the European our "stylists" at times seem outrageously self-conscious; they do not at all write in a way that anyone might have. But I think that is, again, a reaffirming of this question of "manners" which has nagged at our dress, our food, our attitudes, ever since we first came to this country.

New Mexico Quarterly , Spring 1958.


The only way is the one way, and that way must be found by each of us, one by one. Perhaps we arrive at custom without any manners at all.

From the character of writing in his first book, Bottom Dogs , a novel published in the late twenties, to that now shown in The Sorrows of Priapus , Edward Dahlberg has come by no means unwittingly. Bottom Dogs is a flat, harsh work of realism; and for the last word, read the attitudes subsequent to Dreiser, the affective photographing of life sans relieving characteristics of sympathy. Why then this manner?

Our annals are weak, and we know not our rivers; we cannot understand today which is Father Ra, the Egyptian sun, until we gather up yesterday, who is Osiris. These rivers are immense legends and would cure us of many ills, did we know them, for all nature is our corpus, and once we relinquish a part of the earth, we lose, in some way, the use of our hands, feet, loins, and spirit.

This is not a realism of any kind familiar to critics, though I would argue its concerns are ultimately just so oriented. For those familiar with Bottom Dogs , the language has certainly a new character of reference and tone. Yet the strong monosyllabic structure holds. Sentences stay closely based, running to compounds in passages of argument and explanation; but even there they end with even, flat statement, unmistakable contentual emphases.

The Sorrows of Priapus argues two main images: (1) a natural world, dominant in animal and plant, as corrective to that "understood," intellectually "purposed," defiant of natural authorities; and (2) a source-world, of New World histories, and custom, origin, whereby to secure continuance and understanding of a more primal sort. The last sentence in the book is: "Be primordial or decay." Which injunction—both to continually begin, and to begin with what you began with—can give some sense of the manner in point of content. The beginning note reads:

This is fable and not natural history. The polestar of the writer is a legendary book, using geography, the beasts in the earth and in the sea, and voyages, as the source of maxims, mirth and an American myth . . .

The natural world is the "plural" world of the Greeks, and those around and before them. It is devoid of humanistic hierarchies; the trees are there as much as the man is, no matter he can chop them down. The second, the source-world, is that of the Maya, Aztec, ge-


ographers, the forms of land, and the rivers which mark them. In Dahlberg's use it breeds overtones, insistencies, of great strength:

Memory is our day of water tutored by want. La Salle sought virgin Tartars, descendants of Prometheus. He returned to Frontenac, but he had not found the Alpha of the river . . .

But what does that first sentence mean? It means that we remember what we have, because we do not have it. It means that fate does not necessarily argue accomplishments.

Water is death, but man must seek it. All our seeming wakings are the debris of evening waters; most dreams come from mean shallows, and are the digestive rot of secure bottoms; prophecies rise up from the marine depths ancient as the Flood. We are cartographers, unheeding the singing maggots, or bereft of the Angel.

Is it to gain an authority, the manners of authority, that Dahlberg has developed such a "style"? I argue that its purpose is as follows: to demand attention, for the content, the things with which it is concerned. The book is a compounded book, formed of many things, "many narratives have been employed . . ." The book is a legendary imagining —from imitari[*] to imitate, or some form lost "back there," in the same world; and derives its form from tales, and writings, of men who were there, and provides for us the image of a "new world" which has filtered down to us.

Finally, pedantically, manners comes from manus , hand; and custom, at least possibly, in part, from suescere: to have it for one's own. At least that can stand as an American reading of the work Edward Dahlberg has done.


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