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CHARLES REZNIKOFF: A POET’S PROSE

JIM BURNS

How many people in Britain will be familiar with Charles Reznikoff’s work? I’m thinking of people outside university American Studies departments. Or, perhaps, those not particularly interested in Jewish matters. I doubt that too many readers of poetry will have come across his books, few of which have had a wide circulation in the United Kingdom. And it may be that if his name is known it will be because of his links to the Objectivist poets (George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, and others) of the 1930s.

I’m not intending to offer an examination of Reznikoff’s poetry. There is a substantial body of it, and it includes many fine individual poems, though I’ve always thought of him writing what was essentially one long poem throughout his lifetime. The continuity is always evident. And there are two book-length works, Testimony and Holocaust, which can be seen as standing outside what might be called the general run of things because of their nature. Both are works described as “documentary poems”, and primarily created by extracting from court records and shaping actual accounts into a poetic form. There may be a danger of being accused of simply using chopped-up prose to establish the story, but if the poet is skilful enough it is possible to create an impression of some sort of cadence sufficiently sustained to maintain the impetus.

My own view is that they are powerful works. Testimony: The United States 1885-1915 is a history compiled from court sources, and Holocaust likewise used transcripts of the Nuremberg Trials and the Eichman trial to provide material for the poet to transform into a poem. It has to be said that these works have been criticised because they don’t do any more than repeat what is in the records. The poet doesn’t offer any commentary, nor add to the words to give them any extra resonance. They are just statements of what people had seen and experienced. An unsympathetic reader might say that they achieve their effect by playing on the emotions and disarming questions about their qualities as poetry. That may be the case. But I recall reading Holocaust years ago and finding its harrowing narrative completely compelling. There are times when facts speak for themselves and don’t need any additional commentary to make their impact on the reader. It’s enough to set down what happened. The personality of the writer is put aside, and he or she becomes only responsible for the selection and shaping of the basic material. That might indicate some partiality, but it’s not intrusive if handled properly.

What I want to do in this short essay is look at three prose works, two published in his lifetime, and one posthumously, that Reznikoff wrote in addition to his poetry. Two of them primarily deal with the lives of his parents in Russia and America, and his own younger days. He was born in in Brooklyn in 1894, his parents having emigrated from Russia some years before. Their story is told in Family Chronicle, which was, as far as I know, the one book by Reznikoff published in Britain. I reviewed it for Tribune in 1969, and I have a notion that it was one of the few notices, possibly even the only one, that it received. I do recall someone saying to me that the book had sold a limited number of copies.

Family Chronicle is divided into three sections, each one of which tells the story of the early lives of Sarah (mother), Nathan (father), and Charles (son) Reznikoff. There is inevitably a certain amount of overlap within the sections, though not to the point where the narrative becomes repetitious. Sarah’s and Nathan’s lives prior to arriving in America bring in different aspects of the experiences of Russian Jews in small-town and village communities. It was not an easy existence, and women were especially hard done by in terms of the opportunities available to them. Sarah grows up struggling to assert her individuality and obtain some sort of education. Convention works against her, with many of her fellow-Jews of the opinion that, “If women could read they would not do their household duties”. There is also built into her character a fear of being thought too radical and so inviting the attentions of the police: “You must be satisfied with things as they are. Work and be content”, she is told. When she sees some well-to-do people riding comfortable in carriages and reflects bitterly on their prosperity, while she works long hours and earns little, she is afraid to speak out: “She would be thought a Nihilist”.

She finds a way to get to America, where she meets Nathan who, like her, could see no future in the  world of Russian Jews, with its numerous social, economic, political and religious restrictions, imposed by both the Russian state and Jewish social hierarchy. And the ever-present threat of arranged marriages, pogroms, compulsory military service, and limitations on the capacity to widen one’s ambitions. He is not particularly radical in his views, and always plans to inch his way up the ladder of success, if in a modest fashion. Sarah, too, generally adopts a moderate approach to life in America. Looking for work she soon learns to say “yes” to everything. And gets an inkling of how things stand in general between employers and employees when a “union lady” says of a seemingly-liberal manager, “A boss is a boss. He’ll work himself up and be like the rest”.

There is an irony here because, in due course and after various mishaps, Sarah and Nathan, who have married, become employers and operate, for a time, a thriving millinery business. There are some fascinating passages on the manner in which businesses operated in New York in the late-1890s and early-1900s. It was, in many ways, a highly-competitive world, with Jews conniving to outdo each other and exploit their fellow-Jews, and working conditions in the sweat shops unhealthy and dangerous. It isn’t referred to by  Reznikoff, but the tragic Triangle Shirt Waist Company fire of 1911 when 146 young girls and women, mostly either Jewish or Italian, lost their lives, led to reforms in safety laws and an increase in membership of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) which fought to raise standards for workers in the needle trades.

I’m moving across Family Chronicle and By the Waters of Manhattan because parts of them essentially cover much of the same ground. The first section of By the Waters of Manhattan (originally published in 1930) was used by Reznikoff in only slightly-amended form to open Family Chronicle. It’s worth noting that Manhattan was highly-praised by Lionel Trilling who said that Reznikoff’s prose style had enabled him to write “the first story of Jewish immigrants that is not false. The book has charm and force which is marked by a soft liveliness and warmth”. Other critics have compared it to Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money, also published in 1930, and which had a definite socially-committed content and language. Gold, a stalwart of the American Communist Party, needed to make his book relevant to the growing radicalism of the 1930s, though it’s about an earlier period. For the record, his book was more critically and commercially successful than Reznikoff’s. 

What is additionally interesting in Manhattan is the portrait of the son of Sarah and Saul. Named Ezekiel, he’s averse to working in the traditional Jewish jobs which are mostly in and around the needle trades. He’s literary-minded – he remembers “No hope can have no fear” from James Thomson’s City of Dreadful Night when faced with the possibility of having a business proposition rejected – and is determined to open a bookshop in Greenwich Village. He does, though not without difficulty, and through it meets a lady called Jane Dauthendey who is only partly Jewish.

In this it’s possible to see a move towards the assimilation that marked the lives of later generations of intellectually-inclined Jews, and is accorded attention in a novel like Isaac Rosenfeld’s Passage From Home, where the gap that opened up between the older Yiddish-speaking parents and the newer Americanised sons is explored. Reznikoff’s novel doesn’t make a claim to have any kind of solution to the problems Ezekiel is likely to face either in his personal life or in relation to the bookshop. It has an open-ended final chapter that leaves matters hanging in the balance. Readers  wanting a story that would tidy everything up neatly at the end were destined to have experienced disappointment. They were more likely to have been satisfied with Gold’s conclusion in Jews Without Money: “A man on an East Side soapbox , one night, proclaimed that, out of the despair, melancholy and helpless rage of millions, a world movement had been born to abolish poverty”. 

The third book by Reznikoff is The Manner Music, a novel that turned up in his papers after his death in 1976. It moves away from the pre-1917 world of the sweat shops and other aspects of Jewish life in New York. With this In mind it may be useful to sketch in a few details about Reznikoff’s life. He attended the University of Missouri for a short time, but left to work as a salesman for his parent’s millinery business. He was undecided about what to do next, but “settled on the study of law……and was admitted to the bar in 1916 at the age of twenty-two”. He practised only briefly, and instead used his knowledge to work for Corpus Juris, “an encyclopaedia of law for lawyers”.

He also, at various times, functioned “as a salesman, an editor of a small magazine, a translator, and - for a few years in Hollywood – as a general factotum to a friend of his, Albert Lewin, who was a successful producer at Paramount Pictures”. Lewin is probably now best known for a series of imaginative films he directed in the 1940s and early-1950s, including The Moon and Sixpence, The Picture of Dorian Gray,The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. He appears in Reznikoff’s novel, The Manner Music, as Paul Pasha.

The story centres around Jude Dalsimer, a musician and budding composer, but is told through the words of an old friend who encounters him twenty years after they had grown up together and shared a passion for poetry. The friend now works as a salesman, touring the country, and gradually pieces together what has happened to Dalsimer’s hopes and ambitions. As he says, “Jude Dalsimer may have been a great musician. I can’t say for I know little about music. I know the great names, of course, that everybody knows and listen to their music with respect and sometimes with pleasure. But Jude Dalsimer’s music just puzzled me”.

The problem is that it seems to puzzle everyone. His employment with Paul Pasha in Hollywood comes to an end (Reznikoff clearly used some of his own experiences to give substance to this section) and he moves back to New York. Whatever he does in terms of compositions which are intended to have a degree of popular appeal turn out to be failures. And he’s unable to hold down jobs which might at least provide some sort of financial support. It’s a difficult time to be looking for any kind of work, even the most menial. As the narrator says: “in New York itself I had never seen the Depression so bad, seen so many beggars, so many worried and hurried. Conditions were much worse than I had imagined”. Jude’s mental state declines, and he’s found wandering in Central Park and committed to Bellevue Hospital. The narrator meets Jude’s wife and asks her about his music. It turns out that Jude has burnt everything.

I’ve briefly outlined the basic structure of The Manner Music, and there is more to it than I’ve indicated. What is particularly significant is the way in which a variety of encounters by both Jude and the narrator are inserted into the narrative to illustrate the temper of the times. References to Huey Long, populist Governor of Louisiana, and the rabble-rousing Catholic priest Father Coughlin, crop up. Anti-Jewish sentiments are seen and heard. Refugees from the rise of fascism in Europe arrive in the city. A man passes through a subway train selling a communist newspaper.

And there are fragments of overheard conversation which don’t appear to have any direct reference to the lives of either Jude or the narrator, but provide a background to their actions. I was put in mind of Joe Gould’s legendary Oral History of Our Time, a work which may or may not have existed. It was Gould’s contention that real history could be constructed from mundane details, everyday exchanges (think of Yeats and “The history of a nation is not in/parliaments and battle field,/but in what people say to each other”), and other forms of seemingly-irrelevant detail. It was believed that he’d secreted dozens of notebooks in places around New York, but they’ve never been discovered. And possibly never existed in bulk form, though some fragments were published in magazines in the 1920s.

The three prose works by Charles Reznikoff that I’ve looked at seem to me to be worth remembering. Family Chronicle and By the Waters of Manhattan have great value as documents of Jewish life in Russia and New York in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. But they have more than that in terms of their clarity and what Lionel Trilling referred to as the “charm and force” of the writing. As for The Manner Music, its qualities as a broad account of an artistic temperament collapsing in the face of everyday adversities seem to me impressive. It does leave the reader wondering whether someone like Jude was ever likely to succeed, and that only he could ever hear the music he wanted to compose. Would his world, and his mind, have fallen apart whatever social and economic circumstances he encountered?

BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

Family Chronicle by Charles Reznikoff. Norton Bailey, London, 1969.

By the Waters of Manhattan by Charles Reznikoff. Markus Wiener Publishing, New York, 1986. Originally published in 1930.

The Manner Music by Charles Reznikoff. Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1977.

Poems 1918-1975: The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff. Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1996.

Holocaust by Charles Reznikoff. Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1977.

Testimony: The United States 1885-1915 by Charles Reznikoff. Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 2015.

Jews Without Money by Michael Gold. Carroll & Graf, New York, 1984. Originally published in 1930.

Passage From Home by Isaac Rosenfeld. Markus Wiener Publishing, New York, 1988. Originally published in 1946.

World of our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to American and the Life They Found and Made by Irving Howe. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1976.

Joe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore. Vintage Books, New York, 2017.  

The Objectivists edited by Andrew Mcallister. Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle, 1996.

Botticelli in Hollywood: The Films of Albert Lewin by Susan Felleman. Twayne Publishers, New York, 1997.