Up

MAXWELL BODENHEIM

Jim Burns

   

Milton Klonsky once recalled being in a bar in Greenwich Village in the early 1950s and suddenly hearing the owner and many of the drinkers shouting and jeering at someone. When Klonsky turned to see what was happening he noticed "a tall, glum, scraggly, hawknosed, long-haired, itchy-looking, no doubt pickled, fuming and oozing, Bowery-type specimen" standing near the door. People were calling to him to read a poem or even make up one on the spot. The man turned and glared at them and wrapped his "old dung-coloured horse blanket of a patched overcoat" around him in a way that reminded Klonsky of Marc Antony drawing his toga to him as he faced the Roman mob. And then he said "Pimps! Patriots ! Racetrack touts !" in a contemptuous voice, and swept out of the bar. It was, as Klonsky said, the kind of exit that stays in the mind, and it gave the victim of the sneers of the crowd a kind of nobility. 

The man was Maxwell Bodenheim, near the end of his life and reduced to living on the streets and peddling his poems around bars but still able to rally himself sufficiently and turn on his tormentors when he knew that he was being ridiculed to his face. He figures in histories of bohemianism in America, usually because of his years as an alcoholic drifter, but little attention is given to the work he produced before his fall from grace. Between 1918 and 1934 he wrote thirteen novels, eight books of poetry, and appeared in many of the leading magazines, from The New Yorker to the New Masses. That he was a forgotten figure, in literary terms, by 1950 says a lot about the transience of literary reputations. And I always think of Bodenheim whenever I see some new writer being acclaimed, and wonder what will happen to him or her in a few years. Of course, we live in different times and today's failed or forgotten writers might still pick up some work teaching creative writing. And perhaps even qualify for a grant if they go around pubs, selling their poems. Maxwell Bodenheim was made of sterner stuff. 

Bodenheim was born in 1892 in a small town in Mississipi and moved with his family to Chicago in 1900. He was dismissed from high school when he was sixteen and left home to join the army. Various accounts indicate that he was not an ideal soldier, with one suggesting that he deserted and another that ha hit an officer who mocked him because he was a Jew. What does seem certain is that Bodenheim spent a year in a military prison. When he was released he wandered around and mixed with migrant workers, labour organisers, petty criminals, and other footloose types. In 1912 he arrived back in Chicago, did various odd jobs, and began to establish himself as a poet. His work was published in Poetry and The Little Review, he knew writers like Ben Hecht and Sherwood Anderson, and he was an active participant in the upsurge of artistic activity which was known as the Chicago Renaissance. But Bodenheim was never one for fitting in with groups and he soon fell out with various people in Chicago. He already had a reputation as a hard drinker with a penchant for outrageous behaviour with some of his escapades offending the influential. When Ben Hecht asked him why he didn't temper his opinions so that he wouldn't always upset people, Bodenheim replied, "I was born without your talent for bootlicking," and carried on as before. Hecht later wrote: "Despite the continuing, unvarying defeats of his life, it is this strut I remember as Bogie's signature. Ignored, slapped around, reduced to beggary, Bodenheim's mocking grin remained flying in his private war like a tattered flag. God knows what he was mocking. Possibly, mankind." When Bodenheim got bored with Chicago he moved to New York, arriving on the poet and editor Alfred Kreymborgs doorstep with one arm in a sling and the other holding a small beg that contained all his possessions. Kreymborg soon noticed that Bodenheim had a talent for self-destructive behaviour, almost as if he felt that things would probably go wrong anyway so why not help them along. In Kreymborg's words, Bodenheim "betrayed the impression that he was about as happy as he could allow himself to be without neglecting to keep an eye on the disillusion certain to follow." Kreymborg's colourful autobiography, Troubador, speaks warmly of Bodenheim but admits that he wasn't the easiest person in the world to get along with. 

Bodenheim's first book, Minna and myself, had been published in 1918 to a certain amount of critical praise. He wasn't a major poet, nor an innovator in any way, but his early poems, written in free verse, were tidy and direct and not without charm:

An old silver church in a forest

Is my love for you.

The trees around it

Are words that I have stolen from your heart.

An old silver bell, the lest smile you gave,

Hangs at the top of my church.

It rings only when you come through the forest

And stand beside it.

And then it has no need for ringing,

For your voice takes its place.

Other collections appeared in 1920 and 1922, and in 1923 Bodenheim's name was on two new books of poems. His first novel was also published in 1923, to be followed by twelve more, and further volumes of poetry came out in 1927, 1928, and 1930. And he contributed articles and reviews to leading magazines. Whatever else can be said of Bodenhelm, he wasn't lazy and seems to have had an amazing amount of energy despite a life-style that was often chaotic. He drank and travelled (to Europe in 1920 and 1931 and to Hollywood, where he tried to interest the studios in buying his novels for screen adaptation) and he had numerous liaisons with women, some of which brought him a notoriety he could never live down. 

In 1925 his novel, Replenishing Jessica, was the subject of an obscenity trial. Reading the book now it is difficult to understand why the melodramatic story of a sexually active woman caused so much fuss. The writing certainly isn't pornographic, but perhaps the subject-matter itself attracted the attention of the censors? Women, after all, were not supposed to be hunters in the sexual game. Whatever the reason for the prosecution, the jury came up with a 'Not Guilty' verdict, sales of the book rose, and Bodenheim got his name in the papers. Young women flocked around him and, in 1928, one of them attempted to commit suicide because she thought the poet had spurned her. The newspapers highlighted the story, and soon another woman contacted Bodenheim, had an affair with him, and also decided that suicide was the answer when he lost interest in her. Sadly she succeeded and her body was fished out of the East River. In the meantime, the first woman was pursuing Bodenheim again and was, in turn, pursued by her family and a gang of reporters. These events not only made headlines in New York, but spread across America and were even reported in British and French papers. Things got worse when a third woman killed herself in a Greenwich Village room and was found with Bodenheim's portrait in her hand. All this had the makings of a black comedy and probably reinforced his conviction that you could always count on life to add to your troubles. And it did, again. Bodenheim had been involved with a woman who he seems to have genuinely liked and he wrote some passionate love letters to her. She was killed in a major subway disaster in New York, and the letters, which she always carried with her, were found scattered across the tracks by some of the news-hungry journalists who were there. 

Bodenheim carried on writing, and his novel, Georgie May, published in 1928, was a stark portrayal of an ill-fated prostitute. It was, like all his novels, variable in its literary qualities, with vivid passages which effectively captured the atmosphere of the streets alongside others which turgidly philosophized about the lives of the lower-depths types the book describes. At his best, Bodenheim could use a stream-of-consciousness technique to create a mood: 

"Turned out of her room, just no place to go, because she had depended on Dopey Watkins to pay her the twenty dollars which she had loaned him a month back - oh what did a coke-sniffer know about being decent, what did anyone know about being decent, and doggone if they weren't making flies bigger this year, and wouldn't it be heaven if life was just one, never-stopping night with Sunnybrook and Three Feathers whisky free of charge, and plenty of daddy-loving ragtime music and turkey-trots and bunny-hugs - Bill McCoy was a musical boy on the steamer Alabama steaming down to Yokohama. ..Oh-h-h everybody's doing it, doing what? the Turkey-trot!... Oh, you beautiful doll, you great big, beautiful do-oll, I am simply wild about you, I could never live without you... .Ah, just to cake-walk along like the niggers did, kicking her legs high up In the air, and straining her shoulders back, and lifting her chin... Pickled and soused and telling everything to go to hell....just mad and happy . ...never cain't stop till I die. ...God how hot it was." 

Elsewhere in Georgie May, there are comments on political matters, as when one of the toughs tells how he makes some money "Around election time he strung with the Democrats because they paid the most money - beating up negroes to keep them away from the polls was a lucrative and enjoyable job." And information about prison conditions, and the way in which the warders and some favoured prisoners exploit the rest of the inmates. 

Another Bodenheim novel, Ninth Avenue, touches on Greenwich Village types and deals with the relationship between a white woman and a black man. it opens with an effective description of an urban landscape -"When the light of morning touches the buildings and pavements of a city, it always seems to borrow their hardness and to lose in some degree its quality of flowing detachment" - and it has been called an almost classic example of the American city novel." Bodenhelm often thought up eye-catching titles, and Naked on Roller Skates went to Harlem for its story of Jazz Age thrill-seekers on a downward spiral. By the early 1930s, though, he was, like many American writers, taking note of the economic situation as the Great Depression caused mass unemployment and hardship. Bodenheim's 1932 novel, Run, Sheep, Run, covered both and also had scenes of a demonstration that is brutally broken up by the police. in the end it is suggested that communism might offer a worthwhile alternative to the failings of the capitalist system. The same message eventually comes through in Bodenheim's last novel, Slow Vision, published in 1934, and offering a bleak picture of the period and the way in which people are slow to move beyond established systems. The hero, Ray, sits on a park bench, hungry, unemployed, and wondering how he will survive. A young, black man offers him a copy of The Daily Worker but Ray rejects It, saying that he knows there are problems but "I believe in my country and I believe in democracy just the same. We're improving slowly, all the time, and we'll keep on improving, too, if we get more sense in our heads and elect better men to office." He's all for reform, but "no dirty Bolshevism for us: If the Russians want it, O.K., but it's got no place over here." 

Ray's views slowly change as circumstances force him to look more closely at what is happening, and he realizes that people like him have to "stick together and fight with our own kind. We'll never get anything otherwise, you can bet on that." And he adds, "There's no use blinking it in the face - about the only damn time they ever pay any real attention to a worker is when they're holding an election, or when they're asking him to pick up a gun and get killed in a war. I don't know whether Communism's the solution or not, but believe me, I'm going to read up on it and find out what it's all about, before I'm through." 

Bodenheim's poems also displayed his enthusiasm for leftwing politics, one of the most significant being Revolutionary Girl, which appeared in the Communist magazine, New Masses, and was reprinted in the influential anthology, Proletarian Literature in the United States, published in 1935. In this poem, written in short-lined free verse and having a declamatory effect, the poet acknowledges that the girl would like to be self-indulgent and that she longs "for crumpled 'kerchiefs, notes/Of nonsense understood/Only by a lover," but he calls on her to apply her energies to the struggle "against the ruling swine." interestingly, Bodenheim also used traditional forms when writing political poetry. A late collection, Lights in the Valley, published in 1942, had poems with titles like Home Relief Bureau, Answering a Trade Union man, and Southern Labour Organiser, all of them using formal rhyming patterns. An idea of the politics and of the style and tone of the poems in this book is given by the following, simply called Sonnet:

The element of beauty does not thrive

Within the acts of those who mouth it most.

Beauty is unobtrusively alive,

Self-hidden, fresh and not a tired boast.

It cleaves the lower planes of life - the top,

In probing music, form, has only dreamed

The brief, heroic time when burdens drop

And words are irresistibly redeemed.

Coal miner, Anthony Rubetti broke

His back to check a sheriff's rifle, saw

A son from death, and he will not invoke

Quick-flowered poems, lines above his grave,

But in remembered force, beyond mere pen,

He will remain alive in other men.

It was around the mid-1930s that Bodenheim seems to have really started to go to pieces, though Jerry Mangione recalled that when the poet was employed on the Federal Writers' Project (a job creation scheme which was part of Roosevelt's New Deal programme) he carried out his work conscientiously and efficiently and was, in fact, given a supervisory post. Mangione thought that the regular work and the responsibility helped Bodenheim cut down on his drinking. Other accounts, however, say that he was already selling his poems in the street. As for his political commitment, it's likely that he was a member of the American Communist Party for a short time, though as Ben Hecht saw it, "Bogie was the sort of Communist who would have been booted out of Moscow, overnight." Hecht pictured Bodenheim as a defiant street orator who was regularly beaten up by the police, but said, "He not only angered the police but disturbed, equally, the Communist Party leaders of New York." His communist links were enough to get him fired from the Federal Writers' Project in 1940.

Bodenheim's publishing record almost stopped after 1934. the small collection of poems, Lights in the Valley, appeared in 1942, he was in an anthology of anti-fascist poetry published in 1944, and his Selected Poems came out in 1948. But it was In the late-1940s that a new generation of Greenwich Village bohemians came to know him as a drink-sodden wreck wandering the streets and calling in the bars to sell poems and sometimes copies of his old books. Den Wakefield, drinking In the San Remo, was confronted by "a wild man who looked like a bum, waving sheets of paper at us with poems he had written. He wanted to sell them, for either a dime or a quarter a piece (the price was negotiable). We got rid of him as quickly as possible and laughed as he left. A long-haired woman on her way back from the bar saw us laughing and said reproachfully, "That's Bodenheim." The name meant nothing to Wakefield, nor could he understand why the women had reproached him. it was only later that he found out who Maxwell Bodenheirn was, and he then felt ashamed that he'd mocked him. 

When Bodenheim's second wife died in 1950 he lost what little connection he had to any kind of settled existence. Friends in Greenwich Village tried to help him with money and meals, but he often wandered into the Bowery, where he mixed with the hopeless drunks and misfits of the area. Usually homeless, he was arrested for sleeping in the subway. And it was reported that he sometimes hung a sign around his neck and pretended to be blind so that he could beg on the streets. 

In 1951 he met a woman named Ruth Fagan, a onetime teacher with a history of mental problems. She was around thirty years younger than the alcoholic old poet, but they established a relationship and soon married. Bodenheim was hired to write his memoirs by Samuel Roth, a curious character who hovered in that grey area where serious and salacious literature mix. A book called my Life and Loves in Greenwich Village did appear under Bodenheim's name after his death, but it's doubtful if it was his work and it's more than probable that it was written by someone else from rough notes that the poet had made. 

Bodenheim and his wife roamed around New York, sometimes staying in cheap hotels, sometimes sleeping rough. They made a trip to Chicago in 1952 for a reunion of writers involved in the Chicago Renaissance, but Bodenheim got drunk and disgraced himself. He was still writing poems, and when Dorothy Day, a long-time Greenwich Villager and stalwart of the Catholic Worker movement, arranged for the couple to stay at a retreat outside New York he even managed to sell one or two for publication in newspapers. But the period in the retreat came to an end and so did Bodenheim's period of calm. Back in New York he sold his poems on the streets, and It was In 1953 that the poet Aaron Kramer, who had been printed alongside Bodenheim in the 1944 anti-fascist anthology, came across him. There had been an event in Washington Square Park, with poets reciting and selling their work. But everyone had gone by the time Kramer arrived, and the cool Spring day was beginning to close down. Kramer noticed someone in a side street, and found Bodenheim "motionless and alone.. ..a face fleshless and red with wind, eyes dead, as if he had no awareness that the sun had long since given way to icy shadows around his chair I did not introduce myself, but told him that I had loved his work since boyhood and shook his limp, frozen hand. Four or five of his autographed poems were displayed on the wall, flapping against the weather. Afraid he might think me patronising, I bought only one poem - the longest and most expensive - for a dollar. At the corner I turned around for a last look. He sat exactly as before, in the deepening shadow." 

Drinking and drifting, Bodenheim and his wife were joined by a man named Harold Weinberg, who had a police record and had been discharged from the army as mentally unfit. Weinberg was sexually attracted to Ruth and she may have encouraged his attentions, and there was a degree of animosity between Weinberg and Bodenheim. On a cold February night in 1954, when the Bodenheims had nowhere to sleep, they accepted an invitation to go to Weinberg's room. What happened after that is debatable. Weinberg may have tried to rape Ruth and Bodenheim may have intervened. Or Weinberg and Ruth may have agreed to have sex and Bodenheim, who had been asleep, may have woken up and objected. Either way, the result was that Weinberg shot and killed Bodenheim and then stabbed Ruth to death. It was reported that when the bodies were found Bodenheim had a copy of Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us in his possession and that poems he had been working on were on the table. When Weinberg was tried, he said, "I ought to get a medal. I killed two communists," which may have been the ravings of a madman but also points to the power of the McCarthyite hysteria then in full flow and the way in which even bohemianism was seen as un-American. 

I doubt that many, if any, people read Maxwell Bodenheim's work these days, other than for academic reasons, and it's true that it would be hard to make a case for him as a major writer in either poetry or prose. He was a competent, though uneven, novelist, and a skilful, if largely unoriginal, poet. But those descriptions could easily be applied to any number of writers, past and present, and there are things worth preserving in Bodenheim's work. A few poems, some passages from his better novels, perhaps even a couple of the novels themselves. Georgia May still has power, and Slow Vision is worth reading for its sombre portrayal of the effects of the Depression. He certainly deserves to be remembered for more than his days as an inebriated hawker of hastily written verses. 

There is little point in giving publication dates, etc., of all Bodenheim's books, but the details can be found In Jack B. Moore's Maxwell Bodenheim, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1970. This is a good, short survey of Bodenheim's books and Moore deals with the subject seriously, whilst acknowledging Bodenheim's personal waywardness. As far as I know, there is currently nothing of Bodenheim's in print, apart from a short, one-act play, The Gentle Furniture Shop written for the Provincetown Players in 1917, and reprinted in The Provincetown Players, edited by Barbara Ozieblo, published by Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield, 1994. Milton Klonsky's Maxwell Bodenheim as Culture Hero is in his A Discourse on Hip:Selected Writings of Milton Klonsky, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1991. 

Allen Churchill's The Improper Bohemians, Cassell, London, 1961, tells the bohemian side of the Bodenheim story, as do other histories of American bohemianism. Most recount the same anecdotes and escapades.

This article also appears in Jim Burnís collection Radicals, Beats & Beboppers available from Penniless Press Publications