On Bodenheim’s Blackguard

Re-reading parts of Blackguard (1923) yesterday: Maxwell Bodenheim’s ‘portrait of the artist as a young man’ is an autobiographical depiction of his desire to be a poet as a boy and his clash with his doting parents.

Bodenheim was an American poet and novelist and prominently a literary figure in Chicago. He later went to New York where he became known as the King of Greenwich Village Bohemians. His writing brought him international notoriety during the Jazz Age of the 1920s. By the time of the Great Depression and an affiliation with communism was enough to turn him toward a life of penury and misery.

I have read Blackguard before, and it struck me then as it does now as the most accurately depicted struggle of an artist that I have ever come across, making me wonder why it was never a bigger deal than what it is. It fell out of print in Bodenheim’s lifetime. It has zero ratings (except mine) on Goodreads and Amazon.

BUT, it IS available at archive.org for free download.

Blackguard is split into three parts. It’s protagonist, Carl Felman is just returning via train to his parent’s home. He, like Bodenheim, had left home to endure a peripatetic existence hopping trains and thereafter joining the U.S. Army. Bodenheim was enlisted in the Army from 1910 to 1913 but was ultimately dishonorably discharged after going AWOL and striking an anti-Semitic officer with a musket.

Gadfly writes, “”Upon his release from prison, Max drifted back to Chicago with a suitcase full of poems, rejection slips and a bottle of Tabasco sauce. While his self-created myth was that he was an outcast living totally on his wits, Max actually moved back in with his mother and father. This aspect of his life, hidden from his Chicago literary comrades, was later revealed in his 1923 novel Blackguard. This was a thinly veiled autobiographical account of the prodigal son’s inauspicious return to face his mother, embittered for having fallen from her social station, and his father, embittered over failed business ventures. Even with a roof over his head and free board, Max still found much to alienate him in the city, describing his family’s apartment as “standing like a factory box awaiting shipment, but never called for.”

Carl Felman’s head is swimming with poetry, an obsession that will continue to perturb and exasperate his parents.

Ben Hecht wrote in his Chicago Literary Times, as a personal jab at Bodenehim, that reading Blackguard was “as definite an experience as inhaling a quart of chlorine gas.” This after Bodenheim criticized Hecht’s book, 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, as the “vivid etching of a disillusioned mind.”

But back to the writing itself, which I feel retains the hallmark of Bogie’s acidic prose. Bodenheim’s unerring eye is lucidly graphic:

It was as though a martyr were licking up the blood on his wounds and spitting it out in long gurgles of lunatic delight.”

Felman assaults his parents, particularly his mother, with a wry sarcastic patter as he defends his desire to be a poet with Spartan-like zeal against their provincial insistence that he find a “real” job that will sustain him through life.

Says Yale Literary Magazine: “the whole story is told with such compelling clarity of phrase, and Bodenheim has shifted his genius for acid wording from poetry to prose without the slightest apparent misgiving to outcome. Result: a luminous biography of an introspective young author that in some ways approaches the manner of James Joyce.”

Carl’s father, like Max’s, sells whiskey. Rather than subjugate his thoughtful intelligence to such a dead end trade, Carl instead thieves when he has to. His persistence to do battle against the world is rendered doubly difficult by his own discriminating soul.

“He is not willing to give and take,” says Y.L.M., “but is concerned with taking only. In the end he achieves some tranquility of mind—in a manner strange enough to warrant reading about it.”

This isn’t a “feel good” book of inspiration, though I did find it inspiring. It is instead a “wake up” call to those aspiring artists fighting against the world to retain whatever stirring of the soul remains amid the current onslaught of bland todayness that we are daily subjected to.

The frontispiece also has a fantastic collectible illustration by macabre artist, Wallace Smith, notably famous and respected for his work for Fantazius Mallare.

An excerpt:

It was his habit to think only in metaphors and similes, and in this way he evaded the realities that would otherwise have crushed him. He walked down the street, practicing an emotion of stolid submission, and this surface humility played pranks with his blonde-topped head and made his thin lips loosely unrelated to the rest of his face. As he strode through the business district of the city, with its sun-steeped frenzy of men and vehicles, the scene pressed upon him and yet he was remote at the same time. It was as though he were studying a feverishly capering unreality and vainly striving to convince himself that he formed a significant part of it.

The unrelenting roar of automobiles, wagons and cars became the laughable and inarticulate attempt of a dream to convince him that it held a power over his mind and body. Men and women darted past him with a rapidity that made them appear to be the mere figments of a magic trick. Here he caught the thick tension of lips, and there the abstracted flash of eyes, but they were gone before he could believe that they had interfered with his vision. He passed beside a dark green news-stand squeezed under the steel slant of an elevated-railroad stairway and strove to pin the scene to his mind and fix his relation to the people who were jesting with his eyes. Young and old, dressed in complications of timidly colored cloth, each seemed to be running an exquisitely senseless race in an effort to gain a nonsensical foot on the other person. The massed rush of their bodies deprived them of a divided sexual appearance and lure – men and women, touching elbows without emotion, were swept into one lusterless sex which darted in pursuit of a treacherously invisible reward. The entire structure around them – buildings, signs, and iron slabs – stood like a house of cards carefully supported by an essence that rose from the rushing people, and Carl felt that if these men and women were to become silent and motionless, in unison, the house of cards would instantly lose its meaning and tumble down.

from Maxwell Bodenheim’s Blackguard, 1923

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