Eli Siegel's system lives
By James H. Bready
HOT AFTERNOONS have been in Maryland, lately, and in Massachusetts, in Tennessee and Texas, in, as Eli Siegel wrote, Montana. Every summer's heat brings to mind the young man from Baltimore who, long ago on a day in February, wrote a poem that began with the words "Hot Afternoons ..." His phrase speedily passed into the language. Yet Eli Siegel, celebrant of the United States in a manner that Walt Whitman would have cheered, never went near Montana. He went to New York, to Greenwich Village; he led the life of literary man and thinker; he developed a theory which he called Aesthetic Realism and had a following. In 1978, he died there. This is to report that the movement founded by Eli Siegel lives on and, even if the sidewalks of New York, too, are a bit warm these afternoons, Aesthetic Realism thrives.
Any movement is likely to shift into diminuendo, after the death of its principal figure. Siegel had married a young woman from the Midwest, Martha Baird; last year, she too died, and they had no children. Their Jane Street apartment, near Sheridan Square, has been replaced by a new headquarters in Soho (South Houston), a mile east. There, in its own three-story building, the Aesthetic Realism Foundation has offices, holds seminars, and interviews, publishes (under the imprint Definition Press) and has just installed Eli Siegel's book collection as an operating library — all 30,000 volumes of it.
In 1925, the Nation magazine held a poetry contest. The $100 prize attracted 4,000-plus entries, some from big names. The editors' choice as winner was an obscure 22-year-old from 711 Newington Avenue, Baltimore. Brought to this country at 3 when his parents immigrated from Latvia, Siegel was a tailor's son, too poor to go on to Johns Hopkins with his fellow-members of the Carrollton-Wight Literary Society at City College. Siegel, it seemed, had never been west of Druid Hill Park, whose sweeping lawns were model enough for the Great Plains, in a poet's imagination.
The young winner behaved well, not capitalizing on his sudden prominence by flooding other magazines with other poems; he even suppressed the detail that the Nation itself had rejected "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana" the year before, when he simply mailed it in. (He had written it, on the flyleaves of a copy of "The Wasteland," while visiting Savvy Crampton, the first of the City College group to migrate to New York; today that volume is a prized possession of the Aesthetic Realism, Foundation. It is just one of the ironies, that Siegel never cared for T. S. Eliot; his favorites included Milton—who had never seen paradise, before writing about it—Shakespeare, Edith Sitwell, the young Robert Graves and, among critics, George Saintsbury.)
Besides Savington Crampton, the City Collegians included A. D. Emmart, Donald Kirkley, Huntington Cairns (apparently the only one still living) and George Goetz. Under the pseudonym Victor F. Calverton, Goetz founded Modern Quarterly, a magazine of stature. In any age, youth is proud of its literary outpourings; in Baltimore, today's poets and playwrights outnumber, but do not necessarily outwrite, those of 60 years ago.
Siegel, in New York, survived on literary odd jobs, e.g., speaking, column writing, book reviewing, manuscript editing; the proceeds went straight into rent, food and especially books. His main intellectual interest was always aesthetics, extended outward into poetics, philosophy and anti-Freudian psychology. From 1941 on, he held classes for would-be poets, in his apartment; it all came together, at first under the phrase aesthetic analysis, in a working manuscript called "Self and World." That book was finally brought out, last year, by Definition Press.
In brief, the Siegelian lifeview holds "all reality, including the
reality that is oneself, [to be] the aesthetic oneness of opposites." Motion and rest, surface and depth, love and anger, and so on, once identified, can and must be reconciled; in the act of reconciling them, a person finds beauty, purpose, peace.
Ellen Reiss, a teacher at the foundation, notes: "What we have to offer is a means whereby people see themselves and the world as they really are." Rather than set up branches, Aesthetic Realists keep in touch with people in other cities by phone.
Next month, Siegel would have turned 80. Talks, exhibitions in its Terrain Gallery and more publications are in prospect. The (nonprofit) foundation has a store of still-unpublished Siegel writing, such as a 1963 play, "Shakespeare's 'Hamlet,' Revisited."
There are always belittlers, who speak of Siegel as a Village guru
and call his followers a cult. From time to time, the foundation wheels up a cannon, such as Huntington Cairns. From his lair at Kitty
Hawk, N.C., he scatters the unbelievers with a single aimed volley: "I believe that Eli Siegel was a genius. He did for aesthetics what
Spinoza did for ethics."