Literature, the World, & Aesthetic Realism
Dear Unknown Friends:
From the late 1920s through the mid ’30s, Eli Siegel wrote many book reviews. There were those, for example, that appeared frequently between 1931 and ’35 in the noted Scribner’s Magazine. We reprint here his review in The Book League Monthly, August 1930, of a book on the history of American magazines.
In those early reviews by Mr. Siegel we see some of the tremendous scope and depth of his knowledge. He discussed novels, biographies, books on history and America, literary criticism and mind. Whatever the subject, whoever the author reviewed—whether someone famous, like Theodore Dreiser, or someone little known—the reviews have, for all their brevity, Eli Siegel’s greatness as critic. They have his discernment, his oneness of clarity and subtlety, passion and ease.
Along with containing some of the important criticism in America, they also contain some of this nation’s important prose. As Eli Siegel comments on a book, his own writing is beautiful. I quote, as an example, sentences from his Scribner’s review, March 1934, of the novel Passion’s Pilgrims. He says of the author, Jules Romains:
He has been interested in the changing shadows on a wall and the transmutations of twentieth-century industry. He has observed the stupefying manoeuvres of sex and money. He has tried to get into the inside of a man meaning to make a million francs in real-estate and of a woman meaning to be correct in love.
And take the first sentence of the review reprinted here, of F.L. Mott’s History of American Magazines. It’s short: “Mr. Mott’s book is a history of the American mind as it expressed itself in magazines.” Well, I think that sentence is important as both style and perception. Eli Siegel in 1930 is seeing the book (its author hadn’t seen it this way) as showing something of what mind itself is, and America is: it’s “a history of the American mind as it expressed itself in magazines.” I could take up the sentence as rhythm, and as vowel and consonantal delicate musical drama, to show that it is a oneness of stir, even sizzle, and repose. It is alive.
The sentence in the second paragraph beginning “And Poe...” has some of the life of Poe, the feeling of Poe as self—his bewilderment, his fame and sinking—in its phrases and the way they come together. It is a little composition of literary history and striving and puzzled self, in a single rich and succinct musical statement: “And Poe went his sad, up-and-down, and semimeteoric way from one magazine to another, editing five and trying, forlornly, to own one.”
The Coming-to-Be of Aesthetic Realism
We also publish two poems by Eli Siegel. He wrote them, I estimate, around 1927. And in both the review and the poems there is the seeing that would become Aesthetic Realism.
A large aspect of that seeing is told of by Donald Kirkley in a Baltimore Sun article written early in Mr. Siegel’s teaching of Aesthetic Realism. Kirkley comments on the thought that gave rise to this philosophy:
He thought “all knowledge was connected—that geology was connected with music, and poetry with chemistry, and history with sports.” Since, as he saw it, all knowledge was one, he wished to find something, or some principle, unifying all the various manifestations of reality as these manifestations took the form of specific studies. [September 24, 1944]
Mr. Siegel did indeed find that principle relating every person or thing to everything else, and it is the basis of Aesthetic Realism: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” He once said that the most important word in English is relation. The review reprinted here has, in every sentence and in the way sentence meets sentence, that seeing of things as related, and as having the life, the excitement, which arises from this relatedness.
The first poem we publish relates one single person, Napoleon, to the world and people and weather, felt as vast and multitudinous. The poem uses repetition musically, and logically. The now is related to the past. Snow in abundance is related to death in abundance. And the lines, even those that convey dreariness and pain, are electric.
The second poem, “Janet Knows Hell,” has strangeness and matter-of-factness; also humor. It is, I believe, about something central to Mr. Siegel’s thought: that everything, however ordinary or strange, however close to us or far off, exists as much as anything else. What is difficult to understand is as real as a fabric we can touch. And, as he writes in his “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana,” “all are to be known.”
Since I have quoted from the Baltimore Sun article, I’ll include another passage from it. Kirkley describes Mr. Siegel just after the Nation awarded him its poetry prize for “Hot Afternoons” and when that poem was causing a stir in America the likes of which no other poem had caused:
Baltimore friends close to him at the time will testify to a certain integrity and steadfastness of purpose which distinguished Mr. Siegel....He refused to exploit a flood of publicity which was enough to float any man to financial comfort....He took a job as newspaper columnist...and quit it when he found that he would not be allowed to say what he wanted at all times.
This integrity, which Mr. Siegel had always, is in Aesthetic Realism—immortally.