The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

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.

Here Too

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.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


The Magazine in America

By Eli Siegel

A History of American Magazines, 1741-1850. By Frank Luther Mott. D. Appleton & Company. $10.00

Mr. Mott’s book is a history of the American mind as it expressed itself in magazines....Philadelphia had the first American magazine, and, now not more than two hundred years afterwards, it possesses one of the most impressive magazine affairs in the world, something which shows the civilization of the moment better, perhaps, than anything else in print: the very astounding and exceedingly meaningful Saturday Evening Post.

In the early days many things happened in America in the magazine way. Thomas Paine wrote keen and effective things for the Philadelphia magazine he edited....Emerson had much to do with the first Dial—the Dial of transcendentalism and very small circulation. And Poe went his sad, up-and-down, and semi-meteoric way from one magazine to another, editing five and trying, forlornly, to own one. (Hardly anything of Poe’s was not written for a magazine first. His dissipation money was obtained from editors of magazines.)

But there is much more. Mind in America has been strange, quirky, and very daring. And it showed itself, neatly and well, in the last couple hundred years or so, through the leaping up, subsiding, and disappearance of magazines in New York, Charleston, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Lexington (Kentucky) and everywhere else, where enough people could get together to worry about culture, and since Americans are very likely the best worriers about culture in the world, magazines went after intellect in a wide fashion.

Mr. Mott tells the story of this bold magazine-America. In this volume, the literary narrative goes to 1850 when the periodical situation was nicely shaken up with the coming of Harper’s. The rest is to be told in a coming volume.

The author of American Magazines, as a historian, is adequately industrious, surely, but he is not a stirring regimenter of facts. Cold truths can be charmingly arranged; precise statements can be maneuvered so, that, when seen, a definite kind of pleasing mental excitement can ensue. Mr. Mott does not do this. He is not a historical jeweler, nor is he a writer with a sense of philosophical form. He has got his important and very often hitherto unknown facts but he does not let one see the wonder in them; he does no deep and legitimate tricks with his facts.

We find in Philadelphia, in 1741, two American magazines started. Benjamin Franklin almost had the honor of starting the first. These magazines had England all through them. They modestly emulated the politically informative, courteously literary and socially censorious London magazines. Mr. Mott tells us what these beginning American magazines printed, how they were managed and how they fared: and this he does for every important magazine up to 1850, or at least most, for, to be sure, notions of importance may be in conflict. Meanwhile, as ever, America was changing deeply and very noticeably. It was being politically revolutionized and American Magazines are revolutionized along with the country.

As the story goes on, Mr. Mott gets in prices of subscriptions and prices of articles when paid. He shows early American magazines on the subject of women, and shows them unable to cope with the extent and puzzlingness of the subject. Then, when America was fairly aware of her political freedom, the historian reveals to us a land worried about the influence of England upon our literature. It was really very hard to do the right thing here. If one, for instance, called some assiduous Cincinnati writer of verse (and there were such) the American Hemans, one could be accused of being patriotic but uncritical; but if one praised English authors and didn’t see much in writers of American birth, one would be called slavishly Britannic. It was, indubitably, very hard to appear as if one loved America and was critical of its writing at the same time. All the nineteenth century, in American magazines, is full of a call for a purely American literature, and at the same time warnings were to be seen in them again and again not to be calling a Baltimore essayist the American Addison, or a New York playwright the Western Shakespeare or a Boston lyrist the Massachusetts Gray. It was a very difficult magazine question: how to be purely American and not to depreciate, say, Byron or overestimate James Gates Percival.

Mr. Mott includes in his history the story of the founding of technical magazines; and he also wisely includes religious periodicals. One of these latter, The Herald of Gospel Liberty of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, founded in 1808, seems to be the oldest magazine still current. Likewise, medical, farming, and legal journals are not neglected. Mr. Mott is thorough. He isn’t restrained either in getting or giving information.

Somewhat before 1840, magazines grow definitely livelier and richer. Nathaniel Parker Willis is now writing flippantly of Broadway New York Society, and is telling American merchants and farmers all about Lady Blessington, Count D’Orsay, and Benjamin Disraeli; he likewise is writing things which, from the point of view of stiffly bred English noblemen and reviewers, show insufficient breeding; and Willis, too, for his New York Mirror, is writing poems dealing with sacred subjects: poems which are cleverly biblical. At this time, Poe is appearing in all the magazines. Hawthorne is having his stories in New England magazines and is becoming rather famous. Graham’s Magazine is growing richer and is paying Poe about a cent a word; a little later, it pays writers as they never had been paid before in America. Graham’s is the first “big-time” magazine.

And through the 1840s the Knickerbocker is publishing the best that intellectual New York offers, and is putting on, already, non-provincial airs. Godey’s Lady’s Book is now having plates of sedate, quaint, and billowy dresses. It is also publishing Poe’s cavernous tales and his most splenetic, personal-literary criticism. Walt Whitman is writing poems in quatrains for the magazines. A novel of Dickens is published in one number of a magazine and is sold on the street, noisily, for 12½. And so we go on to Harper’s and the Saturday Evening Post.

This history of American magazines is a strange and very important story. And if Mr. Mott’s book isn’t the last thing in historical arrangement and charm (he certainly is not a Michelet of magazine history)—it yet is distinguished in its fine usefulness. This one very praising statement should be made of A History of American Magazines: it is useful in a significant way, for it has information in it that cannot be found elsewhere. Information which is needed if one is to know the history of the American mind.

The Book League Monthly, August 1930, pp. 252-4.


Two Poems by Eli Siegel

Napoleon Was There; Cold, Cold Moscow

Marching to Moscow,

Marching to Moscow,

So many thousands of men.

And Napoleon was there.

As a child he had smiled at old women,

Old women who had thought him a child that was clever and nice.

And thousands of men were marching to Moscow,

And Napoleon was he who made the march, march, march, march to Moscow.

There were deaths, thousands;

There were wounds, thousands;

There were drownings, thousands;

There were pains, thousands.

Napoleon was one,

Napoleon was pained.

Napoleon was there,

Moscow was there,

Moscow now is here;

Moscow now is there;

Moscow is here.

There were deaths by Moscow,

Thousands, thousands, thousands.

There was crying by Moscow;

There was longing in Moscow;

Napoleon was in Moscow;

There was weeping in Moscow.

Napoleon had been in Spain;

And he was now in Moscow.

Snow, snow, snow, snow, snow, snow, all in Moscow, Moscow, Moscow.

O, the hot mountains of Spain; the clear mountains of Spain; the clear rivers, war in mountains, war in roads, war in meadows of Spain.

And snow was falling, falling, falling, falling, mid greyness, greyness, bleakness, bleakness, greyness, greyness, in Moscow, in Russia, old, old, far, far, Moscow, Moscow, in Russia.

Napoleon was from Corsica, in the sweet, blue Mediterranean.

He is now in bleak, far, cold Moscow, where there’s snow, and snow, and snow falling, falling, falling; and grey, cold skies, and weeping, and longing, and cold soldiers, from France; and there’ve been deaths by Moscow, thousands, thousands, thousands.

Out of France, out of France, with Napoleon, went thousands, thousands, thousands of men.

Thousands, thousands, thousands of men, dead, were killed, were drowned, were killed by cold, by hunger; they died, thousands of men died, going to cold, cold, cold Moscow.

And there was Napoleon who came from Corsica, in the sweet, blue, large, great Mediterranean sea.

O, Mediterranean sea and O, Russia, Russia and Moscow.

O, soft, green, sweet, blue, and cold and grey, and snow in grey, and bleakness, and cold, cold, cold.

There were empires; there’ve been kings; there’ve been marchings; countries have changed; thousands of men have died, warring; there’ve been many battles; Napoleon knew of thousands of dead in battles; Napoleon was a laughing child once; he had thought of glory, and power, and praise and fame.

And he is marching to cold, cold Moscow, with thousands of men, thousands of men out of their sweet, cruel, great France, by the Mediterranean; thousands of men who will die marching to cold, cold Moscow.

Napoleon’s dead; somehow, he’s dead; his body is somewhere; his mind is somewhere; he, who came from Corsica in the Mediterranean, is dead.

He is much in books; he is much talked of.

There is Moscow; there was suffering by thousands, thousands, thousands of men; there is Moscow; there was Moscow; there is Napoleon; there was Napoleon; there are thousands, thousands, thousands of suffering, suffering, suffering, dying, dying, dying men; there are thousands, thousands, thousands of suffering, suffering, suffering, dying, dying, dying men; and thousands of men died; and thousands of men died; and thousands of men died marching to Moscow.

Napoleon was there.

Janet Knows Hell

Hell is such a thing,

That Janet as now she is

Knows little, little of it.

Janet knows taxis,

Janet knows dreams,

Janet knows her mother and aunts,

But of hell, though she knows it, it is little she knows,

For hell is hard.

Hell is not like taxis.

Hell is, though.