Edward Dahlberg’s Because I Was Flesh

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the most stirring and original memoir I have ever read is also the strangest. Surprisingly, it is not really a memoir at all, despite purporting to be the “autobiography” of its author, Edward Dahlberg. It is instead a portrait of his own mother, Lizzie Dahlberg, who is left alone to raise young Edward, eking out a meagre existence as a “Lady Barber” in Kansas City in the early years of the 20th century. “My mother had two miserable afflictions,” Dahlberg tells us, “neither of which was she ever to overcome: her flesh – which is my own – and the world, that cursed both of us.” Readers hoping to learn something about the author himself – who, after all, lived an interesting life, fighting in the First World War, and later hobnobbing with Joyce, Beckett, Hemingway, and the rest of the famous expat writers who made Paris a home in the 1920s – will come away disappointed, for Dahlberg makes of himself a minor character in the drama of Because I Was Flesh. If, however, those same readers can suspend their expectations, Dahlberg’s provocative portrait of a mother-son relationship, told in prose that is positively Biblical in stature and stateliness, will provoke laughter and tears, and linger with readers long after the last page has been turned.

From the opening paragraph, we are alerted to the importance of place, and the unique language Dahlberg will employ to invoke it:

Kansas City is a vast inland city, and its marvelous river, the Missouri, heats the senses; the maple, alder, elm and cherry trees with which the town abounds are songs of desire, and only the almonds of ancient Palestine can awaken the hungry pores more deeply. It is a wild, concupiscent city, and few there are troubled about death until they age or are sick. Only those who know the ocean ponder death as they behold it, whereas those bound closely to the ground are more sensual.

Shortly hereafter we get a more succinct and personal description: “Kansas City was the city of my youth and the burial ground of my poor mother’s hopes; her blood, like Abel’s, cries out to me from every cobblestone, building, flat and street.” Before we can surmise a reason for it, we can already sense the terrible burden of guilt Dahlberg labours under, and that its provenance is his relationship with his mother. “I have always blamed myself for everything,” he will quip at one point, “except when I was idle and had the time to find fault with others,” but nowhere does he criticize his own mother, at least not directly. In an early attempt to trace his lineage, we learned that his last name, Dahlberg, comes from his maternal grandfather, which raises the question of his patrimony. Conveying what he knows of his mother’s history, we learn she had three sons in a previous marriage, one of whom died in infancy, but that she abandoned this proto-family to flee to Boston. “There she bore a child in Charity Hospital. […] She gave me her father’s name to hide the fact that I was as illegitimate as the pismire, the moth or a prince.” This is perhaps her first imposition on her son, not only denying him a father but imposing, in some small sense, her identity on him.

Though she would introduce herself falsely as a “widow,” to forestall any judgments about her character as a single mother with a young child to feed, Lizzie Dahlberg must still operate under immense financial strain. We witness her sojourn to London briefly, in the hopes that the death of a wealthy relative might profit her, before returning, disappointed, to America, where she works for a time as a traveling saleswoman:

Good morning, madam, and health to you. I’m a high-tone hairdresser and beauty specialist. What lovely hair you have, but you look down in the dumps; I hope no man has deceived or swindled you. I’m a hard-working widow myself and know sorrow and disappointment, and here is my only son. I restore hair, give enemas and remove soul-grieving calluses. May I step in and give you a demonstration? It’s free of charge.

It is a difficult life, particularly for a young mother, and Lizzie Dahlberg is not one to spare her child her sorrows:

When she imagined that she could not overcome her life, she complained that fate was persecuting her. Many who have not toiled so hard as she or reaped such a famine from incessant labors scorn those who pity their own condition. Well could this Jewess, not of Avila but of Kansas City, cry out: “I am the Cross, for I am a weariness.” However, not a soul said “Come unto me, and I shall feed and succor you.”

Here, then, are the makings of a deeply dysfunctional mother-son relationship: not only the over-identification, intensified by the absence of a male role model, but the imposition of guilt that cannot be discharged.

Lizzie soon abandons her job as a saleswoman in favour of barbering, and her hard work and industry eventually allow her to purchase her own barbershop and employ a gaggle of female barbers and hairdressers, some of whom pay for room and board with the Dahlbergs. These women – flirtatious and fickle, and forever stealing from one another and scheming after rich husbands – become a kind of surrogate family for the young Edward, whose contact with men is limited to the barbershop customers, especially those who take up with their hairdressers for brief periods. As he matures into puberty, this influence, together with the proximity of his mother, becomes somewhat deranging. “Women cindered his imagination,” he tells us, pining after one of his mother’s more voluptuous boarders, “though he had no knowledge of bodies.” Note the lack of first-person pronoun: here is Dahlberg disassociating from himself, even as he describes himself; it is a clever way of indicating his shame on the topic of his own sexuality, a shame he will soon make more explicit:

The child was as gross in his desires as the man who grew out of him. The greed for voluptuous sensations is a disease. Who invented the torment of the testicles? Had he the nature for it, he would have renounced the lunacy called sensuality. Pleasure is the tickling of the maggots that ravin upon the bones. Who has not experienced that inexpressible sadness that comes after copulation? This is the sorrow of every particle of energy which has been momentary diminished and which is the result of the sport of worms.

The imagery and even the diction comes straight from Hamlet, one of the many literary figures Dahlberg frequently evokes, and indeed the Freudian reading of Hamlet, which made much of the psycho-sexual drama of the young prince finding his mother’s marriage bed usurped, was no doubt familiar to Dahlberg, writing in the 1960s when Freud’s theories were so much in vogue.

I would like to close with a final note on Dahlberg’s language, which even in the short sampling I have given should strike you as odd. Because I Was Flesh first appeared in 1964, and its style seems even more conspicuous in the context of American prose writing of that decade. Who would you compare Dahlberg’s writing to? Kurt Vonnegut or Truman Capote or William S. Burroughs? Joseph Heller, Philip Roth or Ken Kesey? His stylistic predecessors come not from his own decade, nor even his own century, but from centuries past: Thomas Browne and Robert Burton, the King James Bible, and the Elizabethan dramatists. He wasn’t merely being original; he was consciously snubbing the standards of his own generation, and in the process he invested his little memoir of a difficult Kansas City upbringing with the authority and grandeur of scripture.