A Poet's Novel


Among those who cherish his tender, translucent, humane poetry, Charles Reznikoff is a venerated figure, a role model of integrity and sustained excellence. During most of his lifetime (1894-1976), he had been so underrated and neglected that he developed a kind of stoical, resigned shell, going his own way. In person (I saw him on numerous occasions before he died), Reznikoff gave off an obliging, almost meekly humble impression, but there was a stubborn will underneath; his dedication to his art was unshakeable. You can see it from his correspondence, that remarkable, moving record in Selected Letters of Charles Reznikoff, 1917-1976 (Black Sparrow Press, 1997). If publishers would not accept his poetry manuscripts, he would print them himself. He also had that grain of selfishness that all writers need, however annoying to their loved ones. Though his wife Marie yearned for years to quit her high school teaching job, Charles, the most devoted, uxorious of husbands, nevertheless would not become a go-getter. He refused to practice law, though he had a degree. Instead, he held down jobs that would afford him the mental freedom to pursue poetry and fiction: he wrote tedious legal definitions for textbooks, sold hats, and, ill-suited as he was temperamentally to service the Hollywood dream factory, polished screenplays for his boyhood friend, producer Albert Lewin.

Towards the end of his life, he was taken up by the younger members of the New York School of poetry and the descendents of the Objectivists, and treated reverently by them, like a fragile, priceless grandparent, a last link to the pioneers of the 20s and 30s. Reznikoff, glad for the appreciation, did not know quite what to make of it, just as he had been puzzled decades earlier when championed by Louis Zukofsky (whose abstruse criticism he could barely decipher) as a sort of instinctual Objectivist poet. The problem with that annexation was that Reznikoff was no primitive: he was extremely intelligent, rigorous, and, in his own non-showy way, committed to an ambitiously austere aesthetic program of his own.

Thematically, his work showed a lively, unsentimental sympathy for those underdogs in the urban sweepstakes: the laborer, the beggar, the immigrant, the storeowner trying to eke out a living. Stylistically, he hewed to the diction of ordinary American speech, carving his material into tight, haiku-like images and wry vignettes that could best convey the often comical sufferings, struggles, contradictions, and consolations of the everyday human beings he observed, including himself. He also went to sources such as legal documents (for his long two-part prose poem Testimony), historical records (for the book-length poem Holocaust) and Biblical stories (King David) for his often unsparing, sometimes gruesomely realistic, verses.

His poetry, immensely appealing as it is, lacks only one quality that has so far kept it from being fully embraced by the academic literary establishment: “difficulty.” There is nothing remotely arcane about it that would require professional interpretation; it speaks for itself… or so it would at first appear. I would argue, however, that Reznikoff’s work is very sophisticated and requires a good deal of unpacking, precisely because it seems so simple and straightforward. If true for the poetry, then how much more so for the fiction.

Reznikoff wrote two novels: the first, the one you have in your hand, was published in 1930, just as the Great Depression was getting under way. One associates this writer with the Depression, partly because of the grey air of diminished expectations and pinched circumstances that seem to unify his characters, though their chronic money troubles had predated the 1929 stock market crash and would outlive the postwar boom years. Actually, 1930 was a highpoint for Reznikoff: he had won the hand of the lovely Marie Syrkin and convinced her to divorce her second husband, and he had finished his first novel, which the respected firm of Charles Boni agreed to publish.

(His second novel, The Manner “Music,” was found in his desk after he died and published posthumously in 1977. It is very bleak, set in the Depression years as well, and full of fine cutaway descriptions of the city, as two old friends engage in marathon walks, conversing about their dashed dreams and the bitterness of married life, stopping only for the occasional coffee and Danish in a cafeteria. It has many grace notes, but does not hold together nearly as well as his first.)

By the Waters of Manhattan is a diptych. Part One tells the story of Sarah Yetta, who emigrated on her own from Russia to the United States and at great personal sacrifice established a family in New York City. In his letters Reznikoff referred to this narrative as his mother’s autobiography. It seems that Sarah Reznikoff wrote an account of her life called “Early History of a Seamstress,” and her son reworked this material into the first part of By the Waters of Manhattan, just as he would later rework the harsh documentary summaries of 19th-century legal American cases into the poems that would comprise Testimony. And, like a dry run for Testimony, oftentimes horrific events such as serious illness, death, betrayals, pogroms, hostility between family members, and swindles by trusted partners, are told with a deadpan terseness, as vignettes offered up in the no-nonsense manner of oral storytelling: the shocks of fortune laid out and the after-shocks allowed to register in the reader’s mind, with no attempt to milk emotion.

The language of this first part has a slightly foreign inflection. The New York Times reviewer who panned the book complained: “Too often one feels as if one were reading a jerky and not particularly felicitous translation.” The anonymous reviewer was correct to sniff out a “translated” quality in the prose—Reznikoff was channeling his mother’s immigrant voice—but wrong to think it was an accident or mistake.  Nowadays we are much more aware of the contributions that Jewish-American writers such as Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth have made to our literature by twisting and torquing the language and giving it a playful Yiddish tinge. We have also become, I suspect, more grateful to immigrant literature as a whole, whether its source be European, Latin American, African, or Asian, for these priceless accounts of the newcomers’s struggles to adapt to the United States. The impatience of the Times reviewer in 1930, however, suggests that there was still embarrassment about sounding like a greenhorn. Reznikoff’s deliberate cultivation of this alienation-effect in the novel’s first part can be read as a stubborn provocation or an entrancing coloration.

The peculiar spin on diction begins with the very title of the novel, By the Waters of Manhattan. This title was a favorite of Reznikoff’s: he used it repeatedly, almost like a good-luck charm, for a 1929 annual that contained stories, poems and the first part of the novel; for the 1930 novel; and for his 1962 selected verse. It is hard to say why this phrase held such appeal for him, but I hear in it an echo of Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha:“By the shore of Gitche Gumee.” The locution “By the …” also sounds Biblical (the Old Testament was never far from Reznikoff’s mind, and he named two poetry collections By the Well of Living and Seeing). New Yorkers are notorious for disregarding the fact that their city is on the water, so the emphasis on “waters” (plural) suggests an ironic, archaic undertone: in any case, a learned idiom.

Part One ends with a telling line of dialogue, spoken by Sarah Yetta, which operates as a hinge between the two parts: “‘We are a lost generation,’ she said. ‘It is for our children to do what they can.’” The paradox, for us, is that these first-generation immigrants, who braved dangers so resourcefully and sacrificed so much for their offspring, seem to possess a wholeness of self and spirit, while their relatively more privileged children seem the lost, fragmented ones.

The second part focuses on Sarah’s son, Ezekiel, who (we learn from Reznikoff’s letters) was not modeled on Reznikoff himself but on his friend Joel. It is significant that this Ezekiel bears the same first name as his grandfather, a luftmensch who secretly wrote poetry. When Grandfather Ezekiel died, his wife Hannah burned all his verses, thinking they might contain some reference to Nihilists and get the family in trouble with the Russian police. “As she put the first into the fire she said, ‘Here’s a man’s life.’” With characteristic understatement, Reznikoff the novelist leaves it at that; but Reznikoff the man was deeply affected all his life by the burning of his own grandfather’s poetic output, an event which actually happened, and his persistence not only in writing, but in seeing the work published at all costs, even setting the type and printing it himself, was clearly in part a defiant response to that earlier erasure. Stephen Fredman makes this point eloquently in his fine study of Reznikoff, A Menorah for Athena (University of Chicago Press, 2001). “Here is the primal scene of poetry for Charles Reznikoff. His grandfather’s lifework, his secret self, written in Hebrew, language of the Torah—not Yiddish, language of the Diaspora, or Russian, the cosmopolitan language—is destroyed out of fear and ignorance.... This ‘sad story’ was related by Reznikoff obsessively in interviews and in the family histories he wrote in prose and verse…. Making manifest his inheritance, Reznikoff’s poems are the great-grandchildren—as though the dead, cremated manuscript had produced, through the intermediary of Charles’s mother, this new breed of American Jewish poems.” In the novel, Ezekiel the younger is not a writer, however, but a touchy malcontent, a would-be artist without an art. “If he had studied music, if he could draw and paint…” he broods. 

The two parts of the novel are radically different from each other: the first half flows with the folkloric sound of a family chronicle and spans decades, while the second slows down, covers a chronological period of months, and is much more introspective, taking us into Ezekiel’s thoughts and stream-of-consciousness. The language in the second part is also different, having lost its foreign tinge and become American-educated, sprinkled with poetic quotations and references to Wordsworth and the Buddha in the Metropolitan Museum. Most crucially, the psychology is vastly different: the first part has an extroverted, indirect psychology, similar to Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, where the working-class protagonists are barely aware that they have an unconscious, much less that they are expressing it in every statement they make. Sarah Yetta acts forthrightly and maturely, even as a young girl, with consistent rectitude. She may sorrow at the changeable nature of people’s emotions, a neighbor who goes from friendliness to frosty hostility, but she herself is solid and dependable. Ezekiel, her son, is more unstable in his emotional response, as we see so dramatically and frankly in his sudden satiety with the previously unattainable Jane once she submits erotically to him. Prone to defensive rationalizations, Ezekiel suspects his own motives and is already tired to death of his narcissistic air of superiority, knowing full well he has accomplished so little. (Such neurotic self-suspicion would have been a luxury for his mother, who needed to hold onto any shred of self-respect in the face of a community that denounced her as prideful when she struck out on her own.)

Thematically, the two parts connect to each other with an organic rightness, telling the whole painful story of immigration in America as it has tended to play out on the family front. Still, the halves are in many ways radically unlike: so it is puzzling that both the novel’s defenders and detractors paid so little attention, in 1930, to the differences between the two parts, thereby scanting the book’s haunting strangeness.

When first published by Boni, it contained an introduction by the then-prominent literary figure Louis Untermeyer. He began his introduction by saying: “It is a long time since I have read a story so obviously sincere—and so tellingly simple. The simplicity, from the first paragraph to the last, is not an incidental virtue or a trick of technique; it is essential. It bears no relation to the over-cultivated monosyllables which have come as a reaction to our over-cultivated (and belated) Eighteen Nineties. Here is nothing falsely naïf in story or in style. There is, in fact, no ‘style.’” Though Untermeyer goes on to praise the novel for its severe refusal of romantic theatricality, and for the realism of its inconclusive ending, I am struck by the application of this backhanded-compliment critical vocabulary (“simple,” “sincere,” “no ‘style’”) to Reznikoff.

The great critic Lionel Trilling, who also praised the novel in a glowing review that appeared in The Menorah Journal, was similarly taken with Reznikoff’s sincerity and purity: “Certainly it is not great prose in the sense that it is exciting or compelling. It makes no pretension to this. Perhaps it is merely such prose as we should expect at the least from every writer—each word understood and in its right place; each word saying exactly what it should say and not forced beyond its meaning…. In short, style becomes its writer’s morality…. The charm of Mr. Reznikoff’s book lies in its avoidance of… falsification. His book has true words, hence truth—solid, raw, sociological truth.”

This is a splendid tribute, but I wonder if such points of view have not done Reznikoff’s literary reputation more harm than good. To make of Reznikoff an angel of sincerity and raw sociological truth-telling seems to me to slight the selectivity of his artistry and the lyrical beauty of his language. Let us consider some examples:

“He was glad to find himself on the bridge, the tenements and office buildings behind him, his face towards the sky. Soon the roadway changed to slats of wood, springy under his feet after so many miles of asphalt. Ezekial was pleased, too, after the even curves of gutters and the straight lines of pavements and houses to see the free glitter of the water. He was now in the rhythm of walking, that sober dance which despite all the dances man knows, he dances most.”

No ‘style’? Reznikoff speaks enthusiastically of “a new science, citycraft,” and his novel is replete with urban tableaux that offer up the verbal equivalent of Sloan’s or Hopper’s New York paintings, like the marvelous descriptions of the Automat or the barber shop or the Italian procession. There are astute little aphorisms dropped into the text: “Somewhere there must be a woman—so a girl, he thought, dreams of the man she hopes to marry and at last puts up with her husband.” Or: “He decided not to drink. After a while his thirst would pass, as it often did, just like hunger and cold. The body, he had found, makes its needs known and after awhile, unanswered, concludes its master cannot satisfy it, though he would, or is busy, and courteously becomes silent.”  This is lucid, spare writing, yes, but style-less? I find it elegant. 

There is also a richness of sensory description, the way a character tries to shake off “his familiar despondency” and adhere to the available charms of the present. “In the bright morning he looked eagerly at the houses, at each horse and milkwagon ….” “The silver of the thin dime was an unexpected pleasure.” “How good to rest.” “He ate slowly, to taste each morsel to the utmost, and praised God.” This elemental side of Reznikoff most resembles his contemporary William Carlos Williams, who ended a poem about a beggar-woman eating in the street: “Food, the great comforter.”

If the novel ends inconclusively, it is because Ezekiel’s hopefulness and discouragement have fought to a legitimate standstill. He has managed to start his own business, a bookstore in Greenwich Village, with virtually no capital, though now he has little time for an inner life and feels imprisoned, tied down to work; he has shaken off virginity and has a robust sex-life, though now he is growing tired of his mistress; he decides one moment to drink “the bitter night of his life,” and the next moment is diverted by a girl passing by; he looks at himself and sees both an ordinary young man and a swindler. He is, in Reznikoff’s words, “Janus-faced,” turning one visage to the world and another away from it. He lives on a knife-edge between optimism and despondency. Just when everything seems depleted inside, there is an upturn. This bobbing-up reflex in the midst of potentially drowning is a deeply moving trope in Reznikoff’s prose and verse, he reverts to it again and again, as his way of bearing witness to the human spirit’s resiliency within a punishing world. “It seemed to Ezekiel that his thoughts at last brought out the sun, whose brightness they had been touching and leaving and returning to, as a bird pecks at a golden fruit.” The power of one man’s thought to bring out the sun—that is true magic, an indication of why By the Waters of Manhattan is finally a poet’s novel.

This essay is the introduction to By the Waters of Manhattan (Black Sparrow Press, 2009). It is reprinted with permission of the publisher.