More on that exchange published in the prologue to Kora in Hell

Did you find yourself agreeing more with H.D. or William Carlos Williams in Thursday’s audio piece taken from Williams’ Kora in Hell?  If I was to survey listeners, I’d be surprised if Williams wouldn’t win far more applause. Being that it’s his  book, and he controls what H.D. presents before he responds, it wasn’t really a neutral-site debate.

That sort of exchange could remind you of our modern political ads, where candidate A is quoted or shown in some excerpt that appears outlandish, and then candidate B is cut to saying that they think that’s just as outlandish as you think it is, and I’d never take that position, so vote for me. Except, it’s in reverse. It’s Williams, candidate B, who’s taking the more extreme position. Still I think Williams will largely win the audience.

It’s also easy to see this as a male/female dynamic. H.D. makes a suggestion, plausibly insightful, asking only for self-reflection on W.C.W’s part. Williams responds to her, in much more forceful rhetoric, defending his freedom, saying in effect when you say “sacred” I hear “heretic.” I think a great many observers of gender roles would see this as a stereotypical exchange. I agree*, but I could imagine this same exchange with the genders switched—less common, but possible. And it certainly occurs in a same gender situation too.

Something else that came to mind as I read this was a division that was made in an influential essay at mid-century, something that was still current when I was in school. This month I re-read that essay after Kora in Hell  and the telling exchange I took from its prologue. It’s by critic Philip Rahv, published in 1939, and its title “Paleface and Redskin”**  sets out the framework of its thesis, something that professors still thought relevant when I was being taught. The title is a distinctive dichotomy Rahv had observed in American literature. This paragraph from Rahv’s essay summarized the two types:

…the redskin glories in his Americanism, to the paleface it is a source of endless ambiguities. Sociologically they can be distinguished as patrician vs. plebeian, and in their aesthetic ideals one is drawn to allegory and to the distillations of symbolism, whereas the other inclines to a gross, riotous naturalism. The paleface is a ‘highbrow,’ though his mentality…is often of the kind that excludes and repels general ideas; he is at the same time both something more and something less than an intellectual in the European sense. And the redskin deserves the epithet ‘lowbrow’ not because he is badly educated—which he might or might not be—but because his reactions are primarily emotional, spontaneous, and lacking in personal culture. The paleface continually hankers after religious norms and tends toward a refined estrangement from reality. The redskin, on the other hand, accepts his environment, at times to the degree of fusion with it, even when rebelling against one or another of its manifestations. At his highest level the paleface moves in an exquisite moral atmosphere; at his lowest he is genteel, snobbish, and pedantic. In giving expression to the vitality and to the aspirations of the people, the redskin is at his best; but at his worst he is a vulgar anti-intellectual, combining aggression with conformity and reverting to the crudest forms of frontier psychology.”

Rahv ostensibly doesn’t favor either side. His observation, made by a man who could claim to be an immigrant, outside observer, was that American Lit was binary and divided with authors on one side or the other and no synthesis, and that this was a bad thing. ***

Palefaces and Redskin Potatoes

Pale faces and redskins, or 3 artists and some spuds.


It’s easy to see that divide in the H.D. and William Carlos Williams exchange. H.D. in the moment captured in her letter to W.C.W. is paleface, and Williams is redskin. Rahv expends most of his examples on novelists, and Modernist novelists like Hemmingway and Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson he feels all fail to a significant degree due to redman tendencies. But Modernist poets weren’t really in either camp as Rahv defines them. Ezra Pound could be claimed as either, and even in the two early pre-Modernist poems I’ve just presented here he tries on each personae: in “Grace Before Song”  a pious poet in service of art who will be personally forgotten and in “In Thus in Nineveh”  as an unheralded poet who will be remembered because the people value the lively if imperfect vitality of his verse.

Feel free to consider Rahv’s classification system as silly, outdated, or even distasteful. I myself consider it an amusing parlor game kind of thing, more subjective than Rahv thinks it is, and as subject to superficial oversimplifications as taking a “Which Disney Princess are you” quiz. ****

I wasn’t going to include any audio with today’s post, but after spending a day avoiding completing this post so that I could play with orchestra scoring, I figured I could read a couple more sentences also from Rahv’s 1939 essay backed by a short example of what I was coming up with. The player’s below.



*Even though Williams and English language Modernism in general coincided with the rise of women’s independence and citizenship, and even if women were participants in this cultural revolution, that doesn’t mean that Modernist men were invariably feminist—far from it. There are things to admire about W.C.W. for sure, but even in my limited reading of his work I keep getting this weird vibe from him where women are concerned.

**Yup, Rahv went there with the casual use of the racial slur. As literary culture goes in this era, totally non-remarkable and non-controversial. The first college I attended, where I heard of Rahv’s essay, had named its sports teams The Redmen, a just  more polite term. I had a tiny part in asking this name be changed. In Rahv’s defense I’ll say that he was a Jewish heritage immigrant from the Pale of Settlement. If life experience is knowledge, he likely “understood” ethnic slurs as deeply as any of us.

The kind of dichotomy Rahv lays out has analogues in modern discussions on just how street a rapper is, or debates on if performance poetry can be “real poetry.”

***From the luxurious wisdom of history, I found it fun reading the essay to see who of his contemporaries he thought was fatally damaged by this inability to join the strengths of both groups. He seems to give obvious paleface T. S. Eliot a passing grade, though noting that he had to leave America. Rahv says “Faulkner’s horror stories have long ago ceased to have any recognizable value.” History disputes Rahv there. Hemmingway is just a retread Natty Bumppo he says, an arguable case still today (even though I’ll take the other side on that one). Emily Dickinson gets an atta girl notice as a more or less successful paleface. No, additional reflection since 1939 has discovered that Dickinson is a redskin with paleface trappings.

****I’m Jasmine.

5 thoughts on “More on that exchange published in the prologue to Kora in Hell

  1. Sorry my computer futzed and posted before I could type the rest.

    I was going to say fascinating for many reasons but the one I’ll focus on is that regarding Rhav’s “Redskins and Paleface” Robert Lowell (well aware of Rhav) made a similar argument in the 60s while accepting the National Book Award (or perhaps the Pulitzer?). He divided American poets and poetry between the “Raw and the Cooked.”

    He was of the Cooked and without naming names, inferred that Ginsberg & Co were the Raw.

    It’s an interesting dichotomy with I would say, Whitman and Eliot as the godfathers or totemic figures for either “school” if one is inclined to choose sides.

    Regardless, interesting post.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wondered if you’d read this while writing it. I’m usually avoiding much critical theory because I’m not well versed in it, and it takes so much time to do the rest of this project that there’s an opportunity cost issue. I’ll be turning back to raw and cooked poetry soon enough in all likelihood.

      Yup, I think there’s something archetypical going with this, simplified as it is, because we seem to keep reinventing it. When it was being brought up in my long-ago college years it was Bohemian Beats against Academic/Criterion/neo-Aristotelian folks. I don’t know if I ever had a Lit Prof then who liked Whitman, Rahv’s prime redskin. A few decades later in Jazz we had W. Marsalis/Stanley Crouch vs free and fusion jazz. The “don’t make me laugh” Bob Dylan gets a Nobel brouhaha. A year or so back we had Rebecca Watts vs. Hollie McNish et al

      Rahv’s point, that it’s near to necessary for artists to mix significant chunks of both sides, is worth considering. As a reader or as a performer/presenter I can do it expeditiously by mixing the writers whose words I choose to use from those nearer to each of the poles. To an underappreciated degree the Popular Front activity in Rahv’s time was working to bridge some of that divide, a project that eventually succeeded a generation later with the flowering of a large popular culture using Modernist ideas (Dylan’s songwriting revolution for an example). Ironically, I see Rahv didn’t approve of the Popular Front stuff. Looks like he saw it as Stalinist dictat.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Critical theory is as you might expect both a mixed bag and a vary baggy suit. Even in the best of it there’s almost always a thud or a howler where you think what the hell is that?

        There is indeed something archetypal at work.

        I find it hard to believe that someone as well read as Lowell, however crazy or agitated, wouldn’t have either read Rhav’s essay, or known people who had or even knew him personally. It was not a very big community in the early 60s and Rhav and Partisan Review loomed large.

        For other writing and my own attempts at edja-ma-cation I took a deep dive into some of the headier French philosophers and was amused to find how much of “their” ideas were blatant paraphrases of earlier mostly Greek ideas – and crucially, all presented as if original.

        It’s possible “intelligent” readers were supposed to know or get the references in the same manner Eliot & Co assumed learned readers would get the references to various vegetation ceremonies or multi-lingual puns;-)

        But I’m skeptical and think there’s an odd human compunction (as you say, archetypal) at work.

        I agree with you and Rhav – and I’ve found the better the artist the more they borrow or in Pounds maxim – steal.

        I’ve read The Sun Also Rises countless times over the years but during my most recent rereading a few years ago it suddenly hit me that there’s a scene where Jake and Bill walk along the Seine and it’s a mini version of Huck Finn:-)

        So a very nice example of a “Redskin” borrowing from another but in a “Paleface” manner.

        Re: Dylan – I just finished reading Chronicles Vol 1 – and that Modernist borrowing song writing revolution is a key component in Dylan. (currently at work on a long blog piece about poetry with a lot to say about Dylan)

        And yes, Rhav couldn’t make the jump politically though I suspect there’s a lot to his story that’s locked up somewhere. Every time I dive down the rabbit hole of those people (I mean that generation of writers etc) it all ends up like a cross between Kafka, the X Files and Python.

        I knew about Crouch/Wynton M vs free jazz but will have to check out Watts vs McNish.


        Always more to read.

        Liked by 1 person

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