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Kenneth Fearing’s Life–by Robert M. Ryley Essay, Research Paper
Robert M. Ryley
As a senior in high school, Kenneth Fearing was voted wittiest
boy and class pessimist. If there had been elections for class cynic and class
misanthropist, he would probably have won these as well. After his death, his friends
would remember his charm, his eloquence, his almost courtly manners, his prickly
independence, his not-quite-hidden vulnerability and innocence–but mostly they would
remember his gloomy, sardonic skepticism. In Margery Latimer’s roman ? clef This Is My
Body, a character representing Carl Rakosi says to a character representing Fearing
(and Rakosi concedes that the sentiments, though not the style, were sometimes his):
That darkness of yours has changed me. Your damned dead mind is infecting me…. Next
thing I’ll be flippant like you, joking about everything that means a damn. That darkness
of yours is like an infection that never heals….
Pessimists are always right in the long run–everybody gets to drive a silk-upholstered
six–but Fearing was right in the short run too. His love affairs, his marriages, his
politics, his career–all of them went wrong in the end.
At the beginning he must have seemed destined for the best that America had to offer.
His father, Harry Lester Fearing, was a successful Chicago attorney who could trace his
paternal ancestry back to seventeenth-century Massachusetts and whose great grandmother
was a Coolidge, the sister of the thirtieth president’s grandfather. Kenneth’s mother,
Olive Flexner Fearing, was a member of the illustrious Jewish family that, within a
generation of emigrating to the United States from Bohemia, produced Olive’s cousin
Abraham Flexner, the first director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton; and
her cousin Simon Flexner, the first director of the Rockefeller Institute. Simon’s son and
Kenneth’s second cousin, James Thomas Flexner, is a distinguished art historian and winner
of the National Book Award for his biography of George Washington.
Kenneth was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on July 28, 1902. One day about a year later
his mother picked him up and ran away, presumably to Chicago, where his father quickly
tracked them down. A divorce followed, the settlement granting each parent six months’
custody a year. Soon, however, Kenneth was spending most of his time with the Fearings and
being raised by a doting but eccentric aunt, Eva Fearing Scholl, who, it is said, having
been abandoned by her mandolin-teacher husband, cut the head out of all of his photographs
and later succumbed to malnutrition caused by a diet of spinach and corn flakes. Harry
remarried in 1914 and moved out of the Fearing duplex to an apartment some distance away;
but even after he returned with his new wife, for some years Kenneth continued to live
with Eva in the south side of the house, though happily for his nutrition he ate his meals
with his father and step-mother.
Kenneth loved his father and tolerated his mother. Harry was kind, generous, and often
playful, and, when his son grew up, surprisingly tolerant of his bohemianism. On the other
hand, his mother–or Ollie as she was usually called–was almost wholly without humor, and
what little she had was in the vein of the Beowulf poet’s, a sort of
grim irony. Though she sent Kenneth a monthly allowance until his son was born in 1935, it
came at a price–her hectoring admonitions about the importance of honest work. "I
hope your book is accepted," she once wrote him, "–God knows you need it."
When he did publish, she was not impressed. To the woman who cared for her in the last
years of her life she never mentioned that her son was a distinguished writer.
A problem that must have raised its head early on was antisemitism. Ollie claimed she
had run away from her husband after hearing one of his sisters say of Kenneth, "Too
bad he’s a Jew," and later there was an uproar in the family when a younger cousin of
his called him an anti-semitic name. He remembered once sitting under a table while Ollie
played pinochle and asking, "What are Jews?"–to which Ollie replied,
"God’s chosen people meld jacks." In spite of marriage to Ollie, or perhaps
because of it, Harry seems to have harbored the kind of reflexive antisemitism typical of
middle-class WASPs of the period. On one occasion, conversing amiably with Kenneth’s
college friend Carl Rakosi, Harry stopped speaking and left the room when Kenneth
provocatively asked if he realized that Rakosi was a Jew. Because Kenneth’s background was
not generally known outside of the family, he encountered no discrimination in Oak Park.
But a feeling that he had something to conceal may have contributed to a habit of secrecy
reflected in the extreme impersonality of his art. As his first wife once remarked,
"Kenneth spent his whole life hiding his inner self from other people."
Kenneth began his generally successful academic career in 1908 at the Whittier School
in Oak Park, and at graduation read an essay on the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. At Oak
Park-River Forest High School, he followed in the footsteps of follow Oak Parker Ernest
Hemingway by becoming an editor of the student newspaper, the author of a weekly column,
and the author of the class prophecy. In the fall of 1920, he entered the University of
Illinois and disappeared for two years. All that is known of his time in Urbana are his
grades (not bad) and the title of a story of his, "A Tale of Long Ago," listed
in an issue of the Illinois Magazine but never printed. At the beginning of his
junior year he transferred to the University of Wisconsin and within three months was
publishing poetry and fiction in the Wisconsin Literary Magazine, or the Lit, as
it was called. By the beginning of his second semester he was on the editorial board, and
by the end of the year he had been elected editor-in-chief. This auspicious beginning,
however–a pattern is now beginning to establish itself–was followed by an inglorious
final semester. He did win the university’s William S. Vilas Prize for an essay on the
literary criticism of James Gibbon Huneker; but in March 1924 he was forced to resign as
editor of the Lit, owing partly to financial mismanagement and partly to an
editorial policy of which the Committee on Student Life disapproved: too much Modernist
obscurity, pessimism, and sexual frankness. Another reason, he reported in a statement to
the student newspaper, was that the members of the Committee "could not see that I
loved and respected my fellow men." And, he added, "The … point is largely
true." A final indignity was a "condition" in a mathematics course that
kept him from graduating with his class.
In December of 1924 he went to New York to join Margery Latimer, the dazzlingly
attractive and exceptionally gifted young writer he had met and fallen in love with at
Wisconsin in early 1923. They were almost exact opposites–he slovenly and bedraggled,
saturnine, cynical; she immaculate, luminous, mystical, otherworldly. In a letter to a
friend, she wittily parodied one of their typical conversations: "’Well, let’s get
some coffee.’ ‘O let’s do something great, let’s get in contact with people, the
world, the world—‘ ‘For God’s sake let’s be plain for a change.’"
This improbable relationship–at its best, she shrewdly observed, when they were
apart–lasted until the spring of 1928, when she left New York for her hometown of
Portage, Wisconsin, hoping he would follow, propose marriage, and offer to give her a
child. Instead he began an affair with another woman. He later suggested that they get
back together, but after having been almost suicidal over his infidelity, she discovered
she no longer needed him. In October 1931 she married the poet and novelist Jean Toomer,
and died in childbirth the following August.
Fearing’s original plan on coming to New York had been to work as a journalist and do
his own writing on the side, but Latimer, who would later blame herself for contributing
to his irresponsibility, persuaded him to devote himself to poetry. It could not have
taken much persuasion. Until he was well over fifty, he never held a nine-to-five job for
more than a few months. In various summaries of his early work-history, he would claim to
have been a journalist, a salesman, a millhand, and even–this in an "About
Contributors" column, where a man is not on his honor–a lumberjack. Whatever the
truth about mills and lumberjacking, he is known to have worked briefly, either during or
just after college, at a Chicago newspaper and, for about a month in 1924, at a department
store selling pants. In the next thirty years he would take an occasional brief job–with
the WPA, with Time, with the United Jewish Appeal, with the Federation of Jewish
Philanthropies–but for the most part he just wrote. And though he was more serious about
his poetry than about anything else, though he made sacrifices in its service, he could
never bring himself to regard it as a calling, as something special. "I always begin
to get suspicious," he told his son, "when I hear a poet talking about his work."
He was a professional freelance writer, and poetry was one of the things he wrote.
Another thing he wrote was pulp fiction, the sale of which, along with a monthly
allowance of $15 from his mother, emergency gifts from his father, and loans from Margery
Latimer, was probably his main means of support during the early years in New York. To my
knowledge no Fearing pulp story has ever been identified, but his half-brother, Ralph,
recalls the plot of one from the late 20s, "Garlic and Dimpled Knees." The story
about an artist who painted a portrait of his garlic-eating girlfriend. The work was
entered in competition at a gallery. On the day of final judging, the girlfriend just
happened to be standing near one of the judges after finishing some garlic-laced lunch.
The judge thought the painting so elegantly realistic that he actually felt he could smell
the garlic, so awarded the masterpiece first prize.
Much of Fearing’s pulp fiction, however, was soft-core pornography, often published
under the pseudonym Kirk Wolff. Writing in 1932 to his wife-to-be Rachel Meltzer, who
deplored pulp work as a waste of his talents, he playfully parodied his Wolffian style,
envisioning the time when he might "daily draw the seductively curved, palpitating,
flame-lipped and dark, laughing-eyed [Rachel] into my masterful embrace and. . .." He
had not, he assured her, written a similar erotic ellipsis in three months.
As for verse, between his arrival in New York in 1924 and the appearance of his first
book in 1929, he published 44 poems in 15 periodicals, a quarter of the 44 in the New
Masses, to which he also contributed essays and reviews. To this journal he was
introduced by Latimer. She had received a request for material from James Rorty, one of
the editors, and went to his office with samples of Fearing’s work. Though the magazine
was not yet a Communist organ and was open to literary diversity, Rorty responded angrily,
declaring that he wasn’t interested in "art for its own sake." Nevertheless, in
September 1926 he devoted a page to five of Fearing’s poems, and shortly thereafter Edmund
Wilson wrote to the magazine praising them and asking for more.
Fearing’s first book, Angel Arms, containing nineteen of the forty-four poems he
had published since coming to New York and five new ones, was issued by Coward McCann in
its Songs of Today Series in the spring of 1929. [. . . .] (For bibliographical details
concerning this and all other books by Fearing, see the Bibliography of Major Works on
page Ixii of Kenneth Fearing’s Complete Poems). This collection
has been credited with "initiating proletarian poet as an American literary movement
of permanent importance," a claim that lends the book a certain glamour but that
reads back into Angel Arms attitudes from Fearing’s Poems of 1935. Edward
Dahlberg, comparing Angel Arms to Poems, speaks of the earlier book’s
"acid portraits of Woolworth shopgirls." There are no Woolworth shopgirls in Angel
Arms, but no matter. Dahlberg’s inaccuracy expresses a larger truth–that the book is
very much a work of the twenties and directs its withering irony everywhere, at the
working class and the lumpen proletariat as well as at the bourgeoisie. The term
"proletarian literature" has been given a bewildering variety of definitions,
but it is hard to imagine one broad enough to include Angel Arms’ all-encompassing
The book elicited six brief reviews, ranging from the laudatory in the NewMasses ("brutal
frankness, an intellectual hardness and cleanliness rare since Walt Whitman") to the
dismissive in, aptly enough, that Eliotic symbol of spiritual emptiness The Boston
Evening Transcript ("nothing pleasant in the entire volume"). It may have
been this paucity of interest, not to mention sales, that led Fearing almost to abandon
poetry for fiction over the next six years, during which he would publish only twenty-one
poems. On the other hand, the same pattern–a long period of productivity in one genre,
followed by a long period of productivity in the other–would repeat itself for the rest
of his life.
During this first period of prose, he wrote three unpublished novels: Jacqueline,
now lost but known to use one of his girlfriends (not Margery Latimer) as a model for
Jacqueline; Robert Ward, also lost but known to use his friend Harry Ross as a
model for Robert Ward; and Gentleman’s Destiny, surviving in an incomplete
manuscript and a plot summary, and known to use his friend Tom Dimitry as a model for the
gentleman. This practice of writing novels about his friends suggests a typical 1930s
conception of fiction as documentary, but it was also Fearing’s way of insuring that he
wouldn’t write about himself. "The autobiographical first novel is a death
knell," he told his first wife, and he later informed his son that "he always
wrote himself in as a minor character in order to keep the main character from being
Autobiographical." In the case of Gentleman’s Destiny, the
autobiographical temptation may have been especially strong, for the gentleman protagonist
is an alcoholic, as Fearing was.
His drinking began at least as early as Wisconsin, where, according to Rakosi, he used
to stay up all night writing and slugging whisky. Once in the late twenties he was jailed
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