American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Songs of the Diaspora (part one)

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How two Yiddish poems about the class struggle in America became songs of Russia.

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"Mrs. William B. Owen standing between Miss Alice Stone Blackwell, and Mrs. James Lees Laidlaw," 1915 (Library of Congress)

In her self-published Songs of Russia (1906), Alice Stone Blackwell includes four Yiddish poems, two each by David Edelstadt and Morris Rosenfeld, the latter versified from prose versions by Leo Wiener. The former are also versified, but no individual collaborator is given. Since no dates of composition are given either, it is left to the reader to imagine which of the four, if any, were written before the poets fled Russia — assuming the reader is aware that the poets did flee; there are no biographical notes to prompt curiosity on the point. This was surely purposeful. Blackwell was an officer of the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom, a group originally organized by Julia Ward Howe (its founding members also included several other old soldiers of the abolitionist movement: William Lloyd Garrison, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, John Greenleaf Whittier). Her anthology was designed to aid the Society in its work. That is, “to give a glimpse into the thoughts and aspirations of some Russian lovers of freedom, as revealed in their poetry.” I’m inclined, then, to see the presentation of Edelstadt and Rosenfeld as a deliberate obscuring, especially in the case of Edelstadt, in order to emphasize the Russianness of the two American Jews. Yet the very fact that their work was rendered into English — without facing text — only serves to re-Americanize it: an American impersonation of a Russian song, albeit one that performed its Americanness in a very different manner than Edelstadt or Rosenfeld.

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Alice Stone Blackwell, sometime between 1905 and 1917 (Library of Congress)

But I don’t mean to be criticizing Blackwell. Her accomplishments are every bit as deserving of celebration as those of the two poets. Born in 1857, she was an editor as well as writer and translator, and also a lifelong political activist, as befits a daughter of Lucy Stone. Her career stretched, amazingly, from the end of Reconstruction to the dawn of the Atomic Age, a longevity beautifully illustrated in the photograph above, which shows her in a plain cloth dress and shawl, looking like a character out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin — an effect heightened by the two women beside her; their silk dresses and fancy hats seem to shine forth from a different century altogether. Not that Blackwell was a relic, not even in her attire: her fashion could be as radical as her politics, witness the second photograph, which shows her in a tweed suit, holding up a copy of the Woman’s Journal, which she edited from 1909 to 1917. And since I’m harping on fashion here, let me also cite one of Blackwell’s last appearances in the press, a New York Times story from 1947:

Denounces Long Skirts

Alice Stone Blackwell, 90, Calls Them “Clumsy, Inconvenient

The new long skirt was denounced today as “clumsy, expensive and inconvenient” by a pioneer suffragette, Alice Stone Blackwell, on the eve of her ninetieth birthday.

Miss Blackwell, whose mother, the noted Lucy Stone, was one of the first women to wear the “bloomer dress,” said in an interview that she saw “no sense at all to the new style.

“We’re accustomed to fashion changing,” she said, “but when you have a convenient fashion such as short skirts, it’s a great mistake to go back to any other.”

Applauding opposition to the change by many women and by men, Miss Blackwell said both house and office work could be done better in short skirts.

Blackwell’s attitude here might seem to be the opposite of poetic, but then her view of poetry was equally pragmatic. Or rather, was equally shaped by the goal of attaining social good. Poems she judged by the same standard as persons, as when she wrote of Alexander Petöfi:

As eloquence is more telling when there is “a man behind the speech,” so Petöfi’s songs of freedom are the more inspiring because behind them stands that youthful and knightly figure, “without fear and without reproach.” He shines like a star in the history of that dark and bloody time.

And of Ezekiel Leavitt:

It is true of Mr. Leavitt, as of all other poets, of all nationalities, that the most valuable among his poems are those which inspire courage and predict the inevitable triumph of right.

She would probably agree, then, with Nada Gordon’s recent statement that language and clothing “are two of the most basic social needs.” As Nada explains:

In order to live in the world among other human beings, assuming that we are neither mute, nor illiterate, nor nudists, we need language, and we need clothing. … To me, this gives poetry and fashion a certain kinship: we have no choice but to get dressed and to communicate, but we can make astonishing choices about HOW to dress and HOW to communicate, and that, my friends, is what we call style.

Or what Blackwell would call politics. But I digress…

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Alice Stone Blackwell, sometime between 1880 and 1900 (Library of Congress)

Songs of Russia was not Blackwell’s first anthology. In 1896, she published a collection of Armenian Poems; it was brought out by Robert’s Brothers, the same firm that brought out Emily Dickinson’s Poems, Third Series that very same year. In the earlier anthology, Blackwell was more forthcoming about her work of impersonation, perhaps because she was not yet secure in her translations. The following apologetic sentences appear in her preface:

This effort has been beset with difficulties. My knowledge of the Armenian language does not extend much beyond the alphabet. Each of these translations in verse has been made from a literal translation in prose, furnished to me in French or English by my Armenian friends…. Some of those who thus lent their assistance were hampered by an imperfect knowledge of English…. It is therefore probable that the work contains many errors.

As the beauty of an Armenian girl is often conspicuous even in rags, so it is hoped that the beauty of some of these Armenian poems may be visible even through the poverty of their English dress.

The apology was dropped from the enlarged edition of 1916, which Blackwell published privately while the Armenian genocide was still underway. One of her additions was a request for emergency donations:

When the recent terrible events began, the Armenians who could fled over the frontier. Refugees by hundreds of thousands are crowded together in Russia, in Egypt, in Greece, destitute of everything, and perishing like flies. The need is desperate, and on a colossal scale. Contributions for the relief fund should be sent to Charles R. Crane, 70 Fifth Avenue, New York City.

A New York Times story from 1916 indicates that Crane’s organization used some of its money to pay ransoms for Armenian women.

Ezekiel Leavitt (from his Education and Psychology, 1908)

Ezekiel Leavitt (from his Education and Psychology, 1908)

But going back to Blackwell’s work with Jewish poets: one year after publishing her Songs of Russia, she produced Ezekiel Leavitt’s Songs of Grief and Gladness, versified by Blackwell from prose translations of his Yiddish. The first edition was published by a press affiliated with the Jewish community of St. Louis. I’ve not seen that version, but the 1917 edition, brought out by a Boston firm, is available from Google Books. There Blackwell writes, regarding Leavitt’s Jewishness:

The author is deeply imbued with the history of his race, a history so interesting and so wonderful that it is impossible for any open-minded person to read it without feeling his heart swell with pride over the achievements of the old Jewish heroes and heroines. This feeling is of course tenfold stronger in those who share the same ancient and heroic blood. Mr. Leavitt’s poetical gift attains some of its highest flights in descanting upon the old glories of Israel, as in his remarkable poem “To My Nation.”

And also:

The author’s spirit is intensely nationalistic. He is not only an idealist but distinctly and fervently a Hebrew idealist. Wherever his body may be, his soul dwells in Zion. Over and over again, in different forms occurs the exhortation with which he closes “A Zionist Marseillaise.”

Morris Rosenfeld (from the first volume of his collected works, 1908)

Morris Rosenfeld (from the first volume of his collected works, 1908)

These references to Zionism, and Blackwell’s relationship with the Jewish community, bear on her treatment of Edelstadt and Rosenfeld, as they indicate that her framing of those two poets as wholly Russian was deliberate, or at least was undertaken in full knowledge of the complexities of diasporic nationalism. These complexities, I hasten to say, do not invalidate their Russianness; it’s only that an exclusive focus on Russianness invalidates so much else. Oddly, however, it is the Zionist Rosenfeld who sings of Russia in these poems, not the anarchist Edelstadt. Or maybe not odd, since a Zionist will have a more concrete sense of place than an anarchist.

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Maxim Gorky, 1923-25 (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

The Yiddish poems of Jewish Americans, especially first-generation immigrants, participate in their varied ways in more than one national literature. As translations, of course, they also exist in more than one language, having different meanings in their different contexts (and different authorships too, granting impersonation its legitimacy). This state of affairs is hardly unique to the cases at hand, but it’s maybe more intrinsic to a diasporic language such as Yiddish than those whose broad use is fixed by national or imperial borders, as Russian was before the Revolution. These days, almost all languages are diasporic, at least those that are not tending toward extinction, but when Blackwell made her translations Yiddish literature was not so insistently localized as that of Russian. As a consequence, the nationality of Edelstadt or Rosenfeld would have been more vexed, and more complex, than that of Maxim Gorky, say, who was also included. Though Gorky too was living outside Russia, he did so as an exile; his orientation remained decisively Russian. Edelstadt and Rosenfeld were refugees, were not simply writing their poems in America; they were part of a Yiddish-speaking community large enough and important enough to require a chapter in the Cambridge History of American Literature (1921). Though I wouldn’t want to insist too strongly on this difference between exile and refuge, or speculate too ignorantly about the poets’ commitments and readerships: my point is only that the anthology worked to efface differences, oversimplifying for polemical purposes. Calling these poems songs of the diaspora is a way of insisting on difference. A polemical complication.

Questions of citizenship, nationality, and internationality for Yiddish poets and their translators — an excellent research agenda. I wish I had the requisite language skills. [1]

Part two will look at the poems. But it may take a while. I have two weeks left to pack my father’s apartment; then school starts. Now written (link here)

Note

1 [Back to text] If I did, my model would be Kirsten Silva Gruesz’s Ambassadors of Culture, not only for its transnational frame of reference and focus on poetry, but also for its emphasis on translation.  These days, without translation, even Jews would have little access to Yiddish culture, at least to judge from my own experience. When I was growing up, I knew of only one person my own age who spoke it, and most Jews I’ve known, myself included, are nearly as ignorant of Hebrew. If assimilation has a poetics, it goes by the name translation.

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