’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
for drunkenness and had to be bailed out by Horace Gregory. By 1933, when Albert Halper
published his novel Union Square in which Fearing appears, scarcely disguised, as
the "ex-poet" and pulp writer Jason Wheeler, his addiction must have been
notorious. Jason is drunk or half-drunk much of the time, and Halper makes his
carelessness with cigarettes responsible for the destruction by fire of his apartment
building–a prescient invention, for Fearing would later start two or three small fires by
failing into a drunken sleep while smoking in bed.
On a blind date in the summer of 1931, Fearing met his wife-to-be Rachel Meltzer.
Attractive, intelligent, competent, and affectionate; twenty-seven years old; politically
engaged and active in left-wing causes; a trained nurse employed as a medical social
worker, Rachel fell in love almost immediately with the filthiest man she had ever seen.
His shirts, she recalls, were green with grime, his teeth covered with tartar. For Rachel,
however, his very grubbiness may have been part of his attraction. "Kenneth needed
someone to take care of him," she has said, and she threw herself into the role of
caregiver with a generosity and enthusiasm that belies her claim that she was never cut
out to be a nurse. It is not clear whether her love for Fearing was ever requited in full.
In a series of thirty-three letters he wrote from Oak Park between January and April 1932,
he told her often that he missed her and wanted her, but he also parried all of her
arguments in favor of marriage and addressed her in tones of such facetiousness and irony
that his true feelings are indecipherable. The letters also foreshadowed what would
eventually help to doom the marriage–his reluctance to express affection in person. For
while the letters were at least affectionate–in fact, charmingly so–he had to reassure
Rachel that he wasn’t angry when they parted in New York (he just wasn’t very good at
leave-taking) and apologize for his aloofness when she telephoned (the family was
listening). The time would come when they couldn’t Communicate at all, he silent in his
toughness and cynicism, she afraid to speak for fear of sounding stupid and sentimental.
And yet when they weren’t together, he could say on paper what he never said in person.
Writing to her in 1937 while they were living apart until they could find an apartment, he
declared out of the blue, "Discovered I am horribly in love with you five minutes
after I rang the bell at Ruth’s and found you’d gone."
Over the objections of Rachel’s orthodox Jewish father, who regarded Fearing as a
gentile (as did Rachel herself), they were married on April 26, 1933. She then became the
family breadwinner, a role that assumed additional importance after the birth of their
only son, Bruce, on July 19, 1935, when Fearing’s mother decided that Kenneth should
assume the responsibilities of fatherhood and stopped his allowance of $15 a month. (When
Bruce was older and Rachel wrote pleading for help with his dental expenses, Ollie
replied, "Ask your husband.") Except for a few months before Bruce was born and
the better part of a year when they were in England on Fearing’s Guggenheim, Rachel worked
continuously throughout the marriage. During one period, employed by the New York City
Welfare Department, she had to travel an hour and a half each way to the Brownsville
office in Brooklyn and would get so tired that, much to Fearing’s annoyance, she would
fall asleep at parties.
As well as the birth of his son, 1935 brought the publication of Fearing’s second book,
Poems, comprising the twenty-one poems he had published since Angel Arms and
fulsomely introduced by Edward Dahlberg, was issued by Dynamo in an edition of a
thousand numbered copies and then, an indication of its success, in paper covers.
According to Robert Cantwell, it even made money (though not for the author). Its success
was owing not only to its intrinsic merits, which are many, but to its apparent
vindication of faith in the power of Marxism to foster poetry of the first rank.
Dahlberg’s introduction insists on the poems’ hostility to capitalism and on their
"inexorable, Marxist interpretations," and enthusiastic reviewers hastened to
follow his lead, two of them confidently identifying Fearing as a Communist. In fact,
however, some of the poems might have been written by the apolitical, iconoclastic Fearing
of the 1920s. Nevertheless, the authority of Dahlberg’s introduction; the unmistakable
Communist implications of many of the poems, especially the last, "Denouement";
and the announcement on the back of the title page that the book was "the first …
in a projected series which will present proletarian poets"–all of this made it easy
to find more Marxism than was probably intended, nor was Fearing at this time averse to
having such discoveries made. But was he really serious about Communism? My own answer
would be, "It depends."
It depends, for one thing, on what period of his life we’re talking about. His first
wife reports that at the time he was publishing some of the incendiary poems of Poems, he
was laughing in private at the pomposity and self-importance of Communist Party members.
If this attitude isn’t implied, it is at least not contradicted by what he later told the
FBI–that "he had become a ‘fellow traveler’ in 1933 and that prior to that time he
had not been very interested in the meetings of the John Reed Club due to the fact that he
was not interested in the politics discussed at all the meetings." And the same
indifference to politics is evidenced in the thirty-three letters he wrote to Rachel in
1932. These focus on his writing, his money problems, his family, his drinking, his
smoking, his reading (murder mysteries), and his boredom. There are only two or three
brief references to politics, mainly in response to something said by his correspondent;
only two references to the New Masses, one having to do with a dance; and only one
reference to the Depression–this in connection with his family’s citing hard times in an
effort to persuade him to stay in Oak Park rather than return to New York.
The answer to the question "How serious was Fearing about Communism?" also
depends on what is meant by seriousness. If he was serious enough to become a fellow
traveler after 1933, was he serious enough to join the Party? The FBI has a list that says
he was, and according to Alfred Hayes, Fearing once turned to Philip Rahv after listening
to him hold forth on the evils of Stalinism and said, "And you recruited me
into the party." Moreover, A. B. Magill told Alan Wald that he recalled Fearing’s
having been a Party member "for a while." But the FBI list, its provenance
unknown even to the Bureau itself, is the merest hearsay; Hayes’s anecdote, assuming its
accuracy, is open to a variety of interpretations; and Magill’s recollection is vague. And
against this evidence must be set the contrary testimony of his friends and family, and
especially of Fearing himself. In 1950, Anna Marie Rosenberg, President Truman’s nominee
as Assistant Secretary of Defense, was wrongly identified as a former member of the John
Reed Club. It was in connection with the Rosenberg investigation that Fearing was first
interviewed by the FBI and then issued a request subpoena by an assistant U.S. attorney in
Washington. Testifying under oath and asked if he was a member of the Communist Party,
Fearing replied, loudly, "Not yet." This answer, there is every reason to
believe, was not only witty but true.
With the critical success of Poems, Fearing entered the mainstream of American
literary culture. On a Guggenheim fellowship of $2,500, he went with Rachel and Bruce to
London for the first eight months of 1937, and returned to a contract offer from Random
House for a new book of poems and, somewhat later, another contract for his novel The
Hospital which had been drafted in London. In the summer of 1938, he went for his
first stay at Yaddo, the writer’s colony in Saratoga Springs to which he would often
return, and for the first time since 1926, he placed a poem in The New Yorker, which
became his forum of choice for the next ten years. Much to his amusement, in December of
1938 his degree from the University of Wisconsin was awarded "as of the class of
1924," and in the following year his Guggenheim was renewed. In 1940 he won the
Guarantor’s Prize of Poetry magazine for "Three Poems," and in 1944 an
award of $1,000 from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
This period was also the most productive of his life. Between 1938 and 1943 he
published a book a year: Dead Reckoning (verse, 1938), The Hospital (novel,
1939), Collected Poems (1940), Dagger of the Mind (novel, 1941), Clark
Gifford’s Body (novel, 1942), and Afternoon of a Pawnbroker (verse, 1943).
The only critical failure was Clark Gifford’s Body, whose aggressively avant-garde
technique (twenty-three characters narrate a jumbled chronology of sixty years) and
pessimistic vision of the future were scarcely calculated to satisfy public taste in the
middle of World War II. But even the critically successful works failed to pay, only The
Hospital and Collected Poems earning him more royalties than the advance on
each book. Nearly famous and entering his forties, he was still financially dependent on
But his marriage collapsed in 1942. As early as 1938, in a gentle, affectionate letter
from Yaddo, he had broached the subject of divorce, but Rachel, fearful of how the loss of
his father would affect Bruce and certain that she couldn’t manage without a husband,
successfully fought to save the marriage. By 1942, however, Fearing’s alcoholism had
intensified, a six-month job with Time had done nothing to improve his financial
prospects, and Rachel had come to believe that she and Bruce would be better off alone. As
he was about to depart for another of his stays at Yaddo, she told him she was leaving him
and was dumbfounded when he said, inexplicably, "Well, don’t pick up any men in
bars." Though in later years they would develop a warm friendship, for a long time
after the break he nursed feelings of bitterness about what he evidently considered a
Consolation, however, came almost immediately at Yaddo, where he met Nan Lurie, a
handsome thirty-two-year-old artist. She had grown up speaking Yiddish in New Jersey, gone
to Paris on her own after high school, and won a scholarship to study under Yasuo Kunioshi
at the Art Students League. She and Fearing met within a week of their arrival at Yaddo
and stayed on together during the winter after most of the other residents had left. On
Christmas day, with less than a dollar between them, they ate their first meal alone
together at a restaurant in the Black district of Saratoga Springs. By the spring, when
they were both back in NewYork, Fearing was wildly, deliriously, giddily in love and
writing notes and letters of astonishing sentimentality, even falling into such clich?s
as "I am not good enough for you." He cherished what he called Nan’s "sheer
lunacy"–her "vitamins," her "stray cats," her "religious
quarter hour," the "confessions" she wrote in the dark, blindfolded. (In
his poem "Irene Has a Mind of Her Own," published four years later when his
ardor had cooled, he looked on similar flakiness with a less benevolent eye.) In the
winter of 1944-45, he moved into Nan’s loft on East 10th Street, and, his divorce having
become final the year before, they were married in Greenwich, Connecticut, on June 18,
While still at Yaddo in March 1943, Fearing had been having trouble mapping out a new
novel. Inspiration had to wait for two events: the sensational murder in October 1943 of
the New York heiress Mrs. Wayne Lonergan, and the publication in 1944 of Samuel Michael
Fuller’s little-known thriller The Dark Page. Transformed and refined, details from
the Lonergan case and Fuller’s novel would coalesce in Fearing’s imagination to produce
the plot of his most famous book, which he wrote between August 1944 and October 1945.
Published in the fall of 1946, The Big Clock made Fearing temporarily rich.
Altogether he took in about $60,000 (roughly $360,000 in 1992 dollars): about $ 10,000 in
royalties and from the sale of republication rights (including a condensation in The
American Magazine), and $50,000 from the sale of film rights to Paramount. In
1947, Nan won $2,000 in an art competition, a sum they dismissed as negligible but that
only two years earlier would have seemed a fortune. But Fearing’s successes always
contained the germ of disaster. Overestimating his business acumen, he had negotiated his
own contract with Paramount, permanently and irrevocably signing away his film rights, and
relinquishing his television rights till 1952, by which time, he discovered to his rage
and frustration, Paramount was showing late-night reruns and had thus cornered the market.
A more immediate problem was alcohol. He told his friend Alice Neel (the model for Louise
Patterson, the eccentric painter in The Big Clock) that since he could now
afford to start drinking in the morning, he was having trouble getting any work done. On
one occasion he almost died from a combination of scotch and phenobarbital, and in 1952 he
was so shaken by his doctor’s warnings about the condition of his liver that he went on
the wagon. For Nan, who for years had been trying to get him to stop drinking, this should
have been a cause for rejoicing, but she discovered that without alcohol he was no longer
"playful" and "romantic" and that she was no longer interested in the
Stranger at Coney Island and Other Poems appeared in 1948, his "Next to last
volume, perhaps," he called it in an inscription to Vincent Starrett. The response of
the critics was generally favorable; but beginning as early as the Collected Poems, a
note of dissatisfaction had begun to sound even in some of the most enthusiastic reviews.
Fearing’s best work, it was said, had been done before 1938; or the poet was repeating
himself, or his methods or his themes or his aesthetic or all three were such as to make
major poems impossible. Whatever the justice of these opinions, along with financial
considerations they probably contributed to his decision to devote himself thenceforth
exclusively to the novel. He abandoned poetry completely until 1955 when, with
considerable difficulty and primarily to justify the use of the word "new" in
the title, he wrote the "Family Album" section of New and Selected Poems.
The last ten years of Fearing’s life were embittered by poverty and failing health.
Somehow he and Nan had gone through all of his earnings from The Big Clock, though
their only apparent extravagance, if extravagance it can be called, was to rent a cottage
in the country for part of two summers. At any rate, by January 1951 Fearing was beginning
to worry about money. His novel Loneliest Girl in the World (1951) and the New
and Selected Poems (1956) provided a little income, but neither of his last two
novels, The Generous Heart (1954) and The Crozart Story (1960), earned
enough to pay off his advances. The following fragments of information from his papers at
the University of Wisconsin suggest the tenuousness of his solvency throughout the period:
Total annual income, 1954:
Total annual income, 1955:
Indebtedness to Harcourt (royalties
less advances and books purchased
as of 30 June 1955):
Indebtedness to Doubleday
(royalties less advances as of
31 October 1960):
For the first time since the 1930s, he had to write for the pulps again, though now it
was crime stories under his own name. And for the first time ever, he held a full-time job
for three consecutive years (1955-1958), writing reports and publicity releases for the
Muscular Dystrophy Association of America. People who worked with him remember that in the
afternoons he would have to put his head on his typewriter and sleep.
These indignities, coming as they did after his affluence of the late forties and in
conjunction with the poisonous atmosphere of McCarthyism, led to a radical darkening of
his vision. In his last novel, The Crozart Story, the only characters not corrupt
are those too sketchily portrayed to be morally significant. Steve Crozart, the charlatan
and perjurer who has helped to cause, and has vastly profited by, the conviction of Blair
Fennister (read Alger Hiss), explains with amoral insouciance the reasoning that underlies
his, Crozart’s, destruction of the innocent:
The human sacrifice should be selected with great care. In the classic stories of our
age, the protagonist marked for destruction is so well chosen that at first glance it
seems unlikely he has really been nominated. He is so favorably situated, he imagines
himself so immune to the grotesque indictment, the stereotyped travesty of the accusation,
that he believes it is wholly an accident that he, personally, has been designated a
leading figure among the category of those about to be condemned. Even when he sees the
wholesale abandonment of himself, the universal desertion from his side, his cause and
case, even then he doesn’t accept that his fate is irrevocably fixed….
And there is a good reason for the choice of such a figure as the quarry. His
complacency adds tone and zest to the whole spectacle. His innocent faith in himself
heightens the suspense. His struggles to escape from the fury of the pack become
increasingly genuine and desperate because he alone still imagines that it is possible to
escape. And the spectators sense this. They know that every move, every turn and twist the
dedicated sacrifice makes as he seeks to break out of the gauntlet–all this is genuine.
It’s a drama that cannot be counterfeited.
This is satire, of course, but Fearing as satirist is here less a Swift than a Gulliver
returned from the land of the Houyhnhnms. In random thoughts set down sometime in the
early fifties, ideas that Crozart applies narrowly to security investigations had been
generalized by Fearing as his own:
Cannibalism, the rite of human sacrifice, seems to run through every age and every
phase of the human story. In itself both betrayal and atonement, every completed cycle of
the process prepares for the next circle of the ritual. Early Spring and late Fall seem to
be the favored seasons of the observance.
There is some obscure zest in the act. Religious writers revel in it. It is probably
here, even in these observations. In a primitive agricultural society, human sacrifice
insured good crops. In complex industrial society, a springtime war means profits.
The Fearing of the fifties differs from Crozart not as Swift differs from Gulliver, but
as Gulliver differs from the rest of humanity–in his sickened abhorrence of the Yahooness
that everyone else seems to revel in and take for granted. And Yahooness is universal. It
governs in the United States, it governs in the Soviet Union. On the same page as his
observations on "human sacrifice," Fearing predicts that American security
investigations–"the shakedown," "the racket"–will lead inevitably,
as their equivalent had done under Stalin, to "mass assassinations." In a brief
unpublished essay written at the end of 1952, "Phantoms of the Investigation,"
he declares that the defense industry, a fiction created by a corrupt establishment to
line its own pockets, produces no new military equipment whatsoever, and suggests that
there may be an implicit agreement between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to prolong the
Korean War. This was the mood that inspired "Reading, Writing, and the Rackets,"
his furious anti-anti-Communist foreword to New and Selected Poems–a foreword in
defense of which he almost sacrificed his contract for the book when he thought his
editors were trying to censor him. This was the mood that led him to deny to Mainstream,
the successor to the New Masses, permission to reprint "Reading, Writing,
and the Rackets." This was the mood that, when he was invited to a meeting to draft a
letter of protest against the Soviet Union’s refusal to let Pasternak collect his Nobel
Prize, led him to snort, "Why don’t they give me a Nobel Prize. I’ll go to a meeting
In the late fall of 1952, Nan had announced that she wanted a separation. When Fearing
was about to leave, she went to a movie, telling him to help himself to anything in the
loft he thought he could use, but all he took, she discovered when she returned, was a
small radio. At the end of the year he wrote a friend that Nan was "sketching
churches in Venice" and that, he had finally concluded, "she must be permanently
12 years old." They saw each other only two or three times after the separation, and
though he consulted his lawyer about the possibility of a divorce, nothing ever came of
it. When he died, she hadn’t known he had been ill.
He had begun drinking again in the fall of 1953, and he had never stopped smoking. His
half-brother Ralph recalls staying overnight with him sometime in the late fifties and
listening as he "coughed his strength away all night long." One day early in
1961, he felt a sharp pain in his back as he started to open a window. By June–at about
the time he learned that his mother was arranging to give him a lifetime income of $150 a
month–the pain was unremitting. Bruce moved into his 11th Street apartment to take care
of him. "That week," Bruce recalled, "he had me covering the village for
places to buy codeine cough syrup for a pain killer slugged by the bottle. One week of
that & rubbing his back ‘there’ while he told me how much it hurt, & I figured it
was going beyond me. . . . " On the 21st, they went by taxi to Lenox Hill Hospital,
where Fearing was admitted with a malignant melanoma of the left chest and pleural cavity.
He died quietly on the 26th.
From Kenneth Fearing: Complete Poems. Ed. and with an Introduction by Robert M.
Ryley. The National Poetry Foundation, 1994. Copyright ? 1994 by Robert M. Ryley.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
Note: Ryley provides a large number of informative and
substantative notes for these essays in the volume from which they are taken. (pp. xlix-lxi).
Readers are encouraged to consult the original text for complete citations and