Under the Bridge: On Samuel Greenberg
By Michael CasperOctober 4, 2021
To receive the LARB Quarterly Journal, become a member.
Not long after Hart Crane disappeared off the back of a steamship in 1932, the caretaker of his family’s plantation on Isle of Pines, Cuba, collected his belongings and shipped them north. Crane had spent six months on the island drinking beer, helping out around the grounds, and laboring over his elaborate modernist masterpiece, The Bridge, which he envisioned as a response to The Waste Land. He had shipped to Cuba, as he wrote one friend, trunks “full of all kinds of dear familiar things that you have seen and touched in my room.” Along with his ivory figurines and china was a sheaf of papers in a blue folder labeled “Grünberg Mss.”
The caretaker would later forward these papers to literary scholar Philip Horton, who recognized in them some lines from The Bridge, but realized that “the author is most certainly not Hart Crane.” Horton concluded, “One has the successive impressions that the author was mad, illiterate, esoteric, or simply drunk. And yet there flash out from this linguistic chaos lines of pure poetry, powerful, illuminating, and original, lines unlike any others in English literature, except Blake’s perhaps.” He soon appealed to the public “for any information which might lead to the identification of ‘S.B. Greenberg.’”
The poems, Horton would discover, were written by a young man from the Lower East Side of Manhattan who had immigrated from Vienna as a boy at the turn of the century. Samuel Greenberg attended public school in New York while working in his Yiddish-speaking parents’ embroidery shop and tragically succumbed to tuberculosis in 1917 at age 23. Yet, in his short life, Greenberg had entered a circle of older writers who admired the eccentric young man and encouraged his craft. His poems’ archaic formulations, neologisms, and idiosyncratic spellings suggested a divine touch — a Dickinsonian charge. Some poems read like rough translations or glossolalia. Here is “African Desert” in its cryptic entirety:
And we thought of wilderness
That Bore the thousand angles
That strew the dust
As fine as frost
‘Pon the fancied candels
O Black as autumn night
Are fed the Holy Forests
That fertilized the grain
That breathes the birth
Of chanted aurists
The soaring swan of danger
That held the mighty plain
The Bitter seed of glittering age
Seems glad to mourn its twain
Other poems were more ambitious, including a series of Rube Goldberg reveries called “Sonnets of Apology,” on topics such as “Man,” “Lust,” “Essence,” and “Immortality,” and the long poem, “The Pale Impromptu,” which unfurls a cascade of koan-like inventions:
Leaness will but crave
Skulls of saints
In 1939, James Laughlin, the founder of New Directions Publishing, included Greenberg, along with Pound and Lorca, in a series of pamphlets that served to orient the fledgling press. This pamphlet, which consists of a long essay by Laughlin that incorporates Greenberg’s poems, inspired John Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop, Frank O’Hara, and other midcentury experimenters in search of an American lodestar. A new edition of Laughlin’s pamphlet, published in late 2019, makes Greenberg widely accessible again. And yet Greenberg’s place in the canon is still unclear, in part, perhaps, because of Laughlin’s ambivalent presentation of his work. Canonized or not, Greenberg maintains a unique, enigmatic place in the American poetic imaginary.
Samuel Greenberg grew up in an era of mass immigration and social reform that challenged New York City’s entrenched class divisions. He dropped out of school to work in the family business, which served “rabbi and priest, negro and Greek,” he wrote in his fragmented memoir, “Between Historical Life,” included in the New Directions pamphlet. Greenberg’s brother, Morris, was an avid pianist who ran with musicians and artists. One day, Morris’s piano teacher heard Samuel playing Chopin when he arrived at the family’s Delancey Street apartment. Impressed that the boy claimed to play only by ear, the teacher sent Samuel to meet his friend William Murrell Fisher, a writer who worked as a guard in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “He is uncanny and articulate,” Fisher’s friend told him, “but there is something wonderful about him.”
At that fateful meeting, the extremely shy Greenberg asked Fisher if he could borrow some “classics,” and Fisher lent him Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, Emerson’s Essays, and Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History — Victorian staples whose diction would have a decisive influence on Greenberg, who memorably told Fisher that he had been reading the dictionary. Greenberg was soon welcomed into Fisher’s crowd of “men of the dime novel nobility,” as Greenberg called them, attending concerts, salons, and art classes while spending much of his free time reading at the New York Public Library. Here are the first two stanzas of “The ‘East River’s’ Charm,” written during this heady and productive period in Greenberg’s life:
Is this the river “East,” I heard
Where the ferrys, tugs and sailboats stirred
And the reaching warves from the inner land
Out stretched, like the harmless receiving hand
And the silvery tinge, that sparkles aloud
Like brilliant white demons, which a tide has towed
From the rays of the morning Sun
Which it doth ceaselessly shine upon
The excitement was short-lived. Greenberg was weakened by his illness, in and out of sanatoria, and reduced to writing on scrap paper and hospital charts, perhaps in the famous tubercular fever that made his condition a favorite of romantics. He died in a hospital on Ward’s Island — in the East River, which divides Manhattan and Brooklyn — in the summer of 1917.
After Samuel’s death, Morris gave Fisher some of his brother’s poems to see to publication, and Fisher ran a selection in The Plowshare, a little magazine based in rural Woodstock, New York, where Fisher had moved to convalesce from his own tuberculosis. Greenberg was “of the few rare, child-like spirits which never become sophisticated, yet through mystic penetration surprise our deepest truths with simple ease,” Fisher wrote in the journal. He was “possessed of a mystic wisdom which disarms and sets at naught our dear-bought worldly Knowledge.”
Woodstock had become something of an artists’ colony, and Hart Crane passed through in 1923. On his visit, Fisher showed Crane his collection of Greenberg originals. “He flared up in a corner with it,” Fisher remembered. Crane persuaded Fisher to let him borrow some poems for a couple of days. Much to Fisher’s consternation, Crane took the poems to New York City for over two weeks, copying them out into the blue notebook. Lines from seven of Greenberg’s poems, including “Conduct,” from “Sonnets of Apology,” made their way into Crane’s “Emblems of Conduct,” the third poem in his 1926 collection, White Buildings, among other poems. Greenberg’s “By a peninsula, the painter sat and / sketched the uneven vally groves” became Crane’s “By a peninsula the wanderer sat and sketched / The uneven valley graves,” to give one of many examples charted by Horton and reproduced by Laughlin.
When The Southern Review, which published Horton’s essays, declared Greenberg to be “the germ of Hart Crane’s poetic method” in 1936, it set off a hunt for Greenberg’s papers, which aficionados treated like some modernist apocrypha. Publishers were already circulating copies of copies of the manuscripts, anticipating who might be first to publish them, while a pair of literary detectives in Long Beach, California tracked down one cache to the closet of a Bronx apartment. Fisher lent his manuscripts to Horton, who lent them to a young publisher named Ronald Lane Latimer, who promptly disappeared to Mexico. By 1938, Latimer was found in Los Angeles, where he had become a disciple of Nyogen Senzaki, a Buddhist monk who operated a zendo out of a hotel where his American followers meditated on folding chairs rather than the floor. In May 1939, after threatening to destroy the manuscripts, Latimer finally mailed them, with no note, to Horton, who passed them on to a 24-year-old Laughlin. By June, Laughlin wrote Fisher that he was “anxious” to include Greenberg in the New Directions annual anthology.
Laughlin’s anxious interest in Greenberg in 1939, which led to the publication of this pamphlet, should be understood against the backdrop of his lifelong devotion to Ezra Pound, who, he wrote, “was a second father to me; with all his warts, I loved him.” Laughlin first met Pound in 1933, when he made a pilgrimage to the poet’s home in Rapallo, Italy. A year later he returned, on break from Harvard, and joined Pound’s “Ezuversity.” There, for two months, he played tennis, took walks, and ate two meals a day with the éminence grise of modernism, all while imbibing, Laughlin remembered, “this continuous monologue of information on every conceivable subject coming out of Ezra.”
This “information” is key to understanding Laughlin and his publishing project circa 1939. “By 1933,” literary historian Greg Barnhisel has written about Pound, “he was already a crank in the U.S. public eye.” Pound’s positive views of fascism, which took shape in the late 1920s, reached a turning point after a 1933 meeting with Il Duce himself. Eleven New Cantos, published in 1934, praised Mussolini directly. Fascism became Pound’s total worldview — his obsession. In 1935, he published Jefferson and/or Mussolini, his formal appeal to fascism, and issued the first of what would be hundreds of radio broadcasts and propaganda pieces in the same vein. Meanwhile, Pound developed an economic philosophy of social credit that he believed was best expressed by fascist corporatism. His economic ideas centered on demonizing usury, a topic which, not surprisingly, had strong antisemitic overtones, and which was also well represented in the Cantos. In 1934, he wrote the notorious antisemitic American radio personality Father Coughlin to say, “The church has always been right about usury.” Laughlin therefore did not simply study with Pound; he studied under him at the peak of Pound’s radicalization.
Upon his return to Harvard, in the fall of 1935, Laughlin offered to publish Jefferson and/or Mussolini in the campus literary magazine, while Pound, in turn, sent Laughlin a charming poem, titled, “Pacifists, 1935, as usual,” which begins:
We want the earth! We want the earth!
For we are men of English birth
Except when we are Frankfurt Jews.
We want the earth, your hats and shoes
Your coats, your purses and yr cash
But between 1935 and the fall of 1939, when he published Poems from the Greenberg Manuscripts, Laughlin had blossomed from a lanky and impressionable undergrad into a tall, charismatic, and self-confident publisher. Pound was his pride but also a liability, and Laughlin played a delicate game of pacifying Pound while reintroducing him to a skeptical American public. When Pound visited the United States, in the spring of 1939, Laughlin, his fixer, warned the poet to drop his antisemitism and frequent praise for Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco. But Laughlin gave this dubious reason: “If you mention any of them subjects you will have one hell of a time. You have no idea of the entrenchment of the Jew in the intellectual life of the country.” Laughlin once wrote, “Although I had been raised in a totally anti-semitic atmosphere in Pittsburgh, I got away from all of that during my years at Harvard. I would argue with Ezra about it.” But while he disavowed Pound’s antisemitism, Laughlin remained committed to his problematic economic theories. He wrote Pound, “These next years are going to be bleak for you because of your views and the sentiment against you, but I believe in you and will stick with the ship and see it through to better times. I think when monetary sanity does return to this earth the Cantos will be recognized as an epic of money, of the greatest world importance, in fact a sort of prophetic monument to the new age.”
In the fall of 1939, shortly before issuing Poems from the Greenberg Manuscripts as a standalone publication, Laughlin included the entire text of the pamphlet in the New Directions annual anthology, where his preface provided more insight into his Poundian worldview at the time, when, he wrote, “as we go to press, the New & Improved World War has been in progress for over a month.” Yet what begins as an apparent anti-war statement quickly falters: “Hitlerism has got to go. The blood sacrifice is inevitable. Great armies of innocent men have got to pay for the mistakes and misdeeds of the bankers and politicians.” Without condemning the war, or mentioning antisemitism, Laughlin used his platform to exculpate Hitler:
The harshness of Versailles did much to make Hitler. The Germans are not naturally belligerent, they are only susceptible to chauvinism. Guarantee them a reasonable economy and I think they will cease to be trouble-makers. When this war is over let the allies not punish them but make a deal with them […] Give her back her colonies, as a gesture of friendship, to wash away bad blood.
One year into the notorious Italian racial laws that barred Jews from universities and public office, he purred, “Italy is in a state of resurgence that should produce good writers,” indulging for a couple of pages about the significance of “radio literature,” in a nod to Pound. Finally, Laughlin, the heir to a Pittsburgh steel fortune, proclaimed, “We will not have economic democracy till we take the right to create new money away from the privately owned banks and give it back to the people.”
Laughlin’s positions in 1939 raise the question of his “anxious” interest in Greenberg, whom he didn’t even pretend to like, writing at the very beginning of Poems from the Greenberg Manuscripts, “It is not great poetry, and it is not even important minor poetry.” Laughlin also included in the pamphlet this suspect and inexcusable observation, reproduced without comment in the recent reissue, comparing Greenberg to his brothers: “physically too, he was superior — dark hair but a light complexion.” In 1939, when Pound signed at least one letter to Laughlin with “Heil Hitler,” Laughlin told the poet that he wanted no “outright attack on the Jews” in the Cantos: “You can take all the potshots at them you want, but no outright attack on the Jews as jews” (emphasis added). So what did Laughlin see in the poor, immigrant poet?
In 1939, Laughlin sent Delmore Schwartz his sparse poem, “Letter to Hitler,” asking if Schwartz could help get it published in the leftist Partisan Review. A year prior, Laughlin had visited a 25-year-old Schwartz at his boarding house to offer him a contract, and later promoted him as “the American Auden.” (Laughlin removed the dustjacket trumpeting this comparison before sending W.H. Auden a review copy.) Now, Laughlin explained to his young charge, “My connection with Pound always lays me open to attacks of being a Fascist and that is not very pleasant. The poem might help me clarify my present position.” After publishing the poem, which simply suggests a stance against book burning, Laughlin also convinced Schwartz to write an essay on Pound. As Barnhisel observed, “Laughlin knew that associating his name with such a leftist magazine would balance the political tilt of the right-wing writing and public persona of Pound.” But in addition to providing a leftist cover, Schwartz provided a Jewish one. One wonders if Greenberg wasn’t also window dressing for the publisher’s Pound mania, which was fully intact in 1939, at the worst possible time. As Laughlin put it to Schwartz that year, “I’m all for his monetary principles but when he became a Franco and Hitler man, I found the going thick.” As far as a “position” goes, that’s the best Laughlin could muster up.
Greenberg left behind plays, prose, fragments, drawings, and many more poems than have been published. The editor of the new pamphlet, Bay Area-based poet Garrett Caples, has commendably included over 30 pages of additional selections from Greenberg’s work, primarily culled from other published volumes of Greenbergiana. Especially welcome is “Ward’s Island Symphonique,” a moving account of life in the sanitorium, where
The breath of truth is visible a garden yard of strangeness to each tent,
as the violin of science, blue Heaven, sings
each building, in search of health and strength
though knowledge of bodily care be unknown, the deserted soul
of corrupted brains and visions bent
Another brilliant addition to the corpus is a 1916 meditation titled “Poetical Development” in which Greenberg’s idiolect is on full display. Here he is, apparently, on writing and editing:
When the railings are becoming to be sunk into the tracks of a road, that we send new laborers to replace them once only can this happen to the good felt likings, every page that is covered with script is another fault of growth unseen with simple thrills finer than space breathing quality and now my dependence is independence unkingly kingly.
But Caples misses the opportunity to provide a new framing for understanding Greenberg. Instead, he calls Laughlin’s pamphlet “the single best presentation of Greenberg’s work,” even though Laughlin himself relied so heavily on Horton’s 1936 essays that he wrote, “I wish only to add to Horton’s work a visual chart” of Crane’s plagiarism. By deferring to Laughlin, and so to Horton, Caples expands an echo chamber of analysis that reproduces the same nearly century-old ideas about Greenberg and his work — namely, that he was an unsophisticated romantic genius in the manner of John Clare. See Laughlin’s take on Greenberg, that “Logic was not his strong point. His role was expression,” or his references to Greenberg’s “mind’s simplicity,” “intellectual naïveté,” and “pure poetry.” Horton called Greenberg “ignorant of literature and isolated from the world.” Crane described Greenberg, in a frequently quoted phrase — including in promotional material for the pamphlet’s republication — as “a Rimbaud in embryo” with “no grammar, no form.”
Yet we do Greenberg a disservice by continuing to present him this way. After all, Greenberg took his writing seriously, copying out multiple drafts and meticulously dating them. He was self-consciously Viennese and played Chopin. He composed an ode to science in which he wrote, “thy unfolded — systemed way / Of long — long ago — hath begun and lured / Nature to thy heart,” and, if that were not enough, also declared, in his memoir, “Science is perfection.” While his champions point excitedly to his lack of education, Greenberg himself remembered that, as a schoolchild, “I was a reaper of hard fact and geographical bliss, a whole world of purity and history given to me to take home and examine at my interest.” When Crane wrote that Greenberg “lacked ‘the knowledge of grammatic truth,’” he took Greenberg’s own words out of context. What is important is that Greenberg, who spent much of his childhood working in a sweatshop, wrote that he wanted that knowledge, sought it, and studied to achieve it as systematically as he could, given his unfortunate material circumstances: “O what I would give for the knowledge of grammatical truth!”
Greenberg did not reject knowledge, as an arch-romantic would. Rather, he embraced science, medicine, industry, ideas, new language, the din of the city. In other words, Greenberg was a modernist, albeit in his unorthodox way, and that is why some readers sense proto-surrealism in his fractured expressions of urban life. Crane — who reveled in sensory immediacy, was attracted to visions and to notions of purity, had, according to one biographer, a “youthful fancy for Nietzsche,” dropped out of high school (not to work, as Greenberg did), and committed suicide in dramatic fashion — was the romantic. Repeating the canard that Greenberg represents pure poetic expression has allowed Fisher, Crane, Horton, Laughlin, and perhaps Caples to present him as their own and accrue some of his authenticity, and even, through rigorous editing, co-authorship. Laughlin took this approach to Greenberg furthest by suggesting that Crane completed what Greenberg began. He speculated, “Perhaps if he had lived he could have learned to subject his inspiration to critical discipline — that, essentially, is what Hart Crane did for him in Emblems of Conduct.” Driving home this literary supersessionism, Laughlin wrote that Greenberg, through Crane, “has been resurrected for us.”
While Greenberg has become an inextricable character in Crane’s story, and vice versa, few have looked at how Greenberg may have functioned for Crane as the latter thought through his response to Eliot’s own highly allusive work. Describing his hatred of London in The Waste Land, Eliot paraphrased Andrew Marvell: “But at my back from time to time I hear / The sound of horns and motors.” The lines are lifted nearly verbatim from “To His Coy Mistress,” a love poem in which the muse is “by the Indian Ganges’ side,” while the author stands “by the tide / of Humber.” It was in “To His Coy Mistress” that Marvell made his famous, theologically inflected declaration of love:
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
Setting aside the obvious difference between referencing a well-known poem and one that is unpublished, it seems possible that Crane triangulated Eliot’s use of Marvell and allusions to Jews and bridges. The proem to The Bridge, published, in 1930, eight years after The Waste Land, is “To Brooklyn Bridge,” an ode to the Gothic Revival span across New York’s East River. In it, Crane writes:
And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon … Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.
We know that Crane already associated Greenberg and his death with the East River. As Caples points out in his preface, Crane appended the following mysterious lines, ending in an ellipsis, to his copy of Greenberg’s poem, “The ‘East River’s’ Charm”: “And will I know if you are dead? / The river leads on and on instead / of certainty …” Greenberg, in anonymity, may have helped Crane see the bridge, the river. While The Waste Land ends with “London Bridge is falling down,” Crane’s magnum opus celebrated New York’s built environment, its elevators and future.
In some ways, Crane reduced Greenberg to a useful caricature, like the indigenous Americans in The Bridge and in his planned epic about Mexico. But rather than forming some quirk in Crane’s practice, as Crane’s biographers maintain, it seems that Greenberg was present in Crane’s articulation of the difference of his project from Eliot’s, and of his project’s purpose. No one expressed this American ecstasy better than Greenberg himself. The second half of “The ‘East River’s’ Charm” captures it perfectly, and also serves as a tribute to Greenberg’s ephemeral New York minute of a life, in which the mundane could become blisteringly serene:
But look! at the depth of the dripling tide
That dripples, reripples Like lucusts astride
As the Boat turns upon the silvery spread
It leaves strange — a shadow dead
And the very charms from the reflective river
And from the stacks of the flowing Boat
There seemeth the quality ne’er to dissever
Like the ruffles from the Mystified smoke
Michael Casper is the co-author, with Nathaniel Deutsch, of A Fortress in Brooklyn: Race, Real Estate, and the Making of Hasidic Williamsburg (Yale University Press, 2021).
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!