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While William Bronk's essays on Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville and Walt Whitman, which comprise the remarkable collection Brother In Elysium: Ideas of Friendship and Society in the United States, were composed during the 1930s and 1940s, Bronk was unable to publish them until the mid-1970s, in the midst of his most prolific decade of publication, both of poetry and prose.  Despite the significant social, cultural and political changes that occurred during the intervening years between initial composition and final publication, Bronk continued to refer to these essays as his ars poetica, as they established certain central themes to which Bronk would continue to refer, refine and consolidate; specifically, silence and language (Thoreau), the individual and community (Thoreau and Whitman), and knowledge and uncertainty (Melville).  My talk, "William Bronk; or, the Ambiguities: Breaking Against the Waves of Silence in the 1970s," focuses on the aesthetic and philosophical ramifications of Bronk's decision to publish these early essays, with minor revision, so long after their realization, comparing them with certain of Bronk's crucial later poems from this decade.

            William Bronk, or the Ambiguities: Breaking Against the Waves of Silence


Eric Hoffman



            The 1970s represents William Bronk's most prolific decade of writing.  From 1971 to 1980, Bronk published eight books of poetry and two books of essays. The output from the 1970s would be surpassed in number only by the 1990s, the final decade of his life, and that is because of the appearance of previously published works in new form: a Selected Poems, a book of collected poems and a book of essays, and a new edition of a previous collection of poetry. Interestingly, two of the ten books Bronk published in the 1970s are comprised of older material: 1976's My Father Photographed with Friends consists entirely of poems Bronk wrote some thirty years earlier and represent some of his earliest published poetry.  Similarly, 1980's monumental The Brother In Elysium: Ideas of Friendship and Society in the United States is made up of essays written from 1939 to 1947, and encompass some of Bronk's earliest prose writing.  It is this work with which I am primarily concerned.

            Why, after more than thirty years time, did Bronk return to these early essays, of which it appears he did little revision since the mid-forties?  While it is not uncommon for writers, after having achieved some later success, to return to earlier works initially deemed unfinished or un-publishable (Bronk's essays were early on rejected by no less than six publishers), it seems likely that Bronk did not return to this material for either commercial or contractual reasons, but rather because it continued to represent for him a finished and comprehensive effort.  By the mid-forties, Bronk had almost fully realized his views on the use and uses of poetry, views that continued to haunt his work for the remainder of his career.  By the late seventies, the world around him had changed significantly and Bronk must have found something in these essays that could be translated across time, something universal that could relate to his world view and aesthetic thirty years later.  The Brother In Elysium, written in the 1940s, published in the 1970s, can therefore be interpreted as Bronk's comment on the present by way of the past.

            Some details on the work's history:  The Brother In Elysium consists of three sections, each on a single author: "Silence and Henry Thoreau," "Walt Whitman's Marine Democracy" and "Herman Melville; or, the Ambiguities."  The book is dedicated to Bronk's mentor, Sidney Cox, who, while Bronk was attending Dartmouth where Cox taught English, introduced Bronk to the works of these three authors.  In February 1939, Bronk dropped out of Harvard, where he had matriculated, and, confining himself to a rented room, began work on these essays.  He completed the Thoreau section the following year, and, in the fall of 1940, started to write the section on Melville.  The following year, Bronk completed the Whitman essay, which for the most part does not appear to have been greatly revised, unlike the Thoreau, which was revised in 1945 following Bronk's discharge from the army, and, more significantly, the Melville, an essay that perhaps informs his later poetics to a greater extent than the latter works.  The Melville essay, being the last of three Bronk wrote, also represents, as Bronk's biographer Lyman Gilmore observes, "a more mature twenty-eight year old ex-army officer" (Gilmore, 130).  It is also the work of one who had labored through the intensities of the essay's predecessors.

            The foremost concern of "Silence and Henry Thoreau" is freedom and, following the events of the 1950s and 1960s, freedom had become a word fraught with political meaning.  Thoreau, in some ways a precursor to the hippies, had "dropped out" of society in order to live in simple harmony with nature, having rejected and criticized the hypocrisies and inhumanities of his time, a time substantially different from Bronk's that of the 1960s youth movements.  As Gilmore points out, Bronk intentionally chose to commit himself to the family business rather than become a bohemian poet.  Such a commitment, Thoreau might argue, is a circumstance of one's life and not a true reflection of its meaning, yet Bronk's decision in some ways asserts is that one might reject these commitments while at the same time never comprehending what it means to be free, that one's assumptions concerning freedom are illusory, that in fact true freedom (should it exist) does not depend on one's material circumstances, whether one "stays in" the actual world or "drops out" in search of an ideal one.

Thoreau's separation of the ideal and the actual, and his preference for the former, informs Bronk's assertions in his mature poetry that the meaning of the "actual" world is of less consequence than that of the "real." The "silence" of Thoreau, then, is much like this realm of ideals, where language represents an actual meaning that must somehow always fall short of its ideal expression.  As Bronk observes, "Thoreau preferred no expression at all to the valuing of expression for its own sake and thought it had its own truth and reality" (VSC, 115).  Thoreau's rejection of the cheap and virtue-less "chatter" as opposed to the authentic reticence and emotional stoicism of conversation among friends, compliments Bronk's later works, which are marked by this reticence and solitude, and whose words hover on the edge of silence.  The "most excellent speech," Bronk writes, "finally falls into silence" (VSC, 79).  "Silence," he explains, "is the world of potentialities and meanings beyond the actual and expressed, which the meanness of our actions and the interpretations put upon them threaten to conceal" (VSC, 81).  Thoreau (and Bronk, by extension) was thus able to avoid the cynicism of a man trapped among such noisome chatter by escaping into the reality of nature and imagination, by refusing the profanity of the actual world of society for the sanctity of the ideal, which is to him, paradoxically, more real.  Thus, Bronk the youth and Thoreau the man meet in the ideal, for reasons that, despite their oppositeness, are in fact quite similar: an escape from the illusions of the actual.  Bronk's 62-year-old reassertion of his 21-year-old's work is his recognition of Thoreau — not in their shared idealism so much as in their desire to escape the cynicism of the crowd, to escape the concealment of chatter into the purer realm of silence.  Bronk at 62 is no longer surprised to find similarities in what used to be an older, more mature man and whom now seems, at least spiritually, more his contemporary.  Where the young Bronk set himself apart from Thoreau, the older Bronk finds he and Thoreau have at last arrived on common ground from a common place of departure.  The late publication of this early essay would seem to support this late recognition.

            So too does a late poem, "Flowers, The World, and My Friend Thoreau," published in 1981's Life Supports, and probably composed in the late 1970s, when Bronk was returning again to these essays.  The poem addresses itself to Thoreau:  Bronk's recognition of himself in Thoreau forms the subject of the poem:


Henry, it's true as you said it was, that this

is a world where there are flowers.  Though it isn't our truth,

it's a truth we embrace with gratitude:

how should we endure our dourness otherwise?


Bronk again returns to Thoreau's theme of the need to retain one's individuality, however dour, and preserve an image of an ideal world above the actual: "we live with it; we live with othernesses / as strangers live in crowds."  This "otherness" consists of the common world of the actual that offers the "flowers," meaning Bronk and his kindred spirit Thoreau, a "strangeness" that "jostle[s] them."  Bronk and Thoreau's preference for the ideal silence as opposed to the profane world of inaccurate words is again invoked in the poem's closing lines: "flower, I know you, not knowing your name" (LS, 221).

            In "Herman Melville; or, the Ambiguities" (a title referencing Melville's short novel, Pierre; or, the Ambiguities) Bronk's mature poetic vision, hinted at in Thoreau, begins to coalesce.  If Thoreau's idea of individuality involves an ideal world to be explored and protected from the illusions of the "actual," then it is Bronk's essay on Melville where Bronk's outward skepticism ultimately turns inward, and all epistemological assumptions concerning identity are finally thrown into question.  Here, the uncertainties and complexities of Bronk's mature poetry are brought center stage.  According to Bronk, the solitude found in the work of Melville, like the novels of Kafka, predict the alienation of the modern and especially the post-war, era, when American society became increasingly fragmented, politically polarized and where the increasingly disillusioned youth of the 1960s began turning their attention inward, albeit in a fashion far different than Thoreau had intended, culminating in an existential crisis of identity and in the self-absorption and materialist excesses of the 1970s, the "Me Decade."

            Bronk portrays Melville as a loner, and his life witness to a seemingly random series of events and circumstances, all of which contributed to the existential quality of Melville's prose.  Through his experience, Melville is able to realize, as Burt Kimmelman observes, "that humans never completely transcend a primitive state of being; the Europeans are no better and are perhaps worse than the natives [Melville] meets on the South Sea islands" (Kimmelman, 81).  This skeptical view of human nature is thus taken to an extreme: quoting a passage from Melville's The Confidence Man, Bronk writes: "What am I?  Nobody knows who any body is.  The data which life furnishes toward forming a true estimate of any being are as insufficient to that end as in geometry, one single side given would be to determine the triangle" (VSC, 165).  The existential dilemma of never being able to reconcile an existence consisting of what Bronk calls a "blank-walled desolation," is most explicitly represented by the "walled-in" Bartleby in Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener," and, Bronk observes, "involves aspects of [Melville's] own existence. He stared at the blank walls of public indifference, of moral ambiguity, of loss of faith" (VSC, 210). 

            Let us consider these aspects in relation to Bronk's personal life.  First, "public indifference": Bronk, too, would face this indifference to his work, only partially solved by its avid promotion by other poets: Cid Corman's publication of Bronk's poems in the literary journal Origin and in the 1956 collection Light and Dark, George Oppen in facilitating the publication of 1964's The World, The Worldless.  Famously, Bronk's work was overlooked by the more influential anthologies and it would be sometime before Bronk would receive proper commercial and critical reception.  The reappearance of these essays in 1980 may imply a reassertion on Bronk's part of his disappointment at not having achieved a larger audience.  To this day, Bronk is not generally included in the major anthologies; his work, it seems, too often falls through the cracks, its vehicle too mannered for the avant-garde; its tenor too experimental for the academy.  Second, "moral ambiguity, loss of faith":  Bronk's work is a work of tireless skepticism.  It is consistently troubled and troubling.  As Bronk observes of Melville in The Confidence Man, he "writes about a world in which it is impossible to arrive at any unequivocal belief."  The confidence men of Melville's novel "could put on or throw off their disguise whenever it was desirable to do so, without being affected by the thought that their nature were therefore indeterminable, since the disguise was after all their own imagination, and subject to their will, and indeed was simply a cloak that had nothing to do with their actual natures" (VSC, 188).  Like Melville's work, Bronk's poems refuse to perform the role of a disguise; rather they attempt to describe what is behind the mask.  Because one's identity is ever shifting, ever indeterminable, Bronk's poetry, like the world it reflects, remains morally and spiritually ambiguous.  "A knowledge of ambiguity," Bronk writes, "was an early awareness with Melville and it became a principle instrument of his mind, just as ambiguity itself was a pervasive and abiding characteristic of the world" (VSC, 194).  There is no comfort for the weary, no solid ground on which to recuperate from the ever shifting seas, seas that in Melville's work Bronk felt symbolized "an impersonal, indifferent, resistant reality" (VSC, 198) associable with silence (see Kimmelman, 82).  Melville's "conception of silence," Kimmelman argues, "is finally part of the backdrop to a drama of primal struggle and a search for redemption," a struggle made explicit in the character of Ahab from Moby Dick, who, determined to make sense of an insensibly complex and morally ambiguous world, is forced to "[pile] upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down." Ahab refuses to let the silent indifference of the world overcome him. His "struggle," Bronk concludes, "is against the center of life."

            It is possible to imagine the Bronk of 1980, recognizing (as did Melville) something of himself in Ahab, who "softened momentarily" by the "sad fatality of the nearing end," a man who "thinks back with sorrow on his forty years of whaling, forty years of peril and privation . . . and desolate solitude, on the pitiless sea, forty years of forsaking the peaceful land to make war on the horrors of the deep, and . . . calls himself a fool" (VSC, 199).  What was it that possessed Bronk as poet to endure, in the face of this indifference, in the face of the ambiguity and inscrutability of existence, to stubbornly persist?  As Ahab asks, "what . . .  remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing and crowding and jamming myself on all the time" (VSC, 199)? It is the "inhumanity of the natural world," Bronk responds, "and the realization that  . . . in becoming truly human . . . man is forced to share in the organic evil of the universe."  Bronk, like Ahab, lived "with more force and clearer forces, by virtue of a quarrel with the world" (VSC, 199-200).  For Melville, Bronk writes, "[s]ilence alone was the only voice of God, the most harmless and the most awful thing in nature."  Man pretends to possess answers, but, as Bronk argues, how "could a man get a voice out of silence?"  The "strange and complicate[d] human soul" Melville "found in Pierre," Bronk writes, like Bartleby's, "lay too deep down to be reached or calculated" (VSC, 204).  Not contended by this silence, and concerned by the failures of words, Bronk, like Melville and Thoreau before him, was compelled in his writing to reach and to calculate, and so compelled, persisted.

In conclusion, I'd like to read some passages from poems Bronk composed and published in the 1970s; as examples of the persistence of his tirelessly skeptical and ambiguous vision:

From 1972's "Silence. Emptiness":


How much was subterfuge and piety, outrageous pretense to avoid the poverty

            of the proposed self, including the poverty

            of the outer world, if indeed there was one? (LS, 141)


From 1972's "What We Are":


We say we are and this is what we are

            as to say we should be and this is what to be

            and this is how.  But, oh, it isn't so.  (LS, 154-55).


From 1975's "The Apartness":             


It must be something apart from anything we know

            or will ever know: something of knowing is wrong

            though it's there we try and try again and try.

            The inviolateness is the key if there be one.


            Whatever — there is, - we are, whatever or where, as if were or we were: not.

            But no.  There is and, if only of it, we are

            though something apart from anything we knew" (SL, 164).


And from 1979's The Force of Desire:


            The slow, slow light in the winter sky

            this very early morning assures us the world

            is not the actual world.  Never was. 


            The truth has many forms which are not its form

            if it has one.  What has a form of its own

            or having, is only it?  There is truth.


            Ultimate reality has its own

            zip code: 12839.

            This is all it is.  Write to me.  Here (LS, 199-201).