Kenneth Fearing’s “Dirge” offers the history of a life systematically crushed down by the capitalist culture of the Depression-era United States. The rhythms of “white collar drudgery” (Barnard MAPS) pitilessly preside over his life, death, and its aftermath. Yet in recognizing the capitalist social order that gradually erodes his life, we should be cautious in our understanding of what exactly the system has crushed. Has capitalism ruined an individuality that could have been? Rita Barnard seems to suggest this interpretation: Fearing's poem suggests that a life made up entirely of Erlebnissen - of repeated motions and purchases that, in the end, add up to nothing - can have no distinctive personal character; it is, moreover, ideally expressed by the fragments and "shocks" of mass-reproducible art, supplied here by the various biffs, whams, and pows that punctuate every act.
Invoking the cultural theory of Horkheimer, Barnard calls “Dirge” a poem about “an individual life that shrivels or dissolves amid the institutions and forces that govern contemporary life” (Barnard MAPS). In a non-capitalist society free from the institutions of mass reproduction and capitalism, life could be experienced as unique; the individual could craft a genuine narrative of his/her own meaningful distinctiveness. This reading is indeed appealing to contemporary audiences that may also feel a sense of compromised individuality in an age of pervasive mass production. Yet I argue that Barnard, by misunderstanding Horkheimer, consequently misunderstands the contours of capitalist critique in Fearing’s poem. Barnard imprecisely and inaccurately glosses Horkheimer’s ideal of humanity fragmented by capitalism as individuality—“distinctive personal character” (Barnard MAPS). Like other labor poems of the 1930s, “Dirge” does not long for an authentic individuality, but rejects the project of individuality itself as a construction of bourgeois society. To buy into individuality in the first place, suggests Fearing’s poem, is to buy into “a life of repeated motions and purchases that in the end add up to nothing” because individuality and bourgeois capitalism are inseparable, mutually constitutive historical developments.
As they explore the brutality of the capitalist order, 30s labor poems consistently hinge on utopian imaginations of human collectives. Even the lone dead vagrant of Rolfe’s “Season of Death” stands in for a wider community of crushed and impoverished human beings. Sol Funaroff’s “Man at the Factory Gates” is in fact many men who face similar hardships. The broken bodies of John Beecher’s “Report to the Stock Holders” comprise a larger body of exploited workers. A sense of violated individuality, I suggest, is incompatible with the collective political thinking of these and other contemporary labor poems. While such poems may indeed work to restore humanity, dignity, and particularity to their subject matter (think, for example, of Tillie Lerner Olsen’s “I want you Women up North to Know” or Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead), they do not dwell on the intricacies of an individual subjectivity. In chorus with these poems, Fearing does not so much long to recover an authentic individuality as he eulogizes bourgeois individuality itself. The social alternative to Mr. bong’s life is precisely what “Dirge” and other labor poems are thinking through.
If a personally unique sense of individuality could ever be thinkable outside the terms of consumer capitalism, such an individuality lies outside the poem’s imagination. In “Dirge,” individuality itself gains shape only through bourgeois fantasies of accomplishment, accumulation, and domestic stability. “O executive type,” the narrator laments,
[…]Would you like to drive a floating power,
Knee-action, silk upholstered six? Wed a Hollywood
Star? Shoot the course in 58? Draw to the ace,
Certainly, the executive type would relish the opportunity to own an expensive car (“floating power” and “knee-action” refer to refinements in car engines and suspension, respectively), marry a famed symbol of commodified beauty, or win games of skill and chance that stand in for effortless triumph in all aspects of life. By realizing these white-collar dreams, the “executive type” would indeed achieve a kind of uniqueness. But these markers of individual distinction bind him unambiguously to a capitalist system of status commodities and competitive opportunism. If we reversed the unfortunate outcomes of the poem’s opening lines—if his lottery numbers had hit, if his Carbide stock had climbed, if his lucky horse had paid off—the man might gain individual distinction for his skill at playing the system, but his sense of self would be no less contained by the social mechanisms that ruthlessly punish him for his lack of success. The social order that offers the glitzy hope of personal advancement—the rags to riches story—is the same social order that mercilessly shuts off the man’s gas and forecloses on his property. To attempt the “certain, certain way” to live one’s own “private, private life” is to welcome all the cruel violence that capitalism has to offer. Individuality does not exist outside the poem’s economy of life, because the category of individual itself becomes thinkable only through capitalism.
The poem’s exaggerated comic language helps to expose the senselessness of the man’s life project. “And wow he died as wow he lived, / going whop to the office and blooie home to sleep and / biff got married and bam had children and oof got / fired, / zowie did he live and zowie did he die.” This rhetorical turn is conspicuous in a poem that advertises itself as a funerary lament. The poem’s comic book words—blooie, zowie, bam, etc.—are not the relics of an evacuated mass culture of the arts that render individuality impossible, as Barnard suggests. Would we expect Fearing—a pulp writer at different times in his career (MAPS Ryley)—to write a poem that denounces mass-reproducible art? Insead, the mock-heroic onomatopoeia presides over a life that is anything but heroic. This absurd juxtaposition reveals the flawed project of individual greatness; the only proper eulogy for this routinized life is a tragic, exaggerated silliness. The poem’s closing lines intermix “wham,” “pow,” “awk,” and “bop” with “Sears Roebuck” and “Mr. Roosevelt.” Thus, the “big dipper” and “summer rain,” terms that appear in the closing lines of this elegiac narrative, become evacuated profundities that stand in for serious reflection on a life lived and lost. The only thing left to say at the end of this life is a nonsensical collage of capitalism, government, and sentimental convention. The bell’s final tolling, then, accomplishes what the man’s life project has been working toward all along—the erasure of humanity in the pursuit of individuality: “Mr., bong, Mr., bong, Mr., bong.” The bell’s tolling interrupts his life tribute at exactly the moments where it would uniquely name him.
Copyright © 2006 by Christopher Simeone