Gweledigaethau y Bardd Cwsc/Visions of the Sleeping Bard (1703, Ellis Wynne)

Gweledigaethau y Bardd Cwsc is one of the classics of Welsh prose; this is a judgement you will find in any guide to Welsh literature. If you’re not Welsh, the chances are that this judgement won’t mean much to you, for perhaps the only well-known work of Welsh prose is the much-translated, disparate collection of tales known as The Mabinogion. Even if you are Welsh―even if you speak Welsh―the chances of your being familiar with the title under review are not very great; Wynne can have few readers these days besides academics and their students. The work is obscure mainly because post-medieval Welsh literature is obscure in general, but there are other factors that keep a wide readership at bay. For those with no great love of religious allegory, Wynne’s schematic rigidity and on-the-nose portrayals of various types are unlikely to hold much attraction. Wynne’s religion is, as one would expect of a book published at a time of intense religious controversy, vehemently sectarian in nature, and his moralistic satire correspondingly harsh and unforgiving. Relentlessly, the message is hammered home: the vast majority of people now on Earth are knaves, fools and blinkered sinners deserving of nothing but scorn, and it is only a select band of the righteous who shall inherit the kingdom of God. What appeal can such a work possibly have today except as a historical curiosity? Few readers now will have the inclination or opportunity to judge the book’s worth for themselves, so why does it continue to be referred to as ‘classic’?

Tastes change. Wynne’s Visions (anonymous on their first appearance) were once popular in Wales, and went through several editions. The book was even translated into English―twice (first in 1860 by George Borrow, and then in 1897 by Robert Gwyneddon Davies, to be reprinted twelve years later). There was, then, for a long time a readership for the Sleeping Bard. It was a pious and respectable readership such as barely exists in the godless Wales of the present. But Wynne did not write merely a stern, edifying sermon; his work contains much that is crude and unruly, so that its second translator felt obliged, in the introduction, to express his disapproval, laying the blame at the unrefined sensibilities of a rougher age, and assuring the reader that ‘passages which might be considered coarse and indecorous according to modern canons of taste’ have been omitted. Perhaps these very passages were part of its former appeal. What might a reader today, at a time when canons of taste allow plenty of room for the coarse and indecorous, find of interest? Those unable to read Welsh will have to rely on the translations, both of which are freely available on the web. I have only skimmed Borrow’s version, which is, according to Gwyneddon Davies, ‘charming and racy’, but not particularly accurate. To my inexpert eyes, Gwyneddon Davies himself seems generally accurate apart from the occasional bowdlerization, and even has a fair go at charm and raciness once or twice, but on the whole he is a laborious stylist, often prolix and pedantic when the original is earthily direct. A short Welsh word becomes a longer English word; repeated words are unnecessarily weeded out and replaced by synonyms; oddities of vocabulary and syntax are smoothed over into blandness. To better convey the flavor of Wynne’s prose, quotations from the original will be accompanied by my own reworkings of Gwyneddon Davies’s translation, amended as I’ve seen fit.* I should stress, however, that I make no claims of my ability as a translator; my Welsh is a bit rusty these days, and I certainly lack the scholarly training a really professional job would require.

Some basic information. The book is divided into three sections, each of them containing a separate vision.** The first vision is of an allegorical representation of the world, the second deals with death, while the third provides a glimpse of hell. Wynne derived some of his inspiration from Los Sueños of Francisco de Quevedo (or, more particularly, from the translations by Roger L’Estrange and John Stevens), but although I haven’t read Quevedo, it’s clear that Wynne has created his own distinct work, rooted in the culture of Wales at the turn of the 18th Century. Paragraphs are almost entirely absent, the text running on in great unbroken chunks until the end of the section. Sentences are likewise long, with colons and semi-colons often appearing where a modern writer might place a full stop. Each section closes with a poem, each of these written in a different metre. Each section opens with the bland, guileless narrator falling asleep and being conducted on a tour by a supernatural guide (an angel for the first and third visions, Sleep himself for the second).

The first vision opens with the narrator ascending a mountain to regard the view with the aid of a spy-glass―a vision of something that is actually before him, though his ability to view it is enabled by artificial means. His own sight is weak, and so requires the spy-glass in order to see far over the Irish Sea (a bit of poetic licence, this, or else some exceptionally advanced lenses). His eyes, and then his mind, ‘journey’ for so long, that he becomes weary; Master Sleep (the same Master Sleep who will serve as his guide for the second vision) covers him with his cloak and locks up the windows of his senses. It is then that the dream-vision can begin. At first, it is something of a nightmare, as the dreamer is taken up into the air by fairies, who plan to kill him. Rescue arrives in the form of a shining angel, who tells him that the journey he is about to undergo is meant to instruct him on the folly of being unsatisfied with his life. Climbing hills to admire the view is potentially bad, and that bad is made worse by bringing a spy-glass along with you. Don’t pine after distant lands; stay down in your valley, humble and content.

The angel conveys the dreamer to a cloud far above the world, and gives him a special spy-glass that grants him a terrestial view of amazing clarity―except that what the dreamer sees is not the world as it is, but an allegory of it, with all human life contained within one gigantic city. Wynne economically provides a sense of concreteness to this allegorical vision:

Gwelwn un Ddinas anferthol o faintioli, a miloedd o Ddinafoedd a Theyrnafoedd ynddi ; a’r Eigion mawr fel Llynntro o’i chwmpas, a moroedd eraill fel afonydd yn ei gwahanu hi ’n rhanneu.  O hir graffu, gwelwn Hi yn dair Stryd fawr tros ben ;  a Phorth mawr difcleirwych ymhen ifa pob Stryd, a Thwr teg ar bob Porth, ac ar bob Tŵr yr oedd Merch landeg aruthr yn fefyll yngolwg yr holl Stryd ; a’r tri Thwr o’r tu cefn i’r Caereu ’n cyrraedd at odre ’r Caftell mawr hwnnw.  Ar ohyd i’r tair anferthol hyn, gwelwn Stryd groes arall, a honno nid oedd ond bechan a gwael wrth y lleill, ond ei bod hi ’n lanwaith, ac ar godiad uwch-law ’r Strydoedd eraill, yn mynd rhagddi uwch uwch tu a’r Dwyrein, ar tair eraill ar i wared tu ar Gogledd at y Pyrth mawr.

I saw one City of enormous magnitude, with thousands of Cities and Kingdoms within it ; and the great Ocean like a Moat around it, and other seas like rivers, dividing it into parts. From long observation, I saw that It was made up of three exceedingly great Streets ;  with a great glittering Gateway at the lower end of each Street, and a fair Tower on each Gateway, and on each Tower there was a stupendously beautiful Woman standing in sight of the whole street ; and the three Towers at the back of the Ramparts reached to the foot of that great Castle.  Of the same length as this enormous trio, I saw a dissimilar cross Street, which was but small and mean compared with the others, except it was spotless, and raised higher than the other Streets, leading up, up, away towards the East, with the other three leading downwards towards the North and the great Gateways.

This city, explains the guiding angel, is the City of Destruction; the castle belongs to Belial, who rules the whole city through deception, except for the high narrow street, which is ruled by King Immanuel. The three great streets and their alluring idols represent pride, pleasure and lucre―a parodic trinity worshiped by all inhabitants of the city except by the dwellers of the high narrow street. What follows is a closer inspection of these streets and their inhabitants, with a great deal of social and religious satire. The pope, of course, being proud, sensual and avaricious in equal measure, has a court in each of the main thoroughfares. There’s a cartoonish portrait of a priest who congratulates a woman for killing her Anglican daughter, and then demands that another woman sleep with him as penance for the crime of killing her illegitimate child.  The Catholic church is seen to depend on tricks and ruses such as moving a suspended image of St. Peter on hidden wires, and placing crabs under a carpet to simulate the sound of the souls of the dead. Secular vices are embodied by such figures as a rich young lady who vainly tries to woo even richer men; a fat alderman who insists on being addressed by his numerous titles; a falsely humble nobleman seeking political office; and an onstentatiously weeping widow whose interest is only in the dead man’s property. All levels of society fall under Wynne’s disapproving gaze, but he reserves his most biting invective for sinners of high status: rulers, noblemen, politicians, lawyers. He includes a couple of fine scornful lists, first describing the contents of the Tower of Pride:

Pob mâth o arfeu rhyfel i orefcyn ac ymledu ;  pob mâth o arfeu bonedd banerau, fcwtfiwn, llyfreu acheu, gwerfi ’r hynafiaid, cywyddeu ;  pob mâth o wifcoedd gwychion, ftoriâu gorcheftol, drychau ffeilfion ; pob lliwieu a dyfroedd i deccâu ’r wynebpryd ;  pob uchel-fwyddau a thitlau :  ac ar fyrr iti, mae yno bob peth a bair i ddyn dybio ’n well o honno ’i hun, ac yn waeth o eraill nac y dylei. Prif Swyddogion y Tryfordy hwn ye Meiftred y Ceremoniau, Herwyr, Achwyr, Beirdd, Areithwyr, Gwenieithwyr, Dawnfwyr, Taelwriaid Pelwyr, Gwniadyddefau a’r cyffelyb.

All kinds of arms of war for conquest and expansion ;  all kinds of arms of heraldry, banners, escutcheons, books of genealogy, sayings of the ancients, poems ;  all kinds of gorgeous garments, boastful tales, flattering mirrors ; every pigment and lotion to beautify the face ;  every high office and title :  to be short, everything is there which makes a man think better of himself and worse of others than he ought. The Chief Officers of this Treasury are Masters of the Ceremonies, Outlaws, Genealogists, Bards, Orators, Flatterers, Dancers, Tailors, Gamblers, Seamstresses and the like.

More comprehensive is the angel’s list of people to be seen in the Street of Lucre:

Yn y pen ifa, cei weled y Pâp etto, Gorefcynnwyr Teyrnafoedd a’i Sawdwyr, Gorthrymwyr Fforeftwyr, Cauwyr y Drosfa gyffredin, Uftufiaid a’u Breibwyr, a’u holl Sîl o’r cyfarthwyr hyd at y ceisbwl :  O’r tu arall, ebr ef, mae ’r Phyfygwyr, Potercariaid, Meddygon ;  Cybyddion, Marfiandwyr, Ceibddeilwyr Llogwyr ;  Attalwyr degymeu, neu gyflogeu, neu renti, neu lufenau a adawfid at Yfcolion, Lufendai a’r cyfryw :  Porthmyn, Maelwyr a fydd yn cadw ac yn codi’r Farchnad at eu llaw eu hunain :  Siopwyr ( neu Siarpwyr ) a elwant ar angen, neu anwybodaeth y prynwr, Stiwardiaid bob gradd, Clipwyr, Tafarnwyr fy’n yfpeilio Teuluoedd yr oferwyr o’u , a’r Wlâd o’i Haidd at fara i’r tlodion.  Hyn oll o Garn-lladron, ebr ef ;  a mân-ladron yw ’r lleill, gan mwya fy ymhen ucha ’r Stryd, fef Yfpeilwyr-ffyrdd, Taelwriaid, Gwehyddion, Melinyddion, Mefurwyr gwlŷb a sŷch a’r cyffelyb.

In the lower end, you can see the Pope once more, Conquerors of Kingdoms and their Soldiers, Oppressors, Foresters, Closers of common Lands, Justices and their Bribers, and their whole Spawn from the Barristers to the Catchpole :  On the other side, he said, are the Physicians, Apothecaries, Doctors ;  Misers, Merchants, Extortioners, Money-lenders ;  With-holders of tithes, or wages, or rents or doles left to Schools, Almshouses and the like :  Drovers, Dealers who manipulate the Market for their own ends :  Shopmen ( or rather, Sharpers ) who profit on the need, or ignorance, of the buyer, Stewards of all grades, Clippers, Innkeepers who despoil the Families of idlers of their goods, and the Country of its Barley, designated for bread for the poor.  All these are Notorious Thieves, he said ;  and the others are petty thieves, who for the most part are in the upper end of the street, such as Road-despoilers, Tailors, Weavers, Millers, Grocers and the like.

So that’s just about everyone, then. Only the very righteous and determined are able to make the trek up to the high narrow street and enter through its low gate, there to enjoy sober, modest, innocent, compassionate and peaceful contentment, broken only when they have to defend the City of Immanuel from one of Belial’s periodic attacks. It is the commotion of one of these attacks that causes the dreamer to wake up, to his disappointment, distraught to be once more confined to the limitations of the physical world. A piece of doggerel concerning the dire effects of sin and the church’s promise of redemption rounds off this section.***

The second part of the book is the shortest. It opens with the narrator at home in bed, having just engaged a now-departed neighbour in a fireside chat about the brevity of life and inevitability of death. As he drifts into sleep, Sleep himself appears to him, together with Nightmare (who doesn’t stick around, although the vision that follows is pretty nightmarish); where should he take the dreamer but back to the City of Destruction? Only this time, they arrive at the other side of one of the gateways, all three of which lead to another gateway at the back. This rear gateway was several doors, one for each manner of death appropriate to different sinners (hunger for misers, cold for scholars, fear for murderers, etc. ); the doors are attended by squabbling imps, who attempt to grab the terrified sinners and haul them through their own door into the land of Death. This, of course, is the entrance by which all inhabitants of the City who shunned the high narrow street are taken into Death’s realm. The dreamer himself does not enter through any of these doors, but finds himself awake on the other side after being made to fall asleep by his guide (that is, he sleeps in the midst of his dream). The description of the ghastly scene allows Wynne to really go to town with horrific imagery:

[…] mi’m gwelwn mewn Dyffryn pygddu anfeidrol o gwmpas ac i’m tŷb i nid oedd diben arno :  ac ymhen ennyd wrth ymbell oleuni glâs fel canwyll ar ddiffodd, mi welyn aneirif oh! aneirif o gyfcodion Dynion, rhai ar draed, a rhai ar feirch yn gwau trwy eu gilydd fel y gwynt, yn ddiftaw ac yn ddifrifol aruthr.  A gwlâd ddiffrwyth lom adwythig, neb na gwêllt na gwair, na choed nac anifail, oddieithr gwylltfilod marwol a phryfed gwenwynig o bôb mâth ;  feirph, nadroedd, llau, llyffaint, llyngyr, locuftiaid, prŷ ’r bendro, a’r cyffelyb oll fy ’n byw ar lyfredigaeth Dyn.  Trwy fyrddiwn o gyfcodion ac ymlufciaid, a beddi, a Monwentau, a Beddrodau, ni aethom ymlaen i weled y Wlâd yn ddirwyftr ;  tan na welwn i rai ’n troi ac yn edrych arnai ;  a chwippyn er maint oedd yn ddiftawrwydd o’r blaen, dyma fi o’r naill i’r llall fod yno Ddyn bydol ;  Dyn bydol, ebr un, Dyn bydol, eb y llall !   tan ymdyrru attai fel y lindys o bob cwrr.

I saw that I was in a pitch-black Valley of infinite radius and it seemed to me that there was no end to it :  and in a moment, by a few bluish lights like new-extinguished candles, I saw countless oh! countless shades of Men, some on foot, and some on horses, rushing back and fro like the wind, awesomely silent and solemn.  And a barren, bleak, malignant land, with neither grass nor hay, nor tree nor animal, save deadly beasts and poisonous vermin of every kind ;  serpents, adders, lice, frogs, worms, locusts, earwigs, and all the like sort that live on Man’s corruption.  Through myriad shades and reptiles, and graves, and Cemeteries, and Tombs, we went ahead to see the Land unhindered ;  until I happened to see some turning round and looking at me ;  in an instant, notwithstanding the prevailing silence, a whisper passed from one to another that there was a Man from Earth there ;  A Man from Earth, cried one, A Man from Earth, cried another !  while they crowded round me like caterpillars from every quarter.

Readers who don’t understand Welsh will perhaps be able only to dimly appreciate the beauty of Wynne’s sound patterning in the passage above, but his fondness for alliteration ought to be apparent (e.g. ni aethom ymlaen i weled y Wlâd yn ddirwyftr, which might be crudely approximated as nee eye-thom um-line ee well-led er w[oo]lard un thee-rooeest-rr). Quite as direful is the picture of King Death’s court:

[…] â phenglogeu Dynion y gwnelfid y murieu, a rheini ’n ’fcyrnygu dannedd yn erchyll ;  du oedd y clai wedi ei gyweirio trwy ddagreu a chwŷs, a’r calch oddi allan yn frith o phlêm a chrawn, ac oddifewn o waed dugoch.  Ar ben pôb twr, gwelit Angeu bach â chanddo galon dwymn ar flaen ei faeth.  O amgylch y Llŷs ’r oedd rhai coed, ymbell Ywen wenwynig, a Cypres-wydden farwol, ac yn rheini ’roedd yn nythu dylluanod, Cigfrain ac Adar y Cyrph a’r cyfryw, yn creu am Gig fŷth, er nad oedd y fangre oll ond un Gigfa fawr ddrewedig.  O efcyrn morddwydydd Dynion y gwnelfid holl bilereu ’r Neuadd, a Philereu ’r Parlwr o efcyrn y coefeu, a’r llorieu ’n un walfa o bôb cigyddiaeth.

[…] its walls were made of the skulls of Men, which displayed their teeth hideously ;  the clay was black and mingled with tears and sweat, and the lime outside riddled with phlegm and pus, and inside with black-red blood.  On the summit of each tower was seen a Deathling with a quivering heart at the head of his arrow.  Around the Court were a few trees―the odd poisionous Yew, or deadly Cypress, and in these nested owls, Ravens and Vultures and the like, crying without end for Flesh, even though the whole place was but one great putrid Slaughterhouse.  All the Hall’s pillars were made of the thighbones of Men, and the Parlour’s Pillars of shinbones, and the floors a layer of all manner of Butchery.

That lime is particularly horrible―so horrible, in fact, that Gwyneddon Davies couldn’t bring himself to include the phlegm and pus; ‘ruddy with gore’ is the most he can manage (Borrow has no such scruple). Weirdly, Gwyneddon Davies also translates ‘Adar y Cyrph’ (literally, corpse-birds) as vampires, rather than vultures, a blunder Borrow doesn’t make; it would seem that the later, less racy translator doesn’t always come off best as far as accuracy is concerned.

The third and final vision, which is the longest of the three, sees the dreamer being conducted on a tour of hell, which is reached via a vast chasm in the realm of the dead. A great deal of this section consists of the various torments suffered by the damned, described with conspicuous relish and some bitter humour. Drovers, for example, are given the faces of sheep and cows, and are driven like animals; apothecaries are ground up and stuffed into pots with animal fæces; an innkeeper who had served bad beer is boiled; women obsessed with beauty perpetually apply cosmetics which turn them ever more painfully hideous. As in the first section, all levels of society are scourged, but it is the agonies and humiliations of the powerful, with their arrogant certainty that the social status they had enjoyed in life will protect them, that are most gleefully depicted. Muslims, Puritans and Catholics are also excoriated; the Anglican church is, of course, the one true religion. One the most striking and, to me, alienating aspects of Wynne’s satire is the absence of any hint of mercy or compassion. This should not be surprising, as to feel any pity for the damned would be to risk questioning God’s judgement. When some of the condemned souls beg for mercy, a devil answers them that God has already shown humanity more than enough mercy, and that it should not be granted to those who do not deserve it.

There is no little sadism to be found in this hard-heartedness; this is exemplified by a scene in which the dreamer is almost overwhelmed by the ghastly sounds and sights of Hell, his angelic guide gives him a fortifying drink just to that he is ready to face even greater horrors. Vigorous as Wynne’s prose is (I doff my hat to two fantastic instances of onomatopoeia: ‘hai, hai, hai-ptrw-how, ho, ho-o-o-o-hwp’ and ‘drwp-hwl-rwp-rap dy-dwmp dy-damp’), I can’t deny a certain tedium creeping in. He carps on and on about various sins great and small, delighting at length the punishment of those who commit them, and then indulges himself in long gloating speeches given by the chief devils about the extent of their misdeeds and depth of their evil. It’s all too wearisomely repetitive, and the disdainful moralizing is never entrirely free of that obnoxious narrowness of mind one associates with religion at its most crabbed and petty, its most inhuman. Wynne’s sectarian satire remined me in some ways of Swift’s Tale of a Tub, which was published a year after the Visions (though it was written earlier). The comparison shows up Wynne’s limitations. Like Wynne, Swift (or at least his narrator) also holds up the Anglican church as a more rational, moderate alternative to the supposed extremes of Catholicism and Puritanism, and also employs a caustic wit deemed profane and vulgar by primmer readers. But Swift is altogether more ambiguous, diverse and unsettling; he is too fascinatingly idiosyncratic to succumb to monotony. Wynne doesn’t quite have that idiosyncrasy, and so my reaction to his hectoring is simply to reject it, though the drearier passages are not so frequent nor so long that they overcame the enjoyment I derived from reading the good parts. A mixed bag, then, but with much to savor. If you want to try a translation, I can’t say that I’d recommend Gwyneddon Davies, which amplifies Wynne’s flaws and reduces his virtues. Borrow is probably a better bet, inaccuracies be damned.

*I have also sought to adhere more closely to the author’s use of punctuation, italics and capitalizations.

**Wynne might have intended more sections. At the beginning and at the end of the book, it is stated that the pages in between are the first part, but there is no evidence of a second part having been written.

***The poem that ends the second section is more doggerel, this time about the inevitability of death. The last poem, on a similar theme, is far smoother and more musical; it seems to have been written with an existing tune in mind.

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Haunch Paunch and Jowl (1923, Samuel Ornitz)

This is a rather obscure book by a rather obscure author. The few people to whom the name Samuel Ornitz might mean anything are more likely to recognize him as a screenwriter than as a novelist, and his film career was not particularly illustrious (he’s best known for being one of the Hollywood Ten). A few scholars of Jewish-American fiction might have heard of him―perhaps even have read him―but despite being reprinted in the 80s, the book under review here (his debut) can hardly be said to have secured its author’s lasting fame. Yet Haunch Paunch and Jowl* was a big commercial success in its day. Its mention in the Wikipedia entry on Ornitz caught my attention (‘[it] contains an early use of stream-of-consciousness writing in American fiction’); when I saw, at the bottom of the page, that the whole text was available to read online for free, I decided that it was worth at least a brief investigation, and that brief investigation of the first page nudged me into reading the whole thing properly.

The narrator is Meyer Hirsch, a successful New York judge, who looks back at his rise from childhood poverty to wealth and status. It soon becomes clear that the behavior he displays as a boy (devious, selfish, motivated by ruthless ambition) sets the pattern for his adult career, and that the success enjoyed by the middle-aged Meyer has been achieved through dubious means. Apart from a few instances of flash-forwards, the narrative is mostly linear, though episodic and jumpy, with a very vague timeline; no dates are given, though one would suppose that the story opens in the late 19th century. At the start, Meyer is a young boy living in a tiny apartment with his mother, father and uncle. The men spend most of their day slaving at their meagrely-paid jobs, while the mother is scarcely less harried by the demands of simply sustaining an existence. The three Yiddish-speaking adults are émigrés from Russia, driven from their homeland by pogroms; the rich German Jews who are their new employers and exploiters look down on families such as the Hirsches as belonging to an uncivilized peasant culture. He is given the nickname of ziegelle, or little goat, which was bestowed upon him affectionately by his mother, but is resented by Meyer due to the teasing to which he is subjected by his peers. It turns out that the term of endearment was not an arbitrary choice, for Meyer learns to his dismay that when he was born during the family’s passage to America, he was indeed suckled by a goat while his mother lay sick. The young Meyer is taunted by shadows on the wall of his apartment, imagining that they are cavorting goats come to mock him; even the shadows of his mother’s beckoning arms take on this aspect. Meyer complains about his nickname to Berel the harness-maker:

“Then tell me, Berel, be so good, what’s the matter nobody likes a goat and everybody makes fun of them.”
“First place, nothing bothers a goat and that makes people angry. A goat manages to get along where any other creature would perish. Stubble, twigs, anything is food and nourishment for him. He is a sidestepper, can walk a narrow ledge or fence, if need be. He is for himself; unfeeling, and befriends no one. An unlikable, ugly thing with a most unreasonable smell. And I have noticed that a goat is the only thing ridicule can’t kill.”

Of course, this describes the goatish disposition Meyer will display through the years, though I feel Ornitz could have done more to sustain the goat imagery in the latter parts of the book (indeed, there’s a lot of animal imagery in the early chapters, and it’s a shame that it peters out). Here, goats are contrasted with lambs―specifically with Berel’s peaceable employee Lutz, who lies severely injured after being assaulted by policemen. It is the goats who prosper, while the lambs are trodden underfoot. This, it would appear from Ornitz’s book, is the ordinary state of affairs in a capitalist society, in which success always comes at the expense of others. The young Meyer gets an early taste of the pitiless power-play success requires in his involvement with the local gang, working his way up from the very bottom:

I am in a hurry to join the Ludlow Street Gang. Just yesterday I was admitted to its glorious ranks as the fourteenth leader. I was not Leader the Fourteenth, but of the whole gang fourteenth in prowess and importance. However, I had only thirteen superiors. Being the lowest step in the ladder, I was most frequently trod upon; but it was sweet suffering, the travail of a hero. . . . **

He does not remain long in this position, his first advance coming as a result of a fight over a seating place by an outdoor fire. He makes himself useful with his ingenuity, careful never to expose himself to significant physical danger, but becoming a trusted adviser to the gang’s leader, Boolkie. The young Ludlow Streeters amuse themselves with petty crimes and brawling rivalries, many of them relishing the freedom to make mischief because it is in such exhilarating contrast to the harsh, gloomy routines of the cheder, or religious school, they are forced to attend. As Meyer states, the ‘gang was romance, adventure, had the zest of banditry, the thrill of camp life, and the lure of hero-worship’. There’s a brilliantly entertaining passage in which the boys, released from the cheder for the day, engage in a large street fight with another gang (described in comically militaristic terms: ‘a battalion of boys’, ‘a fusillade of brickbats’, ‘an unopposed charge upon the Guerrillas’ rear’, etc. ), the fight morphing into a more general riot until Meyer starts orchestrating it for his own advantage. Here darker undertones intrude, as property is destroyed (perhaps reminding the shopkeepers of the pogroms they’d fled) and protection money demanded, the young hooligans acting just as a bona fide criminal gang would (naturally, several of the young hooligans indeed go on to become bona fide criminal gangsters). Respectable pillars of the community tut-tut at all this, but when the two Jewish gangs join forces to fight Irish youths, the same pillars of the community urge them on. The same pillars of the community are also sweatshop operators and brothel owners, their conduct, beneath the veneer of respectability, being no less corrupt and inhumane than that of the gangsters. As Meyer’s legal career takes off, he contrives to keep a foot in both camps, maintaining the front of a worthy, pious Jew who regularly attends synagogue (inwardly, he despises religion) while finding that his boyhood criminal connections are of great use to him professionally. He also becomes part of the notorious Tammany Hall system that dominated Democratic politics in New York for years, posing as a champion of the working man while seeking only to benefit himself. His uncle Philip, meanwhile, becomes a convinced capitalist (“It’s a good thing,” he says, “this is a free country and I can exploit whom I like.”), rises from lowly factory worker to wealthy mogul, all the while treating his employees like dirt and manipulating union leaders for his own ends. The satirical mode is an invigorating blend of disgusted Swiftian indignation and exuberant Jonsonian revelry in chicanery and cunning. The condemnation of capitalism is total and unremitting, and yet Ornitz cannot resist having a ball with Meyer’s schemes (and those of his uncle), making them seem almost fun even if the schemer himself is far from a fun character. Ornitz depicts through his narrator’s recollections a society made sick and venal at all levels by capitalism. Business, the law, politics, gangs and religion: all operate according to the same principles, or lack of them. Appearance counts for more than reality in such a society; you may be a total fraud, crook, incompetent and hypocrite, but if you put on a good front, people will take ‘you to be the man you say you are’. A foray into the world of musical theatre is the occasion for some great comedy, but we also see the phoniness of commercial entertainment, the narrowness of its relentless pursuit of profit, the crassness of its racial stereotyping, its association with prostitution and organized crime. It is via Meyer’s activities as performer that Ornitz provides his bleakest picture of the human cost of capitalism:

Later, when tips were running high, Sam introduced us to the fifty-cent houses on Mott and Elizabeth Streets, where was beginning to develop a large Italian colony. Pimps on the street pulled at us, dragged us into doorways and cried their drawing card―“imported girlies, young―very young”; that was the attraction. And we found nothing misleading in their advertisement. The girls were young, very young, ten to fourteen years old, and imported, imported by Italian padrones, importers of livestock only: pleasure girls, boy and girl street musicians, children acrobats, crippled and deformed children for begging; and when such importations were stopped only by the horrors exposed by their own excesses, they became respectable importers of mine and railway peons. The Elizabeth Street joints were crude and dirty places, and Hymie Rubin, rather sensitive and soft-hearted, turned from them in disgust, saying he minded most the little girls’ white, bewildered faces. […] Hymie preferred the Five Points scrubs because they were cheap and did not seem to be human beings.

In contrast to Meyer’s cynicism and single-minded devotion to his own interests, Ornitz also presents a series of ‘good’ characters, who are variously compassionate, idealistic, principled, naïve. Such qualities Meyer regards with scorn, but even among the ‘dream-stupefied’ (a frequently employed term of abuse), there are some for whom he has a certain amount of respect and admiration, even he cannot understand their approaches to life. Most important is his complicated relationship with Esther, a beautiful local girl who becomes a committed socialist. Ornitz has a real gift for characterization, superbly realizing monsters like Meyer and Philip, more sympathetic figures such as his boyhood friends Avrum and Davey (who in adulthood turn, respectively, to political activism and poetry), and little cameos such as the elderly rabbi who rails against prostitution and curses much of his congregation, the brash theatrical agent with idiosyncratic pronunciation (e.g. ‘I takes pleasure in arnouncing the East Side Four, kwartet, buck an’ wing and comedy artists, introducing numberous nowelties, all bein’ under the pursonel direckshun of A. Wolff, Esquire’), and, best of all, a boozy old pianist:

Piano O’Brien’s deft signals holds [sic] us in key, time and place. He is more than an accompanist. He is our guiding genius, attending our every move with telepathic accord. And so he sits the whole night, slightly stooped, at the piano, accompanying the singers, playing a vagrant, restful interlude or joining the fiddler, cornetist and drummer in banging out the dance music of the day. And his eyes seem drowned in the eternal well of whiskey on the music rest. He appears as tireless and detached as an automaton. He is a pale-faced drunkard, as though the very blood in him has turned into high-proof spirits. . . . Drunk unceasingly for many years, yet he is never the drunken man. His repose is deathlike, but gruesome in the midst of life. His eyes are like small clams congealed in alcohol. He has thin lips that compress into a purple straight line. His skin, drawn taut over forehead, cheek bones and jaw bones, seems petrified. His hands, only, seem limber and living, but the hands become as part of the piano. To the world he has no personality or being or self except as the thing of the piano. So he is known as Piano O’Brien.

Some of the characters may seem like familiar types later to be often seen in Hollywood movies (although Hollywood seldom placed them in an explicitly Jewish milieu), but here they seem fresh. It is also true that, on the whole, the men are more vivid than the women, but perhaps this a result of our seeing them through the eyes of a narrator who has little time for women except as sex objects.

As I hope the passages quoted above suggest, Haunch Paunch and Jowl contains some very impressive writing, revelling in the display of its author’s keen powers of description (‘His eyes are like small clams congealed in alcohol’―just wonderful). Ornitz’s portrayal of life in New York’s Jewish immigrant community is marvellously fresh and detailed: the rollicking prose is peppered with tasty bits of dated slang (bushwah, spiffy, yegg, lobbygow, spieler and so on), and there’s also quite a bit of Yiddish, italicized and with translations provided in brackets. One of the book’s strengths is Meyer’s narratorial voice: shrewd, caustic, loquacious, amoral, without shame. Occasionally the expressions of a self-interested, cynical philosophy are a little too on the nose, but they are in keeping with Meyer’s blunt and unnuanced mind. A bigger criticism is that Ornitz is not consistent, for there are some passages that don’t seem as if Meyer could have been written them. For instance, a brief account of the spread of ragtime displays a deeper interest in popular art and a greater resentment towards conservative taste-makers than is characteristic of the narrator. A rhapsody on the theme of the city’s red-light districts seems more moralistic, more concerned with sin and vice than one would expect of Meyer. Ornitz’s use of stream-of-consciousness (which is what attracted me to the book) is interesting and often effective, but it is also sometimes a bit rough-and-ready. See how much work the ellipses are doing in the following passage, for example:

These are the thoughts filtering into my mind like hot ashes. . . . I am getting ready for bed. . . . It is the beginning of another summer. . . . I stand by the window . . . a young moon rides the heavens, trailing the gauziest of nebulae . . . like a bridal veil . . . a bridal veil. . . . Gretel calls me . . . is she apprehensive . . . does she sense that I am seeing a heavenly virgin bedecked in nuptial lace? . . .

The problem is that the succession of thoughts (which are, in themselves, well-written) is too neat and orderly; Meyer may mention ‘the trick of rapid incoherent thoughts flipping through [his] mind,’ but in truth a little more rapidity and incoherence would not have gone amiss at times. Elsewhere, Ornitz achieves this brilliantly:

The wind screeched in my ears . . . you thought you would forget . . . but you will never forget Esther . . . her eyes . . . her hands . . . her quick smile . . . and her voice . . . you will never forget. . . . Everything is rushing on, swiftly. The wind is sweeping the world away from me. . . . I am left alone clinging to the granite block . . . the trees rush past, the houses swoop away, the river rages on its flight from me; below me I feel a rumble; now comes a gaseous snort . . . a freight-train flees after the wind-borne trees, houses, river, and swirling roads. . . . The wine of her lips―one kiss . . . limbs quivering beneath silk . . . a whisper . . . dust off the electric chair . . . charred potatoes but sweet . . . a whisper . . . hands tingling under my hot lips. . . .

It’s strange to think that a book containing passages such as this could have been a bestseller back in 1923, and stranger still that it could have fallen into oblivion. One possible reason for its current neglect could be that there’s something a little odd and tangled about its attitude to immigration, assimilation and the place of Jews in America. Ornitz is hard on Meyer, who wears a Good Jew mask for his own self-serving ends, but he is scarcely sympathetic to the old traditions Meyer pretends to honor. On the one hand we have a character such as Dr. Lionel Crane (Lazarus Cohen), who pontificates on ‘The Jewish Question’, espouses assimilationist views, downplays anti-Semitism, and is clearly something a quack. On the other hand, when leftist union man Avrum suggests that the pogroms in Russia are to be blamed in part on the behavior of Jewish traders and money-lenders, he is vilified, and Ornitz clearly has some sympathy with his sense of being misunderstood and unfairly attacked, even if it’s not clear that Ornitz endorses Avrum’s views. Berel Lotvin the harness-maker is revealed towards the end to have attained a successful and contented existence as a tire-dealer under the name of Bernard Lowe, having turned from Judaism to Christian Science; he is apparently rewarded for renouncing his Old World Jewish name, religion and profession in favor of modern American ones. He claims that even his diabetes―thought of as a typically Jewish complaint―has been cured following his conversion. His sons, however, have started to attend synagogue, though it may be simply in order to woo two young women in the congregation. So Ornitz’s viewpoint is hard to determine. It is striking how little anti-Semitism features in the novel, the only clear example being the conflict between the Irish and Jewish youth gangs. What we don’t see is anti-Semitism being an obstacle or source of oppression; there is plenty of bigotry between Jews (mainly in the form of German Jews looking down on Russian Jews), but little bigotry towards Jews on the part of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant society. This omission renders Ornitz’s panorama incomplete, racial prejudice being a key component of the dehumanizing capitalist system he excoriates. Despite this flaw, the book is certainly strong enough to warrant a further reprint, and it is to be hoped that a publisher such as the New York Review of Books or The Dalkey Archive seeks to return it to the limelight.

* The odd title refers to a nickname the protagonist endures as his girth expands in step with his rising public profile.
** You can see here how Ornitz destabilizes the temporal viewpoint of his narrator. The first sentence is in the simple present (the tense most frequently employed in the novel’s early parts); the next marks a shift to the simple past (which, later on in the book, comes more the fore). Except that ‘I am in a hurry’ and ‘Just yesterday’ belong to the same moment: Meyer running to meet his fellow gang members having been admitted by them the day before. It is a moment in Meyer’s past, but he narrates it as if it were happening right now. When he talks of being ‘frequently trod upon’, there is another shift in temporal viewpoint, because this can only refer to a series of occurrences happening over period of time after the second day of his gang membership, and so, from the perspective of the ‘present’ of Meyer hurrying to join his confrères, refers to Meyer’s future, even as he really looking back on the past.