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Herman Spector's Life and Career

Bud Johns and Judith S. Clancy

"1929 and a decade audible in these poems. The poetry tells this story, the tones of the poetry, even the borrowed tones, which are dreams, tell the story of a man who risked himself for the hope of a poetry that would isolate no man and no thing, that would seem to him in no way 'privileged' and he became perhaps the loneliest of the impoverished men of his time and I believe he must have become afraid. Before he died, fear had abolished the poetry."

George Oppen never met Herman Spector but he knew his work and, as the lines above establish, he also knew the man.

The words beneath a photograph of a youthful Spector in the February 1931 issue of New Masses can serve as a biographical starting point. Dressed in a suit with white shirt and striped tie, hair parted in the middle, he was not wearing the glasses through which Albert Halper remembered him peering "cynically, beseechingly, hungrily, and with pride."

"Herman Spector--Born 1905 in New York City and has never been farther west than 10th Avenue. Left high school after three years, the loser in a passionate struggle for a vital education, to fulfill the prediction of a pedagogue: 'You'll turn out to be a ditchdigger or a Bolshevik.' Worked, towards this end, as lumber handler, shipping clerk, truck driver, streetcar conductor, laborer, baker’s helper, Western Union 'mutt,' factory hand, butcher boy, envelope addresser, canvasser, soda jerker. Now married, father of a 3-year-old girl, and engaged in writing a novel. Contributed to Exile, The American Caravan, Free Verse, Anthology of Revolutionary Poetry, Transition, Unrest, etc. Contributing editor of New Masses. Member of the John Reed Club."

Spector's contribution to that issue was titled "Unemployed." Later issues the same year carried "Cash or Credit" (March), "Those Ungrateful Masses" (September), "2nd Avenue Sweat" (in October when he was mentioned on the magazine's cover and the contributors' notes commented "Herman Spector--has just lost his job in a warehouse. Looking for work.") and "Harlem River" (December).

From the time he first appeared in its pages with "Anarchist Nightsong" in June 1928, New Masses was the major outlet for the published work of the cynical youth who rejected his family's belt manufacturing business to become what Kenneth Rexroth has described as one of the major (and certainly one of the most forgotten) influences on the then-radical writers who came out of the period.[1] By that November, when New Masses carried four of his poems, his work had enough impact to warrant his name being on the magazine's cover and the following March he was first listed as a contributing editor, replacing Upton Sinclair in the alphabetical listing.

Edward Newhouse remembers him coming to the magazine's office now and then between 1929 and 1933, sometimes with Joseph Vogel, "whom I seem to remember as his good friend. He was a slender young man, of medium height, full of nervous energy; in manner, friendly, gay, sardonic."

"He was a very talented poet whom I knew for at least a decade," Vogel recalls. They first met in late 1927 or early the following year, probably through Horace Gregory and/or The Second American Caravan, to which both Spector and Vogel contributed.

"Spector and I used to get together from time to time, usually after working hours, to take walks in different parts of Manhattan and occasionally to attend an evening lecture. I recall our going to hear Sergei Eisenstein, and at another time Sidney Hook . . . I can't recall our conversations after all these years--the usual things young writers discussed, except our own writing. It seems odd now, but we rarely discussed our own literary work except to inquire how work in progress was making out. Naturally we both followed the little mags in which so much of our work appeared.

"Spector was tall and lean; he had penetrating eyes. One thing I admired about him, he could immediately see through sham. He had a devastating way of cutting through another writer's work in a sentence or two. He would even cut through the writer himself when an encounter took place. I recall we once met a young poet on the subway, and after a brief exchange of words Spector thrust a verbal knife right through him. My heart bled for the guy but I didn't say anything about my feelings to Herman. I never corrected his manners, he never corrected mine.

"In those days Spector had a job as collector of overdue payments for a furniture house, a job he detested. He used to tell me about the jerks he had to work with and for, and then listened sympathetically while I unburdened my own work gripes.

"It's impossible for me to recall now when we started talking about putting out our own little magazine. There was a lot of discussion about that, then more writers were drawn into it and to the naming of the magazine. The title Dynamo was finally decided upon. By that time the co-editors were Sol Funaroff, Spector, Nicholas Wirth, myself. We had numerous meetings to read manuscripts. Our original plan was to publish prose and poetry, but the submitted prose was so far below our standards that finally Dynamo appeared as a poetry magazine, mainly under Funaroff’s editorship. When I sent a copy of Dynamo to my friend Edward Root (who lived at Hamilton College and later became famous as a talent scout in the arts), he astonished me by praising just one poem in the entire issue, the one by Herman Spector."

The first issue, Dynamo '33, was advertised in the January issue of New Masses as "a quarterly of proletarian literature" edited by Spector, Alexander Godin, Funaroff, Vogel and Wirth. That was apparently the issue in which the Spector poem praised by Root appeared and unfortunately no known copy survives. Vol. 1, No. 1 was dated January 1934 and three issues--the third carrying a review by Spector--appeared that year with he, Funaroff, Vogel and Wirth listed as editors. One issue of Volume 2 appeared the following Spring with the editor listed as "Stephen Foster," a name Rexroth says indicated that a Communist Party functionary had taken over the editing. It was the magazine's last issue.

Halper, who considered Spector "a rare talent, a rare person," wrote the editors of this volume that "his was an original talent, and his work deserves to be known today. A damn shame he never received the proper recognition he deserved during his life time." The two men first met through Vogel when Dynamo was being planned.

"Dynamo was born in my apartment, on 125th Street, in Harlem, one evening, with Herman, Vogel, Sol Funaroff and Alexander Godin present, in late 1932, as I recall. I had sold two stories to Mencken for his American Mercury and consequently was the only person present who had any money that night. I tossed in $25, and so Dynamo was born. I pulled out later, for personal reasons, and asked that my name be stricken from the masthead. But I saw Vogel, Godin and Spector on a friendly basis after that. I believe Kenneth Fearing came into the Dynamo orbit afterwards."

Both Spector and Vogel were mentioned by Ezra Pound in his February 1, 1929 letter of advice to Charles Henri Ford. Ford was about to begin Blues ("out of a blue sky, a magazine of new rhythms," promised an introductory advertisement that summer in transition) which included Spector and Vogel among its contributing editors, along with Eugene Jolas, Oliver Jenkins, William Carlos Williams and Jacques le Clercq.

"As you don't live in same town with yr. start contribs, you can not have fortnightly meeting and rag each other," Pound commented. "Best substitute is to use circular letters. For example write something (or use this note of mine), add your comments, send it on to Vogel, have him show it to Spector, and then send it to Bill Wms. each adding his blasts or blesses or comment of whatever-damn natr. Etc. When it has gone the rounds, you can send it back here."

Pound had told Ford "every generation or group must write its own literary program. The way to do it is by circular letter to your ten chief allies. Find out the two or three points you agree on (if any) and issue them as program. . . ." He did urge the magazine's support for his own program, including passage of some "decent and civilized copyright act" and amendment of Article 211 of the Penal Code with the 12 words "This statute does not apply to works of literary and scientific merits."

The letter to Ford continued: "You shd. look into Art. 211 and the copyright mess. If you don't want to attend to that part of the mag, get Vogel or Spector or some of the huskier and more publicke minded members to do the blasting."

Blues, which survived for nine issues, was introduced as a magazine "of a more complete revolt against the cliche and commonplace, welcoming poetry and prose radical in form, subject or treatment." Its editors considered it "a haven for the unorthodox in America and for those writers living abroad who, though writing in English, have decided that America and American environment are not hospitable to creative work."

Before the first issue of Blues appeared, Pound wrote: "If it is any use, I shd. be inclined not to make an effort to bring out another Xile until one has seen whether Blues can do the job. Or do you consider this excessive on my part? I don't see that there is room or need for two mags doing experimental stuff . . . at present moment." He lent further encouragement with "Seems to me a chance for the best thing since The Little Review and certainly the best thing done in America without European help."

Pound, who had published Spector's brief prose piece "Cloaks and Suits" in the Spring 1928 issue of Exile, corresponded considerably with Herman during the period which followed but unfortunately none of his letters to the young writer were saved. In 1973 Louis Zukofsky confirmed tersely that he was responsible for Spector's first publication in Exile: "Yes, I was. Can't say more."

Spector's name was still on the title page of Blues' eighth number (Spring 1930) as a contributing editor but Vogel's had disappeared and Herman's was also missing from the final issue that Fall. The political infighting of the Communist world was leaving its imprint on the writers of the Left, their publications and their personal associations.

The October 1929 issue of New Masses had carried a blistering letter by Vogel to Mike Gold under the caption "Literary Graveyards." It condemned the "evil influence on young writers" of transition. Vogel said the matter went back farther, to Pound.

"Ezra, it seems, is as incapable of good influence as the Church. Recently he tried to organize a group of writers in this country, but the only success--or harm--he achieved was the taking of a smaller Pound under his wings, namely Louis Zukofsky. Others of the group, including Spector, Moore, Gould, myself, somehow didn't grab the rope.

"One of the droppings Pound left behind is transition," Vogel continued, "And the harm transition has done is evidenced in a contagion about to spread in this country in the form of a crop of new magazines, which will appear in the near future. Blues appeared months ago, a washy imitation of its mama in Paris."

Vogel added that "transition and Blues continue with experimentalism that is old, that repeats, that becomes weaker and weaker, that serves little purpose . . ." and concluded by urging "it is time that young writers disassociate themselves from all these abstractions, as many have long ago done from Pound, the dean of corpses that promenade in graveyards."

The final issue of Blues carried, under "Contemporary Reviews," notice of the indefinite suspension of transition--"valuable organ of the innovative element in literature"--and a sharp blast at New Masses: "It would be a document of no little interest--that prepared by some studious psychologist, exposing the exact motives leading a large number of literary people to sentimentally unite their talents under such a title. Truly enough, since the title has been changed from The Masses, literary people have been inclined to drop off and non-literary people come on: Mr. Gold has had his particular vision. But God knows, the sins of print seem riotous as one peruses a copy of this periodical; the assumption being intelligibility, privilege of value, and literature, one accords only the first and that, one has to assert, is accidental."

Before he disassociated with Blues Spector had arranged for the first publication of a poem by Harry Roskolenkier (Raskolenko). They were friends as young men and while Spector had not been much inclined to carouse, when he did as often as not it was with Raskolenko.

"The bitterest man I ever knew, Spector was a poet who was published regularly," Raskolenko reminisced in When I Was Last on Cherry Street. "Ezra Pound, then extolling social-credit economics in Mussolini's Italy, had made Spector one of his faraway protégés, and Spector made me his close-at-hand protégé. Spector was savage, brutal and brilliant, an innovator in poetry, and Pound admired his experiments. Spector came from the upper middle classes and loathed them. He could have been rich had he said yes to his father; [2]  instead he took shoddy jobs to aggravate the cosmic hatred in his poetry. . . . Between his joyless poems and his misery-seeking jobs, he wrote explosive class-complaints to poets and editors."

Although harsh to a fault in his personal criticisms of Spector ("Though frightened of women, he married too early--and remained frightened, rudely unawakened to any job.") Roskolenko did partially understand that despite the economic choice Spector made because of his disdain for the middle class he never fit comfortably into the mold of the proletariat.

This by no means gave him what Joseph Kalar, in a 1929 call to New Masses for more creative writing, scorned as "the drawingroom scent of a Floyd Dell."

"The proletarian writers I particularly have in mind at this time are Ed. Falkowski and Martin Russak and Herman Spector: sufficient proof, I think, that a proletarian can write. . . ." Kalar said. "Let us keep New Masses open for experiment--there is room in it both for Herman Spector and H. H. Lewis, room, that is, both for the fine experimental work of Spector and the more traditional work of H. H. Lewis."

Five poems by Spector are known to have been in the Autumn 1927 issue of Free Verse, of which no known copy exists. One of them was certainly the poem included the next year in The Second American Caravan. "Nightowl" was published in the January 1928 issue of Bozart. Spector was 22 and before the year was over six publications would carry a total of 18 pieces reprinted in this volume.

His widow, Clara, recalls that Spector had published already by the time they met in late 1925 or early 1926 and that he showed her his work in print between then and their marriage in 1927. She doesn't remember where it appeared or what were the themes except for one that was certainly an exception to his pattern of "always tearing something down, he was sort of bitter about everything." That exception came after she told him about her grade school graduation.

"He took what I told him and he wrote it into a little story of this very young girl on her graduation day. He made a beautiful little story out of it that was published somewhere. That's the first memory I have of him getting some money (for writing). I think they gave him $15."

One of the little magazines which carried Spector's poetry in 1928 was Palo Verde. It was edited by Norman Macleod during a period when he was custodian of the Petrified Forest National Monument in Arizona as well as a contributor to New Masses.

"I was writing very conventional, rather poor, imitative verse at the time," recalls Macleod, who is still active as a literary magazine editor with Pembroke Magazine. "It was Herman Spector and also Parker Tyler who wrote me advising me to climb out of that rut and so it was they who first influenced me in the direction of experiment and in trying to find my own voice and new forms--or at least to say what I was trying to say in language that was not distorted by restrictive English metrical patterns."

In January 1931 Macleod went to New York at the invitation of Walt Carmon, managing editor of New Masses, and became his editorial assistant. It was during this time he first met Spector, although he didn't see much of him. Carmon decided to take a vacation soon after Macleod's arrival "and left it to me to bring out the March 1931 issue.

"This was the number that published Whittaker Chambers' famous short story "Can You Hear Their Voices?" (my title). I also published one of my own on the inside front cover of that issue. I selected the material [Spector’s "Cash or Credit" among it.] that was included and I did the layout."

Macleod was the American editor of Front (published in The Hague) that same year when it published "Bum's Rush," a short story by Spector. Both men were also among the New Masses poets who had work selected about the same time for translation into the French to be published in Poémes D'Ouvriers Americains, a small anthology "brought out by probably the communists in Paris."

"I liked him and admired him," Macleod wrote in 1973 of Spector. "But he was uneven. The best of his work was quite brilliant."

Others had said that in print during the early Thirties. Alfred Kreymborg's Our Singing Strength, An Outline of American Poetry (1620-1930) listed "newcomers and poets of tomorrow" in its chapter "Youth Moves on Toward Maturity." ". . . [O]ne may advise the reader not to lose sight of Howard Baker, Stanley Burnshaw, Clarence E. Cason, David Carter, Malcolm Cowley, Martin Feinstein, Lincoln Fitzell, Horace Gregory, Eugene Jolas, Edwin Morgan, Cary Ross, Jay G. Sigmund, Herman Spector, Charles Wagner and others."

"In addition to Gold's contributions, important work has appeared in The New Masses from the pens of Joseph Freeman, Whittaker Chambers, Paul Peters, Langston Hughes, A. McGill, Joshua Kunitz, and Herman Spector," V. F. Calverton wrote in The Liberation of American Literature, published in 1932 by Charles Scribner's Sons.

"Our paths never crossed," wrote Carl Rakosi to the editors of this collection. "My only memory, not of Spector but of his poetry, is the thought at the time that he was trying to do the impossible, write Marxist poetry, and that he might make it, but I don't remember any poem of his that did make it. He was making such a valiant effort and his work was so much better than that of others in New Masses that it looked as if he might succeed if he kept at it long enough."

In 1933 a 64-page book was printed by the Liberal Press, priced at 35 cents or $1 for one of the "125 copies of a specially bound limited edition." Not an earth-shaking event but it had impact . . . as described by Isidor Schneider in The New Republic:

"For Americans the publishing of We Gather Strength is an event worth dating. Here are four young writers who are building their careers as poets outside the capitalist publishing apparatus . . . The struggling left-wing literary magazines have provided them their public . . . They are not only creating a revolutionary poetry but gathering together what will probably be the most responsible and satisfying audience poetry can hope for in our time. We can look forward to something more from their joined strength than from any other group in America. . . ."

The four were Herman Spector, Joseph Kalar, Edwin Rolfe and Sol Funaroff.

"These are four young poets," wrote Michael Gold in his introduction. "They are hungry proletarians. Their minds are filled with images of death. They alternate between deathly despair and the wild wonderful dream of our World Revolution. Nothing is clear about them yet, except that they are actors in a great drama.

"Reader, this little booklet of poetry, and other books and pamphlets like it, are to be cherished and saved for the libraries of the revolutionary future."

Mike Gold, editor of New Masses, said the four "are keeping alive a precious spirit in our revolutionary movement which all the vulgarizers of historic materialism will never kill.

"I have always felt a peculiar kinship with Herman Spector. Bitter and lonely, the 'bastard in a ragged suit,' this poet of youthful revolt roams our familiar New York streets at midnight. He is the raw material of New York Communism.

"Confused, anarchic, sensitive, 'at times the timid Christ,' nauseated by the day's ugly and meaningless work, he prays for quick death to fall on this monstrous capitalist city. Then,

‘a big Mack rolling and rumbling down the street
and lo! morning.'

"It is with such deeply felt metropolitan images and symbols that this proletarian poet builds."

Gold wrote of the other three . . . the ardor of Kalar, a young lumber worker and paper mill mechanic from Minnesota who had "power in him that has not yet found words"; Funaroff, "eclectic, derivative and rhetorical, jazz and revolution mix"; Rolfe, "spectator, he is critic; his judgments are cool and accurate, whereas in Kalar and Spector the class war goes on in every heartbeat and vein: they are torn by it, confused, passionate, real, the thing-in-itself."

The next year, writing in New Masses, Schneider said "Gold's collection of revolutionary verse and We Gather Strength have stimulated poetry to a new and fruitful subject matter and given to the revolutionary movement the beginnings of a rousing campaign music."

Nelson Algren recalls how he was so influenced by reading We Gather Strength that he memorized its contents and made his first trip to New York from Chicago to meet Spector and Funaroff. There he was flattered to learn that they were familiar with his work and, at a party, he heard a recording one of them--probably Funaroff--had made reading some of that work. The three marched together on Fifth Avenue with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in a May Day parade, Algren pushing Spector’s younger daughter in a baby carriage.

Despite the enthusiasm of Schneider, Gold and others for the future of We Gather Strength and its poets, the memory dimmed.

"The poets who appeared in We Gather Strength have worn less well (than Fearing and Patchen)," Allen Guttman wrote in his poetry chapter for Proletarian Writers of the Thirties, published in 1968.

"But when their collection was published Herman Spector and Joseph Kalar were greeted as the heralds of a new era in poetry, and their poems were treated as a bountiful harvest. Spector, whom Michael Gold characterized as 'the raw material of New York Communism,' seemed a proletarian version of the Man with a Hoe: 'I am the bastard in the ragged suit/who spits, with bitterness and malice to all.' Kalar . . . shared Spector's bluntness."

Guttman referred to Spector and Kalar being included, with 27 other poets, in Granville Hicks' important anthology, Proletarian Literature in the United States, but he felt the best poems in that 1935 volume were by Horace Gregory and Muriel Rukeyser, "two poets whose careers, like those of Fearing and Patchen, transcended the radical movement." [3] 

The appearance of Volume 1, Number I of Dynamo led Waldo Tell to describe it in the February-March 1934 issue of Partisan Review as "the best collection of revolutionary poetry which has appeared since the publication of We Gather Strength.

"Not only have its editors (including Spector and Funaroff) collected in its 24 small pages some extremely significant literary contributions; they have also, as these very contributions reveal, set a high standard of literary merit which is sorely needed in revolutionary literature. It is a standard which proves that revolutionary literature--or, more precisely, in the case of Dynamo, revolutionary poetry--has definitely passed its hit-and-miss, catch-as-catch can period."

A 1935 article on poetry by Rolfe described both Partisan Review and Dynamo as being edited aesthetically as well as politically on solid, valid principles.

Soon after the publication of We Gather Strength Spector, who was living in the Bronx, spent two weeks (May 14-26, 1933) at Yaddo, the Saratoga Springs writers' and artists' retreat conceived by Katrina Trask Peabody and her first husband, Spencer Trask, for their 500-acre estate with its 50-room manor house.

"He loved it," Spector's widow recalls of Yaddo, which she thinks he also visited a second time. "He wished he could have stayed there."

Vogel had a somewhat more detailed memory: "I proposed Spector's name to Elizabeth Ames and she invited him to Yaddo. He was able to do some writing there, but his pleasure was a mixed one, he told me after his return, because a certain novelist had taunted him constantly as a proletarian rebel living in the lap of Wall Street luxury. It surprised me that Spector hadn't exercised his usual swordsmanship to cut down the bourgeois braggart; however, Spector hadn't wanted to create a scene, not at Yaddo."

No records are kept at Yaddo of what guests work on while there but others present during Spector's 1933 stay were Louis Adamic, Loyd Collins, Jr., Leo Fischer, Albert Halper, Charles Harrison, Grace Lumpkin, Evelyn Scott, John Metcalfe, Ferner Nuhn, Philip Reisman, Mrs. Reisman, Tess Slesinger and Carl Wuenner.

Ironically, We Gather Strength, Dynamo, Yaddo, the praise, were happening at the same time Spector began his withdrawal as an actively publishing writer. Politics, family difficulties, his own bitterness . . . all played a part but what weight for each, and what other factors were involved, nobody will know.

"We lived in the East Bronx," Alfred Hayes recalls in a letter about the period. "We belonged to the John Reed Club. We were all poor. Herman seemed poorer. He behaved poorer. And bitterer. And more saturnine. We were all bitter and all somewhat saturnine. He was just more. He had a wife and a child, and then there was another child. He looked like a man the universe had gone out of its way to trap. He worked somewhere. A factory? An office? I don't remember exactly. He was somewhat older than I was and I don't think he liked me and I was always somewhat uneasy with him. We were all thin and dark, but he was thinner and darker. He was suffocating. He couldn't leave his wife. He couldn't abandon his child, or children. He couldn't seem to break loose of anything, wife, children, Bronx, poverty, bitterness, thinness, darkness, anything. He wrote the kind of poetry Louis Zukofsky and a queer gent like Eli Something wrote: thin, emaciated poetry. I can't even remember the East Bronx anymore except for the streetlights. And a few Friday nights.........

New Masses changed its approach--and its frequency, from monthly to weekly--in 1934, and Spector no longer wrote for it. Literary magazines virtually disappeared as the depression deepened and, as Rexroth contends, the Communist Party decided they no longer had an important function in its program. Sweet Like Salvation, which might have been either the novel or book of verse mentioned in biographical notes, had been announced but apparently never published. Spector was certainly not the kind of writer welcomed by The Saturdav Evening Post and other successful mass magazines of the period, although he did make sporadic stabs at writing for them and the pulps as it got more difficult to meet his family's needs. But mainly he wrote, rewrote and didn't submit.

Then, about 1938, came a brief detour from the road he was traveling. He spent about a year on the WPA Writers' Project, working on its Living Lore project and actually earning a living as a writer.

"The writers went around the city interviewing people--without tape recorders--put down what they heard. More exactly: put down what they heard as strained through their particular way of recording it," recalls Saul Levitt. "And Herman's was among the very best of this stuff. . . ." That's not surprising. He was doing what he liked and what he did well. . . and the project paid $25 a week.

"My own impressions of Herman and of his work are distant but quite vivid," Levitt continued in a 1973 letter. "Herman was lean, dark, nervous, despairing and funny. His poetry hit like electric stabs--I remember short stabbing lines--nervous style and urban words--dark sounds--staccato beat.

"He did one of his folklore pieces about a party of people in a taxi which loses its way to a cemetery. They either never get to the funeral or get there too late. An extremely funny piece but with that melancholy edge which made it Herman's. His dark side and his humor in some taut arrangement inside him like two hands in Indian wrestling.

"But I think, unhappily, it was the darkness which won out--accounted for Herman disappearing suddenly out of the world of poets and writers with whom he'd been associated--surrendering to some call back to what was masochistically secure--Brooklyn, driving a taxi, living lower middle-class, raising his children--griping. I don't make any judgment on his choice. It was his life's necessity to choose to do this. Which sets up many lines of thought I'm not going into in a letter."

The project did end and so did the detour. Spector didn't stop writing but, as Norman Macleod speculated years later, "at least he stopped sending it out for publication."

"Every night, every moment he had he turned to his writing." his widow recalls, adding that she didn't know what he was writing. "Until he turned to drawing and he stopped writing for some years . . . He wrote in longhand until later years when his sister gave him a typewriter for one of his birthdays. She was the only sister with money. She gave it with a note that she hoped he would create. This was years later (probably the early '40s)."

World War II came, and with it employment as a welder at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

"At the time, I didn't think anything could unsettle Herman's indifference--seeming indifference anyway--to everything and everyone about him," Henry Gilfond wrote recently to one of Spector's daughters, both of whom he had taught in a Bronx elementary school.

"It seemed to me, again at that time, that he had given up on much and had become rather cynical. I may have been mistaken. His cynicism may have been a facade to conceal his inner turmoil (not lessened by the domestic difficulties he mentioned briefly). I'm sorry I didn't get to know him better. We had appeared in the same magazines and I'm certain that, given the time, we should have discovered much we believed and held in common. But we didn't give it the time.

"The darkness," as Levitt called it, continued to win out. In 1945 Spector and his family moved to Brooklyn, to the upper flat of a three-story house on a tree-lined street. The job as a welder ended with the war and he spent several years as a sales canvasser . . . sometimes for a photo studio, sometimes selling pots and pans, sometimes in New York, sometimes roaming Southern states.

Disappearance from the world of poets and writers with whom he had associated had at least one interruption and then Spector could not bring himself to admit to Halper that he was writing but no longer submitting his work for publication.

"I last saw Herman in the Borough Hall section of Brooklyn," Halper recalls. "He told me he was selling photo coupons for a commercial photographer, soliciting sales for weddings, graduations, bar mitzvahs, etc. What a horrible job: he worked on a commission basis. He added that he had recently become a grandfather. When I asked if he was still writing, he drew himself up with pride and regarded me unflinchingly through his glasses.

"'Halper, I haven't written a line in 18 years,' he said proudly, with an air of defiance. I've never forgotten that little meeting with him on Fulton Street; it was the last time I saw him."

Shortly after the encounter with Halper, about 1949 or 1950, Spector became a cabdriver. The writing continued except for the period when he turned to drawing, drawing with insight on whatever paper was available. These were mainly pictures of the people around him . . . family, the few friends, but more often his fellow hackies, people on the street and those he saw in the all-night cafes where he paused for coffee. The drawings might well be called autobiographical, as were the last pieces of his writing. Some are printed here for the first time: fragments and sketches, some about his young manhood, others for a book he contemplated from his cabbie experiences.

But he never finished them, was never satisfied, never again before his death the day before his 54th birthday in September 1959, submitted his talent to the opinion of editors, critics and public.

Oppen wrote Spector's artist daughter: "Yes, I think your father stopped short, or was stopped . Yes, sure, his spirit failed (but) he did a great deal more than most men have."

Writing for this book, Oppen referred to a 1928 New Masses essay by Spector.

"Of The Dial as representative of the literary currents he wrote furiously: 'You have imagined an audience, the piece is secondary'. He had encountered another audience, haunted and jostled by another audience, in love and hatred of that audience, in fear of rejecting them, in fear of another claim, he rejected most of the powers of poetry but there lives in his work the poetry of distance, of a jostled solitude, the poetry of a decade that he feared or even knew would be lost, that he fought for and fought against, that he drowned in and lived in and which may be lost.

"'Dead me no deaths,
Ceasar of sad words.’"


[1] "It was a lean season for American poetry," Rexroth wrote in American Poetry in the Twentieth Century of the literary generation made up of people born in the early years of the century who came to maturity in the troubled times after 1929. "Hundreds of young intellectuals who started out as writers were consumed and cast aside by the Communist Party. Most of them became political activists and gave up writing. The strong-willed ones obeyed the Party Line and dutifully wrote Proletarian literature and Socialist Realism. The stultifying effects of bureaucratic control are more than conclusively shown by the fact that all this passionate activity and commitment produced, in poetry, almost nothing of enduring value. America's revolutionary poets, Socialist and anarchist, flourished mostly in the old, free Radical movement before 1927, the year of Stalin's seizure of power, and those that came after belonged to dissident groups, mostly Trotskyites. Herman Spector, Sol Funaroff, Joseph Caylor (sic), Edwin Rolfe, are probably the best out of hundreds. Kenneth Fearing was always independent and suspect, and Kenneth Patchen, the best of all the poets of the Left of those days, soon became so, and Patchen, of whom more later, is the only one who is still read." [Return to text]

[2] Questionable since the father, after a period of pre-1929 prosperity, was not a wealthy man when he died in 1956. Portions of Spector's previously unpublished "All the Speeches of the Presidents" deal with this.[Return to text]

[3] A History of American Poetry, 1900-1940, published in 1942, briefly credits We Gather Strength for holding the promise of a left movement in poetry, mentions Dynamo and calls the 1935 publication of Proletarian Literature in the United States (containing Spector's "Timeclock") the height of a phenomenon which "created great local excitement." But, after commenting that despite his death in 1942 Funaroff "was more fortunate than most young writers who shared his promise, his political convictions, and his poverty," the writers--Horace Gregory and Marya Zaturenska--quickly turned "with a sense of great relief" to Fearing.[Return to text]

from Bastard in the Ragged Suit: Writings of, with Drawings by, Herman Spector. Ed. Bud Johns and Judith S. Clancy. San Francisco: Synergistic Press, 1977. Copyright © 1977 by Synergistic Press. Reprinted by permission of Synergistic Press.

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