Souls in Translation

Souls in Translation by Paul Buhle

Audio Recording (46:09) – read by Doug Storm and Shana Ritter.

History, the telling of it, is storytelling. These are voices I heard, the stories I heard, in my work as an oral historian, years ago. I have refashioned them in the spirit of another downstate Illinois writer, whose Spoon River Anthology has meant so much to me, and of another spirit, Don Marquis, who never missed a Walt Whitman Fellowship meeting and who invented blank verse for the newspaper reader.

An Aging New Leftist Recalls His Relatives
What comes to mind is a memory within a memory.
My aunts and uncles
clinging to something precious.
Here's the scene:
At the end of the New Year's Eve Party,
Ten or twenty relatives, Jews middle-aged and older.
The women gather in one corner,
raise their drinks and sing "The Internationale,"
in Yiddish, naturally.

I owe these poems to several overlapping experiences in a life of scholarship and political activity. The first is a reading of Spoon River Anthology, as much as forgotten since high school English class but recovered fifty years later and reclaimed as one native Midwesterner listening and responding to another. The second is my fieldwork in oral history recording the lives of old people nearing the end of their lives and looking back without much need to cover their tracks.

My interviewees have a few very special qualities. A large number of them represent the trailing penumbra of the Yiddish-speaking Jewish Left in the United States in Greater New York, Miami Beach and Los Angeles. Others made their names in Hollywood, but remained just as Jewish in their own way. Yet another portion found themselves in blue collar Rhode Island, with another disappearing communal past to draw upon.

They all have, inevitably, myself in common because, during the period from the later 1970s until the middle 1990s, I happened to be the one asking the questions, But their lives speak for themselves. Edgar Lee Masters, the downstate Illinois author of the Anthology, initially chose to publish his poems, under a pseudonym, in the free-thinking Reedy’s Magazine in nearby St

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. Louis, afterward escaping from a Chicago law office to the apex of literary Bohemia at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. Perhaps he needed to establish a distance between himself and his subjects.

I like to think of Masters as a counterpart to Art Young, among the greatest of socialist cartoonists, who hailed from a small town in Wisconsin and was among the most melancholy of the artists who the suffered the disappointments of twentieth-century American progress. The two figures, more or less in the same generation, speak to us today. They offered me the inspiration for this small collection and for a non-career in leftwing comic art created by much the same melancholy a century later. Neither Masters nor Young gave up on life, American life, but they took the measure of its deeper, disguised realities.

Madison, Wisconsin, Winter 2020-21

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