Woodstock History: Poets Duel in the Mud

(This piece first appeared in the Woodstock Times.)

Who, besides poets, likes the local poetry scene? Years ago, Mikhail Horowitz warned me, “The smaller the pie, the sharper the knives.” Oh, I’ve gotten compliments, but the slights are what I remember. The poet who’d reviewed my first book with kind words accepted the second to say, “Nice cover!” and handed it right back. Always a smile. And a sugary “Good luck!” It has made me regret my Waspy training in politeness.

Once upon a time poets in Woodstock knew how fight. It was1923, when the arts colony was in its heyday. Greenwich Village bohemians swam nude in the Sawkill. Young poets and painters walked the country lanes with the democratic swagger of Walt Whitman. Hard cider solved the inconvenience of Prohibition. Rivalries flourished with manly abandon.

The showdown began in Little Italy when several dozen young writers, some of whom had recently returned from tours of the European avant-garde, gathered at a restaurant to plan their assault on the literary establishment, or more specifically to figure out what to do about two floundering literary magazines, Broom and Secession, which they’d launched abroad and brought home to New York.

Called by Malcolm Cowley, the meeting attracted Hart Crane, who soon drank too much, Glenway Westcott, and Matthew Josephson. (Among the no shows from their circle who’d go on to major careers were William Carlos Williams, e.e. Cummings, and Jean Toomer.) Another absentee was Gorham Munson convalescing in Woodstock. He’d founded Secession in Vienna as a rival to Broom and viewed Malcolm Cowley and others as young rubes from America who’d been easily seduced by the dashing nonsense of Dada, a charge to which Cowley might happily have pled guilty.

In his memoir, Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s, Cowley recalled his hope of doing Dada in New York. “We planned, for example, to hire a theater some afternoon and give a literary entertainment, with violent and profane attacks on the most famous contemporary writers, courts-martial of the more prominent critics, burlesques of Sherwood Anderson, Floyd Dell, Paul Rosenfeld and others—all this interspersed with card tricks, solos on the jew’s harp, meaningless dialogues and whatever else would show our contempt for the audience and the sanctity of American letters.”

But first there was the problem of the forthcoming issue Broom sitting in Mathew Josephson’s apartment in sorry shape. Munson felt no sympathy. He’d met Josephson a few years earlier though their mutual friend, Hart Crane, and hadn’t been impressed. “I met a rather stiff young man, narrow in his interests, brittle in his thinking, and at moments charmingly pompous in his speech,” Munson wrote in his memoir, The Awakening Twenties: A Memoir-History of a Literary Period. Nonetheless, he later recruited Josephson to be an editor for Secession, which proved to be a grievous mistake.

In Cowley’s telling: “I had known of a quarrel between them, based on a conflict of personalities: Munson was wax-mustached and a little solemn, while Josephson was addicted to practical jokes that weren’t always funny to the victim.” After “Munson had accepted a very long and bad romantic poem” for the magazine, Josephson, as the editor, “had omitted all but the last two lines.”

We might snicker, but Munson never overcame his offense. To Cowley’s Little Italy gathering he sent a letter. “I had come to regard Josephson as a literary opportunist, an example of last minuteism, a kind of stage player of the arts—to adapt a phrase of Nietzsche. I emphasized these things and called him an intellectual faker—fighting words, they turned out to be.”

Cowley read the letter to his assembled drinkers and would be Dadaists. “Because his feelings were intense, Munson was betrayed into using a pompous style,” Cowley recalled. “His rhetoric was as noble as Cicero’s; his phrases scanned; I have the impression that his statement was written more in blank verse than in prose. I began to read it seriously to my audience, but halfway through I was overcome by my sense of absurdity and began to declaim it like a blue-jawed actor reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy. The effect was unfortunate.” Drunken Hart Crane rose in defense of his friend Munson. Glenway Wescott marched out. The “apprentice gangsters” at the next tables told the young bohemians to shut up.

Josephson must have taken delight in being denounced in such elevated terms. As he later wrote in his own memoir of the period, Life Among the Surrealists, Munson charged “that I was a low, cunning, self-seeking, and dishonest character, a ‘fakir’ as a writer… Any movement of the American vanguard ‘must part from Josephson else Munson and his allies would shun it like the plague.’ Midway in the reading of this long-winded manifesto, written with studied effort and with pompous rhetorical flourishes, Malcolm was overcome by its sense of the absurd…and began to declaim it in the manner of a ham actor reciting Shakespeare.”

Josephson decided to take action. A friend had advised, “There’s no use discussing things with the man, I would give him a good thrashing.”

“I had heard rumors of his coming,” Munson later reported, “But dismissed the reports as only bluster… I was mistaken. Here he was knocking at the door, after traveling 100 miles to avenge himself… I had some guests for tea, when Josephson burst in shouting for battle.”

Josephson insisted that Munson started it. “It was he wanted to ‘parley’ with me. As I really disliked this business of fisticuffs and wished to get it over with, I became all the angrier.”

Manson’s Woodstock host was William Murrain Fisher, an art critic and early curator of the Woodstock Arts Association who had a cabin in the woods. He encouraged the two rivals to duke it out in the mud. “The worst fight I ever saw,” he said later. But that didn’t detract from its importance. Josephson wrote, “News of our Duel in the Mud promptly spread to New York and the press, whose literary columnists published excited conjecture and rumor about the ‘fratricidal strife’ among the literati of the ‘left wing.’ It was set down as (possibly?) the first time in the history of America that two men of letters came to blows over their opposing critical or aesthetic doctrines.”

To set the record straight, Josephson described the fight. “It was a cloudy afternoon in early November; as it had just stopped raining, the meadow where we squared off was mucky. Neither of us knew anything about the manly art. Munson, who had been convalescing for several weeks after a siege of ‘flu,’ had become very fat, outweighing me by about fifty pounds. His fists felt like pillows. He stood still; I hauled off and hit him a first roundhouse blow in the mouth that left a slight scratch….The slow-moving Munson, after a few exchanges, clinched with me and we fell to the wet ground, rolling about a while and becoming well covered with mud. I struggled to break free from him. We were both out of breath as we got to our feet and could scarcely swing at each other. Fisher, who was very good-humored about our little imbroglio, forgot to call off the rounds; and after about five minutes we both halted our hostilities. Fisher told me later that I was sitting on Munson’s chest when we stopped.”

Munson also set the record straight. Josephson “shouted for battle,” he wrote. “He was enraged and aggressive, in no mood for reason. However, he wasn’t fearsome; slightly built, he looked anything but formidable. It’s stretching a bit to call what ensued a ‘fight.’ Rather it was a scene in the theater of the absurd (or would have been had that theater then been born.) Josephson was ignorant of boxing as well as unathletic in build. The encounter was more nearly a scuffle than a fight. It’s high point—or better, the low point since it occurred on the ground—was reached when the Dadaist lay supine under the rump of the Secessionist, his body writhing beneath the weight of a convalescent who had been on a building up diet for six weeks, his arms pinioned by the knees of his critic, the dampness of the ground chilling his temper. ‘Let me up’ was the manifesto of this upsetting moment in the history of American Dadaism when instead of Dada attaining to its apex, the movement’s chief was thrown struggling beneath the podex of the opposition.”

Notice, please, who won. Need we further proof that this fight really occurred? No poet worth a memoir would admit to being pinned in the mud by a putz. When I recounted this tale to Thomas Whigham of the Woodstock Library, where this history can be found in books that probably nobody but me has checked out in years, he smiled and described the outcome as “Win-Win Poetry.” In fact, he suggested that my walking partner, Michael Perkins, and I find Fisher’s cabin to do a historical reenactment for the town history videos that he was recording for the library.

Mano-a-mano vs. Michael Perkins? Of that I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t punched anyone since my friend Steve Sheridan in third grade. Meanwhile, Michael, who was once stabbed within an inch of his life in an East Village street altercation, has written: “The man who has never experienced violence–or at least the threat of violence–has missed out on an important part of his heritage: he may have forgotten that he is an animal.” Was I ready to tangle with that kind of attitude? I told Thomas I’d get back to him.

In time all three men went on to literary careers far removed from these hijinks in their twenties. Gorham Munson taught writing at the New School for thirty-five years and wrote fourteen books. Matthew Josephson left poetry to be a journalist for The New Yorker, which led to a series of books chronicling the economic history of the United States, including The Robber Barons, which remains pertinent as history repeats itself today. Malcolm Cowley became the chronicler of his “Lost Generation” that included Hemingway and Fitzgerald, as well as an influential editor who established Faulkner’s greatness by publishing The Portable Faulkner. In the 1950s he brought us Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and in the 1960s Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He knew that the Sixties resembled the Bohemian Twenties of his youth. What he’s not remembered for is the Homeric parody that he wrote to memorialize the Duel in the Mud.

Know, Muse, that heroes yet exist
Whose anger brooks no intercession,
And tooth meets tooth and fist meets fist
And ‘Up’ cries Munson, ‘with Secession!
Down Broom,’ he snarls, and warriors pant
Each to defend his literary slant.

All afternoon the battle wavers;
Now fortune smiles on Josephson,
Now frowns, and now stout Munson quavers,
“Broom is unswept. I’ve almost won.”
The other sneers, “Almost how splendid!”
As deep in mud both heroes like up-ended.

Yet battling on, till strength and light
together failed. Then Fisher rose,
Grimly dividing weary wight
from bleary knight and fist from nose:
So, on another fateful day,
Half-dead Achilles by half-living Hector lay.

Our Colony of the Arts may not have produced much epic poetry, but it’s a start.

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