Aesthetic Realism Consultant, Writer, Poet (1919-1980)
Aesthetic Realism Class of January 31, 1949
Taught by Eli Siegel
Report by Sheldon Kranz
The 1860s Mr. Siegel said, were like other periods in history, unique with their special events, their important individuals, their contributions to literature and politics and economics. But like all times, he said, it was made up of occurrences which affected the whole world, and quiet every day living. It was made up of large masses of people acting together and individuals working by themselves. Important things happened in the 1860s; trivial things happened. People asked old questions and got some new answers. And, Mr. Siegel showed, that while history books recorded the main events, people were working, writing letters, visiting friends, travelling, dying.
The 1860s in ParisOver in Paris men were looking in new ways at the world. Cézanne, noted Mr. Siegel, was looking at reality and seeing how his personality could add to it. He was looking at objects in a way that made them seem more real, more accurate, more complete. His friend, Zola, said Mr. Siegel, was writing novels with a fierce realism, trying to get to a greater accuracy about the world. But for all his desire to record the ugliest things, the bedbugs, the bad smells, Zola had in him the desire of all people to see the world as sweet and good.
In a letter to his friend, Cézanne, which Mr. Siegel read, Zola at twenty writes about how he would have the world if he had omnipotent power. It is a world of gaiety, and good living. And in looking around him, he saw Paris as not showing herself. He saw people as wearing masks to hide with. He saw in a whole city what every person can do in his own life.The Civil War
In New England Then
Mr. Siegel showed that at the same time, in New England, there
great activity in fighting for freedom for the slaves and for the
rights of women. He said that one man who was active in both these
movements was Thomas Wentworth Higginson. He also corresponded with a
woman who lived secluded in New England, "who wrote intense poetry, and
who, when asked by Higginson in a letter who her friends were, replied,
'The hills, sir.'"
Women in the 1860sAnd while an Emily Dickinson wrote and lived very much within herself, the streets of London and New York were filled with thousands of women who, to make a living, peddled innumerable things. They sold all kinds of meats, pies, fruits, cakes, household articles, ornaments, wearing apparel. Women could make as much as $1.25 a day in this way.
And then Mr. Siegel said there was a poet in England at the time who was to have a big effect on the 70s and 80's. This was Swinburne. Placing his meaning, Mr. Siegel said this: "Swinburne in his poetry brought a new swiftness to words and a greater feeling of space. He was asking a question for all people: 'What am I here for?' In Swinburne can be seen," said Mr. Siegel, "the moral expansion of the times. Sin had been associated solely with religion. Now it was brought into the literary field, and Swinburne, much influenced by Baudelaire, saw that evil could be carefully examined like architecture. Through him new feelings were being expressed with tremendous music."
"A Freedman Writes a Letter" *
We came to America again. The Civil War, Mr. Siegel said, was coming to a close in America and the question of whether the Negro should fight for the South was around. Robert E. Lee, one of the big figures of the war, whom Mr. Siegel called "the sad gentleman," was asked his opinion. He asserted that they should fight. And two months after he wrote this letter, Lincoln was assassinated.
Mr. Siegel said: "In Lincoln there is both the great president, a symbol of freedom and humanity, and the individual and humble everyday man." His assassination is important politically; it is important for its effect on America. But it also affected people in a very human way, as can be seen in a letter of Lucretia Mott to her sister. Men and women wept. Business people closed their shops. The sorrow felt was the sorrow of a nation and of individual's.
But the slaves had been freed and they were coming to a new sense of that freedom and of their dignity as human beings. Some of the feeling of the freed slave is in the letter of Jourdan Anderson to his former master, which Mr. Siegel read. In the letter he is considering his master's request that he and his wife and family come back, but says they don't know how much good faith they can expect. Anderson politely asks the master to pay them back for all the years they were slaves, and later asks if there is a school his children can go to there in Tennessee. There is humor and dignity in the letter. Mr. Siegel said, "There is human feeling." Here are some sentences from it [the full letter is printed at the end of the report]:
There were freed slaves living in the 60's. There was also a man who lived pretty much apart from people, and who taught at the University of Geneva, and recorded in his diary his thoughts and feelings about the world and people in it, and through this showed the fight in himself, a fight, observed Eli Siegel, had by Emily Dickinson, and Lee, and the freed slave, Jourdan Anderson. In an entry in his journal 1869, Swiss poet and philosopher Henri Frederic Amiel shows how part of him wanted to retire from the world, be a spectator, be unaffected by things; and how another part of him wanted to be in motion, be in the midst of life. In his journal, he records the death of the French critic Sainte Beuve, a man of many interests, of great energy and diversity. Mr. Siegel said that through Sainte Beuve the world appears very lively and colorful. There was something in Amiel that responded to this. He was also dejected by Von Hartman's "Philosophy of the Unconscious," which stated that existence was a mistake. But something else in Amiel agreed with Von Hartman, the part of him that could want to qet away from things and into himself.
Europe and America Coming Together
"And now Europe and America were coming together," said Mr. Siegel. While people and governments were dealing with the post war problems, individuals were travelling, looking around, visiting, recording. Bayard Taylor was one of these men, one of the most energetic travellers of the time. He records a visit to Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Tennyson, in which one sees not the imposing poet laureate, the symbol of Victorian England, but a human being "living gracefully, discussing poetry, reading his own 'Idylls of the King,' and being moved by it, drinking wine, being a charming host."
And then, people were visiting Russia. Throughout this class, Eli Siegel related individual people and their feelings to what was happening in the world at large. For example, Edward Dicey went to Russia in 1867, and he talks of the housing conditions, the magnificent public buildings the inevitable music in every restaurant, and the great bustle of trade in the streets of Moscow.
Said Mr. Siegel: "There is here a feeling for the everyday, the casual, the existence of people living through days and weeks, not through ages or movements or epochs." And in conclusion, he said: "The epochs exist, the Civil War with its battles was, the great fight to bring more freedom and justice to people was. But so was Emily Dickinson living day by day in New England, Tennyson on the Isle of Wight, and the thousands of women who worried if they would be able to sell their basket of radishes in the streets of London in the 1860's."
* "A freedman writes a letter" is Eli Siegel's note, written in his copy of The Freedmen's Book by L. Maria Child, Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1865, page 265—now in the Eli Siegel Collection, NYC. This is the whole letter as it is published there:
LETTER FROM A FREEDMAN TO HIS OLD MASTER.
[Written just as he dictated it.]
DAYTON, OHIO, August 7, 1865.
To my old Master, COLONEL P. H. ANDERSON, Big Spring, Tennessee.
SIR: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin's to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Alien, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.
I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,— the folks call her Mrs. Anderson—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, "Them colored people were slaves" down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.
As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to (his the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor's visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams's Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.
In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve— and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.
Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me. From your old servant,