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The Legacy of A.E. Housman: Redivivus

April 2, 2019

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter…

In researching the life of A.E. Housman, I unexpectedly came across more than a few stunning parallels with James Ellroy. Enough for me to dub the Demon Dog Housman’s redivivus, a literary term from the 1600s whose etymology translates to “live again”.

I first sensed a similarity between Housman and Ellroy when I encountered a description of Housman by the critic William Stanley Braithewaite, who, in an introduction for Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, described the poet’s works in a vivid manner that all but evokes the work of James Ellroy:  “What has been called the ‘cynical bitterness’ of Mr. Housman’s poems is really nothing more than his ability to etch in sharp tones the actualities of experience. The poet himself is never cynical; his joyousness is all too apparent in the very manner and intensity of expression.”

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Braithewaite goes on to detail Housman’s characters as well as the poet’s personal identification with his characters, and once again, it’s quite difficult not to think of Ellroy:  “The ‘lads’ of Ludlow are so human to [Housman], the hawthorne and broom on the seventh shores are so fragrant with associations, he cannot help but compose under a kind of imaginative wizardry of exhultation, even when the immediate subject is grim or grotesque.”  Ellroy has often spoken of his own carefully constructed world of cultural creation, and of finding kinship among the gutter-level implementers of public policy, even calling such bottom feeders his heroes.

Finally, Braithewaite concludes his introduction with an overview of Housman’s work that again strangely evokes James Ellroy:  “In many of these brief, tense poems, the reader confronts a mask as it were, with appalling and distorted lineaments, but behind it the poet smiles […] Here is a spirit whom life may menace with its contradictions and fatalities, but never dupe with its circumstance and mystery.”  Any reader of the Demon Dog’s autobiographical material can certainly attest that the deeply haunted Ellroy has been thoroughly menaced, and yet somehow has retained a steadfast wonder that propels him to this day.

Housman’s mother died of cancer on the poet’s 12th birthday, a watershed event for the young poet that became a primary source for his lifelong pessimism and obsession with death. As Housman’s sister Clemence noted, the death of their mother “roused within [Alfred] an early resentment against nature’s relentless ways of destruction.”  Similarly, the 1958 murder of Ellroy’s mother would lead the future crime novelist to his own lifelong fixation on The Big Adios. Ellroy told me as much when I met him for the very first time in 2009: “My mother’s death hotwired me to sex and death and psychopathology, and the secret history of Los Angeles, and later, the secret history of America, and I began to see that there were two, three, four—exponentially more than that—versions of all alleged historical events.”

Novelist and critic B.J. Leggett, who authored an acclaimed study of A Shropshire Lad feels that Housman’s work is more nuanced and complex than the poet’s critics have ever acknowledged: “What has concerned Housman’s critics since the publication of A Shropshire Lad in 1896 is the enigma of Housman the man as it is reflected in his verse… his personality is of more interest to many readers than his poetry.” Some scholars even see Housman’s poetry as only a key to understanding the convoluted personality of the author.

According to Leggett, the dominant theme of A Shropshire Lad is the existential progression from innocence to experience and the painful wisdom gained by such growth.  Housman critic John Stevenson has a tidy—and quite noir—way of explaining it:  The burden of experience ultimately reveals that “ ‘happiness’ and ‘pleasure’ are illusions [and] that life, while perhaps not a sham, is something of a hoax, and that meaning comes only through struggle.”

Meaning wrestled from struggle is something both critics of Housman and Ellroy have frequently failed to grasp. In Jim Mancall’s 2014 companion to Ellroy’s oeuvre, Mancall notes that Ellroy’s 2009 novel Blood’s A Rover (named, appropriately, after a line from A Shropshire Lad) contains a possible allegorical gut punch from the Demon Dog:  “[Ellroy’s Underworld U.S.A.] trilogy places demands upon the reader—easy answers, big picture coherence, will be elusive. Close, careful and repeated readings are required to make sense of what lies hidden… If readers find themselves stymied by [Ellroy’s] dense, code-like style, Ellroy seems to imply they are not trying hard enough.”

Though Housman was raised as a devout Christian, the death of the poet’s mother would begin a process that would lead Housman to committed atheism by age 21. Accordingly, as Leggett noted, A Shropshire Lad presents Christ as “a disillusioned man who is faced with the vanity of his efforts in the light of his knowledge of the true nature of man.”  Such disenchantment is eerily similar to that which plagues Ellroy’s tough guy right wingers, who all struggle with a spiritual and moral exhaustion throughout the Demon Dog’s Underworld U.S.A. trilogy (especially in Blood’s A Rover). The similarity is so striking, that I wonder if the devoutly Christian Ellroy did in fact read A Shropshire Lad, (despite once claiming that he had not) and structure his character’s preoccupations around this point of conflict.

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Housman, like Ellroy, is often expeditiously described as a pessimist. In fact, Hugh Molson said that Housman saw life “as an unmerited ordeal which serves no useful purpose, but from which man obtains his final release after death.” This is echoed by other critics who frequently cite the pervasive violence and depravity of Housman’s work (and Ellroy’s) as proof of their creator’s supposed disgust with life.

In July, 2018, I wrote a piece exploring James Ellroy’s countless contradictions, ultimately concluding that such a distinctive quirk is at best a low-key dimension of his infamous Demon Dog persona. It seems Housman was also a fan of contradictions; something noted by more than a few literary critics.

As Jacob Brownstein observed, “Housman’s poems reel from one standard to another. If one poem finds love worthy… the poem over the page will find it pointless…”  Hugh Molson has also noted Housman’s contradictory ways:  “[Housman’s] running grievance, on examination, can be resolved into two separate complaints that are not at all consistent: First, life is lovely enough, but all too short, and death is the enemy of happiness. In the second, existence itself is a misery only to be endured until the welcome arrival of death the deliverer.”

Housman’s compulsive focus on death has, like Ellroy’s, been widely noted, condemned, and subject to frequent oversimplification and a rigidly literal interpretation (Does any of this sound familiar, Mike Davis?)  However, as Leggett has noted, it is better to view Housman’s death obsession as one component of an overall larger concern with permanence and change, innocence and experience, subjects that also dominate much of Ellroy’s work.

Just as Ellroy and his father Armand were supported by insurance payments disbursed by Ellroy’s aunt Leoda, Housman’s father Edward was eagerly anticipating a substantial inheritance from Housman’s wealthy grandmother, who later cut all beneficiaries from her will in disgust of her son’s financial incompetence. Following a stroke, Housman’s father pursued countless ridiculous schemes including growing and preserving exotic fruits and prospecting for gold, all intent on quickly finding life changing wealth. Like Ellroy’s fast-buck father, Edward Housman also hid his fecklessness behind a façade of hyperbolic joie de vivre.

In Peter Parker’s (no, not that one) 2016 book Housman Country, it is argued that Housman typically remained silent about his own work, often side-stepping the more intriguing and complicated truths behind the writing. While Housman would go to great lengths to explain his process of writing poetry, he almost never discussed its origins.  Ellroy has often done likewise, concealing his motives behind deliberate ambiguity.  When interviewer David Peace noted that the Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy’s format of mixing fictional characters with historical figures, closely resembled a design previously utilized by novelist John Dos Passos, author of The U.S.A. Trilogy, Ellroy tersely remarked that he’d “never read [Dos Passos]”.

Housman’s brother Laurence was among many who noted numerous instances of Housman caught between the warring urges of concealment and revelation. Ellroy is like this too, with his over-the-top love of promotion and egotism juxtaposed against his monastic, Beethovian private life.

Of particular note to Parker is Housman’s friendship with Joan Thomson, a woman who saw a far more personal side to Housman than what the poet ever displayed to his male friends. Writing three years after Housman’s death, Thomson noted the poet’s amazing powers of restraint and self-control, but also something else: “[Housman] was capable of emotion terrifying in its strength,” Thomson wrote, concluding that Housman was “ashamed of the strength of his own feeling,” which is why, according to Parker, Housman made such effort to hide and suppress it.

I’ve often wondered why Ellroy, who had his own catalytic encounter with a fiery femme named Joan, is always so elusive and elliptical when you speak to him. Could it be that the Demon Dog is himself ashamed of the strength of his own emotion?  I’ve always attributed Ellroy’s obscurity to his mimicry of the ubiquitous ambiguity found so richly in film noir, but this possibility certainly opens new avenues for examination.

Housman, like Ellroy, was extremely distrustful of nostalgia, characterizing it as poison air wafting in from an irrecoverable past. Parker argues that “Nostalgia has become debased in recent years through too much careless handling, transformed into a kind of comfort blanket for adults in which they can wrap themselves against the chill winds of the present.” Ellroy would express a systemic disdain for nostalgia, beginning in earnest with the Demon Dog’s second novel Clandestine, in which narrator and protagonist Fred Underhill warns of the dangers of succumbing to nostalgic intoxication. All of Ellroy’s works are haunted by a sneering distrust of popular culture. According to Parker, Housman viewed nostalgia as deadly, characterizing it as the poet’s famous “Land of Lost Content”, a place where past happiness is recognizable, but unattainable.

“Housman’s natural reticence and solitary habits, his apparent failure to form any satisfactory emotional attachment, his devotion to the dryer aspects of classical scholarship, and his habit of brusquely rebuffing those who complimented him or asked about his poetry have led to descriptions of him as austere, unapproachable, aloof, taciturn, arrogant, rude, bitter, morbid, self-pitying, even self-loathing,” Parker writes. “Those who knew Housman well, however, insisted he could also be […] a good conversationalist [and] capable of great kindness and generosity.”

That last part definitely sounds like someone I know.

Jason Carter

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