John Allan Wyeth among the literati of Rapallo

rapallo, 1926

An obituary of John Allan Wyeth’s niece, Jane McLean who—with her parents (Florence Sims Wyeth & Alan McLean, the sister and brother-in-law of JA Wyeth), shared a household with Wyeth during the late 1920s and early ‘30s in Rapallo, Italy—has just recently come to light. The obituary contains one extraordinary sentence:

Educated in Italy from the age of seven, Miss McLean benefitted from a tutorial education in the liberal arts, focusing on languages, literature, history and architecture. Among her teachers were Max Beerbohm, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats and Gerhart Hauptmann, as well as her uncle John Wyeth.

This accords with a story about Wyeth which was passed on by Wyeth’s family to Dana Gioia, who noted in his introductory essay for the re-printing of Wyeth’s poems in 2008, that Wyeth had been friends with Ezra Pound during his years in Rapallo.  It also accords with a sentence in one of Wyeth’s letters from the early 1970s to a friend, where he mentioned in passing that his neice Jane owned a book inscribed to her by Max Beerbohm, and that she had been friends with Beerbohm’s niece for many years, the actress Viola Tree.

It seems probable that Jane’s uncle John, given his excellent education in languages, history and the arts, would have designed the curriculum and engaged the tutors.

That Wyeth could have arranged such a roster of literary lions—which included two Nobel Laureates—to tutor a single young girl, might challenge anyone’s credulity. On the other hand, Wyeth would have known very well who each of these men were, and probably how best to approach them. Perhaps he obtained a letter of introduction from his old school-mate Edmund Wilson. More likely he simply struck up a conversation with one of them on the terrazza of the café at the Albergo Rapallo, where Ezra and Dorothy Pound took many of their meals, and which soon became a gathering place for the local literati. Once befriended by any one of them, Wyeth would have had access to the others, for they all knew one another.

Yeats and Pound had of course known one another for decades, as had Yeats and Beerbohm. Pound and Hauptmann met in Rapallo and became good friends; then sometime in 1929 the Pounds held a dinner in the Albergo Rapallo for the purpose of introducing Hauptmann and Yeats to one another. Hauptmann and Beerbohm met in Rapallo in 1927, and Beerbohm would eventually marry Hauptmann’s personal secretary, Elizabeth Jungmann, after the death of his first wife.  Beerbohm and Pound knew one another, though Beerbohm had his reservations about Pound, and tended to keep his distance, which Pound respected by never calling on Beerbohm alone. But they still socialized on occasion, such as when Pound took his houseguest, T.S. Eliot, to Beerbohm’s for tea.

Max Beerbohm had retired to Rapallo in 1910; Pound came in 1924; Yeats in 1928. Hauptmann began spending his winters in Rapallo in 1925. The McLeans arrived in 1921, and Wyeth had joined them by 1926, or possibly earlier.

The Beerbohms had a villa, “Villino Chiaro,” on the Via Aurelia high above the town, with a view toward the sea. The Pounds lived on the seafront in the Albergo Rapallo, and the Yeats lived an easy walk from there, in the Palazzo Cardile, at 34 Corso Colombo. The Hauptmanns wintered in a villa at 23 Via Avenaggi, beginning in 1925, but later lived in other villas, ending finally at the Hotel Excelsior. The McLeans and Wyeth lived in the Villa Boselli (location uncertain).

The customary arrangement in such matters was for the tutor to conduct his lessons under the watchful eye of the student’s parents, or at least under their roof, but it is difficult to see what in such a stodgy arrangement would appeal to Ezra Pound, the elder Beerbohm, or the two aging Nobel Laureates.

A very different sort of teaching arrangement is described by James Laughlin, who visited Pound in Rapallo in 1934 to attend what was known locally as the “Ezuversity,” which was simply Ezra Pound expounding on various subjects to an informal gathering of friends and “students.” As described by Laughlin, the “class” might begin over lunch in Albergo Rapallo café, move up five flights to the Pounds’ apartment overlooking the bay, and then move out into the town to various locations ranging from the local tennis club, to the salita leading up to Sant’ Ambrogio, to one of several area beaches, or even aboard a small boat gliding over the Gulf of Tigullio.

Jane would have been 20 in 1934, and it is not difficult to imagine her as one of Pound’s informal, but attentive “students,” accompanied, perhaps, by her equally attentive “Uncle John.”

Jane McLean remained in Italy until 1940.  During WWII, she served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the precursor of the CIA), in the Psychological Warfare Political Intelligence section. After the war she worked in the public relations office of Shell Oil International as a liaison to the United Nations Economic and Social Council. She served as a trustee of the Leopold Schepp Foundation for many years. She was a painter, a gardener, and published a book of poems, and she remained very close to her Uncle John for the rest of his life.

John Allan Wyeth’s book of wartime poems, This Man’s Army, a War in Fifty-odd Sonnets, was published in New York in 1928. It was almost certainly composed during his years in Rapallo. (See Dana Gioia’s essay, “The Unknown Soldier: An Introduction to the Poetry of John Allan Wyeth,” for his speculations on how Wyeth’s sonnets may have been influenced by Pound’s modernist poetics).

Until further research uncovers more specific information, or additional letters surface from either Wyeth or his neice, Jane, one can only speculate about the actual circumstances of Jane’s Rapallo education, or Wyeth’s  conversations with Pound, Yeats, Beerbohm, Hauptmann, or any of the other highly literate denizens of Rapallo in the late 1920s and early ‘30s.

BJ Omanson

 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

S O U R C E S

~~~Bacigalupo, Massimo. “Tigullio Itineraries: Ezra Pound and Friends.” Quaderni di Palazzo Serra 15 (2008): 373-447.

~~~ Behrman, S.N.  Portrait of Max: An Intimate Memoir of Sir Max Beerbohm. (NY: Random House, 1960).

~~~ Carpenter, Humphrey.  A Serious Character: the Life of Ezra Pound. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988).

~~~Foster, R.F.  W. B. Yeats: A Life. Volume II: The Arch-Poet, 1915-1939. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

~~~ Gioia, Dana. “The Unknown Soldier: An Introduction to the Poetry of John Allan Wyeth,.” the introductory essay to John Allan Wyeth’s This Man’s Army: A War in Fifty-Odd Sonnets.  “The Joseph M. Bruccoli Great War Series,” Matthew Bruccoli, Series Editor.  (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2008).

~~~ Hall, John.  Max Beerbohm: A Kind of Life. (Yale University Press, 2002).

~~~ Laughlin, James. Pound as Wuz: Recollections and Interpretations. (Peter Owen, Ltd., 1989).

~~~ Willhelm, J.J. Ezra Pound: The Tragic Years, 1925-1972. (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994).

John Allan Wyeth, Ezra Pound & the random particularity of war

BeforetheClangoroftheGun_cover_reducedExcerpted from Before the Clangor of the Gun:

“More than any other English-language poet of the war, Wyeth’s language is stripped clean of 19th-century tonalities and devices. A contributing factor to Wyeth’s modernist style might have been that, during the years immediately prior to the publication of This Man’s Army, when he was almost certainly composing his sonnets, Wyeth resided in the American colony in Rapallo, Italy, where he was known to be friends with Ezra Pound (see “Notes on Wyeth’s Years in Rapallo,” p. 99).

While it is impossible to know the nature, or extent, of Pound’s influence on Wyeth, there is no denying that Wyeth’s stringently honed descriptions—where every word contributes to the presentation and every image is distilled to its essentials—accord closely to the Imagist principles which Pound espoused in the years before the war. Even the Imagist stricture that the rhythm of a poem should possess the fluidity of a musical phrase rather than the beat of a metronome, is not violated by Wyeth’s sonnets, which display an unprecedented metrical freedom within the general constraint of the form.

Whether Wyeth developed his acute descriptive powers under the influence of Pound, or from earlier influences, is a matter of conjecture. It is at least as plausible that the minutely observed and needle-sharp descriptions of Henry James provided the primary influence on Wyeth’s technique. According to Edmund Wilson, only he and Wyeth—of their literary circle at Princeton—read James seriously while they were there, and it was Wyeth who led Wilson to a full appreciation of James’ technique.

wyethalone_cropped2_trans            Wyeth’s reliance on chance, on working with whatever objects circumstance might provide, even when they serve no apparent thematic or metaphoric purpose, has a basic affinity with a precept of another major theorist of Imagism, T.E. Hulme, who was a direct influence on Pound. Hulme’s contention was that it is not the object itself that matters, but only its description. Any object will do as well as any other, including random objects served up by chance.

The idea of employing randomness as a compositional principle may have been unusual in literary theory in those years, but in the visual arts the notion of the objet trouvé (“found object”) had been in the air since well before the war, from Picasso’s Still-life with Chair Caning, to Duchamp’s “ready-mades,” to Dada’s reliance on whatever the artist happened to pick up in the street.  It is certainly no stretch to assume that Wyeth, with his years spent in New York, London and Paris, and his lifelong interest in contemporary movements in art, would have keep well abreast of such developments.

Wyeth’s reliance on circumstantial subject matter might tempt a less well-informed critic to dismiss Wyeth’s sonnets as mere documentary reportage, but if that were all his sonnets amounted to, they would lie flat and lifeless on the page.  What we find instead is a body of work where the unsettled randomness of actual events infuses each sonnet with an élan vital, a vital spark. Far from being the equivalent of old newspapers fit only for wrapping fish, Wyeth’s sonnets are living vignettes, rich in chaos, chlorine, and all the random particularity of war.”


BJ Omanson

Haunting old bookstores and how I discovered a lost classic of WWI literature

BeforetheClangoroftheGun_cover_reduced

From Before the Clangor of the Gun:

“Of the countless times I have drawn a dusty old  book from a dim shelf in a used-bookstore during the past forty years or so, only once can I claim to have discovered an unknown classic of American literature. Not that I recognized it as such at the time. Not even now, on the eve of its re-publication by a university press, can its status as a lost classic be said to be a matter of general perception. But— I rush ahead of myself.  Let me begin at the beginning.

Ten minutes walking distance from our house in Morgantown, West Virginia, in the early 1990s, stood a two-story used-bookstore of the old style: several thousand worthy, out-of-print titles of history, literature, science, travel, art, music and the like, in a 19th-century brick storefront at the periphery of the old downtown, along a high embankment over-looking Decker’s Creek. There were no romances on its shelves, no self-help books, no celebrity autobiographies, no junk. Very few paperbacks. No helpful salespeople or progressive muzak to endure, no Starbucks, free wifi, best-seller displays or any other such irritating “amenities.’  It was still in that golden, Arcadian, pre-digital age, with well-worn overstuffed chairs in out-of-way corners, a foot-stool and ladder for the high shelves and a dozing cat on the window-seat. A few dozen bins of paper ephemera, and shallow drawers of old prints and maps. If you wished to come in for two or three hours of undisturbed browsing, not a single soul would say a word to you. Or if you were in the mood for some wayward, discursive, off-beat conversation about books or any other subject under the sun, the old gent behind the counter was generally good for it— at least until the dawn of the computer age when every bookseller in the country was abruptly faced with the necessity of putting his entire stock online. As soon as that happened, the conversation dried up. The colorful old codger behind the desk was reduced to a sullen automaton jabbing a keyboard and endlessly cursing. Once computers arrived, like an alien invasion, the old havens of dust and suspended time, of relaxed and literate conversation, were facing the sunset.

I describe all this because it was the setting for my discovery. By the early 1990s I had been reading the poets of the First World War seriously for a quarter of a century— poetry, biographies and criticism—and had a personal library of over a hundred volumes just about the poetry of the war. It was part of a much larger library which filled my office (dubbed “the Dugout” by my wife) in which every square inch of wall space from floor to ceiling, and even covering the windows, was hung with equipment from the war: helmets, gas masks, cartridge belts, canteens, and even a Model 1917 McClellan saddle, as well as rusted barbed wire, rifle barrels, shell casings, bayonets, forks, tin cups and other relics dug from French woodlands and fields. But most of all the walls were covered with books on nearly every aspect of the war: Western Front, Eastern Front, Homefront, Mesopotamia, the Balkans, Africa and Italy— books on the ground war, sea war and air war. There were books on movements against the war, and on John Reed and the Russian Revolution. But it was the literature and art of the First World War which fascinated me most of all, especially the poetry.

So I remember very well the afternoon that I pulled a certain thin volume off a high shelf in Wolf’s Head Books. I had been over their WWI section more times than I could count and had looked into each book in that section with some care. Every WWI title that came into my hands was a title I considered buying and, never having sufficient funds for all the books I needed, I took my time looking each one over as a prospective purchase. I knew, or thought I knew, every title in that section. I was doing research for a book about my grandfather’s unit in France in 1918, and was especially eager to add more American titles to my working library. But beyond that particular project, I was still intently focused on the poetry of the war, and on that day I found an American poet of WWI that I had never even heard of.

wyeth1

          It was a thin black book with faded spine and lettering worn off, which is probably why I had passed over it until then. (picture to left shows copy with dust jacket).  From the moment I opened it, I was intrigued. I had never heard of John Allan Wyeth, or his book, This Man’s Army, but that in itself was not too unusual. I had turned up dozens of nondescript volumes of American war poems, published in small runs by obscure publishers, and even more often self-published. It was a time in history when poetry was enormously popular, and when amateur poets from all classes and backgrounds were as numerous as leaves in a forest. The number of books of war poems published during and immediately after the war was immense, and I had never failed to discover one or two new ones with each passing year. So holding another such book in my hands was not especially noteworthy. But my first skim through the book told me I had found something unusual. For one thing, it was a sizeable collection of individual poems, and they were all located in France, during the war, with place-names for titles and in chronological order. No other book of war poetry I could think of employed such a systematic and documentary arrangement. It was laid out like a soldier’s diary. I scanned the list of French towns and place-names, and as soon as I saw Chipilly Ridge I guessed that the poet had been with the American 33rd Division. Later investigation would bear this out.

What caught my attention most of all was that the entire book was a single sonnet sequence. I had been interested in sonnet sequences for a number of years, as it happened, and had only recently completed a sequence of fourteen sonnets describing my grandfather’s experiences at Belleau Wood. Wyeth’s sequence, however, was over fifty sonnets long and, reading through just a few of them at random, indicated that not only were they highly skilled, but unusually innovative as well. What was most exciting was that they were written, not in an elevated, formal tone, but in a cool, concise, dispassionate voice, spiced with slangy soldiers’ dialogue, French villagers’ patois, and filled with as many small particulars of life at the front as any of the finest soldier-diaries I had read.”


BJ Omanson

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