Mark Van Doren, "First Glance," a review of Alfred Kreymborg's Troubador

Note: Below is a book review, written by the poet and critic Mark Van Doren about a memoir by modernist poet and editor Alfred Kreymborg. Kreymborg's book is called Troubadour (1925). Kreymborg, as everyone associated with poetry knew then, was for many years right at the center of the New York poetic avant garde--if not necessarily as a poet in his own right, then as a promoter of modernist sensibility and as an editor and anthology. He was co-editor of the modernist magazine, Others, to which William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore et alia contributed.

Published in The Nation on May 6, 1925.

The intimately autobiographical portions of Alfred Kreymborg's "Troubadour" (Boni and Liveright: $3) are uninteresting. The author's boyhood in New York seems to have had little to distinguish it, either as piecture or as narrative, and the three love affairs that bulk so largely in the body of the book lack all the elements which might have made them dramatic, or even real. It is obvious that Mr. Kreymborg at forty was not old enough to see his life in anything like artistic perspective, for when he is not remembering too much here he is creating too little, and he never of himself becomes a person who is indispensable to the tale. Neither is one convinced that the author of "Mushrooms," "Blood of Things," "Plays for Merry Andrews," and "Less Lonely" needed to produce a volume explaining how those books came into being. The mere fact that an autiobiography is premature by no means dooms it, of course, to failure. There is "Upstream," there is "Tramping on life," and there is "A Story Teller's Story." "Troubadour," however, amply proves the practice to have hazards.

As a matter of fact, "Troubadour" is very far from being a failure by and large. If its hero has little to say for himself, he has much to say about the persons he has met; and he has met almost everybody. Portions of his book will be valuable some day for the same reason that they are interesting now; they contain what is probably a unique record of an important literary generation. This was the generation of restless and radical intelligences which did so much to make over American literature between, say, 1910 and 1920. The generation still flourishes, but the early work which it did is at least susceptible to survey, and Mr. Kreymborg gives the survey. In the history of the decade which eventually will be written many of the names here mentioned will drop out, and certain general tendencies will grow clearer. Yet that historian, working at a distance, may well envy Mr. Kreymborg his acquaintance with these people; and if he knows his business he will preserve all he can of the troubadour's gentle, warm affection for his fellows. For I have slighted Mr. Kreymborg's personality as it appears in these generous pages. After all it is a good deal in such a book to have written with understanding and so to have avoided the meaningless malice which renders most literary documents of the kind not only ugly but valueless.

Mr. Kreymborg met so many people because he always, apparently, was at the center of things. When Greenwich Village was a center he was there, so that his life throughout one period becomes its history. As director in one capacity of another of the periodicals Musical Advance, The Glebe, Others, and Broom he touched hands with dozens of musicians, painter, and poets-- particularly poets. As playwright and producer with The Provincetown Players and The Other Players he entered still another circle filled with names that now are magical; he caught more reputations on the rise. And whenever circumstances failed to throw in his way a writer whom he admired he went on purpose to see him, gathering material before he returned for the row of portraits which he now paints with so knowing a hand. If "Troubadour" survives as nothing else it must survive for its sketches--not lacking in humor--of Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Lola Ridge, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, E.A. Robinson, Harriet Monroe, Wallace Stevens, Maxwell Bodenheim, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams. Of such--and indeed merely of such--have some of the richest of autobiographies been composed.

Mark Van Doren