blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "Negro Minstrelsy" in The Dream Songs

William Wasserstrom

What distinguishes a dream song, therefore, is not a coquetry or a clumsiness of art, as Toynbee argued, but a rather capital thing, the discovery that American minstrelsy long ago devised a formula which could transmit the mood of an idea and simultaneously conceal its reason. This discovery enabled Berryman to create what Lowell calls a "waking hallucination," the form which unites conscious design and unconscious drift. Design and drift are perhaps clearest seen in song 40 whose initial line, "I'm scared a lonely. Never see my son," an undisguised importation of Negritude, is drawn straight from the heart of misery incarnate in Sir Bones. The song itself mourns the lives of all who must "cry oursel's awake" yet who manage to convert grief into energy, energy into work, work to survive the lure of suicide and at last, each day, make "it all the way to that bed on these feet." This song plainly recalls the theme of Olive Schreiner's Dreams. Less plain but more vivid is its evocation of that great man of blues, Leadbelly, whose own music is curiously obsessed by exactly the same theme—interplay of sleeplessness and dream as his biographer Frederic Ramsey says—which absorbs Berryman. "Sleeplessness complements the dream," real and unreal are mixed, "seen and unseen come together," so that in the end the text and tone of Leadbelly's song can be best described as a "waking dream."

Whether or not Berryman knows Ramsey's memoir, doubtless he knows Huddie Leadbetter's music. Nor is there any doubt that he knows Charles Lamb's remark about the sanity of true genius: the poet dreams being awake, is not possessed by but has dominion over his subject. And surely Berryman knows the etymology of "vernacular"—from verna, slave born in his master's house. For in 1963, after many years' labor on a project whose working title, since 1955, has been The Dream Songs, Berryman said that the poems refer to somebody "apparently named Henry, or says he is. He has a tendency to talk about himself in the third person. His last name is in doubt. It is given at some point as Henry House and at other points as Henry Pussy-cat." Miss Schreiner, Leadbelly, Lamb—all are represented in this potpourri of songs by John the minstrel man who, possessed by his subject, the savageries which mutilate men in our nightmarish world, dreams up Henry, sans surname, caricature of the American black man, enslaved in his own house. Mixing formal speech and folk, high art and pop, John furnishes Henry with the very language and ritual, drawn from the history of the American white man, which first enabled white to imitate black and black to parody white. In this way the victim is not possessed by but achieves dominion over the tyrant; indeed, he transforms himself into the tyrant's savior. "1 was a derision to all my people; and their song all the day," says Lamentations 3:14, in paraphrase of virtually everything I have so laboriously construed till now.

from Centennial Review (1968)

Adrienne Rich (1969)

A new language is evolving in the heads of some Americans who use English. Some streak of genius in Berryman told him to try on what he’s referred to as "that god-damned baby talk," that blackface dialect, for his persona. No political stance taught him, no rational sympathy with negritude. For blackface is the supreme dialect and posture of this country, going straight to the roots of our madness. A man who needs to discourse on the most extreme, most tragic subjects, has recourse to nigger talk. "Arrive a time when all coons lose dere grip" … early in the 77; most flamboyant, most broad blackface. Later, more complexly, the muted, the whispering "Come away, Mr. Bones." Come away! Shakespeare’s English and some minstrelsy refrain meet, salute and inform each other.

From Adrienne Rich, "Living with Henry," (originally in the Harvard Advocate in Spring 1969), rep. in Harry Thomas Ed. Berryman’s Understanding: Reflections on the Poetry of John Berryman (Boston: Northeastern U P, 1988), 129-130.

Katherine Davis (1985)

… This is the stylized dialect of literary convention bearing only a tangential relationship to actual black English. As [William] Meredith puts it, "Henry, being only an imaginary Negro, speaks mostly in blackface … the vaudeville dialect of Two Black Crows and Stepin Fetchit." From Amos ‘n’ Andy and other latter-day derivatives of the minstrel show as well as from Huckleberry Finn, "Uncle Remus" abd countless other popular stories, we are as familiar with this dialect as with any other literary convention. Now, Berryman’s use of it may seem questionable if that literary and stage tradition is seen to represent a history of white expropriation. Berryman made it clear that he meant the dialect to express himself as "imaginary Negro" in the same sense that he is "The Imaginary Jew" in his short story of that title, going beyond mere sympathy to an imaginative identification with oppressed peoples. (the story is based on an actual episode in which Berryman was unable to prove to a hostile audience that he was not Jewish. Similarly, while an undergraduate at Columbia Berryman once told a classmate that he had Negro blood, and then was apparently believed more fully and widely than he was quite prepared for.) But [Joel] Conarroe, for instance, feels that however "well-intended," Berryman’s use of this "inflammatory" language is na´ve at best. On the other hand, the dialect’s debased past need not limit its potential for more sensitive use. As Sterling Brown points out, "because conventionalized dialect poetry has these faults ["a few pat phrases, a few stock situations and characteristics, some misspelling"] dialect does not have to be dismissed as capable of only two stops, humor and pathos." And the original Jim Crow was not a white imitation but a crippled black man, as [Gary] Arpin reminds us, like Rimbaud’s "nigger" "one of ‘the race that sang under torture.’"

From Katherine Davis, "’Honey Dusk Do Sprawl’: Does Black Minstrel Dialect Obscure The Dream Songs?" Language and Style 18:1 (Winter 1985), 33-34.

Bruce Bawer (1989)

… And then there’s what one may call the race question. Henry, in Berryman’s own words, is "sometimes in blackface," which is to say that at times his chatter has a minstrel-show flavor. Why? Perhaps because, having made the Atlantic crossing with Anne Bradstreet and discovering himself not to be a pseudo-Englishman like Eliot but an American poet like Whitman and Pound, the ever-alienated Berryman found it appropriate, upon starting on The Dream Songs, to identify his alter ego with the most isolated segment of American society, namely the black subculture. But minstrel-show talk? It is no surprise that Berryman has been accused by some critics of racial insensitivity, and one wouldn’t want to have to defend him from the charge. But this insensitivity, if such it is, is only part of a larger problem with The Dream Songs: namely, that Berryman is almost invariably so engulfed in his own emotion that the feelings of other people – black or white, male or female, poet or non-poet – don’t even enter into the picture. The songs teem with evidence to support the judgment of Allen Tate – one of the poet’s closest friends – that Berryman "never grew up"; and anyone forced to read The Dream Songs from cover to cover can well understand Jeffrey Myers’s complaint in his book Manic Power that they "are simply paranoid prjections of childhood manias and obsessions."

From Bruce Bawer, "The Poetry of John Berryman" The New Criterion 8:4 (December 1989), 25.

Helen Vendler (1993)

The fiction of The Dream Songs .. is that its two protagonists are "end men" in an American minstrel show. This common form of vaudeville (still seen in my childhood) presented, while the curtain was lowered between vaudeville acts, banter between two "end men," one standing at stage left, one at stage right, in front of the closed curtain. The end men were white actors in exaggerated blackface, whol told jokes in an exaggerated Negro dialect, one acting the taciturn "straight man" to the buffoonery of the other. They addressed each other by nicknames such as "Tambo" or "Mr. Bones" (the latter a name referring to dice). The unnamed Friend in The Dream Songs, acting as straight man and speaking to Henry in Negro dialect, addresses Henry as "Mr. Bones" or variants thereof. Henry, the voluble, infantile, and plaintive chief speaker, is the lyric "I" of the songs: he never addresses his "straight man" by name. Henry’s own colloquial idiolect (sometimes represented in third-person free indirect discourse or second-person self-reproach) is not exclusively framed in any one dialect, but rather exhibits many dialectical influences, from slang to anarchism to baby-talk.

One can see that there is no integrated Ego in The Dream Songs: there is only Conscience at one end of the stage and the Id at the other, talking to each other across a Void, never able to find common ground. …

From Helen Vendler, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition (The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent), (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1995), 35-36.

Return to John Berryman