The Journal of Albion Moonlight

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Release Date: 
February 27, 2017
New Directions
Reviewed by: 

“like a sonnet whose beautiful lines are undermined by its flawed argument.”

In 1941 when New Directions’ publisher James Laughlin received the manuscript of poet Kenneth Patchen’s experimental novel The Journal of Albion Moonlight Laughlin gave it to poet and critic Delmore Schwartz who convinced Laughlin not to publish it. Following that rejection Patchen self-published the book the same year.

Schwartz had panned Patchen’s previous books, but this time his objection was not primarily aesthetic. Schwartz objected to the book’s pacifism as a response to Nazi aggression, an inadequate response reminiscent of Mahatma Ghandi’s 1939 article criticizing German Jews for emigrating instead of staying in Germany and practicing passive resistance to the Nazi regime that had stripped them of citizenship and was preparing to murder them.

Patchen’s pacifism is nearly identical to that espoused a generation earlier by Socialist Party leader and presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs during World War One. But Nazi Germany in the fifth decade of the 20th century was exponentially more evil and a far greater threat than was militarist Germany a quarter of a century earlier.

Patchen does appear to view Adolph Hitler as the embodiment of evil, and poses Hitler and Jesus as moral opposites. But in a dialogue between the two Jesus’ side of the conversation is entirely comprised of laughter. Patchen’s narrator asserts that the best response to Hitler, who craves attention and admiration, is to ignore him. That advice was no more useful to people living under Nazi occupation than Ghandi’s.

Patchen’s title character, who is a murderer and rapist, is an unlikely prophet of pacifism. He leads a band of comrades who plot to murder him and are pursued across the country by unnamed forces. Like the resurrected Jesus of the Gospels and the characters in Neal Gaiman’s American Gods Patchen’s characters die and then continue living in subsequent pages.

The book Patchen published is a mixed media mashup of surreal verse and prose poetry, line drawings, typographical experiments in fonts of differing sizes including parallel columns of separate and distinct text side by side on the same page; novels within the novel, both visionary and snarky allegorical narrative comprising journal entries documenting a road trip across a fictional war torn dystopian United States in the spring and summer of 1940, lyrical passages such as this:

“Outside the stars were thrashing about in the heavens like live fish in a skillet. The longhorn steer was rooting up trees and crashing through houses with Moe and the bullfighter and Kelly holding fast to its tail. After a little time it dove into the sea and came up with a submarine impaled on its horns. A brace of wild duck made the design of a woman’s sex against the moon.”

And numerous quotable aphorisms, such as: “When the dying lion roars the jackal will fall to licking death’s ass, not knowing that his own will taste better in the long run.”

Those quotable sentences and lines of verse appear on nearly every other page and are strongest when read one at a time. Collectively they seem sententious and sophomoric, especially in a section toward the end where the aphorisms separated by paragraph breaks fill several consecutive pages. Likewise the book’s poetic language is best appreciated by dipping into it a little at a time; readers may find plowing through it cover to cover to be a chore.

The book anticipates the work of the Beat Generation a decade and a half later whose writers embraced it, which may have convinced New Directions to publish the book two decades after Patchen’s initial self-publication. Albion and his wife Carol’s open marriage is ahead of its time, and the book’s vagabond characters, their itinerary, and the stream of consciousness prose anticipate the work of Jack Kerouac.

“I have armed myself against their weapons. To be so indolent that the flies will bury their dead on my eyelids. To sit on a beach and let the waves comb all thought of endeavor out of me. To live in such a manner that I never make a single, blood-rotten dollar. To study history in order only to have it to forget. Books—all those big, fat-bottomed ashcans where men empty their lives.

“I like the leopard. I don’t like Benj. Franklin.”

If the book was out of step with its time on the eve of America’s entry into World War Two, its dystopian pessimism suited the Cold War with its nuclear Sword of Damocles and corporate conformity. Its jaded snarky tone might also appeal to today’s millennial hipsters, and lines like “For man is only a disease which extinction will cure” mirror the sentiments of today’s misanthropic radical ecologists. The new edition is a reprint of New Direction’s 1961 volume, but with a different cover.

How does the book hold up in 2017? The dialogue and narration sometimes feel stiff in the way speech in 1940s movies can seem stilted to 21st century ears. Likewise Albion’s predatory sexism and his disapproval of women’s basketball is dated. Patchen’s poetic language is timeless to the extent that it can be enjoyed out of its contemporary context and indefensible point of view. The Journal of Albion Moonlight is like a sonnet whose beautiful lines are undermined by its flawed argument.