%eprinted from Dolume IV, Number II of
THE MODERN QUARTERLY
318-20 North Exeter Street Baltimore, Maryland
THE SEXUAL REVOLUTION
(In reply to Floyd Dell's question—as to the correct proletarian attitude)
by John Darmstadt
his may be called a parlor-liberal question. It reveals an attitude of mind characteristic of a class. It betrays an inadequate conception of the evolution of social forms and forces. The form in which the question is stated necessarily limits and determines the answer to be given. Thus it must be treated in somewhat corresponding terms of thought and speech, or not at all. It might be categorically asserted that there isn't any revolutionary proletarian attitude toward sex—that the still unenlightened and enslaved workers have never struck an attitude—and thus end at once what many profess to believe a futile discussion.
But when such a dangerous and interesting topic is broached-— and our foremost "proletarian philosophers" are invited to air their views in public—it commands attention. It is true that some of them "go light" on it; while others "play safe"—by keeping off of it altogether. Just as if sex had nothing to do with proletarians and revolution! In fact, no one would know from the voluminous writings of some social philosophers that sex bad any existence at all, or played any part in social life. But the common man, who lives a little nearer to reality, and who helps to make up the great and fearful body of "Public Opinion"—has also to be heard from occasionally. For under the growing power of the Intellectual Dictatorship—and its increasing literary monopoly—there are gathering forces of inarticulate thought and pent-up opinion which threaten to break out in unmistakable revolutionary expression. The elaboration of ideas and their communication for social use are not to be confined to professional scribblers, hired specialists, paid propagandists, and other successful literary salesmen.
It is necessary, first, to "debunk" this question by eliminating the term "correct." whether used in jest or earnest. It is obvious that such narrow and obsolete moral implications do not attach to vast social movements in a period of transition. There may be moral prophets—among the marvelous bourgeoisie—who would guide a wayward world into the straight and narrow path of righteousness and respectability, by pointing out the proper way for it to evolve through the ages. There are socialistic seers who have been known to prescribe the right behavior in every little detail of our present and future life, from the revolutionary baby's diet to the administration of the Industrial Cooperative Commonwealth. These wise ones can tell us what we ought to do—and especially what we ought not to do, to be good and happy—and safe—under all conceivable circumstances that may arise throughout all future time. And they may be depended upon to make themselves heard above the drowned voices of the groaning multitude. But no mere proletarian can undertake to pronounce on what is proper for social evolution—or to tell the correct sexual procedure in upper-class "revolutionary"
The point of view from which a social problem is approached is the most important factor in determining its solution. In fact, the solution may be said to depend primarily on the preconceived opinions of the thinker, and secondarily on the evidence presented. So that one of the most fruitful consequences resulting from the discussion of a theoretical question is that it brings out distinctly various and interesting points of view, which often prove both useful and instructive.
The fighting rebel would ordinarily pass up such a question. Not, however, because it deals with anything so sacred and touchy as sex; for that is just what the revolutionist is going to take down from the bourgeois altar, strip off its shroud of mystery in which it is embalmed for worship, and tear off the veils of prudery and falsity in which it is bedecked for barter and sale. For any intelligent working-class consideration, it is necessary to determine what we mean by "revolutionary proletarian," as this question has been raised. Some understanding and agreement in the revolutionary interpretation of social phenomena are assumed on the part of those entering into such a discussion.
A space writer, attempting to deal with the subject in the New Masses, says:
"If a man wants to be a succcssful revolutionist, he must take a scientific attitude toward the revolution in which be has chosen to engage." (Don't Fight With Sex. by Charles W. Wood.)
And he goes on to talk about "putting his revolution across," as if it were a sort of business enterprise, or a new publicity stunt to be put over by the most scientific methods of business efficiency! That conception need not detain us.
No more can we recognize the "real revolutionary proletarian" in any little group or pair, of serious thinkers, who, Hermiotw-like, are ambitious to (among other things) save the world. Some people may be quite sincere in their aspirations to reform mankind, and make all sorts of well-meant personal sacrifices to accomplish that little thing, without being either revolutionary or proletarian.
Another well-known writer whose stories about workers are published in the radical press was invited to contribute a few enlightening words to this discussion—instead of a book—and he has advanced some ideas that must be called in question. This "philosopher" seems to think that real revolutionary proletarians (not fake working-class rebels!) are best exemplified by a respectable married couple of socialistic missionaries who are "not simply triflers and poseurs," but who live discreetly—with or without "sound" children—and "take part" in the workers' struggle, believing in "the cause." They do not waste their time in entangling sexual alliances, nor catch diseases in any trifling and unnecessary love-affairs. Glimpsing the coming changes in society, these—the genuine proletarians— give up their lives and prospects as a noble sacrifice to the sacred cause; and so conduct their model lives in bourgeois society that their example shall be an illumination to the human understanding in the interpretation of economic development; shall constitute a precious contribution to the solidarity of the workers of the world, and shall further the progress of social evolution in its age-long fulfillment of the inherent laws of the universe.
Needless to say, the revolutionary proletarian is a different sort of animal. He is the child of a new age, who has broken away from the old, with all its dead and meaningless habits of thought and custom. The modern proletariat constitutes the human raw material out of which must be fashioned the society of the future. The revolutionary proletarian is, in a word, the awakened or class-conscious member of the expropriated producers of the wealth of the world, the offspring of the economic strife of classes that has arisen in modern industrial society. He is a purely social product and phenomenon, discharging necessary functions in the economy of present-day social life, and entering into the newborn social consciousness that links his life with the future. He is not to be known by any sort of ethical badge of nobility and service that may be tagged onto him. He is not to be weighed for praise or blame, or tested for virtue and classified, by reference to any left-over standards of middle-class morality. Such antiquated conceptions may be dismissed as mere remnants of a decaying ideology, fragments of encrusted ideas which have outlived their usefulness, such as are clung to so tenaciously by all types of social tinkers and saviors, who swarm about the carcass of a passing age to block the social traffic and clutter up the path of revolutionary progress.
The course of the social revolution cannot be turned aside into more moral and peaceful channels, and there dammed up, by the exemplary conduct and the semi-socialistic interpretations of talented egotists. Social development is the outcome of underlying forces too tremendous and far-reaching to be seriously affected by individual contributions or sacrifices.
Upton Sinclair says; "Real revolutionary proletarians are recognized by the fact that they make sacrifices for the cause; they regard the future of the working-class as of more importance than their individual prosperity and happiness. And their sex life will be tested by that attitude."
The revolutionary proletarian is an expropriated worker—with his eyes open: the son of his enslaved father, who was robbed and beaten before him. He is enlightened—and with him enlightenment
and life are one. To be the thing be is. to him. is no "sacrifice of individual prosperity and happiness." No prosperity is his to barter for place and power; no happiness could be his in accepting bribery. He is born to strife, and finds no recompense in traitorous peace and security. There is no "posing" or "trifling" on his job, which is a fierce and merciless struggle for survival in a hostile world. He does not talk about his "sacrifices." and is not recognized by his crown of thorns. There is a difference between the class-conscious revolutionist fighting for life and the self-conscious uplifter-of-others. upon whose "sacrifice" the destiny of the working-class depends!
The revolutionary proletarian is no doctrinaire fanatic, trying to live, and to force others to live, Puritan-fashion, by rules and regulations; he is struggling to break away from those by which he has been bound—and find new ways of living. He does not seek to regulate his life in accordance with any notions of Christian sacrifice; it is sufficiently regulated by the machine methods of living under the wage system of the industrial regime. He fights to express his life; not to sacrifice and regulate it—but to save it from mutilation and destruction under the machine that enslaves it to grind out profits for his masters. And in fighting for his own life, he is fighting for his class. The interests, needs, aims, and struggles of the expropriated individual are identical with those of the class from which he springs. And they remain so as long as he is a member of that class—until he deserts it and ceases to be a proletarian, by identifying his interests with those of his class-oppressors.
The revolutionary working-class does not depend for its triumph upon the sacrifices of its members, but upon their individual vitality and survival, upon their social solidarity and strength. There is no conflict of interests and purposes between the individual and his class in the revolutionary struggle. There is no such antagonism and contradiction here as has grown up to rend and destroy bourgeois society, and which we find reflected in all its thought and literature. Nor can it be injected into the revolutionary class-conflict by the muddled middle-class moralizers and pseudo-philosophers who set themselves up as the infallible guides of the workers, and attempt to brand all who do not live according to their slavish morals of stuffy domestic propriety as triflers. poseurs, decadents, or enemies of the workers.
The awakened and enlightened worker is not out to make any more sacrifices for society, either along productive or reproductive lines. He and his forbears have been doing something like that long enough! He has become aware that society is indebted to him for all it has, and he wants restitution; he wants to be paid for the "sacrifices" exacted of him in return for the privilege of merely living to produce and reproduce. He is thinking over, and trying out experimentally, the various methods of restitution and readjustment that have been suggested; and he is beginning to find out that the only sure way is to take over the whole works, and run them for his own benefit—along such rational lines as will eliminate the necessity for sacrificial contributions, on the part of the individual or the mass. When a man is fighting for his own, there is no question of sacrifice.
The worker toils all day in the factory, "sacrificing" bis life and vitality in the production of necessities, comforts and luxuries—for others to enjoy. Then he goes "home"—as it is called—to spend his "leisure time" in rest and "recreation," the most of which is taken up in procreation of more wage-slaves and in working them up into fit products for the labor market. His recreative night-work (on his own timet) is just as important and necessary to society as his underpaid labor in the day-factory. And it is just as monotonous and degrading. But any suggestion or intimation of the idea of introducing socialized and scientific methods—or even experiments—into the activities associated with the reproduction of human life, involving disturbance of the existing relations between the sexes is regarded with abhorrence and met with abuse.
Such subjects cannot even be openly discussed—from any point of view—without social punishment and loss. In all matters pertaining to sex—and the forbidden topic of sexual intercourse—the densest and most monstrous ignorance prevails throughout society. In this boasted age of bourgeois science and enlightenment, the most universal and most fundamentally important human experience— out of which has come our very life itself—cannot be freely and sensibly talked about in ordinary social intercourse. The present-day "civilized" attitude toward sex is similar to that of a race of savages in a state of degeneracy. And one of the consequences of this barbarous and puritanical repression may be seen in the increasing number of- neurotic wrecks and pathological perverts, sexually insane criminals and unnatural social monsters, whose existence is directly traceable to this cause.
Judge Ben Lindsey is paying the price exacted for "speaking out," and showing that young girls fall into sexual difficulties usually through sheer ignorance caused by the idiotic "conspiracy of silence" on the part of their elders. This conspiracy of silence extends all through present-day society—and the radical labor movement is not exempt from it. As V. F. Calverton says, most radicals in economics are conservatives in sex. "They cry for a new economic system and fight for an old moral one." And not one of them— in all their caustic comments—dares to answer the charge.
Sex is an unfit and forbidden subject: it is sacred or indecent, dangerous or futile, shocking or tiresome, vile or silly, vulgar or stupid—anything to choke off frank discussion, which might lead to some realization of the semi-barbarous conditions prevailing in the ancient industry of race-propagation, and disturb the status quo. Any honest attitude or clean and normal interest arouses secret animosity and aversion, willful misrepresentation and ridicule, on the part of the sex-obsessed victims of present social conditions.
Among all decent and respectable people. "Sex" is kept at home, to be partaken of in private, free from the contaminating influences of the vulgar, common world. But the houses of public prostitution are always open, where lower-class Sex is on display for exploitation, under pornographic chaperonage. for the entertainment of the tired-businessmen bosses and their slaves, the workers, in need of diversion.
The attitude of the "revolutionary" press of today is to follow along in rather poor and servile imitation of the modes of treatment prevailing in modern journalism. Any reference to the subject is usually in a tone of suggestiveness and innuendo; or in a spirit of concealed resentment, couched in terms of gentle raillery or condescending ridicule. Speaking of the "absurd symposium" on sex in the New Masses, a columnist sneeringly remarks in the Daily Worker: "It seems to me (and I speak with great humility) that there are other themes on the contemporary battlefield equally vital and momentous." To which the very obvious retort may be made that these other "equally vital and momentous" themes do not lack for able treatment and ardent exposition every day in the year, in every line of all the propaganda literature published in the language; while the subject of sex is never treated seriously, outside the reviews of books and plays—and can hardly be spoken of at all without a sneer or a smirk. Otherwise the "revolutionary proletarian" Daily Worker keeps its columns as sweet and clean for its young and tender revolutionary readers as the Sunday School Times.
This reviewer says further:
"The New Mosses is devoting thousands of words to this mighty subject—in a noble effort to thrash it out. . . . Calverton's paper entitled 'Sex and Economics' presents once again the example of a writer who has the correct method of analysis, and the lack of horse sense to apply it t© specific situations."
Calverton's application of the Marxian method to the interpretation of literature marks a new and welcome departure in criticism. His "correct method" is here attested, and his scholarly presentation has won the appreciation of liberal thinkers in the learned academic world—such as John Dewey. What, then, is meant by "specific situations"? And by whom specified? Is Marxism to be expanded and used as a dynamic method of explaining social phenomena, or to be merely repeated as a catechism and drilled into the ears of the world in stereotyped pamphlet form? The "Russian-complex" of Leninism would seem to answer that.
The phrase, "lack of horse sense," carries a very definite implication. It clearly means the lack of judgment—or willingness—to submit to the dictation of political groups the determination and choice of subjects fit for sociological interpretation and literary treatment by the application of the Marxian method. It means literary and intellectual censorship—and the Big Stick. The efforts of Marxian students and scholars in constructive criticism, looking to the extension of revolutionary methods of interpretation into all departments of thought and learning, must be approved of by politicians and passed on by majority vote!
The solemn writers of the radical labor press all join in to denounce, in the purest bourgeois-moral diction, even the unconscious service rendered by the yellow journals in dethroning Respectability—by showing up the transgressions of the elite well-to-do along with the crimes of the riff-raff down-and-outs, thus making the poor prostitute or thief as good as the rich one. The yellow press is condemned by all good citizens, including our revolutionary brethren, for pandering to the low tastes of the multitude—for "feeding the popular appetite for slush," as T. J. O'Flaherty expresses it in his interesting Current Events column. What sort of proletarian interpretation is this? Why do the common people feed on "slush"? Because they are not furnished with anything else—■ and they must have food. Sex-hunger is as imperative in nature as the hunger for any other food; sex-malnutrition through under or over feeding, is just as devastating and ruinous as any other form of starvation or surfeit. Sex-interest is as strong and impelling in the masses as their interest in life itself, and it cannot be ignored in the daily press.
Are the common people, who pay their pennies for the spicy tabloid sheets, naturally depraved and vicious in their tastes? The yellow journals are engaged, like all the rest, in making profits by supplying popular needs in the market. Of course they seek to stimulate the abnormal demands whose satisfaction brings in the profits—once these have been created. But do they create these appetites? , No; they simply exploit them, by diverting natural human curiosity and interest into abnormal and profitable channels. A normal and healthy appetite adequately satisfied could not be perverted by such means. But a normal and healthy appetite must be satisfied with what it naturally craves and needs, or it seeks other satisfactions. Hence perversions. The perverted popular taste in matters of sex is the outcome of the repression of natural impulses; it is due to the suppression of normal faculties under a faulty social system; it is due to the suppression of all rational and wholesome social interest in sex and sexual affairs, and to the criminal and cowardly silence that prevails to prevent any sort of decent and sensible consideration of these matters of every-day occurrence and experience.
What can the people do. when they are fed on filth—or nothing? What choice do you give them—you, who control a certain amount of publicity, and have an opportunity? Tidbits or nastiness. You cry out against adulteration, and give them nothing better; you tell the hungry man he must be moral, and go hungry. Why do you stuff us with sermons on sex and slush? They can be had in any old editorial pulpit. Is that the way you "make revolutionists"— by telling the slaves what they ought to think and read, and feel and do, no matter what they want and need? Go back to George Fox, if you arc going to preach, and learn to "speak to their condition"!
The evils of society are easily recognized. In revolutionary interpretation, as in science, we seek the sources. Curing ills by trying to remove the consequences without attacking causes is mere quackery.
It goes without saying that Calverton's keen analysis and finely tempered criticism in the New Masses will not be answered by the revolutionary politicians. They will resort for their defense to sly digs of derision, or swing the heavy bourgeois bludgeon of dignified silence. There may be a good reason for this. "Sex" is not good politics in this or any other land. And, unlike jails and persecution. politics seem to have a way of diverting revolutionary movements and toning down their demands and protests. This may be seen in the progressive revision of Socialist teaching and doctrine in conformity with the necessities of political expediency. Read the early socialistic revolutionary pronouncements on the family and sex, and compare the present aims and practices.
The usual and ready explanation is that of all trimmers and reformers—that they have become scientific and "practical," and cannot undertake anything so wild and impossible as would hasten the break-up of the disintegrating bourgeois family; all they want to do is to take over the day-factory and turn out the boss—nothing else matters. Take over one-half the works; leave the other half in control of the enemy! There lies the way of reform and defeat.
In the meantime, these revised "Marxians" and progressive Socialists denounce as anarchistic disrupters of the Labor Movement all those who remain true to the fundamental revolutionary ideas and doctrines that threaten to undermine their sacred Family Institution. The old Socialist movement, or its corpse, of course is entombed in Respectability. We all know lifelong "Socialists" who are not to be distinguished, in anything except their vote, from the staid and solemn professors of any other unpopular religion! They could, many of them, change places sexually with our old maid aunt, or with the deacon in the church, and nobody would notice the difference. They live straight, vote straight, pay their dues, and "take part" in the party activities (including obsequies), and serenely await the coming of the revolutionary millenium. when Socialism will be "ushered in" (by ballot) and everybody will be "comrades" in the new Jerusalem. I once heard the president of a California bank proudly say to a social reformer: "You know, we are all Socialists now!"
In the radical and revolutionary political movements today, the same hypocritical code of sex morality prevails, with certain variations, as in the rest of bourgeois society. Silence and secrecy are enjoined and enforced: the sex-fetish is worshipped, even though in a different fashion; there is a conventional unconventionality. Some latitude is allowed in practice; but "free love" ideas and tendencies ate suppressed or discountenanced by the chosen labor leaders, and their advocates persecuted in one way or another. Infringement of the Unwritten Law of Silence is punished by some of the same methods applied elsewhere in our half-barbarous, half-decadent society. Problems of sex and the reproduction of labor-power must be left to bourgeois specialists, for individualistic interpretation!
A cautious and popular leader in "the movement" says in a letter: "There are other questions of paramount importance—agriculture, for example; or decoration." "Decoration" is about as near as some people will ever get to the forbidden thing! Agriculture, of course, does not want for attention. That all consideration of these questions should be prohibited, or postponed "till after the Revolution," is a reactionary cry. At the bottom of it is fear. It would be just as revolutionary in procedure to try to stifle any other expressions of growing discontent with social conditions.
We are today in the period of transition approaching revolution. New forms are being worked out in the lives of the producing and reproducing masses. It is a time of trial and error, of experiment and investigation. Turning away from the old and all its encumbrances, we plunge into the virgin forest, to make new paths, to find new fields for the growth of the new society. We are hampered in our groping towards the new life by the decrepit forms of the past, and by the desperate efforts of the slaves of these forms to prolong their dying life.
The revolutionary proletarian movement is in process of formation; it is being moulded into shape out of the conflict of the classes. It must pass through many forms before reaching a maturity that will endure into the future. It has not yet attained sufficient strength and solidarity to throw off the imposed domination of petit-bourgeois intellectual leadership and political control, a necessary burden and assistance in a time of transition—a sort of foster-parent guidance and support through its infancy and childhood. During such a period of rapid social growth and change, no uniformity is possible that permits of an attitude toward problems which can only be worked out in actual life and experience. Social forms are developed and crystallized as a result of actual relations in the life of the people in their struggles to survive and find expression for their energies. Fixed relations are not attained in early growth; static conceptions do not apply. Only the antiquated moralist seeks to impose derivative moral and ethical judgments, according to obsolete canons of interpretation, upon social phenomena which constitute the unfolding processes of life and history. Trotsky says in Literature and Revolution:
"Life in revolution is camp life. Personal life, institutions, methods, ideas, ideals, sentiments, everything is unusual, temporary, transitional, recognizing its temporariness and expressing this everywhere .... it is striving in endless gropings and experiments to find the best ways of building a bouse that is solid. Everything it does is merely sketches, ttudes ..."
The present "attitude" of the revolutionary proletarian toward the coming social transformation is pragmatic: it is to cast about and learn how this change is to be made, and to adapt himself to it while making it. This transformation is not coming from above as a gift of charity to help the poor workingman, or as a contribution of sentimental philanthropy as an aid to the cause "so dear to all our hearts." Nor is it to be inaugurated by making concessions to attain office, by legislative enactment, or by astute revolutionary diplomacy. It will arrive as the inevitable result of a deeper and a surer process: it is coming as a consequence of the mighty pressure of life surging up through the submerged masses of the peoples of the earth and bursting the bonds of habit and custom, tradition and prejudice, that remain to impede its triumphant progress.
There is a prophetic observation of the individualist Emerson, revealing penetrating insight, that will find social verification:
"We arc to revise the whole of oar social structure, the state, tbe school, religion, marriage, trade, sciencc, and explore their foundations in our own nature: we are to see that tbe world not only fitted the former men. but fits us, and to clear ourselves of every usage which has not its roots it our own mind."
Sex relations cannot escape the revolutionary changes immanent in society. And from the later point of view of historical materialism, their growth and evolution are beyond the reach of meddling moralists and tinkering politicians.
The revolutionary proletarian feels within him the stir of new life-forces. He knows their worth to the world, and he is conscious of his power. With him it is life or death, and he is no respecter of forms. He is the enemy of bourgeois society, and is so treated by consistent upholders of the present order, by whom he is classed among criminals and malefactors. By his very life he is driven to further the processes of disintegration which he observes to have set in throughout society under bourgeois rule. His needs and aims, his ideas and activities, and those of his class, are morally subversive and socially destructive of existing institutions. Conformity to the criminal code of morality used to justify and prolong the maintenance of a system of exploitation and robbery is itself criminal, when it can be avoided. He submits under protest to what is forced upon him, only in order to survive and grow in strength and numbers for his final liberation.
In sexual relations, as in all other vital activities, his behavior is to seek the fullest satisfaction of the needs implanted in his nature, in conformity with the needs of others involved in such relations, that m3y be possible of attainment under the social and economic tyranny which threatens to crush his life out under the machine. Consciously and unconsciously, he fulfills his revolutionary function in society by every act of his being—inculcating revolutionary ideas, instilling revolutionary sentiments and purposes, strengthening revolutionary class-consciousness and solidarity. His attitude toward sex. destructive in its effects upon his present environment, is constructive in its future aims and aspirations, in so far as it has developed. For he is bound by an inner necessity to break away from all old forms that burden and restrict him, and seek for new ones through which to express his life-forces.
To sum up, in Marxian terminology: the worker in industry, emerging from individualistic production of commodities for use and exchange under handicrafts, enters into industrial mass-production, carried on for profit under capitalistic exploitation; and becomes transformed into the revolutionary proletarian prepared by class-conscious solidarity for the ownership and control of industry, organized on a collective or communal basis of cooperative production and distribution for the use and benefit of all, in accordance with scientific and rational methods of living. In harmony with this transformation in the creation and enjoyment of the material necessities, there will naturally occur an accompanying change in social relations and conceptions. The growth of the method and spirit of socialized production will be reflected in all other departments of life and activity.
Individualistic modes of propagating the species and rearing the young will be superseded by methods more economical, rational and humane, scientifically adapted to the production of a more highly developed type of human beings. Compulsory monogamy and prostitution, the antiquated, corrupt, and restricted forms of marriage and sex relations based on private property, will necessarily give way to freedom of association on a cooperative basis, which will assume various forms, in accordance with the growing needs of a new society. In a socialized civilization, in which the common ownership of property prevails, and the worker has freedom of access to all the means of life and production, socialized methods of sex-relationship will inevitably grow up. and take those forms which will give the fullest expression and development to the submerged and latent powers and potentialities of an enlightened and liberated humanity.
What these forms and methods may be is a legitimate field for present inquiry and speculation. Ideas now germinating may be advanced for discussion; but dogmatic assertion, radical or conservative, is obviously absurd. The intuitions of the poet, in the realm of speculation, are frequently more illuminating and prophetic than the reasoned conclusions of philosophy and science.
As a basis for such inquiry, however, present tendencies in the actual life of the masses of the people are to be observed and studied. Individual experience should be encouraged, the field of investigation and experiment enlarged, and results recorded and compared, for a more rational understanding of these most intricate and important phenomena of our actual daily life, which now remain buried out of sight in keeping with surviving superstitions and degenerated customs of a past age. under which the people blindly suffer, as they blunder through their tragic experiences in ignorance and misery.
Sometime pen-name John Darmstadt
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