A MINGLED YARN: The Life of R. P. Blackmur by Russell Fraser

A MINGLED YARN: The Life of R. P. Blackmur

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Fraser claims that Blackmur (1904-65) was a good poet, which is reasonable; that he was ""our best American critic,"" which is highly debatable; and that he was a great man, which is, judging by Fraser's evidence, absurd. Still, while he may overestimate Blackmur, Fraser never flatters him, and this laconic, angular biography suits its subject admirably. Fraser's thin-lipped, severely colloquial style (""The right nuance for him counted more than straight talk. Also, he didn't like straight talk"") gives the book a very unacademic, though not unintellectual, flavor--something Blackmur would have liked. A phenomenal autodidact, expelled from Cambridge Latin and High School at age 14, he eventually published his way to a full professorship at Princeton. But many well-degreed literati never accepted him; and even if they had, Blackmur's gift for alienation and self-loathing would have insured his ambivalence toward the academy. Actually, considering the almost uniform unhappiness of his life (ill-assorted parents, constant poverty, the suicide of a favorite uncle, catastrophic marriage, bitter divorce, etc.), the Princeton years (1940-65) weren't all that bad. His creativity slowly dried up, but that had always been touch-and-go. The magnum opus on Henry Adams never got finished, but he wrote eight of his eleven books there. The market for New Criticism has long been bearish, and so Blackmur's authorial stock has sunk too. Conrad Aiken, a better poet than Blackmur, once told him: ""I think you sometimes read with your eye a little too close to the page, seeing enormous and separate syllables, each distinct and portentous""--which pretty much sums up the problem. Nonetheless, Blackmur was a major figure on the literary scene, and his tortured existence, unsparingly recounted by his friend Russell, has a bleak sort of interest. A fine presentation, all in all, of a painful case.

Pub Date: Dec. 12th, 1981
ISBN: 1412814472
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich