Max Eastman (1883 - 1969) was an American poet, and political activist whose friendships and associations included some of the most recognizable names of the last century – including Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, Isadora Duncan, Ernest Hemingway, Sigmund Freud, H.L. Mencken and George Bernard Shaw. Eastman led a long and busy life - he wrote and published and advocated his opinions regularly and with conviction. So why isn’t he better known?
To put it most simply, because of those opinions. Over the course of his lifetime they swung through every point on the political compass from socialist to conservative as he went from activism, to disillusion, to bitter resentment. Generally speaking, if you hold on to your beliefs, and stay fixed in your opinions, you will have supporters and detractors and become a symbol of the left, or of the right, or more rarely, of moderation. If, like Eastman, you keep evolving in your views, your audience may not evolve with you. They may, in fact, revolt against you, or in Eastman’s case, forget about you altogether.
This is too bad in some respects, because Eastman, as it turns out, was not a bad poet. He wrote essays on poetry as well as several books of poems, and even a book on literary criticism. I have just finished editing Eastman’s 1918 anthology, Colors of Life, for the web. It includes a sampling of his earliest work, some imagist and narrative pieces, and selected songs and sonnets.
Here are a few samples:
DOWN the dripping pathway dancing through the rain,
Brown eyes of beauty, laugh to me again!
Eyes full of starlight, moist over fire,
Full of young wonder, touch my desire!
O like a brown bird, like a bird's flight,
Run through the rain drops lithely and light.
Body like a gypsy, like a wild queen,
Slim brown dress to slip through the green--
The little leaves hold you as soft as a child,
The little path loves you, the path that runs wild.
Who would not love you, seeing you move,
Warm-eyed and beautiful through the green grove?
Let the rain kiss you, trickle through your hair,
Laugh if my fingers mingle with it there,
Laugh if my cheek too is misty and drips--
Wetness is tender--laugh on my lips
The happy sweet laughter of love without pain,
Young love, the strong love, burning in the rain.
THE net brings up, how long and languidly,
A million vivid quiverings of life,
Keen-finned and gleaming like a steely knife,
All colors, green and silver of the sea,
All forms of skill and eagerness to be--
They die and wither of the very breath
That sounds your pity of their lavish death
While they are leaping, star-like, to be free.
They die and wither, but the agéd sea,
Insane old salty womb of mystery,
Is pregnant with a million million more,
Whom she will suckle in her oozy floor,
Whom she will vomit on a heedless shore,
While onward her immortal currents pour.
Note - This third one is a little intense; you may wish to skip it. This is an even more graphic anti-war piece than Wilfed Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est."
In a Red Cross Hospital
TODAY I saw a face--it was a beak,
That peered, with pale round yellow vapid eyes,
Above the bloody muck that had been lips
And teeth and chin. A plodding doctor poured
Some water through a rubber down a hole
He made in that black bag of horny blood.
The beak revived, it smiled--as chickens smile.
The doctor hopes he'll find the man a tongue
To tell with, what he used to be.
So just how polarized were Eastman’s politics? In his youth he was a fervent socialist. As an editor of The Masses and publisher of The Liberator, he was an advocate of the ‘workng man’ and criticized US entry into World War I, and was twice arrested under the Sedition Act, being acquitted on both occasions. In 1924 he traveled to Russia to see Marxism first hand. The things he saw there - the political machinations of Trotsky and Stalin at close range - were a very sobering experience. In the end he wrote a calm, objective summary of the new Russian state – a work that was widely quoted but may have made him unpopular with former readers and associates.
Eastman wrote copiously on literature, psychology, philosophy, and social issues. He translated the works of Trotsky, whom he had befriended. He spent the next decade traveling and lecturing on literary, social and psychological topics. However, by the end of the Great Depression he was writing anti-socialist articles for Reader’s Digest and the conservative National Review.
By the 1950s things came full circle. Eastman grew ever more right wing in his opinions and his politics. He was a supporter of Eugene McCarthy and of the witch hunts for communists and communist sympathizers that ruined and blacklisted so many other writers, actors and artists in the 1950’s. Eastman went from being an activist to persecuting anyone who associated with activists, and betrayal is a form of misery that garners no company. Hence you ask, Max Who?