From “The Phoenix Nest,” a column by William Rose Benet appearing in the April 26 1947 edition of The Saturday Review (page 36)…
Mark Twain relates in one of his stories, the furore up in Heaven when an obscure tailor, Billings by name, from somewhere in Tennessee, arrives in the Celestial realm. Shakespeare is proud to sit at his feet while at the banquet in his honor; it is Homer who stands behind his chair and waits upon him. Yet this was an unknown poet although recognized by his peers as the greatest of them all. No mortal had ever read his verses. They had never even been published. In fact, during his lifetime he had been merely the butt of his contemporaries.
There were many such back in the twenties. For every Eugene O’Neil, Floyd Dell, Ben Hecht, or Maxwell Bodenheim, there were a dozen other real personalities in Greenwich Village and Union Square whose names have rarely reached the public except in column-long eulogies at their passing.
Looking back at those days a score or more years ago, one is struck by the renaissance of thinking which followed the First World War. There was a complete examination and overhauling of ideas which is sadly lacking today. It was a time of great optimism, for everyone felt that if the problems of the world had not as yet all been solved, at least their solution was attainable if not already in sight.
Thoughts were precious then and intellectual integrity the highest goal. There was no compromise with the popular taste in these philosophers, writers, and artists whose books were never printed and pictures never bought. Yet they were men and women of character. In an earlier age they might have been looked on as saints. They were in this world but not of this world. Their wants were few, a cold water flat on the East Side, where they could paint or write or dream, a meagre meal every once in a while was all they required. Yet this was often beyond their reach.
As chairman of the old Dill Pickle Club on 14th Street where they were wont to congregate, the writer knew them well and mourns their passing. There are but few of them left. Ike Shepps still holds forth at Columbus Circle with his satirical tirades against the futile money-grubbing pursuits of humanity. Jo Silverman, who studied medicine in England and then never practised [sic] it because he felt that too little was known about the art, today in his eighty-third year still pursues his studies of Spinoza and the humanities in his hovel on East 3rd Street. Dan O’Brien, King of the Hoboes, no longer delights his listeners with his wit and rich Irish brogue. He merely awaits his end in one of the city’s charitable institutes. Joe Gould still works on his “History” of our times. But where are the Wilkesbarrs, Pollocks, Marchands, Jack Joneses, and Lizzy Davises all gone like the snows of yesteryear?
The “Sirfessor,” as Wilkesbarr was called, rated a column-and-a-half obituary in The New York Times. Is there today in existence a single copy of his “Gospel According to Malfew Seklew,” to which he devoted his entire life? His was the doctrine of enlightened selfishness. He sought the rise of a race of “Supcrcrats,” an aristocracy of brains and skill that would rescue the world from its rising slough of mediocrity. His was a voice “crying in the wilderness.” A Cockney by birth, he had sung with the D’Oyly Carte Company. He had known Shaw and Wells and the Webbs intimately, yet never was his work known by more than a few dozens of his friends.
Abe Pollock was a collar salesman until in middle life, like Gauguin, he began to paint. His work was praised by some critics, scoffed at by others but it never sold. Perhaps Michelangelo passes him the finger bowls in Heaven.
Dr. Marchand had been a professor at Columbia University. During the anti-German outbreak of World War I, he was fired from his job. He never recovered from the blow. He spent his life on the personal project of coordinating all human knowledge. His manuscripts? Who knows where they are today!
There was Helen Langdon, who knew more about Oriental art than some curators of museums. She died in a garret (it was whispered of starvation), yet she could never bring herself to part with her precious Cinnabar vases and Japanese sword-guards.
Those were the days when ideas were all important, when Pollock and Vincent Beltrone holding opposite views on the subject of art — almost but not quite coming to blows about their theories — could argue far into the night before a group of enthralled listeners.
When Leon Samson first read his manuscript on the “New Humanism,” the entire intellectual body of the town was split into “pro” and “anti” factions.
Yes, ideas were important then and poetry was important. John Cabbage with his “Sea Chanteys,” Jack Sellers, Anton Romatka, Lew Ney each had his defenders and detractors, but they were sincere and judged them by their poetry and not as today by their political orientation.
It is amusing to note how many of the former dwellers within their “ivory towers” today have hung “to let” signs upon them and have rushed into the arms of the “proletariat.” For them perhaps, thinking is no longer necessary. Still the prospect of a world without the Sirfessor and his kind is anything but pleasant.
Where are the youngsters who are to take their places? Who will dare to question the dogmatism of the right or the left? Who will examine every self-ordained savior and demagogue and puncture stuffed shirts with an ever-ready arsenal of barbed wit?
Will they perhaps be found among the student bodies of our universities or will their war training and their exposure to college curricula squeeze out the last drops of individualism that they may have retained? What can we expect of a generation reared on comic strips and movies? Perhaps a revulsion, perhaps a re-awakening of a burning love for Democracy which is the only cradle for Nature’s masterpiece — the individual Ego.
The Union of Egoists is in hot pursuit of details regarding Sirfessor Wilkebarre’s time in the D’oyly theater company. Working for D’oyly would explain why the one and only Malfew Seklew repeatedly cites Gilbert and Sullivan in Gospel According to Malfew Seklew.