Posts Tagged ‘ G.K. Chesterton ’

“Love on my terms …”

Citizen Kane at 75

1. Leland’s recollection (“Not that Charlie was ever brutal, he just did brutal things.”).
Leland (Joseph Cotten): “Hello, Charlie. I didn’t know we were speaking.”
Kane (Orson Welles): “Sure we’re speaking, Jedediah. You’re fired.”

Citizen Kane, which for long periods has been saddled with the title of “greatest film ever made,” had its general American release 75 years ago this past month, on September 5, 1941. (It had premieres in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles the previous May. The interval from then until its general release was filled with threats, legal review, unwillingness of distributors to show the film, etc.) The movie never enjoyed great popular success. It failed to recover its relatively modest cost during its initial run, although a large part of that failure was owing to the determined opposition of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who used his vast media empire to bluster and smear those associated with the project (including director Orson Welles, who was repeatedly called a Communist by Hearst newspapers) and whose associates vaguely threatened reprisal because Hearst himself was the none-too-secret model for the main character.  The major Hollywood studios, which owned the distribution networks at the time, did what Hollywood does best—they cravenly capitulated, restricted distribution, and fearing the worst, acted to avoid bad publicity. (It would not be the first, or even the most spectacular, of Hollywood’s cowardice-induced paralysis. Its actual cravenness to the powerful and rich and even just the conventional helps explain why it so often champions movies about those who stood up to the powerful and rich and the conventional.) Louis B. Mayer of M-G-M, a friend of Hearst, even offered RKO $842,000, well above the production costs, to destroy the negative and all prints.

The Beatification of Citizen Kane

The critical response, in contrast to the tepid box office response, was enthusiastic. In fact it was the unanimous acclaim of the leading newspaper and magazine critics (outside the Hearst empire, of course) that goaded RKO to release the film. Many critics wrote that it was flat-out the best movie they had ever seen. Most pointed to the innovative technical and stylistic aspects of the film. The acting was also considered superior.

2. Boss Jim W. Gettys watches as Kane makes his one campaign promise:

2. Boss Jim W. Gettys watches as Kane makes his one campaign promise: “My first official act as governor of this state will be to appoint a special district attorney to arrange for the indictment, prosecution and conviction of Boss Jim W. Gettys!”

The enthusiasm of the critics was unable to persuade distributors to risk the wrath of the unethical and megalomaniacal Hearst and his vast empire of yellow journalism outlets. It was not just that the empire could libel with impunity, it also could refuse the distributors’ advertisements in the local papers for their other films. Smear was also a tactic. “Communism,” even before World War II, was an effective way to ruin a reputation, and the Hearst empire more than once accused Welles, who had been actively anti-Fascist in the New York theater, of being a fellow-traveller. When a target tarred with communism, everyone or thing that was associated with it, however indirectly, even (or especially) a small town movie theater, would be tarred as well. Once it decided to exhibit it, RKO threatened to sue the studios if their distributors refused to accept the film. So some paid for it, but didn’t show it. Others only showed it a few times. The movie really had no chance for box-office success, and in Hollywood that is the one criterion that movies are judged by.

So as with all American movies of the time, it descended into oblivion after a short run. At the time there was not the secondary markets for films that exist today (television, art houses, home entertainment, for example). So when a film ended its run, it usually ended its claim on public attention. Ultimately it was French intellectuals who resurrected interest in the film.

Jean-Paul Sartre saw the film in a private showing in the United States in 1945 and reviewed the film in L’Ecran français in August. He allowed that the film “was the work of an intellectual,” but that was hardly complementary to Welles, for Sartre, who after failing to generate interest in a literary underground in occupied Paris, spent his time during the war writing radical pieces that never offended the Nazi censors and after the occupation began espousing the uselessness of intellectualism in art, as something divorced from politics and therefore backward looking. Sartre was promoting art that emphasized the future, and one that had a decidedly political orientation, and Citizen Kane, he felt, was “a story in the past tense” where “everything is dead.” (Welles was not even the worst offender here. Sartre felt that all of Zola’s work portrayed a “false disorder” where everything obeyed the “narrowest kind of determinism.”) Citizen Kane was not the kind of work that would be useful for the French, Sartre concluded, however much it was of interest to the Americans, presumably in the cultural hinterlands.

4. The pivotal meeting between Kane and Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). Kane:

3. The pivotal meeting between Kane and Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore).
Kane: “What are you laughing at, young lady?” …
Alexander: “You’re funny, Mister. You’ve got dirt on your face.”

When the movie was shown in Paris in July 1946, however, French critics, not carrying the cultural baggage of Sartre, saw the film as revolutionary. Roger Leenhardt, who was an important film critic and who had argued that sound technology provided the means by which works of genuine realism could be made, hailed Citizen Kane as a work of genius. Bazin, Leenhardt’s protege, expanded on this observation in an essay tracing the history of cinema from its beginning to the emergence of post-war Italian neo-realism. In this history Bazin found Citizen Kane as its most important inflection point. Bazin believed that the cinematic convention of camera work which had developed in D.W. Griffith’s time had calcified a decade into the sound era. Shot editing had allowed the director to focus the audience’s attention on particular aspects of a scene. This may have been essential in pre-sound days (where cards could hardly support all of the audience cues) but by the late 1930s it had become a lazy convention that obstructed, rather than aided, a realistic version of events. Bazin explained it this way in “An Aesthetic of Reality”:

“Classical editing, derived from Griffith, separated reality into successive shots which were just a series of either logical or subjective points of view of an event. A man locked in a cell is waiting for the arrival of his executioner. His anguished eyes are on the door. At the moment the executioner is about to enter we can be quite sure that the director will cut to a close shot of the door handle as it slowly turns. This close-up is justified psychologically by the victim’s concentration on the symbol of his extreme distress. It is this ordering of the shots, this conventional analysis of the reality continuum, that truly goes to make up cinematographic language of the period.”

Bazin wrote that Welles in Citizen Kane broke with this tradition by restoring “to cinematographic illusion a fundamental quality of reality—its continuity.” He did this by several means but principally by a static shot with a wider angle than was traditional and deep focus allowing the audience to see from the back of the visual set to the foreground in equal definition. This also had a number of collateral consequences, such as allowing the viewer freedom to survey the entire scene and requiring the actors to act more naturally rather than confining them to close-up speaking and reaction shots.

These features were expanded upon and detailed in the 1950s in pieces by Bazin and his followers in the journal he founded, Cahiers du cinéma, the French vehicle that gave cinema, for the first time,  a claim to intellectual and cultural importance. The Cahiers writers had their own programme, related mostly to criticisms of the then current state of French film, and Kane provided what seemed to be a point for point counter-example for the failings of French cinema. But above all, Bazin argued that the director was, or should be, truly the auteur of the film, much as a novel was the author’s work. Kane happened to nicely prove this point because Orson Welles, had been able, as a result of his string of successes and resulting publicity in New York theater and national radio, to negotiate with the RKO a contract that gave him complete control over the film, an unheard of liberty (and one that made long-time studio functionaries so jealous that they laid in wait to pounce on what they hoped would be Welles’s failure to deliver). Moreover, Welles’s theatrical background gave him experience in every aspect of stagecraft that a film required, from costumes to make-up to sets to lighting to script editing, and so forth. And he used all of his experience, combined with the impetuosity of youth and that of the brilliant associates he collaborated with, in his first film.

4. After the defeat. Kane: “Toast, Jedediah, to love on my terms. Those are the only terms anybody ever knows.”

Much of the match between Welles’s instinct and Bazin’s prescription for the New Wave, came simply from Welles’s theater background. For example, a great deal of the problem of staging a play is to have the characters project into the audience (usually by facing it). Bazin objected to the cliché of cutting from one full-face close-up to the other when two characters were talking. Welles, who never liked the close-up shot to begin with, simply staged the movie as he would stage a play, often with both characters facing the audience (see, e.g., #1 , #3, #4, #14, #19). Ceilings, Bazin’s indicium of the restraints on human activity as well as further visual evidence that the characters were inhabiting a realistic environment, simply were the natural result of the “frog’s eye view” (as Marlena Dietrich put it much later), a signature of Welles’s cinematography from then on—and similar to the way audience members in the orchestra saw a play (seee.g., #4, #15, #16). And that special “trick” that Welles’s and cinematographer Gregg Toland worked so hard to achieve (and did so spectacularly)—deep focus—was theatrical rather than typically cinematographic. Plays are static shots in which characters moved from front to back as well as side to side and therefore were inherently more three-dimensional than the flat screen had become. The convention that had grown so stale in film, the facial close-up, was of course unknown in theater and something that Welles only sparingly used in his film career, and was another instance where Bazin’s objections lined up with Welles’s instinctive practices.

There was some resistance to Bazin’s sweeping assessment of Citizen Kane, mostly by those who pointed out that certain stylistic innovations had been used, or at least prefigured, by others, such as films with scenes having greater than normal depth of field and those employing non-chronological narrative. While he was able to distinguish such counter-examples, his point, Bazin said, was larger than the invention of particular visual or stylistic points; rather, it was that the particular use of them together formed a narrative style, which so differed from convention that it created a new cinematic language:

“The novelty of language, cinematic or otherwise, must be understood from the point of view of style, not from the point of view of vocabulary or syntax. … [E]ven if Welles did not invent the cinematic devices employed in Citizen Kane, one should nevertheless credit him with the invention of their meaning. His way of ‘writing’ is undoubtedly his own. I don’t mean the mere architecture of the story, although the ordering of the film’s scenes is worthy of our consideration. In this sense the connection between Citizen Kane and the novels of  Dos Passos is obvious. … The substitution for the classical story of a kind of jigsaw puzzle, whose pieces are provided by the memories of a series of witnesses, can hardly be traced to The Power and  the Glory (1933) or even Marie-Martine (1943).”

5. Kane brins back a President's niece as the staff of the Inquirer watches through a window.

5. Kane brings back a President’s niece as the staff of the Inquirer watches through a window.

The last sentence was a response to Sartre who claimed the narrative structure derived from those two movies, the later of which, Sartre failed to note, was released two years after Citizen Kane. The earlier movie, The Power and the Glory, written by Preston Sturges, was noted by both Sartre and Borges (see below) as a possible influence on the structure of the Welles’s movie. Bazin showed how the non-chronological nature of Sturges’s screenplay functioned in a way unlike Citizen Kane. Nevertheless, Pauline Kael, in her later attempted take down of Orson Welles, followed Sartre and Borges in claiming the structure of Citizen Kane to be borrowed from it. She based her argument only on recollection, however, since a print of the film had been lost until after her essay (discussed below) was published.

When Citizen Kane had a limited revival run in 1956, Andrew Sarris was writing for Film Culture. Sarris had not long before spent a year in Paris where he became associated with Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, both of whom had deeply imbibed Bazin and contributed to the Cahiers du cinéma agenda.  Within four years he became film critic for the Village Voice, where he would become America’s foremost critic and from which he espoused the film theory of the Cahiers du cinéma crowd. But in 1956 Sarris wrote an influential reappraisal of Citizen Kane, this time the focus was on the narrative structure and “meaning,” not its technical innovations.

6. Thompson at Thatcher Library. The formal, implacable rules of the institutionalized history of the great and powerful obscure rather than reveal genuine motivations.

6. Thompson watches the ritual at Thatcher Library. The formal, implacable rules of the institutionalized history of the wealthy and powerful are designed to obscure rather than reveal genuine motivations and justify wealth and power.

Sarris saw Citizen Kane, not as a collection of self-referential techniques nor as a film that subordinated content to style, but rather as a work that has “inner consistency of theme, structure, and technique.” He viewed the theme as the progressive hollowing out of Kane’s inner life and the narrative means of the Rosebud detective story:

“Within the maze of its own aesthetic, Kane develops two interesting themes: the debasement of the private personality of the public figure, and the crushing weight of materialism. Taken together, these two themes comprise the bitter irony of an American success story that ends in futile nostalgia, loneliness, and death. The fact that the personal theme is developed verbally while the materialistic theme is developed visually creates a distinctive stylistic counterpoint. Against this counterpoint, the themes unfold within the structure of a mystery story.”

The themes are embedded in the overall structure of the film. The movie begins with the “intense reality of the fence” (the objective world) and then moves into the “fantastic unreality of the castle” (the world that Kane had constructed for himself). At the end, the camera performs the reverse operation: “[T]he mystic pretension of the castle dissolves into the mundane substance of the fence. Matter has come full circle from its original quality to the grotesque baroque of its excess.”

“As each flashback unfolds, the visual scenario of Citizen Kane orchestrates the dialogue. A universe of ceilings dwarfs Kane’s personal stature. He becomes the prisoner of his possession, the ornament of his furnishings, the fiscal instrument of his collections. His booming voice is muffled by walls, carpets, furniture, hallways, stairs, and vast recesses of useless space.”

The distinctive camera work of the film is not simply a matter of style, nor even just a means of enhancing the realism of the scenes. It is a metaphorical illustration of the theme. Story and style worked together to comprise a work of art.

This summing up became the accepted critical consensus. And for a decade it became commonplace to consider Citizen Kane the most influential, if not the “best,” film of all time.

The Kael-ing of Citizen Kane


7. To Thatcher (George Coulouris) the Inquirer was an outrage. And for Kane, his populism was perhaps merely a weapon for his unresolved Oedipal rage.

Pauline Kael rose to fame (and obtained her job at the New Yorker) for being a contrarian. She championed Bonnie and Clyde while critic at middlebrow McCall’s. The magazine would not print her review. She was eventually let go because she condemned every big budget movie Hollywood produced. Her point of view was somewhat contradictory. She equated popularity with trash (and she condemned popular movies), but claimed that movies arose from trash (and disliked movies that strayed too far from their origins): “Movies took their impetus not from the desiccated, imitation European high culture, but from the peep show, the Wild West show, the music hall, the comic strip—from what was coarse and common.” And nothing represented “desiccated, imitation European high culture” more than the auteur approach to film and its American representative, Andrew Sarris, who would become her nemesis. She was therefore an odd choice to write the introduction to Citizen Kane (the movie lauded by “desiccated, imitation European high culture”) when Bantam Books decided to publish the movie’s shooting script (and other production notes). But in hindsight it was entirely predictable that she would use the opportunity to attempt to take down Welles, who was the big game of hunters like herself of “auteur theory,” an approach she entirely rejected (at least then).

The essay she produced, entitled “Raising Kane,” was the longest extended work of her career. It appeared in two successive issues of the New Yorker in February 1971 before it was later that year published in The Citizen Kane Book by Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Little, Brown. Kael’s goal was to show that Welles was not solely (or principally?) responsible for the movie. Since nearly everyone responsible for major aspects of the movie had publicly attested to Welles’s guiding hand in each department, she was left with only one area to attack Welles—the screenplay.

Welles took only co-writing credit together with long-time Hollywood screenwriter (and recent Welles collaborator) Herman J. Mankiewicz. At the time Welles had engaged him to produce a draft of the story they agreed on, Mankiewicz was nearly an outcast in Hollywood owing to his alcoholism and unpredictable behavior. Welles had previously used him to create radioscripts from popular books for the weekly national radio program, The Campbell Playhouse, that Welles and John Houseman produced for CBS Radio. When Welles arrived in Hollywood with his new RKO contract, he had the idea of filming a version of Heart of Darkness shot by a camera recording events from the narrator’s eye view (a story that he adapted for screen himself). When that concept proved prohibitively expensive, he began casting about for a new project. He discussed the matter with Mankiewicz, and after some time they came up with the idea of creating an original screenplay based on a mogul in the likeness of William Randolph Hearst. Mankiewicz was full of gossip about Hearst and even knew him slightly, having attended parties given by Marion Davies, the actress who Hearst had set up in California to be away from his New York wife’s prying eyes. (Davies would become the model for Susan Alexander in the movie.) Welles agreed to hire Mankiewicz to come up with the first draft, but first, wary of Mankiewicz’s notorious binge drinking, Welles set him up in a sanctuary outside of Los Angeles and engaged his long-time producer John Houseman to ensure Mankiewicz worked rather than drink. From there Mankiewicz produced a first draft, with some help from Houseman, that they sent to Welles. Other drafts were generated from the comments and personal visits from Welles and eventually a script was produced. The shooting script included in The Citizen Kane Book was the final written draft, approved by RKO, but even it differs drastically in some places from what appeared on screen. Nevertheless, Mankiewicz probably saw his work as the last (and undoubtedly best) item in his legacy and began claiming that Welles had little, if any, input. When the screen writing was the only Oscar (out of nine nominations) won by Citizen Kane (Hollywood in the end had its revenge on Orson Welles, the boy wonder; he never won another Oscar), Mankiewicz publicly claimed the he only, and not Welles, deserved all the credit and that the writing was what carried the movie.

Relying solely on reports of comments by Mankiewicz (who had been dead for two decades at the time) and information from his living allies, and not calling Welles (or most of those involved in the production) at all, Kael used the occasion of her supposed appreciation of Citizen Kane to make the case that Welles had no responsibility for the script of the movie except, perhaps, for occasional superficial “consultations” with Mankiewicz. The essay is not a model of persuasive writing. It begins with a long detour into the history of the “coarse and common” of American film history, especially the “flapper” and “zany” comedies of the silent and early sound era. She details Mankiewicz’s roles in many of those movies and then attempts to show how those movies led into the “girl reporter” movies like Front Page. Mankiewicz had nothing to do with Front Page, but Ben Hecht did, and he was a friend of Mankiewicz and also a newspaperman from New York before coming to Hollywood, just like Mankiewicz, so she weaves it into her thread. She describes the “girl reporter” movies that followed, showed their similarity to earlier comedies and argued that these were predecessors to Citizen Kane. Since Citizen Kane had not even a superficial resemblance to these comedies, other than it also involved journalism (but no girl eporter), she makes the assertion, evidently to persuade those who never saw the film or were planning to, that Welles’s film derived from the “commercial comedy tradition” —and is “practically a collection of blackout sketches … ,” the form that Mankiewicz had specialized in. It was a bizarre form of analysis, but her “direct” evidence that Welles had no responsibility for the script was even worse. Kael’s argument depended for direct evidence on industry gossip solely from those who had axes to grind against Welles (a large enough group), failed to elicit testimony from Welles or anyone in the know who was not openly hostile to him and ignored Welles’s life-long history of effectively re-writing novels, stories and even plays for his own scripts for plays, radio programs and later movies. (I have shown how Welles “re-wrote” even his sainted Shakespeare, by condensing, re-arranging scenes and distributing dialogue among different characters, all without changing any word, but substantially refitting the story. See Shakespeare, Freud, Machiavelli and Welles: The “Prince Hal Problem.” With less hallowed writers Welles simply rewrote the story.) Just the next year he converted Booth Tarkington’s novel into perhaps his best scripted movie, The Magnificent Ambersons, without any additional help. And Mr. Arkadian was based on a novel he wrote and converted into a screen play (again without assistance).

Raymond's recollection: Emerging from Susan's room, now broke up, holding the globe, Kane first mouths

8. Raymond’s recollection: Emerging from Susan’s room, now broken up, holding the globe, Kane first mouths “Rosebud,” as the Butler (Paul Stewart) watches.

When she finally reached the point of “analyzing” the film, Kael simply produced a list of the things she liked and the things she didn’t, the laziest form of any kind of criticism. Oddly, the things she didn’t like tended to be attributable to the script, so if Welles had nothing to do with it, he escaped her worst volleys. But even in listing her gripes, she makes superficial and often flatly wrong assertions. I will give one example only because one occasionally hears it repeated by those who dislike the film. Kael was the source of the complaint, that one often reads in “fan” critiques of the movie these days, that no one was in the bed chamber to hear Kane utter “Rosebud,” and therefore the entire movie is based on a gaffe—the search for his “last words” that no one could have heard. She doesn’t elaborate, but I suppose she came to this belief because after Kane utters the remark and drops the globe, we see only a single nurse opening the door and entering the room to draw a sheet over Kane’s head. But there is nothing to show (such as a pan of the room) that no one else was in the room before she entered. In fact, the movie itself contradicts Kael’s assertion. Near the end of the movie, the butler Raymond (Paul Stewart) tells the reporter of the two times he heard the term. After we see Kane emerge from the room he has destroyed, picking up the globe and mouthing “Rosebud” at the entrance where Raymond stands, the scene returns to Thompson questioning Raymond:

Thompson: I see, and that’s what you about Rosebud?

Raymond: Yes. I heard him say it that other time too.

The “other time” is in Kane’s room, as he lay dying. Raymond was, therefore, waiting with him as he slept. As one would expect, someone that close to death, especially a wealthy man who could afford it, would have attendants around the clock (as Susan Alexander did, on doctor’s orders, after her suicide attempt). But if there were any question about what Raymond meant (did Kael think that Raymond was referring to a third time Kane said it?—but of course her review was based on a decades old memory), the shooting script, which Kael’s essay was supposed to be introducing, makes clear, what Raymond meant:

Thompson: And that’s what you know about Rosebud?

Raymond: That’s more than anyone knows. I tell you, he was a little gone in the head—the last couple of years anyway—but I knew how to handle him. That Rosebud—I heard him say it that other time too. He just said Rosebud, then he dropped that glass ball and it broke on the floor. He didn’t say anything after that, so I knew he was dead. He said all kinds of things that didn’t mean anything. [The Citizen Kane Book, p. 286.]

Evidently Kael specialized in barbs, not close reading of a film’s text, something entirely at odds with The New Yorker‘s reputation.

The essay would substantially damage Kael’s own reputation. The negative response was so overwhelming that her supporters advised her not to reply, hoping that it would be forgotten. (The Age of Movies, the Library of America’s anthology of her work, does not include it, even though it is her most remembered work.) Sarris, of course, responded, as well as other critics and a host of actors and production personnel. Kael’s piece was so littered with factual misstatements that it is hard to ascribe it solely to carelessness. The most effective critique, however, was Peter Bogdanovich’s in Esquire, which met the charges point by point, assailed her good faith, but most devastating for Kael’s reputation contained the disclosure that she had misappropriated the research of U.C.L.A. scholar Howard Suber, who gave it to her under her representation that his essay would be published along with hers in the book. Instead, she incorporated his work into hers without attribution. Kael it turns out had fewer ethical restraints than the Inquirer newsmen portrayed in Citizen Kane.

9. Leland and Bernstein discuss the nature of selling out, while a dancing Kane is reflected in the window between them.

9. Leland and Bernstein discuss the nature of selling out (the new reporters or maybe even Kane himself), while a dancing Kane is reflected in the window between them.

Finally, the main thesis of her essay was decisively put to rest by Robert L. Carringer, who studied the seven completed drafts of the script before the shooting script. The first draft is a sprawling series of rumors about Hearst booted about among journalists, many of them libelous, but in any event entirely different from the movie. It contained, for instance, scenes in Italy showing how Bernstein and Kane plotted to take over the Inquirer without tipping their hand to Thatcher. Kane’s son does not die and becomes a major character with Kane at Xanadu. Susan Alexander betrays Kane with a lover, who ends up dead after Kane discovers the affair. And so forth. It was a problematic (from a legal point of view) draft, but also an undisciplined melodrama. Carringer shows how Welles took this draft and over several successive versions molded the work to a tighter story reflecting his own view of the movie. Welles not only supervised the writing, he did extensive re-writes himself. Carringer’s conclusion was as follows:

“In the eight weeks between the time [Mankiewicz’s original] material passed into Welles’s hands and the final draft was completed, the Citizen Kane script was transformed, principally by him, from a solid basis for a story into an authentic plan for a masterpiece. Not even the staunchest defenders of Mankiewicz would deny that Welles was principally responsible for realization of the film. But in light of the evidence, it may be they will also have to grant him principal responsibility for the realization of the script.”

Kael’s essay had the reverse effect of what she intended: It resulted in the digging up of proof that Welles was intimately involved in the script writing, just as he was involved in every other aspect of the film. If anyone in film history was an auteur, it was he. And as the years passed, Kael gradually acceded to the view that the director was the “author” of the film and engaged in analysis accordingly. She had given up (but never admitted the defeat). The essay, however, had an unfortunate impact on writers for the general public, however. Citizen Kane, as well as Welles’s later works, were treated as things that should be interpreted by reference to insider’s views of how the films were made. Instead of treating the movies as works of art, capable of analysis on their own right, almost all popular writers on Welles and his works treat him and them as subjects for rehashing insiders’ gossip. Perhaps that lingering effect is why Citizen Kane is currently losing its allure to first-time viewers and seen as the province for Hollywood trivia buffs or those devoted to outdated and “desiccated” European film theory.

Citizen Kane’s Diamond Jubilee

At 75 Citizen Kane no longer generates the enthusiasm it used to (it has even been knocked off the top spot in several film society all-time lists) nor the controversy. In fact, it seems to have gone unremarked on, unlike its 70th anniversary, which produced a new digital transfer. The customer response on Amazon or shows that younger viewers mostly fail to understand, or are actively hostile to, the acclaim that the film received. Used to the Hollywood production values of today, some of which are the same as the cliches Citizen Kane challenged in 1941 (rapid cutting, pinpoint close-ups to direct audience attention, over-reliance on musical score to provide emotional content) and some which are new (rapid plot development to cover lack of characterization, reliance on suspense and shock in routinized ways, emphasis on special effects), first-time viewers of Citizen Kane today seem to have little interest in what they see as a cinematic language that has been superseded. The question is, Does Citizen Kane have more than historic interest?

10. Bernstein's recollection:

10. Bernstein’s recollection: “It wasn’t money he wanted. Thatcher never did figure him out. Sometimes even I couldn’t.”

To answer that question, instead of starting with questions of the cinematic style of the film and whether the elements were original or effective, let’s start with what Welles said he was attempting to say with the film. When it was leaked in January 1941 that the film was based on the life of Hearst (the production of the film had been a closely guarded secret), Welles issued a statement to the press denying that the movie was so intended. (The statement is found at Brady, pp. 283-85.) Welles said that he wanted “to make a motion picture which was not a narrative of action so much as an examination of character.” He intended to show that a single personality could generate numerous different opinions, even from those who knew him best. For this, he said, he needed “a public man—an extremely public man—an extremely important one.” He first considered making him President of the United States but discarded the idea probably because it would be difficult to have the audience believing a counter-factual man in real historical times when the real figure was so well known. Welles then concluded that the only other character who could have as decided an influence on public life in American democracy was a wealthy newspaper publisher.

“It is possible to show a powerful industrialist is potent in certain phases of government. It is possible that he can be good or bad according to the viewpoint of whoever is discussing him, but no industrialist can ever achieve in a democratic government the kind of general and catholic power with which I wished to invest my particular character. The only solution seemed to be to place my man in charge of important channel of communication.”

So Welles fixed on the tycoon of a newspaper empire. And because the character had to represent a sort of New Man, he had to be in charge of papers that pioneered yellow journalism.

But Welles had a second part to his central premise. He was to make this a story of failure, not success.

“I did not wish to portray a ruthless and gifted industrialist working his way up from a simple lumberman or streetcar conductor to a position of wealth and prominence. The interpretations of such a character by his intimates were too obvious for my purpose. I therefore invested my character with sixty million dollars at the age of eight so that there was no considerable or important gain in point of wealth possible from a dramatic point of view. My story was not, therefore, about how a man gets money, but about what he does with his money—not when he gets old—but throughout his entire career. A man who has money and doesn’t have to concern himself with making more, naturally wishes to use it for the exercise of power.”

11. We see Susan Alexander through the sky light of El Rancho before the camera travels through it to encounter her for the first time.

11. We see Susan Alexander through the sky light of El Rancho before the camera travels through it to encounter her for the first time.

The method of examining this character was also specified. He chose a psychoanalytic approach. He would try to find the underlying reason why such a person would “fail” despite his ample means of “succeeding,” and he would use the character’s closest friends and foes to probe his psyche. Power is what Kane obtained, what he wielded. But there was something else he was looking for, even if he did not consciously know it, and it was why he threw everything he had away in the vain hope of acquiring. It was the purpose of the “Rosebud” theme to symbolize his deeper, subconscious driving force. The story is about what Kane is secretly looking for and ultimately how he fails in his quest. Welles would later admit that his analysis of the character was “‘dollar-book’ Freud, but, nevertheless, it’s how I analyze the film.” We’ll come back to this “admission” later.

Now, this statement of what was intended shows how different the movie was from what we see made today. Yes, there are similar characters that provide models for such a film now. One need only consider the former CEO of Fox News. But no one would consider examining such an unappealing and distasteful character today in the same way that Welles did then. All our political characters today are cardboard. Political villains, especially, beggar the limits of our empathy whatever political viewpoint we have. So Hollywood would never consider making such an examination. And independent films have settled into examination of issues other than public ones. (Television programs are these days more likely to make such examinations but given the episodic nature of such series, they are not comparable to movies.)

Moreover, the method chosen, psychoanalytic, is foreign to current film. Greed explains everything in our day, probably because our society has reduced everything to commodities with a price. It would therefore be a meaningless exercise today to set out to find why someone with wealth and power acts as he does, because most see it as self-evident. But let’s assume this method is fruitful and see where it leads in this movie. After all, all art has to be examined in relation to what was intended. If we rejected that proposal, there is nothing more to say about a work.

12. The Newsreel, from which we learn the formal chronology of his life, is a flat construct. The reports are not looking for depth, only a

12. The Newsreel, from which we learn the formal chronology of Kane’s life, is a flat construct. The reporters are not looking for the real story, or even depth, only a “hook” to finish their artifice.

What drives the narrative of this film is the supposed search for the meaning of “Rosebud.” It makes the film something of a psychological detective tale. But why are we looking for it? This is not how Freud or his disciples would examine a man’s psyche. No, the quest is launched by the makers of a newsreel, journalists of the type that were replacing the yellow journalism of newsprint. And while they didn’t operate quite like Kane’s papers did (they did not start with a conclusion and work backwards), they nonetheless began with the assumption that the story of this man’s life could be made engaging, understandable or entertaining with a “hook.” And they arbitrarily picked the dying word of Kane. So the quest is the quest of the new mass information disseminators into the life of one who operated under old principles. But both were motivated by the same thing, mass consumption of entertaining information.

Not to get ahead of ourselves but let’s consider how this quest ends for the new journalist, Mr. Thompson (William Alland). Although he speaks to the surviving characters closest to Kane at the key moments and even consults the memoirs of Kane’s surrogate father, he does not answer the question he was given: What did “Rosebud” mean? This, despite the fact that he talked to the butler Raymond, who twice heard Kane say the word and told Thompson of the glass globe, a clue that Thompson makes no attempt to follow up on. As he leaves Xanadu and its hordes of items that Kane possessed (among which we will find the meaning of the word), Thompson delivers himself of his conclusion that the search was a waste of time. Rosebud was simply the missing piece of a puzzle, and in any event one word could not sum up a man’s life, he concludes. And with that the search is over, and nothing has been learned of interest to the new journalists.

13. Before we see Kane, we see the window which encloses him. The camera will penetrate that barrier.

13. Before we see Kane, we see the window which encloses him. The camera will penetrate that barrier.

But we have watched the search, and we have observed the principal crisis points of Kane’s life, their immediate causes and their long-term effects. We have seen a pattern that makes up the arc of his psychic life, and we can come to certain conclusions about Kane’s inner life. In his famous 1941 review of the film Borges (who saw the film in Argentina, where it ran a month before the general U.S. release) said that it represented what Chesterton called a “labyrinth with no center”—the most frightening thing of all. By that he meant, not that the movie was a pointless puzzle (as some have interpreted it), but that Kane himself was a “simulacrum, a chaos of appearances.” Whether we agree that is so or not, Borges is at least partially right in seeing this as the “psychological and allegorical” solution to the “metaphysical detective story” we embarked on. The new mass journalists found none of that interesting. In fact, the entire movie, its comments on Kane’s character, the intimate details of his life, the things that only his confidents knew, the conclusions we can draw about the meaning of his life, all of what we find compelling is what the new mass media considers unimportant. And so, at least in part the movie says that journalism is not the means to make the “metaphysical quest.”

Yet in less than an hour and a half, we understand Kane and to a certain extent, at least, can empathize with him. And this might be the most surprising thing of all. How can this be when even those closest to him had no clear picture of him? Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloan), a follower whose identity is so merged into Kane’s that we don’t even hear his first name mentioned, says to Thompson (#10): “Thatcher never could figure him out. Sometimes even I couldn’t.” Chekhov called the soul, what Borges said was a labyrinth without a center, a cave.  But Bernstein, who was there “from before the beginning” and now “after the end,” at least knew what to look for to find out: Whatever it was that Kane wanted. And Bernstein also knew that, maybe, Rosebud was “something he lost. Mr. Kane was a man who lost almost everything he had.”  He was talking about a man who died in a castle he built from the stones of Europe among gardens and bestiaries and the “loot of the world” enough to “fill 10 museums” (in the words of the Time on the March newsreel). And yet it is Bernstein, the only one to profit (materially) from his association with Kane, the only curator of the unsullied image of Kane, the outsider to old line Anglo-Protestant elites—it is this Mr. Bernstein who comes closest to uttering a Christian morality on the destruction: For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

The other witnesses don’t see Kane’s life in moral terms. The banker, Thatcher (George Coulouris)—the substitute father (and mother), the man responsible for raising him—saw Kane only as a series of ledger book entries. His final conclusion on Kane’s life, as he tells a bemused congressional committee, is that Kane was a “communist.” Leland (Joseph Cotten), his oldest and perhaps only friend, his social equal, or perhaps superior because his place was conferred by his parents not sudden, randomly achieved wealth, saw him, in the end, as having “behaved like a swine.” His butler Raymond summarizes his view: “He was a little gone in the head sometimes, you know?” Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) suffered the most at the hands of Kane, but she also has the most ardent and conflicting emotions. But she cannot articulate her feelings, she can only suffer alone. Perhaps a man’s intimates are incapable of fully judging him, because they can only see him in terms of their own values, desires and losses.

If journalistic fact and the recollections of intimates do not bring us to the center of the labyrinth, then what does? It is here that the techniques silently carry the load. Until then there was no movie that used all the technical resources available to allow the audience to view inside the “cave.” Visual techniques, of course, are the most obvious. And while Bazin highlighted the static frames and deep focus, Welles also employed his own version of montage and cutting. But the main visual effect of the movie is the omnipresent camera, a sort of divine eye that we get to view through. It is a tool, unlike the flat, dispassionate view of mass communicators (#12), which can penetrate depths, not simply gaze at surfaces. From the very beginning, when we are confronted with the “No Trespassing” sign on the fence of Xanadu, we see what the camera can do. In this case it slowly floats above the fence and proceeds into the grounds and in a fairy tale way we see “once upon a time.” It proceeds through the remains of a menagerie, gondolas in a strange lake which reflects a castle, what looks like a crumbling gazebo, an abandoned golf course, a haunted gardens until finally we see the fairy tale castle itself with one light on. A close-up shows a barred window with a light that suddenly goes dark. And then we are on the inside watching a snow storm from the inside of a globe. The camera, we see, can penetrate barriers and see inside small globes. We then watch a man die. The odd feature of the camera, allowing us to penetrate through windows is seen again when we first visit Susan Alexander at El Rancho in Atlantic City. We first see her trapped in the club from its vista through the sky light (#11). The glass does not prevent us from traveling into the enclosures to meet Susan directly, however. But our freedom highlights her enclosure, perhaps from sorrow, but certainly from having had contact with Kane. For no one is visually enclosed more than Kane. And whatever the camera is (psychoanalysis? empathy? divine insight?), it first must disengage Kane from the confines he is held in before we can understand him. The camera portrays his boundaries, visually, and then allows us to invade them.

As Mary Kane signs the papers transferring her son to the banker Thatcher, her husband looks on impotently and Charles is seen through the window in happy ignorance.

14. As Mary Kane (Agnes Moorehead) signs the papers transferring her son to the banker Thatcher, her husband (Harry Shannon) looks on impotently, while Charles is seen through the window in happy ignorance.

The camera constantly tracks Kane, even when he is not the center of the scene’s attention. It is a visual reminder of his narcissistic personality disorder but it also holds him up to view as a specimen being observed, as the object of the scientific inquiry. But even more the enclosures show how he is boxed in, how his freedom is circumscribed, how he became what he was. He would have died behind a castle window out of sight, were it not for the camera’s ability to pierce it (#13). From the very first time we encounter him (outside the newsreel, which itself is a visual box without depth), we see him becoming enclosed. At first he is playing as a child in the snow but by a reverse tracking shot we see him slowly enclosed in a box which becomes smaller until we see it is the window in the background during the grown up’s decision of his future (#14). Although the discussion is about him, he far from their presence and enclosed in a visual cage.

The “framing” of Kane is ubiquitous in the film. When Bernstein speaks of him to the reporter after his death, he gazes on the framed portrait of Kane in his office (#10). Kane drafts his “Declaration of Principles,” which he feels will make the Inquirer as important to the people of New York as “the gas in that light,” at the window, and we see him from the outside, “imprisoned” by the window frames, while Leland wistfully gazes into the “open: world (#18). At the moment of his greatest professional triumph, when he has acquired the entire reporting staff of the rival Chronicle, he celebrates by dancing with hired call girls. As we watch Leland and Bernstein discuss the consequences of hiring reporters who hewed to political line opposite of the Inquirer‘s, we see Welles in the background, his figure reflected in the window between them, as though he was ever present, but always hemmed in (#9).

15. through the doorway into Susan Alexander's apartment.

15. Susan and Kane in her room for the first time seen through the doorway of her apartment.

The camera pictures Kane as transfixed by enclosing borders at his highest, his lowest and his most critically important moments. The staff of the Inquirer have planned a homecoming when he arrives from his celebratory vacation in Europe. He runs off embarrassed after he drops off a society notice. The staff is perplexed until his notice is read: he is engaged to Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warwick). After they run to the window, we see the couple for the first time through the frames of the window, as though fenced in below (#5). Emily, we soon find out form Bernstein, “was no Rosebud.” But by complete accident (#3) Kane allows himself to believe he has another chance. When Kane first enters Susan Alexander’s room, we see them both framed by the doorway (#15). He reflexively shuts the door, and we hear her say, when she opens the door so we can see them again: “Hey! Excuse me, but my landlady prefers me to keep the door open when I have a gentleman caller.”

But Kane was given no second chance. The visual enclosures presaged his lack of freedom. His future was as determined as his past. At the moment of his greatest political triumph, when he is delivering his last speech at a time when everyone is expecting him to be elected governor, his implacable enemy, Jim W. Gettys, watches him from a balcony whose view encloses (confines?) Kane, as he is vehemently promising to jail Gettys (#2). The two political enemies confront each other in a scene from which only one will survive unscathed. And the confrontation takes place with the combatants face to face, penned in by Susan’s doorway, too confined for an arena, but the match is not of physical prowess, only a matter of will (#16). During this his most fateful encounter, when Gettys confronts Kane with the reality that his political life, his family and ultimately his only friendship requires him to do something that he cannot—bend to the will of another that fate made superior to him for once—he is visibly ensnared and shadowed. Everyone but Kane knows it. And Gettys delivers his disdainful conclusion when Kane refuses the one way out Gettys offers him: “If it was anybody else I’d say what’s going to happen to you would be a lesson to you. Only you’re going to need more than one lesson. And you’re going to get more than one lesson.”

Kane and Gettys fight for their lives as Emily Norton Kane watches Kane.

16. Kane and Gettys. both bathed in the darkness of their intent, fight for their lives as Emily Norton Kane watches her husband from inside Susan’s apartment.

I won’t continue for the second part of the movie this list of visual cues that show how Kane’s behavior is strictly, almost mechanically determined. Kane operates under the illusion that he is in control. As he tells his wife, his great political nemesis and Susan all incongruously assembled to hear him: “There’s only one person in the world to decide what I’m going to do—and that’s me.” But like a figure from a Greek tragedy, Kane had it almost right. It is true that no one else will decide for him what to do. But he is mistaken that he makes the decision. In the second half of the film, his life with Susan, we see his life following the same deterministic rules. Despite what he has seen, he is still trapped in circumstances and behaviors beyond his volition. When the end comes, and Susan leaves him despite his inept attempt at change, he has an explosion of uncontrolled rage, destroying Susan’s room. When he emerges, the camera captures him framed in a doorway (#8). He is still trapped by external (or by the logic of the story, internal) forces that compel his conduct. As he heads towards his room, where he will disappear from our sight, we see visually the final image of his doom: the series of his identical images in the mirrors, all enclosed in the same way, all heading for the same tomb, his final enclosure (#17).

17. Our last view of Kane, and the last expression of his fate. All possible versions of him are doomed to suffer identically.

17. Our last view of Kane, and the last expression of his fate. All possible versions of him are doomed to suffer identically.

What constrains Kane, the condition that determines his behavior and ultimately his fate, is something that now has a name. Kane suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. We know this now because in this interminable election season we’ve seen in on display in a particularly vulgar version. The DSM-5 describes what we’ve seen in the movie (and in the GOP candidate): Grandiose feelings of superior intelligence, success and power, excessive need of submissive love and admiration from others, inability to empathize with others, wanton exploitative conduct, a belief in entitlement that has been wrongfully denied. The populist demagogue is an exemplar of this condition. It’s not an objection that the DSM was not around when Citizen Kane was made any more than that Sophocles did not know about the Oedipal Complex or Shakespeare about Represession when he wrote Hamlet. Usually diagnostics imitate art.

18. Kane drafts his Declaration of Principles as Leland seems to look for freedom from the enclosure.

18. Kane drafts his Declaration of Principles as Leland seems to look for freedom from the enclosure.

The hints in Citizen Kane are unmistakeable. Leland tells Thompson that Charlie never gave anything to anyone he only “left you a tip.” Susan complains that Kane never loved her, he only gave her things, nothing that really mattered. And Kane’s method for obtaining admiration, consent and love is to make promises. But his closest friends know what his promises mean. When he drafts his famous Declaration of Principles, Bernstein warns him (jokingly) against making promises he can’t keep. At his campaign rally he teases about promises he won’t state because he is too busy preparing to fulfill them. And twice with Susan, after all he had supposedly learned, he makes promises that he immediately breaks.

The first promise to Susan is made after her suicide attempt. He doesn’t understand her intense desire to quit singing, something that he had poured all his hopes into after his bitter electoral defeat. She tells him, plaintively, “You don’t know what it’s like to feel that people—that a whole audience doesn’t want you.” This is a concept that a narcissist has a particular way of dealing with, and Kane blurts out, “That’s when you’ve got to fight them.” But then, seeing that she cannot mount such a fight, assures her, “All right. You won’t have to fight them any more. It’s their loss.” But as Susan eases into a look of relief, the scene dissolves into a night view of the castle of Xanadu, accompanied by the ominous Power motif (discussed below), which in turn quickly dissolves into a resentful Susan working on a jigsaw puzzle. Clearly, Kane had not taken her interests into account in this last move. Instead it seems that Kane has taken refuge in priveleged isolation to shield himself from the humiliating stares of a public who knows of his political failure and the failure of his wife’s musical career which he used to justify or at least replace the former.

Kane’s second promise to Susan was one that he knew was his last hope of adulation, the response he repeatedly mistook for love. It was day following the night that he struck her for the accusation that he did not love her. The next day she packed and announced to him that she was leaving. For the first time he is reduced to begging:

Kane: Susan, please don’t go. Please, Susan. From now on everything will be exactly the way you want it. Not the way I want it—but your way.

[Script direction: She is staring at him. She might weaken.]

Kane: You mustn’t go. You can’t do this to me.

[Script direction: It is as if he had thrown ice water into her face. She freezes.]

She realizes that Kane is only thinking of himself. Her needs mean nothing, and with that resolution she leaves.

Kane’s tragic flaw is that he lacks the capacity to love another. When Leland tells him that he demands love only on his own terms, Kane agrees, he thinks wisely, by saying those can be the only terms that anyone knows (#4). And it is not just that he is incapable of giving love, he seeks only a particular kind of return on his gestures. We learn that Kane responds, not to personal love, but to abstract adulation. When confronted with the choice to withdraw from the gubernatorial race or see his family destroyed by scandal, he refuses to withdraw. Even when Susan pleads that he consider his “little boy,” Kane’s only concern was that Gettys was trying to take from him “the love of the people.” Leland told the reporter Thompson that Kane told him after he first met Susan that she represented “a cross-section of the American people.” The love he pursued from her, then, was of the same sort that Gettys was trying to deny him. Susan finally leaves Kane when she realizes that she represents nothing more to him than ego gratification.

19, Kane (Buddy Swan) resists leaving with Thatcher. Jim Kane (Harry Shannon):

19. Kane (Buddy Swan) resists leaving with Thatcher.
Jim Kane (Harry Shannon): “What that kid needs is a good thrashing!
Mary Kane (Agnes Moorehead): That’s what you think, is it, Jim? … That’s why he’s going to be brought up where you can’t get at him.”

Now, if we can return for a brief moment to Welles’s comment about “‘dollar-book’ Freud,” we can see how the movie treats the cause of Kane’s narcissistic imprisonment (the etiology, if we choose to be a bit more pretentious). In “On Narcissism” Freud developed his early explanation both of the development of the libido and the component parts of his proposed psychic structure (then called id, ego and ego ideal). He also introduces the concepts of repression and sublimation. Freud asserted that libido pre-dated the construction of ego in a child. While the ego is being developed, the child’s libido is object-directed (primarily toward the mother). (Originally the child knows no difference between inward and outward affection, because its ego is absent or only rudimental. It is the life-long, and impossible quest, to return to the state where one is united with everything.) As it extends its libido outward, a child’s (healthy) narcissism is depleted. Only the return of love by his love-object (mother) can restore it. An ideally healthy adult is one whose ego ideal is constructed (normally by the father) while his outward-libido remains in balance with his ego-libido (supplied by the mother), and one’s ego is eventually sustained on its own by fulfillment of the imagined expectations of the ego ideal. When there is a disturbance in the normal development a person can substitute narcissistic object choice for normal anaclitic object choice. (Thus a profound narcissist, just like Freud’s example of homosexuals and others whose sexuality did not develop “normally,” has a stunted desire for sexual objects of libido.) However an adult develops, the equation is the same as during ego formation. Extending libidinal energy outward (to an object of love) depletes narcissistic investment in one’s ego; being loved, however, restores one’s self-regard and enhances one’s ego. (The risk is that extending love without return results in the diminishment of self. On the other hand, receiving love without concomitant investment results in enlarged self-regard. The goal of the narcissist is to obtain love without giving it; instead the narcissist offers things or promises he has not intention of keeping.)

We can speculate that Welles had a fairly good grasp of basic Freudian theory, not only because he repeatedly draws on Freud throughout his careen in describing characters (including Shakespearean ones) or even because Freud’s world-view was much more prevalent in the early half of the 20th century than it is now. But also Welles himself experienced similar repression and displacement when the physician Maurice Bernstein moved into his house, replacing his father and becoming the primary influence on Welles. Bernstein remained so important to Welles, that he flew to Los Angeles to take care of Welles during the production of Citizen Kane when Welles broke his ankle. And Welles named Everett Sloan’s character after him, perhaps as an intended clue. (But with Freud, there is generally no unintended clue, only subliminal ones.)

One further textual clue suggests that orthodox Freudian explanation of narcissism is intended to be depicted perhaps comes from the nature of the relationship between Kane and Susan. Because the narcissist has substituted narcissistic object choice for normal anaclitic object choice (that is, ordinary heterosexual erotic object), the narcissist seeks abstract rather than erotic love. Leland suggested the Kane was interested in Susan for what she represented, not what she was (and he laughs about it). We then see a scene of a coquettish Susan meeting Kane (#3). But she is quite proper in observing the conventions, even insisting that the door be kept open. Susan herself twice insists that before they were married she had no sexual relations with Kane. The first time was during the encounter in her apartment between Kane and Gettys, where she indignantly asks “What story?” The second time was when she first spoke to Thompson. He questions her as though she were a gold-digger, she insists that he was only interested in her voice and she only got music lessons out of it. The marriage was forced by the publicity and loss of the election. (Even Leland says that Kane’s motives with respect to Susan was to eliminate the innuendos of the newspaper headlines.)

20. The Declaration of Principles, which Leleand

20. The Declaration of Principles, which Leleand “had a hunch it might turn out ot be something pretty important.”

Whether or not Welles intended such a deep digging into psychoanalytic theory, it is clear that he was pointing to a quasi-Freudian explanation of Kane at the very least. (He, after all, said as much.) Kane is strongly attached to his mother when we see him at the age of eight. She has shielded him from the influence of his father whose values would normally be instilled to form his ego ideal (see #19). But he is nevertheless taken from her to live with Thatcher. Whatever unresolved Oedipal rage Kane had against his father, he now directs against the banker. Kane therefore had no chance for a well-adjusted ego with anaclitic object choice (in Freud’s terms). Instead, Kane and Leland enjoy a raucous and undisciplined adolescence at various colleges most of which they were thrown out of (according to Bernstein). Kane’s rage against his surrogate father never dissipates (his Oedipal complex is never resolved), however. When Thatcher, as head of the bank that takes back ownership of Kane’s newspaper empire in the Depression, asks Kane what he would like to have been (a startling question for a man who was supposed to have raised him), Kane answers: “Everything you hate!”  With his damaged ego development, Kane has little chance to have a normal psychic life. We see the strategy he would employ his entire life from the beginning of his role at the Inquirer (#20). Kane expected immediate adulation in exchange for promises to be paid later. But as Leland observed looking back: “He never gave anything away. He just left you a tip.” As for love, Leland said: “That’s why he did everything. That’s why he went into politics. It seems we weren’t enough, he wanted all the voters to love him too.”

So there is support for Welles’s “dollar-book Freud” but the visual framing of Kane and the testimony of his intimates are not enough to make us viscerally feel the desperate constraining limits of Kane’s psyche and how it came about. Two other techniques are required.

First, there is the musical (and more broadly aural) soundscape of the film. Whenever Welles had the technical capabilities (which some of his self-funded movies lacked), he always devoted considerable attention to its sound ambiance and musical score. His long radio career, which he pursued simultaneously with his theatrical one, taught him the emotional impact of sound. When he became executive producer of his own nationally broadcast shows he closely supervised sound production and engaged in a variety of experiments. With RKO, Welles had become associated with the studio that was most interested in the sound of its films and the one with the most advanced sound equipment. On Citizen Kane Welles was able to use sound engineers with radio backgrounds. Even so, it was Welles’s close supervision and innovative concepts that made the sound of the movie as groundbreaking as was the visual style of the film, according to James G. Stewart, the film’s sound engineer, who also credited Welles with teaching him the principles of sound aesthetics which he thereafter used for the rest of his career.

Many of Welles’s sound techniques enhanced the realism of scenes, much as Bazin noted his visual style did. For example, after we see Susan begin her aria in the staged opera, the camera pans slowly upward through the rigging. As our view ascends higher, we hear Susan’s voice diminish, like aural perspective. This was not done by simply lowering the volume of the recorded sound, but rather by increasing the microphone’s reverberations, a technique used in Welles’s radio productions. When Kane delivers his political speech in the great hall, Welles declaimed his speech with the timing of one speaking in a large, cavernous hall with sound reflection. In postproduction the reverberation rate of his voice was manipulated to simulate the sound of the echo in such a venue. Scenes at Xanadu have a cavernous sound, usually produced in postproduction. Much of the sound involving multiple sound sources, like the scene where Welles is dancing and the new reporters are celebrating, was recorded live, with especial care given to sound levels from different sources so dialogue can be heard and yet the scene sound genuine.

The soundscape was not only designed to add realistic details to the film but also to plumb psychological depth. Much of this was done in connection with Bernard Herrmann’s musical score or the score in connection with recorded sound. The best example of the latter is the musical-sound confusion during the montage of Susan’s final opera tour. As images flash of the efforts made by Susan, the exasperation of her singing coach, newspaper headlines and the reactions of Kane and the audience, the sound is a cacophonous mix until the end when only her voice is heard then the frequency reduced so that it sounds as though she is running out of steam just as the light filament (by then the only image) burns out. Usually, however, it is Herrmann’s music which underlies scenes requiring sound interludes, for example the montages of photographs.

Herrmann invested a great deal of thought and time into the score and he did so with the active collaboration of Welles. He made a decided choice to reject the prevailing approach by Hollywood veterans such as Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Dimitri Tiomkin and relative newcomer Miklós Rózsa, all of whom employed full symphonic orchestras to play their version of lush late Romantic music along the order of Richard Strauss. The music was inserted after the movie was a finished print, to enhance the emotional or dramatic intensity of particular scenes often during dialogue. Herrmann’s music was largely subtle, produced by small groups of unusual instrumentation and never during the most dramatic scenes, which depended exclusively on acting and mise-en-scène. The quiet background added an unexpected drama because it was so unusual then (and now).

Herrmann composed fully structured pieces for set scenes, especially montages. Welles often waited for Herrmann to compose a piece and shot or cut the scene around the composition. The best example is the famous “breakfast montage” (see video below) where Welles portrays the disintegration of Kane’s marriage with Emily by successively cut scenes of their breakfasts. (Welles himself added this to the script based, as he admitted, on the concept by Thornton Wilder in his one-act play The Long Christmas Dinner.) Herrmann composed a waltz (a musical form that introduced us to her (#5)), which together with the successive shots underwent a series of variations each becoming more dark and dangerous, just as Kane himself was becoming so himself. But the music merely underlies the drama, not overwhelm it. Welles decision that Herrmann compose the piece and then edit the scene following the cues of the music was an unheard of deference to the musical content of a film.

But for our purposes the two most important pieces of music were two two-bar motifs which we first hear at the very beginning of the film. The first, which Herrmann called “Kane’s power” is heard in the first two bars of the score, played by the bassoons and muted trombones. It consists of five notes (E–D♯–E–E–B♭). It is darkly foreboding, and represents the icy exterior of a place owned by an evidently powerful man. It is related to the “There is a man” tune that is sung at the reporters’ party (#9), which later becomes the theme of Kane’s political campaign. Both are heard when Kane’s fortunes are on the upswing (one intensely serious, the other buoyant and optimistic). It is the “power” theme, however, that suggests the deep driving force. When Kane’s fortunes take a decisive turn, only the “power” theme continues. Throughout the film the motif transforms to a variety of forms including ragtime, polka and finally the funeral end of the film. It is the force that keeps Kane plowing forward in the furrow that he has dug for himself. It represents Kane’s id.

A second motif is also heard at the beginning. It is melancholic but strangely wistful, and Herrmann calls it the “Rosebud” motif. It too is made up of five notes (C♯–D–B–F♯-C♯), and we hear it played by a solo vibraphone the second time we see the castle. We hear it with fuller instrumentation and repeated when we see the snow globe for the first time. This theme is repeated throughout the film, but not usually in the same circumstances as the “power” motif. It is found when it looks like Kane may have a way to redemption. It is prominent when he meets Susan and ascends to her apartment (#3), for example. The motif represents Kane’s idealized ego, restored to the harmony of mutual maternal-filial love, the longing for the unattainable condition where there is no distinction between inward and outward libidinal direction. Its distinctive mood is unsettling and gives a distinct coloration to the film.

As effectively as the camera and musical motifs guide us through the psychological inquiry, they are aided by the cutting. In most movies cutting is so prevalent that it becomes second nature and we rarely notice it. In Citizen Kane, there are unusually long set shots filmed by a single camera. When there are cuts, they are usually surprising and punctuated by a very brief musical statement or exclamation. The cut from the poster of Susan to the long tracking shot through the rain to the skylight of El Rancho is accompanied by a startling musical attack, much like lightening, for example. Some dissolves transition from one form of information to another. One example is how the white page that Thompson is reading in the Thatcher library becomes the snow that young Charlie Kane is sledding on. Another is how Leland’s narration from the hospital dissolves into the scene at the Kanes’ breakfast. Montages with more rapid cutting are designed to show a process acting over a period of time, telescoped to a few moments. The famous breakfast montage (in the video above) is an example. So is Susan’s opera tour, showing how she has been worn down by the ordeal of performing before audiences who think she is ridiculous. That montage directly cuts to the long, fixed scene of her bedroom after she has overdosed on pills. The stationary camera showing a glass and spoon prominently in the foreground and the door in the distant background with what appears to be a bed between is all the more effective as it followed the rapid cutting and dissolves of the opera tour montage.

But the most effective use of cutting occurs when it shows how two episodes are related, even though they are separated by an expanse of time. A good example is the cut between scenes after Susan attempts suicide. A pale and exhausted Susan explains her suicide attempt: “Charlie, I couldn’t make you see how I felt.” She tells him of her humiliation before audiences that didn’t want her. Kane at first, impulsively, follows his id: “That’s when you have to fight them!” But then relents and tells her she won’t have to sing again. It will be “their loss.” She relaxes in relief, perhaps believing that Kane has finally understood her. All of this was accompanied by the “Rosebud” motif. But then the scene cuts to a picture of the foreboding Xanadu castle with the “power” motif again heard. What she exchanged for humiliation was haunted loneliness and isolation, Kane’s ultimate perversion of his narcissistic drive (#21).

21. Susan’s relief and happiness when Kane relents and lets her stop performing cuts to the reality of what her next ordeal would be.

This temporal cutting can  take place in the middle of things. We hear Susan practicing the aria from The Barber of Seville in her parlor but the scene cuts in the middle of singing and in the next scene she seamlessly continues, as Kane, in different clothing, sits listening in the same chair, although it is a much later time. He claps, and as he does, the scene cuts to the clapping at a political rally. Sometimes the cut shows identification between people or events. When, for example, Leland is making a pitch on the street the scene cuts mid-sentence to Kane in the great hall who finishes Leland’s sentence. All of it causes the audience to realize that the film is an analytic exploration in which chronological sequence is a hindrance. In fact, we come to see the soul of Kane only by viewing one long ago cause and its matching much later effects, separately considered. It is as though this fracturing of time and visual frames of reference and even points of view are all required to gain empathy with another. On reflection that conclusion applies as much to each of us as to an examination of Kane.

In the end the film succeeds as a work of art because it had a single, perhaps unusual, point of view, and all technical facilities of the movie studio and all the artistic possibilities of a theater troop combined to realize that viewpoint in original (and therefore exciting) ways. Bazin once dismissed as an impossibility the notion of “total cinema.” But to the extent a film approaches that impossible limit it can be measured as great art. There are exceedingly few films that came as close to that ideal as Citizen Kane.


Paul Arthur: “Out of the Depths: Citizen Kane, Modernism, and the Avant-Garde Impulse,” Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane: A Casebook ed. James Neremore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 263-84, reprinted from Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Perspectives on Citizen Kane (New York: G.K. Hall, c1996).

Peter Bogdanovich, “The Kane Mutiny,” Esquire, pp. 99-105, 180-90 (October 1972).

André Bazin, “The Technique of Citizen Kane,” Bazin at Work: Major Essays and Reviews from the Forties and Fifties trans. by Alain Piette and Bert Cardullo; Bert Cardullo (ed.) (New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 231-39, originally “La technique de Citizen Kane,” Les temps modernes, no. 17 (February 1947), pp. 943-49.

André Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” What is Cinema? trans. by Hugh Gray (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1967-71) (2 volumes), vol. 1, pp. 23-37 (Translation of selections from Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? a collection of essays published posthumously in four volumes (Paris: Éditions du Cerf., 1958-62). The particular essay was a composite of three essays written by Bazin between 1950 and 1955.

André Bazin, “An Aesthetic of Realism: Neorealism,” What is Cinema? trans. by Hugh Gray (Berkeley, Calif: Universit of California Press, 1967-71), vol. 2, pp. 16-40. Originally published in Espirit (January 1948).

Jorge Luis Borges,  “An Overwhelming Film (Citizen Kane),”  Selected Non-Fictions ed. by Eliot Weinberger (New York: Viking, 1999), pp. 258-59, translation by Suzanne Jill Levine of “Una Film Abrumador,” Sur, no. 83 (August 1941). 

Frank Brady, Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles (New York: Scribner, c1989).

Robert L. Carringer, “The Scripts of Citizen Kane,” Central Inquiry, no. 5 (1978), pp. 369-400, reprinted in James Nevemore (ed.), Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane: A Casebook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 79–121.

Robert L Carringer, The Making of Citizen Kane (Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, c1985).

Sigmund Freud, Zur Einführung des Narzissmus (Leipzig: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag, 1924) (a book version of an essay originally published in 1914), translated in Joseph Sandler, Ethel Spector Person, Peter Fonagy (ed.), Freud’s “On Narcissism—An Introduction” (New Haven : Yale University Press, c1991). A version of Freud’s essay (without identificaiton of the edition or the translator) is found online at

Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Perspectives on Citizen Kane (New York: G.K. Hall, c1996).

Bernard Herrmann, “Score for a Film: Composer Tells of Problems Solved in Music for ‘Citizen Kane’,” New York Times, May 25, 1941, Drama-Screen-Music section, p. X6 (online; subscription required), reprinted in Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Focus on Citizen Kane (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 69-72.

Pauline Kael, “Raising Kane—I,” New Yorker, February 20, 1971 (online) and “Raising Kane—II,” New Yorker, February 27, 1971 (online), reprinted as the introductory essay to The Citizen Kane Book (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1971) (and in other collections of Kael’s writings).

Istvan Meszaros, The Work of Sartre: Search for Freedom and the Challenge of History (New York: Monthly Review Press, c2012).

Frank Rich, “Roaring at the Screen With Pauline Kael,” New York Times Book Review, October 30, 2011, pp. 1, 12-14 (online; open access).

Andrew Sarris, “Citizen Kane: The American Baroque,” Film Culture, vol. 2 (1956), pp. 14-16, reprinted in Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Focus on Citizen Kane (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 102-08.

Andrew Sarris, “Citizen Kael vs. Citizen Kane,” Village Voice (April 29, 1971), reprinted online by

Jean-Paul Sartre, “Quand Hollywood veut faire penser: Citizen Kane, Film d’Orson Welles,” L’Ecran français (August 1, 1945), reprinted in Olivier Barrot, L’Ecran français, 1943-1953: histoire d’un journal et de une époche (Paris: Les Editeurs français réunis, 1979), pp. 39-43.

Lawrence Van Gelder, “Pauline Kael, Provocative and Widely Imitated New Yorker Film Critic, Dies at 82,” New York Times, September 4, 2001, p. C12 (online; open access).

Orson Welles, “Citizen Kane is not about Louella Parsons’ Boss,” Friday, no. 2 (February 14, 1941), p. 9, reprinted in Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Focus on Citizen Kane (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 67-68.

Leila Wimmer, Cross-Channel Perspectives: The French Reception of British Cinema (New York: Peter Lang, 2009).

Bill Wrobel, “Herrmann’s Citizen Kane,” Film Score Rundown (November 4, 2001) (PDF).


Periodic Poetry: Millay (Part I)

The Spectra of Mr. Ficke

“Poet’s poet” is an epitaph usually conferred with kindness, as an excuse for a friend. It means the poet was soon forgotten after a brief spell of minor celebrity. Even his remaining peers’ can’t explain why things did not turn out differently. It’s Fame’s consolation prize. Arthur Davison Ficke was a poet’s poet.

That he is unknown today was not the conscious fault of his father, Charles A. Ficke, an ambitious and relentless self-made man who willed that Arthur go to Harvard and then return to Davenport to be a lawyer. That was to be the foundation for an intellectual figure of consequence. It was not prudent to rely on poetry alone to maintain one’s status in society. And status was something that took Charles so much effort to achieve.

Charles A. Ficke was born in Germany (actually the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin) in 1850. Two years later the family had settled in Scott County on a farm they bought near Long Grove, Iowa. Although his father was a well-to-do merchant, the family left to avoid the reactionary backlash to the unsuccessful democratic revolutions of 1848. Eastern Iowa was a haven for German refugees at the time; in fact, the location was recommended by another emigree to whom Charles’s father had loaned the money for his settlement. The Ficke farm nearly failed in those early years, as a result of the combination of lack of know-how, poor livestock purchases, crop failure and overly generous lending to neighbors, who, when their own crops failed, were unable to repay the elder Ficke. The Fickes were not ones to surrender, so through relentless determination they willed the farm to produce. Sacrifices, however, had to be made. Charles did not attend secondary school; instead, at the age of 12 he became an apprentice clerk at the general store of his sister and her husband in Cedar County. After three years, Charles enrolled in a commercial college then took jobs as an insurance clerk, then bank clerk, all the while trying to read law. When the cashier job he was waiting for was given to another, he decided to attend law school. He knew a lawyer who studied at Albany Law School, so he headed to upstate New York for his legal education. He visited Germany and other parts of Europe before he returned to Davenport to open a law office.

The Ficke home in Davenport, acquired by Charles in 1893. This 4 floor house capped by a belvedere contained 38 rooms. It is now a frat house. (Photo by David Sebben ©2009; used with permission.)

Back in Iowa, he became active in Republican Party politics, especially among the Germans of eastern Iowa. (German Forty-Eighters were by disposition anti-slavery and therefore naturally Republican.) As the Civil War receded from memory, the German immigants’ attachment to the Party of Lincoln frayed over the issue of prohibition. Since its early settlement, Iowa had anti-liquor sentiments. By 1882 an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting all alcohol, passed by the Republican legislature, won approval in a state-wide vote against strong opposition in German areas including Scott County. Charles switched parties and to his surprise was elected county attorney as a Democrat in 1886. In 1890 he was elected to the first of two terms as Mayor of Davenport.

Charles was a man on the move professionally as well. In addition to his law office he opened a farm mortgage company which made secured loans for improvements during a period of a great land rush in Iowa. The business flourished and expanded to surrounding states. He used the knowledge he gained to invest in large real estate holdings. By 1882 his prospects were such that he was able to marry a daughter of the lawyer for the very bank he once clerked in. Frances Davison would team up with Charles to become pillars of the community. She would searve as trustee of the Davenport library for over 30 years. In 1892 Frances was an original member of the Tuesday Club, an exclusive club for “intellectual improvement” for younger women. In 1896 Charles joined the new Contemporary Club—a by-invitation-only group (who called themselves “the Immortals”) who in rotation researched and delivered an address on a current issue, followed by opportunity for debate. Charles and Frances would have one son and two daughters. They invested in Arthur their hopes for a cultured, erudite and refined member of the Davenport elite.

Arthur was given the kind of upbringing that is usually enjoyed only by old monied families. Raised Unitarian like his mother’s family, he acquired refined manners, enjoyed international travel and acquired a taste for literature and art. (As he became wealthy, Charles himself began buying more and more objects of fine art, much of which now resides in Davenport’s Figge Art Museum.) Arthur was encouraged to write—his high school newspaper published poems, essays and short stories by him. He was thus exactly the kind of student Harvard was looking for. Son of a wealthy, midwestern pillar of the community, with a practical orientation and yet with a literary bent, Arthur Ficke became another of President Eliot’s means to refurbish Harvard from a school that taught gentleman the classics to one that took sons of wealthy pillars of the community in order to transformed them into wealthy pillars of the community themselves.

At Harvard Ficke took classes with William James, Kuno Franke and George Santayana. More importantly became friends with Witter (“Hal”) Bynner, an upperclassman who was involved in all literary activities on campus. Ficke and Bynner would remain friends for life. Of the two of them, Bynner was more ambitious for Literature. He tracked the new voices, sought out up-and-comers and ingratiated himself with the established. It was Bynner who arranged for Pound’s publication in the United States, and he championed and published A.E. Housman in McClure’s, also the first time in America. Bynner befriended D.H. Lawrence (he became a minor, and unsympathetic, character in The Plumed Serpent), Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Wallace Stevens, Carl Van Vechten, Henry James, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Kenneth Rexroth — in short everyone.

Ficke was less adventurous in literature and more conventional in lifestyle. Nevertheless, he immersed himself in campus literary pursuits and spent free time writing poetry. He wrote for and became president of the literary magazine Advocate. He was so respected (or at least well known) for his poetry that he was elected class poet, a class day office just below class orator. Before he was graduated, he had poems in The Smart Set (“The Meadow,” September 1904; “The Siren,” November 1904) and Scribner’s Magazine (“The Shadow of Beauty,” December 1904; “The Hill of Stars,” April 1905). The July 1905 issue of Harper’s Monthly Magazine, published just after graduation, had his “Raleigh’s Song.”

Arthur Davison Ficke could not be contained by Davenport.

After graduation Ficke took a 10-month trip around the world with his parents. (Bynner was required to immediately go into journalism.) In Bombay he met Maurice Browne, an English schoolteacher and aspiring poet, who would found Samurai Press when he returned to Surrey. Browne also became Ficke’s life-long friend when he moved to Chicago in 1910. There Browne founded the experimental theater, The Chicago Little Theater.

When Ficke returned to Davenport he continued writing poetry. His “Song in a Garden” appeared in the June 1906 issue of Harper’s Monthly Magazine and “Brahma” in the October issue. Poems inspired by his trip also appeared in Scribner’s Magazine and Smart Set. These and others he sent off to Maurice Browne who published Ficke’s first book, From the Isles: A Series of Songs Out of Greece (Norwich: Samurai Press: 1907). “Brahma” and others were collected the same year in The Happy Princess and Other Poems (Boston: Small, Maynard & Co: 1907). The New York Times said that The Happy Princess was one of the few “volumes of distinction” from that summer. The reviewer even called Ficke’s title poem a “beautiful phantasy” inspired by the “modern” (!) William Morris.

Meanwhile, he enrolled in law school in Davenport. He taught English for a while at the University of Iowa. (He lectured on the history of Arthurian Legends.) In October 1907 he married Evelyn B. Blunt in Springfield, Massachusetts, a wedding described by locals as a “brilliant Episcopalian nuptial event.” He eventually joined his father’s law firm and was on track to becoming a local pillar. But it was all stultifying. Fortunately his practice required him to take frequent trips to Chicago where he found Floyd Davis (who had lived briefly in Davenport as a socialist journalist until he left in 1907) and soon became part of Chicago literary circles which included Edgar Lee Masters, Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser. His trips became escapes from what he called in his diary “that loathsome atmosphere of small-town business and domestic infelicity.”

Ficke was handsome, dapper and sophisticated. He had the William Powell manner two decades before William Powell had it. (His 1913 verse drama Mr. Faust begins with three men in a library with a fireplace, “a large handsome room panelled in dark oak and lined with rows of books in open book-shelves.” The men are in evening dress. “All three are smoking, and tall highball glasses stand within their reach.” For men like Ficke, the Gilded Age hadn’t ended.) He enjoyed the Bohemian intemperance of the Chicago literati, although he himself was not particularly decadent. Impoverished journalists and artists would in turn be grateful for his expensive tastes and ability to pay for them. His friend, journalist and poet Eunice Tietjens reminisced that “when he came we had lunches and dinners at the choicest restaurants, ordered with a nicety of understanding of the graces of the table and of fine wines.” Writers liked him for his impeccable manners and literary outlook. Theodore Dreiser remarked on his “seemingly changeless poetic response to life, — lovely through sombre or gay moods or emotions that appear to me to bubble or sweep upwards to expression — as water rises over grass and moss in a dell or over the hard rocks and hot sands of a desert . . .”

Cover of the first issue of Monroe’s Poetry

Ficke began to be published in the literary journals in addition to the popular magazines. When Harriet Monroe published the first issue of Poetry in October 1912 it was Ficke’s “Poetry” that was the very first poem. (Ezra Pound came later in the issue.) His verse also appeared in the first issue of Margaret Anderson’s Little Review, and in the first volume of Midland and, later, the Saturday Review of Literature. Ficke’s poetic tribute to Rupert Brooke shared the June 1915 issue of Poetry with (and preceded) T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. In 1913 Edwin Björkman began his series “Modern Drama” with Ficke’s blank verse drama Mr. Faust (New York: Mitchell Kennelley: 1913), even though it was only Ficke’s second play. (The New York Times advised Ficke to drop the blank verse and develop the characters; nevertheless it concluded that the work was “masterful” and represented “significant thought.”)

A century later his poetry at the time seems oddly tame, with traditional forms and conventional subjects, as a section from his paean to “Poetry” in the first issue of Poetry shows. It also shows that Ficke had a Romantic view of the art — a view that would shortly be assaulted by the Modernists. (The “it” in the following stanza refers to “poetry.”):

It is a refuge from the stormy days,
Breathing the peace of a remoter world
Where beauty, like the musing dusk of even,
Enfolds the spirit in its silver haze;
While far away, with glittering banners furled,
The west lights fade, and stars come out in heaven.

But 1912 was not 1915, when the Chicago Renaissance finally spread to poetry with Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (the following year would appear Sandburg’s Chicago Poems) and when an even greater upheaval was beginning in England with Pound and Eliot. Even in 1915, however, Ficke’s kind of traditionalism was still preferable to knowledgeable, established critics. William Dean Howells in the September 1915 issue of Harper’s, for example, demeaned what he called the “shredded prose” of Amy Lowell’s free verse in Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co: c1914). By contrast, Howells praised the following sonnet by Ficke for being “delicately and truthfully studied”:

Sonnet LIII
from Sonnets from a Portrait-Painter (New York: Mitchell Kennerley: 1915)
by Arthur Davison Ficke

There are strange shadows fostered of the moon,
More numerous than the clear-cut shade of day. . . .
Go forth, when all the leaves whisper of June,
Into the dusk of swooping bats at play,—
Or go into that late November dusk
When hills take on the noble lines of death,
And on the air the faint astringent musk
Of rotting leaves pours vaguely troubling breath.
Then shall you see shadows whereof the sun
Knows nothing,—aye, a thousand shadows there
Shall leap and flicker and stir and stay and run,
Like petrels of the changing foul or fair,—
Like ghosts of twilight, of the moon, of him
Whose homeland lies past each horizon’s rim.

Ficke himself was not a reactionary. He defended both T.S. Eliot and Vachel Lindsay after bad reviews and later endorsed the Imagists Amy Lowell and Ezra Pound. Through Monroe and Bynner he kept abreast of the new schools, and he never disparaged experimental or avant-garde poets. But Bynner, quite on his own in this, developed an intense dislike for Amy Lowell and the Imagists in general and especially their theorizing. In the latter regard they were no worse than the adherents or practitioners of Vorticism, Surrealism or Dadaism. But Bynner (as he tells it) was baited by a friend, who told him that it was at least something to found a school. Bynner said it was nothing and set out to prove it. So in 1916 Bynner contacted Ficke to entice him to help devise a “school” of poetry called Spectrism. Bynner tempted him with their mutual dislike of Wallace Stevens, who graduated Harvard a year before Bynner. Fiske agreed. (Originally the book that resulted from the collaboration had a pointed reference to Stevens, but it was deleted in the final version.) They fabricated its two practitioners, Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish (Bynner and Ficke, respectively) and their respective poetic styles. They spent 10 days in February 1916 writing all the poems which comprised Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments (New York: Mitchell Kennerley: 1916).

Before the book came out in the fall, Bynner set out dropping hints about the school in lectures and conversations with poets and critics. He even sent the draft of an article (which contained a reference to the Spectrists) to Amy Lowell. She disapproved of his views on modern poetry, she wrote him, but had never heard of the Spectrists. Ficke wrote a piece, under the name Anne Knish, which Forum published that summer with sample poems. William Marion Reedy’s Mirror reprinted the article. (This despite that Reedy had not long before had a discussion with Bynner in which he agreed with Bynner about absurdity of modern schools.) The New Republic (only two years old) was panting for the publication and requested Bynner himself to review the book. Bynner had engineered the biggest rollout possible for a new school of poetry.

In the book, Morgan addressed the dedication:


Poet, a wreath!—
No matter how we had combined our flowers,
You would have worn them — being ours. . . .
On you, on them, the showers—
O roots beneath!
Emanuel Morgan.

Anne Knish prefaced the poems with an overview of Spectric theory:

An explanation of the term “Spectric” will indicate something of the nature of the technique which it describes. “Spectric” has, in this connection, three separate but closely related meanings. In the first place, it speaks, to the mind, of that process of diffraction by which are disarticulated the several colored and other rays of which light is composed. It indicates our feeling that the theme of a poem is to be regarded as a prism, upon which the colorless white light of infinite existence falls and is broken up into glowing, beautiful, and intelligible hues. In its second sense, the term Spectric relates to the reflex vibrations of physical sight, and suggests the luminous appearance which is seen after exposure of the eye to intense light, and, by analogy, the after-colors of the poet’s initial vision. In its third sense, Spectric connotes the overtones, adumbrations, or spectres which for the poet haunt all objects both of the seen and the unseen world,—those shadowy projections, sometimes grotesque, which, hovering around the real, give to the real its full ideal significance and its poetic worth. These spectres are the manifold spell and true essence of objects,—like the magic that would inevitably encircle a mirror from the hand of Helen of Troy.

William Carlos Williams said that he admired the poems as a whole quite sincerely. Edgar Lee Masters wrote Emanuel Morgan: “You have an idea in the sense that places do have an essence, everything has a noumena back of its appearance and it is this that poetry should discover. … Spectrism if you must name it is at the core of things.” The January 1917 issue of Others: A Magazine of the New Verse was handed over to the Spectrists. Harriet Moore accepted poems by Morgan, but the hoax was exposed before she had to print them. Otherwise, Poetry would have endorsed Morgan. (It perhaps proves a point of the Spectrists if Moore thought the poems good when she thought them seriously written but rejected them when other circumstances were known. The worth of modern poetry must depend on who wrote it and what the intentions were, not simply the poem itself.)

A year after the book came out, Lloyd R. Morris published The Young Idea: An Anthology of Opinion Concerning the Spirit and Aims of Contemporary American Literature (New York: Duffield & Co: 1917). It contained edited letters from poets describing their view of the state of poetry of the day. The book contained the views of Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Fiske (they were in the group called “Empiricits”) as well as Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish (they were in the group called “Romanticists”)—the section on Knish followed directly after the section on Amy Lowell. The reasonable Ficke placed the new schools in historical perspective:

In [the field of poetry] there has been of late so striking an awakening of interest that important new work may be expected. The manifest eccentricities and absurdities of the “new schools” are certainly no worse than the banalities and sentimentalities of the old ones; in fact, the vigorous shock which some of these aberrations have administered to the moribund body of poetry is distinctly galvanizing. Goethe’s words, used to describe the ultra-romantic excesses of French literature in his own day, apply accurately to our present situation: “The extremes and excrescences will gradually disappear; but at last this great advantage will remain— besides a freer form, richer and more diversified subjects will have been attained, and no object of the broadest world and the most manifold life will be any longer excluded as unpoetical.” We are today experiencing, in poetry almost as markedly as in painting, one of those periodic outbursts of unbridled life by which alone can an art be kept from hardening into a fossil.

The Eastern European Jew Anne Knish wrote dismissively of the other American schools:

Your new movement in poetry seems to me too closely derived from a French movement that is already ancient history to Continental Europe. Young people without genius slip into this stale current and have much fun; but many of their tragic poems are of humorous effect, I think, and when they would be funny I sometimes weep. It is like a piece of cheese left over at breakfast. So little is basically grounded on a theory of æsthetic that is of new import; and these young people fear the classic æsthetic as they would poison. They need not; though we seek new drinks to become drunken with, the doctrine of Aristoteles [sic] remains the staff of life, the bread.

We who are of the Spectric School of poets have tried, contradicting no ancient truth, to give fresh interpretation to classic gospels. If our æsthetic dogma be sound, the other poets will before long become aware. But these are in American poetry days only of beginning; and I think these people know nothing of European literary history who speak so much of “new, new, new!”

It was just outrageous enough not to be doubted. Neither her name (Slav-Yiddish for “bun,” it referred to the fried pastry-wrapped meat snacks that had been introduced into New York only a decade before) nor her supposed background (she claimed to have published in Russian) nor her flamboyant provocations proved that anything was amiss. Her poetry was overstrung, but Knish often probed her barely excavated Freudian desires, mixing them with memories.

Opus 750
[From Spectra (1916)]

SOUNDS, pure sounds—
Vibrancies of the air—
And yet—

This summer night
There are crickets shrilling
Beyond the deep bassoon of frogs.
They cease for a moment
As the rattling clangor
Of the trolley
Bumps by.
I hear footsteps
Hollow on the pavement
Now deserted
And blank of sound.
They die.
The crickets now are sleeping;
Even the leaves
Grow still.

And slowly
Out of the blankness, out of the silence,
Emerges on soundless wings
The long sweet-sloping
Rise and fall of far viol notes,—
The mad Nirvana,
The faint and spectral
Of my heart’s desire.

The Spectric hoax lasted almost two years until The Dial (April 25, 1918) outed Ficke: “the interruption of the war . . . gave ‘Miss Knish’ a commission as Captain Arthur Davison Ficke.” With Ficke in France, Bynner told the whole story to New York Times Magazine. They drew different conclusions:

“And the worst of it is … is that I can’t get rid of Emanuel Morgan! I find now that I write like him without the slightest effort — I don’t know where he leaves off and I begin. He’s a boomerang! Why, Ficke and I never attracted half the attention with our serious, bona fide work that we did with this piece of fooling. Just as he was leaving for France Ficke said to me — and there was a distinct note of grief in his voice:

“‘Do you know, some of my best work is in “Spectra!”’”

Perhaps it’s true, who’s to say? Here is one of Anne Knish’s poems from Others, January 1917, that helps that case.

Opus 380
[from Others (January 1917)]

I had the moon for a reason.
Was it not enough?
You were unreasonable
You wanted love.
But oh the moon was my reason!
Sigh like a dove
And you shall never do better.
I had the moon.

Mr. Earle and his Affinities

Ficke’s connection to this week’s poem, however, began before the War and before the Spectrism hoax; in fact, during the year that Poetry first began publishing.

In 1911, Ferdinand Earle (at other times known as Ferdinand Pinney Earle, like his father), advertised that he was putting up $1,000 for the best three poems to be published in his anthology Lyric Year (which would also published the 100 best poems submitted). The anthology was to be published by Mitchell Kennerley, the New York publisher who brought out the collections of many of the new poets. In some announcements there was confusion whether he was to be the editor.

Earle was an odd character who fascinated the press endlessly.* Earle’s father, a brigadier general in the New York National Guard (having entered the silk stocking Seventh Regiment in 1862), was a hotelier like his own father and three brothers. The General was grandson of Connecticut Judge Benjamin Pinney, a man so blue-blooded that he claimed title to land in Ellington from an Indian deed to an ancesstor in the 1670s. General Earle at one time operated four of the toniest New York hotels, including the New Nederland (built by William Waldorf Astor) and bought (and died in) the Jumel Mansion, Washington’s headquarters during the Battle of New York and later the home of Aaron Burr. (Madame Eliza Jumel, who’s career spanned prostitution to polite society was supposedly General Earle’s ancesstor.) Needless to say the general and his wife were prominent socialites. The press dutifully recorded what balls they were invited to; the squabbles and reconcilations of the members of the Seventh Regiment Veterans’ Club; his political participation (he was elected one of the vice-presidents of the national Democratic convention sponsored by the  delegates of the Business Men’s Democratic Association in 1891); his business disputes with Astor; and so forth.

Ferdinand was not inclined toward the hotel business so his parents sent him to Paris to study painting. He studied under Whistler and Bouguereau (so he claimed). He wrote verse on the Left Bank and took classes in poetry at Oxford. Back in the U.S. he published his Sonnets, first privately in an edition of 25, then Kennerley picked it up (New York: Mitchell Kennerley: 1910). He told the New York Times: “I have endeavored to introduce a new sonnet-form, which seems to Mr. George Sylvester Viereck to be needed in English. The simile and metaphor are treated as leitmotifs in several of the sonnets.” The chief feature of this “new” form of sonnet, neither Shakespearean nor Petrarchan, was the re-arrangement of the rhymes, so it had two sets of three rhymed lines. Here is one of them (He told his friends that he was attempting to live down his past, which this poem, thought The Times, might be a reference):

And Man is Flesh and Mind and Spirit 
by Ferdinand Earle.

I dread to look upon my many selves,
The different natures dwelling in my soul:
The ugly reptile reeking in his hole,
The chained tiger chafing at control.
And oh, the madcap band of cruel elves
Mocking the lonely poet as he delves
Amongst life’s volumes, seeking on the shelves
Of memory his heart’s tear-written scroll.

A golden glory trembles on the air,
The gleam of spirit-wings is over me,
And to my ear a wondrous melody
Whispers its benediction. May I dare
To love my Seraph Self until I share
His god-like power, his deep serenity.

Ferdinand P. Earle in Hollywood after he lost his “full brown beard,” his expression “which … he believes to come from the artistic temperment” and his affinities.

Another of his self-reformation sonnets was entitled “Be Thou Ever Wistful” (“… if passionate desires / Wake like a wind and amorous thunders wed, / Then be thou ever wistful, for above / Thy midnight madness frown the starry fires / Of fate: lest love’s own lightnings strike ye dead.”)

His book also had a sonnet of a dream Judas had on the night of the crucifixion, and one on God’s feelings at the Last Judgment. The Times found a “peculiar interest” in light of his past in his “tribute” to Woman (“Yet Woeman winks / At Woeman, looking wondrous wise, and thinks / A blushing truth, and answers: I made man.”) The Independent (June 22, 1911) said of the book: “While we cannot say they are ‘alas! too few,’ some of them have the merit, not to be despised, of attempting a new arrangement of the octet. … Many of the sonnets are descriptive, and they are more fanciful than imaginative, and show a fair mastery of the art of versification, without any very high sense of the ‘high honor’ of the sonnet.”

The past that Earle claimed he was putting behind him — his “ugly reptilian” nature (as The Times surmised) — was his spoiled, self-centered indifference to others (particularly wives), a character trait that got him noticed. William Marion Reedy, a mainstream publisher, normally a champion of poets (although often ascerbic and conventional), considered that this trait rendered him a “vain and eccentric ass.” Reedy missed “unctuous.”

Earle’s first wife was from his Paris student days. Earle told The Times that about a year after marrying her and building a house in Monroe, New York, they began, as he put it, “to notice, that — how shall I say it? — that we were not tuned together. … It is not that we are incompatible; that is not quite the word. We were like two musical notes that do not go together. … We saw that we were not made for each other — not affinitive at all.” Separation was complicated by the birth of a son, which Earle said he was quite fond of. Eventually, however, he did what he felt had to be done and on June 10, 1907, he left for France to visit his sick brother. While there, he “fell in” with a woman, who he had known before from the Socialist circle this rich heir to a fortune travelled in, and they became attached. He told The Times “We came to know that our marriage had been foreordained before our birth, and would continue forever.” Since his wife’s father was in France, he took the opportunity of visiting him, without the knowledge of his wife who stayed behind, laid the situation out and they agreed to consult a French lawyer and arrange a divorce. “When I returned I told her of the step I had taken, and after a while she was persuaded that it was for the best.” A Times reporter visited Monroe September 4, 1907, the day that Earle’s wife was to sail with their 2-year old son, Harold Erwin Earle, to France to procure the divorce. The previous night she had returned from the city where she made the arrangements. On her return

“a goodly representation of Monroe’s 1,000 villagers was at the station watching for her return.

“‘Ah, there comes the pore [sic] thing back,’ they whispered sympathetically. ‘Maybe he’s changed his mind an’ taken her back. Maybe it’ll be all right yet.'”

But it wasn’t. At home was the new woman, Earle’s “affinity” (he would regret using what would become a term of ridicule that followed him everywhere). She was a German woman of about 30. “Her hair is a bit curly. She is below the medium height, and inclined to stoutness. She wears spectacles.” She refused to give her name. Earle pointed out he was not divorced yet, as an excuse for her anonimity. “You see, I care a little something for the conventions.” The experience was grist for his aethetics, for he was working on a poem of seven connected sonnets “explaining my views on marriage. I believe that we are married before we are born through heaven directed affinities and that marriage continues after our death. Believing this, I came to see that my wife was not my affinity.” At the beginning of the twentieth century the sonnet was made to service all manner of indignities.

Earle’s plan went almost as expected, except for two things. First, he failed to account for how much others might also “care a little something for the conventions.” When he left his house to take his wife to the city for her steamer to France, he was hooted by his neighbors. It didn’t help that in the papers of the afternoon before, he was quoted as calling the town folk hypocrites and Monroe more immoral than its neighbors. “‘He’s got a fine right to talk about us,’ the villagers said. ‘What is he? And that other woman had better look out.'” On his return that evening, he planned to be picked up at an out of the way station, but 500 villagers were waiting for him in the driving rain for half an hour. He first tried to avoid the reporters while the crowd was shouting for rope and tar and feathers, but ever the insufferable egoist he agreed to pose for a photo. The rain prevented the powder from flashing, so he posed again and again until he saw the fury on the face of the crowd, jumped into his carriage and wildly struck the horses with his whip. The whip slashed the face of one of the crowd, which further inflamed it. The mob chased the carriage, which knocked down five people. They stopped the horse, untied the swing and knocked the buggy over.  When Earle got up a semicircle surrounded him. Eventually five of them attacked him, while he punched and cracked the whip, but they disarmed him. The original victim returned the favor, slashing Earle’s face with the whip. A small scuffle later, and Earle was on his feet announcing that he would explain his position to the crowd. And the crowd told him to go ahead! The two police officers who had tried to stop the riot thought it better if he left, and they forced him into the carriage and had it slowly depart. The crowd broke up into small groups who lingered talking and laughing.

Earle’s mother told the press that her son was a fool to talk so much and that was the main cause of the problem. Nevertheless, Earle kept talking. He once said that the press coverage was greatly helping the sale of his art. But his narcissism conjured his belief that if only others just understood his motives they would certainly condone his conduct, and he said this over and over to the press. But his talking only kept the issue alive and crowds every day waited at the train station and at his home to greet him with eggs and rotten fruit. He took it calmly, however, staying away, hoping that it would blow over, hoping that his explanations would be heard. It hurt his case that when Mrs. Earle arrived in Boulogne a New York Times correspondent cabled her revelation that Earle had occasionally beaten her when he was irritable. In all the uproar, the only paper that came to Earle’s defense was the Warheit, a Yiddish socialist paper published in New York. The Warheit compared Earle’s plight to that of Maxim Gorky, who came to New York with a woman not his wife and was denied hotel accomodation:

“The unfortunate American artist is also a radical, but a radical of the land of Columbus. And his heart and his head have brought him to the realization that it is neither proper nor wise to live with a woman when one is in love with another. But he is also an American. He believes that marriages are made in Heaven and contracted on earth. He believes that even when one loves some one else he is still unable to love this other woman until the seal of the law is added to that of his own seal; in brief, Earle believes in legal marriage and legal divorce, and he has decided not to unite with his affinity until he is permitted to do so by the law.”

Earle continued to receive abuse and harassment in Monroe so he left for Europe. His plan seemed to come to fruition when the French divorce became effective and he was able to marry Julia Kuttner (the affinity) in Italy. Two weeks later they returned to an unsuspecting Monroe in the morning of April 9, 1908. The town soon rallied and the local fife and drum corps readied itself to harass the Earles with an unpleasant serenade. They began their march from town at 7, but when they arrived Earle threw open the doors and invited them in. He introduced them to his new wife, gave them refreshments and even paid for their music. This generosity and good will completely disarmed the town folk. And except for curiosity seekers (which problem was solved by the acquisition of five great danes as guard dogs), Earle’s plan seemed to have succeeded.

Then came the second hitch. It turned out that Ms. Kuttner was not in fact his Affinity. The first hint of this came on August 25, shortly after the birth of his second son (August 5), when he was arrested for assaulting his new wife. The nurse hired for his wife provided the affidavit for the arrest warrant. When the sheriff and two deputies arrived, Mrs. Earle’s eyes were badly bruised. At the arraignment he “seemed to be posing as a martyr,” and refused both counsel and bail. When taken to jail, however, he joked. Told that reporters were outside, he said: “Tell them I’m not in,” and laughed uproariously. The town folk again became riled, especially after hearing that Earle had sicked one of the great danes on his sister-in-law. When Earle was bailed by his brother on August 27, he left behind a written statement claiming “he is confident that as soon as he sees his wife all apparent misunderstanding with her will be dissipated.” The District Attorney reacted: “he will not get off by patching things up with his wife. The October Grand Jury will get a fair chance at this ‘affinity’ business if I can serve the nurse who makes the charges with a subpoena.”

But to everyone’s surprise, by October he was again living with his wife and the grand jury failed to indict him. The matter by then had become so notorious that even G.K. Chesterton was using it in his London column to show how wrong-headed America in general could be and a rich Socialist poet in particular.

The stress must have been great on Earle. He spent some undisclosed time in a western sanitarium. On his return the sheriff served him with a summons in an annulment proceeding. Julia Kuttner Earle alleged that Earle was a lunatic when they married and remained one and that he was not divorced at the time of their marriage.  He wondered the halls of the mansion in a melancholic frame of mind, and his friends said that his philosophy led him not to contest the proceeding, although he would contest a demand for a large sum of money.

In April he disappeared. The neighbors thought he went to France. His first wife’s father said he would not let Earle see her, if he came. When he did arrive in Paris, he was allowed to see his son. His friends there said he refused to talk of his first wife. He returned to America in May but refused to talk to reporters. He was more reflective now. Some had said that the trouble with the affinity began when his first wife sent a portrait of his first son.

Whatever the cause, Earle was not one to remain secluded for long. So while his Socialist second wife nursed their son away from him, he inserted himself into the latest Anarchism crisis. Emma Goldman had been touring the country, largely to raise funds to support her new Mother Earth. But now that her tour had returned East, the police—ignorant and unprincipled, who viewed their role as that of tool of the reactionary order of things—conceived it their duty to muzzle her. In New Haven, she was allowed to enter the lecture hall she rented, but the public was barred by the police. In New York she lectured on the radical potential of modern drama. A comically uneducated policeman, Central Office Detective Rafsky, tried to halt the lecture when she mentioned Ibsen, who he believed was an anarchist. When she refused, he brought a platoon to clear out the hall. Now she proposed to give the same lecture in East Orange, New Jersey, where the city council had already announced they would prevent her.† When she was forced to speak at a nearby barn, it was Ferdinand Earle’s name, even before Alexander Berkman’s, that was first among her “distinguished adherents” and those accompanying her. Was it Earle’s presence that dissuaded the police from halting the lecture?

From here on the scandals surrounding Earle took on a more routine nature. In August he sailed to Europe in the company of Miss Gertrude Buell Dunn. Dunn, according to the Elkhart Daily Truth, was a “an aspiring literary genius, an ardent socialist and settlement worker and a relative of Jacob P. Dunn, head of the public library commission of Indiana.” Earle’s neighbors did not expect him to return. “Earle announced that should his second wife secure a divorce he would not wed again as he and Miss Dunn are merely ‘soul-mates’ and that Plato, rather than Cupid, is their god.” But it didn’t even last until the beginning of Fall. Miss Dunn returned incognito (but discovered nevertheless) and pleaded “Please do not talk anymore about that affair.” Earle returned two weeks later, not having seen his wife or first son, but promising better relations with his neighbors, even a clam bake. By February he was  back in Paris in a studio working with a view to a spring salon. The Times was unable to state whether he brought his “feminine companion.”

In July he returned to America with his mother. The annulment proceeding was still in the courts. He again headed for Paris. His friend, Alexander Harvey, an associate editor of Current Literature, disclosed that Earle confided in him that his real reason for returning to Paris was to win back his first wife. Harvey boasted that he persuaded Earle to recant his “affinity” doctrine: “But he may not be able to reform. I think if his first wife comes back to him he will stick; if she doesn’t he’ll presently be scouring the country again for another soul sister.” But he failed again, and this time (October) he returned ill.

On December 30, 1910, the annulment was ordered. (It seems that the first Mrs. Earle had waited until two months after the second marriage to have the interim order for divorce made final.) So Earle could begin 1911 afresh. And he did. In January came out his new-form Sonnets. He avoided scandals altogether. That he married once again was mentioned only incidentally in an article explaining why he commenced an eviction action against tenants in the Monroe house while he was abroad. The new bride, Helena Theodora “Dora” Sidford (The Times got it wrong, calling her “Dorothea Elbert Steward”), “an English girl,” was labelled an “affinity,” showing the joke had not grown old. She was the daughter of an architect at Wokingham, Berkshire. They married on June 16, 1911 in Oxford, and they would now live at the mansion on Affinity Hill. For nearly two years Earle would stay out of the papers except for his project The Lyric Year. But that didn’t mean he was not betraying his third wife.

In 1911 Peter Herman, a wealthy German-American printer located in Rutherford, New Jersey, decided to purchase a second home in Monroe, where his family had taken a summer vacation before. Herman had two daughters and a son. It was his oldest child, Charlotte, who attracted all the attention. Beautiful, independent, and sophisticated, she  was an adept pianist who had studied at the Leipzig Conservatory for three years. Her mother wanted her to become a professional singer. Two years before in Rutherford she captured the attention of a young doctor and aspiring poet, William Carlos Williams. He became seriously fixated on her, forming a chamber group so he could play violin with her, reading his writing to her, taking her on canoe trips. She found him self-centered. Charlotte preferred his brother, a recent MIT graduate with a fellowship to Rome. When she made the choice Williams was devastated. “It was,” he would write of himself four decades later in the thinly veiled fiction of The Build-Up, “a deeper wound than he should ever thereafter in his life be able to sound. It was bottomless.” After secluding himself for three days, he went to the Herman house and secretly became engaged to Charlotte’s sister Florence. His brother would spend his two years in Rome under his Prix de Rome. William shortly also began a year abroad, studying in Germany and then traveling the continent.

For summer vacations Peter Herman bought the house next to Earle’s mansion on Affinity Hill.  Williams visited them the summer of 1911 and learned that Charlotte had broken off her engagement with his brother, who was still studying in Rome. Earle himself was still in Europe that summer, so Williams didn’t get to meet him until the follwing summer.

In the summer of 1912 The Lyric Year project was in full swing. Williams came to Monroe in July again. He immediately spotted Earle’s attention towards Charlotte. Among other things, Earle offered to paint a portrait of Paul, the 12 year old brother of Charlotte and Florence, which allowed him daily access to the Hermans. Williams resented the actions of the married Earle, but Earle also was editor of The Lyric Year, and Earle was a practiced seducer. On July 19 Williams wrote his brother:

“At Monroe as you are aware lives Ferdinand Earle of history: ‘Affinity Earle.’ He is I found—for he made it possible for us to all meet him by first writing then calling—a most accomplished and a very young man.

“To pass over his delightfully conceived and finished home and his simple, charming, girlish English wife—The Third—he is now more poet-critic-publisher than painter.

“Quite in secret, for the art world is very small, he is also one of the editors of a book soon to be published—The ‘Lyric Year’ which will contain 100 of the best short poems—one each from 100 different authors all of which having been either published in some magazine or at least brought forth for the first time this year. There is $10,000 to be divided in prizes among the 100 successful poets.‡

“I had heard of the contest and forgotten it, but, Mrs. Herman having put him wise beforehand, he asked me to send something in a hurry as the time was almost up and he was having a terrible time to find 100 poems by 100 different authors that were worth printing!

“The genius is rare, Bo, very rare.

“At any rate Earl [sic] is pleased with some of my work and may—with the consult of other judges—give me a place. I have not as yet heard.”

In the event, no poem of Williams was selected. Earle blamed the other judges. But Earle was constantly promising things he couldn’t deliver, and sometimes things he didn’t want to deliver. Williams put up a brave face but was bitterly disappointed. Earle had once again defanged a potentially troubling situation with his blandishments. He was now moving in on Charlotte.

William Carlos Williams and Florence Herman married in the Presbyterian Church in Rutherford on December 12, 1912. Charlotte’s escort was Ferdinand Pinney Earle. Mrs. Earle did not attend.

Charlotte was beginning to have minor success with her music. In January 1913 she was illustrating musical lectures at Teacher College. Her program illustrated Grieg. In October she was performing the same program for public school children. This was apparently enough for her. She persuaded her father to send her to study at a German conservatory. Earle was again in Paris; his third wife, with two children now, had commenced a divorce action in New York, alleging misconduct by Earle “with women whose names are unknown.” Earle wired his lawyer: “Accept service and appear for me in suit brought by Dora.” His Paris plan was more pressing.

When Charlotte arrived in Hamburg, Earle was there to meet her, and he took her to Paris (where she would join him in his most spectacular outrage). The reunion was news that couldn’t be hidden from the press. According to Williams in The Build-Up, her father was shocked. He had looked into Earle’s background long before and found him to be a blackguard, Ein Schwein. He let his wife know, and they were supposed to be on guard. When Charlotte left to board the steamer, she assured her father that she was not going to see Earle. But now he couldn’t keep it out of the papers. So he told all who would listen that she wasn’t his daughter, she was adopted and now she was cut off. The next account was far worse.

In late November 1913 the news was that Earle had kidnapped his eight-year-old son by his first wife, Harold Erwin Earle, from the school he was attending in Paris, and Earle was returning to New York with Charlotte Herman. It turned out they weren’t on the vessel named and couldn’t be found in others. It wasn’t until January 1914 that they were discovered in Norway with the child. It was revealed that Charlotte, passing herself off as a Canadian Mrs. Evans was the one who actually snatched Harold from the school on November 5. She had been lodging there under the pretext of learning French. When she took the child she claimed she was taking him to his mother.  They were arrested in Norway on December 30—the French detectives followed Earle’s luggage.

The hypnotic Mr. Earle

From the jail in Christiania Earle began his latest verbal campaign: he said he would submit to arbitration. “I am still hoping that she will be disposed to co-operate in a an amicable arrangement …” Earle’s cheek was still breathtaking.

Despite his anger Peter Herman vowed to the press that he would send the best representation possible for his “foster daughter.” “I am sure that Chrlotte is under Earle’s hypnotic influence,” he said. On January 9, 1913 her mother sailed for Norway to be with her. On February 27, the jailer in Romorantin, France, allowed a reporter for The New York Times to interview Earle. Earle claimed that his wife had agreed to give him access to his son when they first divorced. But something happened, and she obtained a decree giving her sole guardianship in a proceeding unknown to Earle. Her father told him he would never see his son alone until he was 21. So Earle decided to act, since his son was at a boarding school among strangers. He planned to take him to America so he could be “with people who loved him, especially his father.” Earle claimed he was completely penniless now. And his life had been devastated by the “affinity” coverage; he claimed that the term was made up by a reporter.

“It seems we all suffered sufficiently for the ‘affinity’ publicity. Miss Kuttner had dead cats thrown at her in the back yard. She broke off with me immediately her child was born. My footsteps were dogged everywhere. A magazine editor told me to meet him at his club instead of his office, as my presence brought his magazine into disrepute. In fact, I have been charged with every moral crime in the calendar, but I believe I am still capable of conduct worthy of a father. That is why I stole my son.”

His remembrance of the ending of his second marriage differed substantially from the facts, but because he could always convincingly put himself in the right, he always believed he could persuade others. And he now believed that he could persuade his first wife of his version: “I am confident that if I could see her now for an hour I would be able to fix things up.”

They had spent nearly 10 weeks in various jails by the time the trial began on March 6. In France the conditions were less than penal. Earle spent his time reading, writing poetry and playing the violin. He was therefore in top form at the trial. Hundreds of spectators arrived owing to French press coverage of Earle’s past. The judge added rows of chairs behind the bench to accommodate the overflow. Earle was attired in a morning coat and tan spats and sported a white carnation in his buttonhole. He seemed to enjoy the attention. Charlotte wore black and kept her eyes on the floor. Both the first wife and Earle’s current wife testified about beatings by him. The reporter said that Earle maintained a “calm and indifferent air” throughout. The first wife’s brother testified: “Earle’s a liar. For three years he never asked about the child, and only came to see him when he had no love affair. He is a consummate comedian, but no gentleman.” The trial adjourned for the evening when the prosecutor’s voice gave out while reading form a mound of documents, among which, was a note Earle wrote after the annulment of his second marriage: “The eyes of my soul are now opened. Harold shall be my heir.”

The next day the prosecutor read from documents, letters from and about Earle, but it was no use. The judge allowed Earle to explain away everything (sometimes with the most absurd explanations) and even chatted with him. The crowd was clearly on Earle’s side. Earle’s defense came down to character references by friends and the observation by his lawyer: “Earle is childish. America is a childish nation; it is so young.” The defendants were found guilty. Earle was sentenced to two months in jail and a $5 fine; Charlotte 1 month and a $3 fine, but the court gave them credit for time served. They were therefore free to go. A judgment of $1,400 was entered against Earle on the wife’s civil action, but Earle had no property in France. The crowds inside and out of the courthouse cheered when Earle walked free.

Ferdinand Earle in his studio in 1921 surrounded by the mattes for his film of the Rubaiyat.

Within a month Earle’s mother sold the house in Monroe (it was hers) in exchange for commercial property in lower Manhattan. Aside from the divorce proceedings from his third wife (with the usual allegations that Earle committed perjury), Earle dropped out of the limelight. He married Charlotte Herman. They moved west, and he became involved in the young film industry. He produced a film based on the FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat, and planned to make one based on the Nibelungen cycle and Goethe’s Faust. Earle claimed an innovative approach to double exposing film, but others claimed infingement and his work was held up for years. He gave up producing (he lost the infringement claim) and took on jobs in the art department of films, most notably (although without credit) in Ben Hur. His marriage to Charlotte lasted about a decade. Their first child died young of polio. The second son, Eyvind, would become an artist and graphic designer, eventually for Disney. On their divorce, Earle took the son. After his father’s death many years later Eyvind wrote of the beatings he received from his father and hearing his mother’s cries when Earle beat her. But this is beyond where we need to go for the moment.

The Lyric Year

Years later Floyd Dell would remember 1912 as “extraordinary year, in America as well as in Europe.”

“It was the year of the election of Wilson, a symptom of immense political discontent. It was a year of intense woman-suffragist activity. In the arts it marked a new era. Color was everywhere—even in neckties. The Lyric Year, published in New York, contained Edna St. Vincent Millay’s ‘Renascence.’ In Chicago, Harriet Monroe founded Poetry. Vachel Lindsay suddenly came into his own with ‘General William Booth Enters Into Heaven,’ and commenced to give back to his land in magnificent chanted poetry its own barbaric music. ‘Hindle Wakes’ startled New York, as it was later to startle Chicago. The Irish Players came to America. It was then that plans were made for the Post-Impressionist Show, which revolutionized American ideas of art. In Chicago, Maurice Browne started the Little Theatre. One could go on with the evidence of a New Spirit come suddenly to birth in America.”

Millay in Camden in 1912. (Library of Congress)

In Camden, Maine, Edna St. Vincent Millay could hardly have experienced any of the New Spirit. Yes, Maine voted for Wilson. (But then Taft had lost every state except Utah and Vermont.) Millay, however, was not particularly interested in world affairs then and was never really interested in partisan politics. Although she was 20 on February 22 that year, she had rarely been outside of Knox County on the southern coast of Maine. She grew up without a father (her father having been driven out by her mother Cora when she was eight), and largely without any adult care (her mother spent long periods of time away from home as a practical nurse). Almost her whole life consisted of caring for and supervising her two sisters and correspondence with her mother. Her social life, aside from Sunday School, was mostly confined to diaries addressed to fictitious characters. (Other children noticed they were too poor to entertain like other families.) Notwithstanding the economic straits, however, Millay was never bowed by her poverty or at least she was not humiliated by it. Her mother early instilled in her the belief that she was exceptional. She introducted Vincent (the name she preferred to Edna) to poetry and shared it with her as Vincent grew up. Like T.S. Eliot’s mother, Cora had poetic aspirations. Unlike Charlotte Stearns Eliot, however, Cora was far from devout.

Cora not only read the romantics to Vincent (who memorized Whittier’s Snowbound from her mother’s repeated night-time readings), she indulged Vincent, despite scarce money, with a subscription to the children’s magazine of verse and stories, St. Nicholas. Millay immediately began submitting her writing to the St. Nicholas League. Her prose was selected for Honor Roll No. I in the November 1905 issue, which meant the “work would have been used had space permitted.” Her poem “The Land of Romance” received the Gold Badge in the March 1907 issue. The page on which her poem appeared gave a helpful lesson to future contestants on the subject of marketability: “Very sad, very tragic, very romantic and very abstruse work cannot often be used, no matter how good it may be from the literary point of view, and while the League editor certainly does not advocate the sacrifice of artistic impulse to market suitability, he does advocate as a part of every literary education the study of the market’s needs whereby one may learn to offer this or that particular manuscript to just the periodical most likely to give it welcome.” Millay had already internalized the rules that would win her contests, the Pulitzer Prize, a large reading public who would buy her books of verse and sold out halls for her readings around the country. “The Land of Romance” was reprinted that year in the April issue of Current Literature (pp 457-58). The editor, Edward J. Wheeler, President of the Poetry Society of America (or whatever associate editor was responsible for that section), called the poem “phenomenal,” noting its author was only 14. Millay would continue to be published in St. Nicholas until she was not longer eligible at 18. The last poem she submitted, “Friends,” earned the cash prize, $5, a reward so signal that the local paper, The New Bedford Evening Standard, devoted two-thirds of a column describing the poem and the award. The magazine itself highlighted how clever the poem was. Millay submitted the poem years later as an assignment in a writing course at Barnard. Professor William Tenney Brewster wrote “Browningesque” on it and gave her a B. He probably would never learn that she had used her $5 prize money to buy a copy of Browning.

Millay’s childhood play consisted of piano lessons and practice, with occasional recitals, poetry, stories and playacting. They proved far more enduring than ordinary childhood vocations and would become her lifework. Even at the time, she took them seriously. Despite her depravations, her father’s departure (and failure to visit or send support), her mother’s absence, and especially the grinding poverty, the only thing that really sent Vincent into a tearful rage was the vote to deprive her of her rightful title of high school class poet (rigged by the boys, who resented that she failed to hide her intelligence, like girls were supposed to).

By 1912 she was nearly three years out of school, but she had no job or direction; she continued taking care of the house and her sisters, and there wasn’t a thought of college. 1911 had been taxing enough. Cora was away almost all the time nursing three dying patients. There was little money, and Vincent had to fend off the creditors. Cora would send money with specific directions of who should be paid, and her letters bluntly reminded Vincent of the sacrifices she endured to provide even the smallest indulgences to her children. Vincent never blamed her mother for neglect or privation and always put up a good front in her letters to her. But privately it was too much, and she told of her fears and anguish to her secret lover, a fictional one, to whom she wrote in a journal.

The pages go on and on. The moods she portrays go from gay to melancholic. She offers herself up to him in sweeping, overly dramatic poses. Other times she writes of her own sense of worthlessness. Is any of it her real feelings? Was she trying out voices? Was it all childish fantasy? It’s impossible to say. But her willingness to allow others, through her writing, to act as voyeurs into her soul would become the central element of her later popularity. And perhaps occasionally, as with her later public writing, there are literal truths, but it’s impossible to tell what they are. Some of her cries, however, seem too heart-felt to be feigned, like her entry on August 3, 1911:

“It is hard work being brave when you’re lonesome. I’ve tried to be brave and I’ve done pretty well, but I’ve had to cry just a little tonight. . . . God would not have made a heart like mine and not have made its mate. It would be too cruel. O, I know you are not very far away.”

But Camden had no Prince Charmings. It had only toil; not just for her, everyone there did mindless, repetitious, dispiriting drugery.

“Tired men and tired horses, everybody tired, and no one with a minute to call his own. No time to lift you eyes to the hills. Go in and get to work. Get into the house and scrub the dirty clothes till you rub the skin off your fingers. Sweep the floor and sweep it again tomorrow and the day after that . . . every day of your life—if not that floor, why then—some other floor.” (October 10, 1911.)

She was destined, at best, to be a character in a Theodore Dreiser story.

But all of this changed in a rather odd way. On February 29, 1912, a week after her twentieth birthday, Vincent received a long distance call from a woman in Kingman, Maine, announcing that her father was dying. She was so stunned that all she could do was promise a telegram. She immediately called her mother. They agreed; she should set off the next day. Kingman was only 140 miles away, but trains were not frequent, and it took her most of the next day and the following, taking boat, then two trains. She was met at the train station by the doctor’s daughter, 24 year old Ella Somerville who took her to her father’s boarding house. When she arrived, a nurse prepared her for the worst. But she was numb (she wrote in her diary), bravely sat next to a man who looked nothing like she remembered and broke the ice with small talk. He had difficulty opening his eyes but was happy to see her. That afternoon the doctor told Vincent her father had only a few days left. She stayed at the Somerville’s and wrote her mother and sisters that night a postcard saying she “found Papa very low.” She would not write them again for three weeks.

The reason was not the decline of her father; he in fact began recovering. Instead, she was spending all her time with Ella. The first night, at Ella’s suggestion, Ella stayed in Vincent’s bed. “After that we slept together every night—at least we spent the nights together.” Apart from visiting her father for the hour or so it was permitted, Vincent spent almost all her time with Ella. It was unlike her dreary life at Camden; they canoed, attended parties, went to dances and saw a vaudeville medicine show. Vincent read her a long poem she had been writing about her physical and spiritual confinement; about how Infinity was binding her in; about how all remorse was hers (“All sin was of my sinning, all / Atoning mine, and mine the gall / Of all regret.”). She called it “the down underground poem.” Ella preferred her reading Burns because she trilled the rs. Her family wrote letter after letter to find out what she was doing. (Her mother possibly feared that she was being thrown over in favor of her charming but unreliable ex-husband.) When Vincent finally responded, it was clear life in Kingman far surpassed anything she could otherwise hope for in Camden. Her mother despaired of being able to lure her back.

On March 21 Cora wrote again to ask Vincent to return, this time with bait: “I am going to try to catch you now with something that may interest and encourage you.” In The Magazine Maker she had read of a poetry contest. “One thousand dollars has been set aside to be distributed in three prizes to authors of the best three poems submitted before June 1, 1912. . . . Nov 1st of this year Mr. [Mitchell] Kennerley will put out the volume under the title ‘The Lyric Year.’ . . . This seems to be a great chance for you. . . . Come home and make a good try so you can have chances to run up to school and use the typewriter.” Vincent was home by March 31. The day before a disconsolate Ella would write that her departure caused Ella to become “temporarily deranged”: “One thing is certain, old girl; when you make a place for yourself in someone’s heart, no one else can fill it.” It was Vincent’s first conquest.

Although she would ultimately send several poems under separate cover to Kennerley (all signed E. St. Vincent Millay; to avoid sexist bias?), she labored hardest on her “down underground poem.” But having seen a world that was not Camden, she experienced relief from Infinity pressing down on her. She had seen life that was meant to be enjoyed and more she reveled in, for the first time, the feeling of being adored. On top of the experiences in Kingman, while she was away, Cora had arranged that the family would move out of the tenement in the working district into a white, two-story, free-standing house with indoor bathrooms. It was all miraculous, beyond any but a poetic explanation:

“I know not how such things can be;
I only know there came to me
A fragrance such as never clings
To aught save happy living things . . . “

Just as with her father, it was a reprieve from the grave:

“Ah! Up then from the ground sprang I
And hailed the earth with such a cry
As is not heard save from a man
Who has been dead, and lives again.”

So she came to call the poem “Renaissance,” which she finished by May 27 and sent to Kennerley. The poem did not change the course of Western letters. It did not attempt to justify the ways of God to man. It did not sing of arms and the man. But it accomplished something that art usually cannot. It altered the destiny of someone who by the laws of American capitalism and social systems ought never to have escaped poverty or left Maine. And in the process it introduced Edna St. Vincent Millay to both Mr. Earle and Mr. Ficke. We’ll see how she fared in those encounters in the second part.



* The strange career of Ferdinand Earle was gathered from the following: Samuel Orcutt & Ambrose Beardsley, The History of the Old Town of Derby, Connecticut, 1642-1880 (Springfield, Mass: Springfield Printing Co: 1880); Henry Reed Stiles, The History and Genealogies of Ancient Windsor, Connecticut: … 1635-1891. Volume II: Geneologies and Biographies (Hartford, Conn: Case, Lockwood & Brainard Co: 1892); Ruth Wing (ed.), Blue Book of the Screen [for 1923] (Hollywood, Cal: Blue Book of the Screen, Inc: c1924); New York Times, August 1, 1890; December 17, 1890; January 25, 1891; October 28, 1891March 20, 1894; [obit. of Gen. Earle,] January 3, 1903; [first divorce,] September 4, 1907; [Earle mobbed,] September 5, 1907; [terms of settlement,] September 6, 1907; September 7, 1907; [Mrs. Earle arrives in France,] September 14, 1907; September 15, 1907; [practical joke on Earle,] October 3, 1907January 28, 1908March 14, 1908; April 9, 1908; [Earle’s return to Monroe,] April 10, 1908June 13, 1908; [Earle arrested,] August 26, 1908August 27, 1908; [Earle in jail,] August 27, 1908; August 28, 1908; August 29, 1908; September 16, 1908; [G.K. Chesterton’s observations,] September 20, 1908; October 19, 1908; [summons on Earle,] March 27, 1909; March 28, 1909; April 10, 1909; April 12, 1909; April 17, 1909; May 5, 1909; [Earle with Goldman,] June 9, 1909; September 17, 1909; September 18, 1909; February 20, 1910; June 1, 1910July 18, 1910; September 8, 1910;  October 26, 1910; December 31, 1910;  [Review of Sonnets,] January 8, 1911; [third wife,] November 25, 1911; January 26. 1913; October 12, 1913; [Divorce action by Dora,] November 9, 1913; November 25, 1913; November 25, 1913 (2);  November 26, 1913; November 30, 1913; [arrest of Earle and Charlotte Herman,] January 3, 1914; January 4, 1914; January 5, 1913; January 5, 1913 (2); January 6, 1913; January 6, 1913 (2); January 8, 1913; January 9, 1913; January 13, 1913; January 14, 1913; January 18, 1913; February 11, 1913; February 19, 1913; February 23, 1913; February 24, 1913; February 25, 1913; February 28, 1913; March 4, 1913; [abduction trial,] March 7, 1913; March 8, 1913; March 9, 1913; April 9, 1913; April 9, 1913 (2); [trial in divorce action by third wife,] November 29, 1914; January 15, 1915; June 3, 1915; [letter by Earle,] May 19, 1916; [Earle produces Rubaiyat,] May 9, 1920;  [Rubaiyat in “harmonious colors,”] July 18, 1920; [Earle to film Nibelungen,] August 22, 1920; February 12, 1922; May 21, 1922.

† The events at the lectures of Emma Goldman are reported on in The New York Times, May 15, 1909May 24, 1909; May 25, 1909; May 30, 1909 (profile); May 30, 1909 (letter); June 8, 1909.

‡ Williams either misunderstood the amount and distribution of the prize money or Earle was deceiving him (for any number of reasons constantly at work in Earle).


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Christian Gauss, “The Summer’s Vintage of Verse,” The New York Times, August 10, 1907.

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[unsigned], “A 1913 Faust: Mr. Ficke’s Masterful Verion of the Old Theme,” New York Times (December 14, 1913).