Life in the Village

The Binkleys lived in the West Village from September 1927 to May 1929, and frequently revisited in the following few years, using their old apartment at 49 Morton St., now occupied by various friends, as a base. That apartment was the scene of many interesting events, some of which Bob wrote up in the occasional diary he kept. Here is one from February, 1929.1

The cast:

  • A poet named Hal White. I think he must be the same whose poem caused the May 1926 issue of New Masses to be banned from the mails. He was an assistant professor of English at Yale but at the time was teaching at the University of Montana summer school, from which he refused to resign.2
  • Fran Klein, roommate of the Binkleys, a commercial artist.
  • Kate Beswick, also a roommate, poet, friend of John Steinbeck.
  • Bob

This is, I’m afraid, as close as the Binkleys seem to have come to the literary life of Greenwich Village. The incident, silly as it is, shows something of the kind of playful social life they led, at least. They looked back on their not-quite-two-years in the Village with great fondness after they had moved away.

(I have corrected a few typos but otherwise presented the text as Bob typed it.)

Last night Hal White came over with his poem – a magnificent narrative of man and civilization – the intelligent man verhexed by civilization, and getting rid of it to commit glorious murder. The thoughtful Brooks and the peasant Strohmeier are rivals for Mara, and Mara is just earth. Anybody’s woman. Brookes at first cannot act, being inhibited by civilized restraints. He gets rid of these. Getting rid of honor, he spies upon Mara and Strohmeier, dropping pride, he lets himself be stung by Strohmeier’s primitive gloating, and finally being able to act, he strangles his rival whom he has stalked and found in delictu.

While we were discussing whether the transition could be made convincing, in came Fran Klein. And Kate said “This is Mara”. Fran played up to something of the game, and said she was an Arabian. And as Hal questioned her, she said always just the right things. Soon Hal was strongly moved, for it was clear that Mara was hostile to civilized restraints, and having dark eyes and hair, and being every inch voluptuous in body, she fitted Hal’s picture in every respect. Hal talked of how “I have been writing a poem about you”, while Kate and I participated in the game.

As the evening advanced I turned out the light so that we might better enjoy the fire. And at once Hal noticed something about Fran’s eyes. They fixed themselves upon the fire in an almost animal stare, hypnotic and hypnotized. “Your eyes are in the fire” said Hal, becoming enthusiastic, “You terrify me” “You are Nature”. Hal arose from his place in the corner, and sat down beside her; they petted.

I took a few notes on their remarkable conversation

Enter F. Kate made the introductions: ‘This is Hal White’; ‘This is Mara’. Hal: No really, is that your name? F. ‘Yes’. F. went on to say that she was an Arabian. The conversation took on the color of a game. On the one hand I was explaining to Fran how it was possible to see much of her room by way of the mirror hung near the door; Fran was pretending that this explained many things, but this was a bluff; meanwhile we mystified her about Mara. “Mara means bitterness” said Kate, but Hal protested.

Hal then began to question F. “Do you like farming”?

F: I like anything about the soil.

H. How do you exist in New York.

F: I have a hard time; sometimes I go up on the roof and see clouds and stars.

H: The roof? Why not down to the ground? Once in a while when they are digging the subway you can see the soil. They dig down to the rock, and you see hard Nature.

F: declared that she missed the earth and trees.

Hal. commented upon the starved appearance of the trees in Washington Square, and went on to say that he would like to have a farm and live the life of the soil.

Bob ventured to doubt that he would like the life of the farm, and queried whether he had actually farmed at any time in his life.

About this time Hal turned to Fran with the question “What do you think of me?” Fran replied “I think you are civilized and trying to be natural”

There ensued a discussion upon morals painting and poetry, taking the form of a catechism of Frances.

Hal: Have you any morals?

Fran: What do you mean?

Hal: What people usually think of.

Fran: No.

Hal: What religion are you? Mohammedan? Jewish, Christian, Pagan?

Fran: Pagan.

Hal (with enthusiasm) Good!- Why do you paint? Is painting living or passionate?

Fran: what is the difference?

Hal (with even greater enthusiasm): Good!

They discussed then what a poem should be, and what a picture. Their theoretical observations led them back to the intimate connection of both with life. They discoursed about Morocco, and other Mediterranean regions. Fran told of the places to go, and the excellences thereof.

It was Hal, then, who inquired “Did you ever see a fire in the desert?”

Fran replied with a description of her Bedouin camp, while Hal’s excitement visibly increased. Answering the spirit of the moment, Bob turned out the light and threw more wood on the fire. As Fran finished Hal declared “I knew it. You couldn’t look at it that way if you only saw fires in a house”

And then it was noted that Fran was looking at the fire with a very intent and fixed stare, like an animal. Hal exclaimed about it again and again. “Your eyes go into the fire.” There was brief discussion as to whether others looked at the fire in the same way. Someone objected that Hal himself was not looking in the fire. He did not take his eyes from Fran’s face and replied in low and purposely dramatic tones “But I see the fire”.

Then the conversation came to a new level. “You terrify me” said Hal. And he went out of the room, to return a moment later and take his seat beside Fran. Henceforth this was the keynote of his discoursing “You terrify me”.

Having examined Fran’s eyes at very close range, he declared that they were not black after all, and to this remark Kate ventured the addition that Fran was, perhaps, not Mara after all. Hal replied decisively that it made no difference; she continued to be Mara.

The subsequent conversation was interrupted from time to time by kisses.

“If my eyes could go out as simply and directly as yours, I might write a great poem” said Hal. And then the question was raised whether it would be well to be completely natural. Fran declared that it would be well if one were in the right kind of a place.

Hal: And would that be happiness?

Fran: I believe it would.

Hal: Why don’t you go?

Fran: I was brought up to be civilized.

Hal: Is there a conflict?

Fran: Yes.

It as at this time that Hal spoke of going off to the desert together. His view was that the consequence of such a venture would be happiness. And something was said of contentment.

Hal: But you’re not placid at all; you’re vitally alive.

Fran: Of civilization?

Hal: No. Of yourself. You’re just Nature.

Nature is never calm. There is continual struggle – war between growth and death.

Fran thought it was wrong to identify happiness with comfort and quiet.

Hal then raised a new question. What about ideals?

Fran: I suppose they’re civilized!

Hal: Are they always?

Fran: I think nature breeds them.

Hal: But what about them? A completely natural person – what sort of ideals would he have? Not Christianity, not Mohammedanism, not formulated as ‘thou shalt not’…

Fran: No, I imagine more or less selfish. I don’t believe a primitive person thinks much about ideals.

Hal: They are not at war with themselves.

Then Hal began to get back to his main theme:

Hal: But are you not afraid of Nature? Does nature ever terrify you?

Fran: Not if I’m out in Nature.

Hal: But in a storm, perhaps?

Here Hal went on to propound a hypothetical case in which Fran was caught in the middle of a lake by a storm. Fran’s boat had been stolen. The illustration was used to deliver a criticism of Anglo-Saxons and Wordsworth, their greatest nature poet, who could see in Nature nothing but moral law.

Hal: I want to be a natural person. I’m my hero.

Kate: Perfectly futile.

Hal: I may have to strangle someone.

After some discussion of the point, it was agreed that Bob was the logical one to be strangled.

Then the discussion turned back to the fire and the desert.

Hal: Perhaps the desert would teach me to make my eyes go out.

Fran: Why don’t you go there?

Hal thought that in the desert he could create great art. Bob denied it, and argued that art would there be superfluous. And Hal came back to the theme of identifying self and nature. “I could be a lump of coal in the fire.” He discussed with Fran “Could I learn Arabic?” And as the talk progressed, Fran passed this judgment “You’re not a natural person.” Hal is civilized trying to be natural; Fran is natural trying to be civilized.

Hal: “Why write? If is a defect. Every bit of art is a defect.”

There was then some talk of the relative sincerity of the Bedouin and the American. The conversation drifted into French, and then Hal brought it back to its source.

“I’m at a disadvantage. I can’t see your eyes. They enter the fire; mine don’t.” And then again “You’re perfect in your way. I’m terrified.”

Hal: May I ask one silly question?

Fran: Yes.

Hal: Are you pleased that you’ve been born?

Fran: Yes, of course.

Hal: Some people aren’t.

Fran: They must be very cynical…

And so it went on, as Fran and Hal petted more and more ardently. His Cybele was becoming Mara; his type becoming a particular. And as for Fran hers was the straight-forward physiological reaction.

The party broke up at 4:15 A.M.

  1. Doc. 2559.↩︎

  2. “Poet Refuses to Resign”, New York Times, 18 June 1926, p.14.↩︎