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“A Lot He Knew”

The title of this brief article on S. Foster Damon is taken from a chapter-heading in George Weller’s early novel about academic life, Not to Eat, Not for Love. The novel, published in 1933, was a sensation, and although several lively accounts of life at the universities have succeeded it, Not to Eat, Not for Love is still remembered. I call attention to it here, however, not so much to reclaim the novel for literature but because the model for one of Mr. Weller’s characters—the articulate and charming begin page 4 | back to top young instructor of Freshman Composition at Harvard is the same man we are honoring in this special number of the Blake Newsletter, S. Foster Damon.

As far as I know, George Weller’s depiction of the young Harvard English instructor in the chapter entitled “A Lot He Knew” is the first attempt to give fictional treatment to S. Foster Damon as a Blake scholar. (Actually he is identified more closely with John Donne, but Blake shines clearly through.) It is not the last, for in Colin Wilson’s latest book, The Glass Cage (1966), a Blakist is again fictionalized, this time as the scholar-detective Damon Reade, and the name immediately gives him away to us: again we know the model as S. Foster Damon.

But the novelists have not been alone in their recognition of S. Foster Damon, for the past several years have seen him acclaimed in published tributes by some highly important men—the composer Virgil Thomson, E.E. Cummings, and Malcolm Cowley among them. Virgil Thomson has written enthusiastically about his early relationship with Foster Damon, crediting Damon with introducing him to the music of Eric Satie and the poetry of Gertrude Stein, both of whom changed his life, as Thomson has recently remarked in his autobiography. E.E. Cummings has left behind similar testimony. Cummings acknowledged that he discovered El Greco and Blake only through Damon, and he told his biographer, Charles Norman, that “practically everything I know about painting and poetry came to me through Damon.” Foster Damon was equally important to the young Malcolm Cowley who, in a long and warm-hearted tribute to his old friend, has recently written that it was Damon who got him to read Laforgue, the early Ezra Pound, the poetry of Stephen Crane, Melville, Blake, and Amy Lowell. As a scholar in his own right and an opener of doors to others, then, Foster Damon’s achievements have been considerable and have not gone unnoticed.

And yet with it all his image has remained a modest one. Damon has worked quietly over the years, and he has neither sought nor won fame as one of our literary celebrities. Scholars have known his work on Blake all along, of course, but not enough people have been aware of the many other sides to the man—the fact that he is also a good poet and has published four volumes of poetry; a prize-winning dramatist (his Witch of Dogtown won a Russel Crouse award for drama in 1955); a composer; a musicologist; a folklorist; an historian; and a valuable and distinguished bibliophile, librarian, and book-collector.

Damon’s most illustrious work has been done on Blake, but his range has been enormous and has taken in much more. Joyce and Melville, Marie de France and Amy Lowell, Thomas Holley Chivers, Punch and Judy, the History of Square Dancing, and Yankee Doodle—Damon has written definitively on all of these. There have been articles on alchemy and the occult, on genealogy and gastronomy, on Schönberg and Stravinsky, on Scandinavian and Japanese literature, on popular music, Santa Claus, and the detective story. The author of major books on William Blake is also the author of an introduction to the Annisquam Village Cook Book, a Japanese Noh drama (his Kiri no Meijiyama), and a children’s Christmas book (The Day After Christmas). And there is still more to come. This summer Damon finished his writing of The Moulton Tragedy, a long epic poem that he has been at work on over the past forty years and which, after Whittier, he calls his “Yankee Faust.” Present projects include finishing up a book on Shakespeare that he began some years back and now has almost completed; a critical history of English prosody, which has been his continuing occupation for years now; and the gathering together of dozens of original recipes (Damon is a gourmet cook) into a cookbook, “for poets and others.”

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The man I am trying to describe here is, to borrow a term from Coleridge, myriad-minded, and as such certainly one of America’s most remarkable men of letters. A few of us know him this way; most know him essentially and only as the prominent Blake scholar that he is; and many who should know him do not know him at all.

Malcolm Cowley, a long-time friend of S. Foster Damon, perfectly described this situation when, in a recent letter to me, he referred to what he called Damon’s “genius for concealing his genius from the public.” That seems to get at both some of the most endearing features of Damon’s charm and also the vexing situation of his relative obscurity. It is gratifying, therefore, that the present number of the Blake Newsletter, dedicated to S. Foster Damon, at last allows some of us who have known him well to celebrate this very admirable and distinguished man and perhaps win for him something of the larger audience that he deserves and should have had all along.

Print Edition

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    • Contributors
    • S. Foster Damon
    • Alvin H. Rosenfeld
    • Laurence Goldstein

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