Thursday, 24 November 2016

Siegfried's Strangest Journey

The eyes of the world have been firmly focused on the United States in the past few weeks. Now it is all over bar the shouting, as they say – or maybe the real shouting is only just beginning. Whatever happens, I am not going to make any comment on the result of the presidential election. Anyone who knows me will be able to guess what I think and anyone who doesn’t should not care what I think.
Google on "Sassoon in America" and you will get the locations of all Vidal Sassoon's hairdressing salons in the USA, rather than the locations of the Siegfried Sassoon archives in places like Texas and New York. But American scholars value these literary treasures as much as we do, and Sassoon's work has received as many plaudits across the pond as it has in his homeland.
However hard I try, I find it difficult to imagine Siegfried Sassoon touring the USA – as of course he did for six months in 1920, on a tide of popularity resulting from the publication of his war poems there towards the end of hostilities. Americans had purchased over 2,000 copies and some of the reviews had been ecstatic. Siegfried recognised that he owed much of this to John Masefield and Robert Nichols, both of whom had gone before him and more than adequately prepared the way.
In Siegfried’s Journey, published in 1945, Sassoon writes extensively about his experiences but it always seems to me that he gives little away about his true feelings. George Simmers refers to it, in his understated way, as "an unsatisfactory book", and I fear I cannot really disagree with him on that. One can almost glean more by reading articles written about him by American journalists during the period, or the parody of an interview he produced. The hilarious "A Poet as He Really is" was published in Vanity Fair in 1920; he himself called it "deplorably facetious". Dr Mhairi Pooler focused on this article when she spoke to us about Siegfried's self-image at our 2010 conference.
Sassoon used his diaries as the source material for almost all the prose works published in his lifetime and it is not difficult to tell that he had one eye on eventual publication. Pages were sometimes torn out - we must assume because they contained indiscreet comments or possibly accounts of sexual activity. He stops short of pouring out his heart and soul. Instead we get a picture of a diffident, anxious man who at first found the idea of going on a lecture tour in the USA almost laughable. After participating in a reading at the Poetry Bookshop, he took elocution lessons to improve his delivery (at the Albert Hall, no less).
He arrived in New York in late January, to find the streets deep in snow and himself put up by the agency in budget accommodation (or what Siegfried always called "depressing"); newspaper journalists arrived before his luggage did. The interviewers were at least sympathetic about the toothache from which he'd been suffering. But he soon discovered that bookings were few and far between and he might not receive the remuneration he had been counting on. He was obliged to do most of his own marketing (a situation familiar to many authors, but self-promotion did not come naturally to Sassoon).
At Bryn Mawr College, an appreciative audience of young ladies listened to Sassoon read some of his best-known poems, but not everyone cared for his anti-war stance. The critic John Jay Chapman, an acquaintance of Robert Nichols, was initially summed up in Siegfried's diary entry as "rather a nice old thing", but this would prove less accurate when Chapman called him "brain-sick", and climbed onto the platform after an appearance at the Cosmopolitan Club at which Mrs Chapman had introduced Sassoon to the audience, to rail against his pacifist views in no uncertain fashion. This anxious moment was made worse by the fact that Chapman had lost a hand and instead wore a hook, which he proceeded to brandish threateningly at Sassoon. Understating the situation as usual, Siegfried writes "Poor Mrs Chapman and I sat there not knowing which way to look".
Chapman, a larger-than-life character, was old enough to be Siegfried's father, and had, in fact, lost a son to the war. Rather than turning him against military conflict, it made him an outspoken supporter of the war, who took Sassoon to task for his 1917 protest as well as for his poetry. By a weird coincidence, Chapman had earned the nickname of "Mad Jack" while at university, inviting comparison with the former officer who had been known for his daring trench raids in 1916. The day after the incident, Chapman wrote to Sassoon with a near-apology: "I suppose the universe will not be wrecked by you or by my trying to stop you", at the same time advising him to "get out of the way of people who want to exploit you", by which he meant anyone with pro-German sympathies.
Siegfried Sassoon returned to the UK in April  1920, moderately unimpressed, especially by what he called "high-class hospitalities", seen off only by his new friend Sam Behrman (author, among other things, of the screenplay for Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Quo Vadis). Twenty-five years later, he wrote: "I find some difficulty in believing that it was really me who went to Chicago all by himself... I go nowhere now, from one year's end to another..."
In addition to Mhairi Pooler's article in the Winter 2010 edition of Siegfried's Journal, transcripts of some of the press articles covering Sassoon's appearances in America can be found in David Gray's on-line Sassoon bibliography here:
http://siegfried-sassoon.firstworldwarrelics.co.uk/html/america.html


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