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Bodenheim, Maxwell (1892-1954)
by Gilbert, Lindsey

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Maxwell Bodenheim1892-1954

A Jazz-Age bohemian, Maxwell Bodenheim frequented the literary circles, and later the street corners, of New York City’s Greenwich Village. Between 1912 and 1946, he produced ten volumes of poetry and thirteen novels, along with several plays and essays. Known for his long bouts of homelessness, multiple marriages, and violent death near the Bowery, Bodenheim is more mythologized than read. Yet his poems, particularly his earliest experiments with free verse, were well received by such contemporaries as Conrad Aiken and William Carlos Williams, who praised the audacity of their new forms.

Bodenheim first surfaced as a “young Chicago poet” (“Notes” 206). Born Maxwell Bodenheimer in 1892, he was the only child of Alsatian immigrants who, when Bodenheim was nine, left a small railroad town in Mississippi to settle on Chicago’s South Side. Bodenheim’s formal education ended with his expulsion from Hyde Park High School, after which he changed his surname and enlisted in the army. A desertion attempt sent Bodenheim, then seventeen, to prison at Fort Leavenworth, where he remained until his military discharge. His return to Chicago in 1912 marked the beginning of his literary career as his first poems appeared in the pages of Poetry and the Little Review. He met the major figures of the Chicago literary revival; established a lifelong friendship and rivalry with playwright Ben Hecht; and cultivated the contemptuous persona that Williams would later satirize in his “Prologue” to Kora in Hell:

Bodenheim pretends to hate most people, including [Ezra] Pound and [Alfred] Kreymborg, but that he really goes to this trouble I cannot imagine. He seems rather to me to have the virtue of self-absorption so fully developed that hate is made impossible. (Williams 27)

In 1914, Bodenheim’s first poems appeared in Poetry and the Little Review. Two years later, he relocated to New York City, where he fell in with the Village artists surrounding Alfred Kreymborg. The move was in part a break from the Chicago literati, but Bodenheim continued to collaborate with Hecht and others, returning briefly in 1923 to staff Hecht’s Chicago Literary Times.

As Kreymborg’s associate and occasional houseguest, Bodenheim became an editor of Others and a contributor to journals such as the Egoist and the Dial. Some remember Bodenheim as the first established writer to show interest in Hart Crane, but his efforts on Crane’s behalf were limited, and he promised help he never gave, including placement in Others and the Seven Arts. In 1918, Bodenheim married Minna Schein, who furnished the title for his first collection of poems, Minna and Myself (1918). Although Bodenheim’s third novel, Replenishing Jessica (1925), sold thousands of copies after it drew charges of obscenity, Bodenheim’s other books were financial disappointments, and his only steady job, obtained through the Federal Writer’s Project, dissolved in 1940 after his employers learned he had once been involved with the Communist party. In 1938, Bodenheim finalized a divorce with Minna and became estranged from his son, Solbert. His second wife, Grace Finan, died in 1950, and he married Ruth Fagan in 1952, beginning a period of permanent vagrancy. After two years of destitution, during which Bodenheim panhandled on Thompson Street, read aloud at the Raven Club in exchange for food, and sold his poems for alcohol, Bodenheim and Ruth Fagan were killed in an altercation with another Village transient, who later confessed to their murders.

In 1925, Harriet Monroe offered the readers of Poetry her version of Maxwell Bodenheim, a “frail pale” youth who began to appear in the magazine’s offices soon after its inception. According to Monroe, Bodenheim went from “hunted and haunted” to “insistent and emphatic” as he rose to relative prominence, then began to send “letters full of malign” to his sometime friends (“Maxwell Bodenheim” 321). Monroe herself received at least a few such letters from Bodenheim, who wrote in 1916, “I do not care to appear again in your magazine” (Letters 126). Yet Bodenheim remained a Poetry contributor throughout the 1920s, and he won the magazine’s Oscar Blumenthal prize in 1939, after Monroe’s death. Many of the poems that Bodenheim submitted to Poetry before 1918, including “The Interne,”“To an Enemy”, and “To a Discarded Steel Rail”, were reprinted in Minna and Myself, and his submissions afterward included poems, short prose comments, and a notable reply to Alice Corbin Henderson’s critique of mannerism in free verse.

—Lindsey Gilbert

Selected Works by Maxwell Bodenheim

Further Reading

  • Monroe, Harriet. “Maxwell Bodenheim.” Poetry 25.6 (1925): 320–26.
  • Moore, Jack B.Maxwell Bodenheim. New York: Twayne, 1970.
  • Murphy, Russell. “Maxwell Bodenheim.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 45: American Poets, 1880–1945. Ed. Peter Quartermain. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986.
  • “Notes.”Poetry 4.5 (1914): 206.
  • Parisi, Joseph and Stephen Young, eds. Dear Editor: A History of Poetry in Letters; The First Fifty Years, 1912–1962. New York: Norton, 2002.
  • Williams, William Carlos. Kora in Hell: Improvisations. In Imaginations. Ed. Webster Schott. New York: New Directions, 1970. 1–82.
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