HARRY KEMP: LEST WE FORGET
Harry Kemp was his own worst enemy, as probably most poets are. A lecherous and lazy man, he committed as many wrongful acts as a man can safely commit. Yet, in spite of all this, Kemp will be remembered, if only for one reason: he knew, abused and bored the right people at the right time. And one of those people was Eugene O'Neill.
O'Neill rated highly in Harry Kemp's mind. But it is questionable whether the playwright ever regarded the infamous boxcar poet as anything more than a nuisance. Despite the fact that apparently Kemp alone valued their acquaintanceship (the importance of which he did not hesitate to play up in his later years), Kemp did, literally, play an important role in the early part of O'Neill's career in Provincetown. Kemp played one of the seamen in the Wharf Theatre's production of Bound East for Cardiff in the summer of 1916. John Reed played another seaman, and O'Neill himself played the Mate in the same production. Even Kemp's wife, the red-haired Mary Pyne, acted in some of the early plays, her performance in Before Breakfast reportedly being her best.
But Kemp's bohemian achievements were certainly not limited to the stage of the Wharf Theatre or the sandy confines of Provincetown. He penned many a poem, a substantial number of which appeared in such publications as Colliers, McClure's, Munsey's, The Masses, The Saturday Evening Post and The Smart Set.1 Unfortunately, the majority of these poems were everything Harry Kemp was not: they were defiantly traditional, and mortally so. The fruit of a twentieth century man desperately trying to poach on nineteenth century turf. Specifically, the turf of Keats, Shelley and Byron.
Kemp also owned a not inconsiderable reputation as a womanizer and home wrecker. He ran off with Upton Sinclair's wife when still in his twenties and documented this and other similar adventures in his two "rough hewn"--as Louis Kronenberger once put it--autobiographical novels, Tramping on Life (1922) and More Miles (1926). These books, hard as it is to imagine now, bolstered publisher Boni & Liveright's fiscal well-being as well as the author's notoriety if not his purse. To this day, copies of Tramping on Life are relatively easy to come by in any decent used book shop.
Other of Kemp's achievements and exploits included stowing away on ships; arranging for anarchist Emma Goldman to speak at the University of Kansas when he was a student there;2 and participating in all-night poetry recitation marathons with the likes of Sinclair Lewis (each man had committed so many lyric poems to memory that their contest ended in a draw).
But to Kemp's real credit, and ultimately to O'Neill's too, there's something more which ought to be added to the picture. Harry Kemp was a shack person.
Kemp lived a good number of his 77 or so years in shacks or like places. He died in one. A grand, temple-like affair, located in the middle of Provincetown on property owned by a friend, that beachcomber friends built for him one year as a birthday present. It's quite obvious to anyone who visits Kemp's last rambling driftwood home (Figure 2), which has changed little in the 20 years since his death, that no ordinary person could have inhabited it--that the person it was built for must have been a bit gamy, wild and intractable. You also realize that it's a shame the "Unkempt" Harry Kemp himself isn't about.
Oh yes, Harry Kemp was a shack person. When an abscessed tooth nagged him, he removed it himself with a screwdriver. He scratched out his verses with a seagull feather, wore beach rose garlands in his light colored hair, and fancied wearing capes. He knew Greek and Latin (self-taught, of course) and was a serious student of the Bible. Handouts from friends kept him alive.
Kemp's kind have died off, though. The poet of the dunes may have been nothing more than a nuisance to someone like O'Neill.3 But it must be admitted that Kemp was a special breed of nuisance whose pesky, immodest, Byronic imposition one would simply be hard put to meet up with today. In his own fashion Harry Kemp contributed to the pungent smoky flavor of his times. And Kemp's presence, remarkably enough, is still easily detected today in Provincetown, especially on the dunes out at Race Point overlooking the Atlantic--Peaked Hill Bar, specifically--where shacks still dot the landscape up and down the coastline, many of them inhabited. Inhabited by who-knows-whom?
Kemp elicited such varied responses from among his acquaintances that the true nature of the man may always remain elusive. When Flossie Williams, wife of William Carlos Williams, was asked about him, she replied, "You mean the tramp? Oh, he was a nice man, I liked him."4 Poet Emanuel Carnevali's reaction was decidedly less affectionate: "I always despised the man and the writer. There isn't a page that can be called even lovely. He trampled on life with too careless a foot."5 It may have been E. E. Cummings, never a scorner of the footloose and carefree, who, in a letter to Edmund Wilson, captured best the nature of his fellow poet:
That seems as close as one can come. As Sonny Tasha, a Provicetown friend of Kemp's, told the author over a cup of coffee, "No one knows the real Harry Kemp story." But, mystery or not, Kemp should be remembered, even if only as a shadowy addendum to the biography of Eugene O'Neill.
1 A sample, entitled "In Debt," and included in Kemp's The Cry of Youth (1914):
2 Ms. Goldman recalled the area and the incident in Living My Life: "Lack of interest in ideas, smugness, and self-complacency characterized most of the cities of the state of Kansas. The exception was Lawrence, the university seat. Here it was largely a group of advanced students that put life into an otherwise sleepy town. The most active of them was Harry Kemp. He prevailed upon the Good Government Club, a body of law students, to invite the dangerous anarchist to address them on 'Why Laws Fail.'"
Louis Sheaffer recounts one Kemp-O'Neill altercation in O'Neill,
Son and Playwright:
4 Quoted in Reed Whittemore's William Carlos Williams.
5 From The Autobiography of Emanuel Carnevali.
6 From Selected Letters of E. E. Cummings.
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