Benjamin De Cessares
By: Devin McKinney | Categories: HiLo Heroes

The first legal drink at the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel, 1933

We all have writers whose literary presence we find boon, tonic, and wonderment, but whose personal presence we would go some distance to avoid. None exemplifies that dynamic of attraction and repulsion better than BENJAMIN DeCASSERES (1873–1945), a once-famous New York newspaperman who wrote many short volumes of criticism and complaint, poetry and polemic, reverie and rant, and who as Romantic egotist and philosophical pessimist often made it his business to be as provocatively uncongenial as possible. E.g.: “My own work is epochal in American literature; but I cannot compete with the hopeless sissification of our college-ridden publishing houses and magazines”; “It is the weak man who urges compromise — never the strong man”; “Pessimism, in a word, is the soul of man raised to the highest zenith of embattled consciousness.” But the aphoristic essays collected in Chameleon: Being the Book of My Selves (1922) evidence a more impersonal mysticism, a turn away from provocative absolutes in favor of juicy imponderables: “We influence the unknown at every turn. … We weave tomorrow on the shuttle of today and unravel the past each minute”; “in rare moments of self-consciousness our voice sounds strange, far away, not ours. It is the sudden perception of that great truth: We are not ourselves.” At a party, the man would be a drag. On the page, he is a Mephistophelean stylist, and one of those too-few writers willing to grip the staff of life at the lower end and not let go, though his legacy molder in obscurity and incomprehension — as DeCasseres’ has.

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Jane Digby, Jane Goodall, Alec Baldwin, Shigeru Sugiura.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Anarcho-Symbolist (1864–73) and Psychonaut (1874–83) Generations.

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Devin McKinney is author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History and most recently, The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda.