Kenneth Fearing in 1936, photograph from the New York World Telegram & Sun Collection, Library of Congress


Kenneth Fearing, “the drunken poet,” was a rising star among the Greenwich Village bohos in the 1920s, his forlorn presence a model for ‘starving artists’ for three different novelists and as subject for one of Alice Neel’s greatest portrait paintings of the 1930s. Fearing’s dissolute reputation preceded him and, at times, obscured the fact that he was one of America’s finest poets. His first two collections, Angel Arms and Poems, published in 1929 and 1935, respectively, are bona fide classics. He gained further renown as a novelist, particularly for the bestselling noirish The Big Clock (1946), praised by Raymond Chandler and adapted by Hollywood in 1948. 

In the 1920s, a thin, bespectacled poet originally from Chicago became a symbol of dissipated genius among New York’s bohemians. Kenneth Fearing (1902-1961)—often referred to in Greenwich Village at the time as the “drunken poet”— was the model for tragic characters in three novels by other authors as he “sought for and found the bottoms of countless bottles of emphatic Prohibition gin”—this, according to then-New York World-Telegram reporter Joseph Mitchell.

Despite his self-destructive proclivities and his dire poverty, Fearing wrote and published his poetry at a feverish clip during the Jazz Age and the 1930s. His first book of poems, Angel Arms (1929), is a hard-bitten classic of “reasoned derangements” and was said to “initiate proletarian poetry as an American literary movement of permanent importance.” This early verse combined traditional elements of the older, “genteel” tradition (read: rhyme and meter) with the cut-up documentary style of John Dos Passos novels.

The following are excerpted lines from Angel Arms, to give some idea of the energy and focus of his verse. Nothing quite like this had appeared in American poetry before Fearing. As Robert Ryley, editor of his Collected Poems, sagely noted years later, “If Fearing occasionally sounds like another poet, no other poet ever sounds like Fearing.”

And rat-a-tat-tat / Rat-a-tat-tat / Stuttered the gat / of Louie the rat, /  While the officers of the law went Blam! Blam! Blam!(from “St. Agnes’s Eve”)

Only silence lives at night, / Silence and fear, / With something warm as melody / Ringing through the distant streets / I cannot go near(from “The Drunken Fly”)

Some hot summer night / When the city trembles like a forest after battle / And Feldman’s brain is an iron claw / She will drop from an L train sliding through the sky / like a burning snake / And give him the wink, and he will come along… / He will come along…(from “Angel Eyes”)

Fearing himself never used the term “proletarian” to describe his poetry, largely because he wasn’t to that manner born. He, in fact, grew up in privilege—especially relative to the dire poverty that would plague him in later life. Born in Oak Park, Ill. (same as Ernest Hemingway, who was three years his senior), his father was a prominent Chicago attorney from the same family lineage as Calvin Coolidge, while his mother’s family (Flexner) produced many famous academes and intellectuals. His parents divorced early but Fearing spent most of his childhood with his father because, according to Ryley, his mother was a humorless wretch who seldom supported Kenneth emotionally (though she did send him a monthly check for years), while his father was tolerant of his poetic proclivities.

Fearing was sent to private schools, where he edited student newspapers and wrote acerbic columns, then graduated from the University of Wisconsin, where he edited the literary magazine but was forced to resign after printing too much modernist and borderline obscene content. There, he also befriended fellow poet Carl Rakosi and fell in love with writer Margery Latimer, following her to NYC in 1923.

Margery Latimer, 1930.

They (inevitably) broke up in 1928, due largely to Fearing’s drinking and unreliability, and she moved back to Wisconsin where, in 1931, she married novelist Jean Toomer, author of the now classic Cane (1923). By then, Latimer had published two collections of short stories and two highly acclaimed novels of her own, We Are Incredible (1928) and This Is My Body (1930), both of which were compared by critics to modernists like Gertrude Stein and James Joyce. This Is My Body contained a character based on Fearing, a talented writer given to drink. Sadly, the promising Latimer died in childbirth in 1932.

Fearing worked odd jobs while writing poetry; he did not have a regular full-time job until he was 50. During his peripatetic freelance career, he worked with the WPA, Time magazine, and various Jewish philanthropic foundations. To fill the gaps in his income, he also wrote pulp fiction, often under a pen name. When he began publishing poetry in the mid-1920s, the words came out in a flurry, winning him adherents as renowned as Edmund Wilson and Edward Dahlberg. Even though his first collection, Angel Arms (1929), was embraced as “proletarian” by the leftist and socialist journals where many of the poems were originally published (New Masses mostly), Fearing was far more of an iconoclast and satirist than a working-class hero. By the time the stock market crashed in 1929, Fearing had developed a blisteringly sardonic voice that leaped off the printed page of his Poems (1935), a masterpiece of what Edward Dahlberg, in his introduction to the volume, called “satire disrobed.”

Complete Poems, published by the National Poetry Foundation, 1994

Poems (1935) was his breakthrough, as his verse flowed in an avalanche of lines (presaging Ginsberg’s “Howl” breakthrough).

Some excerpted lines from Poems:

What reply can you give to the pawnclerk’s decent bid for / your silverware? / How are you to be grateful as ‘Thrift’ glares out, in a hundred thousand watts, across the ghetto nights; / reassured, as the legless, sightless one extends his cup; / who can be surprised, why, how, as the statesman / speaks for peace and moves for war? / Then, when they tell you the executioner does the best that / he can, what can you say? What then?” (from “As the Fuse Burns Down”)

Truth, be known, be kept forever, let the letters, letters, / souvenirs, documents, snapshots, bills be found at last, / be torn away from a world of lies, be kept as final evidence, transformed forever into more than truth; / Change, change, rows and rows and rows of figures, spindles, furrows, desks, change into paid-up rent and let the paid-up rent become South Sea music.” (from “Denouement”)

Even when your friend, the radio, is still; even when her / dream, the magazine, is finished; even when his life, the / ticker, is silent; even when their destiny, the boulevard, is bare; /

And after that paradise, the dance-hall, is closed; after that / theater, the clinic, is dark, /

Still there will be your desire, and hers, and his hopes and / theirs, / Your laughter, their laughter, / Your curse and his curse, her reward and their reward, their dismay and his dismay and her dismay and yours—“ (from “X Minus X”)

And wow he died as wow he lived, / Going whop to the office and blooie home to sleep and biff / got married and bam had children and oof got fired, / Zowie did he live and zowie did he die…” (from “Dirge”)

The reviews were kind and his dissipated presence around New York’s bohemian circles added to his mystique as the drunken lumpen poet. He married a kind and patient nurse named Rachel Meltzer, in 1933. On their first date, Meltzer later said that she fell in love “with the filthiest man she had ever seen,” according to Ryley. “His shirts were green with grime, his teeth covered with tartar…however, his very grubbiness may have been part of his attraction.” They had one child, Bruce Fearing (bn. 1935), who would later write poetry and hang around the fringes of the Beat crowd of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Corso.

Among Kenneth Fearing’s circle of kindred spirits was the portrait artist Alice Neel, who got to know him well enough to paint one of her most striking portraits of the 1930s. She incorporated onto the canvas the urban decay, violence, and squalor that appeared in his poetry. Fearing would return the favor by modeling a character in his most famous novel, The Big Clock, on Alice Neel.

Portrait of Kenneth Fearing painted by Alice Neel, 1935.

Largely because he published his poetry in leftist and socialist journals like New Masses, Fearing was lumped in with the Communists but it’s doubtful he was ever a member of the party. He was mostly apolitical (and seriously alcoholic). He admitted to his wife that he would go to John Reed Club meetings in Greenwich Village that bored him with the pomposity and self-importance of the speakers. When asked, under oath, if he was a member of the Communist Party, he told federal investigators (truthfully), “Not yet.”

In a 1936 profile of Fearing for the World-Telegram, Joe Mitchell—who would go on to write about other NYC dissipates in McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon and Joe Gould’s Secret—wrote, “[Fearing’s] poems are about tear-gas, and packing-box cities, and evictions, and in them are the biographies of thousands of Depression-shattered citizens.” Fearing’s bitterness was offset by his beautiful images and dazzling energy (“and let the paid-up rent become South Sea music”).

His literary reputation peaked around this time, when he received two Guggenheim fellowships, that allowed him to take his family to London for a year (1937) and then to traipse off to the writer’s (and drinker’s) colony at Yaddo, which led to his getting his poetry published in more mainstream venues like the New Yorker. He won prizes and awards that kept some money coming in, and published a flurry of books between 1938-1943, including two books of poems, and four novels. All this despite the fact that his drinking was out of control and his wife divorced him because of it in 1942.

In 1945, he met and married Nan Lurie, an up and coming artist, and the new domesticity briefly pulled him from the doldrums.

Sketch of Kenneth Fearing by Nan Lurie, 1945.

He was inspired to write The Big Clock by reading Sam Fuller’s novel The Dark Page (1944), which Fuller himself would later adapt to the screen, and direct, as Scandal Sheet (1952). More directly, though, Fearing was influenced by the sensational high-society murder of Patricia Lonergan, heiress to a $7 million beer fortune, by her husband, Wayne, a “morally corrupt playboy” (New York Times) who strangled and bludgeoned her to death in their posh Midtown Manhattan home after she filed for separation and cut him out of her will. The trial was a media sensation only slightly less salacious than the Ruth Snyder-Judd Gray murder trial of 1927, simply because Wayne Lonergan managed to escape Sing Sing’s electric chair (unlike Ruth and Judd).

The Big Clock, published in 1946, became a bestseller, bringing in much needed royalties and magazine republication rights and the sale of film rights. Its publication inspired Raymond Chandler to say, “I’m still a bit puzzled as to why no one has come forward to make me look like thirty cents. But except for an occasional tour-de-force like The Big Clock, no one has.”

Poster for the film The Big Clock (1948).

Fearing’s novel was adapted for a popular noirish film in 1948, directed by John Farrow (Mia’s dad) and starring Maureen O’Sullivan (Mia’s mom), Ray Milland, and Charles Laughton (a Beat Generation champion long before anyone else in Hollywood).

Fearing’s sudden wealth only exacerbated his drinking, and he told Alice Neel that he was drinking around the clock and had nearly died of an alcohol/phenobarbital mixture. Staring into the abyss got Fearing sober for a while, but once the money ran out and his health declined, he began drinking again and writing for the pulp magazines.

In all, Fearing published seven books of poetry and eight novels, but he should best be remembered for the power of the early verse:

“Sky be blue, and more than blue; wind, be flesh and blood;

Flesh and blood, be deathless; walls, streets, be home:

Desire of millions, become more real than warmth

 and breath and strength and bread.”