Saturday, April 08, 2006

Walter Lowenfels - A Biography

"Over the push-bell it says: JABBERWHORL CRONSTADT, poet, musician, herbologist, weather man, linguist, oceanographer, old clothes, colloids."
--- Henry Miller on Lowenfels [Cronstadt], from Black Spring (1936)

Walter Lowenfels was a member of the American ex-pat writer community that became a support system for Henry Miller during his early years in Paris in the 1930s. He appears in Miller's Tropic Of Cancer as "Cronstadt" and is notably profiled in the essay Jabberwhorl Cronstadt from Black Spring.

Lowenfels' associations with Miller will be dealt with in later postings. For now, here's a general biography of his life.
BUTTER BOY 1897 - 1925

Born in New York City, May 10, 1897, to a father who would gain success in the New York butter industry (as far as I can tell, this company was the Hotel Bar Butter Co.). Goes to Prepatory School in New York, graduating at age 17 in 1914, at which point he is made to work for his father's butter business. After some brief military service during WWI in 1917, Walter begins writing poetry and, by 1919, has some of it published in local papers. In 1924, he meets Lillian Apotheker, with whom he becomes romantically involved. She puts up some money to have his first poetry collection, Episodes & Epistles, published by Thomas Seltzer in 1925.


In 1926, Walter finally escapes the butter business by running away to Paris with Lillian, whom he marries soon after their arrival. During this period of serious poetry writing, his work is published in This Quarter and transition. For a short time in 1929, he lives in Berlin with composer George Antheil [ref.]. In 1930, Walter meets Michael Fraenkel, with whom he shares ideas about 'death in life.' Together they create Carrefour Press in 1930 and launch a pamphlet called Anonymous: The Need for Anonymity (which explains their soon-to-fail theory that writers should publish anonymously). That same year, Nancy Cunard of Hours Press announces herself as a fan of his work, and publishes his Apollinaire: An Elegy [cover at left]. His accolades continue in 1931 when This Quarter awards him the Richard Aldington Poetry Prize (shared with ee cummings). 1931 also marks the year he publishes an anonymous play called USA With Music: An Operatic Tragedy.

In April 1931, Walter meets Henry Miller in Paris. [to be covered another time] At this time, Walter is working on Elegy for D.H. Lawrence, which would be published by Carrefour in 1932. Walter sues George Gershwin in 1932 for plagiarizing his USA With Music and turning it into Of Thee I Sing (which won Gershwin a Pulitzer Prize that year) [ref.]. Walter loses the case in December 1932 and is forced to pay court costs.

“The artist might be described as one who masters the technique of saying the obvious without being executed first.” --- Walter Lowenfels


After publishing The Suicide on Carrefour in 1934, Walter returns to America with his wife Lillian and a batch of France-born kids. Now 37, he resumes working for his father's New York butter business. His political activism increases in earnest, eventually drawing him to Philadelphia in 1938, where he becomes a reporter for the communist Daily Worker newspaper. During the next decade, his efforts are focussed on politics and not on poetry. In 1948, he co-writes a song with Lee Hays called Wasn't That A Time, which is recorded by Pete Seeger [he would later translate foreign poets for Seeger to use as lyrics, such as Business and Tomorrow's Children.] In 1951, Walter receives more national attention when Time magazine picks up on a piece he'd written about the price of meat for Daily Worker. He ceased working for that paper in 1953.

In 1953, Walter becomes the eldest member of the Philadelphia Nine: nine men charged [1, 2, 3] under the Smith Act with sedition and plotting to overthrow the US government. The case is overturned in August 1953. He is again arrested in 1954 [view his FBI files - 1, 2]. Walter had been recouping from a heart attack at a cottage in Pennsylvania. He'd sent out 156 pieces of mail which had insufficient postage and were being held in New Jersey. The postal officer decided this was "subversive" material, at which point the FBI became involved and arrested Walter at his cottage for being an "alleged Communist." Lowenfels is charged with treason and served short time for it. While in prison in 1954, Walter writes The Prisoner’s Poems for Amnesty, and a poem by Howard Fast called The Poet In Philadelphia is dedicated to him.

“When the tragedy of the world market no longer exists, unexpected gradations of being in love with being here will emerge.” --- Walter Lowenfels


By the late 1950's, Lowenfels gains a reputation as an anthologist, with collections such as American Voices (1959) and Song of peace, a translation based on poems of Eluard and others (1959). Besides Sonnets Of Love And Liberty (1955) and a few poems being published in The Nation in 1957-8, Walter also releases Walt Whitman's Civil War (1961) and the collection Some deaths: Selected poems, 1929-1962 (1962) . Walter is still under the eye of the FBI in 1964, as this transcription suggests. This document identifies Walter living at Weymouth Road in Mays Landing, New Jersey, and being a member of the Southwest club, 2nd Congressional District, Communist Party Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware. This year he releases To An Imaginary Daughter.

In 1967, Walter is active in protests against the Vietnam War and releases one of his most significant anthologies, Where is Vietnam? In 1967, he is also the associate editor of Dialog magazine and also releases We Are All Poets Really. An anthology and autobiography come out in 1968: The Portable Walter and My Many Lives: The Autobiography of Walter Lowenfels: The Poetry Of My Politics. In The Time of Revolution (anthology begun in 1963 as New Jazz Poets) is printed in 1969.

In 1970, Walter works with Howard McCord on a profile on his old friend Michael Fraenkel called The Life of Fraenkel’s Death: a Biographical Inquest. This is followed by From the Belly of the Shark (1973) and For Neruda, For Chile (1975). A resident of Peekskill, Walter Lowenfels dies of cancer at age 79 in Tarrytown, NY, on July 7, 1976.

“Politics is just an essential base to the process of being alive, in poems or anywhere. No matter what a writer says or doesn’t say, he cannot help having political alignments.” --- Walter Lowenfels


Walter Lowenfels Papers in Washington University. / Lowenfels correspondence in the Howard McCord Papers, U Of Delaware. / Bibliography at Bibliopolis. / Bibliography at /


Anonymous Rockero said...

Very nice, well-researched bio of Lowenfels. I wish I would have found it before I wrote his Wikipedia biography 8).

I stumbled across Lowenfels because one of my favorite artists, Rini Templeton, was a fan of his The Revolution is to be Human.

10:51 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Walter Lowenfels was my grandfather, he died on July 6th 1976.

5:00 a.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Laura, I purchased your grandfather's home June 2006, although I never knew about Walter Lowenfels I fell in love with this wonderful property which from every angle inspired me to continue to write -as always - simple poetry and indulge within the beautiful vistas surrounding this half-acre cute, small ranch. I became fascinated about his work after reading Joel Lewis's Walter Lowenfels Reality Prime: Selected Poems. When I first walked onto the steps of this home, I felt there was so much history and love in this cozy ranch nestled in the woods and filled with the serenity of its nearby 1600-acre preservation that, it only took me ten minutes to decide to purchase this home. I have since then obtained 3 other books among those: The Portable Walter by Robert Gover, Poets of Today.
I have a strong feeling that your grandfather loved this home, and every day I welcome and cherish the beautiful energy he left within.

10:56 p.m.  
Blogger Angela said...

The song, Wasn't that a Time, was written in the 60's.
There are other discrepancies in the bio but I won't correct them. He died on July 7th, 1976, I had my hand on his pulse when it stopped.
Angela, his daughter

8:14 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I lived on the 4500 block of Regent Street in the 1940's and 50's and knew Angela and her twin sisters, Judy and manna. We were friends but I also knew that the family were communist. We had a great fear of communism back then because of the Soviet Union and felt that Stalin was capable of starting World War III. I guess that most of the family is gone now considering that I'm seventy five. I have memories of those day that I could share and would but not in this context.

2:26 a.m.  
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9:28 p.m.  

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