Dr. Mathilde Roza on Robert M. Coates

FM: Who is Robert M. Coates?

MR: Robert Myron Coates is a novelist and short story writer. Also, from 1937 to 1967, he was an art critic for the New Yorker. Coates was born in 1897 in New Haven, and belongs to the “lost generation,” although Coates himself objected to being treated like a “cipher in a procession.” His short-stories represented a major impulse for the urban short-story that the New Yorker was developing in the early 1930s, and his long fictional work is of much interest especially because of the literary and formal experiments that Coates engaged in, and the great influence that the European avant-garde had on his work. Coates was greatly interested in violence, and much of his work resonates with the threat of violence, ranging from murder to micro-aggression.

Contents page with “topic sentences” from a 2020 reprint of Yesterday’s Burdens, featuring an introduction by Roza.

FM: How did you first come across Coates and his work? What was your first reaction like?

MR: When I was reading the work of critic Malcolm Cowley, a contemporary of Coates, I noticed that he mentioned Coates as an underrated writer whose work deserves more scholarly attention. The one Coates novel that our university library owned was Yesterday’s Burdens, Coates’s second novel. I was immediately and greatly intrigued by the power and the beauty of his words and the original forms that he worked with, such as the inclusion of road marks, traffic signs, the use of parentheses and, as Coates called them, “topic sentences.”

FM: October 2021 saw the re-publication of Coates’s The Eater of Darkness. Why has it been out of publication?

MR: Although Coates was relatively well-known during the late 1920s and the 1930s as a lost generation writer and later, a New Yorker associate, his literary reputation never became strong enough to survive the test of time. Also, the book is highly experimental and, as such, unique to attract a large audience. It required an active process of re(dis)covery which has now, finally, occurred.

FM: Your introduction is featured in the 2021 edition, too. But what is The Eater of Darkness is about?

MR: It is a very special type of crime novel, composed of highly diverse types of text, and with a pretty unmanageable plot. It features a murderous x-ray machine, a mad scientist, a bank robbery, a love affair with a prostitute and a murderer working as a detective. It was inspired by the popularity of American popular culture, such as silent movies and Nick Carter novels and by the French novels about the character Fantomas, a violent and pretty nasty criminal. Coates actually thanks Fantomas in his dedication to The Eater of Darkness, as well as his father and mother. The novel also reflects the American expatriates’ interest in Dadaism and surrealism, and mocks this infatuation through parody even as it reflects it. The novel was promoted as a “Dada novel” by Ford Madox Ford and Malcolm Cowley when it republished in New York in 1929, but I prefer to think of the novel as a very ingenuous reflection of the zeitgeist, as well as a study of the usefulness of Dada for the American writers’ goals to achieve literary independence from Europe.

The dedication page in a first edition of The Eater of Darkness.

FM: So, why is Coates’s work important today? Are there other works of his that are out of publication or have yet to be published?

MR: Amazingly, three of Coates’s novels have recently been republished: Wisteria Cottage [1948], a noir novel of great literary power; Yesterday’s Burdens [1933], a novel that seeks to summon up the mood of New York City in the early 1930s and the end of the “roaring twenties” and, of course, The Eater of Darkness. His work is important today because it complements our view of the literary 1920s and 1930s and alerts us to the inspiration that mass and popular culture represented to literary authors.

2020 reprint of Coates’s Wisteria Cottage with an introduction by Roza.

FM: What can we find in Wisteria Cottage or Yesterday’s Burdens? Can readers expect stylistic similarities between these works and The Eater of Darkness?

MR: Wisteria Cottage (1948) is a really great example of the mixture of high and low in the sense that it strongly leans on the popular topic of crime and violence, film noir, the detective and maybe even the horror genre, but simultaneously exploits literary experimentation. It’s a very convincing portrait of the psychopathological mind as a result. Yesterday’s Burdens (1933) was Coates’s second novel and came straight out of his efforts to encapsulate mood, location, zeitgeist in writing—it’s a wonderful attempt to capture the country versus the city, and to provide a view of urban loneliness, and of New York City coming to terms with the end of the roaring twenties and the onset of a whole different era.

FM: How did he broadly contribute to Dadaist and Modernist literature? Did he consider himself part of the Dadas?

First edition cover of The Eater of Darkness, published by Robert McAlmon’s Contact Editions and printed by Maurice Darantiere (printer of Joyce’s Ulysses).

MR: Coates loved the exuberance of Paris Dada, but never fully embraced its artistic tenets. He was, as he himself wrote in the foreword to the previous republication of The Eater of Darkness, in 1959, “Dada in the loosest sense” of the word: he was disinterested in literary fame, loved literary fun and games and had a great sense of humor which responded well to the levels of absurdity that Paris Dada sought after. His contributions to modernism are noteworthy: his search for literary newness led to very interesting experiments in form and style, and his search for literary forms that matched the mood or atmosphere of a certain place at a certain time are quite unique. This is also visible in a novel by Coates called The Bitter Season (1946), set at the time of D-Day, in 1944. Although not entirely satisfying as a novel, it contains stunning representations of New York on the home-front and points ahead to literary confessionalism and literary non-fiction. Coates seems to have had a good prophetic sense of literary moods and styles to come—a dimension that we can seen in almost all of his novels.

Contents page in The Eater of Darkness‘s first edition.

FM: How does his work compare to the stylistic innovations of Modernist writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf?

MR: That’s quite an amusing question; Coates was, in his own words, “a Gertrude Stein man,” meaning that, in the debate between Joyce and Stein, he was squarely on her side. Joyce, according to Coates, was straining after effect and “was depending on smell alone to get his effects,” as he once wrote. Coates really enjoyed intellectual puzzles, I think, and the type of abstract innovation that Stein offered, the effort to reword the world, was very appealing. Also, Stein and Coates got along very well, and both tried to further the other’s career, as I have also outlined in my biography.

FM: Was Coates familiar or friends with other writers and figures from the Lost Generation? He name-drops Malcolm Cowley along with Laurence and Peggy Vail in The Eater of Darkness. Can you discuss his relationship to Cowley and others?

MR: Coates was quite the lone-wolf, it seems to me, although he did enjoy people and parties. He associated with Malcolm Cowley and Matthew Josephson quite a bit; they met in Paris, and later they all lived in the same area in Connecticut (Sherman/Gaylordsville). Laurence Vail and Peggy Guggenheim were friends from the Paris days also and Vail continued to visit Coates in the 1930s. There is correspondence to prove that Coates was connected to many writers and artists, especially those associated with the New Yorker, but he mainly seems to have embraced a relatively quiet social life and was very individual in his approach to build a literary career.

FM: Like Coates, are there other neglected Dadaist or Modernist figures that you think lack attraction or attention to today?

MR: Another interesting writer whose work is currently receiving attention through reprints of his work is John B. Sanford (1904-2003)—a West coast writer who did some of his writing during the modernist period. He too was a writer who combined the genres of popular writing (the hard-boiled novel in particular) with forms of literary experiment. He was greatly interested in, and deeply critical of, the way that American history had unfolded and located the nation’s addiction to violence in its early history of racial violence and colonialism.

 


Mathilde Roza is an Associate Professor of North American Literature and North American Studies at Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands. She is the author of Following Strangers: The Life and Literary Career of Robert M. Coates (South Carolina U Press, 2011), as well as several articles about Coates’s literary experimentalism and his position at the New Yorker. She has also written the introductions to the recent re-issues of three Coates novels, The Eater of Darkness (City Point Press, 2021), Yesterday’s Burdens (Tough Poets Press, 2020) and Wisteria Cottage (Valancourt Books, 2020).

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