On Walter Lehmann
A pseudonym of Gwen Harwood
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Among my father’s cousins, Walter Lehmann was exceptional in four ways: he kept the double n’s at the end of his surname; having escaped from Nazi Germany, he settled in Australia rather than England or the United States; he wrote poetry; and he was a fictional character, a persona and a pseudonym adopted by Gwen Harwood (1920-1995), an estimable Australian poet.
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Harwood, who was married to a professor of linguistics at the University of Tasmania, was a lifelong student of Wittgenstein. She adopted other masks besides Walter Lehmann. ‘I like disguises,’ she said. ‘I like beards and wigs.’ But there was more to it than an attraction to the paraphernalia of masquerade. It was an example of practical feminism — a demonstration that a poem about a woman would have a chance to win the enthusiasm of an editor if only he thought a man had written it. It was also a way to question the concept of linguistic identity.
Harwood adopted the identity of Walter Lehmann most memorably in 1961 when she hoaxed the poetically conservative editor of the prestigious Sydney-based literary journal The Bulletin. Walter Lehmann wrote ‘A Kitchen Poem,’ a moving and much-lauded poem that explores the life of a mother and housewife from the female point of view. Gwen Harwood was convinced that ‘A Kitchen Poem’ would not have been published under her own name because of the editor’s gender bias, and so, as Walter Lehmann, she followed up with two acrostic sonnets that appeared in a subsequent issue of The Bulletin. There was egg on the face of the venerable editor when it was revealed to his shock and dismay that the first letters of the sonnets’ lines, read vertically, spelled out ‘Fuck all editors’ and ‘So long, Bulletin.’
This is not the Walter Lehmann mentioned in this text. This Walter Lehmann was an Americanist, and an editor and translator of Nahuatl texts. Born in Berlin (Preußen, Germany) 16 September 1878, died in Berlin (Germany) 7 February 1939. After receiving a M.D., Lehmann joined the Berlin Ethnographical Museum in 1903 as ‘Volontär’ in the American Department; he also pursued Americanistics at the university under the tutorship of Eduard Seler [1849-1922]. He was sent to Central America by the Museum, where he concluded a linguistic survey from 1907-09. Upon his return he was appointed curator at the Ethnographical Museum in München and received a Ph.D. in 1913 and a Habilitation in 1915 from the university there, both with studies of Central American Indian languages and linguistics (‘Vokabular der Ramasprache..’ and ‘über die Stellung und Verwandtschaft der Subtiaba-Sprache.’).
In 1920 Lehmann returned to the Berlin Museum as head of a recently created ‘Forschungs- und Lehrinstitut’, and, later was also appointed director of the American, Oceanic and African Collections, which gave him the power to overrule decisions of the departmental curators. On his second and third field trips to Latin America (1925-26 and 1929-30) he continued his linguistic survey and extended it to Andean South America, collected extensively portable artifacts from excavations and dealers, copied ancient American stone sculpture and mural paintings, and collected manuscripts and rare books. It was his untyring spirit as a collector which finally resulted in the most comprehensive and valuable private document and book collection on Indian America assembled during the twentieth century in Germany. This collection is completely preserved at the Iberoamerikanisches Institut (Berlin).
Harwood’s pseudonymous poems are daring inasmuch as they explore the feelings that women, mothers in particular, have but are not supposed to have. As ‘Miriam Stone,’ Harwood wrote ‘Burning Sappho,’ in which the mother confesses: ‘Something like hatred forks between / my child and me. She kicks her good / new well-selected toys with spite / Around the room, and whines for food. / Inside my smile a monster grins / And sticks her image through with pins.’ In a poem written as Walter Lehmann, ‘In the Park,’ a woman whose children are bickering sees a former lover stroll by: ‘It’s so sweet / to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive,’ she tells the man about her kids. But after he leaves, she rhymes bitterly: ‘To the wind she says, ‘They have eaten me alive.’
According to Frances Lenado, the work of Gwen Harwood as Walter Lehmann exemplifies the ‘identity fluidity’ that (she argues) marks great poets from Shakespeare and John Donne to Keats and Emily Dickinson. As Lenado writes, Harwood demonstrates that it is ‘liberating to shed her actual identity and write as another person entirely — someone she might want to be if only for the length of a poem. The poem’s the thing, not the poet or the group that the poet is taken as representing.’ Lenado argues also that there can be ‘a transfer of identity’ when author and translator (or author and heteronym) are of different sexes.
The Walter Lehmann affair of 1961 continued the noble Australian tradition established by the fabulous Ern Malley hoax of 1944. It provides added proof of the immense value, to a working writer, of pseudonyms and heteronyms. But to this observer the combination of Walter Lehmann and Gwen Harwood holds a particular appeal because my name is Lehman and my wife’s maiden name is Harwood.
Only a handful of unpublished poems by Walter Lehmann have surfaced in recent years. In ‘Refusal to Apologize’ a woman emboldens her husband to quit his job: He will win if he ‘can / tell off [his] boss / without loss of temper.’ The foreordained result: ‘no bang but also no whimper.’ Only in the last line is there a hint that the husband’s relation to his boss mirrors the wife’s relation to the husband: ‘But was there a store where she could buy a new man?’
An early story by Walter Lehmann entitled ‘Civilian Clothes’ depicts a soldier returning from the war. He marries the girl he had known only briefly before reporting for duty. The pair had corresponded with hot passion and deep feeling. Now he has a job and she is pregnant. One day he comes home from work and is surprised to find her crying in her favorite armchair, inconsolable. The lack of further resolution adds to the story’s allure, with readers debating whether the couple is doomed to divorce sooner rather than later, because no marriage could live up to the words in the letters they had exchanged.
Walter Lehmann visited New York once when I was eleven or twelve. He was a sweet-natured man though capable of great pugnaciousness in his writing. When he found out that I was bereft — my beloved Dodgers had abandoned Brooklyn for the greener pastures of Los Angeles — he talked about tennis so enthusiastically, about such Aussies as Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, and an up and comer named Rod Laver, that I took up the game that spring and became an avid fan. I have rooted for Laver, Borg, Sampras, Federer, each one a great champ. On my back recovering from surgery I got to watch Wimbledon and I have to say that John McEnroe, the erstwhile bigmouthed brat on the court, is as astute and articulate a play-by-play man as any sport enjoys.
Some days when I lie on the couch under a quilt with a vacant or pensive look on my face, my wife asks me what I am thinking of. And half the time it’s something like: will Novak Djokovich, on his gluten-free diet, win the U.S. Open? But I am also entertaining the idea of digging in the family archives for the acrostics Walter Lehmann was known to have written in Sydney and Melbourne in the 1960s.
— David Lehman.
1. See Wilde, W., Hooton, J. & Andrews, B., The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994).
2. See Jaya Savige, ‘Creation’s Holiday: On Silence and Monsters in Australian Poetry, in Poetry (April 2016 CK) p. 180-181.
3. Frances Lenado, ‘Gender Fluidity and the Use of Heteronyms’ in Contemporary Literature in Translation (Vancouver; Spring 2016), pp. 68-96.