Legacy 20.1&2 (2003) 204-205
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Gregory Eiselein's selection of the uncollected poems and essays of Adah Issacs Menken (1835-1868), along with her only book Infelicia, is representative of one the most dynamic and unconventional poet and stage personalities of the 1860s. Reversing what he sees as the overwhelming influence of her scandalous behavior and exceptional theater career on most biographical and literary criticism about her work, Infelicia and Other Writings focuses on the seminality of literature to her life. Eiselein analyzes Menken's thematic concerns and technical usages, and contextualizes them within a historical and cultural framework. Therefore, while subverting a monolithic framework of critical interpretation that has been based on the very inconsistent factual evidences of Menken's life, Eiselein also simultaneously creates a new way of reading her works.
The poems and essays are clustered according to the journals in which they appeared, reflecting Menken's thematic and stylistic focuses during specific periods of time. For instance, Menken's association with the literati frequenters of the Pfaff (perhaps the first organized Bohemia of America, centered around Pfaff's beer cellar on Broadway in New York City) affected the form and content of her work during her stay in New York. This is evident in the avant-garde pieces she published in the Sunday Mercury. The inclusion of poems from Infelicia further provides an overview of Menken's concentrations and arrangements, summarizing her thematic and stylistic focuses. By including the uncollected poems, Eiselein provides a comprehensive and accurate picture of Menken's poetic career. The prose pieces, moreover, extend the main concerns put forward in the poetry while providing a socio-cultural and historical framework for Menken's personal response to particular events. Eiselein's thorough research and critical analysis of the conflicting dialectics of Menken's personal and literary history in the Introduction and Notes also situates her within the specific contexts of nineteenth century culture and provides new interpretive parameters.
In order to frame his argument, Eiselein provides a detailed listing of all conflicting accounts of Menken's birth dates, places, parentage, spouses, and ethnic identity. Eiselein argues for the impossibility of achieving an accurate and substantiated account of Menken's eclectic and public life, considering the many and often contradictory "facts" claimed by Menken herself. He then extends this ambiguity to his analysis of her poetry and argues for the difficulty of situating her within a monolithic poetic structure—whether in terms of themes, poetic personas, voices, or technical usages. Most of the criticism surrounding Menken's works attempts to clarify contradictions by referring to her biography. Eiselein argues, however, that "Menken's ideas about identity are not typically clarified by contextualizing them in terms of what we know about her life" (33).
In attempting almost a deconstruction of the unified persona created by past criticism, Eiselein articulates a cohesive argument for the impossibility of a monolithic interpretation of the life or works of Menken. Structuring his discussion on a wider thematic field, he also focuses on some of her most unconventional images to present the avant-garde elements of her work and warrant his alternate reading. However, Eiselein does not completely negate the presence of coherent and consistent patterns within her work, for he also traces the thematic and stylistic devices used by Menken throughout her literary career. Nonetheless, the focus of the book consistently remains on the ambiguity inherent in Menken's life-stories, extending to [End Page 204] her poetry and prose. While situating her within a specific historical period, Eiselein comes to the conclusion that Menken's reputation, then and now, is dependent on these inconsistencies. His compilation and analysis very clearly provides a basis for further research that uses the inconsistencies of her life and work as the dialectical framework of interpretation.