One morning in July 1954 I sat in my bedroom on the third floor of the Payne-Whitney clinic of New York Hospital, trying as usual to get my picture of myself straight. I was recovering from a violent manic seizure, an attack of pathological enthusiasm. What I saw were the blind white bricks of other parts of the hospital rising in my window. Down the corridor, almost a city block away, I heard the elevator jar shut and hum like a kettle as it soared to the top floor with its second and last allotment of sixteen of my fellow patients going to Occupational Therapy. My mind, somewhat literary and somewhat muscle-bound, hunted for the clue to the right picture of itself. In my distraction, the walls of the hospital seemed to change shape like limp white clouds. I thought I saw a hard enameled wedding cake, and beside it, holding the blunt silver knife of the ritual, stood the tall white stone bride—my mother. Her wedding appeared now less as a day in the real past than as a photograph.
The hospital was a blending of the latest and laciest Gothic-and-skyscraper styles of the Twenties and Thirties—arch, groin, coign, and stainless steel. I thought for a moment of that island in the Seine, a little Manhattan with river water on both sides, the island of King Louis’s SainteChapelle, all heraldry and color and all innocent, built to house a thorn! Under its veneer of fragile white bricks, how merely geometrical this New York hospital was, how securely skeletonized with indestructible steel, how purely and puritanically confined to its office of cures. Counting the tiers of metal-framed windows, I myself was as if building this hospital like a child, brick by brick or block by block.
The mornings were long because, after breakfast and bed-making and informal lounging and television-news period, we were all expected to walk for some forty minutes in the courtyard. It was a formal, flowerless place covered with bright gray octagonal paving stones, like some unaccountably secluded and clean French place. Two by two, we walked round and round, and without any props or screens or diverting games, we tried to make conversation. It was thought uncooperative and morbid if we walked with another man. The women were terrible to me. Some were concave and depressed, some worried endlessly about their doctors’ feelings and remarks, some flattered, some flirted, some made fierce well-expressed sarcastic thrusts—they all talked. Distant, thorny, horny, absentminded, ineptly polite, vacantly rude, I walked with the ladies. They were hurt, and I was hurt. The men were almost as bad. I had my cronies, but I had soon exhausted their novelty, which mattered little to me. What hurt me was that in a matter of minutes I used up any strength I had to be new or fresh or even there.
Then there were the student nurses, crisp-fronted, pageboy bobbed, pale-blue-denim bloused, reading new Herald Tribunes and eyeing watchfully the strategic angles of the courtyard. They were ready to engage me gently and bring me back, if ever I dawdled into single file or sat down by myself on a bench. The unflowering shrubbery was healthily a full green, the leaves were all there, and in spite of the dusty dreariness of midsummer New York all about us, it all seemed cool, spontaneous, and adequate. That’s how all the other patients seemed. And a great iron gate, some twenty feet high, protected us from the city and living. The gate was just a little bit prettier and more ornate than use demanded. It was really locked, and a patient would have had to be an athlete or a thief to scale it. Beyond it we could see the blinding blue sparkle of the East River. Often, an orange tugboat was moored a few feet away from us. It had a swollen fleece-and-rawhide buffer on its prow. As if begging admission to our asylum, the boat kept moving with chafing sounds toward the concrete embankment.
My mind moved through the pictures of conscience and remained in its recollections, weightless, floating. On a sallow sheet of onionskin paper, whose semitransparency half revealed and half concealed the pink pads of my fingers, I tried to write some lines of verse:
In Boston the Hancock Life Insurance Building’s beacon flared
Foul weather, Father, as far as the Charlestown Naval Yard.
And almost warmed…
On the nights when Mother was dying all alone at that little private hospital in Rapallo, the needle of the Hancock Life Insurance Building was flashing storm warnings. As I took the taxi to the Boston airport, I watched the angry discouraging red lights go on and off. Far to my left, men were working with blow-torches on the blistered gray of old battleships scrapped at the Charlestown Naval Yard, Father’s old hunting ground. This was the last place he had found employment worthy of his optimistic esprit de corps and his solid grounding in higher mathematics. In New Hampshire, the White Mountains would have been freezing. And at our family cemetery in Dunbarton the black brook, the pruned fir trunks, the iron spear fence, and the memorial slates would have been turning blacker. The motto on Father’s family crest would still say Occasionem Cognosce, as he lay buried under his ostentatiously recent unacclimatized tombstone, the single Lowell among some twenty-five Starks and Winslows. And as the moonlight and the burning cold illuminated the carved names of Father’s in-laws, one might have thought they were protesting Father’s right to hold a single precious inch of the over-crowded soil, unless he produced a dead wife, a Winslow.
I arrived at Rapallo half an hour after Mother’s death.* On the next morning, the hospital where she died was a firm and tropical scene from Cézanne: sunlight rustled through the watery plucked pines, and streaked the verticals of a Riviera villa above the Mare Ligure. Mother lay looking through the blacks and greens and tans and flashings from her window. Her face was too formed and fresh to seem asleep. There was a bruise the size of an earlobe over her right eye. The nurse who had tended Mother during her ten days’ dying stood at the bed’s head. She was a great gray woman and wore glasses whose diaphanous blue frames were held together by a hairpin. With a flourish, she had just pulled aside the sheet that covered Mother’s face, and now she looked daggers at the body as if death were some sulky animal or child who only needed to be frightened. We stood with tears running down our faces, and the nurse talked to me for an hour and a half in a patois that even Italians would have had difficulty in understanding. She was telling me everything she could remember about Mother.
For ten minutes she might just as well have been imitating water breaking on the beach, but Mother was alive in the Italian words. I heard how Mother thought she was still at her hotel and wanted to go walking, and said she was only suffering from a little indigestion, and wanted to open both French windows and thoroughly air her bedroom each morning while the bed was still unmade, and how she kept trying to heal the hemorrhage in her brain by calling for her twenty little jars and bottles with their pink plastic covers, and kept dabbing her temples with creams and washes, and felt guilty because she wasn’t allowed to take her quick cold bath in the morning and her hot aromatic bath before dinner. She kept asking about Bob and Bobby. “I have never been sick in my life. Nulla malettia mai! Nulla malettia mai!” And the nurse went out. “Qua insieme per sempre.” She closed the door, and left me in the room.
That afternoon I sat drinking a Cinzano with Mother’s doctor. He showed me a copy of Ezra Pound’s Jefferson and/or Mussolini, which the author had personally signed with an ideogram and the quotation “Non…como bruti.”
At the Italian funeral, I did everything that Father could have desired. I met the Rapallo English colony, Mother’s brief acquaintances. I made arrangements at the simple red-brick English chapel, and engaged a sober Church of England clergyman. Then I went to Genoa and bought Mother a black-and-gold baroque casket that would have been suitable for burying her hero Napoleon at Les Invalides. It wasn’t disrespect or even impatience that allowed me to permit the undertakers to take advantage of my faulty knowledge of Italian and Italian values and to overcharge me and to make an ugly and tasteless error. They misspelled Mother’s name on her coffin as Lovel. While alive, Mother had made a point of spelling out her name letter by letter for identification. I could almost hear her voice correcting the workmen: “I am Mrs. Robert Lowell of One Seventy Marlborough Street, Boston, L, O, W, E, double L.”
On the Sunday morning when we sailed, the whole shoreline of the Golfo di Genova was breaking into fiery flower. A crazy Piedmontese raced about us in a particolored sea sled, whose outboard motor was of course unmuffled. Our little liner was already doing twenty knots an hour, but the sea sled cut figure-eights across our bow. Mother, permanently sealed in her coffin, lay in the hold. She was solitary, just as formerly when she took her long walks by the Atlantic at Mattapoisett in September, “the best season of the year,” after the summer people had gone. She shone in her bridal tinfoil and hurried homeward with open arms to her husband lying under the White Mountains.
When Mother died, I began to feel tireless, madly sanguine, menaced, and menacing. I entered the Payne-Whitney Clinic for “all those afflicted in mind.” One night I sat in the mixed lounge, and enjoyed the new calm which I had been acquiring with much cunning during the few days since my entrance. I remember coining and pondering for several minutes such phrases as “the Art of Detachment,” “Off-handed Involvement,” and “Urbanity: Key to the Tactics of Self-Control.” But the old menacing hilarity was growing in me. I saw Anna and her nurse walk into our lounge. Anna, a patient from a floor for more extreme cases, was visiting our floor for the evening. I knew that the evening would soon be over, that the visitor would probably not return to us, and that I had but a short time to make my impression on her.
Anna towered over the piano, and pounded snatches of Mozart sonatas which she half remembered and murdered. Her figure, a Russian ballerina’s or Anna Karenina’s, was emphasized and illuminated, as it were, by an embroidered Middle European blouse that fitted her with the creaseless, burnished, curved tightness of a medieval breastplate. I throbbed to the music and the musician. I began to talk aimlessly and loudly to the room at large. I discussed the solution to a problem that had been bothering me about the unmanly smallness of the suits of armor that I had seen “tilting” at the Metropolitan Museum. “Don’t you see?” I said, and pointed to Anna. “The armor was made for Amazons!” But no one took up my lead. I began to extol my tone deafness; it was, I insisted, a providential flaw, an auditory fish weir that screened out irrelevant sonority. I made defiant adulatory remarks on Anna’s touch. Nobody paid any attention to me.
Roger, an Oberlin undergraduate and fellow patient, sat beside Anna on the piano bench. He was small. His dark hair matched his black-flannel Brooks Brothers suit; his blue-black eyes matched his blue-black necktie. He wore a light cashmere sweater that had been knitted for him by his mother, and his yellow woolen socks had been imported from the Shetlands. Roger talked to Anna with a persuasive shyness. Occasionally, he would stand up and play little beginner’s pieces for her. He explained that these pieces were taken from an exercise book composed by Béla Bartók in protest against the usual, unintelligibly tasteless examples used by teachers. Anna giggled with incredulous admiration as Roger insisted that the clinic’s music instructor could easily teach her to read more skillfully. Suddenly I felt compelled to make a derisive joke, and I announced cryptically and untruly that Rubinstein had declared the eye was the source of all evil for a virtuoso. “If the eye offends thee, pluck it out.”
No one understood my humor. I grew red and confused. The air in the room began to tighten around me. I felt as if I were squatting on the bottom of a huge laboratory bottle and trying to push out the black rubber stopper before I stifled. Roger sat like a rubber stopper in his black suit. Suddenly I felt I could clear the air by taking hold of Roger’s ankles and pulling him off his chair. By some crisscross of logic, I reasoned that my cruel boorishness would be an act of selfsacrifice. I would be bowing out of the picture, and throwing Roger into the arms of Anna. Without warning, but without lowering my eyes from Anna’s splendid breastplate blouse, I seized Roger’s yellow ankles and pulled. Roger sat on the floor with tears in his eyes. A sigh of surprised revulsion went round the room. I assumed a hurt, fatherly expression, but all at once I felt eased and sympathetic with everyone.
When the head nurse came gliding into the lounge, I pretended that I was a white-gloved policeman who was directing traffic. I held up my open hands and said, “No roughage, Madam; just innocent merriment!” Roger was getting to his feet; I made a stop signal in his direction. In a purring, pompous James Michael Curley voice, I said, “Later, he will thank me.” The head nurse, looking bored and tolerant, led me away to watch the Liberace program in the men’s television parlor. I was left unpunished. But next morning, while I was weighing in and “purifying” myself in the cold shower, I sang
Rex Tremendae majestatis
qui salvandos salvas gratis
at the top of my lungs and to a melody of my own devising. Like the catbird, who will sometimes “interrupt its sweetest song by a perfect imitation of some harsh cry such as that of the great crested flycatcher, the squawk of a hen, the cry of a lost chicken, or the spitting of a cat,” I blended the lonely tenor of some fourteenth-century Flemish monk to bars of “Yankee Doodle,” and the mmmmmm of the padlocked Papageno. I was then transferred to a new floor, where the patients were deprived of their belts, pajama cords, and shoestrings. We were not allowed to carry matches, and had to request the attendants to light our cigarettes. For holding up my trousers, I invented an inefficient, stringless method which I considered picturesque and called Malayan. Each morning before breakfast, I lay naked to the waist in my knotted Malayan pajamas and received the first of my round-the-clock injections of chloropromazene: left shoulder, right shoulder, right buttock, left buttock. My blood became like melted lead. I could hardly swallow my breakfast, because I so dreaded the weighted bending down that would be necessary for making my bed. And the rational exigencies of bedmaking were more upsetting than the physical. I wallowed through badminton doubles, as though I were a diver in the full billowings of his equipment on the bottom of the sea. I sat gaping through Scrabble games, unable to form the simplest word; I had to be prompted by a nurse, and even then couldn’t make any sense of the words the nurse had formed for me. I watched the Giants play the Brooklyn Dodgers on television.
Prince Scharnhorst, the only other patient watching the game, was a pundit and could have written an article for the encyclopedia on each batter’s technique and the type of pitching that had some chance of outwitting him. The Prince understood catcher Roy Campanella’s signals to the Dodger pitchers, and criticized Campanella’s strategy sympathetically but with the authority of an equal. My head ached and I couldn’t keep count of the balls and strikes for longer than a single flash on the screen. I went back to my bedroom and wound the window open to its maximum six inches. Below me, patients circled in twos over the paving stones of the courtyard. I let my glasses drop. How freely they glittered through the air for almost a minute! They shattered on the stones. Then everyone in the courtyard came crowding and thrusting their heads forward over my glasses, as though I had been scattering corn for pigeons. I felt my languor lift and then descend again.
I already seemed to weigh a thousand pounds because of my drug, and now I blundered about, nearly blind from myopia. But my nervous system vibrated joyfully when I felt the cool air brushing directly on my eyeballs. And I was reborn each time I saw my blurred, now unspectacled, now unprofessorial face in the mirror. Yet all this time I would catch myself asking whining questions. “Why don’t I die, die?” I quizzed my face of suicide in the mirror; but the body’s warm, unawed breath befogged the face with a dilatory inertia. I said, “My dreams at night are so intoxicating to me that I am willing to put on the nothingness of sleep. My dreams in the morning are so intoxicating to me that I am willing to go on living.” Even now I can sometimes hear those two sentences repeating themselves over and over and over. I say them with a chant-like yawn, and feel vague, shining, girlish, like Perdita, or one of the many willowy allegoric voices in Blake’s Prophetic Books.
“For my dreams, I will endure the day; I will suffer the refreshment of sleep.” In one’s teens these words, perhaps, would have sealed a Faustian compact. Waking, I suspected that my whole soul and its thousands of spiritual fibers, immaterial ganglia, apprehensive antennae, psychicradar, and so on, had been bruised by a rubber hose. In the presence of persons, I was ajar. But in my dreams I was like one of Michelangelo’s burly ideal statues that can be rolled downhill without injury.
Three days after Father’s death, the Beverly Farms house almost gave the impression of having once been lived in. Its rooms, open, eviscerated, empty, and intimate, were rooms restored to “period.” Perhaps this vacancy, this on-tiptoe air, came from my knowing that everything about me had waited three days for Father’s return to us from the undertaker. But it was obvious that my parents had lived at Beverly Farms less than eighteen months. Mother had bought the Beverly Farms house as a compensation for Father, whose ten years’ dream of moving from Boston to Puget Sound had been destroyed by a second heart attack. Fearfully, she had looked out of her windows at Beverly Farms, as though she were looking from the windows of a train that was drawing into one station beyond her destination. From the beginning, she had lived with an eye cocked toward Boston. She wanted to be in Boston, and dreaded Boston’s mockery of this new house, which was so transparently a sheepish toy house for Father.
The third day after Father’s death was an overcast day. His little ship’s-cabinsized bedroom, the blue bedroom, lay overlooking the sloping garden, the huge, smooth boulder, the gunmetal railroad tracks showing through scarlet sumac. Whitecaps on a patch of black Atlantic appeared through the lopped tops of garden trees, chalk writing on a blackboard. The blueness of the bedroom had been achieved by Mother through an accumulation of inconspicuous touches: blue lines on the top of the bedspread, blue fringe on the curtains, blue velvet straps on the Chinese sandals, a blue kimono. Blue symbolized baths twice a day, a platonic virility, the sea—Thalassa! But the bedroom was ninetynine one-hundredths white of course. Elbow grease, an explosive simplicity—the floor’s old broad softwood boards seemed sandblasted into cleanliness. On a white enamel bedside table, and beside a glass lamp with a lace lampshade, lay Volume I of Lafcadio Hearn’s Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan. The cover, olive green ornamented with silver bamboo stalks in leaf, was as wrinkled and punished and discolored as an old schoolbook. On the flyleaf my Grandmother Lowell had written: “Rob, from Mother. September 1908.” The book had originally been given her by someone named Alice on January 23, 1908. This, too, was noted down. On another page, she had written: “This book had hard usage on the Yangtse River, China, when R.T.S.L. was on the gunboat Villalobos. It was left under an open porthole in a storm.” This inscription was unlike the ones written by Mother’s family the Winslows: it was correctly spelled, and made no attempt to amuse or improve.
Mother’s bedroom was a better place. It was four times as large as Father’s. Sensibly, world-acceptingly, it overlooked a driveway and faced away from the ocean. Here were objects which proclaimed admirable pleasures: an adjacent, pavilion-like bathroom, a window seat, a boudoir table, lending-library whodunits with plastic covers, an electric blanket; and, perhaps crowning all in its idyllic symbolism, a hot-water bottle, silver, engraved like an old-fashioned hip flask with a family crest and covered by a loosely woven pink woolen slip which Mother had knitted herself. Mother’s double bed, her tall bureau, her short bureau, her boudoir table bench, her telephone stand and stool, her rocker, her hearth broom, and her breakfast tray with folding legs all matched, were painted a mustard yellow ornamented with wheels and ripplings of green and gold. Alas, her innocent breakfasts in bed—ubi sunt!
On the third day, one room, as though it were a person, seemed to experience Father’s absence. This was the “den.” All its soft, easeful, chilly leather surfaces glistened and mourned: the brown oakand-iron escritoire brought back from Palermo by Grandfather Winslow; the brown rug, lampshades, and curtains; the brown wood of paper knife, chairs, and ship’s-clock base; the helmsman’s-wheel frame of the ship’s clock, a hollow brass rod that was a combination poker and bellows. His ivory slide rule protruded from a pigeonhole of the desk, where it rested in its leather case, as handy as some more warlike householder’s holstered revolver.
Also on the desk was a red-and-gold portfolio which held pitilessly complete and clear records of Father’s interests since 1945. Here was the twenty-page booklet of scaled diagrams executed in inks of five colors, a page to each room at Beverly Farms. The position and measurements of each sofa, bed, table, chair, etc., were given. Father had spent a cheerful month devising and correcting this booklet; it had proved a godsend to the movers. Here was a similar booklet filled with hypothetical alternative plans for a rearrangement of the Salem Museum’s display cases. These furniture-position booklets were derivative art; Father had learned how to make them from his cousin A. Lawrence Lowell. When Lawrence Lowell was elected president of Harvard in 1908, he packed up the furniture in his Marlborough Street house and moved to the Yard. He was a man who always landed on his feet, and who looked with modest foresight into the sands of time, and before moving he had accordingly drawn up a furniture-position plan of his old house. In 1936 he had returned to Marlborough Street—an ex-president, a widower, an octogenarian, and an automobilist who had just been deprived of his license for reckless driving. But not a piece of the old furniture had been lost; the position plans were consulted and each piece unalterably reoccupied its old position. Here finally were Father’s estimates and drawings for the installation of the new Sears, Roebuck furnace, which by its low fuel consumption was to pay for itself in ten years. Missing only were the innumerable graphs on which Father had plotted out catastrophic systems for his private investments in those years before the war when he had been an investment counsel and his own chief customer.
I was the only person Mother permitted to lift the lid of the casket. Father was there. He wore his best sport coat—pink, at ease, obedient! Not a twist or a grimace recalled those unprecedented last words spoken to Mother as he died: “I feel awful.” And it was right that he should have the slight overruddiness so characteristic of his last summer. He looked entirely alive, or as he used to say, W & H: Well and Happy. Impossible to believe that if I had pressed a hand to his brow to see if it were hectic, I would have touched the cold thing! There were flowers; not too many. To one side of the casket, someone had accidentally left Admiral K—’s framed photograph. In the Navy, officers are listed according to rank and age; Father and K—had once been the only officers in their class who were not outranked by younger men. And now in the photograph Admiral K—, who had risen from glory to glory, stood on his Mediterranean flagship holding his binoculars half-raised to his eyes, and seemed to squint through the sun’s dazzling, difficult glare into what were either folds of an awning or thirty uniforms on hangers. The picture was inscribed: “To my old friend, classmate + a shipmate ‘Bob’ Lowell.”
Occupational Therapy, or O.T., was held in a suite of rooms on the top floor. It was a sunny, improving world; and here, unable to “think” with my hands, I spent a daily hour of embarrassed anguish. Here for weeks I saw my abandoned pine-cone basket lying on the pile for waste materials. And as it sank under sawdust and shavings, it seemed to protest the pains Mr. Kemper, our instructor, had once taken to warp, to soak, to reweave, to rescue it. And there in an old cigar box I saw my materially expensive, massively hideous silver ring, which Mr. Kemper had mostly forged and then capped off with an intaglio of an Iroquois corn shock ripening under the arrowy rays of a crescent moon. And as I stood there, obsequious, scornful, fearful, and fierce, Mr. Kemper would come to me in his mild, beach-colored smock. He was a shy, precise man who, blushing as if at his own presumption, would tell gentle, instructive anecdotes so as to avoid crude, outright answers to my haphazard questions on techniques. He was used to the impatience of patients; but he seemed stunned when he discovered that my polite, hesitant, often erratically detailed questions seldom implied even an appearance of attending to his answers. I would interrupt in midsentence with new questions, or drive deafly, blindly, marringly into my work.
At Occupational Therapy there was the room of the loom and the room of the potter’s wheels. I spent several mornings in each, inquiring. But when the loom or the wheel was put in my hands, I excused myself by explaining Charles Collingwood’s theory that art could never be merely craft, “despite all the attacks made on inspiration by our friends the antiromantic critics.” I pretended that my doctor had given me permission to read Kim.
But in the end, of course, I gravitated to young Ms. Rodgers’s painting class, which was held in a long light room whose windows surveyed the East River and its shipping. For a few mornings, I asked questions about method, drew cones, and tried to memorize the complementary colors; then, wearying, I began to shout against representation, the laws of perspective, and the Hollywoodization of America. I declaimed paragraphs from a brochure of Cézanne written by Meyer Schapiro. I praised that “plodding dispositional ferocity” which had ruined Cézanne’s White Monk but later made possible the serene and triumphant Madame Cézanne Tête Bassé. Prince Scharnhorst was finishing a delicate and architecturally correct nocturne of the UN building. I enraged him by calling his picture an “impromptu Whistler,” and sneered pityingly at his “deployment of mass.” I began my lifesize copy of Madame Cézanne dans la Serre; obscenely tried to add the nude male bodies of Les Baigneurs as background, and then, prompted by Ms. Rodgers, consented to content myself with Les Grandes Baigneuses. Ms. Rodgers mixed my paints, measured my proportions, steered my brush.
Halfway through, I began to experiment with late Van Gogh and Jackson Pollock palate-knife techniques. My picture was finally almost a likeness, almost attractive, but in a moment of vandalistic Freiheit, I plastered a Dali mustache on Madame Cézanne and made my picture hideous. Then I discovered Paul Klee. Prince Scharnhorst had meanwhile abandoned painting in disgust, and now sat putting the finishing touches on an exact replica of a new Swedish plywood sloop. I showed him a Klee reproduction, Die Hoehe—a girl with triangle body and pumpkin head on a tightrope over a pink and purplish glare. The Prince said this was work that would disgrace a child or a criminal psychopath, so I began a Klee. I used a formula that my Grandmother Winslow, Gaga, had taught me as a child. By making O’s of different sizes and adding rectangles and a few dots, I could draw a picture which began as a farmhouse, a yard, a path, and a pond; and then presto! a man’s face.
After six or seven weeks at the Payne-Whitney Clinic, my bluster and manic antics died away. Images of my spoiled childhood echoed inside me. I would lean with my chin in my hand, and count the rustling poplars, so many leagues below me, which lined the hospital driveway and led out to the avenues of Manhattan, to life. “Rock” was my name for Grandfather Winslow’s country place at Rock, Massachusetts. An avenue of poplars led from the stable to the pine grove. The leaves on these trees were always crisp, brilliant, dusty, athirst. “But I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to go to Rock!” That’s how I would stop conversation when my father and mother talked about trips to Paris, Puget ‘Sound, Mattapoisett, anywhere. The letter paper at Rock bore the name “Chardesa,” taken from the names of my grandfather’s three children—Charlotte, Devereux, and Sarah.
On an August afternoon in 1922, I sat squatting on the screened porch. The porch was ranch-style. Like everything Grandfather built, it was a well of comfort. Comfortable, yes; but stern, disproportioned, overbearing. The maids, Sadie and Nellie, came in bearing frosted pitchers of iced tea, made with lemons, oranges, mint. Or it was a pitcher of shandygaff, which Grandfather made by blending yeasty, wheezing, exploding homemade beer with homemade rootbeer. Chardesa had been our family property and hobby for fifteen years. No one, except a silly gun-shy setter, had ever died there. I sat on the tiles, all of three and a half. My new formal gray shorts had been worn for all of three minutes. Obsequious little drops of water pin-pricked my face reflected in the basin. I felt like a stuffed toucan with a bibulous, multicolored beak. Up in the air, on the glass porch, my Great-aunt Sarah played the overture to The Flying Dutchman. She thundered on the keyboard of her dummy piano, a little soundless box bought to spare the nerves of her sister-in-law, my Grandmother Winslow, who despaired of all music except the pastoral symphony from Handel’s Messiah. But once in a vexed mood, my grandmother had said, “I don’t see why Sally must thump all day on that thing she can’t hear.” Great-aunt Sarah lifted a hand dramatically to the mute keys of the dummy piano. “Barbarism lies behind me,” she declaimed grandly. “Mannerism is ahead.” It was teatime in New England.
I scratched destructively at the blue anchors on my sailor blouse, which was like a balloon jib. What in the world could I be in want of? Nothing, except perhaps a wishes-are-white-horses horse; or a fluff of west wind to ruffle the waters, to stretch my canvas sail, to carry me kiting over the seven chimneys of Chardesa, the white farmhouse, and on over the bunched steel-blue barrels of the shotguns fortifying my Uncle Devereux’s duck blind, and on over the three ample, unislanded miles of Assawamsett, the great lake. I was going far, farther than was useful.
I had always loved my Uncle Devereux’s hunting cabin at Chardesa on the island between the lakes Pochsha and Assawamsett. And now I entered. Uncle Devereux had already shut up shop for the winter almost. He was heaving a huge Stillson wrench to fasten down the bars on the last window blind. I cowered in a corner behind a pyramid of Friends Baked Beans cans. Sunlight from the open doorway struck the loud period posters nailed everywhere on the cabin’s raw, splintery wood. On the boards I saw Mr. Punch, watermelon-bellied in crimson Harvard hockey tights, tippling a bottle of Mr. Pimm’s stirrup cup; the remnants of a British battalion formed in hollow square on the terrible veldt, and dying to a man before the enfilading fire of the cowardly, nigger-hating unseen Boer; flocks of prewar opera stars with their goose necks, their beauty spots, their hair like rooster tails, and their glorious signatures; and finally, the patron of all good girls, Entente Cordiale himself, the porcine, proper, majestic Edward VII, who raised a model of a city, gai Paree above Big Ben. “What an eye for the girls,” someone had scribbled tentatively in pencil.
I wasn’t a child at all. Unseen and all-seeing, I was Agrippina at the palace of Nero. I would beg my Uncle Devereux to read me more stories about that Emperor, who built a death barge for his mother, one that collapsed like a bombarded duck blind! And now I sat in my sailor blouse, as clean as Bayard, our carriage horse. And Uncle Devereux stood behind me. His face was putty. His blue coat and white-flannel trousers grew straighter and straighter, as though he were in a clothes press. His trousers were like solid cream from the top of the bottle. His coat was like a blue jay’s tail feather. His face was animated, hieratic. His glasses were like Harold Lloyd’s glasses. He was dying of the incurable Hodgkin’s disease.
One morning toward the end of my stay at the hospital, I told my psychiatrist about an experience I had during the war, when I was serving a five months’ sentence in jail as a conscientious objector. I belonged to a gang that walked outside the prison gates each morning and worked on building a barn. The work was mild: the workers were slow and absentminded. There were long pauses, and we would sit around barrels filled with burning coke and roast wheat seeds. All the prisoners were sentenced for a cause, all liked nothing better than talking the world to rights.
Among the many eccentrics, one group took the prize. They were Negroes who called themselves Israelites. Their ritual compelled them to shave their heads let their beards grow. But the prison regulations forced them to shave their beards. So, with unnaturally smooth and shining faces and naked heads wrapped in Turkish towels, they shivered around the coke barrels, and talked wisdom and non-sense. Their non-sense was that they were the chosen people. They had found a text in the Bible which said, “But I am black though my brother is white.” This convinced them that the people of the Old Testament were Negroes. The Israelites believed that modern Jews were impostors. Their wisdom was a deep ancestral knowledge of herbs and nature. They were always curing themselves with queer herbal remedies that they gathered from the fields.
Once, as we sat by the coke, the most venerable and mild of the Israelites stretched out his hand. Below him lay the town of Danbury, which consisted of what might be called filling-station architecture; the country was the fine, small rolling land of Connecticut. One expected to see the flash of a deer’s white scut as it jumped a boulder wall by a patch of melted snow. My friend stretched out his arm, and said, “Only man is miserable.” I told my doctor that this summed up my morals and my aesthetics.
I am writing my autobiography literally to “pass the time.” I almost doubt if the time would pass at all otherwise. However, I also hope the result will supply me with swaddling clothes, with a sort of immense bandage of grace and ambergris for my hurt nerves. Therefore, this book will stop with the summer of 1934. A few months after the end of this book, I found myself.
As I try to write my own autobiography, other autobiographies naturally come to mind. The last autobiography I looked into was a movie about a bullterrier from Brooklyn. The dog’s name was, I think, House on Fire. The district he came from was so tough that smoking had to be permitted in the last three pews at High Mass. House on Fire’s mother had been deserted by his father. House knows that his father is a great dog in the great world, either as a champion fighter or as a champion in exhibitions. House on Fire keeps saying with his Brooklyn accent, “I want to be a champ so that I can kill my father.” In the end, there is peace.
My own father was a gentle, faithful, and dim man. I don’t know why I was agin him. I hope there will be peace.
March 12, 1987