Sunday, November 11, 2012

America by Alice James

May 20th, 1890

I had an almost Gallic sense of the injustice of Fate the other day, unusual for me, for I am not rebellious by temperament and trampled down as much as possible all boresome insurrection, having fortunately early perceived that the figure of abortive rebel lent itself much more to the comic than the heroic in the eyes of the cold-blooded observer, and that for practical purposes surrender, smiling, if possible, is the only attainable surface which gives no hold to the scurvy tricks of Fortune.

I was awfully tired one afternoon and was going to bed when Constance Maud’s name was brought up, asking if I would see her for a moment as she was going to America the next day. I scrambled into bed, and she, straight and handsome, with shining eyes and glowing cheeks told me she was going to my land, whilst my highest privilege, shriveled and rickety, was to go to bed in hers!

What a tide of homesickness swept me under for a moment! What a longing to see a shaft of sunshine shimmering thro’ the pines, breathe in the resinous air and throw my withered body down upon my mother earth, bury my face in the coarse grass, worshipping all that ugly, raw emptiness of the blessed land stands or – the embodiment of the Huge Chance for hemmed in Humanity! Its flexible conditions stretching and lending themselves to all sizes of man; pallid and naked of necessity; undraped by the illusions and mystery of a moss-grown, cobwebby past, but overflowing with a divine good-humor and benignancy – a helping hand for the faltering, and indulgent thought for the discredited, a heart of hope for every outcast of tradition!

June 24th, 1891

I suppose we are perpetually coaling up, as it were, and taking in unconsciously information for future application. Half a dozen times a day I find myself saying, “I must ask K. about that,” or “I must find out about this,” with the idea that some day I may need the knowledge, when suddenly I am stopped by the thought that the “some days” are over for me; a thought natural and simple, and of a most desirable complexion. It seems more like the gentle dropping of natural things, than the taking up of spiritual ones; as it comes nearer, it will doubtless seem more positive.

Owing to my curious, given my inheritance and surroundings, complete absence of intellectual curiosity – philosophies and systems, theologies and sciences having ever been as dry husks to the living emotions and moralities – these last possess me with such an unquestioned and sustaining force, that they function unconsciously, I suppose, and I don’t have to pick them up now, with a parson and prayer-book.

Of all the repulsions, the greatest is that of a religion subscribed to in conformity to an outward standard of respectability, not the spontaneous inspiration of the aspiring soul. A God with fixed and rigid outlines to be worshiped within a prescribed and strictly formal ritual, not a Deity that shapes himself from moment to moment to the need of the votary whose bosom glows with the living, ever clearer knowledge of divine things. A faith propped up by a resounding rhetoric descending from the ages, and by the vain repetitions of men; not a faith which is the sacred secret of every soul within which its springs impregnable, who communion is the common joys and sorrows, the simple sights and sounds, and whose ritual shrouds itself from vulgar speculation in the individual mystery.

This turning away one’s mind so persistently from what bores it, and allowing one’s being to absorb itself in one motive, the active principle conceived in youth and never modified, show a restricted nature, not admirable or generous in its impulses, but highly practical and time saving, in so far that it never runs you off the track, and one soon learns the bearing’s of one’s little compass. So many seem to pass their lives starting afresh on every side track.

As one’s inconsistencies, or rather those of one’s brother, lend to life its chief charm, I should, if not so obscure, give a handful of people a rejoiceful occasion to scoff, as in all probability an Anglican priest will supervise my obsequies. I am to be taken to Woking, and if Harry were only like his French confreres, he could easily record the sublimity of my past and save me from the humiliation that the person has some raison d’etre after all, and that however superior one may be, raw edges grate upon one sadly. Having been denied baptism by my parents, marriage by obtuse and imperceptive man, it seems too bad not to assist myself at this first and last ceremony.

Perhaps the impish part of me will hover about, and enjoy the fine a highly decorative rhetoric, to say nothing of the joke against the “Not as other men” part of me. When Mother and Father died, we fell back upon the uncompromising and amorphous Unitarian shepherd, for whom no sheep has too varied a fleece, but he is hard to find in these pastures.

A week before Father died, I asked him one day, whether he had thought what he should like to have done about his funeral. He was immediately very much interested, not having apparently thought of it before; he reflected for some time, and then said, with the greatest solemnity and looking so majestic: “Tell him to say only this, ‘here lies a man who has thought all his life, that the ceremonies attending birth, marriage and death were all damned nonsense,’ don’t let him say a word more.” But there was no Unitarian, even, elastic enough for this: what a washed out, cowing mess humanity seems beside a creature like that.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

In 1905, when Henry James revisited America after an absence of twenty years, he walked one evening to the Cambridge Cemetery. He had taken this walk long before, and particularly on the last day of 1882, when he had gone bout in the bright sunshine and deep snow to visit the newly-cut grave of his father. This time he went in the dusk of late November. He noted that the western sky had turned into “That terrible, deadly, pure polar pink that shows behind American winter woods.” The moon had come up, white and young, and was reflected in the white face of the empty Stadium which framed one of the boundaries of Soldiers’ Field across the Charles.

He stood on the little hillock by a group of graves – “that unspeakable group of graves” – and it seemed to him suddenly that he knew why he had come back to his native land. It was for this private reunion, this recovery of old feeling – “it was the moment; it was the hour; it was the blessed flood of emotion that broke out at the touch of one’s sudden vision and carried me away.” Everything was here, as he had known it long before – “the recognition, stillness, the strangeness, the pity and the sanctity and terror, the breath-catching passion and the divine relief of tears.”

Alice, too, long ago had invoked the favorite paternal adjective divine – when she had prayed for a “divine cessation.” And Henry invoked it a few sentences later, when he spoke of the lines from Dante which William had found and inscribed on Alice’s urn – William’s “divine gift to us, and to her” – ed essa da martiro e da essilio venne a qusta pace. The long exile and suffering had led to this final peace; and the line from Dante took Henry “so at the throat by its penetrating rightness, that it was as if one sank down on one’s knees in a kind of anguish of gratitude before something for which one had waited with a long, deep ache.”

And in the later time, after Henry James’ ashes had, in turn, been committed to a grave beside his sister’s, Alice’s diary could be placed beside the series of the family memorials the novelist had brought into being – beside A Small Boy and Others and Notes of a Son and Brother. The diary, more modest and more personal than these soaring and beautiful works, implied without insistence that it too – the thoughtful notes of a daughter and a sister – had its place on the brotherly bookshelf, and on that of the James family.

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