Abbreviated thoughts on John Ashbery, James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy and the influence of Henry James.

Recently I became a subscriber to The Library of America, which I was once before, long ago in a different life; and as a result three new “free gift” books arrived the other day. John Ashbury’s Collected Poems, 1956-1987; James Baldwin’s Collected Essays; and Mary McCarthy’s early fiction, Novels & Stories 1942-1963.  Having been woken up, by my nervous child, shortly after getting to sleep, I end up sitting at the dining room table with the new books, peeling from them their shrink wrap, jiggling them out of their white slipcases (subscribers get the books not in their paper jackets but in this sturdy white cardboard boxes, which I love and which played some role in my re-subscribing).

Two of them, Baldwin and McCarthy, I opened and read from at random. The Ashbury I went searching through, seeking a particular set of lines I remember hearing him read almost forty years ago. Which set of lines eventually I found. So here are the three passages I read — first the Ashbury, then Baldwin, then McCarthy:

From “The System”, Three Poems, 1972—

These ample digressions of yours have carried you ahead to a distant and seemingly remote place, and it is here that you stop to give emphasis to all the way you have traveled and to your present silence. And it is here that I am quite ready to admit that I am alone, that the film I have been watching all this time may be only a mirror, with all the characters including that of the old aunt played by me in different disguises. If you need a certain vitality you can only supply it yourself, or there comes a point, anyway, when no one’s actions but your own seem dramatically convincing and justifiable in the plot that the number of your days concocts.

 

From “Stranger in the Village”, Notes of a Native Son, 1955—

 And this [strangeness, separateness] is so despite everything I may do to feel differently, despite my friendly conversations with the bistro owner’s wife, despite their three-year-old son who has at last become my friend, despite the saluts and bonsoirs which I exchange with people as I walk, despite the fact that I know that no individual can be taken to task for what history is doing, or has done. I say that the culture of these people controls me — but they can scarcely be held responsible for European culture. America comes out of Europe, but these people have never seen America, nor have most of them seen more of Europe than the hamlet at the foot of their mountain. Yet they move with an authority that I shall never have; and they regard me, quite rightly, not only as a stranger in their village but as a suspect latecomer, bearing no credentials, to everything they have — however unconsciously — inherited.

 For this village, even were it incomparably more remote and incredibly more primitive, is the West, the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted. These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modern world, in effect, even if they do not know it. The most illiterate among them is related, in a way that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as indeed would New York’s Empire State Building, should anyone here ever see it. Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory — but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive.

 

From Groves of Academe, 1952 — (The Mulcaheys chaperone a student dance.)

[Catherine Mulcahey] wore her wedding-dress, a white satin and net concoction with a short train; crystal drops sparkled at her ears; lipstick outlined her thin lips; and the pale, somewhat watery blue of her eyes, the sharp cut of her nose, which ordinarily had a secretarial quiver, were lustered and softened with excitement and a heightened sexual aplomb. “Doesn’t Mrs. Mulcahey look beautiful?” the girls cried to their escorts, identifying Catherine’s triumph over four children, housekeeping, and poverty with their own trepidant emergence from the chrysalis of slacks and blue jeans, with the innocent magic of parties, rouge, low dresses, music, with everything silky, shining, glossy, transfigured, and yet everyday and serviceable, like a spool of mercerized cotton or a pair of transparent nylons reinforced at heel and toe.

So I’m dwelling on these three quotes, actually loving these two randomly and one almost randomly arrived-at quotes, when I start doing that thing readers of my generation were taught by our philologically-inclined college faculty to do: comparing, weighing, placing into boxes and labeling. And what then do I see — I see Henry James. I hear Henry James, more accurately; his voice is detectable in all three passages: “ … it is here that you stop to give emphasis to all the way you have traveled and to your present silence”; “…this village, even were it incomparably more remote and incredibly more primitive, is the West, the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted”; “… identifying Catherine’s triumph over four children, housekeeping, and poverty with their own trepidant emergence from the chrysalis of slacks and blue jeans, with the innocent magic of parties, rouge. low dresses, music, with everything silky, shining, glossy, transfigured …”. They resemble James in that order, too: Ashbury the least, Baldwin considerably more, McCarthy, by a hair over Baldwin, the most. McCarthy was close to a number of critics who were key figures in the Henry James ‘revival’, a kind of James mania among literary figures of the mid-twentieth century in the U.S. — a smaller phenomenon than the Roman Catholic mania among writers and intellectuals of that time but with longer lasting effects on our literature, I suspect.

 

 

 

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