Clubbing had cured me of a desire to be around people my own age, and I threw myself into my cataloging and reading with renewed diligence.
Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education, John Henry Newman. First edition, Dublin, 1852. Some stains and pencil underlinings, but leather binding is sound.
I had promised myself I would not get caught up in reading again, as the number of books I had catalogued was a laughably insignificant portion of the collection. But this beautiful book begged to be held and opened and devoured. It was a work of art in its own right, and it was only right that I should appreciate it. I set the volume in front of me and watched as the sunlight illuminated the leather and set fire to the gold stamped letters of the title. Gently I opened the cover and slowly rifled through the book as page after page of lovely type drifted through my fingers. A previous owner -- it could have been Aunt Emma, but I doubted it -- had gained great insight from the book, and I could chart the owner’s interests and personality by which sections were most frequently underlined in pencil. The book seemed to take on the character of this enthusiastic reader, and it was as though he was engaging Newman in discourse with each notation and emphasis. Still I resisted the temptation to stop and browse, until I snagged upon the hook of Newman’s reflections on the English literature of his own day.
Such, as I consider, being the fortunes of Classical Literature, viewed generally, I should never be surprised to find that, as regards this hemisphere, for I can prophesy nothing of America, we have well nigh seen the end of English Classics. Certainly, it is in no expectation of Catholics continuing the series here that I speak of the duty and necessity of their cultivating English literature. When I speak of the formation of a Catholic school of writers, I have respect principally to the matter of what is written, and to composition only so far forth as style is necessary to convey and to recommend the matter. I mean a literature which resembles the literature of the day. This is not a day for great writers, but for good writing, and a great deal of it. There never was a time when men wrote so much and so well, and that, without being of any great account themselves. While our literature in this day, especially the periodical, is rich and various, its language is elaborated to a perfection far beyond that of our Classics, by the jealous rivalry, the incessant practice, the mutual influence, of its many writers. In point of mere style, I suppose, many an article in the Times newspaper, or Edinburgh Review, is superior to a preface of Dryden's, or a Spectator, or a pamphlet of Swift's, or one of South's sermons.
Our writers write so well that there is little to choose between them. What they lack is that individuality, that earnestness, most personal yet most unconscious of self, which is the greatest charm of an author. The very form of the compositions of the day suggests to us their main deficiency. They are anonymous. So was it not in the literature of those nations which we consider the special standard of classical writing; so is it not with our own Classics. The Epic was sung by the voice of the living, present poet. The drama, in its very idea, is poetry in persons. Historians begin, "Herodotus, of Halicarnassus, publishes his researches;" or, "Thucydides, the Athenian, has composed an account of the war." Pindar is all through his odes a speaker. Plato, Xenophon, and Cicero, throw their philosophical dissertations into the form of a dialogue. Orators and preachers are by their very profession known persons, and the personal is laid down by the Philosopher of antiquity as the source of their greatest persuasiveness. Virgil and Horace are ever bringing into their poetry their own characters and tastes. Dante's poems furnish a series of events for the chronology of his times. Milton is frequent in allusions to his own history and circumstances. Even when Addison writes anonymously, he writes under a professed character, and that in a great measure his own; he writes in the first person. The "I”, of the Spectator, and the "we" of the modern Review or Newspaper, are the respective symbols of the two ages in our literature. Catholics must do as their neighbours; they must be content to serve their generation, to promote the interests of religion, to recommend truth, and to edify their brethren today, though their names are to have little weight, and their works are not to last much beyond themselves.
I took up my pencil and faintly, guiltily, underlined the last sentence.
Thanksgiving was a quiet affair. My parents were still getting settled into their condo in Florida and couldn’t afford to travel; my sister was getting settled into her pregnancy and was too sick to travel. Aunt Emma and I went to Peggy Harriman’s house and feasted on turkey with her pack of jolly grandchildren. We were absorbed into the chaotic order of the family occasion. Emma was content to sit in a vast and comfortable recliner and be spoken to by all who passed. The grandchildren were all avid talkers, and avid listeners, which suited Emma just fine. She was content to be chattered at for as long as a child had breath to chatter, and the children were happy to flop around the living room and listen to her repeat the same story again and again.
“Emma,” I encouraged her, “tell the kids the story about the time you nailed Francine’s shoe to the floor.”
Emma broke into a sunny grin at the memory, and the attending youngsters all elbowed one another and shouted for silence. “Well, Francine, she was so fussy, she always put her shoes right at the end of the bed, lined up just so. She would never go out without her shoes, though everyone else ran around barefoot outside. She used to fuss about the bugs outside, or maybe she’d step on some glass or sharp wire, and she used to nag and complain that my feet were always dirty. Oh, you should hear her go on! ‘Emma, you could have stepped in something nasty. Don’t put your disgusting feet on my bed!’”
There were several titters from the listeners, and one young lady who was laying on her stomach nudged her similarly-placed sister and, in a superior tone, told her, “That sounds just like you every night.”
"If I smelled your feet, I'd die," retorted the sister scornfully.
“Well," Emma continued, "one night I’d had just about enough of her fuss, so I took and nailed her shoe right to the floor, set so it looked like they were just by her bed. Then, around 11 o’clock, I shook her awake and told her that Danny Baxter was waiting down by the tree to talk to her. She sat up like a flash and pulled on her robe and slipped her feet into her shoes, and then she tried to run off.” Emma’s eyes sparkled as she relived her moment of triumph. “But she couldn’t go anywhere in that shoe, because I had nailed it right to the floor. It took her just a minute to catch on to what had happened, and then was she angry!” Now her eyes took on a satisfied gleam, while the children rolled around on the floor, and one girl afflicted with tender sensibilities hid her head under a cushion. “And you know what she did? She started in to beat me across the head with the other shoe. She wasn’t mad that I’d made up a story about Danny Baxter, oh no! She was furious because I’d touched her things!”
While Emma allowed herself to be coaxed into repeating how her sister had hit her with the shoe, Peggy was guiding me through the vast shrine of family pictures, explaining how each person present fit into the family tree.
“Of course I don’t have recent pictures of everyone,” she apologized, and I murmured politely. “Look at this one of Maria, that was five years ago, and now look how big she is.” Maria turned out to be the miss who was tussling on the floor with her sister. “And here’s Alan’s family -- he’s John's brother, there’s his wife Marilyn and that’s most of their children, but this picture was taken while Martin was out of the country, he’s Alan’s oldest son. I hope we’ll see him at the next big dinner.” I drifted away on the pleasant flow of her voice, which gathered and wove the strands of the family into a warm and secure blanket of affection and love. I wanted to curl up on the couch wrapped in that blanket, and drowse for the rest of the evening in the peace of knowing that Emma was being well looked-after by someone trustworthy.
“And this is John and me on our wedding day,” Peggy concluded. “That was my mother’s veil, and she sewed all those bead on by hand.”
A young and glowing Peggy, made up in the finest Princess Di style, her veil borne up on vast wings of hair curling away from her face, perched adoringly on the arm of her groom. John proudly sported both copious moustaches and a powder-blue tuxedo with a yellow rosebud on the flaring lapel.
“Can you believe that outfit?” she laughed. “We thought it was so fashionable, and now it’s so old-fashioned that teenagers who come over think it’s cool. That was the style in those days, though.”
I couldn’t look away, but I barely noticed the vintage fashions. Their faces were so clear and bright that they outshone every other aspect of the photograph. All the cheer and contentment and joy of that large family in the warm house was distilled to its essence in the love that suffused and transfixed John and Peggy Harriman on their wedding day. I felt a sudden and intense yearning to be a small stone in some such multigenerational edifice.
Though their names are to have little weight, I thought, their works will last much beyond themselves.