Friday, December 7, 2007

Reflections on Turning Seventy

(Sky in Honfleur by Nicholas de Stael)

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita...

I was twenty when I first read the opening line of Dante’s Inferno in my undergraduate Italian literature class. It would be another fifteen years before I reached the age the poet claimed for himself at the beginning of the journey he describes in the Commedia. Now I am twice that age and the years have appeared to pass with inconceivable rapidity. One moment, it would seem, I was sitting in my Italian professor Jeff Carre’s basement office, in Brunswick, Maine, where three of us met twice a week to read Dante in the original, and the next I’m standing in front of my bookcase in Gloucester, Massachusetts with the same volume of Grandgent’s edition of Dante I used in 1959, seeking out those words, which led me into one of my own life’s great journeys.

How nice it would be to find myself transported back to Jeff’s comfortable book lined sanctuary in Sills Hall to read Dante once again under his guidance, particularly with what I now know about literature and about life itself. For Dante, was, after all, one, if not the first, of the great literary realists, and that poem, as allegorically as it can be read, is also the story of a real journey—Dante’s through the inferno, purgatory and paradise of his own existential and spiritual quest, and the reader’s by extension.

How nice it would also be to return to Florence, where I again read Dante, this time with the great Medieval and Renaissance scholar Eugenio Garin, whose lectures on the Divine Alighieri sent me in search of the poet’s movements in the streets and alleys of the ancient city I came to love above all the cities I had visited or would ever visit.

But I can’t turn back the clock on my life. I can’t recover the years I’ve lost. All I can do is return to Dante, as I’ve been doing for most of the intervening years—years during which my Italian has faltered, while my understanding of the poet’s meaning has deepened with the help of my teacher’s teacher Charles Singleton’s incomparable six-volume edition of the Commedia.

It is hard not to think of Dante and the extraordinary months during which I read him so many years ago, not to speak of the nearly three years in Florence during which I pursued his shadow through that enchanting city. They were years of youth, years of excess, years of blunders and mistakes—but they were also years during which the foundation for the person I was to become was laid. While my college classmates were serving in Korea or laboring away in law or business school, I was granted a moratorium. I was given the gift of enormous space in my life, space in which to study, to read, to write, and to explore a culture rich in artistic and literary achievement, and I lost no time in doing so. In fact, I threw myself into that experience with a greater passion than I have ever since felt. I suppose one could call it the passion of youth, or what the offer of Bowdoin College described as “generous enthusiasm.” As we age we learn, hopefully, to temper that enthusiasm but not to lose it, for if we were to let go of that thirst for life there would surely be no reason to go on living.

But I sit down now to write not so much about Dante or Florence, as I’ve surely done elsewhere and hope to do again, but to reflect on the stage of my own life’s journey I’ve recently arrived at. I turned seventy on November 15, 2007, a birthday I had the privilege of celebrating with some of the people who mean the most to me, my three children, my life partner, and her two children and granddaughter, in Santa Fe, a city that I've come to love almost as much as Florence. That our children suggested this special celebration and that we were all able to meet where some of us had gathered before was as much a treat for me as the actual weekend we spent together walking, talking, breaking bread, and reminiscing under a warming sun and in the clear, clean, dry mountain air of New Mexico.

I don’t feel physically much older at seventy than I did at fifty or sixty, though my memory is not what it used to be. My former wife liked to tell people that I could recall every meal I’d ever eaten. Today I’m lucky if I can remember what I had for breakfast; and the names of writers or the titles of their books that were at my finger tips ten or twenty years ago, are hard to retrieve, along with the titles of songs I once loved or the singers who made them famous. I suppose one has to accept these losses as part of aging. Fortunately, the Internet provides me with much of the information I’ve forgotten; and my spell check is handier than ever, though the right word or phrase I’m often searching for takes longer to arrive.

These are small consolations for aging. If what I read recently is true, that seventy is the new fifty, perhaps there’s still hope for some productive years. But what I can’t have again is what has seemed to me to be irretrievably lost in the world around me as I’ve aged. Things change and places are transformed under the pressures of time and human willfulness. Some of these changes—the rehabilitation of historic houses that had fallen into disrepair, or new technologies that make our lives easier—are to be welcomed. But the losses I feel both in the community where I’ve lived most of my life and in the larger culture itself are more problematic.

Reading Dante as an undergraduate and studying history, literature and classical languages and culture were part of an old fashioned humanistic education that has pretty much disappeared in today’s over-mediated society. Living in the crass, materialistic world that has replaced it, I often feel obsolete, my interests shared by few. To be sure, literature is still studied by a waning number of graduate students, but I found it ominous to read recently that most choose their specialization with an eye toward the current needs of academic departments rather than as a response to their own passions. And most graduate students I meet today are woefully under-read, if not also under-educated.

Of course, the decade of the 1950s, during which I went to high school and college, was no golden age of the intellect. Though more students majored in literature or the humanities than they do today, I still found myself surrounded in college by classmates, who, though bright and ambitious, appeared largely incurious about the world. They were, for the most part, politically conservative; some were openly anti-intellectual. They tended to major in economics or the hard sciences, while dismissing those of us who cared about painting or theater. Many of those classmates of mine, who became doctors, dentists, CEOs, and military officers, or who made fortunes in real estate, have now retired affluently in gated communities. They boast about their golf games, while donating annual sums to their alma mater that far exceed my meager income. They are, in a word, successful, at least as the culture defines success. They have money and expensive possessions, and many have known great power.

I, in turn, have lived simply in a city that still feels like a small town. I’ve written and taught; I’ve also spent thirty years as a social worker, helping the kinds of people—displaced workers, alienated teens—who often harassed us as undergraduates on the streets of Brunswick. I have no regrets about my life choices. I could have remained in the academic world; but I ultimately came to experience it as an unproductive place for a writer, especially one like myself, who felt the need to interact with a broader range of humanity than what exists on a college campus. And even in a surrounding community, as I learned in Maine, it’s hard to know people who have no connection to the college or university. So I returned from Italy to Gloucester, where, except for travel and vacations, I have spent the rest of my life.

It is a sobering experience to live in one’s home town. You observe the generations as they come and go. People who once seemed incredibly old to us as children have died and we are now their age. I have only recently become a grandparent, but some of my high school classmates already have great grandchildren. I’ve watched neighborhoods deteriorate or become gentrified; I’ve seen a once thriving fishing industry become endangered through restrictive federal regulations. The Italian I once heard on the waterfront or in Gloucester’s West End has been displaced by Spanish, though the Azorean Portuguese of my childhood continues in the voices of new immigrants from Brazil.

The changes I’ve experienced in Gloucester have mirrored those in the larger society. Living through them, watching them occur with often dramatic immediacy, rather than through the distorting prism of the media, has been important to me as a writer. I’ve watched human behavior enacted on the sidewalk and in the consulting room, and I’ve observed and participated in political dynamics that have taught me more about democracy in action than any course or textbook. I’ve also stood by, often impotently, to watch as those in power have sold our birthright to developers, who wished only to exploit Gloucester’s uniqueness and great natural beauty for their own purposes, not for the common good. In the end, I’ve tried to do what I could as a writer and citizen in concert with others to make our community aware of what it was losing of its heritage, of the mistaken direction our leaders were often taking us, sometimes with success, but more often with a deep sense of failure. Much of what I experience now is loss—loss of people and places that were special to me as a child, of fields and forests I played or walked in, of folkways and values that were an intimate part of a closely knit community that served as a larger family to those of us who grew up here. While I understand that I cannot have back what was lost, often through human ignorance or lack of imagination or vision, I can’t help but feel angry that it was taken away in the first place and that so few seemed to care about what we were losing.

It is equally no consolation to live in a nation governed by an unutterable mediocrity, surrounded by neo-conservative ideologues, who have brought this country closer to fascism than it has ever come. Neither do I have much faith in the Democrats, whom we helped regain control of Congress so that they would get us out of this absurd war in Iraq. Like her husband, Hillary Clinton is attempting to triangulate her way to the presidency, while the other candidates seem to be competing with each other to occupy an equally vacuous center. Meanwhile, the public sleeps the sleep of denial with the help of the narcotic of consumerism. I try not to be cynical in my old age; but I can’t help being skeptical.

Writing in the New York Times of November 11, 2007, Frank Rich argues that “to believe that this corruption will simply evaporate when the Bush presidency is done is to underestimate the permanent erosion inflicted over the past six years. What was once shocking and unacceptable in America has now been internalized as the new normal.” He concludes: “We are a people in clinical depression. Americans know that the ideals that once set our nation apart from the world have been vandalized, and no matter which party they belong to, they do not see a restoration anytime soon.” I can only agree. Were he here today, Dante, who lived through every political and social horror of his time, would doubtlessly concur.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Thoreau Comes to Town: Henry David Thoreau's 1848 Gloucester Lyceum Lecture and his Return to Cape Ann Ten Years Later

(1854 crayon portrait of Henry David Thoreau, by Samuel Rowse; Riverdale, by Fitz Henry Lane, as Thoreau would have experienced the parish during his walking tour of Gloucester in September 1858)

Henry David Thoreau was fond of telling people that he had traveled a good deal in Concord. As a consequence, many of his readers and lecture audiences came to believe that the writer and naturalist seldom strayed from the confines of his hometown. While it is true that he was scarcely the traveler that his friend and earlier mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson had been—even in his seventies Emerson was still on the Chautauqua lecture circuit in Oklahoma and Texas, not to mention camping out with John Muir in the California Sierras—Thoreau was not as sedentary as some imagine, or as he sometimes ironically gave the impression of being.
He traveled as far west as Minnesota, and north to Canada on the first rail excursion that was offered from Massachusetts to Montreal. As a younger man he spent a dreary winter on Staten Island, in New York, tutoring Emerson’s brother’s children. He covered most of Massachusetts and New Hampshire on foot; and before his tragically short life ended, he made three trips to Maine and several to Cape Cod.
Significant for North Shore residents, however, are the two trips Thoreau made to Cape Ann—one by invitation, the other on his own—for they show him in action in our home territory during two distinct phases of his life. An examination of these relatively obscure visits reveals how Gloucester first reacted to Thoreau as a social critic and how he, in turn, responded to what an earlier, more pastoral Cape Ann offered in the way of unspoiled landscape and natural beauty.
In 1848, after the Gloucester Lyceum (now the Sawyer Free Library) heard that Thoreau had given a successful lecture on November 22 in Salem, they engaged him to speak the following month. According to biographer Walter Harding, the Salem Observer thought that the thirty-one year old Thoreau had “created quite a sensation.” His Salem lecture, which he would repeat in Gloucester, was an early version of the first chapter of Walden, entitled “Economy.”
Thoreau offered his “Life in the Woods” as an antidote to the money-grubbing spirit of his age with its rising industrialism. But he didn’t suggest, as many think, that we should all build cabins in the wilderness as he had done at Walden Pond, in Concord, three years before, in 1845. Rather, he stressed that each one of us discover for ourselves some “essential” mode of life in accordance with our own inner promptings, so that, as he wrote, when we came to die, we would not discover that, in fact, we had not lived. Mrs. Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose husband once—and not disparagingly—compared Thoreau to a “Red Indian,” when they were neighbors in Concord in 1843, found his Salem lecture “enchanting.”
Thoreau arrived in Gloucester on Wednesday evening, December 20, preceded by this notice in that morning’s Gloucester News and Semi-Weekly Messenger:
“Mr. Thoreau lectures before the Lyceum this evening. This lecturer is one of the eccentric characters of the age, of whom Ralph W. Emerson predicted a few years since that ‘He would be heard from.’ From the notices we have seen of Mr. Thoreau, we think an original and highly entertaining lecture may be expected.”
Since there exist no entries for 1848 in his otherwise voluminous and outspoken journal, we do not know what Thoreau himself expected of Gloucester, nor of his reactions to what he got here.
The anonymous reviewer of the Gloucester News reports approvingly on December 23 that Thoreau “attacked with keen but good-natured sarcasm the customs and fashions of the present age, and ridiculed with much force the folly of men.”
After summarizing Thoreau’s account of how he had built his cabin at Walden Pond, the reviewer somewhat skeptically reports Thoreau’s assertion that “good, wholesome food sufficient for one hermit can be procured for four cents a week,” and counters it with an interesting bit of localism:
“There are, we have been often told, families of eight or ten souls in this town, who live a year on one hundred and fifty dollars, which falls considerably within Mr. Thoreau’s estimate.”
Having apparently had his fill of Thoreau’s practical Transcendentalism (what the followers of Emerson would characterize as “plain living and high thinking”), the reviewer soon asserts the status quo:
“Mr. Thoreau and a few other men in the world can despise the pleasures of society, worship God out-doors in old clothes, can hear His Voice in the whistling or gently sighing wind, and read eloquent sermons from the springing flowers: but the great mass of men DO and WILL always laugh at such pursuits.”
Although the writer goes on to say that the lecture “certainly lacked system…and some of Thoreau’s flights were rather too lofty for the audience,” his does comment positively that “in originality of thought, force of expression, and flow of genuine humor, Thoreau has few equals.” Yet he found Thoreau’s delivery “decidedly Emersonian.” To him it was evident “that in this respect he is an imitator,” a consideration, in the reviewer’s words, “which always detracts much from the force of genius.”
He concludes that “although the lecture was entertaining and original, it was not calculated to do much good, and we think may be considered a literary curiosity [rather] than a practical dissertation on economy.”
The reviewer for Gloucester’s second newspaper, the Telegraph, which advertised itself as “Devoted to Patriotism, Sound Morals, Temperance, Literature and News,” reports also that Thoreau’s lecture was “rather a unique performance.”
Just the same, to Thoreau’s now famous “I have traveled a good deal in Concord: and everywhere in shops and offices and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways,” he—or she—has this to say:
“The lecturer gave a very strange account of the state of affairs at Concord. In the shops and offices were large numbers of human beings suffering tortures to which those of the Brahmins are mere pastimes. We cannot say whether this was in jest or in earnest. If a joke, it was a most excruciating one—if true, the attention of the Home Missionary Society should be directed to that quarter forthwith.”
The reviewer concludes:
“With all deference to the sagacity of those who can see a great deal where there is little to be seen—hear much where there is hardly anything to be heard—perceive a wonderful depth of meaning where, in fact, nothing is really meant, we would take the liberty of expressing the opinion that a certain ingredient to a good lecture was, in some instances, wanting.”
So much for the most famous chapter of Walden, a book destined to stand alongside such classics of the American Renaissance as Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter and Leaves of Grass (all published within the same five-year period) and to remain in print since it was first published in 1854.
Gloucester, unlike Salem,” Walter Harding concludes, “had had enough of Thoreau.” There is no record of his ever having been invited to lecture here again.
Leaving Gloucester, Thoreau went on to speak before large and approving audiences from Concord, Massachusetts to Portland, Maine. Publisher Horace Greeley devoted an entire editorial page of the New York Tribune, on April 2, 1849, to the success of Thoreau’s lecture tour.
“There is not a young man in the land—and very few old ones,” Greeley wrote, “who would not profit by an attentive hearing of that lecture.”
When Thoreau next traveled to Gloucester it was ten years later, in 1858; and he came not as a lyceum lecturer but as a typical late summer or early fall visitor of the time, with a pack on his back, and probably, as the reviewer of the News had written, worshipping God “out-doors in old clothes.”
The Henry David Thoreau who arrived in Gloucester on September 22, 1858, was a somewhat different person from the Walden hermit whose lyceum lecture here ten years earlier had seemed for the most part to have fallen on deaf ears. For one thing, he was older. He appeared to his friends as a more substantial yet serene presence in their midst. Many would attribute this to the fact that he had published two books of astonishing originality and force of expression—A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden—the making of which had doubtless solidified his character, integrating many of his interests and concerns, especially his ability to observe and write about nature and the outward world, while also describing the inward world of his own thoughts and feelings.
A Week, published in 1849, a year after his first visit to Cape Ann, did not sell well. Unable at first to find a publisher who would take the manuscript at his own risk, Thoreau had finally paid Emerson’s publisher, James Munroe of Boston, to bring out his first book, which had been ten years in the making. Undaunted by the book’s poor sale (a recent rare copy sold for $19,500) and even poorer critical reception, Thoreau took back 706 unsold copies from an initial printing of 1,000, placed them on his personal bookshelves in the attic of his family’s home in Concord, where he had his room, commenting wryly in his journal:
“I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes, over 700 of which I wrote myself.”
But those who had read A Week and who had truly understood it were well aware of its importance. The young naturalist and teacher, fresh out of Harvard when he made that trip on the rivers with his brother John, in 1839, was already predicting the impact of industrialization on the agrarian life and rural ecology of the New England of his time. Thoreau was the first writer to warn us about the adverse effects upon our waterways and the air we breathe of the new mills and factories under construction in the Merrimack Valley. In A Week and subsequent writings and lectures he pointed out how the once-clear waters of the great Merrimack were running purple and black from the dyes of Manchester’s cotton mills. He also noted the emergence of an entirely new kind of pollution in America—noise pollution—a result of the railroads and the new technologies of the factory system, which he also felt had the chilling effect of turning its laborers into human machinery.
In his imaginative use of local history and in the precision and accuracy of Thoreau’s descriptions of the places he and John visited during their travels on and off the two rivers, A Week stands today as one of the last visions of a pristine rural America before the Industrial Revolution destroyed its human scale agrarian economy forever.
Unlike A Week, Walden sold well when it was first published in 1854. As particular as Thoreau’s experience in the Concord woods had been—Henry James called it “parochial”—the book told a universal story. In detailing his encounter with the divinity and with himself at edge of the “holy well” of Walden Pond through all the seasons of the year, Thoreau gave us “one of the last great religious books of the West,” according to poet Gerrit Lansing.
As a rejoinder to those skeptics, mostly journalists, who poked fun at his “out-door religion,” Thoreau wrote in “Slavery in Massachusetts,” one of his most scathing essays, “We are not a religious people, but we are a nation of politicians. We do not care for the Bible, but we do care for the newspaper!”
“Slavery in Massachusetts” was originally a lecture given in Framingham, in 1854, in which he warned his audience, including slaveholders, that they had better address themselves to their own moral turpitude and a corrupt state government, willing to uphold the Fugitive Slave Law, before they expressed concern for slavery in far away states like Nebraska.
But in September 1858, Thoreau did not come to Cape Ann to lecture or otherwise engage in polemics. He was on a walking tour of the North Shore with his friend John Russell of Salem. After examining the Indian relic collections at the Essex Institute (today the Peabody Essex Museum) in Salem, the two men toured Salem, Marblehead, Beverly and Manchester, “botanizing along the way,” as Thoreau wrote in his journal.
They “scuffed” along what Thoreau refers to as the “musical sand” of Singing Beach in Manchester and cooked their supper in a salt marsh “some two miles this side of Gloucester, in view of the town.” That night they “put up in Gloucester,” after enjoying some late blackberries, the persistence of which Thoreau attributed to “the cool air of the Cape.” He also notes that “the foliage had but just fairly begun to change.”
The next morning, September 23, the two men set out for Rockport. Thoreau writes:
“Having reached the shore, we sat under the lee of the rocks on the beach opposite Salt Island. A man was carting seaweed along the shore between us and the water, the leather-apron kind, which trailed from the car like the tails of oxen, and when it came between us and the sun, was of a warm purple glow.
“On the edge of the beach you see small dunes, with white or faun-colored sandy sides…Just before reaching Loblolly Cove, near Thacher’s Island [we] sat on a beach composed entirely of small paving stones.
“We could see the Salvages [T. S. Eliot’s "Dry Salvages"] very plainly, apparently extending north and south and east-northeast of Straitsmouth Island…”
“Rockport well deserves its name—several little rocky harbors protected by a breakwater, the houses at Rockport Village backing directly on the beach. At Folly Cove, a wild rocky point running north, covered with beach grass…”
The hikers paused there to look across Ipswich Bay to Newburyport and Plum Island before setting out for Annisquam. Thoreau continues:
“In Annisquam we found ourselves in the midst of boulders scattered over bare hills and fields. This was the most peculiar scenery of the Cape…”
He is referring to the moraine of the Dogtown section of Gloucester, and Thoreau’s description of his experience of this still relatively wild interior of Cape Ann is worth quoting complete:
“We struck inland southerly, just before sundown, and boiled our tea with bayberry bushes by a swamp on the hills, in the midst of these great boulders, about halfway to Gloucester, having carried our water a quarter of a mile, from a swamp, spilling a part in threading swamps and getting over rough places. Two oxen feeding in the swamp came up to reconnoiter our fire. We could see no house but the hills strewn with boulders, as if they had rained down, on every side, we sitting on a shelving one.
“When the moon arose, what had appeared like immense boulders half a mile off in the horizon now looked by contrast no larger than nutshells or buri-nut against the moon’s disk, and she was the biggest boulder of all.
“When we had put out our bayberry fire, we heard a squawk, and, looking up, saw five geese fly low in the twilight over our heads. We then set out to find our way to Gloucester over the hills, and saw the comet very bright in the northwest. After going astray a little in the moonlight, we fell into a road which at length conducted us to town.”
On the following morning, September 24, the two men left Gloucester, Thoreau proceeding immediately to Concord by train. A last note reads:
“There is a scarcity of fresh water on the Cape so you must carry your water a good way in a dipper.”
In his journal entry of September 30, Thoreau returns to the Gloucester visit:
“In our late walk on the Cape, we encountered Gloucester each time in the dark and mid-evening traveling partly across lots till we fell into a road, and as we were simply seeking a bed, inquiring the way of villagers whom we could not see, the town seemed far more home-like to us than when we made our way out of it in the morning.
“It was comparatively still, and the inhabitants were sensibly or poetically employed, too, and then we went straight to our chamber and saw the moonlight reflected from the smooth harbor and lighting up the fishing vessels, as if it had been the harbor of Venice
“Walking early in the day and approaching the rocky shore from the north, the shadows of the cliffs were very distinct and grateful and our spirits were buoyant. Though we walked all day, it seemed the days were not long enough to get tired in. Some villages we went through or by without communicating with any inhabitant, but we saw them as quietly and distantly as in a picture.”

Although Cape Ann obviously left an indelible impression on him—some of his descriptions invite comparison with the views of native painter Fitz Henry Lane, who was an exact contemporary—Thoreau never returned. Four years after his second visit here, he succumbed to his lifelong struggle with tuberculosis, dying on May 6, 1862, two months before his forty-fifth birthday. His last two books, Cape Cod and The Maine Woods, accounts of other journeys he made in his beloved New England, were published posthumously, along with his masterful journals, in which the report of his walking visit to the North Shore can be found in its entirety.
(Earlier versions of this essay appeared in North Shore and Essex Life magazines.)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

On the Road Fifty Years Later

“There is nothing to do but write the truth.”

--Jack Kerouac

Fifty years ago, on September 5, 1957, a novel was published that changed the face of American literature and, with it, much of American culture. That novel was On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, a young writer from Lowell, Massachusetts, who grew up in a French-Canadian working-class family and had been a football star at Lowell High School and Columbia.

Writing in the New York Times, on September 5, Gilbert Millstein described Kerouac’s book as a “major authentic work of art.” He went on to call On the Road, “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat.’”

I was nineteen years old when I read Millstein’s rave review. A less enthusiastic one by David Dempsey appeared a few days later in the Times’ Sunday Book Review, as if the timid editors had gone too far in allowing a positive appraisal of a novel that was destined to become one of the most subversive in our literature and felt they had to correct Millstein’s enthusiasm.

I had not heard of Jack Kerouc and I didn’t know what the Beat Generation was. The literature I was studying in college was pretty much canonical. But I raced down to my friend Carl Apollonio, who owned the only bookstore in Brunswick, Maine, and within a week I possessed a first edition of On the Road. (I should have hung onto that copy, instead of sharing it among my friends until it disappeared, because today a first edition of On the Road is worth between $7200 and $19,000 depending upon its condition. Kerouac’s own manuscript of the novel, typed on a continuous roll of architectural drawing paper, was sold five years ago at auction by Christie’s for $2.4 million dollars. Kerouac would have loved it that the winning bidder was James Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts football team, whose comment upon taking possession of the manuscript was, “I look on it as a stewardship. I don’t believe you own anything.” Happily, Kerouac’s original publisher Viking Press has just issued a stunning new edition of On the Road, effectively reproducing the initial scroll manuscript and, true to Kerouac’s wishes, reinserting the actual names of people upon whom the characters were based. The original scroll is currently on view at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum in Lowell through October 14, 2007).

On the day I bought On the Road I sat down after dinner in my rented room on Federal Street and didn’t stir until I had read the novel in its entirety.

Describing the novel’s young and articulate, if often manic, characters, narrator Sal Paradise, alias Jack Kerouac, says: “They rushed down the street together, digging everything in the early way they had, which later became so much sadder and perceptive and blank. But then they danced down the street like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars...”

Imagine the effect of this prose, indeed of a narrative in which Kerouac’s people are racing from one corner of the country to the other in pursuit of experiences I could only imagine, on a studious small town boy attending a staid New England College. It was incendiary, to say the least. And while I’d learned to play on piano the bebop that accompanied Dean and Sal and their friends from New York to Denver, and from Denver to San Francisco, LA and Mexico City, I had no idea that people like them or their chronicler Kerouac existed.

As a budding literary critic, I grasped the relationship between Kerouac’s Beat Generation and the equally alienated Lost Generation of the 1920s that Ernest Hemingway, one of my heroes, had described in The Sun Also Rises, a novel that had as much impact on its era as Kerouac’s had on mine. But the Beats were less after “kicks,” as their critics alleged, than they were in search of transcendence in the face of post-war materialism and Cold War anxiety. Asked by his friend, novelist John Clellon Holmes, whose 1952 novel Go was really the first Beat novel, to describe Beat sensibility, Kerouac replied:

“We were a generation of furtives...with an inner knowledge there’s no use flaunting on that level, a kind of beatness—I mean being right down to it, to ourselves, because we all really know where we are—and a weariness with all the forms, all the conventions of the world. So I guess you might say we’re a beat generation.”

I wish I could tell you that after closing the covers of On the Road, I dropped out of college, like some of my friends did, traveling to San Francisco in pursuit of the “subterranean” culture whose members Kerouac characterized as “hip without being slick, they are intelligent without being corny, they are intellectual as hell. . . without being pretentious or talking too much about it, they are very quiet, they are very Christlike.” But I didn’t. As much as I may have wished to go “on the road” literally and metaphorically, I was committed to my studies, and afraid, I see now, of taking any risks beyond the purely academic.

Nevertheless, On the Road had a deep impact on me as a writer, an impact that reverberates to this day, when I am no longer nineteen but approaching seventy. In fact, when I put down the novel after my first reading, I picked it up and started reading it all over again. Then I thought about it for weeks, pondering its meaning on long solitary October walks down the Mere Point Road in Brunswick, the red and yellow leaves accompanying my mood of autumn melancholy.

For all its surface elation, On the Road is at bottom a profoundly tragic book. It’s a novel about a missing father who was never found, a childhood never regained, a country whose innocence is forever lost. At the end of Kerouac’s road, and Hemingway’s, too, instead of enlightenment for Sal and his friends there is only the recognition of lost illusions and inevitable death.

“I’m writing this book because we’re all going to die,” Kerouac said. “In the loneliness of my life, my father dead, my brother dead, my mother faraway. . . nothing here but my own tragic hands that once were guarded by a world, a sweet attention, that now are left to guide and disappear their own way into the common dark of all our death.”

Like much of our finest fiction—U.S.A. and The Great Gatsby come to mind—On the Road interrogates the fundamental American myth of success, the viability of a life based on material values. For all their seeming irresponsibility, Sal, Dean Moriarty (a character based on the legendary Neal Cassady), and Carlo Marx (poet Allen Ginsberg), are committed to achieving a higher consciousness and an authenticity of personhood and spiritual insight that cut through the religious and political cant of Henry Luce’s “American Century.”

For this reason, more than for Sal or Dean or Carlo, who drank too much or took drugs in order to “see God’s face,” who refused to work nine-to-five jobs, and who flaunted conventions with their liberated or inter-racial sexual expression--indeed, for the experimental brilliance of Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose”—On the Road was viciously attacked by the established press and marginalized by mainstream and academic critics. Literature, unlike politicians, tells the truth; and sometimes the truths it reveals are unpleasant. Yet, since its publication in 1957, On the Road has sold 3.5 million copies in the United States alone and continues to sell more than 100,000 copies a year. Like Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, which was once banned from the classroom, On the Road, is now taught as an essential American text.

Along with On the Road, Kerouac published nine other novels. Perhaps the most achieved in terms of structure, language and the poignant evocation of his childhood in Lowell are three books set in his hometown, Dr. Sax, Maggie Cassidy, and Visions of Gerard. Kerouac also wrote movingly about growing up in Lowell in his first novel, The Town and the City, (1950) and his last book, the elegiac Vanity of Duluoz, published in 1968, a year before his death of alcoholism in St. Petersburg, Florida at the age of 47. Kerouac was buried in Lowell on October 23, 1969. As he wrote in On the Road, “I was going home in October. Everybody goes home in October.”

Turning the pages of this book again, I rediscover my youth in Kerouac’s stunning prose, with a voice as unique as Whitman’s or Henry Miller’s, and the unremitting energy of his narrative, both so characteristically American. I see myself and my circle of friends, aspiring writers, all of us, electrified by a novel, which beckoned us away from our textbooks, opening us to a world that lay beyond classrooms and degrees, beyond jobs and the promise of suburban respectability. In one way or another many of us eventually followed Kerouac’s road to self-discovery; and that decision, in the words of another great New England writer, “has made all the difference.”

Coda: The Scroll

I have just finished the "Original Scroll" and what an improvement over the edited version as first published. Seeing the original names made the whole thing more authentic for me; I never liked those made up names, 'Sal Paradise' and the like. I was also struck this time around how reductive the journey was, not one trip but a number of trips over the years condensed into one sprawling journey. I didn't remark on that the first two readings. I guess that's one reason it is such an authentic 'Great American novel' - like a human being, it seems to change and you see new facets each time you re-visit it.

--Mark Power (email communication)

I was ten years old when Jack Kerouac began the journey, hitchhiking and by car and bus, that would take him back and forth across America. And I was thirteen when Kerouac sat down at his typewriter, on April 2, 1951, to begin writing an account of those epic trips on eight sheets of tracing paper he would later tape together to form the 120-foot “scroll” version of the novel that would be published in 1957 by Viking Press as On the Road. He completed that single-spaced draft version of the novel twenty days later, on April 22, 1951.

By the time On the Road was published, six years later, I was two months away from my twentieth birthday. Between the time Kerouac had begun work on the scroll and the date of its book publication, I had read those sprawling narratives by Thomas Wolfe—Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River—which had been an inspiration to Kerouac, especially in his first novel, The Town and the City; I’d heard in person the great tenor saxophonist Lester “Prez” Young and the bebop innovator Charlie “Bird” Parker, both of whose lives and music inspired Kerouac and his Beat companions on the road; and I’d become something of a jazz musician myself. I’d also heard and begun to experiment with the “bop talk” that became a prevalent form of communication among jazz musicians, black and white, and among many of the literary and artistic bohemians of the time, and which found its way into both the speech of the characters and the narrative of On the Road. By that time, too, I’d read most of the key texts of Modernism, which had equally inspired Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, later to be characterized as the Beat Triumvirate, though Burroughs was older than Kerouac and Ginsberg and never considered himself part of the Beat Generation.

Consequently, as soon as I began reading On the Road I understood Kerouac’s cultural frame of reference, though I had never read a word of either writer, nor had I traveled further west than Pittsfield, Massachusetts. I knew the music he referred to, and I had myself experienced those extraordinary moments when, as he wrote, “the tenorman jumped down from the platform and stood in the crowd, blowing around…”

So much of that excitement comes back to me as I read the scroll version, which in its rawness, its lack of paragraphs and chapter breaks, sounds to me like what Kerouac really wanted to write, what was burning inside of him to express in incandescent images, whole exhalations of pure language--that "spontaneous bop prosody" he strove to attain. Even as the young scholars and critics, who have edited and introduced this important new—and authentic—version of an American classic, detail Kerouac’s painstaking revisions (including drafts of the novel before he began the scroll), and the difficult editorial negotiations during which the book’s handlers at Viking attempted to “manage and commodify his wild book and Kerouac’s enthusiastic vulnerability and complicity in that process,” they make clear to us that the scroll is the ur-text and should be read as such. I agree with them. My experience of reading it is not unlike the one I had fifty years ago when the Viking version of the novel blew my mind.

It’s clear from reading the excellent introductory material to the scroll that the earlier published version of the novel, which has enthralled millions of readers, was not entirely ruined by Viking editors Malcolm Cowley and Helen Taylor, who worked with Kerouac in preparing the text for publication. Unfortunately, Kerouac’s original text had been sanitized. The sex had been tamed and most of the graphic language removed, including four-letter words that are freely employed today, while the homosexual encounters between Ginsberg and Cassady, who appear in the novel under fictionalized names, were eliminated, in keeping with the era’s regrettable homophobia and the censorship restrictions publishers often slavishly operated under. But after reading the scroll one can see that the published version retains a good deal of the spontaneity of the original, along with Kerouac’s marvelous voice. In fact, in some cases, Kerouac sharpened his language and his imagery in the published version, though I prefer what editor Howard Cunnell takes to be the final pages of the scroll to the published version.

But in the final analysis it is the scroll, both in form and content, in which Kerouac enacts the archetypal trip; and it is the scroll which should be read as the definitive text of On the Road. It was a moving experience to have been able to see the manuscript itself in Lowell at the Boot Mill Museum. The curatorial staff did a superb job of creating a powerfully atmospheric exhibition space, in which the scroll was surrounded by images of Beat life and culture, the actual music, the art and the writing, and Kerouac’s entire history--family photographs, memorabilia from his personal collection, books from his library, even a typewriter like the one on which he wrote On the Road, and an old felt hat of his father's he wore during the time he was writing the book.

You entered the room listening to jazz--Bird and Diz, Billy Holiday. On the walls, painted a dark, autumnal rust-orange, were quotations from Kerouac in blue, along with enlarged images of the American road in the late 40s, early 50s--small town Main Streets, the deserts of the Southwest, the Mississippi, with quotations from On the Road describing the places. There was some excellent narrative material also on the walls, texts that introduced Kerouac, Ginsberg, Cassady--and wonderful photographs of life in jazz clubs, poetry reading, loft parties, Beat pads in San Francisco and New York City. A great lovely image of Diane Di Prima sitting on top of a piano in a Village club reading her poetry.

The era was perfectly described and characterized. One was able to understand the Beats as a significant part of the last truly concerted avant-garde movement in art and literature in the US, when you consider that Action Painting/Abstract Expressionism, bebop and hard bop, the dance of Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham, the new theater, and the poetry of the Beats, Olson's Black Mountain group, and the emerging New York School all came together, intermingled, and fertilized each other, from 1947, when Kerouac first went on the road, to the late 1950s, when On the Road and his other novels emerged, along with Ginsberg’s HOWL and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

It was a heady time for the arts--arts that were also in opposition to the Cold War, to American materialism, the myths of family life, suburban respectability. We haven't had a total movement like that since, and we may never again because the literacy doesn't exist anymore, nor the material conditions. It was cheap to live in the East Village from 1947 to the early 60s, or in San Francisco or Venice Beach. It isn't anymore. The Bowery is now full of high-end hotels and restaurants. People could live on next to nothing, get part time jobs, sell their work and essentially give their time over to making art. Now we are all, and have been, compelled to teach or to find other work that takes us away from art, while artists are being forced out of all the cities and neighborhoods they once inhabited. With the loss of places to live and gather the kind of community that the Beats created, lived in, and traveled to and from in SF, Venice Beach, Denver, New York, Mexico City, and LA no longer exists. This is a great loss, not only to art but to the creation and sustenance of the kind of transgressive culture a nation needs for its intellectual and imaginative growth, whether most people think so or even care. On the Road is therefore all the more poignant because it describes a radically new world just as it was coming into being, a culture and a time—an energy—we will never have again.

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Walker in the City: Plum Island Autumn

“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness...”

Gazing beyond the dunes of Plum Island at the Great Marsh, bronzed in late summer light, I thought of that evocative first line of Keat’s poem, “On Autumn”.

It was the last weekend in September. Each year at summer’s end I love to walk the barrier beach of the Parker River Wildlife Refuge. There are no dwellings nearby; and except for those who fish the ocean’s edge for striped bass, few beachgoers after Labor Day. It’s a place where one is up against nature in the raw. I make it a point to visit the beach often during the year, observing the seasonal changes—the piping plovers as they propagate, the redwings that arrive by the end of February, the tree swallows who begin their pre-migratory flocking in mid-August, and the purple martins who leave by summer’s close.

But autumn is a special time for me. It’s the time of my birthday and therefore an occasion for reflection. It’s also the time when one prepares for the year’s declension into winter, a time of mellowness in the air, the light, as Keats’s poem suggests; a time of actual and spiritual harvest.

Stretching from West Gloucester to the borders of New Hampshire, the Great Marsh is a wonder. As I contemplate its vast fertility from the silent dunes of Plum Island, I think of those early settlers, who gathered beach plums here (hence its name) and took the shellfish. I think particularly of Judge Samuel Sewell, who in 1697 gave us this description of Plum Island:

“As long as Plum Island shall faithfully keep the command post, notwithstanding all the hectoring words and hard blows of the boisterous ocean; as long as any salmon and sturgeon shall swim in the streams of Merrimack, or any perch or pickerel in Crane Pond; as long as the sea fowl shall know the time of their coming, and not neglect seasonably to visit the places of their acquaintance; as long as any cattle shall be fed with the grass growing in the meadows, which do humbly bow down themselves before Turkey Hill; as long as any sheep shall walk upon Old Town Hill, and shall from thence pleasantly look down upon the River Parker and the fruitful marshes lying beneath; as long as any free and harmless doves shall find a white oak or other tree within the township to perch or feed or build a careless nest upon, and shall voluntarily present themselves to perform the office of gleaners after barley harvest; as long as nature shall not grow old and dote, but shall constantly remember to give the rows of Indian Corn their education by pairs; so long shall Christians be born there...and shall from thence be translated to be made partakers of the Inheritance of the saints in light.”

Those words were written three-hundred and ten years ago, yet they describe with perfect clarity what can still be seen and enjoyed today. While some of us may not share Judge Sewell’s prophetic religiosity, we can still marvel at the acute sense of place evoked in his description of Plum Island and its surrounding forests, hills and wetlands. We can marvel at this early ecological vision, at its appreciation of nature’s bounty.

Years pass as if they were days, places change and the people who inhabit them disappear. Due largely to the vision and commitment of the Essex County Greenbelt Association and the Trustees of Reservations, Mass. Audubon, numerous town land trusts, and preservation-minded property owners, Essex County has retained much of its austere beauty. There is no present without a past, as Judge Sewell understood. Yet today’s destroyers act as if they were the only people on earth, as if no one had been here before them, preserving what they cherished for us today. They act as if their greed were a right, instead of a sin against each of us and the land itself.

Tasteless “trophy” houses and out-of-scale McMansions spring up in fields and meadows once husbanded with meticulous care by our colonial forebears. Signs dot the oceanside warning natives, who have always had access to the shore, that the property is now “private.” Gates appear where once we all walked with impunity; and greed reigns. A heavily opposed public sewer system has been completed for the residential part of Plum Island, opening a floodgate to development, just as the controversial sewer did in North Gloucester.

The sense of Commonwealth our puritan predecessors bequeathed us, the belief that the land and sea were ours to use and enjoy together, to preserve for the next generation, has eroded vastly since Judge Sewell’s time. More than ever, it is our responsibility to secure this covenant once again. Otherwise, those who come after us may never enjoy the seasons “of mists and mellow fruitfulness” we have accepted as our birthright.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A Walker in the City: Summer's End

(Gloucester street photographer Louis Bland/Mark Power photograph)

After Labor Day the whole town seemed different. Most of the summer people had left. Living down the Cut, we’d still run into a few tourists along the Boulevard in mid-September—“stragglers,” everyone called them.

They’d be snapping pictures with their “Brownie” box cameras. Or they’d be getting their own pictures taken by Louis Bland, who held onto his post in the circle in front of the fisherman’s monument until the days grew cold and the rains washed down Stacy Promenade and the wind blew the leaves out of all the trees along Western Avenue.

Louis would take your picture—it couldn’t have cost more than a quarter in those days—and the most fun would be watching him develop it right there, dipping the print into a little tank of chemicals, washing it off (you could smell the “hypo”), and handing to you in a stiff gray cardboard “Souvenir of Gloucester” frame.

How many of us have had our childhoods recorded in a series of images by Gloucester’s only street photographer? Can you see yourself now in bathing suit or shorts in front of the statue, the backdrop always a façade of Western Avenue houses?

Still, you always knew when summer was over. The days felt different. And the light was different, too, as it had been since the last few weeks in August: more oblique in the morning, sharper; falling earlier in the evening, the trees casting long shadows at suppertime when you’d limp in after scrimmage along the river bank. No more baseball, once the football season had started; only the World Series on radio.

Of course, school was just around the corner, if it hadn’t already started. During the last week of August there would be the annual ritual of shopping for school clothes. Your mother would drag you around Brown's or the Empire, or in and out of Goldman’s or Grants. If you refused to make those obligatory trips, you’d probably end up with clothes you didn’t like—shirts, for example, the color and style of which you wouldn’t be caught dead in at Central Grammar.

So it was best to submit to the ordeal of trying on slacks that had to be cuffed, or the embarrassment of seeing yourself with those droopy trousers in several views in the big mirror of the men’s department in the Empire with the rest of the customers looking on. Henry Weiner sold me my first pair of long pants there, and I’ll always be grateful that he didn’t patronize me because I was a kid. Later, in high school, when you had the freedom of buying your own clothes, you could also go to Bloomberg’s or Alper’s for your back-to-school wardrobe. Their men's fashions were more up to date.

After we’d moved from the Cut to Rocky Neck in 1951, Labor Day was a more dramatic event. The number of customers in our store and in all the shops and restaurants on Rocky Neck would decrease markedly. You could tell the difference the day after Labor Day. The Neck would literally be deserted. Slowly all Dad’s “regulars”—Richard Hunt, Stan Farrell, Tommy Morse, Bill Sibley, Joe Garland, Jerry Hill, Harry Wheeler, Walter Kidder and Parker Morong—would reappear to take up their old stools at the counter for those long fall and winter nights of coffee and talk. Come winter, Dad closed early and we actually got a chance to sit down and talk together as a family before my brother and I went to bed early on school nights.

Summer ended precipitously in East Gloucester. One day you’d be walking past the Hawthorne Inn Casino, the “deli” thronged with bathers from Niles Beach, Johnny Windhurst and his Dixieland Band screaming away upstairs at night with us kids on the back porch taking in the music breathlessly; and the next day, it seemed, the Casino would be empty, boarded up like the rest of the cottages, silent. And with the sharp winds of coming September nights the whole place would take on a forlorn air, the Rockaway Hotel and the Harbor View, the Delfine and the Hawthorne Inn, the Fairview and the Seacroft Hotel, all “closed for the season,” as the signs on them would read when we walked past them on those chilly nights after Labor Day to discover that summer had indeed gone, disappeared just like that, and all of us here somehow left holding the bag.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

A Walker in the City: City of Hills

(Gloucester painting by Theodoros Stamos)

Gloucester is a city of hills, marvelous and steep, as I knew from my tired legs, walking endlessly up and down them as a child with my grandfather, Angel Polisson. But the views from Governor’s Hill or the summit of Ledgmont Avenue, to name but a few of our many vantage points, are also stupendous, rewarding any effort to discover them.

From first grade I walked over Rider’s Rocks, between Centennial Avenue and Hovey Street, as a short cut to the Hovey School. From that granite outcropping you could look across Newell Stadium to the Essex Avenue marshes and all the way up behind the high school to Done Fudgin’. Once you reached Hovey Street, at Roger Babson’s house with its distinctive red turret, you could see almost to Boston. On a clear night the lights of Cape Cod dotted the horizon.

Don’t think that because we were young we didn’t want to observe the world from any height or angle available to us. There were no distracting TVs in the 1940s. And radio, while it may have kindled our imaginations—who wouldn’t have been excited by The Shadow?—didn’t Disneyfy our perceptions. No, we were noticers, we kids who lived down the Cut, on Babson Court or along Mansfield Street. From the Boulevard we watched the endless stream of fishing vessels and pleasure boats as they negotiated the Blynman Canal. We were curious also to see the tourists, who began to stream back into the city after the war, the women in flamboyant straw hats and the men in plaid shorts, which no native would appear dead in on Main Street if you wanted to avoid that quintessential expression of Gloucester derision: “Down for the summah?”

But it’s the hills I’ve had on my mind ever since I recently walked up to Governor’s Park. Dusk was approaching, that magical hush as the day ends and the night has not quite declared itself. I stood listening to the muted sounds of the city—the voices of kids playing after supper, the barking of dogs, the muffled roar of automobile engines. Robins sang, swallows darted in the muggy air. And beneath me the city spread out from East Gloucester and the Paint Factory to Ravenswood.

Where else would one ever want to be? What else would one want to do on such a summer night but stand and take it all in? There was the familiar roof of the Hovey School, now condos, the assorted 19th and 20th century houses of Beacon Hill, just below Commonweath Avenue where I stood, and the harbor itself, spotted with small craft heading for their moorings as night began to fall.

It was here on Governor’s Hill, in the big Victorian house to the right as you face the park, that I was taken one Sunday morning during the war by our neighbor Gardner Deering. Gardner was an air-raid warden, and at the top of that house, in its attic or under an enclosed widow’s walk, was a lookout station. Surrounded by windows, the men who were on duty there, Coast Guardsmen or Civil Defense volunteers like Gardner, watched for signs of strange aircraft or German submarines. I remember maps strewn about and a short-wave radio. I couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old, when I climbed the dark, echoing stairway to the top of the house; but I’ve never forgotten the view out across the city and the harbor. I remember the men, patiently explaining to me what their mission was, for German subs had been sighted off Thacher’s Light and the Isle of Shoals, and I later learned that spies, speaking perfect English, had come ashore in South Portland, where they were apprehended by the Coast Guard.

So hills served a wartime purpose, as did the concrete watchtowers on Eastern and Halibut points. But as children I think it was more the wonder of heights that drew us, as we envied the people whose houses commanded such a view through all the seasons. I remember following a narrow wooded path at Ravenswood Park with my friend Bob Stephenson, only to emerge at the top of a ridge from which the city itself, from City Hall to Eastern Point Light, unfolded magically beneath us.

And what about Fiesta from Governor’s Hill or the top of Ledgmont, high above the blue carillon towers of Our Lady of Good Voyage? You may not be able to see the crowds or smell the sizzling peppers and sausages, the fried dough; but you can hear the vibrant music of the Italian bands and the voices of the revelers as if you were looking down on it all from the heights of Palermo. But make no mistake, it’s Gloucester, and we had better love it or lose it

Friday, July 20, 2007

A Walker in the City: John Sloan and the Gardens of Gloucester

(John Sloan's Sunflowers, Rocky Neck; Dolly Sloan [left] and John Sloan [right] with Alice Beach Winter, Stuart Davis and others at the "Red Cottage" on East Main Street, 1915. Images from Cape Ann Historical Association)

Just as Gloucester is a city of hills, it
is equally a city of gardens. There are the formal gardens of Eastern Point and Coles Island, of Annisquam and Bass Rocks. But there are also the intimate gardens, the terraced ones of Portuguese Hill-secret gardens hidden in the back yards of Dodge and Perkins streets, off Mt. Vernon Street or Washington Square. To see these gardens you must walk the neighborhoods of Gloucester, peering behind wooden fences and over stone walls.

It is worth the search, for there are marvelous gardens to be discovered—Turks’ caps breaking out between fence pickets, xenias suddenly exploding in color, gladioli where you’d least expect them.

The New York painter John Sloan discovered these gardens when he first arrived in East Gloucester during the summer of 1914. For five years he and his wife Dolly lived in a little red Cape Cod cottage that still exists on East Main Street (it’s the next to the last house on the left before you turn to enter Rocky Neck). During those years, fellow painters Charles Allan and Alice Winter and Stuart Davis would share the house with the Sloans. It might be said that under the Sloans' roof a good deal of the history of American art was made.

From photographs taken by Winter you can see the flower beds that surrounded the cottage, which has been beautifully preserved and is still painted a wonderful dark red. And from Sloan’s paintings-he did nearly a hundred that first summer-you can discover his neighbors’ gardens, and those on Rocky Neck and Mt. Pleasant Avenue that are depicted on his bright canvases.

On exhibit at the Cape Ann Historical Association is one of the earliest and finest of Sloan’s Gloucester paintings. It’s called “Sunflowers, Rocky Neck.” In the background there is a breathtaking view of Gloucester’s skyline; and in the foreground there are brilliant sunflowers, obviously part of a Rocky Neck garden Sloan happened upon during his daily walks in search of subjects to paint.

This painting is important, not only because it’s an initial example of Sloan’s Gloucester period, but also because in it he pays homage to that great painter of sunflowers, Vincent Van Gogh, some of whose works Sloan had encountered in New York the year before at the Famous “Armory Show,” which brought European modernism to America and changed the face of American art.

Sloan walked the moors behind his house, painting granite boulders half the size of barns and cows grazing peacefully in that still pastoral time. There’s a spectacular painting he did of Dogtown, also at the Historical Museum, a painting whose tints of purple and dark green perfectly capture the primordial atmosphere of Dogtown before Marsden Hartley made it his own.

I can imagine Sloan on those Gloucester walks, up Prospect Street and over to Winchester Court, down that magical set of steps that take you to the foot of Union Hill, where Sloan painted a busy Main Street of trolley tracks and stores with bright awnings, crowded with shoppers.

The Gloucester of Sloan’s day must have been a wonder for city people like John and Dolly, both native Philadelphians. They picnicked with visitors by the ocean and on the ledges above the Seine Fields. They made friends with the neighborhood children, many of whom Sloan painted.

Again and again in Sloan’s paintings you discover the gardens of Gloucester, as if he found in those intimate and private places, so artfully planted and arranged, the hidden imagination of the city.

It was the same in my childhood many years after the Sloans left Gloucester for Santa Fe, where Sloan was to live, paint and garden in an old adobe house on Garcia Street, off Canyon Road, for the rest of his life. I remember the “Victory” gardens of the war years in which we grew the vegetables our mothers and grandmothers “put up” for the winter. Those gardens taught us an early appreciation of food, along with a care for the earth. In fact, many of us who have vegetable gardens today learned how to cultivate them from our grandmothers and our friends’ mothers during the war years.

Italian and Portuguese families recreated the gardens of Sicily and the Azores, producing the most amazing eggplants, squash and tomatoes, along with grapes from which they made their own wine. And there was a woman down the Fort, Mrs. Frontiero, who grew brilliant orange poppies each year in her yard near O’Donnell-Usen’s plant, the birthplace of Birdseye Frosted Foods. “Oh come, poppy, when will you bloom?” Charles Olson asks in a poem about that garden.

The flowers and vegetables people grow, the gardens they create, say a lot about who we are and how we feel about our lives-indeed about the places we live in. Walk the neighborhoods of the inner city and you will discover a world of pattern and color in gardens that thrive even during the hottest summers. These gardens are the life of the city.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Walker in the City: Summer Afternoons

(The Mount, 1902 and 2007)

Henry James once told Edith Wharton that he felt the two most beautiful words in the English language were “summer afternoon.” Picture James seated on the cool, shaded terrace of The Mount, Wharton’s palatial summer home in Lenox, Massachusetts, enjoying an unsurpassed view of the Berkshire Hills and Laurel Lake. There is an almost preternatural stillness in the air, as it remains so today, interrupted by the rustling of leaves in the trees, the rasping song of a catbird, a cicada’s drone. It is high summer, but the elevation of the house and the shade of trees mitigate the oppressiveness of the heat. The two friends, the finest American novelists of their time, converse. Rather, James talks in the ruminative manner of his late fictions, and Wharton and her company listen to his exquisite observations in rapt silence.

After his visit, James will write his hostess that he felt “surrounded by every loveliness of nature, and every luxury of art, and treated with a benevolence that brings tears to my eyes.” Such was civility at the turn of the century.

That was a long time ago, one hundred and three years to be precise; and all that remains of the two writers are their books—and Wharton’s house, which has undergone restoration and is newly open to the public under the auspices of the Edith Wharton Restoration, founded in 1980.

A few years ago, while her house was still under repair, I walked the grounds of Wharton’s estate. Not far from Tanglewood, it was surrounded by the healing July silence, the tranquility of the trees, and the magnificence of her Italian garden. I pictured the two writers, who were together in Lenox in 1904 and before that in Europe, at Pavillon Colombe, Wharton’s château outside of Paris, and even earlier in Florence, where James spent many of his beloved summer afternoons at the Bellosquardo villa of Francis Boot, whose son-in-law Frank Duveneck painted in Gloucester. Looking back, those images seem sun-bleached, receding in time like faded photographs.

I, too, love summer afternoons. As a child I lay on top of the granite riprap that edged the Blynman Canal, endlessly day-dreaming. Heedless of the sun, I raced with my friends along the riverbank down to the high school yard, surrounded then by fields of milkweed, goldenrod and purple loosestrife. There we played hide-and-seek or chased the giant tiger swallowtails and monarchs that fed on the flowers and weeds. I can still see those wildflowers now, though the fields have long since become a vast asphalt parking lot. We also watched the bigger kids play ball in Newell Stadium as a prelude to Junior League baseball whose games the whole town attended on long summer nights.

Once, sitting in the shade of the old baseball bleachers, we came upon a lone artist painting the view across the stadium to Rider’s Rocks. Crowding around him, we watched as his quick pencil sketched in the shapes of houses leading up to the granite outcropping of Rider’s, shapes he soon filled with transparent watercolors-soft browns, violets, magentas. Some kids shook their heads. “It doesn’t look like it,” they whispered of images that weren’t photographic.

Still, I was fascinated as the painting took on a life of its own. While not exactly the rocks I knew from the bruises on my legs as I climbed them, in the artist’s imagination the view had become more essential, magical even. Years later, attending a retrospective in New York of the paintings of Milton Avery, many of them completed in Gloucester, I discovered that watercolor again and realized that I and my friends had for a brief summer’s afternoon experienced the transformative power of art at the hands of a master.

I read a lot on those summer afternoons, just as I do now. What is there about reading The Bounty Trilogy while seated in a mildewed canvas chair on the porch at 3 Perkins Road that gives one a feeling of such serenity? Perhaps it had to do with the summer itself and the fact that school was out, the war had ended, and I appeared to have no worries. That is one of the privileges of childhood. I wonder if young people enjoy it today.

The Gloucester I grew up in is my benchmark for every feeling I have about myself and my birthplace. Centered on the people we knew or met, the things we did, the neighborhoods we lived in, our earliest experiences are primary. Even so, we’re often compelled, like James and Wharton, who became expatriates in order to write more objectively about their own country, to separate ourselves from those experiences in order to grasp their meaning. It is a distance that can often prove painful, as is equally the case with any separation; but in the end, it can lead to a greater understanding of who we are and where we came from.