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The Room Where My Uncle Died

ISSUE:  Summer 1933

Something about M—— always makes me want to use quotations; I suppose it is because he in his turn is always giving an opinion. He speaks opinions as a Frenchman speaks French or a Greek, Greek. May this serve to excuse me for scattering references of sorts over this account of him and us. This article is written for Southern readers, who alone will quite understand when I write as I shall about a trait that in a certain class of them is so marked and that M—— in his opinion got so wrong.

There is, I must add here, a point regarding Southern people about which still I do not know what I think. Boiled up or pushed to impatience, Southerners may defend their own, rush to the aid of some tradition, habit, or trait of theirs that is assailed or ridiculed. But in these warm and lively instances the result, though it may have color, is apt to lack secure enough bases; it goes up but it does not come down, not to any solid ground of reasoned principles, preferences, comparative values, seasoned rejections. Seen one way, this is a very profound condition, in that you live your trait or preference rather than talk about it. You do not dissect it for yourself or for outside commentators, you take it for granted. It has seemed to you to bring health enough into your inner stream of character, to serve your living well, and you have no impulse to carry it, as Vico would say, “by the double vanity of the nations and the learned,” into organized discussion or defence. Some provincialism in Southerners is a part, however, of what keeps them accepting their own mores without perceiving their place in a scheme of social thought, though I know of no society given over bodily to such studies and feel sure only of a dreadful mess if there were; perhaps I should stress, rather, too great a lack of such an interest in our Southern writers and public voices. Then again—let it go as a last weakness of the old cotton snobbery, Southern balderdash and sentiment, or whatever cold docketing you have for it—I must confess there are times when all I wish is that, in a world of men and thought forms, and especially now of propaganda, cant, and tosh, we ponder our mores enough to hold on to them, or to keep what is our kind of good to be found in them, or at least not to be bluffed by something no better but only more articulate or busy. It is in this trivial, uninternational mood that I am apt to be proud of Southerners for not troubling to explain; there is something distinguished about it, reassuring and— now we are all damned—stylish.

It is one of M——’s opinions, nevertheless, that has started me off.

Physically M—— is of medium height, rather blown here and there but not fat; he has, like Chekhov’s hero, a small but disagreeable voice. Sometimes, seeing his motions, I think of Berni’s satirical verse about un uom fuggito dalla notomia, a man escaped from anatomy. Then again I can see how an artist, leaving out that air of stew and botheration (quite engaging really) could draw M—— very handsome, a certain classic coolness of feature. His wife first saw him in this light, no doubt, and fell in love with him.

M—— used to be, and is now sometimes, a poet. At such times still she is happy again; I have seen it, with him like Orpheus leading her out of hell with a song. Sometimes I think that if he has not what would make me value his judgment, he has at least a certain emotional integrity, a precision of the heart. It is this, combined with facility of expression, that gives him a public; and it is most through this that I like him, quite love him, in fact. Again, I can only think that M—— is so anxious to have his opinion that he cannot wait to peruse his subject; and in that light I have come to think of him as sinister, miasmic.

Not long ago I met M—— on the street, just after his return to town; he spoke of having made some sort of writing tour of the great industrial centers in the Middle West. He had come back, I saw, militant, theoretical, and revolutionary in his head, but sick at heart. The drab crime of the life that has been created in these centers had withered his stomach and dried his nerves. When he said he had one more of these trips, this time farther south, I said, look here, why not make the loop and come by and see us in Mississippi, at my cousin’s, where I am going? A good idea, he said, and I was pleased to be allotted one.

There is a room upstairs that we call Uncle’s room, and often in our minds think of as the room where Uncle died; at least that was what my cousin happened to say as we led M—— into it and spread him out at home: “We’ve given you Uncle’s room, the room where he died,” she said, not thinking much about it. As a matter of fact, M—— saw Grandma’s room, Cousin Rosa’s room—thirty years ago-Little Ab’s room, and anywhere else in the house. But he picked on his own room. Our name for it proved, eventually, to clinch something for him.

I took M—— presently down to the front porch, with magnolias standing near it—you could smell the great white flowers that night. The family were there waiting: my Cousin Abner and Cousin Georgia; my old aunt who lives with them; the little boy of seven; his sister, five; and a spinster cousin already on a visit of some years. Juleps in the silver goblets (here and there battered) were brought, some of the last remaining Bourbon in M——’s honor. . . . Southern home, columns, magnolias, and now juleps! I confess it was almost too much. With M—— there I felt as if we were the movies or weakly exposed to him in a vast banality. If only the whippoorwill, I thought, in the willow just beyond the gate did not begin to sing, with the moon coming out in the powdery leaves and striking here close by on the magnolia leaves, polished like metal! Discreditably and quietly I asked Cousin Abner when would full moon be.

But the bird, which I have heard summer nights sing hours on end as if—ah, well—did not sing, and the night was silent, as they said (it’s M—— made me think of that) in Latin when there was no moon. The traditional side of the juleps, however, seemed not to affect M—— at all. He talked and laughed and my cousin said he looked like Cousin Tom Taliaferro. I remembered Cousin Tom, very hearty and kind; he could spit out a cat’s eye, they said, from the little gap between his two front teeth. I mention him only to show what a gallery of people and their recollections M—— had run into. I think honestly that at the time—for he has somewhere in him the despicable viscera of a gentle individual being—M—— didn’t mind, even when, after a rose at the corner of the porch had filled the air with its platitude of fragrance, my aunt explained that it was a yellow rose her grandfather had brought from Virginia, a hundred years ago. Thus began the first of M——’s two days with us.

After a while I took his lamp from the hall table and started M—— up to his room and its wide Empire bed, the rosewood posts carved with eagles’ heads. Then, as I stood there while M—— was finding himself, there came to me from the old orchard by that wing of the house the sound of fruit falling. “Ripeness is all”—did not Shakespeare say that? The apricots and pears now and then in the light wind dropping to the ground. Ripeness is all. I forgot the ructions of my modern life, poor worm that I am; for ripe fruit falling had blotted out the causes, jargons, Nazis, India, jury rights, and so on — falling in the ripeness of summer. I suppose M—— heard something of it; for, his cigarette pausing vaguely between his lips, I saw that familiar motion of his arms, as if he were digging himself up, and gave him my matches.

If the whippoorwill, having kept still, escaped, we did not.

Back in New York M—— now speaks of ancestor worship.

My account so far, doubtless, has sounded as if we talked all during his visit like melodious family albums, to some persons infinitely wearisome. But there were, in truth, discussions of international policy, the gold payments on our bonds in Europe, the unemployment outrages in Washington, and other matters, about which M——’s opinions, though shocking at the Union League Club in New York, were not without agreement from my Cousin Abner, whose bucolic ignorance and Southern retardation were tempered by natural good sense and the fact that it was not the first time he had thought about civilization and the movements of nations. But the opinion all the same that M—— got out of his little visit was ancestor worship. So much for our calling it Uncle’s room.

Plainly something revolts in him therefore. I reflect on what it may be, among M——’s many complications. He may hate the claims made on feeling, or hate organized anything, even family memory. Perhaps my aunt annoyed him. She is a woman of many troubles and struggles, but none of them interest her for analysis, theory, or social wrongs; for social conversation her epoch leaned to the agreeable, the graces. Only when she is a little bilious now and then is she led to have had tribulations and expect more. It may be that M—— would prefer Sparta, where, Pausanias tells us, the Graces worshipped most were natural stones—not marble limbs, divine images, but three stones lying on the ground.

At any rate M—— would not want my aunt to groan, he wants her to opine. My aunt thinks conversation is a kind of eighteenth-century art or style; M—— thinks it is himself. Even her compliments may have gone down wrong with him. They are very Southern, presented like a bouquet, not so much to penetrate as to give pleasure: they have perfume but not intrusive depth, touching the vanity rather than the ego. Basta. I have only to say that it is not as if M—— were devoted to our American industrial civilization.

He finds it hard, barren, unjust, et cetera; more and more the new social doctrines working in the world will disturb his head and heart. Certainly every civilization in its due course has its due aridity; and I had not at all expected from M—— any soft endorsements of our Southern life. I had only thought of it as perhaps a moment’s cushion for his rasped nerves and tired social-joints. That shows how clearly I was wrong. He has settled our family hash: people living in ancestor worship.

The discussion now comes down to the cultivation in the South of the life of the affections. This sense of the affections is not exclusive of hate; its distaste is for neutrality or flatness among people mingled together. There is a fixed Southern notion that if people love you, a great deal is solved. This accounts partly for the Southern desire to please, which is not so much for the sake of scheming as because it makes one easy, gives one a pleasant space to turn in. It accounts also for the way in which the particular individualism in the South, partly related to the land, partly to our background of the British Isles, combines, nevertheless, into a society or civilization, good or bad, but certainly far more definite or tangible than anything the industrial in our country has been able elsewhere to produce. It connects with the way, too, in which we have the sense of a long society of people about whom we feel that the element of life and death, for us and them, is more or less incidental. And this in turn narrows down, within the channel of our own blood, to a sense of our forefathers and kin who have come before us; what M—— would, naturally, prefer to call our Ancestors.

He likes this word ancestors, because it jumps him straight to his opinion. It bolsters him, too, with an Oriental Decay argument, half bosh. Ancestor worship. M—-, who has never found any home in the world for himself, thinks what little we may have of ours only a murky obfuscation: I do believe he would like to scratch up my poor old uncle from the closet in that room, as a poodle might a bone from a flower bed, and drag him off to the communal fields. And finally, as so many outsiders do, he lets it all go as that everlasting Southern business of aristocracy. This, I should judge, is to be our coup de grace.

Well, everybody knows our Southern habits — so often tedious, especially away from home—in this style: noble or genteel descents, family trees, even from people who have none (though I confess I choose, if I must, the man who would like to think of himself as sprung from notable beings to the man who finds himself the first seed at last out of many sowings). M—— himself is what we should call in the South “well-born”; but I gather one can be offensive using the word. My cousins in their innocence, however, might go on calling him so; they got the word along with other things from the eighteenth century, I suppose, and this brief page has not space to refurbish the whole matter of vocabulary. And, also, this Southern way we have of talking about who people are, whom they married, what places have what family names in them, et cetera, we must pass by now—with whatever merciful judgment is granted—: it exists and has existed, children pick it up before they are ten. All this paragraph bears on M——’s muddle. But certainly nobody at our old house was hoping to impress him, as it were, historically or fabulously in persons and places. It was a far more inner and profound Southern thing that he encountered and missed.

But space is not infinite here and it is I who must be bent to a straiter listing of some points to be made. I could say to M——, then:

For one thing, this is nothing new in the world, the poetry of place. It is not only the land underfoot. The songs, the familiar speech, the savor of familiar food, can touch our hearts with deep feeling and are our country; all these are, however far-off, our country too. And to lose it, once so loved, would be a kind of death. Something of the irony to our human life the fact may be, but it is true that things in the spirit become in the imagination literal; and literal, actual, tangible things become things in the spirit, emotional images and pure abstractions. This comments on the way in which the family ideal is an extension of the ideal of self, and on the way one’s family and its country make a sort of circle of the ideal-actual. It comments also on the way in which what are essentially ideas and instincts in us work upon the memory of people who have lived before us, endowing them with clarity of outline. What M—— saw at my cousin’s was not ancestor worship, silly, external, and offensive phrase, pushing all the dead away from the memory by which they live in us and into the insidious exactions of idols. It was not ancestor worship, but a sort of love of life, the— turpitudinous, very likely—impulse to love life instead of what life should be, and the instinct to live and to love or exercise yourself within, one might say, a sense of the continuity of life. The same thing I have seen in classic Italy, though carried farther, more simple and ingrained than is understandable outside the classic tradition. An old marquis (once governor of Naples, to be exact) with his beautiful little boy of five. You must be very proud of him, I said. He put his hand on the child’s head, looking at him with some tender completeness of satisfaction not to be described. Yes, he said, la continuazione della vita; just that, without more comment, the continuation of life.

Well, I can almost hear M—— saying, it makes you all unintelligent. That, obviously, is something I could scarcely argue. But I can think of Alberti, marvel of the Renaissance, architect, poet, engineer, who said that hymns and music and so on, heard in church, “moved him to a certain slowness of mind, full of reverence to God.” I am, of course, skittish of plopping in “God” like that, though it may be better than an ancestor and is certainly about as definite as M——’s “masses.” I will merely say that, at whatever risks in brain per cents, I do not regret those long evening hours, for instance, when I was a little boy, sitting on the porch with the family, most of all with my uncle. He would note for me sometimes the stages of the season, rain, sun, cotton, corn, soil, the star galaxies, new science books, all very real, or else nothing, to him. Or he would talk sometimes of the people in the family, a little of the distant generations, heroic or humorous, but mostly of his father and brothers and his sister, my grandmother, and the other kin, some seen, some never seen, about whom he knew so much.

To hear M—— talk, doubtless, you would think my uncle an old fool who every time he could think of another name in the clan went on like Boiardo, Count of Scandiano, great epic poet, who caused all the bells in the village to be rung when the name of Rodamonte came to him. As a matter of fact my uncle was a man of great refinement and restraint (not reserve); and though he liked us with him and near him as constantly as possible, he was a solitary man, and had those special qualities of solitary men, which are, as De Sanctis says, candor, clarity, and feeling.

I got from my uncle a sense of having been loved before I was born, and of a certain fierceness in blood, as it were, that bound me up with a long community or progression of life. The world of death, savage and natural, was thus, though none the less tragic, somewhat differently peopled. This was not a mere clan affair that I was given the sense of, but a kind of perpetual society. In these people of our family who were as real as that in our memories there was for me a long vista of comparisons, experiences, statures, faiths, absurdities, devotions, and so on. I still see no reason why the education in all this cannot parallel in its way the world of art and art’s uses, cultural, moral, imaginative; nor why it did not properly take in some respects the place of art for my building up. It was, for example, no more false than history and much more true because of its immediacy to us. Of the rose at the corner of the porch, to take another instance, which my great-grandfather set out and liked, it has long since been noted that every year it is in bloom for his birthday. Everybody in the family knew that; and if for some reason of late cold weather the blossoms were not yet out by that day, we noted that too. I can remember nothing maudlin about it; in fact all I remember out of this simple calendric-botanical combination was — shall I say it was what this whole essay is about? To this family experience, coming to me as affection, precepts, habit, and loyalty, I trace the source of whatever aesthetic power or literary perception lay for me in the realization (when the time came for that) of the understatement of life that words constantly exhibit.

I remember at eighteen coming on that distinction of La Rochefoucauld’s between conceit and pride; and how I, just stumbling out of the family gates into life by then, applied his remark to the family idea as seen against the democratic idea; and how I perceived that your solution of the question would appear in the fact that this pride need not involve mere aristocratic claims at all, but rather the feeling in you that anything you have loved and believed to be in another has left its flower, if not itself, in you. Returning to the subject of my education, what traces I may have of it, I will say—this should be the sum of what I am driving at—that it is in the light of this old house of ours and the persons living or remembered there, and my uncle’s company, that I best hope to understand Dante’s great definition: that “poetry is the loving use of wisdom.”

I have singled out my uncle because he was, and is, a marked example of the quality or habit or trait, whatever you call it, that M—— so bungled himself up about, and because his was the poor old room that started M—— off. As for M——, I have already failed; my title and the first few lines will have provided him his opinion; which for speed can—I will not say crystallize—out jell our national desert. I have read quite as many modern books as he, seen more modern art, travelled much more, but that will not affect the case. These matters are congenital of course; he will give, and tellingly, his friends his opinion of my effort. Most of them are people anxious to change without knowing what it is they change from.

I was a child when my uncle died, in that upstairs room.

The doors were open; my cousin with the brooch she had saved during the war by pinning it to her bustle, took me in to see him. I remember the high, proud face, his eyes closed; the August afternoon; the slender white feet uncovered. In Progressive Education, I daresay, this was all barbarous; the children at such a family moment should be away at school, deciding what they wish to learn. I still see no harm in it; why must we get all images from art, or live without images, for which the creative in us hungers?

It is, I believe, a very practical and workable observation to say that one way to judge people—which in the midst of life we are obliged to do—is to try and see them as if in the long perspective of death. Mere length of time will not do, it is death that brings in our nobility and pity, which it adds to the time removal and perspective. We see then how, in that vista, what is transient in the ones judged, though irritating or faulty with them in closer contact, fades away; we see what of their virtues hold, what places their traits and humanities may have in the scale. Death is thus made to reveal what is most permanent in the living.

Things fall away; the light of such a man as my uncle is seen more clearly. There is a line in Giordano Bruno where he says, speaking of God (I put in the Latin, it would have pleased my uncle and it annoys M——): Sicut tenebrae eius, ita et lumen eius, I find nothing depressing in this last memory of my uncle, a tinge of the melancholy natural to our life perhaps. The scene remains with me partly because of the clearness belonging to his solitude at such a moment. But if I learned anything at all from him, it should be that the character of our memory of a man can be the same as his character in life: As his light is, so is his shadow.


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