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. http://www.edithwharton.org

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 ch√Ęteau 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.

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