Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Henry Adams on the Senses

While looking for examples of plain American prose, I had a look at The Education of Henry Adams, and found, not as plain as I had remembered, but vivid enough:
Boys are wild animals, rich in the treasures of sense, but the New England boy had a wider range of emotions than boys of more equable climates. He felt his nature crudely, as it was meant. To the boy Henry Adams, summer was drunken. Among senses, smell was the strongest--smell of hot pine-woods and sweet-fern in the scorching summer noon; of new-mown hay; of ploughed earth; of box hedges; of peaches, lilacs, syringas; of stables, barns, cow-yards; of salt water and low tide on the marshes; nothing came amiss. Next to smell came taste, and the children knew the taste of everything they saw or touched, from pennyroyal and flagroot to the shell of a pignut and the letters of a
spelling-book--the taste of A-B, AB, suddenly revived on the boy's tongue sixty years afterwards. Light, line, and color as sensual pleasures, came later and were as crude as the rest. The New England light is glare, and the atmosphere harshens color. The boy was a full man before he ever knew what was meant by atmosphere; his idea of pleasure in light was the blaze of a New England sun. His idea of color was a peony, with the dew of early morning on its petals. The intense blue of the sea, as he saw it a mile or two away, from the Quincy hills; the cumuli in a June afternoon sky; the strong reds and greens and purples of colored prints and children's picture-books, as the American colors then ran; these were ideals. The opposites or antipathies, were the cold grays of  November evenings, and the thick, muddy thaws of Boston winter. With such standards, the Bostonian could not but develop a double nature. Life was a double thing. After a
January blizzard, the boy who could look with pleasure into the violent snow-glare of the cold white sunshine, with its intense light and shade, scarcely knew what was meant by tone. He could reach it only by education.
When I must first have read this passage, around forty years ago, I had not read Adams's novel Democracy, with the excursion from Washington to Mt. Vernon:
Lord Skye, too, a little intoxicated by the brilliancy of the morning, broke out into admiration of the noble river, and accused Americans of not appreciating the beauties of their own country.
"Your national mind," said he, "has no eyelids. It requires a broad glare and a beaten road. It prefers shadows which you can cut out with a knife. It doesn't know the beauty of this Virginia winter softness."
Nor his remarks to Elizabeth Cameron in a letter of June 27, 1889,
The world has some slight compensations for its occasional cruelties. I suppose, for instance, that in gradually deadening the senses it cuts away the unpleasant as well as the pleasant. As I walk in the garden and the fields I recall distinctly the acuteness of odors when I was a child, and I remember how greatly they added to impression made by scenes and places. Now I catch only a sort of suggestion of the child's smells and lose all the pleasure, but at least do not get the disgusts.

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