July 23, 2022

1. “The Pupil,” by Henry James

I read “The Pupil,” a novella by Henry James. It’s about an American family, the Moreens, who wander about European capitals, leaving behind a trail of unpaid bills. The Moreens engage a young man named Pemberton to tutor their youngest child, a boy named Morgan; Morgan is “the pupil.”

Morgan is a sickly, intelligent boy, and Pemberton has a good relationship with him. Morgan and Pemberton take a dim view of Morgan’s parents, who care only for social graces and social connections. Morgan warns Pemberton that his parents are bad payers — they didn’t pay Morgan’s nurse, and they aren’t paying Pemberton.

[Spoiler warning: if you’re thinking of reading “The Pupil,” you might want to stop here.]

Mr. and Mrs. Moreen are eager to marry their daughters to somebody, preferably to a man of the “right sort.” But as with many James characters, the girls remain unwed. As Morgan says of his sisters’ suitors, “Just when we think we’ve got them fast, we’re chucked!” In the New York Edition, James changed this to, “Just when we think we’ve landed them, they’re back in the deep sea!”1

As the suitors pull back from a commitment to Morgan’s sisters, so Pemberton pulls back from a commitment to Morgan. At the climax of the story, Morgan’s parents urge Pemberton to take Morgan under his wing, manage Morgan, but Pemberton hesitates, in classic HenryJames fashion, and the moment passes. Morgan realizes that Pemberton is afraid to make a commitment to him, and this realization seems to trigger the heart attack that kills Morgan.

We find something similar in James’ “Daisy Miller.” In “Daisy Miller,” Winterbourne hesitates to commit himself to Daisy, as Pemberton hesitates to commit himself to Morgan. “Like so many Jamesian heroes, Winterbourne has lost the capacity for love, and he has lost the opportunity to come to life.” James’ heroes avoid commitment, remain on the sidelines, and miss opportunities.

At the end of “The Pupil,” as at the end of “Daisy Miller,” we find tragedy, the death of the young innocent. As James’ secretary, Theodora Bosanquet, said, Morgan is one of James’ “children of light” (Bosanquet wrote a critical biography of James, Henry James At Work).2 Morgan’s death, like Daisy’s death, is “over-determined,” it has multiple causes. This is how life works, in my view, so James is being true-to-life. Morgan’s parents and Morgan’s tutor both contribute to his death, and it’s difficult to say who contributes more.3

I don’t blame James for the ambiguity of his action, I blame him for the ambiguity of his sentences. His strength is that he creates characters that come alive, that the reader can connect with. His weakness is that he doesn’t write clear prose, he’s too fond of subtleties, refinements, obscurities.

As I read “The Pupil,” it was clear that Morgan’s parents were portrayed in a negative way, Pemberton in a more positive way. I expected a twist ending, a reversal, a justification of Morgan’s parents. As Jacques Barzun said, James often gives the reader a “moral shock,” James says, “Look! It is not as you think!” And there is at least a partial reversal at the end of “The Pupil”: Pemberton seems to kill Morgan by shrinking back from commitment, while Morgan’s parents seem to love him deeply. At the critical moment, when Morgan is dying, Mrs. Moreen “bounded forward.... ‘Ah, his darling little heart!’ ...she caught him ardently in her arms.” Mr. Moreen is “trembling all over [and] in his way, as deeply affected as his wife.”

In “The Pupil,” James shows the “marked moral intensity” that many of his works have, and that many great novels have.4

* * * * *

In the first chapter of “The Pupil,” James writes, “[Morgan] passed out of one of the long windows; Pemberton saw him go and lean on the parapet of the terrace.” You can’t walk through today’s windows (even if they’re open), but it was once common to have windows that reached all the way to the floor. On a hot day, such windows could be opened to allow people to pass through (and perhaps to allow breezes to pass through).

Below is a picture of The Grange, Alexander Hamilton’s house in upper Manhattan, now owned by the National Park Service. Note how the windows reach all the way to the ground. Outside is a balcony, so if you opened a window, you could walk out to the balcony, as Morgan does in James’ story.

These tall windows are triple-hung, as opposed to today’s double-hung windows. If you have a triple-hung window, you can raise the bottom two sections to the level of the top section. These tall windows are a good indication of an old house. Over time, the bottom section is often boarded up, leaving a shorter, double-hung window, but also leaving signs that the window was once taller.

2. Decline and Fall, by Evelyn Waugh

Decline and Fall was Waugh’s first novel, published in 1928, when Waugh was 25. One might call it a wild farce; there are few serious sentences in the book. Critics agree that it’s an unusually funny book; it’s also short and readable. It depicts a society in which religious ideals and moral standards are crumbling, hence the title Decline and Fall. It was written when interest in Spengler was at its height; Spengler’s Decline of the West was translated into English in 1926.

[Spoiler warning: if you’re thinking of reading Decline and Fall, you might want to stop here.]

At the start of the novel, the protagonist, Paul Pennyfeather, is an Oxford undergrad. Then the scene shifts to a private school in Wales, where Paul is a teacher. Then Paul becomes engaged to an aristocratic woman (Margot), and gets mixed up in high society. Then Paul lands in prison, until Margot arranges his release, and he returns to Oxford to complete his studies. So after many adventures, Paul ends up where he was when the novel started.

Perhaps the only serious sentences in the book deal with a country estate. Waugh was a conservative, and he was fond of the old, critical of the new. Paul visits Margot’s estate, King’s Thursday:

The temperate April sunlight fell through the budding chestnuts and revealed between their trunks green glimpses of parkland and the distant radiance of a lake. “English spring,” thought Paul. “In the dreaming ancestral beauty of the English country.” Surely, he thought, these great chestnuts in the morning sun stood for something enduring and serene in a world that had lost its reason and would so stand when the chaos and confusion were forgotten?

Today’s pessimism is darker than Waugh’s; we no longer share his belief that “chaos and confusion” can be forgotten, overcome.

Margot decides to tear down King’s Thursday, and she hires a young architect, Otto Silenus, to erect a new house; she asks him to build “something clean and square.” Waugh pokes fun at modern architecture:

“The problem of architecture as I see it,” [Silenus] told a journalist who had come to report on the progress of his surprising creation of ferro-concrete and aluminium, “is the problem of all art — the elimination of the human element from the consideration of form. The only perfect building must be the factory, because that is built to house machines, not men. I do not think it is possible for domestic architecture to be beautiful, but I am doing my best. All ill comes from man,” he said gloomily; “please tell your readers that. Man is never beautiful; he is never happy except when he becomes the channel for the distribution of mechanical forces.”

....“I suppose there ought to be a staircase,” he said gloomily. “Why can’t the creatures stay in one place? Up and down, in and out, round and round! Why can’t they sit still and work? Do dynamos require staircases? Do monkeys require houses? What an immature, self-destructive, antiquated mischief is man!”

Waugh illustrated Decline and Fall himself. Here’s his drawing of Silenus:

A critic named Jerome Meckier compares Decline and Fall to Dickens’ works. “In Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield,” Meckier writes, “Dickens’ world is still recognizably semi-Christian: virtues are rewarded, humanistic impulses survive, individual salvation remains possible.” Meckier speaks of, “Dickens’ secularized Christianity, a curious blend of tenets from the Sermon on the Mount with benevolent humanism of the eighteenth century.” Meckier says that Pickwick is “a just and honest man,” who encounters evil without losing his innocence, who becomes increasingly self-confident during the course of the novel. “Pickwick’s triumph,” Meckier writes, is “proof that innocence and good-natured benevolence can function without the backing of orthodox religion.”

In Waugh’s novel, on the other hand, Paul Pennyfeather doesn’t become wiser and doesn’t “conserve the innocence he began with.” Waugh’s novel is “an ethical and philosophical dead end.... Paul is the first in a long line of Waugh heroes to confront the modern world with humanistic intent and lose.” In an earlier issue, I noted that Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited ends with Charles Ryder (the protagonist) “homeless, childless, middle-aged, love-less.”

Pennyfeather’s imprisonment is a Dickensian touch. “In Dickens’ world,” Meckier writes, “prisons and prison imagery are ubiquitous.” Dickens’ own father was imprisoned for debt; his wife and younger children lived with him in prison. Pennyfeather feels free in prison, and particularly enjoys the solitary lifestyle. “It was so exhilarating, he found, never to have to make any decision on any subject, to be wholly relieved from the smallest consideration of time, meals or clothes, to have no anxiety ever about what kind of impression he was making; in fact, to be free.”

We find something similar in Dickens. Uriah Heep, the evil character in David Copperfield, says that he’s “far more comfortable [in prison] than ever [he] was outside.” The difference between Dickens and Waugh, Meckier argues, is that in Dickens it’s the evil person who doesn’t fit into the world and is happy in prison, whereas in Waugh it’s the good person who doesn’t fit into the world and is happy in prison. So here again, Dickens’ world makes sense, while Waugh’s world is absurd, upside-down.

In 2004, before I read David Copperfield or Decline and Fall, I wrote,

Since my application to the National Guard was rejected, I’ve come up with another plan for making a living: I’m going to commit a crime, and be sent to prison. In prison, I’ll receive free lodgings, food, and medical care, and I’ll have an abundance of free time. I’m going to commit a crime so heinous that I’ll be sent to solitary confinement, but not so heinous that I’ll lose library privileges.

In fact, I may not need to commit a crime; I’ll just do some research, find an unsolved crime, and confess to being the perpetrator. Thus, I can avoid the inconvenience of actually committing a crime.

It should be noted that prison has provided material for many great literary works: Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, etc. So my advice to aspiring writers is, “if you can’t get into the National Guard, find a way to get into prison.”5

Waugh divides people into static and dynamic. Pennyfeather represents the static personality. He struggles to find a place in the modern world.6 Meckier writes, “A rare authorial intrusion explains that ‘the whole’ of Decline and Fall ‘is really an account of the mysterious disappearance of Paul Pennyfeather,’ a novel-length autopsy on the fate that awaits innocence, honesty, and gentleness in the modern world.” Waugh “shows the English gentleman (or gentle man) being repulsed and deceived by a vulgar, amoral world.” Meckier calls Paul “a classic dupe.... the archetypal patsy, forced to learn the ways of the world.”

In an essay called “Evelyn Waugh: Satire and Symbol,” Meckier argues that Waugh is an “expert craftsman” with a “developed sense of form and a concern for the preservation of language,” and also a master of symbol. One of Waugh’s favorite symbols is the wheel. I mentioned above that Paul ends up where he was when the novel started, Paul comes “full circle.” Meckier says,

In Waugh’s circular novels, symbolic wheels are omnipresent. Professor Silenus in Decline and Fall compares life to the wheel at Luna Park, a fun-house Wheel of Fortune constantly flinging off those who try to retain a seat on its revolving disc of polished wood. Paul is flung off once at Scone College and a second time just as he is about to wed Margot Beste-Chetwynd.

According to Meckier, Waugh uses circle and wheel symbols to indicate “the world’s loss of direction, a refutation of complacent belief in inevitable progress.”

Silenus tells Paul that static people like him shouldn’t try to climb onto the wheel, they should just watch. Silenus says,

People get hold of ideas about life, and that makes them think they’ve got to join in the game, even if they don’t enjoy it. It doesn’t suit everyone.... You’re a person who was clearly meant to stay in the seats and sit still and if you get bored watch the others. Somehow you got on to the wheel, and you got thrown off again at once with a hard bump.

Meckier says that, since Waugh makes deft use of symbols (like the wheel at Luna Park), he may have started the novel with a symbol, he may have “conceived of a novel in terms of its central symbols.” Meckier says,

A Paris Review interviewer once asked Waugh if there were things about Sword of Honour that he saw from the beginning. “Yes,” he replied, “both the sword in the Italian Church and the sword of Stalingrad were, as you put it, there from the beginning.”

So when Waugh sat down to begin writing a novel, he may have had its central symbol already in his mind. In the case of Decline and Fall, the central symbol may be the wheel at Luna Park.

* * * * *

Evelyn Waugh was born in 1903, and died in 1966. He grew up in a family that was neither aristocratic nor wealthy, but included many distinguished people. The name “Waugh” is Scotch. Alexander Waugh, born in Scotland in 1754, rose from humble origins to become a prominent minister in London.7

One of Alexander’s sons, George Waugh, became an eminent “medicine man,” the Druggist to Queen Victoria. “The fashionable world flocked to him for their salts and potions.”8 Two of George’s daughters married artists, Pre-Raphaelite artists; Alice married Thomas Woolner, while Fanny married Holman Hunt (a third daughter, Edith, married Holman Hunt after Fanny died). Evelyn Waugh’s first literary work was an essay on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His second work was a book on the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

One of Evelyn’s ancestors on his mother’s side, Henry Cockburn, was an eminent Scotch jurist and the author of a highly-regarded memoir, Memorials of His Time (1856). Evelyn’s father, Arthur, had literary tastes, and became a leading figure in the publishing world; Arthur wrote a book about Tennyson, a memoir, and numerous book-reviews. Arthur moved in literary circles, and was a distant relative of the writer Edmund Gosse. And then there’s Evelyn’s older brother, Alec Waugh, who was a competent novelist and a travel writer. I’ve discussed Evelyn’s descendants in earlier issues. A remarkable family indeed.

The most complete biography of Waugh is Martin Stannard’s two-volume work. But Stannard’s biography is better suited for the specialist than the general reader. Stannard says it’s hard for any biography to compete with Waugh’s own autobiography, A Little Learning.

And then there’s Waugh’s autobiographical novel, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, which Wikipedia calls “a largely autobiographical account of a period of hallucinations caused by bromide intoxication.” Pinfold has Waugh’s dislike of modernity; Pinfold abhors “plastics, Picasso, sunbathing and jazz — everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime.”9

There are some autobiographical elements in Paul Pennyfeather, too. Paul attends “a small public school of ecclesiastical temper on the South Downs,” not unlike the school Waugh attended. Then Paul goes to Oxford, as Waugh did. Paul teaches briefly at a Welsh school, as Waugh did, and Paul mixes with high society, as Waugh did.10

If Paul is Waugh, at least partly, we would expect the narrator to have some sympathy with Paul. A critic named William Cook argues that

it is the detachment of narrator from characters and events that gives Decline and Fall its madly comic tone — a tone which is almost consistent throughout the work; yet it is the increasingly close identification of the narrator with Paul that causes the comedy to take on a rather serious aspect.

According to Cook, “the dominant theme of the novel [is] the plight of the sensitive, intelligent individual in a world of ‘disorderly profusion.’ This is to be the single continuing and developing theme of Waugh’s fiction.”

The “disorderly profusion” of modern life leads to insomnia. Silenus asks Paul, “What do you take to make you sleep? ....Margot takes veronal. I haven’t been to sleep for over a year. That’s why I go to bed early. One needs more rest if one doesn’t sleep.”

Waugh is surely one of the outstanding talents in modern literature. He could even make literature out of his own mental breakdown (in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold). He’s a first-rate stylist and (in the words of Edmund Wilson) “the only first-rate comic genius that has appeared in English since Bernard Shaw.”

3. Shelby Steele

I’ve noticed that guided tours nowadays often include a spiel about political correctness — the oppression of Native Americans, the oppression of people of color, etc. Fox News recently had a segment about political correctness in tours of Jefferson’s home and Madison’s home. The Fox host, Brian Kilmeade, interviewed Shelby Steele, who said, “We should find our courage, and stand up to this, and stop being so afraid that we’re going to be labelled a racist. Particularly White America has to begin to have moral confidence in itself, and stand up to people who want to revise history as a power grab.”

4. The Wood Thrush

I recently took a guided walk through Simon Willard Woods in Concord, Massachusetts. The walk ended at Egg Rock, where the Sudbury and Assabet Rivers meet to form the Concord River.

The guides, Amity Wilczek and Richard Smith, called my attention to the song of the Wood Thrush, Thoreau’s favorite bird song. It is indeed an enchanting song, perhaps more enchanting when heard in Thoreau Country. Here’s how Thoreau described the song of the Wood Thrush:

I planned to return to Simon Willard Woods to hear the Wood Thrush again. But then, lo! I heard him in — of all places — my own backyard. Would I have noticed his song if my guides hadn’t called my attention to it? Would my guides have noticed it if Thoreau hadn’t written about it?

To appreciate beauty, we often need some sort of learning. Proust wouldn’t have found Venice so enchanting if he hadn’t read Ruskin’s books about Venice; Ruskin helped Proust to see Venice.14 Thoreau helps us to appreciate the song of the Wood Thrush, a song that I must have heard hundreds of times without even noticing it, much less appreciating it.

© L. James Hammond 2022
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1. I read the Norton Critical Edition of “The Pupil” (in a volume called Tales of Henry James). Norton chose the original version of “The Pupil,” not the later version from the New York Edition. I agree with the widespread view that James didn’t improve his works when he edited them for the New York Edition, and therefore it’s best to read the earlier versions. On the other hand, I find the New York Edition to be useful for filtering out James’ second-rate works. back
2. See Wikipedia article on “The Pupil” back
3. As Seymour Lainoff writes, “The Moreens, it is true, are chiefly instrumental in bringing on Morgan’s death. But Pemberton, the boy’s tutor and the narrator of the story, should not be allowed to get off scot-free, as he customarily is; he must be held culpable, too. If not as guilty as the governess in The Turn of the Screw, he is at least accessory to the crime. Acting always upon motives acceptable enough by the world’s lights and yet revealing a limited morality when judged by more heroic standards, he is incapable of making the bold gesture needed to liberate Morgan from his blighting surroundings. The devoted Morgan dubs his tutor a ‘hero’ on several occasions; the undeserved title acquires irony before the story ends.”

At the critical moment, Pemberton keeps a distance from Morgan. “The theme of the story,” according to Lainoff, is “the isolation, the eternal loneliness, of the human spirit. The soul has no true home; family bonds are limited; even friendship has its limits.”

Another critic, Thomas Canavan, says that “The Pupil” deals with money from its opening sentence. “All of these references to money,” Canavan writes, “further the central theme of the tale and identify the focus of James’s attention: the effects of rapaciousness on the human spirit.... Deserted by mother, father, and tutor... Morgan falls victim to selfishness and rapacity, vices which may find their origin in a diseased heart, and illustrates, through the death of his own ‘good’ heart, the heartlessness that is bred of worldliness.”

In a footnote, Canavan mentions other essays on “The Pupil”:
For some recent articles, see Terence J. Martin, “James’s ‘The Pupil’: The Art of Seeing Through,” and William Bysshe Stein, “‘The Pupil’: The Education of a Prude,” both reprinted in Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Turn of the Screw” and Other Tales, edited by Jane Tompkins (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970), pp. 11-22 and 22-28. Some briefer considerations may be found in John V. Hagopian, “Seeing Through ‘The Pupil’ Again,” Modern Fiction Studies, V (Summer 1959), 169-171, William Kenney, “The Death of Morgan in James’s ‘The Pupil,’” Studies in Short Fiction, VIII (Spring 1971), 317-22, and Seymour Lainoff, “A Note on Henry James’s ‘The Pupil’,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, XIV (1959-60, 75-77) back

4. See my earlier remarks on F. R. Leavis. back
5. When Paul Pennyfeather goes to prison, the Medical Officer asks him,

“Have you at any time been detained in a mental home or similar institution? If so, give particulars.”
“I was at Scone College, Oxford,” said Paul. back

6. In my book of aphorisms, I wrote
“Hiring Smiling Faces” reads a sign at McDonald’s, and doubtless many companies follow the same policy. What chance does a poor philosopher, who rarely smiles, have of landing a job? Don’t melancholics deserve an equal opportunity? Should we be discriminated against just because we were born under Saturn? Should doors be closed to us because we’re saturnine, not jovial?

The distinction between static and dynamic resembles the distinction between saturnine and jovial. back

7. For more on Alexander Waugh, see Martin Stannard’s biography of Evelyn Waugh, Volume 1, p. 11 back
8. Stannard, p. 14 back
9. Stannard, Prologue, p. 1 back
10. When describing Paul’s Oxford experience, Waugh writes, “A shriller note could now be heard rising from Sir Alastair’s rooms... the sound of the English county families baying for broken glass.” Breaking glass has long been a feature of Oxford parties; when Boris Johnson was at Oxford in the 1980s, he often went to parties that involved vandalism.

Where did Waugh get his light-hearted, satirical approach? Perhaps he was influenced by Ronald Firbank (see Stannard’s biography, p. 159). Waugh wasn’t a fan of Aldous Huxley’s fiction, dismissing it as “conversation and biology” (Stannard p. 165); Huxley was slightly older than Waugh, and like Waugh, he had a satirical bent. Waugh had more admiration for Virginia Woolf’s fiction; Waugh said he was “transported” by Woolf’s Orlando (Stannard p. 163).

Some critics have faulted Waugh for weak characterization, especially in his early works. Stannard says that Waugh deliberately emphasizes the collective rather than the subjective, the group rather than the individual (p. 163). In an earlier issue, I discussed this “group approach” with respect to Shakespeare. Meckier suggests that Waugh’s characters sometimes dissolve entirely; Meckier says that Waugh’s characters “lack an essential self. Periodically, they fall apart just as the world does.” back

11. See Thoreau’s Journal, June 22, 1853 back
12. Journal, June 14, 1853 back
13. Journal, May 17, 1853 back
14. Ruskin helped everyone to appreciate Gothic architecture. Before Ruskin, the Gothic was sometimes regarded as ugly. The term “Gothic” was originally a pejorative term, an allusion to the barbarous Goths. According to Wikipedia, “the term Gothic was first applied contemptuously during the later Renaissance, by those ambitious to revive the architecture of classical antiquity.” back