Tag: children

Henry James, “My Friend Bingham” (1867)

henry james my friend bingham

(© The Notebooks)

What do you do when you stupidly shoot at a seagull and kill a child instead? Why, you marry his mother. Bingham is the rich friend of the narrator. He has learned not to indulge in “this monstrous hereditary faculty for doing nothing and thinking nothing,” though he doesn’t do much or think much in this story. The doing is limited to his vacationing with the narrator, his shooting the child, and his immediately turning to devising ways to atone toward the woman, even as the child’s body is lolling about in the carriage, “the desire to obtain from the woman he had wronged some recognition of his human character, some confession that she dimly distinguished him from a wild beast or a thunderbolt.” Realism in James at times surrenders entirely to his thematic fixation, itself making props of characters. Mrs. Hicks is repeatedly described as intelligent and full of integrity, but we never see it. She’s a bit of a flat character here, and of the child himself all we know is the image of him as a “pale-faced little boy, muffled like an invalid” in the moments before he is killed. Incredibly, he is thrice blamed: first by Bingham for going on the rocks, where he supposedly shouldn;t have been, then by his mother, who says she told him he shouldn’t have gone there, then by the narrator: “Her little boy has hurt himself.” But the story is breezily, almost humorously toned, anticipating the Maupassant approach and twists, with Bingham’s marriage to Mrs. Hicks at the end, though they remain childless: he could not give her back what he took. By then he’s grown as “stout” as Pierre Bon-Bon.

Atlantic Monthly, March 1867

Alicia Elliott, “Unearth” (2017)

Edward S. Curtis: Navajo child, ca. 1904

Edward S. Curtis: Navajo child, ca. 1904.

A 5-year-old boy had disappeared decades before–55 years before–the day he went to a school for Native Americans. His remains are discovered on what used to be the schools’ grounds during the construction of a fast-food restaurant not McDonald’s but “something flashy and fleeting,” not unlike the life the poor boy had led.  His sister is at the scene. She’s not very emotional. “All dirty details were declawed.” The boy’s mother had died 20 years earlier after having spent a few years in prison when she was younger, but from lashing out in grief at her son’s loss. The family had been Mohawks. But the mother had traded in her name and culture for Anglican names. The boy was sent to that Anglican school, though he supposedly never made it there. Beth, his 63-year-old sister, also went to the school. She was pliant. Now she remembers. She calls her daughter. Apparently she’d never told her of her brother’s disappearance when she was 8. Very improbable. She stops at a store on the Rez. Her accent is recognized. Mohawk.

Grain, 2017, Best American Short Stories 2018, ed. Roxane Gay

Faulkner, “Shall Not Perish” (1943)

At Colleville-sur-Mer. (© FlaglerLive)

At Colleville-sur-Mer. (© FlaglerLive)

A lesser known sequel to “Two Soldiers,” equally sentimental in a different direction, “Shall Not Perish” is a eulogy of grief through the eyes of Pete’s family, the Griers, that of Major de Spain, rich and poor, both having lost their sons, both contending with the persistence of grief and the fluidity of the senseless: Major de Spain finds relief from railing about how his son had no country anyway: “His country and mine both was ravaged and polluted and destroyed eighty years ago, before even I was born. His forefathers fought and died for it then, even though what they fought and lost for was a dream.” It’s also a story told through the prism of the Gettysburg Address’s final words, so the whiff of propaganda is as much in the air as that of cordite drifting in from the Pacific. How long will that solidarity between rich and poor persist? A 9 year old can answer that.

Pete’s mother and her surviving son, Pete’s now 9-year-old, who’d been one of the “Two Soldiers,” pay their respects to General de Spain, and Mother Mother tries to console him. De Spain doesn’t seem to know who they really are, but accepts the shared moment of grief, in which a gun plays a role I did grasp. There are lines as if plucked from Henry James: “Maybe women are not supposed to know why their sons must die in battle; maybe all they are supposed to do is just to grieve for them. But my son knew why.” So did her ancestors. The story ends in an uncomfortably chest-thumping rhapsody for the United States, maybe necessary at the time of publication, but not nearly as effective as the simpler melancholy and fortitude of “Two Soldiers.” It’s as if the last paragraphs, rousing though they are–and impossibly those of a 9 year old–were written on the same movie lot where Ronald Reagan spent his share of military service, in Hollywood. “Shall Not Perish” was rejected by eight magazines. It would have been accepted by all eight on Sept. 12, 2001 and since.

Story, July-August 1943

Faulkner, “Two Soldiers” (1942)

The Anguish of Departure: Giorgio de Chirico, 1914 (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo)

The Anguish of Departure: Giorgio de Chirico, 1914 (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo)

A story despised by critics, beloved by Faulkner. “I like, it” he wrote, ” it because it portrays a type which I admire—not only a little boy, and I think little boys are all right, but a true American: an independent creature with courage and bottom and heart—a creature which is not vanishing, even though every articulate medium we have—radio, moving pictures, magazines—is busy day and night telling us that it has vanished, has become a sentimental and bragging liar.” I like it because very few stories make me cry. This one did. The relationship between the two brothers is all.

Pete is 18 or 19. The younger boy is not named. They’re in the habit of listening to the radio outside a deaf woman’s house at night. They hear about Pear Harbor. Pete understands. The younger boy doesn’t. Pete is restless until he decides to enlist. His mother is shattered but won’t stop him. His brother doesn’t yet know how shattered he’ll be. Pete takes the bus for Memphis. The next day, his brother finds ways to follow him. The trip is hilarious. The boy’s interactions with the bus driver, with the Law, with soldiers: critics may have seen it all as stereotypical and demeaning. But the humor is never crass. It’s moving, as almost everyone indulges the young boy. Pete hasn’t left for Little Rock yet. He shows up at the recruiting station. His brother pleads. “I got to go too. I got to. It hurts my heart, Pete.” Maybe that’s the line critics disliked so much. It made me cry actual tears. Pete lectures his brother about doing his part–he doesn’t say so, but he’s telling him to be a soldier on the home front, hence the title of the story. The boy returns home.

There’s a whiff of the war-office propaganda reel about it, a Sgt. York shucksiness that defines each boy in his way. But it’s in the distance, or maybe it’s the reader’s contrivance becase we’re not supposed to be so taken by a story that, in Spielberg’s hands, would have had us flooding the theater in tears.

Saturday Evening Post, March 28, 1942

O’Hara: “The Cold House”

The story was titled “Cold House” when it ran in The New Yorker, which summarized it this way: “Mrs. Carnavon drove several miles to visit her summer home in the middle of the winter. When she arrived she didn’t know why she had come. She climbed the stairs to her son’s room; she had thought of leaving that room the way it was. Looking at the objects that had belonged to her son; a diamond-shaped plaque, with the clasped hands and the Greek letters; a photograph of a baseball team, a magazine that he may have read, she realized how little she had known her son and that by keeping his things, she would end by hating a memory that she only knew how to love.”

We don’t know how he died. He was 24. Nor do we know how her husband died, though her husband died a long time before. The war seems too long ago or not yet (there’s an allusion to fascism in Europe). Maybe he died in Spain.

Of course it’s more powerful than that:

The New Yorker, April 2, 1938

Willa Cather, “The Sentimentality of William Tavener”

The circus is in town, and Hester wants her harsh husband to let their boys go there. William and Hester Taverner are prosperous farmers in McPherson County (a rarity). Silence “was William’s refuge and his strength,” but he was a hard man, “grasping, determined and ambitious.” Hester remembers going to the circus when she was young. She tries to convince William of letting the boys go. “Nobody was ever hurt by goin’ to a circus,” she says. Turns out he’d sneaked out and been to the same circus when he was a boy. That startles Hester. They reminisce. “Their relationship had become purely a business one, like that between landlord and tenant. In her desire to indulge her boys she had unconsciously assumed a defensive and almost hostile attitude towards her husband. No debtor ever haggled with his usurer more doggedly than did Hester with her husband in behalf of her sons. The strategic contest had gone on so long that it had almost crowded out the memory of a closer relationship. This exchange of confidences tonight, when common recollections took them unawares and opened their hearts, had all the miracle of romance.” They talk so much “they had as much to say to each other as people who meet after a long separation.” He then gets up for bed and sets aside $10 for their boys to go. Hester “had a painful sense of having missed something, or lost something; she felt that somehow the years had cheated her.” She gives the boys the money. All these years, she had been their advocate. And now, this twist, as she spoke for their father. “The boys looked at each other in astonishment and felt that they had lost a powerful ally.”

Cheever, “The Hartleys”

john cheever

Jesus. Mr. and Mrs. Hartley travel to a ski resort with their young daughter Anne, age unknown. Anne is closest to her father when the family travels to the mountains. She refuses to learn to ski on her own. “Mr. and Mrs. Hartley spoke oftener to Anne than to each other, as if they had come to a point in their marriage where there was nothing to say.” Cheever mirrors the bleakness of the marriage in the landscape, in premonitory ways: “Its only colors were the colors of spent fire, and this impressed itself upon one–as if the desolation were something more than winter, as if it were the work of a great conflagration.” They are like the couples Wharton describes in “The Long Run,” “the listless couples wearing out their lives in shabby watering places, and hanging on the favour of hotel acquaintances.”

There are two conflagration. The first, a chambermaid hears through the transom as she approaches the Hartleys’ room–while Anne is playing elsewhere–and she hears Mrs. Hartley bemoan these trips in search of lost love:

cheever excerpt, The Hartleys

The second is that cruel, out-of-nowhere way of Cheever’s to spring a catastrophe on the austere bucolic setting: Anne is mangled and killed by the ski lift’s motor after she gets caught in the rope. From 1948.