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Absent Friends: I Could Wake Up in Nirvana and Laugh

By (October 1, 2007) No Comment

After the funeral of John Jay Chapman, after those who knew him had to make room in their worlds for a phrase as flatly unbelievable as “the funeral of John Jay Chapman,” the President of Harvard wrote to an old friend: “How will we live, without the fire to warm us, without the flame to shame our sloth and emblazon our dreams, without even the light to dispel our gloom? How will we live, now that he is gone? How will it fail to feel pointless?”

To which the man himself would likely have responded, “what poor paper stuffing!” But the sentiment was universally felt, even by people he didn’t hold in that high a regard. “He leaves us quite in the dark,” Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said, but he said that often about public and semi-public figures. What he wrote, to a long-held close friend, was more important: “I shall hereafter hear thunder, but I shall not see lightning—the flash of it is quite gone from the world.” And there was the Silver Spring matron who put it this way: “Oh Heavens, what fun we had! No more, though. Sadly, no more.”

The person in question was born to privilege, great-great-great-however-many great grandson of Founding Father and first Chief Justice John Jay. Only unlike that crab-eyed, cramp-minded, sour, dyspeptic, carping, lying, censorious, hypocritical paragon, John Jay Chapman was both a living embodiment of all that the new moneyed classes of New England could be(he was born in 1862) and a telling exemplar of the individual personal anomalies such a system could—and very often did—produce (although he shared his illustrious forebear’s irrational contempt for all things Catholic). Jack Chapman never seriously wanted for anything material in his entire life—he traveled the Continent on schedule, he dabbled in unprofitable career-possibilities as per usual, and he spent the rest of his life moving from one palatial home to another while the editors of periodicals like Harper’s or The Atlantic pestered him for articles about Thoreau or Shakespeare. Lacking a few particulars, it could all serve to describe a dozen such 19th Century figures.

But it isn’t enough, and of him there was only the one. To Minna Timmins, who would become his wife, he once wrote: “Reading Rabelais really struck some ideas that exploded in me. I could wake up in Nirvana and laugh. I can’t tell whether I have a gross or groveling spirit, but there is a broadness of design about Rabelais, a gigantic quality….”

He came into that same broadness of design in his own writings, and by the time he did so, he owed none of it directly to any of the old masters he studied so happily his entire life. During his formative years and forever afterward, he hatched out a personal prose style that was always growing like a living thing and yet always immediately recognizable as his own. By the time his adult young friends came to know him, his prose voice was all his own: ebullient, irreverent, quotable, disarmingly funny, and fiercely, incendiarily original. For innumerable publications of the day, from established and respected organs to any number of here-today gone-tomorrow literary enterprises of varying merit, he wrote forth—really spoke forth, since the essence of Jack Chapman was always conversation—on a dizzyingly wide variety of topics, from music to mythology, from human anatomy to ancient history, from the latest news to the anatomy of a bumblebee. Always the essential thrill of engaging with him—whether in person or through the mail—derived from one central fact: you could never do so lazily. His small-talk was predictably superb, but he abhorred it with those he considered friends: those individuals he expected to match him in the leaping speed of his mind, or do the best they could. He numbered some of the West’s greatest thinkers among his friends, and all of them enjoyed the workout his conversation always provided (some of them could keep pace with him intellectually, although none could quite match his ability to create laughter out of the raw materials around him).

He was born in 1862 in New York City, and in the course of his life he wrote some 25 books, innumerable essays, and an Alexandrian Library’s worth of letters (it was not unknown for happily exhausted recipients to get two and even three in the same week, and when he refrained from producing such a deluge, he always mentioned he was refraining). The letters are where he most essentially lives; it must be admitted that most of his other work—on Dante, on Spenser, on Shakespeare, on Emerson—though spirited and unfailingly eloquent, sheds no new or unique light on its subjects. They deserve to live, to be read and enjoyed, but they’ll always be overshadowed a bit by the endless torrent of his letters in all their laughing light-worn learning and effortless irreverence. Getting a Chapman letter in the mail could very often be the highlight of even a crowded day. Recipients treasured them, families read out the funniest bits to make the children giggle, and old friends felt at once the joy of that perfect communication and the implicit challenge to respond in kind. In an age of email the full breadth of that communication—the irresistible pull and magic of postal correspondence—will be fit matter for both incomprehension and indifference (this is just another in a long list of ways in which all young people are a trifle stupid), but it wields a six-thousand year old history, and that tradition most certainly had its Mozarts.

Cicero, for all his other faults, was one such. Pliny the Younger was most decidedly not, though the bulk of what we have from him is letters. Mistress Anne of Clifford was one, though history has forgotten her, and history remembers Montaigne as a master of occasional prose, although his letters were dreary affairs. There are no championships in such matters, but if there were, surely the palm would go to 16th century Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, whose output was even greater than Chapman’s and far more profusely festooned with often hilarious doodles in the margins.But Chapman would be in the running and would almost certainly merit a place on the dais with the likes of Kingsley Amis and Gouvernor Morris.  

It’s a singular irony that the industry which produced all those wonderful letters fell slack when it came to the literary productions which might have secured him true immortality and rendered periodic calls for his revival by public intellectuals like Edmund Wilson and Jaques Barzun unnecessary. He once said that all his books were really extended essays (he made only one exception, for his Homeric Scenes, the fictional retelling of the Iliad he called “my best thing”) and this is true enough, though hardly a criticism. The 1897 essay he wrote for The Atlantic Monthly , “Emerson Sixty Years After” is still quite the best stylistic meditation at its length on the author, and his biography of William Lloyd Garrison is something of a masterpiece, the curiously thrilling work of a brave writer detailing the life of the bravest of all writers. His translation of Sophocles’ Antigone (undertaken as a lark, at the request of a friend) is joltingly idiomatic and lyrical, a dismal thing to languish out of print. Dotted all throughout his published works are gems of true genius, but there’s no one single work that coalesces it all.

His friends always secretly wanted more, and his publishers not so secretly. At the end of his life, these forces finally prevailed on him to begin a grand autobiographical work along the lines of Henry Adams’ eerily magnificent Education … everybody who knew Jack Chapman dreamed of seeing a similar work from him, and they hoped the Retrospections would be that work.

It isn’t. Of course, it couldn’t be. The Education of Henry Adams is a blazing, unbeatable oddity, a work of such no man (including its author) could hope to duplicate. But Chapman loved to mythologize his own life and personal history, and the Retrospections provided him with a gathering-place for all his best personal myths, a log-book of the legends he’d been telling friends and family for decades.

Here he could tell again the story of how as a Harvard undergrad he entered a “craze” to learn the violin, until his hopeless practicing drew the ire of his fellow students. Here he could set down in final form all the droll travel stories that had beguiled audiences for years, each one with its own impeccably-timed punch-line:

Many years later I was again in Venice, this time with four small boys whom we brought in order to educate their eyes a bit, and let them feel the inspirations of the Old World. We were floating one day in a gondola amid the palaces and domes, spires and vistas of the enchanting place, when we observed that the lads were showing interest. Their eyes were on the gleam of the waters and seemed to be drinking in the wonderful tints of the shadows and of the painted poles that pierced the depths. They chatted together as if in rivalry. At last my wife said to the eldest, aged about twelve, “What is it, Victor?” “That’s the eighth dead cat we’ve seen this morning.”

(The reader familiar with the later facts of Chapman’s life—and there’s unlikely to be many such readers in this day and age—cannot help but feel a chip of tragedy even while he’s smiling over that anticlimactic reply: that same boy Victor would grow into a thoroughly engaging and completely fearless young man who would eventually join the legendary Lafayette Escadrille and fall in battle at Verdun, the first American aviator to do so).

Certainly no item of Chapman’s personal mythology loomed larger than the circumstances surrounding the loss of his left hand, and on this score readers of the Retrospections will not be disappointed. Here in all its improbable glory is the story Chapman stuck to: the beautiful young woman, the ardent young Chapman, the imagined male interloper making our heroine miserable. In Chapman’s version, he thrashes the interloper to a pulp, staggers back to his rooms, and is so overcome with remorse for what he did that he thrusts his left hand into the room’s fireplace and waits while the flames char his flesh and expose his bones. When he withdraws the blackened claw, he utters the heroically stoic line “This won’t do” and goes to Mass General, where he has the remains of the hand amputated. This version has it all: chivalry, Christian remorse, heroic self-control, and a great quote. It contains no mention of the fact that the heroine in question couldn’t subsequently recall confessing to being made miserable by anybody; it contains no mention of the fact that no soundly-thrashed young man ever stepped forward either to receive medical treatment or to threaten legal action. It certainly makes no mention of alcohol, and why should it? Chapman’s is the better story, and to him that meant everything.

One telling similarity Retrospections and The Education of Henry Adams have is their silence on the tragedy of their authors’ wives. Readers of the Education will learn nothing of the difficult, funny woman Henry Adams loved, and likewise readers of the Retrospections will be spared the full impact of the single most horrible moment of Chapman’s life. In 1897, his wife Maria was experiencing a prolonged recovery from the birth of their third son Conrad, and Chapman was beside her night and day, chatting, offering amusement. At one point he was sitting beside her bed reading to her when she suddenly sat bolt upright, staring wildly into his face, her mouth straining to form a word. He had only time to look up at her before she fell back on the pillows dead. There are some stories mythology would only cheapen, and Jack Chapman knew that better than anybody.

He could of course be wrong in his judgments (his description of Boston as “a dried nut” which “smiles with a complacent senescent vacuity” comes to mind), but he was always quotable even so (as when he referred to Woodrow Wilson, quite rightly, as “a putty-faced, untruthful person” and “a hopeless jackass”). At times he seemed almost willing to admit his lack of a central, organizing fire, as in this letter to William James:

I don’t seem to hear very good reports of you. They say you are in Rome—why Rome? A place of no stimulating power, full of catacombs inhabited by dead Americans … I believe I could cure you of whatever it is you’ve got, if you would definitely give up ambition and come immediately back to this country. Ambition ruins any man….

But when he wrote about books and reviewing and literature, he was never wrong (he alone among the critics of his day rightly called Henry Adams’ gigantic history of the Jefferson era “as brilliant as Thucydides”) and always scintillating. Here he is again writing to James, this time self-deprecatingly talking about the beleaguered craft of book reviewing:

Reading books is so injurious to the mind. I am thinking of you and of many other great intellects. That is the problem, how to get what is in a book out of it without reading it. A good but dangerous way is to live with it. Buy it and leave it on a table and talk about it. Then in three months write about it.

The venerable literary journal Revue des Deux Mondes aroused a complaint several present-day periodicals would do well to heed:

There’s nothing like the stupidity of a magazine when it goes in for being dull. It gets its readers trained, you see, to expect a certain type of dullness and then it deepens and blackens and adds laudanum and lead and everyone gets to needing more laudanum and more lead—and at last the thing becomes a mystery to the outsider—like the bottom of the deepest parts of the sea—darkness and the waving of seaweed.

As for magazines, so too for magazine writers of a certain ilk:

Harry Sedgwick is too affected and dilettante. He says he puts on this style to please The Atlantic—but how ignoble, besides being false. He ought to train himself for six years writing “The cow has four legs—I see a man,” to get back to some healthy directness. What has he said about Montaigne that we all didn’t know? It’s unmanly to go simpering through fourteen mortal pages….

All was not condemnation, however—when he wanted to encourage or praise an aspiring young author, nobody could be more steadfast and enthusiastic than Jack Chapman. He did not praise his friends uncritically, but he believed in their works with a simple sincerity the writers themselves sometimes lacked, and he was happy to share it with them:

I will read [your book] lying down, leaning on a sun dial, over a dying fire, with toast and muffins, in church, at the races, after Goethe, before Hobbes. I will conceal it under a copy of Thomas Aquinas and then peep into it as if I were a monk and it were stolen sweets.

And so the torrent, pouring forth every day in clear and playful English, French, and Italian, to recipients all over the world. Chapman continued to write up to the very end of his life, when in old age his final illness came swiftly and painlessly upon him. In brief delirium his mind cast back to the image of himself as a boy at Harvard, hopelessly striving to achieve in music what his pen would later achieve in prose, the old man pleading on his death bed, “I want to play on the open strings.”

This Jack Chapman did, and the scandal is that he is so little remembered for it. To his contemporaries and friends, such a desuetude would have been unthinkable, an impossible fate for a man who once wrote to a friend:

It is utter nonsense, this greater passion and little passion—this upper clef and lower clef. All life is nothing but passion. From the great passion of love to the regard for a passing stranger is all one diapason, and in the same chord.

Steve Donoghue briefly served as an advisor for President Franklin Pierce before resigning in protest when Pierce came out in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He retreated to a log-cabin fastness in the White Mountains, where he currently hosts the literary blog Stevereads