Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Jane Langton in Time & Place

The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton
Original cover; drawing by Erik Blegvad


My mother told me that it wasn’t fair to other children to withdraw the same two library books again and again.  Since I couldn’t kick the habit, they were finally given to me as a birthday present. 

The Diamond in the Window was published in 1962 and The Swing in the Summerhouse in 1967.  I discovered them in 1970.  Across five decades, I can easily recall entire paragraphs; descriptions, dialogue, and detailed drawings. 

The author, Jane Langton, had studied astronomy at Wellesley and the University of Michigan, and held a master’s degree in art history.  She lived in Lincoln, Mass., with her husband and three sons, according to the dust jacket. 

Her books evoked the way that kids can’t wait to grow up, their impatience with unreasonable adults, the pain of unrequited crushes, and the desire to be popular.  But she stayed away from the trite formulas of adolescent fiction.

Instead, Langton wrote beautiful sentences that captured time and place and the feelings that went with them:  Eleanor suddenly felt overcome by the melancholy of the late summer day and the dusty untidy woods.  

Ingeniously, she wove those feelings together with grand ideas about love, truth, good and evil.  The books contained these and many similar quotations:

·       Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul!  (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.)

·       Lives of great men all remind us, we can make our lives sublime . . . (R.W. Emerson)

·       Behold a universe in which man is but a grain of sand . . . (Henry David Thoreau)

Eleanor and Edward Hall in the
front hall of their house in Concord, Mass.

(drawing by Erik Blegvad)

As The Diamond in the Window opens, young Edward and Eleanor Hall are living in a dilapidated Victorian house in Concord, Mass., with their Aunt Lily and Uncle Freddy.  The children’s parents died years earlier in a car accident.  Aunt Lily is scrambling to make money to pay off the mortgage.  Uncle Freddy, once a world renowned scholar of Emerson and Thoreau, is now daft and unhelpful. 

One day, standing at the edge of a brook in a field across from their house, Eleanor and Edward spot a keyhole window that they’ve never noticed before.  When they finally locate it, in a secret room at the very top of the house, they are shocked to find twin beds, children’s toys, and a poem that has been etched into the window with a large piece of glass which now forms its centerpiece.     

The children demand answers, so Aunt Lily sits down with them on a faded velvet sofa and opens an old photograph album.  She sighs and tells them about their “Aunt Nora” and “Uncle Ned,” Lily’s youngest siblings; lost children who once slept in the attic room.

Then she tells them about Prince Krishna, a royal but humble man, who came from India to Concord to study with then-brilliant Uncle Freddy.  From the way Aunt Lily tells the story, it is clear that she and Krishna were in love.

Krishna loved Ned and Nora, too, and he created a series of dream adventures for them on which they embarked each night.  The dreams took shape as a hunt for treasures that ranged from diamonds and pearls to a beloved, if neglected, rag doll.  The poem etched on the window, cryptic and full of philosophical references, contained clues. 

Life went along happily until suddenly, one night, the children disappeared.  A nationwide hunt ensued, but they could not be found.  Eventually Prince Krishna disappeared, too.  Still, as the money dwindled and Uncle Freddy deteriorated, Aunt Lily held out hope that Krishna and the children would someday reappear.

 In one dream adventure, Eleanor and Edward find themselves
trapped inside a Chambered Nautilus shell. 
(Illustration by Erik Blegvad)

The Diamond in the Window and The Swing in the Summerhouse belong to a literary genre called “magical realism,” which blends realistic narrative elements with magic and fantasy.  As Eleanor and Edward set forth after Ned and Nora, and Aunt Lily schemes to save the house while Uncle Freddy blithely decides to move into a hollow tree in the front yard, the ordinary meets the extraordinary.  

That is because the books are infused with Transcendentalism, a philosophy embraced by Emerson, Thoreau and other New England intellectuals.  Transcendental is defined as “beyond ordinary experience, thought or belief.”  The Transcendentalists sought to understand themselves through the Oversoul, a force that connects all living things.

Connectivity between humans and nature echoes through Langton’s writing.

Several years ago I emailed the author, just to tell her how much I loved her books.  She was then about 90 years old, and replied that she was working on a picture book about Charles Darwin and earthworms.  

Evidently the worms fascinated Darwin.  He could not bear to dissect them, but conducted hundreds of experiments testing their intelligence, orderliness, sensitivity to noise, and food preferences. 

“His experiments with worms will be a chance for someone, perhaps me, to draw lots of wriggly pictures,” Langton explained.

I must have told her about living in different parts of the country and having recently made the leap to Atlanta after three years in rural Virginia.

“Good for getting out of Virginia,” she wrote.  “I escaped from Delaware.  I guess we all have to bust out of some sort of cocoon.”

Jane Langton (1922-2018)

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Journey to Po

The Public Library 
by Guy Wiggins (1935)
He was a master of painting New York City in the snow.
This is Fifth Avenue & 42nd Street.

I went looking for Po, an Italian restaurant on Cornelia Street in the West Village.  Turns out that it closed more than a year ago.  Like hundreds of the city’s small shops and stores, it was forced out of business by a greedy landlord – a 120% increase on the $10,000 monthly rent, the owner told a reporter.

The restaurant figures in one of my deepest clearest memories, one in which I can see all the way to the bottom of a dark primordial lake.  

It was a snowy night in February, 2015, as I sat on a Fifth Avenue bus heading downtown to have dinner with a friend.  I looked forward to the evening with great anticipation.

Traveling by bus through the snow brought my father to mind.  One of his favorite essays involved a snowstorm in which the writer also boarded a Fifth Avenue bus that lumbered downtown. 

Standing up and holding on tight, the writer unexpectedly found joy in the ride.  Evidently, in the course of most days he felt slightly mournful, as if time were passing and leaving him behind like a rock being worn away by the wind and tide.

Now on the bus, the writer had an epiphany.  Time was passing, but it was taking him with it.  His perspective changed.  Perhaps, he thought, time is a stationary place through which we all move, alone and together.    

Fountain of Time
by Lorado Taft (1920)

I remembered from college a large statue called “Time” on the campus of the University of Chicago.  There was a quotation on its long pedestal:  Time goes, you say?  Ah no! alas, time stays, we go. 

My 20-year old self had been willing to embrace this maudlin saying by an obscure nineteenth-century poet.  But now, not so much. 

I got off the bus and started to cross Washington Square Park.  There is a song, "Diamonds and Rust," which Joan Baez wrote for Bob Dylan “light years ago,” she once said, after their love affair ended. 

Now I see you standing with brown leaves all around and snow in your hair
Now we’re smiling out the window of that crummy hotel over Washington Square
Our breath comes in white clouds, mingles and hangs in the air
Speaking strictly for me we both could have died then and there

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez (1963)

How stunning to hear those words as a teenager.  Now I feel grateful to have experienced such a moment, but at the age of 16 – not fully comprehending and definitely not ready for it.

Time to pick up the pace.  Around the corner lay dear delightful Cornelia Street, snowflakes drifting under the streetlamps; storefronts drawn by Beatrix Potter.

Something happened when I opened the door and stepped in:  an extraordinary feeling of well-being.  The candlelight shimmered and streamed in every direction.  And there was my friend sitting at a far table along the left wall.

I had boarded the bus just an hour earlier.  Yet it felt like a century had passed, on one hand, and just a few minutes, on the other, during the journey to Po. Gratefully, I sat down in the glow.

The Little Time Traveler

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