Familiar Spanish Travels, by William Dean Howells

Autobiographical Approaches

As the train took its time and ours in mounting the uplands toward Granada on the soft, but not too soft, evening of November 6, 1911, the air that came to me through the open window breathed as if from an autumnal night of the middle eighteen-fifties in a little village of northeastern Ohio. I was now going to see, for the first time, the city where so great a part of my life was then passed, and in this magical air the two epochs were blent in reciprocal association. The question of my present identity was a thing indifferent and apart; it did not matter who or where or when I was. Youth and age were at one with each other: the boy abiding in the old man, and the old man pensively willing to dwell for the enchanted moment in any vantage of the past which would give him shelter.

In that dignified and deliberate Spanish train I was a man of seventy-four crossing the last barrier of hills that helped keep Granada from her conquerors, and at the same time I was a boy of seventeen in the little room under the stairs in a house now practically remoter than the Alhambra, finding my unguided way through some Spanish story of the vanished kingdom of the Moors. The little room which had structurally ceased fifty years before from the house that ceased to be home even longer ago had returned to the world with me in it, and fitted perfectly into the first-class railway compartment which my luxury had provided for it. From its window I saw through the car window the olive groves and white cottages of the Spanish peasants, and the American apple orchards and meadows stretching to the primeval woods that walled the drowsing village round. Then, as the night deepened with me at my book, the train slipped slowly from the hills, and the moon, leaving the Ohio village wholly in the dark, shone over the roofs and gardens of Granada, and I was no longer a boy of seventeen, but altogether a man of seventy-four.

I do not say the experience was so explicit as all this; no experience so mystical could be so explicit; and perhaps what was intimated to me in it was only that if I sometime meant to ask some gentle reader’s company in a retrospect of my Spanish travels, I had better be honest with him and own at the beginning that passion for Spanish things which was the ruling passion of my boyhood; I had better confess that, however unrequited, it held me in the eager bondage of a lover still, so that I never wished to escape from it, but must try to hide the fact whenever the real Spain fell below the ideal, however I might reason with my infatuation or try to scoff it away. It had once been so inextinguishable a part of me that the record of my journey must be more or less autobiographical; and though I should decently endeavor to keep my past out of it, perhaps I should not try very hard and should not always succeed.

Just when this passion began in me I should not be able to say; but probably it was with my first reading of Don Quixote in the later eighteen-forties. I would then have been ten or twelve years old; and, of course, I read that incomparable romance, not only greatest, but sole of its kind, in English. The purpose of some time reading it in Spanish and then the purpose of some time writing the author’s life grew in me with my growing years so strongly that, though I have never yet done either and probably never shall, I should not despair of doing both if I lived to be a hundred. In the mean time my wandering steps had early chanced upon a Spanish grammar, and I had begun those inquiries in it which were based upon a total ignorance of English accidence. I do not remember how I felt my way from it to such reading of the language as has endeared Spanish literature to me. It embraced something of everything: literary and political history, drama, poetry, fiction; but it never condescended to the exigencies of common parlance. These exigencies did not exist for me in my dreams of seeing Spain which were not really expectations. It was not until half a century later, when my longing became a hope and then a purpose, that I foreboded the need of practicable Spanish. Then I invoked the help of a young professor, who came to me for an hour each day of a week in London and let me try to talk with him; but even then I accumulated so little practicable Spanish that my first hour, almost my first moment in Spain, exhausted my store. My professor was from Barcelona, but he beautifully lisped his c’s and z’s like any old Castilian, when he might have hissed them in the accent of his native Catalan; and there is no telling how much I might have profited by his instruction if he had not been such a charming intelligence that I liked to talk with him of literature and philosophy and politics rather than the weather, or the cost of things, or the question of how long the train stopped and when it would start, or the dishes at table, or clothes at the tailor’s, or the forms of greeting and parting. If he did not equip me with the useful colloquial phrases, the fault was mine; and the misfortune was doubly mine when from my old acquaintance with Italian (glib half-sister of the statelier Spanish) the Italian phrases would thrust forward as the equivalent of the English words I could not always think of. The truth is, then, that I was not perfect in my Spanish after quite six weeks in Spain; and if in the course of his travels with me the reader finds me flourishing Spanish idioms in his face he may safely attribute them less to my speaking than my reading knowledge: probably I never employed them in conversation. That reading was itself without order or system, and I am not sure but it had better been less than more. Yet who knows? The days, or the nights of the days, in the eighteen-fifties went quickly, as quickly as the years go now, and it would have all come to the present pass whether that blind devotion to an alien literature had cloistered my youth or not.

I do not know how, with the merciful make I am of, I should then have cared so little, or else ignored so largely the cruelties I certainly knew that the Spaniards had practised in the conquests of Mexico and Peru. I knew of these things, and my heart was with the Incas and the Aztecs, and yet somehow I could not punish the Spaniards for their atrocious destruction of the only American civilizations. As nearly as I can now say, I was of both sides, and wistful to reconcile them, though I do not see now how it could have been done; and in my later hopes for the softening of the human conditions I have found it hard to forgive Pizarro for the overthrow of the most perfectly socialized state known to history. I scarcely realized the base ingratitude of the Spanish sovereigns to Columbus, and there were vast regions of history that I had not penetrated till long afterward in pursuit of Spanish perfidy and inhumanity, as in their monstrous misrule of Holland. When it came in those earlier days to a question of sides between the Spaniards and the Moors, as Washington Irving invited my boyhood to take it in his chronicle of the conquest of Granada, I experienced on a larger scale my difficulty in the case of the Mexicans and Peruvians. The case of these had been reported to me in the school-readers, but here, now, was an affair submitted to the mature judgment of a boy of twelve, and yet I felt as helpless as I was at ten. Will it be credited that at seventy-four I am still often in doubt which side I should have had win, though I used to fight on both? Since the matter was settled more than four hundred years ago, I will not give the reasons for my divided allegiance. They would hardly avail now to reverse the tragic fate of the Moors, and if I try I cannot altogether wish to reverse it. Whatever Spanish misrule has been since Islam was overthrown in Granada, it has been the error of law, and the rule of Islam at the best had always been the effect of personal will, the caprice of despots high and low, the unstatuted sufferance of slaves, high and low. The gloomiest and cruelest error of Inquisitional Spain was nobler, with its adoration of ideal womanhood, than the Mohammedan state with its sensual dreams of Paradise. I will not pretend (as I very well might, and as I perhaps ought) that I thought of these things, all or any, as our train began to slope rather more rapidly toward Granada, and to find its way under the rising moon over the storied Vega. I will as little pretend that my attitude toward Spain was ever that of the impartial observer after I crossed the border of that enchanted realm where we all have our castles. I have thought it best to be open with the reader here at the beginning, and I would not, if I could, deny him the pleasure of doubting my word or disabling my judgment at any point he likes. In return I shall only ask his patience when I strike too persistently the chord of autobiography. That chord is part of the harmony between the boy and the old man who made my Spanish journey together, and were always accusing themselves, the first of dreaming and the last of doddering: perhaps with equal justice. Is there really much difference between the two?

II

It was fully a month before that first night in Granada that I arrived in Spain after some sixty years’ delay. During this period I had seen almost every other interesting country in Europe. I had lived five or six years in Italy; I had been several months in Germany; and a fortnight in Holland; I had sojourned often in Paris; I had come and gone a dozen times in England and lingered long each time; and yet I had never once visited the land of my devotion. I had often wondered at this, it was so wholly involuntary, and I had sometimes suffered from the surprise of those who knew of my passion for Spain, and kept finding out my dereliction, alleging the Sud–Express to Madrid as something that left me without excuse. The very summer before last I got so far on the way in London as to buy a Spanish phrase-book full of those inopportune conversations with landlords, tailors, ticket-sellers, and casual acquaintance or agreeable strangers. Yet I returned once more to America with my desire, which was turning into a duty, unfulfilled; and when once more I sailed for Europe in 1911 it was more with foreboding of another failure than a prescience of fruition in my inveterate longing. Even after that boldly decisive week of the professor in London I had my doubts and my self-doubts. There were delays at London, delays at Paris, delays at Tours; and when at last we crossed the Pyrenees and I found myself in Spain, it was with an incredulity which followed me throughout and lingered with me to the end. “Is this truly Spain, and am I actually there?” the thing kept asking itself; and it asks itself still, in terms that fit the accomplished fact.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:42