A Small Boy and others, by Henry James


I must in some degree have felt it a charm there that we were not, under his rule, inordinately prepared for “business,” but were on the contrary to remember that the taste of Cornelius Nepos in the air, even rather stale though it may have been, had lacked the black bitterness marking our next ordeal and that I conceive to have proceeded from some rank predominance of the theory and practice of book-keeping. It had consorted with this that we found ourselves, by I know not what inconsequence, a pair of the “assets” of a firm; Messrs. Forest and Quackenboss, who carried on business at the northwest corner of Fourteenth Street and Sixth Avenue, having for the winter of 1854–5 taken our education in hand. As their establishment had the style, so I was conscious at the time of its having the general stamp and sense, of a shop — a shop of long standing, of numerous clients, of lively bustle and traffic. The structure itself was to my recent recognition still there and more than ever a shop, with improvements and extensions, but dealing in other wares than those anciently and as I suppose then quite freshly purveyed; so far at least as freshness was imputable to the senior member of the firm, who had come down to our generation from a legendary past and with a striking resemblance of head and general air to Benjamin Franklin. Mr. Forest, under whose more particular attention I languished, had lasted on from a plainer age and, having formed, by the legend, in their youth, the taste of two or three of our New York uncles — though for what it could have been goodness only knew — was still of a trempe to whack in the fine old way at their nephews and sons. I see him aloft, benevolent and hard, mildly massive, in a black dress coat and trousers and a white neckcloth that should have figured, if it didn’t, a frill, and on the highest rostrum of our experience, whence he comes back to me as the dryest of all our founts of knowledge, though quite again as a link with far-off manners and forms and as the most “historic” figure we had ever had to do with. W. J., as I distinguish, had in truth scarcely to do with him — W. J. lost again on upper floors, in higher classes, in real pursuits, and connecting me, in an indirect and almost deprecated manner, with a strange, curly, glossy, an anointed and bearded, Mr. Quackenboss, the junior partner, who conducted the classical department and never whacked — only sent down his subjects, with every confidence, to his friend. I make out with clearness that Mr. Forest was awful and arid, and yet that somehow, by the same stroke, we didn’t, under his sway, go in terror, only went exceedingly in want; even if in want indeed of I scarce (for myself) know what, since it might well have been enough for me, in so resounding an air, to escape with nothing worse than a failure of thrill. If I didn’t feel that interest I must clearly not have inspired it, and I marvel afresh, under these memories, at the few points at which I appear to have touched constituted reality. That, however, is a different connection altogether, and I read back into the one I have been noting much of the chill, or at least the indifference, of a foreseen and foredoomed detachment: it was during that winter that I began to live by anticipation in another world and to feel our uneasy connection with New York loosen beyond recovery. I remember for how many months, when the rupture took place, we had been to my particular consciousness virtually in motion; though I regain at the same time the impression of more experience on the spot than had marked our small previous history: this, however, a branch of the matter that I must for the moment brush aside. For it would have been meanwhile odd enough to hold us in arrest a moment — that quality of our situation that could suffer such elements as those I have glanced at to take so considerably the place of education as more usually and conventionally understood, and by that understanding more earnestly mapped out; a deficiency, in the whole thing, that I fail at all consistently to deplore, however — struck as I am with the rare fashion after which, in any small victim of life, the inward perversity may work.

It works by converting to its uses things vain and unintended, to the great discomposure of their prepared opposites, which it by the same stroke so often reduces to naught; with the result indeed that one may most of all see it — so at least have I quite exclusively seen it, the little life out for its chance — as proceeding by the inveterate process of conversion. As I reconsider both my own and my brother’s early start — even his too, made under stronger propulsions — it is quite for me as if the authors of our being and guardians of our youth had virtually said to us but one thing, directed our course but by one word, though constantly repeated: Convert, convert, convert! With which I have not even the sense of any needed appeal in us for further apprehension of the particular precious metal our chemistry was to have in view. I taste again in that pure air no ghost of a hint, for instance, that the precious metal was the refined gold of “success”— a reward of effort for which I remember to have heard at home no good word, nor any sort of word, ever faintly breathed. It was a case of the presumption that we should hear words enough abundantly elsewhere; so that any dignity the idea might claim was in the first place not worth insisting on, and in the second might well be overstated. We were to convert and convert, success — in the sense that was in the general air — or no success; and simply everything that should happen to us, every contact, every impression and every experience we should know, were to form our soluble stuff; with only ourselves to thank should we remain unaware, by the time our perceptions were decently developed, of the substance finally projected and most desirable. That substance might be just consummately Virtue, as a social grace and value — and as a matter furthermore on which pretexts for ambiguity of view and of measure were as little as possible called upon to flourish. This last luxury therefore quite failed us, and we understood no whit the less what was suggested and expected because of the highly liberal way in which the pill, if I may call it so, was gilded: it had been made up — to emphasise my image — in so bright an air of humanity and gaiety, of charity and humour. What I speak of is the medium itself, of course, that we were most immediately steeped in-I am glancing now at no particular turn of our young attitude in it, and I can scarce sufficiently express how little it could have conduced to the formation of prigs. Our father’s prime horror was of them— he only cared for virtue that was more or less ashamed of itself; and nothing could have been of a happier whimsicality than the mixture in him, and in all his walk and conversation, of the strongest instinct for the human and the liveliest reaction from the literal. The literal played in our education as small a part as it perhaps ever played in any, and we wholesomely breathed inconsistency and ate and drank contradictions. The presence of paradox was so bright among us — though fluttering ever with as light a wing and as short a flight as need have been — that we fairly grew used to allow, from an early time, for the so many and odd declarations we heard launched, to the extent of happily “discounting” them; the moral of all of which was that we need never fear not to be good enough if we were only social enough: a splendid meaning indeed being attached to the latter term.

Thus we had ever the amusement, since I can really call it nothing less, of hearing morality, or moralism, as it was more invidiously worded, made hay of in the very interest of character and conduct; these things suffering much, it seemed, by their association with the conscience — that is the conscious conscience — the very home of the literal, the haunt of so many pedantries. Pedantries, on all this ground, were anathema; and if our dear parent had at all minded his not being consistent, and had entertained about us generally less passionate an optimism (not an easy but an arduous state in him moreover,) he might have found it difficult to apply to the promotion of our studies so free a suspicion of the inhumanity of Method. Method certainly never quite raged among us; but it was our fortune nevertheless that everything had its turn, and that such indifferences were no more pedantic than certain rigours might perhaps have been; of all of which odd notes of our situation there would, and possibly will, be more to say — my present aim is really but to testify to what most comes up for me today in the queer educative air I have been trying to breathe again. That definite reflection is that if we had not had in us to some degree the root of the matter no method, however confessedly or aggressively “pedantic,” would much have availed for us; and that since we apparently did have it, deep down and inert in our small patches of virgin soil, the fashion after which it struggled forth was an experience as intense as any other and a record of as great a dignity. It may be asked me, I recognise, of the root of “what” matter I so complacently speak, and if I say “Why, of the matter of our having with considerable intensity proved educable, or, if you like better, teachable, that is accessible to experience,” it may again be retorted: “That won’t do for a decent account of a young consciousness; for think of all the things that the failure of method, of which you make so light, didn’t put into yours; think of the splendid economy of a real — or at least of a planned and attempted education, a ‘regular course of instruction’— and then think of the waste involved in the so inferior substitute of which the pair of you were evidently victims.” An admonition this on which I brood, less, however, than on the still other sense, rising from the whole retrospect, of my now feeling sure, of my having mastered the particular history of just that waste — to the point of its actually affecting me as blooming with interest, to the point even of its making me ask myself how in the world, if the question is of the injection of more things into the consciousness (as would seem the case,) mine could have “done” with more: thanks to its small trick, perhaps vicious I admit, of having felt itself from an early time almost uncomfortably stuffed. I see my critic, by whom I mean my representative of method at any price, take in this plea only to crush it with his confidence — that without the signal effects of method one must have had by an inexorable law to resort to shifts and ingenuities, and can therefore only have been an artful dodger more or less successfully dodging. I take full account of the respectability of the prejudice against one or two of the uses to which the intelligence may at a pinch be put — the criminal use in particular of falsifying its history, of forging its records even, and of appearing greater than the traceable grounds warrant. One can but fall back, none the less, on the particular untraceability of grounds — when it comes to that: cases abound so in which, with the grounds all there, the intelligence itself is not to be identified. I contend for nothing moreover but the lively interest of the view, and above all of the measure, of almost any mental history after the fact. Of less interest, comparatively, is that sight of the mind before— before the demonstration of the fact, that is, and while still muffled in theories and presumptions (purple and fine linen, and as such highly becoming though these be) of what shall prove best for it.

Which doubtless too numerous remarks have been determined by my sense of the tenuity of some of my clues: I had begun to count our wavering steps from so very far back, and with a lively disposition, I confess, not to miss even the vaguest of them. I can scarce indeed overstate the vagueness that quite had to attend a great number in presence of the fact that our father, caring for our spiritual decency unspeakably more than for anything else, anything at all that might be or might become ours, would have seemed to regard this cultivation of it as profession and career enough for us, had he but betrayed more interest in our mastery of any art or craft. It was not certainly that the profession of virtue would have been anything less than abhorrent to him, but that, singular though the circumstance, there were times when he might have struck us as having after all more patience with it than with this, that or the other more technical thrifty scheme. Of the beauty of his dissimulated anxiety and tenderness on these and various other suchlike heads, however, other examples will arise; for I see him now as fairly afraid to recognise certain anxieties, fairly declining to dabble in the harshness of practical precautions or impositions. The effect of his attitude, so little thought out as shrewd or as vulgarly providential, but in spite of this so socially and affectionally founded, could only be to make life interesting to us at the worst, in default of making it extraordinarily “paying.” He had a theory that it would somehow or other always be paying enough — and this much less by any poor conception of our wants (for he delighted in our wants and so sympathetically and sketchily and summarily wanted for us) than by a happy and friendly, though slightly nebulous, conception of our resources. Delighting ever in the truth while generously contemptuous of the facts, so far as we might make the difference — the facts having a way of being many and the truth remaining but one — he held that there would always be enough; since the truth, the true truth, was never ugly and dreadful, and we didn’t and wouldn’t depart from it by any cruelty or stupidity (for he wouldn’t have had us stupid,) and might therefore depend on it for due abundance even of meat and drink and raiment, even of wisdom and wit and honour. It is too much to say that our so preponderantly humanised and socialised adolescence was to make us look out for these things with a subtle indirectness; but I return to my proposition that there may still be a charm in seeing such hazards at work through a given, even if not in a systematised, case. My cases are of course given, so that economy of observation after the fact, as I have called it, becomes inspiring, not less than the amusement, or whatever it may be, of the question of what might happen, of what in point of fact did happen, to several very towny and domesticated little persons, who were confirmed in their towniness and fairly enriched in their sensibility, instead of being chucked into a scramble or exposed on breezy uplands under the she-wolf of competition and discipline. Perhaps any success that attended the experiment — which was really, as I have hinted, no plotted thing at all, but only an accident of accidents — proceeded just from the fact that the small subjects, a defeated Romulus, a prematurely sacrificed Remus, had in their very sensibility an asset, as we have come to say, a principle of life and even of “fun.” Perhaps on the other hand the success would have been greater with less of that particular complication or facilitation and more of some other which I shall be at a loss to identify. What I find in my path happens to be the fact of the sensibility, and from the light it sheds the curious, as also the common, things that did from occasion to occasion play into it seem each to borrow a separate and vivifying glow.

As at the Institution Vergnès and at Mr. Pulling Jenks’s, however this might be, so at “Forest’s,” or in other words at the more numerous establishment of Messrs. Forest and Quackenboss, where we spent the winter of 1854, reality, in the form of multitudinous mates, was to have swarmed about me increasingly: at Forest’s the prolonged roll-call in the morning, as I sit in the vast bright crowded smelly smoky room, in which rusty black stove-shafts were the nearest hint of architecture, bristles with names, Hoes and Havemeyers, Stokeses, Phelpses, Colgates and others, of a subsequently great New York salience. It was sociable and gay, it was sordidly spectacular, one was then, by an inch or two, a bigger boy — though with crushing superiorities in that line all round; and when I wonder why the scene was sterile (which was what I took it for at the worst) the reason glooms out again in the dreadful blight of arithmetic, which affected me at the time as filling all the air. The quantity imposed may not in fact have been positively gross, yet it is what I most definitely remember — not, I mean, that I have retained the dimmest notion of the science, but only of the dire image of our being in one way or another always supposedly addressed to it. I recall strange neighbours and deskfellows who, not otherwise too objectionable, were uncanny and monstrous through their possession, cultivation, imitation of ledgers, daybooks, double-entry, tall pages of figures, interspaces streaked with oblique ruled lines that weirdly “balanced,” whatever that might mean, and other like horrors. Nothing in truth is more distinct to me than the tune to which they were, without exception, at their ease on such ground — unless it be my general dazzled, humiliated sense, through those years, of the common, the baffling, mastery, all round me, of a hundred handy arts and devices. Everyone did things and had things — everyone knew how, even when it was a question of the small animals, the dormice and grasshoppers, or the hoards of food and stationery, that they kept in their desks, just as they kept in their heads such secrets for how to do sums — those secrets that I must even then have foreseen I should even so late in life as this have failed to discover. I may have known things, have by that time learnt a few, myself, but I didn’t know that— what I did know; whereas those who surrounded me were all agog, to my vision, with the benefit of their knowledge. I see them, in this light, across the years, fairly grin and grimace with it; and the presumable vulgarity of some of them, certain scattered shades of baseness still discernible, comes to me as but one of the appearances of an abounding play of genius. Who was it I ever thought stupid? — even when knowing, or at least feeling, that sundry expressions of life or force, which I yet had no name for, represented somehow art without grace, or (what after a fashion came to the same thing) presence without type. All of which, I should add, didn’t in the least prevent my moving on the plane of the remarkable; so that if, as I have noted, the general blank of consciousness, in the conditions of that winter, rather tended to spread, this could perhaps have but had for its best reason that I was fairly gorged with wonders. They were too much of the same kind; the result, that is, of everyone’s seeming to know everything — to the effect, a little, that everything suffered by it. There was a boy called Simpson my juxtaposition to whom I recall as uninterruptedly close, and whose origin can only have been, I think, quite immediately Irish — and Simpson, I feel sure, was a friendly and helpful character. Yet even he reeked, to my sense, with strange accomplishment — no single show of which but was accompanied in him by a smart protrusion of the lower lip, a crude complacency of power, that almost crushed me to sadness. It is as if I had passed in that sadness most of those ostensibly animated months; an effect however doubtless in some degree proceeding, for later appreciation, from the more intelligible nearness of the time — it had brought me to the end of my twelfth year; which helps not a little to turn it to prose. How I gave to that state, in any case, such an air of occupation as to beguile not only myself but my instructors — which I infer I did from their so intensely letting me alone — I am quite at a loss to say; I have in truth mainly the remembrance of being consistently either ignored or exquisitely considered (I know not which to call it;) even if without the belief, which would explain it, that I passed for generally “wanting” any more than for naturally odious. It was strange, at all events — it could only have been — to be so stupid without being more brutish and so perceptive without being more keen. Here were a case and a problem to which no honest master with other and better cases could have felt justified in giving time; he would have had at least to be morbidly curious, and I recall from that sphere of rule no instance whatever of the least refinement of inquiry. I should even probably have missed one of these more flattering shades of attention had I missed attention at all; but I think I was never really aware of how little I got or how much I did without. I read back into the whole connection indeed the chill, or at least the indifference, of a foreseen and foredoomed detachment: I have noted how at this desperate juncture the mild forces making for our conscious relief, pushing the door to Europe definitely open, began at last to be effective. Nothing seemed to matter at all but that I should become personally and incredibly acquainted with Piccadilly and Richmond Park and Ham Common. I regain at the same time the impression of more experience on the spot than had marked our small previous history.

Pitiful as it looks to these ampler days the mere little fact that a small court for recreation was attached to our academy added something of a grace to life. We descended in relays, for “intermission,” into a paved and walled yard of the scantest size; the only provision for any such privilege — not counting the street itself, of which, at the worst of other conditions, we must have had free range — that I recover from those years. The ground is built over now, but I could still figure, on a recent occasion, our small breathing-space; together with my then abject little sense that it richly sufficed — or rather, positively, that nothing could have been more romantic. For within our limit we freely conversed, and at nothing did I assist with more interest than at free conversation. Certain boys hover before me, the biggest, the fairest, the most worthy of freedom, dominating the scene and scattering upon fifty subjects the most surprising lights. One of these heroes, whose stature and complexion are still there for me to admire, did tricks of legerdemain, with the scant apparatus of a handkerchief, a key, a pocket-knife — as to some one of which it is as fresh as yesterday that I ingenuously invited him to show me how to do it, and then, on his treating me with scorn, renewed without dignity my fond solicitation. Fresher even than yesterday, fadelessly fresh for me at this hour, is the cutting remark thereupon of another boy, who certainly wasn’t Simpson and whose identity is lost for me in his mere inspired authority: “Oh, oh, oh, I should think you’d be too proud —!” I had neither been too proud nor so much as conceived that one might be, but I remember well how it flashed on me with this that I had failed thereby of a high luxury or privilege — which the whole future, however, might help me to make up for. To what extent it has helped is another matter, but so fine was the force of the suggestion that I think I have never in all the years made certain returns upon my spirit without again feeling the pang from the cool little voice of the Fourteenth Street yard. Such was the moral exercise it at least allowed us room for. It also allowed us room, to be just, for an inordinate consumption of hot waffles retailed by a benevolent black “auntie” who presided, with her husband’s aid as I remember, at a portable stove set up in a passage or recess opening from the court; to which we flocked and pushed, in a merciless squeeze, with all our coppers, and the products of which, the oblong farinaceous compound, faintly yet richly brown, stamped and smoking, not crisp nor brittle, but softly absorbent of the syrup dabbed upon it for a finish, revealed to me I for a long time, even for a very long time supposed, the highest pleasure of sense. We stamped about, we freely conversed, we ate sticky waffles by the hundred — I recall no worse acts of violence unless I count as such our intermissional rushes to Pynsent’s of the Avenue, a few doors off, in the particular interest of a confection that ran the waffle close, as the phrase is, for popularity, while even surpassing it for stickiness. Pynsent’s was higher up in the row in which Forest’s had its front — other and dearer names have dropped from me, but Pynsent’s adheres with all the force of the strong saccharine principle. This principle, at its highest, we conceived, was embodied in small amber-coloured mounds of chopped cocoanut or whatever other substance, if a finer there be; profusely, lusciously endued and distributed on small tin trays in the manner of haycocks in a field. We acquired, we appropriated, we transported, we enjoyed them, they fairly formed perhaps, after all, our highest enjoyment; but with consequences to our pockets — and I speak of those other than financial, with an intimacy, a reciprocity of contact at any, or at every, personal point, that I lose myself in the thought of.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56