By Anne Matthews
March 6, 2017
I am as American as April in Arizona.
—Vladimir Nabokov, The Paris Review, 1967
I ought to have been large enough to endure [Charles Webster’s] vanities but I wasn’t. I am not always large enough to endure my own. … His ignorance covered the whole earth like a blanket and there was hardly a hole in it anywhere.
—Samuel Clemens to William Dean Howells, letter, May 1906
Life and the memory of it cramped,
dim, on a piece of Bristol board,
dim, but how live, how touching in detail
—the little that we get for free,
the little of our earthly trust. Not much.
—Elizabeth Bishop, “Poem,” Geography III, 1976
Royalties? Rents? Commissions? Fees?
If none, explain their absence, please.
And let there be no legal flaw
In Deductions Authorized by Law.
Salaries? Wages? Sale of Property?
Here comes the Notary, hippety-hoppety!
Raise your hand and take your oath
To tell the truth or bust. Or both.
—Ogden Nash, “Song for the Saddest Ides,” 1940
It is through Jack O’Brien, the Arbiter Elegantiarum Philadelphiae, that I trace my rapport with the historic past through the laying-on of hands. He hit me, for pedagogical example, and he had been hit by the great Bob Fitzsimmons, from whom he won the light-heavyweight title in 1906. Jack had a scar to show for it. Fitzsimmons had been hit by Corbett, Corbett by John L. Sullivan, he by Paddy Ryan, with the bare knuckles, and Ryan by Joe Goss, his predecessor, who as a young man had felt the fist of the great Jem Mace. It is a great thrill to feel that all that separates you from the early Victorians is a series of punches on the nose.
—A. J. Liebling, The Sweet Science, 1956
In painting as in music and literature, what is called abstract so often seems to me the figurative of a more delicate and difficult reality, less visible to the naked eye.
—Clarice Lispector, The Foreign Legion, 1964
Self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth. It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one’s head in a Food Fair bag.
—Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968
Kaname thought of the faces of the ancients in the dusk behind their shop curtains. Here on this street people with faces like theater dolls must have passed lives like stage lives. The world of the plays—of O-yumi, Jurobei of Awa, the pilgrim O-tsuru, and the rest—must have been just such a town as this. And wasn’t O-hisa a part of it? Fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, a woman like her, dressed in the same kimono, was perhaps going down this same street in the spring sun, lunch in hand, on her way to the theater beyond the river. Or perhaps, behind one of these latticed fronts, she was playing “Snow” on her koto. O-hisa was a shade left behind by another age.
—Junichirō Tanizaki, Some Prefer Nettles, 1955
Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” 1836
Ten or fifteen feet before the fly lights, you can tell whether a cast like this is going to be perfect, and, if necessary, still make slight corrections. The cast is so soft and slow that it can be followed like an ash settling from a fireplace chimney. One of life’s quiet excitements is to stand somewhat apart from yourself and watch yourself softly becoming the author of something beautiful, even if it is only a floating ash.
—Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It, 1976
Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you think he could never recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
—Robert Browning, “Home-Thoughts, from Abroad,” 1845
I’m coming out, no less invisible without it, but coming out nevertheless. And I suppose it’s damn well time. Even hibernations can be overdone, come to think of it.
—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, 1952
It would be hard to miss … some of Caligula’s well-known trademarks: ridicule, humiliation, extravagance and whim. … Just occasionally Roman writers themselves recognised that survival in Roman imperial politics depended on the ability to reinvent oneself at regime change. In the nicest example, Pliny, in a letter written in the early second century AD, told of a dinner party where the conversation among a group of friends turned to one Catullus Messalinus, a notorious hatchet man during the reign of Domitian. “I wonder what he would have been doing now, if he was alive today?” one of the guests asked. “He would have been eating here with us,” another replied.
—Mary Beard, London Review of Books, April 2012
“In the spring, Jeeves, a livelier iris gleams upon the burnished dove.”
“So I have been informed, sir.”
“Right ho! Then bring me my whangee, my yellowest shoes, and the old green Homburg. I’m going into the Park to do pastoral dances.”
I don’t know if you know that sort of feeling you get on these days round about the end of April and the beginning of May, when the sky’s a light blue, with cotton-wool clouds, and there’s a bit of a breeze blowing from the west? Kind of uplifted feeling. Romantic, if you know what I mean. I’m not much of a ladies’ man, but on this particular morning it seemed to me that what I really wanted was some charming girl to buzz up and ask me to save her from assassins or something. So it was a bit of an anticlimax when I merely ran into young Bingo Little, looking perfectly foul in a crimson satin tie decorated with horseshoes.
—P. G. Wodehouse, “Jeeves in the Springtime,” 1921
Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.
—Wendell Berry, 2003
Anne Matthews is a contributing editor of the SCHOLAR.