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Only Different

By
September 1, 2008

 

for Seymour Kleinberg
who reminds me what
Kate Croy knew

                            i
                                          Hotel del Coronado
                                          May 2, 1904

Papa dearest, please
don’t think for a moment I’m finding fault—
as things turned out, it was a piece of luck
you left behind those two “late” books of his
that Uncle Henry sent last year when you
were at Palo Alto lecturing on
Pragmatism and the Sense of Common Sense.
You’ll soon see why we needed specimens
of Uncle’s recent work (anything but
thick on the ground in this locale), and lo!
there they were in your old rooms at Stanford.
                                   Bruce says it was Fate,
and I assure you
it never occurred to either of us
to attribute their preternatural
existence in the Far West (wild or tame)
to whether you had or hadn’t read them.
The great thing is that books by Henry James
are here! And now for the explanation:
Poor Uncle complained—surely, Papa, you’ll
recognize the tune— of being so “spent
by the myriad claims of nine hundred
members of a female culture club
                                   in Los Angeles”
that with promises
of quiet and cuisine we conveyed him
to this hotel on Coronado Beach,
the grandest in the State—or in the States!—
where even Uncle could recuperate
or, in his words, “lie awake nights listening
to the languid lisp of the Pacific.”
When the Manager showed us the Grand Suite
which had been reserved for Uncle’s repose,
he further revealed, in reverent tones
befitting the Grandeur of it all, that
                                   “another author,
quite a famous one,
occupies (with his wife and his five sons)
the matching rooms in the opposite wing,
a Mr. Baum— L. Frank Baum is the name
he uses,” we were informed, “for his books,”
which books (there are but two so far) have won
a fervent audience of young readers
vast enough to constitute actual fame.
It’s true—Bruce himself has given his niece
the Oz books—and it occurred to us
that after a fitting interval of
                                   del Coronado
comforts, Uncle might
like to invite the young author to lunch
—he must be young to have those readers—
and I, meanwhile, would obtain the Oz books
to further ensure Uncle’s taking part
in such regalement, convinced as I am
that after a regular regimen
of “900 cultured female members”,
Baum might afford Uncle some refreshment.
Bruce has already supplied that sort of
enkindling company for him, and is
                                   now determined to
sound out Mr. Baum,
who might, for all we know, be a shy old
recluse reluctant to meet anyone
so august as Henry James. But five sons!
wouldn’t any father enjoy some relief
from all that filial life?… We’re leaving
Uncle here for a week (with the Oz books),
while I help Bruce pack, and then we all make
our ways back to Chocorua: despite
the lurid splendors of California
                                   (Uncle claims they are
“solely vegetal:
Italy without the castles”), I miss
the shy glories of a New England spring;
I’m so glad Mother wants the wedding at
the Chocorua house—Bruce’s parents say
they are thrilled to be visiting that part
of the country, and I’m sure you’ll
love them as we love Bruce, who says he’ll write
after our historic luncheon with
that famous author, Mr. L. Frank Baum.
                                   Having actually
read The Land of Oz,
Bruce claims it would be madness to suppose
these two poles of American Romance
—does What Maisie Knew fit at the North Pole?
The Land of Oz at the South?—could even
hypothesize each other’s existence…
He says by bringing them together we
might do our native literature some
service by making antipodean
extremities meet, or at least, meet us!
I send all my love, and Bruce would send his
                                   if he were here,
                                                               Peg

                            ii

                                          Hotel del Coronado
                                          May 7, 1904

Peggot, dearest niece,
What could you have hoped to effect, in terms
of collegial communion (if this was
your initial goal?) or even the mere
polite impingement of fellow-strangers
in this ever so richly cupola’d
and columniated caravansary,
by allowing—indeed by exhorting
your helplessly critical old uncle
to acquaint himself all too utterly
with the literary productions of
                                   Mr. L. Frank Baum?
Any neophyte
with a sweet tooth sufficiently sharpened
by commercial enticement (I allude
thus indelicately, dear child, prompted
by eons of promiscuous exposure
to the twaddle of a tribe deluded
by the notion that to write for children
one need be merely childish), any scribbler
—and this Tree you set before me is
the unconditional epitome
of the dreadful forest I speak of—
                                   might be counted on
to commit (indulged
by an infantile reading or read-to
public), and not merely to commit one
Book of Oz but quite incorruptibly
to deliver two already—and more
sequellae liable to disembogue
from such a source—a series infinite:
If Wizard, then why not Witch? If Land,
then as likely bring forth Sea, Sky, indeed
a veritable (invraisemblable)
                                   Library of Oz!
Nonetheless, dear niece,
my Ozian? Ozite? Ozic? dismay
has left me neither deaf nor blind
to possibilities latent in one
Suggestive Scene occurring late, but for
my interest, in the nick of time in those
alas far from singular volumes
which you so culpably bestowed (if only
to dissipate my ennui hôtelière)…
It is the case that what your father has
habitually diagnosed as my
                                   “compositional
scabies” was aroused,
only to be routed, by Baum’s treatment
(or lack of treatment) of an episode
in the final chapters of … The Land of Oz
What a betrayal it was to dissolve
the spell a “wicked witch” had cast upon
the one pleasing and the sole plausible
human being in the entire galère
of ghouls, goblins and gear-driven gadgets—
upon the boy hitherto known as Tip,
who by a highly inappropriate
                                   if not scandalous
metamorphosis
(its real motive being to ready Baum’s
unwary readers for the subsequent
installment of—forgive me—looming Ooze)
emerges from the Sorceress’s cloud
of occult incense, numbly smiling at
his former companions’ misgiving stares,
now emerges gorgeously gowned, girdled,
and garlanded by wanton peonies
gaudily arrayed (but how planted? how
plucked? how plaited together?) —as OZMA
                                   lost Princess of Oz!
Now Peggot darling,
I still retain (however deep in my
dotage I may appear) a sufficient
compositional astuce to discern
the disastrous pointlessness of turning
Tip back into Ozma, without having
first shown the effects of the Princess’s
consciousness she had become a Boy;
here we have a fable undertaking
to account for the composition of
true majesty, which as the ancients taught,
                                   involves a double
royal gendering:
it’s all well and good to secrete Ozma
from danger as the estimable Tip,
but somehow in the process she must know
herself as him, thereafter he as her;
instead of which important emblem of
royal self-consciousness, we’re served a scene
of futile consolation offered to
the dismay of Tip’s old friends, compounded
by the Princess’s unimpressive lie
uttered in bland reproof : “I’m just the same
                                   as I always was—
only different!”
How inescapably we learn we are
never just the same as we always were.
Didn’t Kate Croy speak words to that effect?
Aside from his botched Transformation Scene,
Baum’s narrative (I veil the sacred name:
the Oz books are never novels) might have been
run up by a seamstress overfond of sweets
who had eaten one too many éclairs
and slept upon her back to ill effect
before scribbling such a text, and one so
                                   ill-illustrated—
though in that regard
I’m altogether unaware of what
poor Baum’s responsibilities may be,
and wish to remain so. Indeed, dear Peg,
it’s best that I remove myself from all
propinquity likely to result in
a meeting, however accidental
and nugatory, between the author,
as he must be called, of THE LAND OF OZ
and your fond but (in the gift of this grand
hospice) firmly sequestered old
                                                    Uncle

                            iii

                                          Hotel Coronado
                                          May 11, 1904

                                  Dear Associate,
you type your standing
at Stanford University beneath
your signature, so I assume that though
but an “associate”, you are to be
addressed as Professor Bruce Porter
on more formal occasions than this note
in answer to yours (and its enclosure)
of last week. It was kind, I believe, and
generous as well that no sooner had
you found me at the Coronado than
you asked me to lunch with your fiancée
and, more to the point,
                                  your uncle-in-law
to-be who, it appears, is a famous
Man of Letters (unknown to me, although
something in your tone implied I might jump
at the chance to meet Mr. Henry James).
Well, I have lately corresponded with
one William James, who is, I now learn, his
brother and your future father-in-law.
It was, as I say, generous to send
one of that brother’s books with your letter
—it was positively prescient! Do you,
                                  as I do, believe
in Second Sight, and
Other Worlds than this one? I have long since
accepted Theosophy’s doctrines, and
rejoice that my wife Maud and I had met
in Earlier Incarnations… And like
William James, I too attend séances
in the hope of obtaining objective
evidence of the reality of spirits
and the afterlife. Unfortunately
I could not find in Henry James’s book
a trace of the spiritual. Such writing
                                  supports literature
like the rope that holds
a hanged man, and this book, What Maisie Knew,
seems merely an overheated hothouse,
perfumed but tainted, for in this James’s
London society, transgressions of
the Few bear witness to depravities
of the Many. The novelist himself
has taken sick, and his toilsome language
creeps across the page, line after crapulous
line, like so many worms (though merely words!)…
Professor Porter, I have endeavored,
                                  with my girls and boys,
to articulate
all that is healthy and, in every sense,
spirited in the Youth of our country;
had I taken poor Maisie as a sign
or (Lord help us!) a model, Dorothy
could never have survived a day in Oz,
for what is Oz but where we are, Magic
and all?… At the end, what Maisie knew is
what everyone else knows already: who
has money, who hasn’t. It is William James
who tells the Truth: our American form
                                  of fulfillment is
“worship of the bitch-
goddess success.” That is our national
disease—yet all I find in his brother’s
novel, in which he chews so much more
than he can bite off, is bitching about
the bush. No goddess even… Dear Porter,
having read thus far into my ill temper,
you will forgive me if I choose to skip
your luncheon-party, which will be no less
agreeable for the absence of one
guest, invited perhaps but, I am now
                                  convinced, unwelcome.
Yours,
           Lyman Frank Baum

                            iv

                                          Palo Alto
                                          May 15, 1904

                                  Dear Professor James,
Peg and I supposed
that in the time between the End of Term
and our cross-country trip to New Hampshire
there might be a Cultural Adventure
in store for us: escorting your brother
to San Diego for a week’s relief
from lecturing—from the audiences
he lectures to—we learned that L. Frank Baum,
author of a couple of fantastic
(and fantastically popular) books
for children, more or less, was living on
what Henry James calls
                                  the lagniappe of such
popularity in the same hotel;
perhaps it was the inordinateness
of the Del Coronado, a really
extravagant resort, which inspired
our scheme: we proposed to this pair of
antithetical literary lights
who, I was rightly sure, had never heard
of one another, that they have what their
various readers would nevertheless
view as a veritable “author’s lunch”.
                                  (An inducement, or
at least a safety-net:
Peg would supply her Uncle with the two
Oz Books, while I would present Mr. Baum
with Maisie and The Wings of the Dove, still
in your old rooms at Stanford. Thus forearmed,
our two masters would know what sort of meal
they were in for.) …Well, by now I assume
Peg has written to describe our project’s
total collapse: upon perusal of
each other’s literature, both authors
declined our invitation to luncheon,
                                  and I think it best
to protect you from
the terms of either repudiation
(I fear such withholding is a lot
like the riddle in one of HJ’s tales).
On this occurrence the only “marriage
of true minds” will be the one between Peg’s
and mine, concerning which the two of us
feel in the clear. Next week my parents and I
leave from San Francisco; Peg and HJ
meet up with us in Chicago to catch
the Twentieth Century Limited.
                                  Symbolic enough?
With my affection,
                               Bruce

 

Richard Howard is a poet, translator, and critic; he has written fifteen volumes of poetry, a study of American poetry after WWII, and teaches literature in the School of the Arts at Columbia University.

Howard last appeared in Guernica in May 2005, with his translation of Marcel Proust’s poem “Anton Van Dyck.”

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