Monday, September 05, 2011

`Trying to Hear What Was in the Wind'

From John Cheever’s 1948 story “The Summer Farmer” I remembered only a phrase, “the plangent winds of Labor Day,” so I went back to check the context:

“He mowed, cultivated, and waxed angry about the price of scratch feed, and at that instant when the plangent winds of Labor Day began to sound he hung up his blunted scythe to rust in the back hall, where the kerosene was kept, and happily shifted his interest to the warm apartments of New York.”

You can see where this is going, and the story turns out to be a weaker sister to the better ones Cheever was soon to write. But certain epithets stick, and for forty years today’s day without labor has been “plangent Labor Day,” windy or otherwise. A 1966 entry from The Journals of John Cheever (1991) brought the phrase to mind:

“A lonely man is a lonesome thing, a stone, a bone, a stick, a receptacle for Gilbey’s gin, a stooped figure sitting at the edge of a hotel bed, heaving copious sighs like the autumn wind.”

Gilbey’s and “heaving” lead us to expect something other than “sighs,” but there’s the wind again, indelibly associated by Cheever with sadness and the coming of fall. One of his best stories, “The Swimmer,” begins on “one of those midsummer Sundays,” and by the conclusion of Neddie Merrill’s one-day odyssey, he smells

“…chrysanthemums or marigolds—some stubborn autumnal fragrance—on the night air, strong as gas. Looking overhead he saw that the stars had come out, but why should he seem to see Andromeda, Cepheus, and Cassiopeia? What had become of the constellations of midsummer?”

As a kid, I dreaded the coming of Labor Day, the resumption of school, the end of living in the woods. I was mostly a good student but preferred reading on my own, according to my own tastes, and living most of the day outdoors. School meant dullards and steam radiators. Even in its regularity, autumn carries a hint of uncertainty – school, growing up, snow. Another Massachusetts-born writer writes in the “Economy” chapter of Walden:

“So many autumn, ay, and winter days, spent outside the town, trying to hear what was in the wind, to hear and carry it express! I well-nigh sunk all my capital in it, and lost my own breath into the bargain, running in the face of it.”

Thoreau was reworking an 1845 journal passage. I prefer its wistfulness and absence of explanation marks:

“So many autumn days spent outside the town, trying to hear what was in the wind, to hear it and carry it express. I well-nigh sunk all my capital in it, and lost my own breath into the bargain, by running in the face of it.”


William A. Sigler said...

Beautiful! Cheever is the shit. I've had to re-learn, moving back to the Northeast, how Labor Day is the saddest holiday of the year.

George said...

There is a line early in The Last Puritan something like "Autumn awakened the native optimist."

When I was a boy, Labor Day meant pleasant weather, the return of school--which, about every other year, I enjoyed--and the football season, back when the Cleveland Browns contended most years. I always enjoyed fall around Cleveland. An October birthday may have prejudiced me.

Years ago, somebody made a movie of "The Swimmer", starring Burt Lancaster. I've recently seen trailers for a movie that struck me as a knock-off of the story, or maybe the movie. But I can't think what it was.

Helen Pinkerton said...

Here's what a later poet, in an urban world, heard in the winter wind:

. . . I have walked upon
the streets between the trees that
grew unleaved from asphalt in a night of
sweating winter in distracted silence.
I have
walked among the tombs--the rushing of the air
in the rich pines above my head is that which
ceaseth not nor stirreth whence it is:
in this the sound of wind is like a flame.
. . . . .

Yvor Winters, The Rows of Cold Trees" (early)