Sunday, November 22, 2015

`Not Only Important But Also Beautiful'

George Santayana was born in Madrid on Dec. 16, 1863. In November 1949, as his eighty-sixth birthday approached, a wealthy cousin of Mark Twain’s, Cyril Coniston
Clemens (1902-1999), wrote to the philosopher in Rome, saying he and his friends wished to send Santayana a birthday gift. The old man’s response is a model of gracious demurral followed by a change of heart and polite acceptance – all in less than three-hundred words. On this date, Nov. 22, in 1949, Santayana writes: 

“You and your friends are very kind to wish to celebrate my 86th birthday by sending me something. I receive regularly parcels and of course money from America, but apart from cryptic modern poetry, or books by cranks, asking for a word of endorsement to figure on the dust-jacket of their first work, I receive little that is beautiful; nor have I any place in which to put any object of any value.” 

This was true. Santayana spent the final decade of his life living at the Convent of the Blue Nuns of the Little Company of Mary in Rome, cared for by the Irish sisters. He lived with admirable simplicity, as his former student at Harvard, Wallace Stevens, noted: “The beds, the books, the chair, the moving nuns, / The candle as it evades the sight, these are / The sources of happiness in the shape of Rome.” Santayana shifts gears. He tells Clemens he almost ordered the first volume of a “monumental history of Thomas Jefferson" (probably Jefferson the Virginian, the first of six volumes by Dumas Malone), but changed his mind because his reading is “casual” -- Lucretius, Ovid, Catullus and a few other Romans. “But Latin poets are not the characteristic things to ask for from Missouri [Clemens lived in St. Louis].” So, Santayana reverses his earlier refusal of a gift and asks for the Jefferson volume because it “would certainly open a new scene to me that is not only important but also beautiful.” He adds: “Or send me anything small that you may prefer. I say small, because I have only one small room of my own; and even my books have overflowed into the adjoining public reception room.” 

Santayana closes with “grateful regards.” Epistolary elegance is rare (as are epistles, today). Accompanied by wit and gratitude, it is nearly nonexistent. And the spectacle of the Spaniard living in Italy who never became an American citizen accepting a book about Jefferson from a cousin of Mark Twain is satisfyingly all-American.


Denkof Zwemmen said...

Right -- a great American story. And a welcome one, as pampered, fearful no-nothings whine about how their sensibilities are offended by seeing Woodrow Wilson's name on Princeton public spaces.

George said...

Santayana's mother lived in Winchester, Virginia, for part of her childhood, not that long after Jefferson's death.