Monday, September 20, 2010

`The Sight of a Living, Green Tree'

When Edward Dahlberg (1900-1977) pulls back from the unhappy story of his mother Lizzie in Because I Was Flesh (1964) to describe the city where he spent much of his childhood, he sings of its trees. Here is the first sentence:

“Kansas City is a vast inland city, and its marvelous river, the Missouri, heats the senses; the maple, alder, elm and cherry trees with which the city abounds are songs of desire, and only the almonds of ancient Palestine can awaken the hungry pores more deeply.”

Dahlberg was a reflexively cranky writer and man, easily wounded, a grudge-carrier, savage and sex-maddened, but when he loves, whether books, landscapes or friends, he does so devotedly. Sixteen pages into the first chapter he writes:

“Lizzie rented a furnished bedchamber in a rock-ribbed house on McGee near Admiral Boulevard. McGee was a poor humble street, lined with elms, maples and oaks – what bread and meat there is in the sight of a living, green tree. There were many yards and vacant lots covered with tangled grass and rough, acrid sunflowers, and the latticed porches and sun-fed wooden steps were a comfort to people.”

I’ve read Because I Was Flesh, by far Dahlberg’s finest book, five or six times since I discovered it thirty-five years ago but never before noted the frequent association of trees with solace and plenty. The book’s grimness probably obscured it but even in Dahlberg – no nature lover, no tree-hugger – I hear an echo of what Richard Wilbur, in a poem about trees and their greenness, calls “a great largesse / Which has no end.”

In 1905, when Dahlberg was living in Kansas City and not yet five years old, Henry James was visiting the United States after a twenty-year absence. The published result was The American Scene (1906) but in The Complete Notebooks of Henry James (edited by Leon Edel and Lyall H. Powers, 1987) I hear a similar theme sounded. In an entry written in Coronado Beach, Ca., dated March 29, 1905, and mingling memories of James Russell Lowell, the recent reunion with his brother William and much else, James, like Dahlberg, associates trees and cities with the good life:

“…the two facts of the immense rise in the type and scope and scale of the American house, as it more and more multiplies, and of the special amenity of the effect, for the `streets,’ of the large tree-culture. The over-arching clustered trees, the way dignity and style were helped by them, the embowered city—cities—of the future. I recall a little those vibrating chords.”

1 comment:

Nige said...

Lovely - and that last sentence is pretty much the quintessential Jamesian sentence, isn't it?