Friday, March 02, 2018

`An Almost Comic Ambiguity'

“He was at his old trick: he had made out, on the spot, in other words, that here was a pale page into which he might read what he liked.”

My wife has flown to Virginia for her father’s eightieth birthday. He lives in Fredericksburg, hardly a musket shot away from the battlefield. In twenty years I’ve tramped most of its 8,300 acres. When Henry James returned to the United States in 1904-05 for his first visit in twenty years, he must have passed Fredericksburg on his way from Washington, D.C. to Richmond. Forty years earlier the latter had served as the capital of the Confederacy. James tours “the White House of Richmond, the `executive mansion’ of the latter half of the War,” the onetime residence of Jefferson Davis. During his visit it was a “Museum of the relics of the Confederacy.” Today it houses part of the multi-site American Civil War Museum. The sentence at the top, in which James is describing his visit to the museum, is from Chap. VII of The American Scene (1907). Writing in the third-person, James often refers to himself as “the restless analyst.” As usual, the Jamesian consciousness absorbs everything:

“Tragically, indescribably sanctified, these documentary chambers that contained, so far as I remember, not a single object of beauty, scarce one in fact that was not altogether ugly (so void they were of intrinsic charm), and that spoke only of the absence of means and of taste, of communication and resource. In these rude accents they phrased their interest--which the unappeased visitor, from the moment of his crossing the general threshold, had recognized in fact as intense.”

James’ only companion is the hostess, “a little old lady, a person soft-voiced, gracious, mellifluous, perfect for her function, who, seated by her fire in a sort of official anteroom, received him as at the gate of some grandly bankrupt plantation.” James’ tone is finely nuanced. Does he like the old lady, sole guardian of this mausoleum of the Lost Cause? He concedes that she, unlike the exhibits she guards, had beauty. We might call his tone satirical sadness. It’s a gloomy place, four decades after Appomattox. Read closely his encounter with “a very handsome, young Virginian,” whose father had fought in the war. James parses the enduring allure of the “valuable, enriching, inspiring, romantic legend.” With the aid of the old lady, James observes:

“The sorry objects about were old Confederate documents, already sallow with time, framed letters, orders, autographs, extracts, tatters of a paper-currency in the last stages of vitiation; together with faded portraits of faded worthies, primitive products of the camera, the crayon, the brush; of all of which she did the honours with a gentle florid reverence that opened wide, for the musing visitor, as he lingered and strolled, the portals, as it were, of a singularly interesting `case.’ [Note the Jamesian quotation marks.]  It was the case of the beautiful, the attaching oddity of the general Southern state of mind, or stage of feeling, in relation to that heritage of woe and of glory of which the mementos surrounded me. These mementos were the sorry objects, and as I pursued them from one ugly room to another--the whole place wearing the air thus, cumulatively, of some dim, dusty collection of specimens, prehistoric, paleolithic, scientific, and making one grope for some verbal rendering of the grey effect--the queer elements at play wrote themselves as large as I could have desired. On every side, I imagine, from Virginia to Texas, the visitor must become aware of them--the visitor, that is, who, by exception, becomes aware of anything: was I not, for instance, presently to recognize them, at their finest, for an almost comic ambiguity, in the passionate flare of the little frontal inscription behind which the Daughters of the Confederacy of the Charleston section nurse the old wrongs and the old wounds?”

Who else would admit to seeing "comic ambiguity" in a museum dedicated to the memory of the Confederacy?

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