Monday, January 10, 2022

'Where in Particular Are the Peaches D’antan?'

“I must have had with my tea and my muffin a boiled egg or two and a dab of marmalade, but it was from a far other store of condiments I most liberally helped myself. I was lucidly aware of so gorging—esoterically, as it were, while I drew out the gustatory process . . .”


I hadn’t noticed how much attention Henry James devotes to food and the act of eating. I knew of his late enthusiasm for “Fletcherizing,” the early-twentieth-century scheme touted by the food quack Horace Fletcher, who advocated a thorough chewing of every bite of food until it was liquified. For James, life is a feast, literally and metaphorically. The passage above is from The Middle Years (1917), the third volume of his autobiographical books, left incomplete at the time of his death in 1916.


In A Small Boy and Others (1913), James recalls the city of his birth, New York City, as “some vast succulent cornucopia.” For more than half a page he rhapsodizes its “boundless fruitage” and asks, in his endless quest to recover the past:


“Where is that fruitage now, where in particular are the peaches d’antan [of old]? where the mounds of Isabella grapes and Seckel pears in the sticky sweetness of which our childhood seems to have been steeped. It was surely, save for some oranges, a more informally and familiarly fruit-eating time, and bushels of peaches in particular, peaches big and peaches small, peaches white and peaches yellow, played a part in life from which they have somehow been deposed . . . . the public heaps of them, the high-piled receptacles at every turn, touched the street as with a sort of southern plenty . . . . We ate everything in those days by the bushel and the barrel, as from stores that were infinite; we handled water-melons as freely as cocoanuts, and the amount of stomach-ache involved was negligible in the general Eden-like consciousness.”


I’m salivating as I transcribe this passage. James' prose is as ravishing as his subject. As a reward for a visit to the dentist (“the house of pain”), the James children would be taken to an ice-cream parlor (“the house of delight”), where they were served “bedizened saucers heaped up for our fond consumption.” James never describes  entrées -- meat or vegetables -- only foods appealing to a child’s palate. Here is my favorite Jamesian description of a boy's sweet-tooth delight:


“. . . . an inordinate consumption of hot waffles retailed by a benevolent black ‘auntie’ who presided, with her husband’s aid as I remember, at a portable stove set up in a passage or recess opening from the court; to which we flocked and pushed, in a merciless squeeze, with all our coppers, and the products of which, the oblong farinaceous compound, faintly yet richly brown, stamped and smoking, not crisp nor brittle, but softly absorbent of the syrup dabbed upon it for a finish, revealed to me I for a long time, even for a very long time supposed, the highest pleasure of sense.”


Farinaceous, according to the OED, means “consisting or made of flour or meal.” James' appetite extended beyond food to words, human nature and consciousness itself. 


[I’m using James' Autobiography which collects A Small Boy and Others, Notes of a Son and Brother (1914) and The Middle Years, edited by F.W. Dupee and published in 1956. In 2016, the Library of America published Autobiographies, which includes the three volumes just mentioned and scattered autobiographical pieces.]

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