Sunday, May 02, 2010

"Golden-skinned boys and girls playing roulette with highballs in every hand," or, Sunday morning coming down

Like the raucous seagulls circling Wrigley Field in the ninth inning of yesterday's game, preparing to scarf up the inevitable hot dog puke, Sunday morning waits patiently for the weekend reveler, knowing he will require its quiet for rest, regret, and recovery. For those readers who fall into that category, I offer this morning some dissipated selections from Edmund Wilson's journals of the 1920s.

I'll start with a scene, interpolated by Wilson years later as he re-read his notebooks, that is enough to strike horror into the heart of any man who can recall his first illicit visit to a certain carefully monitored drug store aisle:
I decided that I had now been innocent long enough and decided to buy a condom. I went to a drugstore on Greenwich Avenue and watched nervously from outside to be sure that there were no women there. I then went in and inquired. The clerk withdrew to the back counter and produced a condom of rubber, which he highly recommended, blowing it up like a balloon in order to show me how reliable it was. But the condom, thus distended, burst, and this turned out to be something of an omen. I soon got over my shyness with women, but I was a victim of many of the hazards of sex--from which I might have been saved by previous experience: abortions, gonorrhea, entanglements, a broken heart.
What I wonder is whether that druggist put on the same demonstration for every young man who asked for a condom, or if he sensed a particular susceptibility to embarrassment in Wilson? And, with that in mind: might it all have been a prank, the condom intentionally ruptured to throw a fright into the affected fop who'd had the temerity to inquire about it?

Along those lines, this account of Wilson's friend Ted Paramore, from 1921, is lively and ridiculous in its portrayal of uncertain young male sexuality:
The girl he got away from Donald Douglas. --"She wasn't very good. She wasn't very pretty but she had a good body." --She finally made him feel so ashamed, however, that he gave her up: "She said, 'You make me feel as if I were on a barren plain whipped by a bitter wind!' --And I ---!" --business of hanging his head in abasement. --But the first time he had been to see her, he was enormously set up the next morning--he came in to see me, beaming, and said it had restored his self-confidence. She had "made him breakfast and everything."
It strikes me that any woman who can come up with that image of the barren plain probably deserved better than the apparently feckless Paramore, who, elsewhere in the journal, is seen attending a ball as a "vulture,"
that is, he went as a stag and spent the evening trying to pass out old men and steal their young mistresses.
Now, in reverse of the way things usually progress, we'll move from sex to drink. Having expressed doubt about Ted Paramore, it seems only fair to let him offer a bit of irrefutable wisdom:
"At these parties they get absolutely soused, then they begin to get Ritzy, and at the same time they keep falling off the chairs. You can't try to high-hat everybody and fall off chairs at the same time."
Then, a brief look in on a 1921 party at the apartment of Cleon Throckmorton, a theatrical set designer:
I came in and found the room full of people whom I took at first to be the cast of Orpheus. I went over to Catherine Throckmorton and we sat down together--she was just drunk enough to be partly speechless and to have assumed, as she often does under those circumstances, a bogus foreign accent.
Finally, because a night of drinking with Edmund Wilson wouldn't be complete without Ring Lardner and Scott Fitzgerald, here's an early morning--following a late-night--scene at Lardner's house:
Zelda had gone to sleep in an armchair, and covered herself with a shawl. . . . Lardner read teh golf rules aloud. (This was a little book put out by the local golf club. Lardner read these rules at length with a cold and somber scor that was funny, yet really conveyed his disgust with his successful suburban life.) --Then we went back to the Fitzgeralds' Lardner and I started talkign abotu the oil scandal, and Fitz fell asleep in his chair. Lardner and I went on talking about baseball, Heywood Broun, Lardner's writing, the Americanized Carmen, the Rascoes, etc. Deep blue patches appeared at the windows. I couldn't at first think what they were--then I realized it was the dawn. The birds tuned up one at a time It grew light. It was seven o'clock. Scott asked what we had been talking about. Lardner said we had been talking about him. --"I suppose you analyzed me ruthlessly."
Am I wrong, when I picture the livers of that generation, in imagining something just sub-Lovecraftian in its inchoate horror?

Now that we've reached the morning after, lest you harbor hopes that your gentleman's gentleman might sidle quietly into your room with a restorative, you first might want to be reminded that not all servants are as reliably comforting as Jeeves:
At dinner, Mrs Murphy sat mumbling about the butler-they always did manage to have such sinister servants, don't you now? "I really feel there's something wrong about him--I'm really afraid of him--even though his wife is such a good cook, I really think I'll have to discharge him!" "Well, Mother, I really don't think you're very good if you allow yourself to be intimidated by your own servants!" "Well, but you don't have to be in the house with him continually as I do--I really don't think it's safe to be in the house alone with him--I really think I'll have to let him go!"
Perhaps, like Wilson himself, you're fortunate enough to need little restorative aside from the Sunday itself:
That vague and charming feeling of coming to (no doubt a dose of aspirin contributed to these sensations) after having been drunk the night before, very late in the day--of going out and finding the warm May day, the people out on the Avenue in their Sunday clothes and riding on the top of the buses; of lying inside and hearing, from behind the lowered shades, where a bright sun comes in through a hole, the cries of children playing in the street and the sound of boat whistles. We leave the windows up during the day and the shades up at night: we don't need to shut ourselves up any longer.
And, if you can make it through the fog-headed morning,
At night, the park in a warm obscurity plaited with the bright pearls of lamps, the taxis moving on their errands--they seem more genial, more attractive now--the first soft mysteries of the city summer.
Swozzled or sober, enjoy this first real summer Sunday of the year, secure in the knowledge that there are plenty more to come--maybe not that endless string that stretched before us in childhood, but a sufficient number for the more modest ambitions of adulthood.


  1. Wonderful stuff! Thank you for these. Yet another book to add to the list. I will blame you when my wife demands to know where all of our money has gone. (Also, am just about to embark on 'The Sour Lemon Score', having devoured the other 2 new Chicago Stark reissues. Brilliant books!)

  2. Inspired bu your present course and compliemnted by David Lipsky's references to Nabokov's letters in his "biography" of David Foster Wallace, I brought my copy of the Bunny/Nabokov letters with me today. Its a handsome book, a Christmas gift from my biomom circa 1998. It has been a splendid experience, though N appears the kinder, more understanding, of the pair.