The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, by George Gissing

The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home, by George Howe Colt

To recommend a book is an ethical undertaking that reveals something about both the giver and the recipient. It is an act that says, “I believe you are a person who will enjoy this, you will find this interesting, and you might even change (for the better, of course, if I the giver am to be so presumptuous) after you have spent time with it.” The gift of the printed word makes claims upon us as certain types of desirers. 

Those of us who gather around the virtual hearth of The Imaginative Conservative come here to share our thoughts and ideals, to build community and to build ourselves. Even when we challenge each other, we believe that we are cultivating something in ourselves and in our souls that is of consequence. If we did not find this to be so, we would not return. So when Winston Elliott suggested that we recommend some titles for the Christmas season, I recalled Dr. Kirk’s words on the importance of humane literature to the development and sustenance of community:

Lacking two influences, generation could not link with generation. Those influences are religious tradition and the continuity of literature. For literature is the breath of society, transmitting to successive rising generations, century upon century, a body of ethical principles and critical standards and imaginative creations that constitutes a kind of collective intellect of humanity, the formalized wisdom of our ancestors.

For Dr. Kirk books are an imaginative incorporation of our very humanity and what we read reveals much about us as a people and about the quality of our civilization. The two books that I recommend this season I believe are good reads that draw us into and raise us up into a moral community. The first book I recommend is fairly recent, while the other is an early twentieth century gem; I find myself in my middle years returning to them again and again for pleasure, for contemplation, and for the mature and wise company they offer.

My first offering is The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home, by George Howe Colt (2003). It is a personal history of a house on Cape Cod that spans the twentieth century. Faced with its impending sale, Colt recounts the stories of the generations of his family and friends who have inhabited and grown with the house. He celebrates their traditions, their successes, their failures, their rise and their fall, all the while keeping the house symbolically centered as the reflection of the New England character:

It can be no accident that the shingle style reached its fullest expression on the New England coast, where old money Yankees found it a stone-and wood manifestation of their idealized selves. Indeed, the adjectives used by architectural critics to describe these homes could describe many of the people who lived in them—or at least the way they liked to think of themselves… Confident of their social status, they didn’t require their houses to be made of more formal materials.

Much of the book is a meditation on the decline of the New England character and Colt has mixed thoughts on the passing of the old Brahmin culture. And while he does not regret the decline of genteel traditions, of St. Paul’s and Harvard, of sailing and tennis (he suggests that these traditions are now “naïve” and “irrelevant”), his lyric passages on fish and fauna and his memorializing of sport and leisure intimate a deep love and respect for the complexities and eccentricities of his lost community. By writing this book, part history and part memoir, Colt has succeeded in reclaiming this weakened world. Like Dr. Kirk’s “breath of society” that links generation with generation, even the worn, decayed elements of the house sustain the imagination and spirit:

The Big House books are hardly pristine. They bear the marks of age, weather, and affection. Covers have bubbled from the humidity. Pages are stippled with mildew. Books have become tombs for mosquitoes, silver fish, and moths… Over the years, the books have acquired a sweet, musty fragrance that to me is redolent of mystery and adventure, but whose chief ingredients are really paper, powder, dust, paste, glue, and mildew. Library books, handled by so many different people, have an anonymous, almost odorless smell…I’m always    surprised that no matter how many times I open a book, it still exudes that marvelous smell—a smell so vital you’d think that, once released, it would escape like a genie from a lamp, and the book, when opened thereafter, would smell like any other…Indeed, at the end of each summer, I like to borrow a book to take back to New York, where, in the middle of winter, I can, with one inhalation, be transported to Wings Neck.

And we the readers are transported as well. We are invited into this world to share the smells, sights, and ideals of a vanishing way of life.

My second offering for this Christmas season is George Gissing’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903), a work that Dr. Kirk called “the book of a natural Tory.” Although I learned of Gissing from The Conservative Mind thirty years ago, I did not pick him up until recently when I ran across a used copy at a local book sale. Ryecroft, as Gissing tells us in the preface, is “a struggling man, beset by poverty and other circumstances very unpropitious to mental work.” Much like Gissing himself, Ryecroft barely earns a living as he has only intermittent success as a writer. But his private papers reveal a man of deep learning, wisdom, and appreciation of creation. He is strong in opinion and prejudice (“I am no friend of the people…Every instinct of my being is anti-democratic, and I dread to think of what our England may become when Demos rules irresistibly”), and he is wise enough in the ways of the world to understand that in the battle between the mind and the heart, “the second is by far the more important.” It is the imagination and the understanding of the heart that best fills the many dimensions of one’s life.

At 53 years of age, Ryecroft, troubled by, though resigned to, man’s endemic disharmony, has come to prize the wonders of the creation that is England. Having moved through difficult periods of depression, he now finds a soothing tranquility of mind in his memories of the past and relishes the power of the imagination:

As a rule, it is better to re-visit only in imagination the places which have greatly charmed us, or which, in the retrospect, seem to have done so. Seem to have charmed us, I say; for the memory we form, after a certain lapse of time, of places where we lingered, often bears but a faint resemblance to the impression received at the time; what in truth may have been very moderate enjoyment, or enjoyment greatly disturbed by inner or outer circumstances, show in the distance as a keen delight, or as deep, still happiness. On the other hand, if memory creates no illusion, and the name of a certain place is associated with one of the golden moments of life, it were rash to hope that another visit would repeat the experience of a bygone day. For it was not merely the sights that one beheld which were the cause of joy and peace; however lovely the spot, however gracious the sky, these things external would not have availed, but for contributory movements of mind and heart and blood, the essentials of the man as then he was.

Like Colt’s The Big House, Ryecroft’s papers are structured around the seasons, beginning with spring and ending with winter (Colt’s history begins in winter and ends in late summer). And like The Big House, the theme is decline and loss. Coming to terms with the inevitable limitations of his earthly existence, Ryecroft ponders the fullness of life. This “connoisseur of misery” (as Kirk called him), knows that depravity and depression can be known at all levels of society; but through the power of imagination, a moral and civilized life is available to all with right and proper attention. His words, wise like the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, whom he often invokes, are aphoristic:

There can be no home without the sense of permanence, and without home, there is no civilization—as England will discover when the greater part of her population have become flat-inhabiting nomads…

Beneath simple roofs, the hour of tea has something in it of sacred; for it marks the end of domestic work and worry, the beginning of restful, sociable evening. The mere chink of cups and saucers tunes the mind to happy repose…

It is one of the dreary aspects of modern life that natural symbolism has all but perished. We have no consecrated tree. The oak once held a place in English hearts, but who now reveres it?—our trust is in gods of iron….

And yet at times, he is lyrical:

Is it I who used to drink the strong wind like wine, who ran exultingly along the wet sands and leapt from rock to rock, barefoot, on the slippery seaweed, who breasted the swelling breaker, and shouted with joy as it buried me in gleaming foam? At the seaside I knew no such thing as bad weather; there were but changes of eager mood and full-blooded life…

The Christmas bells drew me forth this morning. With but half-formed purpose, I walked through soft, hazy sunshine towards the city, and came into the Cathedral Close, and after lingering awhile, heard the first notes of the organ and so entered…The music, whether of organ or of word, is more to me than ever; the literal meaning causes me no restiveness. I felt only glad that I had yielded to the summons of the Christmas bells…

It is a piety to turn awhile and live with the dead and who can so well indulge it as he whose Christmas is passed in not unhappy solitude?

Concluding his defense of this natural Tory, Dr. Kirk averred that Gissing’s Ryecroft “has done more to remind thoughtful men of the truth and beauty residing in old ways than have all the Tory speeches in Hansard this century.” And that is the shared theme between Colt and Gissing. Although separated by a century, by nationality, and by extremes of social and economic condition, both Gissing’s and Colt’s voices revere their respective historical communities; their books are breaths of society celebrating the imaginative creations of their forebears. Theirs is no Whig interpretation foisting upon us the gods of expediency, but rather the spirit of Burke looking forward to posterity by looking backward through the generations. They encourage us to see the world respectfully and joyfully.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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