S. N. Behrman
The New Yorker
 June 5, 1954: 26-34

As I look back on my school days in Worcester, Massachusettsin the Providence Street grade school at the start of the century, and later in the Classical High School— I can see that these contemporary institutions were rather ineffectual in combatting the sombre fascination of the medievalism of my home. There we were—my parents, my two older brothers, and I—a family uprooted from a veiled and ancient and unhappy past, and plumped down, unaccountably, in the tenement district of an industrial city in New England. Our very birth dates belonged to the past, for my father had reckoned them by the Hebrew calendar and recorded them on the inside back cover of one of the volumes of his beloved Talmud. Consequently, we boys were all born in five thousand and something. The American myths I acquired in my school history books—George Washington and the cherry tree, and the others—were thin and anemic compared to the Biblical exploits I heard about at home. My father related the Old Testament stories as if they had taken place recently—as if they constituted his personal past. His own youth had been spent in hourly terror of persecution in a town in Russian Poland, and this terror had merged with more ancient fears and had flowed, finally, into the Biblical sea that was his refuge. How he had managed such a feat as to make the long journey from Poland to Worcester was a matter of endless speculation for me, and I constantly tried to delve into it, but with only fragmentary results. There was simply no relation between my father's world and the contemporary one. The streets of Worcester, my life with my playmates, the themes I studied at school were all marginal exercises. The Great Theme was at home, and it concerned God and the thick-textured history of the Jewish people. It was dark, fear-ridden, and oppressive, but it had the warmth and tenderness of companionship in a common danger. For all its fascination, it bred in me an acute longing to escape, and shake off those extra centuries my father had added to my life the moment l was born.

This escape for which I longed so passionately was provided for me—in part, at least—by the lucky accident of my intimacy with a friend of my brothers', whom I shall call Willie Lavin. For some unaccountable reason, Willie began to take an interest in me when I was very young, and during my entire boyhood he braved the jocularities of his older companions to befriend me. "How can you spend so much time with a kid?" they demanded of him. As I look back on it now, the pains Willie took with me pass all credence. When I had a sudden craving to learn to play the piano, he rented a room and a piano for me, got me a teacher, and paid for it all out of his own pocket. When I first began to write—this was not until I was about fifteen—he went over all my manuscripts, analyzing them, correcting them, and taking endless trouble to prepare them for submission to, and, of course, eventual rejection by, various publications. Later, when I graduated from high school, and plans were being made for me to go to work, he persuaded my family to send me to Clark College, in Worcester. After I had been there for two years, he accomplished, by main strength, a revolutionary feat. I had shown some interest in the drama, so he decided I must leave Clark and go to Harvard, to study dramatic writing under George Pierce Baker. This wanted some doing. Willie did it. And during all these years there was no intellectual problem, no practical dilemma, no psychological crisis at home that I did not dump in Willie's lap. He became, so to say, my liaison officer between the medievalism of our household and the latter-day world; he understood both worlds, and he enjoyed trying to reconcile them for me.

During all these years, Willie himself was very busy, first as a student at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where he made an excellent record, and later as a chemist at the Worcester Water Works. While he was employed by the city, he decided to study law, and he did it by commuting to Boston four evenings a week to attend law school at Boston University. He got his degree in three years and passed the bar exams.

I don't know how Willie explained his preoccupation with me to his contemporaries, but he explained it to me by saying that it was "a question of planes?' He adored my brothers and his other friends, he said, but he moved with them on a different plane from the one he shared with me. They were wonderful fellows, but Willie found them, as he put it, "a bit excessively down to earth." He said he couldn't discuss with them the things he discussed with me—abstract questions, for instance. I gathered also that I was a more patient listener than my brothers and their friends. Of course, I was young enough to have nothing to do but listen, whereas Willie's older friends all had jobs and were absorbed in their own lives.

My father was a sad, kindly, God-haunted man who did everything for his children that his meagre resources would allow. So long as we observed the ritualistic pieties—and these were fairly exacting—he overflowed with loving-kindness toward us. But he did sternly forbid us two exercises: we were not to try under any circumstances to discover the true name of the Lord; we were not to think about the problem of infinity. It is unlikely that I would have done much speculation in either of these areas if I had not been so explicitly forbidden. In the first, I would have accepted as sufficient for my needs the various names of the Lord I heard in common use around the house—Adonai, Elohim, Adoshem, Melech Haolom, and Ribono Shel Olom—but these, my father said, were mere pseudonyms. They were names, not the Name. This I must never try to discover, for in it lay coiled the ultimate, pent-up sunburst of truth. And unless I was prepared to receive this truth—a preparation achieved only by the rarest of saints—the mere fact of approaching it, the faintest hint of what it was, might be instantly pulverizing. He said that even some of the saints, men who had spent their lives delving for the Name and had led lives of purity and piety in order to be ready to receive it, had, in approaching the split second of revelation, been atomized—not, I understood, because of any impurity in them but because of their arrogance in believing that they deserved to know. The Name was the final kernel of knowledge and to possess it was to be destroyed.

My father also warned me that it was especially hazardous and reprehensible to try to ambush the Name by resorting to black magic and the occult arts. He cautioned me as sombrely and literally as if Providence Street were teeming with such diabolical opportunities. Actually, among my pals on the hill I encountered neither abortive saintliness nor thaumaturgy. When I brought up the subject of the Name with my friends, I was amazed to find how little curiosity they had about it—with the exception of Willie, of course. The boys of my own age seemed to be more than satisfied with the names of the Lord that were current, and even a bit jaded about them.

My father really worried unnecessarily; the data at my disposal for making so lethal a discovery were rather scarce, my curiosity had little to feed on, and in general I obeyed his prohibition against excessive research. I did experience a certain terror of inadvertently stumbling on the dread Name, by overhearing it, perhaps, or seeing it written in letters of fire in a dream—a dream from which I would never wake up. However, my fears were groundless, too; no intimation ever reached me, nor did the representative of any occult society suggest that I take part in illicit experiment. The only magicians I saw were at Poli's Vaudeville Theatre and they were engaged in less abstract exhibitions. The principal effect of my father's prohibition was to induce my resentment, for it seemed to contradict the exhortations I was receiving constantly in school, and from my education-ravished elders at home (including my father), to pursue knowledge inexorably and whole-heartedly. If the ultimate molecule of truth resided in the hidden name of the Lord, and if I was forbidden to seek it, what was the use of slaving over grammar and arithmetic? School seemed a waste of time altogether. This gave me a convenient excuse on lovely spring days to play hooky and walk to the lake or, in autumn, to escape to Newton Hill and hunt for chestnuts.

My father's second injunction—not to think about infinity—gave me considerable trouble. Infinity involved the perpetually receding end of things. Here we were, my father and I, at a fixed point in space—31 Providence Street, Worcester, Massachusetts. Above us was the visible sky. Above the sky, there was space, which went on endlessly through an unimaginable number of remoter skies. To use the word "endlessly" was in itself a verbal evasion, because it wasn't possible to imagine anything without an end. And yet it was equally impossible to imagine space as finite. This was indeed a dilemma. Those who thought about infinity too much, my father solemnly warned me, usually went insane. "Therefore," he always said in conclusion, "you must not think about it!" But I could see that he himself was pondering it. Vainglorious, I suggested that perhaps one might, one day, with sufficient concentration, get to the bottom of it. My father shook his head. The problem was not for mortals to think about, still less to solve, and the penalty for solution was identical to that attendant on discovering the true name of the Lord—instant annihilation.

Lying in bed at night, I found myself engaged in formidable engineering projects, constructing arbitrary terminals for the eons of space—high ramparts, nonporous to the invading tide of infinity. But, tremendous as these barriers were, my imagination leaped them, as did space itself. Space must, I thought desperately, be put a stop to; it couldn't he allowed to run on forever. Yet it did. What was forever? One couldn't imagine it, but one had to if one was to tackle the subject at all. "Forever" was a term in time, yet it could also be applied to the limitlessness of space. It was very bewildering. In an effort to compromise with space, to be reasonable with it, I decided to give it all the scope it wanted—trillions and trillions of miles—in the hope that somewhere it would call a halt. But it always wanted more. Wrestling with space gave me a headachy feeling; it made me toss about in bed at night; it was maddening. That was what my father must have meant when he forbade me to think about the problem at all. But I couldn't stop. I thought about it sitting in classes at school, when I should have been listening to my teachers.

Finally, wearied of these agonies of cerebration, I reached a point where I knew I couldn't bear it alone; I needed help. So one summer day when I was trudging to the lake for a swim with a boy named Freddie Eisenberg, I introduced the subject. Freddie was the star pupil of my class and an acknowledged intellectual. Appropriately enough, I put the dilemma before him while we were passing the insane asylum on Shrewsbury Street. Freddie was unsympathetic. He shrugged the whole thing off in an unaccountably callous manner. "I'll worry about that after we get to Jerry Daly's bathhouse," he said. "That's space enough for me!"

Since I couldn't whip up any interest in these pressing problems among friends of my own years, I was forced to take them to Willie. They were right up his alley. The day I brought up the subject of space and time, he invited me into Easton's Drugstore for a milk shake, and there he met infinity head on. While he didn't, as I remember, actually solve the problem, he diminished it, somehow, by multiplying it. He didn't in any way duck the issue, but he widened the area and shifted the field; he relegated it to its proper place by revealing it as only one thread in the fabric of a larger mystery. Willie had a way of starting his discussions with impressive phrases: "I can well imagine a situation where . . ." "I venture the opinion that . . ." "I will go so far as to say that . . ." "Let us begin by reducing the problem to its component parts . . ." Or he would say, "There is no problem that will not yield to analysis," and then proceed to analyze. He was equally adept at swift reversals. "On the other hand," he would say, "I can equally well imagine a situation where . . ." As he warmed up to his subject, he had a habit of cracking his knuckles and rubbing his hands together as if he were washing them.

After the milk shake at Easton's, which somehow in itself made me feel better about infinity, Willie took me for a walk down Main Street to Court Hill, striding along briskly and analyzing fluently. "There are many infinities," he announced. "Take the matter of the Name, which bothers you so much. Personally, I'm an agnostic, but I can well imagine a situation where at the very heart of things there is a simple, cosmic, unifying truth. This is the Name. Or if you prefer," he added magnanimously, "God. Everything is an infinity. Take that fellow Kelly, who threw the steel bolt out the window at Mr. Reilly. I will go so far as to say that if you thoroughly analyzed Kelly's motives, you would stub your toe on another infinity—the infinity of responsibility."

In my father's rather melancholy conversation, there was a good deal about blood, and especially about the shedding of what he invariably referred to specifically as "Jewish blood." I knew from early on that Jewish blood had always flowed copiously, but I had never been much affected by this knowledge. My father's preoccupation with the subject bored me; it seemed like a peevish dwelling on old grievances, and I wasn't interested, because I didn't know what the grievances were. They had no actuality. But the attack on Mr. Reilly, to which Willie had referred, had suddenly dramatized my father's preoccupation. It happened one Saturday afternoon on Winter Street, in front of Lavin & Lupkin's, the drygoods store owned by Willie's father, where I sometimes worked on Saturdays as an errand boy. Mr. Reilly was a nice old Irishman with a beautiful head of silver hair and a flowing white beard. He was a peddler, and he used to come into Lavin & Lupkin's each Saturday afternoon to stock up for his peregrinations of the following week. That day, as he approached the store, someone threw a steel bolt at him from a window of Crompton & Knowles, a factory that faced the Lavin & Lupkin building. I happened to be in the basement of L. & L.'s at the time, wrapping bundles with Willie. My brothers were there, too; they had dropped in to see Willie. We heard a commotion on the street and ran out to find Mr. Reilly lying on the sidewalk with blood flowing from a wound in his forehead. My oldest brother and the Messrs. Lavin and Lupkin carried Mr. Reilly inside; Willie ran to get Dr. Nightingale. The Doctor came quickly and found that Mr. Reilly had suffered only a scalp wound, which he quickly stitched up. Within an hour, the victim was sitting happily in the office at the back of the store eating sandwiches, which I had been sent to get for him from the delicatessen down the street. Meantime, the neighborhood cop, a coreligionist of Mr. Reilly's, vowed that he would find the hurler of the bolt if it was the last thing he did.

The cop made good his word. Mr. Reilly's assailant proved to be a nineteen-year-old boy named Pat Kelly, of theretofore exemplary reputation. He confessed to his crime with a certain bravado, was arrested, and within a week was hauled up before Judge Utley. (Judge Utley bore the sobriquet in Worcester of "Thirty-Days Utley," because he habitually confined the punishment he meted out for minor offenses to that somewhat arbitrary period.) Willie and my brothers and I all went to the hearing, feeling very important, as witnesses, if not to the actual attack, at least to the events that followed it. The bolt thrower's defense was unexpected: he said the whole thing had been an optical illusion. He assured the Judge that he didn't know Mr. Reilly and had nothing whatever against him personally. Looking out of the factory window, he had seen him walking down the street and, because Mr. Reilly wore a long white beard, had concluded that he was Jewish, and had therefore thrown the bolt at him on general principles. The boy said this with such an air of guileless innocence—almost as if he had done a good deed without expectation of reward—that he was disarming. Had he known that his victim's name was Reilly, he said, he would have loved him dearly. I still remember Kelly's expression of utter bewilderment when Judge Utley was not instantly softened by an error so manifestly human and pardonable. Instead, the Judge rapped his desk sharply with his gavel and said, "Nine months in the penitentiary!" It was a sensational departure. The most the adherents of Mr. Reilly had hoped for was thirty days. Mr. Reilly, the cop, and my brothers exchanged warm and congratulatory glances, but I watched the criminal as he was taken away and saw an incredulous look on his face—the look of a man who had blundered into a topsy-turvy world.

The incident made a field day for Willie. He sat beside me at the hearing and noticed, as I did, the boy's expression of bewilderment. "I venture the opinion," said Willie on the way home, "that if you analyzed this Kelly's heredity and environment and the influences that have played on him from the time he was born, you would find that they threw the bolt—not Kelly!" Enlarging upon this idea, Willie worked himself up into a lather of speculation. He made an easy transition from the Winter Street incident (of about 1905) to the War Office in Paris, France, in 1899. Only the week before, Willie had taken me to Lothrop's Opera House, where I had seen my first play. It was a melodrama called "The Devil's Island," and the hero was a Captain Dreyfus. It couldn't have been a very subtle play, and yet I hadn't understood it at all. This did not keep me from being thrilled by it. There was a miraculous scene at the end of the second act where the Captain escaped from Devil's Island; you actually saw him getting into a boat and being rowed to a sloop waiting to transport him back to Paris. You even saw the sloop. The Captain wore a waxed mustache, and although he was sorely put upon by everybody—in an earlier scene his sword had been broken and the buttons cut off his uniform before a crowd of officers, themselves in brilliant uniforms—his mustache remained glossy and imperturbable. I had never seen such aplomb. The play had a villain called Major Esterhazy, who was discomfited in the end, whereas Captain Dreyfus got his sword and his uniform back and everybody loved him. Esterhazy's discomfiture had made me happy, but now when Willie brought the bolt thrower from Crompton & Knowles and the villain of "The Devil's Island" close together in a wonderful juxtaposition, I wasn't so sure. Willie went so far as to say that if you subjected Major Esterhazy to the same patient analysis he was prepared to give Pat Kelly, you would discover that outside, stronger forces, not Esterhazy, had wrought the evil against Captain Dreyfus. Ultimately, Esterhazy was innocent. Ultimately, the bolt thrower from Crompton & Knowles was innocent. To Willie, they were both nice fellows who had been badly used by their heredities and environments.

Some years earlier, Willie had had a far harder time absolving me of guilt. I was quite a small boy then, and for weeks I suffered an anguish of remorse over my inexplicable cruelty to a cat of which I was fond. I had made friends with the cat—a yellow-furred, blue-eyed vagrant—and when I walked down Providence Street, he would follow me. Flattered by his fidelity, I sometimes lifted him up and carried him, and he seemed to enjoy that. He especially liked to accompany me on my hunts for odds and ends in the dump yard that was next to the Crompton & Knowles factory. The yard was a fascinating place, containing all sorts of oddments—zinc shavings, acid jars, heavy rubber bands that had fastened the covers of the jars, flat pieces of metal, oddly stamped. It was particularly rich in tinfoil, which we boys used to collect, roll up into balls, and send off somewhere for the few pennies it would bring us. The yard was iridescent with coal dust and the vivid discoloration of decay. On very hot days, the dust gave off a heat of its own and the rubber bands bubbled. The cat seemed to enjoy prowling about the yard as much as I did, though there could have been small nourishment in it for him. One hot summer day, after taking a rich bag, my pockets bulging with baking bits of glass and metal and rubber, I started home to sort out my treasures in the privacy of our back yard. The cat trotted happily beside me. Perhaps to compensate him for having found so little for himself when I had so much, I picked him up and carried him. It was terribly hot and the loot in my pockets burned against me. I began to feel a miserable discomfort, and the climb up Providence Street seemed insupportable. I stopped for a moment, grasped the cat firmly, and threw him head first onto the sidewalk. I heard his skull crack. The sound unnerved me so much that I could not bear to look down at the cat. I went on up the hill. The stuff in my pockets now felt heavy as well as hot and I began throwing it away. By the time I got home, I had nothing left. I kept hearing the sound of the cat's skull hitting the sidewalk. In the yard next to ours, there were some cherry trees, and that day the cherries were ripe and glowed in the sun. I climbed one of the trees, though it was forbidden, and picked a few cherries. When I got down to the ground, I threw them away and ran back to find the cat. I knew exactly where I had hurled him down; it was in front of Cassie MacMahon's house. (Cassie MacMahon was a classmate.) When I reached the spot, the cat was gone. I never saw him again.

Willie had a hard time with me about the cat. For a long time, I wouldn't tell him what was wrong, but he knew that something was bothering me and he finally got it out of me. He called on his standbys, heredity and environment, to assist him in absolving me, but they didn't work as well as they did, later, for Kelly and Esterhazy, whose heredities and environments Willie did not know. Unfortunately, he knew all about mine.

My father and mother were both gentle people. My father, who was almost perpetually in mourning for ancient bloodletting, had an abhorrence of violence of all sorts. I implored Willie never, never to tell my father about the cat; his anger and humiliation would have been terrible. Somewhat in a corner, Willie turned from my parents, whom we knew, to their ancestors, whom we did not know. Among them, Willie hinted as tactfully as he could, there might have been an aberrant murderer. It was unlikely, but it was possible. Or perhaps I had done this cruel thing only out of curiosity, to see what would happen. If this was so, Willie said, it had been a purely scientific impulse. He kept telling me to put the incident out of my mind and stop worrying about it. But I did worry about it, because it revealed such unaccountable and dreadful potentialities within me. I kept hearing the sharp sound of the cat's skull on the brick sidewalk. I hear it still, after more than fifty years.

The most precious possession in our Providence Street tenement was my father's many-volumed edition of the Talmud. The books were great tomes bound in calf, with marbled covers. My father had inherited them from his father and had brought them with him from Europe. I grew up with these books and saw them constantly, but since they were written in Hebrew, I was never able to read them, for though I studied Hebrew briefly when I was quite a small boy, I never got sufficiently proficient to read or understand the esoteric complexities of the Talmud. I used to stare at the pages, wondering what fascinating secrets they contained. I remember the look of those pages—grave, wide, solid columns of text in the center and, islanding them, equally solid columns of finer print. This finer print, my father explained to me, was the Rashi, or commentary on the text. Did it contain dissenting opinions, or what? I never knew.

My father belonged to a small group of the Providence Street devout, headed by the learned and humorous Rabbi Silver, whose aim was to go through one of the volumes of the Talmud, text and commentary, annually. The group met once a month, in the afternoon, at the homes of the different members. I remember how my mother, on the one day of the year when it was my father's turn to play host, would sit in the kitchen, her own preparations made, waiting for the summons and hoping that some perfectionist was not being too difficult over the minutiae of interpretation. The tea and cakes and liquor could not be served and the festivities begin until the last page of the day's stint had been reached. The scholars sat in the dining room—the only time in the year, except for Passover, when it was used. Normally we ate in the kitchen; using the dining room was like opening the throne room of a palace. When the food was finally served, I was allowed in and given a piece of cake—I suppose as an encouragement to emulate my elders—but it was sometimes hours before I got this unearned reward. I used to peep in, but I would be shooed away until the last moot point had been settled. I remember, on one of these occasions, conceiving a strong dislike for the father of one of my playmates, because he was pedantic and kept raising questions. I still see the Rembrandtesque scene: The men sat around the table, the great books before them; it was late afternoon and the tension was so great that no one had bothered to turn on the lamp; the heckler was insistent; Rabbi Silver pushed his glasses back on his forehead and pondered; no one moved and the silence was intense; all eyes were fixed on Rabbi Silver, imploring resolution of this crisis of interpretation. It came. Rabbi Silver readjusted his glasses and spoke. Everyone was satisfied, even the heckler. The relief was tremendous. The books were closed and the scholars relaxed in their chairs, jolly and suddenly garrulous. My father nodded to me to tell my mother that the refreshments could be brought in. After that, it was all fun.

With some of my pals whose flats were furnished, as ours was, with many-volumed editions of the Talmud, I speculated on the contents of these mysterious books. We were like those medieval inquirers who theorized in a vacuum, without ever consulting nature. Since we could none of us read the text, there was really no other way to go about it. But scraps and fragments came to us from older boys, sons of the pundits for whom Talmud reading was a full-time occupation. These older boys were often satirical; it seemed to me they were even blasphemous. The books, they said, were not mysterious at all but discussed quite practical problems—what to do and how to behave in critical emergencies. For example, two men are walking along the street, coming from opposite directions. Simultaneously, they spy on the ground a valuable object. Each one makes for it. One says, "This find is mine!" The other makes an equally valid claim. What to do, since the object is indivisible? One scoffer used to insist that the problems discussed in the Talmud were remote and had little to do with everyday life in Worcester. He swore that one of the Talmudic situations pondered by our parents was this: A man is walking on a rampart; at the foot of the rampart an unmarried girl is taking the air; the man on the rampart slips and falls; regrettably, he falls on the girl, and she becomes pregnant. What, then, is the status of this fortuitous pregnancy? This particular skeptic felt that it was unprofitable to spend so much time on a problem so remote from Providence Street, where there were no ramparts. Whether this situation is actually discussed in the Talmud, I don't know, but I certainly grew up believing that the holy book was full of tidbits like that.

Still, generally speaking, I was tolerant, and even a little proud, of our Talmud—perhaps because, on the hill, my father's authority on it set him up as a sage and a scholar—and I liked to leaf through the volumes. The one in which my father had written our birth dates continued to bother me. They forced me to think unhappily about what was, apparently, an immense discrepancy between my present environment and my antecedents. There were no family portraits in the house, no evidence of any direct ancestors. The only portraits on our walls were engravings of Jewish saints who had lived in the Middle Ages. These appeared to be all the progenitors we had, and they weren't even relations. We seemed to have come right out of the Middle Ages. To be sure, we had one living grandmother, my mother's mother, who sat in a rocking chair in my aunt's flat, radiating affection, but before her day was a great anterior darkness. I asked my parents questions about their pasts but could find out very little. All I knew was that my father had embarked for America at Hamburg, with my mother and the two elder children, in the steerage of a boat that was headed for New York. Apparently what had troubled him most on this journey was the fear that he would be unable to observe the dietary laws. He had come to Worcester because my uncle was there, I asked this uncle why he had come, and he said because he had a cousin in Boston.

But if there was little talk about the family past, there was incessant talk about pogroms. I was bored with these pogroms. When the Kishinev Massacre occurred, in April, 1903, it was a kind of windfall for my father. He had sensed my apathy about sharing his indignation and his grief over the earlier pogroms, and now, with a certain sorrowful triumph, he pointed to the newspaper headlines on Kishinev and said, "That, my son, is a pogrom!" It had happened not far from his original home. But even then what struck me as grotesque was that my father, who had made a journey to escape a peril as formidable as this, could still have been worried about dietary laws. It seemed to me to show no sense of proportion. I felt myself drifting away from him.

Increasingly, I felt the weight on me of bygone blood feuds, of oppression from dead centuries. This malaise, too, I confided to Willie. He met it with gusto. It was a natural for him. He gave me an alluring invitation. "Take Kishinev," he said. I was inclined to refuse it, but he insisted. Willie was widely, if vagariously, read, and right after offering me Kishinev he offered me Saint Bartholomew's Day, of which I had not previously heard. "Part of the pattern of history," said Willie, with a large wave of the hand. "Kishinev is only a Saint Bartholomew's Day reserved for Jews!" He made it seem that there was a certain distinction in it. My complaint about the absence of family portraits and the obscurity of my antecedents he met with a disquisition on the mystery and infinity of the chain of birth. When I pointed out that my birth date was recorded in an incomprehensible language and by a vanished calendar, he was withering. "You were born, weren't you?" he demanded, making it seem like an incredible feat. According to Willie, it actually was an incredible feat. "I will go as far as to say." he went on rapturously, "that the simple statement you may read anywhere on any tombstone, 'Born 1888,' say—born anywhere, any time—is the most dramatic of all declarations. Think of the nexus behind it." Nexus was a word of which Willie was very fond. "Think of the nexus of dangers and the collusion of circumstances that have to be just right before you can say of anybody that he was born. Think of the accidents you have to escape, the menaces from man and from nature! In each individual, once he manages to be born, there is a majesty of ancestry that reaches back to the very beginnings of time. Let's say you did have family portraits. How far back could they go? If you had enough of them, you couldn't give them houseroom. You'd have to have a warehouse!" Willie managed to make me feel that to wish to have ancestral portraits was to be unbearably spoiled and snobbish and extravagant.

Willie's penchant for separating problems into their component parts got full play while I was in high school. He helped me in the inter-high-school debates and he gave me a major position on a little staff of researchers he organized, whose object was to win the large sums of money offered by the Boston papers at that time in their puzzle contests. Willie was a great believer in hobbies, and for a period the solution of these puzzles became his major hobby and an extracurricular activity for me. There were, I remember, a Proverb Contest, a Great Names Contest, and a Familiar Sayings Contest, among others, and the prizes offered by the Herald, Globe, or Post in their circulation drives were bigger, actually, than those offered nowadays by the radio and television Santa Clauses and far more satisfactory, since instead of winning pressure cookers, and deep freezes full of hams, you could win thousand-dollar and hundred-dollar and fifty-dollar bills.

Willie approached these contests scientifically, mobilizing all his resources to take them out of the hit-or-miss area of gambling and transmute them into a rational pursuit. I remember particularly our exhaustive researches for the Familiar Sayings Contest. Every day, there appeared in one of the papers—which one I now forget—an untitled drawing illustrating some saying, and you were supposed to supply five aphorisms, in the order of your preference, as your five captions for each picture. If you hit the right saying on your fourth choice and somebody else had hit it on his first, you naturally lost out. The final winner, after several weeks of daily effort, was to be the person who had the highest percentage of early guesses. Willie's surveys of previous contests had shown that the "mass average" of the winners was what counted most heavily; that is to say, the winners were not usually those who had the most firsts but those who had the greatest number of correct answers among their first three choices. Willie put in a lot of heavy reading on the laws of probability and averages, and we were soon moving in the high realm of numerical theory. We were equipped in every way: we kept elaborate card-catalogue files; we reduced the element of chance to a minimum; we were scientifically and theoretically right. But we didn't win that contest—or any other.

It was during my junior and senior years in high school that Willie encouraged me to take part, under his tutelage, in the inter-high-school debates. Here his special dialectic method—his "On the other hand I can imagine"s and "I venture the opinion"s—served him admirably, and, thanks to his coaching, I became the president of the Sumner Club, Classical High's debating society. If, for instance, the Sumner Club took the affirmative in a debate on the referendum and recall, or on whether capital punishment should be abolished, Willie would bone up on the negative, in order to prime me with answers to any points our opponents might raise. He and I used to work for hours together in the Public Library reading room, handing Poole's Index back and forth between us. Willie attended all the debates, and if the Sumner Club team won, Willie always came up to congratulate me, beaming as happily as Diaghilev might have done after a triumph of Nijinsky's.

It was because of Willie, as I have said, that my family decided to send me to Clark College instead of to work. Willie used to follow my progress in English under Dr. Loring Dodd, reading the themes I wrote for him and judiciously cogitating the Professor's marginal comments. When Dr. Dodd gave me a bad mark on a theme, Willie took it hard. Though Dr. Dodd did not know it, Willie was his unofficial assistant.

After I had been at Clark for two years, Willie began to read about George Pierce Baker and his new Drama Workshop at Harvard, which was then much in the news. I had started writing short stories, and labored over them painfully, spending a long time placing commas; he was fascinated by commas and would go into a dithyramb on their loveliness. But since all my stories were swiftly rejected by the magazines Willie and I submitted them to, he thought maybe I should turn to the drama. Once the idea hit him, nothing would serve but my going to Harvard to study under Professor Baker. The transfer from Clark was difficult, but Willie arranged it and I moved to Cambridge for my junior and senior years. Our relations continued close. Willie was delighted when, after submitting an essay to Charles Townsend Copeland, I received a postcard from Copey admitting me to English 12, and he was positively triumphant when, in my senior year, after submitting a one-act play to George Pierce Baker, I was invited to join English 47, the playwriting course Willie had read so much about in the newspapers.

By then, Willie had married and was practicing law in Worcester. His wife, whom I knew well, since she grew up on Providence Street, was devoted to him, and she accepted his friendship for me with tolerance, as she accepted his other idiosyncrasies. Willie came often to Cambridge to see me, and during my holidays in Worcester I had high times and rampant discussions with him. We gave commas and theories of all sorts a brisk workout. However, during the summer between my junior and senior years at Harvard—the last months I was to spend in Worcester—I became aware, without being able exactly to put my finger on it, of some cloud that occasionally shadowed Willie's usual exuberance. For one thing, he was worrying about his inability to concentrate. He had theories about concentration, and, by the standard of what he called "ultimate concentration," he found himself woefully lacking. I pointed out to him that he seemed able to pass with ease the most difficult examinations, which certainly must mean that he could concentrate. Perhaps, although I was too young to realize it then, he had begun to worry about his inability to concentrate on anything except the abstract, and to realize that when he was faced with the workaday problems of practicing a profession, he shied off. One day in the fall of my senior year, he startled me by calling me on the telephone to ask if I could make an appointment for him in Boston with a reliable psychiatrist. I inquired around and was given the name of a well-known doctor, and made an appointment with him for Willie. I went with Willie to the doctor's office, and sat in the waiting room during the consultation. I could never find out much about what took place, but I gathered later that Willie felt the famous psychiatrist's views on his special problem were "superficial." Willie quit him after that one visit but went several times to see another Boston psychiatrist. Before long, he began to pull out of this particular depression and told me with a laugh that he'd found he couldn't even concentrate on a psychiatrist.

By the time of my graduation in June, a ceremony that Willie attended, he was his old self again. After that, I went to New York to live with my brothers, who were already established there in their own accounting firm, but I kept in constant touch with Willie by letter and phone, and we met during my frequent visits to Worcester to see my mother. My brothers were expert accountants, and perhaps it was their influence that made Willie suddenly determine to switch careers again. He had decided that accounting was a fresh field in Worcester and that his legal training would be a help in it, so he once more studied in Boston, and, at the end of his course, passed the difficult examination that qualified him as a certified public accountant.

Meanwhile, I was having a tough time in New York. As I was unable to get a job, I did graduate work at Columbia. After I had received my M.A. degree, I got an offer of an instructorship at the University of Minnesota, at twelve hundred dollars a year. I accepted it. Just as I was about to leave for the West, Willie made one of his visits to New York to see my brothers and me. He went first to see my brothers at their office, where they told him about my appointment. Willie took a poor view of it. In fact, he put his foot down. I must stay in New York and go on writing, he told them. It was extraordinary how firm and decisive Willie could be about any problem affecting me. Nevertheless, my oldest brother and I started out the next day to buy a round-trip ticket to Minneapolis, but when we discovered that the fare would use almost half of my first year's salary, we gave up the idea. Willie was delighted when he heard this; he rubbed his palms together and cracked his knuckles with elation.

In 1926, I sold my first play. Within an hour after I heard that it had been accepted for production, I was on the train to Worcester to tell Willie about it. No telephone call would serve for such great news. He came to the opening night in New York, and instead of going to the party given for the cast, I met him in Childs after the play. Willie was in fine fettle. He elaborated on the difference between the drama and other literary forms. I had, he decided, made a good choice, and I reflected, without saying so, that it was Willie's choice as much as mine.

Then I began to travel a bit, but before every journey I would telephone Willie in Worcester, and I always called him up within an hour of my return. We also kept up an incessant correspondence. At the end of one long absence from New York, I asked my brothers for a report on Willie. They said that they were worried about him, and told me that one day while they were walking with him and discussing accounting problems, Willie had stopped in the street to point out an advertising sign and ask them whether they could explain the mystery of a conjunction in the sign. Why was it there? One of my brothers said that it was just a connective word. Willie wouldn't let it go at that. He said he was increasingly troubled by the function of conjunctions, prepositions, and relative clauses in sentences. After a bit, he let it go and was his usual jolly self.

When my brothers told me this, I had that tantalizing sense of recurrence that so often afflicts one. Out of a drowse of memory, out of a very distant past, I heard again (did I remember it or didn't I?) a long wrangle between Willie and my father while I lay in my bedroom on Providence Street, supposed to be asleep but actually wide-awake and eavesdropping. I heard my father talking to Willie as he had to me, setting limits to certain fields of inquiry, and Willie valiantly rejecting any limits, which I had never had the courage to do. I began to remember more clearly: My father had said you mustn't, for example, speculate overmuch on infinity. I wondered whether Willie was now continuing his early defiance of my father. Had he merely shifted the focus from the cosmic to the infinitesimal, both illimitable? 'Was Willie suffocating from some constriction of curiosity that he couldn't work out of? In his arguments with my father, Willie had flouted mystery in favor of illumination. Was Willie now lost in mystery? Had my father been right to set limits and Willie wrong to ignore my father's "Keep Off" signs? For the first time since I had known Willie, I began to feel a deep malaise about him. Before long, I shook it off, telling myself that, after all, this was merely another manifestation of his lifelong fetish for analyzing things and breaking them down into their component parts.

In one's later middle life, long journeys become perilous, because of the workings of mortality at home. To return and find that somebody one has dearly loved has died in one's absence gives one a sense of special loss, almost a feeling of having been callous, as if by not being present one had failed to prevent or delay the loss. I had this strange feeling after my mother died while I was on the way back from a trip to Europe; almost the same thing happened to me, years earlier and under the same circumstances, with Willie. In Willie's case, my sense of having deserted was particularly poignant, because his death was what is referred to glibly and superficially as "voluntary." In the summer of 1928, I was sailing from New York for Europe, and I had a long-distance telephone talk with Willie just before I boarded the ship. By that time, he was in his fourth career. Willie's father had sold his retail store to go into manufacturing, and Willie had abandoned accounting to serve as an executive in his father's factory. When I talked with him the evening I sailed, he was gay, and told me proud anecdotes about his two children. I was going to be very busy and would be moving about a good deal in Europe on that trip, with many changes of address, so we agreed not to write to each other while I was away. Several months later, on my return, one of my brothers met me at the pier, as he did later when my mother died, and took me to my hotel. I went at once to the telephone to put in a call to Willie, but my brother stopped me. He told me that Willie was dead. He said that a few months earlier Willie had had some kind of nervous breakdown and had been sent to a neurological institution in Massachusetts, where it was confidently expected that he could be cured. He had seemed to be getting better and only a few weeks before my return he had had a cheerful visit at the hospital with his wife and children. The evening after that visit, he had broken the window of his room and cut his throat with a piece of glass.

Along with my grief, I felt a kind of terrible self-reproach; I could not repress the feeling that if I had been there, I might, by some miracle of friendship, have held off the steep, dark walls that converged on Willie to extinguish him. The residual medieval superstition that those who are afflicted by mental illness are possessed by devils dies hard. I have seen people who are sincerely sympathetic in cases of physical illness behave toward people suffering from mental diseases as though they were self-indulgent, capricious, or perverse. For one thing, those so bedevilled (the very word is a legacy of the superstition!) are often at large, stumbling through the ordinary thickets of social life, where, unprotected by the accoutrements of the sickroom, they have to endure criticism instead of being comforted by compassion. And yet their sort of mental suffering impinges on the most delicate and mysterious and impenetrable of our faculties—the faculty that is the source of idiosyncrasy, of the distinguishing trait, of what differentiates us from the inarticulate animals and from each other. Where the mind is touched, the taut string at the heart of the personality is plucked. If one could trace to its source the wild logic that compels those like Willie to their deaths, one would have solved the mystery of one of the infinities in which we swim.

I have asked many psychiatrists about Willie, and all of them have told me that he was probably a "schizophrenic." This is a cataloguing and descriptive word. What does it explain of the mystery that goes on within the human mind? The psychiatrists have also told me that autopsies in such cases reveal no lesion in the brain. It is perhaps an evidence of the persistence of the magic and mystery in my inheritance that in my rebellious and passionate grieving at finding myself in a world without Willie I recalled the talk I had had with him when I was a child and was troubled about the enigma of the Name. Willie had been well able to understand my tribulation then, and he had ventured the opinion to me, as I had to my father, that someday, somewhere, there would emerge an intelligence subtle enough and courageous enough to hear the true name of the Lord, even if it destroyed him. Had Willie, in his lonely hours, importunately sought the Name? Had he, I wondered, come too close?

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