Excerpted from 'The Sunnier Side'
37 East 72nd street
New York, NY
September 20, 1949
Dear Charles Jackson:
Thank you so much for writing “Tenting Tonight” which I have just read in the new Good Housekeeping. It is a real pleasure to run across such a clean & delightful short story. No drinking, no sex, no murder—-& no personality problem. Good for both youngsters & grown--ups. It’s nice to know that you can write about the sunnier side of life, life as it is & should be.
It was especially interesting to me as I spent several summers in Arcadia NY when I was a girl & was often at Parsons Point—-once at the very cottage around which your story centers! Of course all that now seems “far away & long ago” as I haven’t been back since I was twenty & have long since lost track of Arcadia & old friends there. But they were golden summers as I remember them, with all our lives before us!
I am older than you by ten years I should think. I am of the era of Faith Goldsmith, Eudora Detterson & Harriet Newton but I remember you as a kid. A very cute youngster you were too, with those big brown eyes always wide open with the wonder of it all & probably just seeing right through everything!
I find all your books interesting & well written, altho most sophisticated compared to the standards of Arcadia, but I suppose true of the world today. Still it sometimes does seem a pity that a man with your gifts should dwell so much on the morbid & sordid, neglecting the sunnier side aforementioned & the wholesome. Do you choose such subject matter on purpose? Life is often unpleasant enough without having to come across the unpleasant in books. Speaking for myself, I read books for pleasure & for their relation to life, which is why I loved “Tenting Tonight.” You surely may be proud of such a charming short story.
I wish you great success & will always watch for your work with the greatest of interest.
(Miss) Dorothy Brenner
Orford, New Hampshire
September 27, 1949
Dear Miss Brenner:
Thank you for your nice letter. I’d better answer it now and get rid of it, and so be able to get back to my work. Like a souvenir out of the past, it has been lying on my desk a full week now; and during that time I’ve taken it up again and again, only to be swamped each time in a flood of memories evoked by the names you mention. If I wait any longer I shall find myself writing a novel instead of a letter; or worse—-imprisoned in this chair by memory and association for the rest of my life.
Far away and long ago indeed, but present in my mind as if it were yesterday. Curious how the picture and people of those years are clearer and realer to me now than events which happened last year and even last month. I remember the very sounds and colors of those times, including thousands of tiny details completely uninteresting and irrelevant. But Total Recall is the writer’s affliction; he either remembers all, or nothing. For example, your mentioning Eudora Detterson brings to mind things I didn’t even know I had remembered or retained—-inconsequential, ordinary, but true nonetheless, true in the sense that they “happened” (which does not mean, necessarily, true for the purposes of fiction or the writer, or true of “life”).
I suppose I pick the Dettersons first because they lived next door to us, and the name “Detterson” immediately calls up, among other things, two distinct memories that go far back into my earliest childhood: Mr. Detterson was always Marshal--of--the--Day on Decoration Day and rode at the head of the parade on a white nag called Spooner, borrowed for the occasion from Harriet Newton’s father; and the other memory is of the time when Mrs. Detterson died. I remember overhearing my father say to my mother, “Her blood filled a whole pail.”—-But even as I write this, still another association comes to mind: I had a pet sparrow which, it so happened, died the same morning. All that day my father was in and out of the house next door, being neighborly and helpful; and at night, when he seemed very distracted at supper and once or twice spoke to us sharply, I asked my mother later, “What’s the matter with Papa tonight?” and she replied, “Your father’s always upset by death, that’s all.” Only weeks later did it occur to me which death my mother had alluded to. All along, in my childish (and still characteristic) preoccupation with self, I had thought she meant the sparrow’s.
Look what happens. It’s a kind of chain reaction: one reminiscence leads to another, and that one to another, and so on, and on, each deeper, or at any rate different, but never--ending. Perhaps it is best not to start at all; or if you do start, not to look too closely. Things of the past have great charm, the charm of nostalgia; but as I said, the writer remembers all, or nothing. Thus it is that I also remember Mr. Detterson’s nocturnal habits, so upsetting to my mother. When he went to bed at night he liked to have all the shades up and the lights on full; then he would stand in the middle of the room and undress, for the benefit of my twelve--year--old sister Rachel whose bedroom windows were opposite his. This pleasure didn’t satisfy him for long, though. On summer nights he took to wandering across the lawn into our yard, in his BVD’s, and peeping into our windows. But perhaps the memory has a sunnier side after all, for I remember how Rachel—-a very spirited girl, if you recall—-swore that one night she would dump a pail of water on Mr. Detterson from her upstairs window. Mother forbade this absolutely; but one night Rachel did.
Of course Arcadia had its full quota of the changing seasons, with green budding shoots, turning leaves, and snow and ice as well, but somehow life seems to have been one long perpetual summer then, doesn’t it?—-or so it seems as I look back on it now—-with sweating young men in proper pants and shirts (not stripped to the waist as we see them nowadays) plodding along behind whirring lawn mowers, girls drying their long hair over the back of a kitchen chair in the backyard, and whole families strolling out in the cool of the evening (not, of course, like Mr. Detterson’s evening stroll). A better life then, we wonder? Happier times? I doubt it. For surely our parents also looked back twenty or thirty years to a better life and happier times than we knew in 1913. People must always have looked back, out of necessity; for life has a way of getting grimmer as it goes on—-or maybe just realer—-so that reality fools us into thinking that we were all better off when we were young.
. . . Faith Goldsmith, Eudora Detterson, Harriet Newton, and Dorothy Brenner—-of course I remember you all. Harriet, I remember, was called Fig (we thought that was wonderful: Fig Newton), and you were called Dolly. Are you still, Miss Brenner? You were good--looking girls, all of you (Eudora particularly was a genuine beauty), lovely not only with natural good looks but even more so with the promise of life. I can see you now, coming down Dalton Street with linked arms (you always went four abreast, do you remember?), facing the world and the future—-forgive a writer’s phrase—-with healthy happy faces, ready to sweep everything before you. During those wonderful summers of your girlhood, I remember the four of you dressed alike as much as possible. You wore your hair down your back, your hair ribbons tied in a broad stiff bow at the nape of your neck; you wore white shirtwaists and long black skirts; and I remember one summer you sent away to the city for—-and then gaily wore, all together, like a badge signifying your own little coterie—-broad red patent--leather belts; and that summer you wore red hair ribbons to match. You made a lovely sight as you came down the street arm in arm. Did you know that old Mrs. van Benschoten always called you “the great triumvirate”? As the four of you rounded the corner at the top of the hill and began your swing down the street, Mrs. van Benschoten would call across the hedge to Mrs. Verbridge: “Here comes The Great Triumvirate!” Mrs. van Benschoten’s shaky scholarship was one of the things that endears her to me in retrospect.
And since you speak of Parson’s Point, I remember you there too. I can see the four of you now, walking along the dusty street (tall Faith Goldsmith and chubby Fig Newton were always on the outside, it was always so and I used to wonder why—-was there any reason?), past the dance pavilion, past the bowling alley, past Harry’s where I had my first hot dog, and on toward the dinky station under the weeping willow and cottonwood trees, where everybody gathered every afternoon to watch the four o’clock train come in from Arcadia and see who got off. Four abreast, in white sneaks, black cotton stockings, black bloomers and white middy blouses, you stood leaning against the iron railing that separated the platform from the bay—-and the whole bay and the floating islands beyond were a background to your charm. As the passengers climbed down from the dingy coaches, you must have known how they looked at you—-those who knew you and those who didn’t—-all admiring alike. And of course not the least of the charm of the picture was your collective indifference to this. You loved each other, you were full of secrets and plans, you needed no one else. Had the handsomest beau in the county come along at that moment, you would not have given him a second glance. Now that the train had been seen to, nothing on earth could have deterred you from your next objective, observed every afternoon at the same hour like a ritual: ice--cream cones at Matt’s at four--fifteen—-where, do you remember, they had those wonderful homemade cones that we loved as much as the ice cream itself?
But of course those golden summers didn’t last forever, and in a little while you were grown up. You say you haven’t been back since you were twenty? That must have been around 1915 or ’16. I too left when I was twenty, in 1923, but I have returned to Arcadia often and always will. Thus I am able to tell you something of the later years of the three remaining members of The Great Triumvirate—-though as far as Arcadia goes, “remaining” is the wrong word. Eudora Detterson lives in San Francisco, Honolulu and Guadalajara. Faith Goldsmith and Fig Newton are dead.
Were you in Arcadia that summer when Harriet Newton gave the “Pink Party”? In those days “pink” meant just that, with no taint political or otherwise. It was the talk of the town for years, and of course the Newton place was perfect for a party of any kind. That enormous ivy--covered house, the big cupola on top, the vast barn with its matching cupola and its stables and dovecote, the rolling lawns, the flagstone walks among the iris, the fountain, the sundial, the tennis court, the tree house and the Greek--style summerhouse—-they all seemed made for Fig’s pleasure alone; not only seemed but, in literal fact, they were. People used to say they never knew a girl who was so idolized by her father as Harriet Newton. It is certainly true that she was the apple of his eye; everything that he could think of was done to please her, as though he lived under a constant anxiety that he could not make her happy enough or show that he loved her enough. I had often heard as a child how her father had only been cross with her once, and it was a curious story. Fig came home from Sunday school one Sunday noon, Mr. Newton took her on his lap, and during the conversation she said, “You’re not my father, did you know that, Daddy?” “Oh really,” he said, “why not?” “Because God is my father, not you.” Instantly, as if by reflex, his hand went out and slapped her sharply across the cheek. The story went round the neighborhood, people thought it was terribly funny and laughed and laughed, and of course I did too; but the real sequel to the episode was that, that very week, the stricken and remorseful father bought the child a Shetland pony and a charming pony cart, which were later supplanted, in a kind of chronological testimony of her father’s constant love, by Spooner and the surrey. . . . But indeed, all the Newtons were like that; she was the adored of that numerous family, all those uncles and aunts who always seemed to us, like Fig’s father and mother, older than our own grandparents, much older than children’s parents generally were.
Fig, the only child, loved it all; and yet in a way she laughed at it, too. And when others laughed at her nickname—-or, later, laughed and kidded her when she began to run to fat—-she laughed with them. To this day, whenever I think of Fig Newton, I think of her laughter; she was always happy, always laughing, as if bubbling over with sheer fun and the joy of life. I think of her piano--playing, too, which was forever rolling out of that house, across the broad lawns, and all the way over to our house on Dalton Street; and of course I think of her pigeons. Do you remember those pigeons? But who could forget them! Fig saw some fantail pigeons at the Palmyra Fair, it was said, when she was ten or twelve, beautiful white puffy ones, and clapped her hands for joy at the sight of them. That same fall Mr. Newton built that enormous dovecote at the side of the barn and stocked it with prize pigeons of the kind that Fig had fallen in love with. From then on, for years, they flew about the house and lawn and gardens, dozens and dozens of them in great white fluttering circles—-and I can still see Fig now (and doubtless you can too), sitting in the big peacock chair by the tennis court, watching them wheeling overhead and laughing with delight.
Small wonder that Fig didn’t marry till she was in her mid--twenties, old for girls in Arcadia. She had too good a time, had everything she wanted at home in the admiration and love of her parents, enjoyed life and herself far too much to want to settle down with any one man. Boys were playmates merely, she never saw them singly or alone, she surrounded herself with four or five at a time, and it was all a lark. Evenings she would fill up the surrey with her friends, the hired man would harness Spooner between the shafts, and Fig would drive them around town, singing.
Since the musical comedy Oklahoma!, I can’t but regret that song called “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” Fig Newton’s surrey had fringe on top too, I can see it jiggling now as she drove along the gradually darkening streets—-but it isn’t the same; it’s spoiled, somehow. When I mention that the Newtons had a surrey with fringe on top, the description comes out quaint, now, a prop in a stage piece, and for that reason I wouldn’t dream of using it in a story. Fig’s surrey was never quaint or “period” or a prop. It was what it was: real.
I remember once she piled a whole bunch of neighborhood kids into the surrey, me included, and took us all to the movies, the first movie I had ever seen. There was a kind of documentary, I remember, about the Russo--Japanese War, and the feature was a lurid drama of acrobats and circus life called “The Four Daredevils.” I can recall the details of this movie as if it were yesterday. (Why one’s mind retains such trivia is beyond me, but I guess the impressions of childhood are ineradicable. A good thing, too, perhaps; where would a writer be without them?) The four daredevils were trapeze artists who performed without a net; the quartet included a husband and wife; and the climax of the picture came when the husband, just after learning that his wife was the secret lover of the other male acrobat (children are born wise, it seems), “missed” catching her outstretched hands as she flew toward him in The Giant Leap; accidentally--on--purpose, as we kids used to say. A second after she fell sickeningly to the dirt arena below, he relaxed the grip of his bent knees on the trapeze bar and dropped too. The last shot showed him lying in a crumpled lifeless heap, and I remember I was enthralled by one vivid detail: a thin stream of blood flowing down from the corner of his mouth, widening as it reached his neck—-the same effective touch that was used a year or two later in “The Birth of a Nation,” in 1915, after Mae Marsh had plunged from the cliff to escape the clutches of Walter Long, except that in this case the blood spread a little farther, to cover the sleeve of Henry B. Walthall’s Confederate uniform as he lifted his dying sister in his arms.
But the party—-the Pink Party. . . . If you were there, Miss Brenner, you have never forgotten it. The party was given for old and young alike, and it seems to me now that very nearly the whole town was there, always excepting the people across the canal, of course. There were four great pink tents erected in different parts of the lawn, pink lemonade was served, a vast pink--and--white--striped awning was suspended above the tennis court where the players batted pink balls back and forth, and the tablecloths of the buffet tables, long, reaching in folds to the grass, were pink linen. Fig herself, getting quite plump now, wore a pink organdie dress with many ruffles, and there were pink ribbons in her hair. How she laughed with delight—-and laughed all over again, each time—-when one by one the guests discovered that the very sugar in the sugar bowls was pink. The jugglers, magician, and fortune-teller, brought down from the city, were also costumed in pink, of course; but the crowning touch, the most triumphant moment of the afternoon—-crazy, everybody said, simply crazy—-were the pigeons. Fig had had the pigeons dyed or tinted for the occasion, and one great concerted cry of “Ooooohhh” went up from the guests as the pigeons, released all at the same moment by the hired man up in the cupola, fluttered down over the party in great whirling pink clouds. “Of all the crazy stunts!” people said. “Absolutely idiotic! But isn’t it just like Fig?”—-and by that “but” they meant, of course, “Isn’t it delightful, isn’t Fig wonderful, don’t we all love her?”
During the festivities her father hovered in the background—-dear me, the way I’m “spotting” him here, at just this crucial point, makes him sound like the villain--of--the--piece, but since this is a letter I’ll let it stand; if it were a story, however, I’d go back and reorganize and rewrite, rather than mislead you so unfairly—-Mr. Newton, as I say, hovered in the background, with eyes for no one but his darling. Fig’s laugh rang out all afternoon; and if people glanced at her father to see his answering smile, they were disappointed. His face was serious and thoughtful, yet restless, almost impatient, as if he were secretly eager that the party would soon be over and all these people go home—-yet just as eager too, perhaps, that the party would never be over.
(Forgive that one, Miss Brenner. Writers often think that a casual touch of hindsight gives an extra dimension to a story, but I doubt if it ever does.)
Before she was twenty, Harriet Newton began to get really fat. And the fatter she got, the happier she seemed to be and the more she seemed to laugh and the more her father loved her. It was almost as though her getting fat (or “stout,” as we called it in those days) was a kind of assurance for him—-a tacit promise—-that Fig would never marry. Plumpness was still somewhat the fashion then, but even so, few young men would have proposed to a girl of Fig’s size, in spite of the considerable advantages of her well--known family, the huge Newton place, and all that money.
But one summer—-it was long after your summers in Arcadia, Miss Brenner—-Fig met a man called Tyson Phillips. He was in his fifties, his hair was a mixture of black and gray, like pepper--and--salt tweed, and his mustache was white. He looked not unlike the middle--aged gentleman in black tie and white mess jacket that one sees in whisky ads, or in ads depicting the luxuries of the lounge on a cruise ship; but the really striking thing was that, except for the mustache and figure, he looked very much like Fig’s father. He came into the bay at Parson’s Point one afternoon on somebody’s yacht, made a favorable impression the first night at the Yacht Club dance, then lingered the whole season at the Point as the guest of one or another summer resident. After he met Fig Newton, he moved in to Arcadia that fall and soon became her only beau, the first “steady” that Fig had ever had. Little was known about Ty Phillips except that he had been married and divorced. He seemed to have no money, yet he was able to put up at the Ganargua Inn indefinitely. He was handsome and amiable, but my mother thought he looked like a “sport.” Nobody knew what he “did”; and since he seemed to do nothing, the rumor went around that he was a professional gambler—-which is what Arcadia always called a stranger, you’ll remember, who had no visible means of support.
Of course Mr. Newton put his foot down. No man was good enough for his Harriet, and certainly not a man twice her age. Leaving his wife behind, he took Fig on a tour of the west, and daily she sent back letters to Mr. Phillips from the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Rainier National Park, Banff and Lake Louise. When they returned home after two months, Tyson Phillips was still at the Ganargua, and Mr. Newton bought Fig a touring car, on condition that she wouldn’t see Mr. Phillips again. For a few days she didn’t; but within a week, she took to driving out, afternoons and evenings, with Faith Goldsmith (Faith Gordon, by then). She would pick up Faith at the Gordon home, drive around town for half an hour, take Faith home again, then drive to the Inn to pick up Mr. Phillips.
One afternoon when I was on a hike in the country, I saw them sitting on a hill at the very spot that had always been a favorite place of mine, the spot where Bettina and I (do you remember Bettina Chapin?) spent so many Saturday and Sunday afternoons lying in the grass reading Keats and Wordsworth and Tennyson and Francis Thompson aloud. I saw them from the pasture below, just as I crossed the brook into the field, and at first I didn’t know who they were. They looked to be merely a middle--aged couple sitting on a hill admiring the view, the man tall and thin, the lady fat. I went up the hill, careful to move past them a good hundred feet away—-because I had thought that I didn’t know who they were—-but when I approached I saw that it was Fig and Mr. Phillips. From below I had seen that they were leaning somewhat toward each other and talking earnestly together, but when I came up the hill and passed in front of them, they were silent. They watched me move by without a word and, when I turned my head, Fig said just “Hello” and nothing else. She didn’t even call me by name. It wasn’t a bit like her. I was about to say, “Gosh, isn’t it wonderful out here?” but for some reason I thought better of it and went on. When I went down the other side of the hill into the woods, I knew I was out of their sight though I could still see them; and to my shame I lingered behind a tree trunk for a while, looking up the hill and listening. I could not have heard their conversation, even had there been one, but I did expect to hear Fig’s old laugh once in a while. There was no laughter at all. A week later they eloped.
Fig telephoned her family from Buffalo, it was said, and announced that she was married. She talked only to her mother, because Mr. Newton refused to come to the phone. From that hour, as far as anybody knew, he did not acknowledge her existence; and, in the difficult years that followed, though he knew that she needed his help, he did not yield. It was exactly as though he had never had a daughter. . . . Pretty trite to put it that way, but it was that way.
Fig and Mr. Phillips returned to Arcadia and began married life together in a series of boarding houses, moving from one to another according to their finances. Fig had little money of her own, Mr. Phillips seemed to have none at all (it must have been a bitter disappointment to him when her father cut her off), but from time to time an uncle or an aunt would give them a check, secretly of course. Within a year Fig had her first baby, a son, named Tyson after its father, and within seven years she had five children in all. She had grown very fat by this time, and they were now living in the upper half of a two--family house over on Canal Street. For a while Fig made a little money by giving piano lessons, but her pregnancies and the ensuing babies interfered with this, till finally her pupils stopped coming altogether.
Excerpted from The Sunnier Side and Other Stories by Charles Jackson Introduction by Blake Bailey. Copyright © 2013 by Charles Jackson. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.