CURZON’S Mill on the Artichoke River, near Newburyport, Massachusetts, was a quiet and dreamlike spot at the turn of the century. Even today only an occasional car rumbles over the narrow bridge spanning the river, and it may be that the road is left ill kept in order to discourage tourists and curiosity seekers. For the mill, the large yellowclapboard Federalist house, and the red brick one beyond were the boyhood surroundings of New England’s most distinguished modern novelist, the late John P. Marquand. And to a devotee of Marquand’s leisurely paced novels, the mill, the river, and the great trees shading the two stately old houses evoke the scene of one of his most self-revelatory novels, Wickford Point.
When John P. Marquand was a schoolboy growing up within the sound of the river and the slowly turning mill wheel, Curzon’s Mill was even more out of the world than it is today. Occasionally a farm wagon would rumble past, making its slowway home to some farm in neighboring West Newbury; occasionally a smart equipage with wellcurried horses, belonging to the summer residents at the top of the hill, would flash by, raising a cloud of dust; now and then a carryall would bring friends or relatives of the Marquands to spend the day. But for the most part, the road lay empty for hours at a time.
To get to town meant a long drive behind the ambling horse of the family; or one could walk a mile to the main road and take an electric car into Newburyport; or a pleasanter method of travel one could row down the river to the bridge over the main road, fasten the boat to the railing, and jump onto the car as it came along. But when all else failed, no Marquand hesitated to walk the four miles, and John could always ride his bicycle.
By the time John was fourteen or fifteen, a f amily crisis in his home in Rye, New York, caused him to be sent to his aunts’ house in New England, there to continue his education in the Newburyport High School. He had been admitted to St. Mark’s School at South boro, Massachusetts, but there was no money to send him there.
In his writings Marquand brings his acid, sometimes murderous wit to bear on boys’ boarding schools. There is a perceptible sneer in his descriptions of their masters, their playing fields, their cherished traditions, and especially their wellnurtured school spirit Although his observations were not firsthand, in later years, as a parent, he had plenty of opportunity to look them over, and obviously he id not like what he saw. Yet he was always bitterly regretful that he had been forced to attend the Yewburyport High School instead of a private school, and he always felt that life had cheated him in this respect. He did well in high school, and by taking a postgraduate year of study there, was able to cuter Harvard; but he never shone and probably never tried to shine - in its extracurricular activities.
John’s class in high school was 1910, and we numbered perhaps sixty or sixty-five pupils, mostly of Yankee stock, though there were some Irish and a scattering of Jewish and Italian names.
The school was an ancient brick building, covered with brown stucco. Two wings jutted awkwardly on cither side of the main block, with an entrance in each, one for the boys and one for the girls. To reach the front door, it was necessary to climb a long three-cornered flight of steps to a covered entrance porch, it was on these steps and the porch that many of the social encounters of the school took place. But at recess in good weather the tide of students overflowed from the steps to the sidewalk in laughing, chattering groups, and even crossed the street to the mill.
As one looks back over the past fifty years or so, the N.H.S. students of that era seem a singularly carefree, innocent, and unsophisticated collection, but probably not more so than their contemporaries all over the country. Of course, they thought of themselves as world-weary and disillusioned, as teen-agers always have, but compared with the youth today, they were as sheep to foxes.
The schoolrooms were large, high, and decorated only with blackboards and a few innocuous pictures. In the entrance hall was a piaster statue of Athena, more than life-size, and it speaks well for the school discipline of the day that Athena was never defaced with ink or crayon or removed from her brassrailingcd nook to some remote and unreachable spot.
John had good teachers, on the whole. There was Miss Sullivan, small, yellow-haired, and dynamic, who could excite her classes over .Macbeth and The Idylls of the King as though they were modern best sellers; Miss Towle, tall, gray-haired, and angular, who lived much more in her imaginary world of Greece and Rome than she did in carlytwentieth-century America; young and pretty Miss Sherman, whose Latin classes were a dreary grind but whose pupils could hold their own later in college with graduates of any private academy. To be sure, the chemistry teacher was a dud, but John had gone ahead on his own with the experiments and had discovered that he had a flair for science—so much so, in fact, that for a time he had seriously considered making chemical research his lifework.
if he had gone to St. Mark’s, or Middlesex, or Andover, he would more nearly have resembled his later well-groomed, well-polished appearance. He would not have been allowed to wait until his shaggy, unkempt hair reached his collar before having it cut; he would have been urged or commanded “Stand up; don’t slouch” as he walked. Some attention might have been paid to his fingernails and his grimy wrists, which emerged unhappily from too-short coat sleeves. His hesitant speech might oven have been corrected to the point where, willy-nilly, he had to improve it. But the Marquands were far more interested in things of the spirit and intellect than in the outward trappings of family members.
PERHAPS because of his appearance, perhaps because of a typical Marquand withdrawal from social contacts, John never took part in the little everyday pleasures of school life. He never walked back and forth on the Mall at recess with a chosen companion or in a group. He never joined the pushing, hilarious throng in the lunchroom (one of his classmates tells, in horror, that John brought squash sandwiches to school for his lunch). He never tried out for the school teams, or even for the track squad, the refuge of the less competent athletes. He lived too far away to be one of the sauntering groups on their way to or from school. He never even wrote for the school paper, so no Marquand juvenilia exists among the old copies of the high school Record. It is doubtful if he ever joined the more daring spirits in smoking cigarettes behind the courthouse on the Mall at recess.
In those days John had little contact with girls outside the classroom, but he watched them with natural interest. In his chemistry class there were two who cajoled him into taking over their test tubes and Bunsen burners and doing some of their experiments for them. They retired to a window embrasure overlooking the Mall and the courthouse, gossiping there until he gave them the results to write up in their notebooks. The teacher, easygoing and oblivious, sat reading a newspaper at his desk during all this. “Good old John,” the girls doubtless remarked to each other after they had rewarded him with a dazzling smile apiece, forgetting him as soon as the bell rang to end the period.
The High Street girls, who were spending two or three years in the .Yewburyport school before being sent away to complete their educations, were all alert when John’s older cousins came to town for the summers. It must have been particularly galling to him to see that when these city cousins arrived, they were instantly a social success. They played tennis at the country club and went to the dances there; they organized picnics and amateur theatricals; they took the girls — or one girl at a time canoeing. They even dressed in the splendor of college blazers and white flannel trousers and called on the girls, not at all intimidated by their Federal houses and their not-quitc-so-Federal parents. John was too conscious of the appalling difference between himself and these sophisticated relatives, and far too shy, to venture on a crush or even an unsentimental friendship with one of these girls. They were a pretty group, two or three with actual charm in spite of their awkward, impatient immaturity.
Occasionally during his stays at Kent’s Island after he became famous, John met one or another of this group in Newburyport, but it must have been hard for him to realize that those willow-slim, laughing dryads of his youth could become so tightly enclosed in the hard, dry bark of middle age. Still, their metamorphosis into stout, unalluring, grandmotherly souls was probably no more surprising to him than his own transformation from a grublike youth into, if not a butterfly, certainly a suave and cosmopolitan moth was to them.
One of these girls must have interested him as she did every male of her acquaintance. She had what a later generation called “It” or she also had dimples, flirtatious dark eyes, and a beautiful low-speaking voice. When she said “Hi, John” in her soft contralto, accompanying the phrase with a warm smile that promised so much and meant so little, he grinned and blushed foolishly, although he must have known that she greeted everyone, even girls, in the same way.
Surely, had he tried to break out of his isolation, it would not have been hard for him to take a girl canoeing or to sit on her steps singing to her as he plucked on a mandolin. Although his musical abilities were not remarkable, he could certainly have managed “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” or “Over the Banister Leans a Face.” But he was desperately conscious of his inarticulateness and his lack of the teasing small talk that girls seemed to like and at which his cousins were so adept.
With one girl he did contrive a brief, cool friendship. She was “highbrow”: she read a great deal, and they discussed books on the schoolhouse steps; then, greatly daring, he had walked home with her and met her family. Her charming Southern mother invited him to dinner, but when the day arrived, John, in his haste to catch the “interurban,” took a shortcut across a held and stepped incautiously into a muddy bog, with the result that he had to return home to change his clothes, missed the ear, and reached the house nearly two hours late. That contretemps ended the slight affair, which could not withstand the girl’s annoyance and John’s acute embarrassment.
But the same girl admits that she felt a pang of pity for him sometime later, when on the occasion of the last social event of the graduating class of 1910, the “Senior Levee,” she saw him standing in the doorway ot the city-hall auditorium. John was dressed with his customary careless disregard, and he was watching the gay couples as they glided by with a wistfulness which he tried to disguise as indifference. At that moment she realized the pathos of his utter friendlessness.
It mattered not to youth, in those days, that Celia Thaxter had lived at the Mill for a time; that John Green leaf Whittier had often rowed across the Merrimack River to call at the house; that a sister of Great-aunt Mary had lived at Brook Farm and had known all the celebrities connected with that noble experiment; and that Thomas Wentworth Higginson had wanted Aunt Mary to marry him. No one of John’s generation would care that John’s mother was a relative of Margaret Fuller’s or that his ancestor, old Joseph Marquand, had been one of the wealthy and important shipowners of early Ncwburyport. If the phrase had then been invented, his careless schoolmates would undoubtedly have said “So what!” to all this.
Sometimes his aunts suggested that he invite a few of his classmates to supper in the lamplit dining room at Gurzon’s Mill, with its gently decaying furniture and its grim portraits frowning down from the walls, but John had recoiled in horror from the idea. Not only was the house queer enough, in his opinion, but he could not imagine what the boys and girls would have thought of plump, wheezy Aunt Molly, whose dusty black clothes and preposterous hats were made to a style long out of date, or of Aunt Bessie, who, though she was conventional enough in dress, was an unheard-of phenomenon, an ordained Unitarian minister. There was Great-aunt Mary, too, a link with a time long past, who still wore a paisley shawl on her infrequent trips to Newburyport to call on friends or to go to church. She lived in a world of her own, which John was only occasionally permitted to enter. It would be years before he would convey, in Timothy Dexter Revisited, his appreciation of that unworldly household. The aunts lapped John around with comfort and unspoken affection, but he was sure that no one in the Ncwburyport High School had aunts remotely like them.
That John himself appreciated his surroundings and his family is incontestable, but he knew only too well that he was an oddity in the world of high school youth. At times he must have taken a certain wry pleasure in brim; different, but at others he would have given all the A’s on his report cards and his teachers’ commendations just to be one of the crowd.
In those days the wit for which John became famous was never heard outside his family. His school contemporaries, when asked to repeat any witty remarks that they could remember him uttering, wrinkle their brows and shake their heads. “No, I don’t remember anything very funny that he ever said,” they admit. “He was funny of course, with that queer walk of his and his voice and his terrible clothes, but he didn’t mean to be.” Was he too shy to venture on that typical edged humor of his, or’was it that his schoolmates did not recognize his remarks as amusing?
Aside from his studies, John’s sole chance to shine came during the period of declamation called “rhetoricals,” held weekly before the whole school in the assembly hall. In those ancient days there was nothing in school the students enjoyed more than hearing “Lord Robert of Sicily,” “Spartacus to the Gladiators,” “My Last Duchess,” or, for comic relief, “Darius Green and His FlyingMachine.” Margaret Merriam, the brightest girl in her class, was wildly applauded as she simpered over “It was a lime when roses bloom,/And clouds are highest up in air,/Lord Ronald brought a snowy-white doe,/To please his cousin, Lady Clare.” Some such program must have provoked John thoroughly, for when he appeared, last of all, to give “Casey at the Bat,” he delivered it in such a ferocious snarl that all the students were startled into immoderate laughter and applause as he finished and stalked off the platform. The recitation was a sensational success, and he was forced to repeat it so often that finally the very mention of Casey irritated him.
IN ms life of ups and downs, it is a rather strange circumstance that his two final public appearances were connected with the Newburyport High School, where he had spent those formative years unhappy, unproductive years, if one can judge by his later attitude toward that period. In June, 1960, he addressed a group of high school honor students at a banquet given in recognition of their record. He was Newburyport’s local celebrity now. He told them something of the history of their town and urged them to live up to the ideals of the past not a particularly original theme, but one with which he was deeply concerned.
A week or two later, at his Kent’s Island home, the 1910 class ol the Newburyport High School met for its fiftieth reunion. John had insisted on having the reunion there. He was the perfect host, attentive, omnipresent, and gay, and no one who was at that party will ever forget it.
But it may be that some of the guests might have recalled the unhappy twenty-fifth reunion at the golf club, which John had also attended. He was still shy, rather aggressively so. He had not yet arrived at the peak of his fame, but he was well known as the creator of Mr. Moto, and he had paid his respects to Newburyport in Lord Timothy Dexter and Havens End. Although the concept of George Apley was only in his mind, he was one of the bestpaid and commercially successful magazine writers of his day. So it must have been a shock to him to discover that as the well-known writer he was almost unrecognized in the gathering, but as the recounter of the exploits of the hero of Mudville he was boisterously welcomed and hilariously urged to give a repetition of the one high spot in his school career. He was furious, sulked all evening, and left early.
To have evoked memories of this seriocomic episode at the fiftieth reunion would have been considered in most questionable taste, but amazingly, it was found that John had again memorized “Casey at the Bat” and was determined to declaim it once more before an audience. Like the very first recital, this one brought down the house. He delivered it in the same flamboyant elocutionary style he had used originally; he had lost none of the old verve and vigor, and even the sarcastic curl of his lip was the same.
Not long after this spectacularly successful party John died in his Kent’s Island home. We who had known him wondered whether, beneath the surface poise, the charm, the savoir faire, the old shyness remained, the old hurts still rankled. Those who knew him best knew that he was never a really happy man and always a lonely one. The bitter ending of his last novel, Women and Thomas Harrow, gives us the clue. And always in the flesh and in his writing, he retrod the well-remembered ground. Perhaps on occasions when he was at the Mill, he may have recalled the keen pleasure of a May morning when he mounted his bicycle to ride the four miles to school; perhaps he could feel again the comfort of those simple, uncomplicated routines in his aunts’ household; and perhaps he may have had a flash of memory, as all of us do at one time or another, of that vague, lonely, yet delicious desire for something beyond, unknown, untried, and mysterious, which is the delight as well as the torment of adolescence. Perhaps, even at the end, there were fleeting moments of satisfaction when, in his last book of all, Timothy Dexter Revisited, he re-created the Newburyport of the happier, simpler, romantic age before he was born.