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The Newsboys' Lodging-HouseOr the Confessions of William James
By Jon Boorstin
Penguin BooksCopyright © 2004 Jon Boorstin
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt is all too easy to make a successful life appear as an inescapable march toward achievement, in which ill chance may briefly deflect one's progress but the momentum of superior character and intellect unerringly rights the course. That is so much warm porridge, served up to console the less accomplished and inspire children. Only the very young or the very arrogant take such a view of their own existence. The rest of us, when the melancholy mood forces us to assess our lives (and when else do we ever ask ourselves such questions), are haunted by botched opportunities and failed aspirations. Absurdly, a lifetime of solid contributions pales beside what might have been.
At my most vulnerable time of life I was poisoned with a dispiriting concoction of these two simplistic attitudes, convinced as I was that the successful followed an unblemished path while I was mired in failure. I was thirty years old, and at a time when others were well along their life's road I was living with my parents, having proved myself ill equipped for a variety of other occupations before completing my medical education, a course of study which had succeeded primarily in teaching me that I lacked both the temperament and the constitution to practice medicine. I was acutely aware that I was living off my father's beneficence without a social or professional presence of my own, a fragile and temporary condition at best. Yet I was incapable of pursuing any constructive avenue. I was paralyzed by the question of evil.
The philosophic disease, blessing and curse of my existence, was then at its most virulent. On the Origin of Species was a few scant years among us, and my position had evolved, an all too appropriate word, into deterministic materialism, a polysyllabic term for the very hard fact that after Darwin had done his work there was no place for even a wiggle of our will to take part. The mechanism of evolution was simply too pervasive and overpowering. It removed even the necessity of a Divine Presence. The unfathomably complex organization of even the simplest living creature which had until recently been the best argument for the existence of God now became an irrefutable argument for a world free of Him. The strongest, the swiftest, the hardiest, not the most virtuous, pleased the implacable forces of nature, and those forces, not any higher being, were the final arbiter of existence. Others have debated these issues and continued to pursue their lives unencumbered by their conclusions. David Hume could prove his armchair to be an insubstantial illusion yet he sat in it nonetheless. I have never been of that constitution. I was haunted, obsessed is not too strong a word, by the proposition that if the human will is an epiphenomenal illusion and the Divine Presence an outmoded concept, then evil and good are beyond human control and irrelevant to the natural plan. I could not with full knowledge sincerely sympathize with the total process of the universe so as to assent to the evil that is inherent in its details.
I was weakened too by my dorsal affliction, and the pain in my eyes, and the tedious egotism of sickness and solitude. Suffice it to say that one twilight evening as I struggled with this conundrum I went to my mother's dressing room to retrieve for her a hairbrush, and suddenly there fell upon me without warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence. Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day with his knees drawn up against his chin, and the coarse gray undershirt, which was his only garment, drawn over them enclosing his entire figure. That image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other. That shape am I, I felt. Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him. There was such a horror of him, and such a certainty that I could become him any instant, that it was as if something hitherto solid within my breast gave way entirely, and I became a mass of quivering fear.
After this the universe was changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread in the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and I have never felt since. When I considered how to break these bonds, how to assert the will paralyzed by my certainty of its non-existence, suicide seemed the manly form to put my daring into, but it took more will than I could muster to remove myself from bed. I never wrote my intimates about my collapse, nor did I reveal my condition to Mother. It seemed unfair that others should suffer for my weakness.
Father came to my rescue. Full of loving concern, he bundled me in robes and spirited me from the house on the excuse that I was visiting Charles Peirce, newly returned from Europe, and transported me to McLean Asylum for the Insane, which already at that time had earned an estimable reputation for the humane and discreet care of the deranged. As I would not travel at night, the darkness holding too much terror for me, Father transported me in an enclosed carriage so as not to attract comment from the neighbors and, dispensing with the gossip of coachmen, drove me himself. At the hospital he put me in the care of its director, Dr. Tyler, expressing his confidence in the competence and discretion of the institution and his desire to visit with me often.
Dr. Tyler, a jovial man with the open manner of a good barkeep, remembered me as a student who had attended his lectures on mental diseases at Harvard. Talking was difficult for me, because of the dark futility which overwhelmed my words, but his sincere and profound concern for my welfare led me to describe my condition and my pattern of life. It consisted principally in reading, or attempting to read. Before my crisis, weakness in my eyes had already resolved me to restrict my serious reading for the year to the thirteen volumes of Father's works, Schopenhauer, Fechner, Fichte, and Spencer's biology. The doctor explained to me that crises such as mine are induced by an imbalance of the moral, physical, and intellectual faculties. He prescribed daily doses of phosphorus and a pancreatic emulsion, and as one physician to another he emphasized how the nervous excitement and the drain of vital fluids caused by masturbation would defeat all attempts at recovery. I did not wish to discuss masturbation with Dr. Tyler, as indeed I do not wish to speak of it now, except to observe that while modern medicine makes mock of Tyler's etiology, there being scant evidence of physiological damage caused by the practice, the moral toll is incontrovertible in an individual to whom the urge signifies despair and the act itself a humiliating capitulation of the will.
Dr. Tyler counseled rest and efforts to right the imbalance in my faculties. If I felt capable, he said, I might avail myself of McLean's gymnasium, its lawn sports, and therapeutic labor such as sawing wood and gardening. Under no circumstances should I read. Reading was scarcely preferable to masturbation.
McLean was then housed in the mansion known as Pleasant Hill in Somerville, an aptly named estate overlooking Miller's River erected in the previous century from the plans of Charles Bulfinch, whose buildings house the nation's political process as well as its insane, and whose work is justly renowned for its elegance, repose, and refinement of detail. We were not patients but boarders, sharing in the restorative rural amenities of forest and river and pond. Unfortunately in recent years railroads had claimed the land on three sides of the property, compromising the bucolic serenity with their noise and grit, and the river now stank of slaughterhouse offal debouching into its waters upstream.
As I was closer in spirit to the slaughterhouse than the sanitarium, I was in no condition to appreciate McLean's amenities. I kept to my room and tried not to think. This is perhaps the most difficult of all human occupations. I certainly found it so. My blank mind was soon sullied with graffiti of the darkest and the most impure sort. I sought succor in dragging myself to the porch and there, swathed in blankets beneath the slender Grecian pillars, watching the crimson and orange play of the sun's brilliance against my closed eyelids, chasing thoughts away by striving to compose a sound picture in that pulsing veinal world from the papery rustles and whispers of the wind in the leaves, the rough clump of boots, the smack of mallet on croquet ball, human voices like the distant rumbling of a train and the rumble of trains like distant voices. I cast my mind upon each sound, analyzing each packet of noise into its component parts, parsing them like sentences, hoping to corral my mental processes within the bounds of concrete perception. Mercifully, the task of listening and that of herding my intellect required all my faculties, and with considerable effort I could spend hours this way, thinking next to nothing, before my resources flagged and morbid thoughts pushed through.
I was thus engaged one day when the sounds of a nearby conversation intruded upon my silent struggle, the connected threads of speech weaving a curtain that obscured my mental landscape. A patient had strolled into my aural arena, reciting in excessive detail the multiplicity of his symptoms. Listening unbidden, I could not escape the conclusion that his principal symptom was the need to itemize his insanity in such detail.
I strove to block out the distraction by creating my own list, calling upon my memory of anatomy class to name the muscles and bones of the human hand. For a brief moment I appreciated the wonderful complexity of the human machine before a nausea of disgust overcame me and that marvelous instrument became so many levers and pulleys, so much slime and pus. My tongue touched a shred of beef caught in my teeth and I thought of my jaws masticating, my digestive juices reducing the pulp to a dry lump of excrement. Still the voice droned on. I tried to rise, to find a quiet spot, but when I gripped the arm of my chair I sensed each bone in my hand as it wriggled and slid, sensed the scaphoid straining against the radius clamped in the mass of muscles in my forearm, tugged by fibrous tendons, and my hand and arm froze in place, and from thence my body solidified into a single rigid mass.
I remained frozen for I know not how long, seconds or minutes, until a lighter more melodic voice cut short the dismal drone. My paralysis eased sufficiently that I might force my orbicularis palpebrarum to lift my eyelids and my sternocleidomastoid to torque my cranium in the direction of the conversation. The new voice belonged to a short man whose thin bones, rotund belly, and rapid gestures gave the air of a nervous songbird, a finch or tomtit, an impression accentuated by the flowing cape and floppy ascot of the bohemian. His hair and moustache were long in the fashion of poets and Wild West heroes, but his manner was neither world-weary nor full of braggadocio. Though no younger than I he moved like a small boy, speaking with the spirited self-assurance of the precocious child and peppering his remarks with emphatic gestures.
Poking the air with his finger, he talked of the success of his recent book and the inspiration he found among the homeless boys of New York City, whom he described as his close friends, having claimed as his office a desk in the lodging-house established for their benefit in the attic of the New York Sun. "Orphaned and penniless," he said, with characteristic hyperbole, "without even shoes for their feet, they are models of American enterprise and pluck."
"Nonsense," said the patient. "They're foul-mouthed, godless guttersnipes." The author's zeal and lack of concern for the patient's symptoms had provoked him to contradiction, and his words stung the author as a child might be nettled by an undeserved rebuke.
"Come to New York," said the author, "if you don't believe me."
"You deny that they're immoral and dissolute? That they dissipate their earnings on cigars and alcohol and lewd entertainments?"
"They're susceptible to the sinister seductions of street life, but in their natural state they exude such generosity and playfulness of spirit that they afford me constant proof of the essential goodness of man."
"Spare me, please. Save the false piety for your juvenile readers."
The author responded tartly. "Before you dismiss my readers, Cousin, you should judge the work yourself. I've brought you a copy." He presented his cousin a brightly bound book, which the man accepted without examination.
"You could be earning a decent living guiding the spiritual life of adult citizens of substance, Reverend."
"My book is selling well."
"What of the next and the next after that?"
The author, remarkably vulnerable to his cousin's aspersions, grew agitated and responded with petulance. "These young men are a constant source of literary inspiration, and I consider it my pleasure and my duty to guide them toward a better life."
"Return to your ministry."
"I'm a purely literary man. Please don't address me as Reverend in future."
They parted frostily. As his cousin left his sight, my fellow patient tossed aside the book. On Dr. Tyler's instructions I had not held a book since I arrived at McLean. Though I thirsted for the written word I had scrupulously abided by his proscription, not from exaggerated faith in his medical wisdom but because I too feared its seductive appeal. As with the opium eater, that which fueled my pleasure also propelled me into self-destructive realms. This book, however, seemed harmless enough. Red cloth beckoned the young reader with a youth embossed in gold upon the spine. His clothes were comically oversized and ended in picturesquely jagged hems. Lean, almost ascetic, he gazed at me with an indecipherable expression, clutching a blacking brush in each hand like a character representing the boot-black's guild upon a column capital at Chartres. I could not imagine how this lad could pose much threat to my damaged psyche.
With difficulty I formed words to ask my neighbor if I might inspect the volume. He replied that I might keep it for all he cared. I picked it up. Ornate scarlet letters proclaimed Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-Blacks by Horatio Alger. What pleasure to heft it in the hand. The pasteboard covers felt smooth as vellum. I prised them open. The coarse paper might have been the finest rag. Tentatively I began to read. Alger's words poured through me like a cool and refreshing elixir.
Excerpted from The Newsboys' Lodging-House by Jon Boorstin Copyright © 2004 by Jon Boorstin. Excerpted by permission.
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