Faithful Are the Wounds: A Novel

Faithful Are the Wounds: A Novel

by May Sarton

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Overview

Set in the academic world of Harvard and Cambridge, this novel dramatizes the plight of the embattled American liberal in the 1950s.


Its central character is Edward Cavan, a brilliant English professor, who commits suicide. His death sets off a shock wave among Cavan's friends and changes things for some of them forever.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393317152
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 12/17/1997
Edition description: REISSUE
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,165,726
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

May Sarton (1912-1995) was an acclaimed poet, novelist, and memoirist.

Read an Excerpt

Faithful are the Wounds

A Novel


By May Sarton

OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA

Copyright © 1983 May Sarton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-1798-5


CHAPTER 1

A week earlier in that October of 1949 George Hastings in his rooms in Kirkland House at Harvard flung down his pencil and stood up to stretch. He went over to the window and looked up at the bright blue sky, then across the courtyard at the white cornices and sills of the windows and the red brick glowing in the late afternoon sunlight. There was no one around except a gardener raking the leaves. Somewhere far off a bell tolled the hour. I've got it in my hands, he thought, and excitement flashed through him like a wave of physical desire. He went to the desk and read over once more the headings of the ten chapters of his doctor's thesis; there it was, then, at last. All the minute detail he had been buried in for months, the endless cards which had so long been a barrier between him and what he really wanted to say had focused in the last twenty-four hours. He had been able to encompass and synthesize all the little parts like the parts of a complicated machine, and now the machine was purring and alive. Just a single sheet of paper, but it was magic, he thought. It was a book. Looking at it again, his heart thumped inside him like a big animal. This was the thing no one could talk about, but that he supposed they all felt once in a while, like an athlete when he secretly breaks his own record, when he knows what he's got. And what people may say afterwards, and whether he can ever do it again, doesn't really matter.

For just a few moments the excitement, the pride, flashed through him, and then he looked around the room, at the disgusting ash tray filled with cigarette butts, at the wastebasket overflowing, the unmade bed, for he had told the cleaning woman to leave him alone when she came in late that morning. There was still a little cold coffee in the percolator, and he poured this out and drank it down. It was time to get out into the air, to walk this excitement out until he could go somewhere and have an enormous meal. He put on a clean shirt, then looked at himself absent-mindedly in the mirror and burst into laughter. The face he looked at was so very unlike the way he felt, for what he saw was a frowning boy with black crew-cut hair, rather sharp gray eyes, and a funny wide mouth which made him look like a freshman. The contrast between this grotesque mask and his sensations a moment before of being a giant, full of magical powers, was ludicrous. No wonder Pen couldn't take him seriously. Pen would find it hard to believe that he had finally got through, that he was on the brink of writing what he had been talking about for so long. She would raise her eyebrows in that ironic way she had — Oh Pen, he thought, with an unspoken sigh. There was no point in calling her at this hour. She wouldn't be in. If only there were someone like God to whom he could breathe praise and thanks, as for a dangerous journey safely completed. But tomorrow he would write to his father and say, "I think I'm about ready to begin the writing on the thesis. I'm pleased about that." He always had the feeling that his father didn't read his letters through, or if he did, then only with the surface of his mind; he couldn't be blamed for he was overworked like all G.P.s, now that so many of the younger men were drafted. But George's mother would read every word, sitting in the kitchen, perhaps with flour on her hands. Would she understand? She had understood his loneliness at the beginning, his sense of being an outsider, because that still had its roots in home. When he first came to Graduate School, he had poured out all his doubts and frustrations to her, but gradually the thread, so taut in the beginning, the root-thread, had loosened. Lately — and especially since he had got into Cavan's seminar — he had found it harder and harder to communicate with his family. It was a little like being in love with Pen. He couldn't explain about Pen either. They already thought of her as "his girl," in terms of a formal engagement, no doubt. How could he explain that Pen didn't want to feel "engaged"? Just because she was such a serious person, not because she wanted to be free to experiment elsewhere. He could see her face, turned away from him, looking out of the window, a little remote, thinking her own thoughts, wanting to think her own thoughts. For this he loved her, though it hurt him, his own desire so remote from hers, reaching its greatest intensity — or so it seemed — at the instant she withdrew.

He closed the door on this image and ran down the stairs. He was not going to allow indecision, doubt, the revulsion which followed a long bout of work to reach him yet. He was going to hold on to his exultation still awhile longer, take it to the river perhaps and lie down in the grass there, find his real self again, that self which the mirror had temporarily taken from him.

Outside, the day greeted him like a clash of cymbals, one of those New England days that make up for all the rain and gloom, the air clean and salty, and light so brilliant that it makes the red brick pavement glow and a single leaf falling seem on fire. He ran towards the river, as if he had an appointment there, as if this light might go before he reached it. The river — that was another thing about which he couldn't write home — Cambridge itself, the river, what it had come to mean. He stood now on the grassy bank and took a deep breath. All around him couples were lying on their stomachs, with books open between them, or just lying there looking up into the sky; four boys were throwing a football around in a desultory way. In his state of exhaustion, hunger and excitement, he saw all this as if for the first time, with the sheen on it. The freshman crew went flashing past, the steady stroke setting up its inexorable rhythm against the nonchalance of everything else. The sky was now a deep orange, making the grass emerald green, turning the blue river to flame. And beyond it on the other bank even the Business School, so new in fact, looked ancient and rosy. He turned back and looked the other way to his own land, the pink, white, and gold of the Harvard Houses, the little shapely towers and the hundreds of windows suddenly taking fire as the sun reached their level and made them blaze. All this seemed given to him like a present, the vision of the university as it might look in a dream. He was so full of it, that he hardly needed to look at it; he lay down with his arms under his head and closed his eyes. Far away he could hear the "one-two" of the crews, then an oar slapping the water — someone had fumbled. There was a sweet smell of warm grass, of smoke from burning leaves.

Yet beautiful, romantic as all this appeared, George, remote in his private excitement and power, lying with his eyes closed, pushed it aside as irrelevant. For the meaning of it all was something else. The University, he saw, was no building, no great collection of books, no classrooms, and certainly not the students — they were the college. The University was intangible, it existed in the persons of a few great men, in a few faces — at this moment Edward Cavan's especially, Cavan not as a teacher, but in a way George would never see him, bent over his own work, fighting out a book alone, the long arduous lonely work of a scholar. This was the University, and the clock towers, the libraries, the Houses by the river might all be blasted away — yes, even the river — but this image of a man's thinking face would remain.

George rolled over on his stomach and chewed a piece of grass. It occurred to him that at last, with his book on the way, he might actually do what he had never dared to do, invite Cavan out for dinner at the Oyster House, even tell him in that informal atmosphere about Pen, for he imagined that in Edward Cavan he had found the man who might be to him all that his father could not be, to whom he could pour out his whole heart and mind.

Except for conferences in the dingy atmosphere of the office at Warren House, George had only seen Edward Cavan once in a personal way, on Christmas Eve. He would never forget that party, for it marked the turning point. At that moment he knew that he belonged at last, that he was accepted. For not everyone by any means was invited, and the invitation made it clear that this was a personal and not an official matter. "I invite a few of my friends to drop in on Christmas Eve and I hope you will want to join us." George had preserved this brief note, written in Cavan's small precise hand, as if it were the entrance to a secret society.

He remembered everything about those rooms, the second floor of a house on Chestnut Street. They were all that such rooms should be, just elegant enough with their good old pieces of furniture, their walls of books, the few carefully chosen paintings by artists of whom George had never heard — just elegant enough, but comfortable and unself-conscious too. Cavan himself looked relaxed and happy, standing against the mantelpiece. They drank punch and talked about Wallace Stevens, and about Faulkner, he remembered. And they laughed a great deal. All the time George had wished that Pen were there, so they could talk about it afterwards, savor each detail together. He did not know most of the people there, except by name, but they all took him for granted. He did not feel like a stranger, bound to explain that he had gone to Rutgers instead of Harvard. He was one of a company of scholars and teachers, and his heart was full.

Remembering this in his present state of more than usual self-confidence, George got to his feet hurriedly and looked as his watch. Why not go over to Warren House and ask Cavan out to dinner now? Ridley was having his orals this afternoon and they would still be at it. It was the day for a daring adventure, his day. Why not? After all, he had something real to tell Cavan, a reason for such a celebration. George left the river without a backward glance, walking fast, hardly looking where he was going. There by the river it had been possible to contemplate the University in essence. Now as he drew closer to the Square, to the Yard itself, as he made his way through the college men and glanced in at the windows of smart clothing stores and tobacconists, as he walked past the Clubs and the fancy bookstores, he could feel the compulsion, the ambition in the balls of his feet. The people he met were his enemies, his competitors. And the University which had appeared to him as serene and pure as the City of God, a company of devoted scholars, showed him its other face. For it was also, he thought, a machine for turning out Ph.D.s, for getting people like him jobs, for measuring and discarding the almost adequate, for reserving its honors often for those men who could play for position. George took out a cigarette and lit it as he skirted the Yard.

"I'll see that you get a real chance, I'll do all I can," Cavan had said months ago, hinting at a possible instructorship for the following year. Then he had stopped, sat down, played with a pencil and added in a curiously abrupt, embarrassed way, "Of course it's not entirely in my hands, you know. These things are department matters. I sometimes think I have become an outsider." He had looked up at George with a hesitant smile, seemed to want to say more, instead changed the subject. It was George's first glimpse of the fact that even the great felt insecure, that even they were caught up in the matrix of ambitions, even they were vulnerable. Since then he had heard enough gossip and rumor to be quite aware that Cavan was considered a maverick in some quarters, not entirely sound for political reasons. It had done him no good to stand up and fight on every liberal issue for the last ten years. "But after all," George had answered hotly when this came up in a bull session, "his work is absolutely first-rate. You can't deny that."

"All I know is they get letters of complaint from old grads; people talk, you know, and it doesn't do the college any good."

"It doesn't do the college any good to be full of second-rate pussyfooters either." George had been furiously angry, the more so because he was not interested in politics and felt slightly bewildered himself by this side of Cavan.

"Hi, George." Jack Warner almost bumped into him, on purpose it seemed. "What's eating you?"

"Why?"

"You look like a bat out of hell — what's the rush?"

"I have an appointment," George said stiffly and walked on. It was a stupid thing to say, and out of sheer exasperation George broke into a run. He rounded the corner past the Union and jumped the three steps of the Warren House porch as if he were bringing the message to Garcia. Then, inside, he was greeted by silence and the dead bulletin board, every item of which he must have read a hundred times. Was it all over? The whole place had a dank academic smell as if the students sweating out their fears had infected it; how many of them had waited here, as he was waiting, smoking because there was nothing else to do, reading over and over the announcements of fellowships and lectures, trying to think up a new excuse for a late paper?

A door upstairs opened and closed. Ridley appeared, visibly shaken, took out a handkerchief and wiped his face, then disappeared again. He had the air of a condemned man. It was silly to let this atmosphere get you, but George himself felt wildly nervous now. If Ridley failed, Cavan would be upset — especially if Goldberg had had his say. Rumor had it that he and Cavan were archenemies, but one never knew; the affairs of the faculty reached the students rather as the peccadilloes and fallings out of Greek gods, enlarged by gossip and wishful thinking, turning quickly into myth. At any rate, Goldberg with his icy passion for perfection would be a formidable examiner. They must be arguing about poor Ridley now, no easy decision evidently. George looked at his watch. Five minutes. You could damn a man to hell in five minutes, or you might just manage to tip the balance of judgment in his favor.

"Mr. Ridley, will you come in here, please?" It was Edward Cavan's voice, dry, without emotion. No way of reading what it meant.

Why in heck am I putting myself through this? George asked himself. Ridley came down the stairs, his hands shaking as he took out a crumpled cigarette pack, dug around and found it empty.

"Here," George offered his. "How was it?" he asked in a toneless voice. The poor guy was obviously in a state of shock. But you never knew. He himself had been near to tears when it was safely over.

"Lousy," Ridley's face grimaced into an attempt at a smile. "I lost my head."

"Bad luck." George's instinct was to turn away, not to have to witness the shame or the bravado of a man facing failure, and, seeing Cavan at the top of the stairs, he slipped into the big empty office off the hall. It was no time to make a social engagement.

"What happened to you, Ridley?" he could hear Cavan asking with clinical concern. "You were doing all right, and then suddenly you went right off the track, spectacularly off the track."

"I — I don't know, sir," Ridley's voice cracked.

"This sort of thing happens all the time," Cavan sounded thoughtful as if he were settling down to a philosophical question, treating the miserable Ridley as a peer. "The trouble is that we haven't found a better way to find out how a man moves around in a lot of material. Maybe we ask the wrong questions. You got thrown off. I'm sorry." There was a slight pause, in which perhaps Cavan was shaking Ridley's hand. "But don't go into a tailspin — you'll do better on a second try."

"Thank you, sir."

As Goldberg and Beatley came down the stairs, Cavan turned into the room where George Hastings stood twiddling his thumbs. The front door slammed on Ridley's exit.

"Hello, Hastings, what are you doing here?"

Cavan stood under the garish electric lights, peering out like some animal caught unaware, and blinked a smile. But it was not a real smile.

"Just hanging around." Warren House was not so cozy that anyone would choose it to hang around in for no purpose. "I dropped in," he explained, ridiculously embarrassed now, "and then sort of got suspended on Ridley's oral."

"You know him?"

"Slightly."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Faithful are the Wounds by May Sarton. Copyright © 1983 May Sarton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Faithful Are the Wounds: A Novel 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
VivaB More than 1 year ago
Initially published in 1955, inspired by the suicide of Harvard educator F.O. Matthiessen during the McCarthy era, FAITHFUL ARE THE WOUNDS was released in digital format for the first time this August. The story deals with the suicide of brilliant arch-liberal Harvard professor, Edward Cavan, and the impact of his death on those around him. Through the eyes of family, friends, and colleagues, we get to know Cavan, a man of unwavering principle destroyed by his own uncompromising idealism. Given the academic setting and period—the ascent of the post-war red scare—I was concerned the novel would prove overly political for my taste. While it is unabashadly political, Sarton is too fine a writer to lecture. Instead the politics coalesce in her beautifully drawn characters and play out in their complex relationships. In CONVERSATIONS WITH MAY SARTON, Sarton explains she wrote FAITHFUL ARE THE WOUNDS to answer the question, “How can a man be wrong and right at the same time?” Edward Cavan is that man, and this book is Sarton's gripping answer. Not a light read, but engrossing and thought-provoking. A brief glimpse into academia and America's post-war political milieu couched in powerful, elegant writing. Highly recommended.