The Young Alice James Keeps Quiet at Dinner

July 18th, 2008 Posted in Meet the Jameses

“Edward Emerson [son of Ralph Waldo Emerson] visited in Newport in 1860 and 1861, witnessing the congenial battlefield that was the James household, particularly since all four boys had reached their teens.  It daunted even Emerson’s son to stay, as he later put it, with this ‘brilliant, original, and affectionate’ family.  Meanltimes never failed to rouse competitive spirits.  Whatever stocky and mild Wilkie happened to say, he was ‘instantly corrected or disputed by the little cock-sparrow Bob,’ Emerson observed.  Then Wilkie would good-naturedly fend Bob off, with Harry also chiming in to deflect Bob’s taunts.  It was a fast-moving blood sport.

“Bob, barely flustered, only ratcheted up his invective, brining Henry Senior into the fray as a guardian of minimum civility.  Eventually, he would be drowned out by William as well as the other three never-silent sons.  Dinner knives swiped dangerously in gesticulating hands.

“Mary James, ‘bright as well as motherly,’ took the shy Edward under her wing, laughed reassuringly, and said, ‘Don’t be disturbed, Edward; they won’t stab each other.  This is usual when the boys come home.’  Alice quietly enjoyed this rough and tumble, ‘smiling, close to the combatants.’  But at least at this stage she didn’t join in these high-spirited contests.  Girls were supposed to remain decorous and not raise knives–or voices, for that matter.”

(c) Paul Fisher 2008 – All Rights Reserved

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