Introduction: The Cold of Winter Is Just A Dream
On November 8, 2013, I’ll turn twenty-three years old. To many of my “experienced and enlightened” readers this may not seem like much of a milestone, but to me, though, it feels like an awakening. Here’s how I see it: while the exact age is arbitrary, I’m reaching the point where we can start vividly recalling who we were a decade ago. Think about that for a moment.
Throughout our lives we are many people with many fears and dreams and hairstyles. There’s no fine line, but our personalities evolve and soon, looking back, nothing seems quite real. Sitting comfortably in the present, we’d like to imagine that across time there’s something about us that has stayed static, as if there’s something identifiably me. (This is one of the reasons why, amongst friends, we insist everyone else has changed but we’ve somehow remained “pure” — whatever that means).
Compared to our late-teens, entering into our mid-to-late twenties is the first time we are able to thoughtfully look back on our adolescence. Vaguely, we can start recalling what it was like to be thirteen – what we did, what we thought the future held for us – rather than seeing only a few snapshots (which further back are all I have). I’m now able to visit the past and shake the hands of my many selves. The grip seems familiar, but the life behind the eyes looks strange. There are gears turning and I can’t tell what they’re thinking.
Memory is a mirage.
Looking back, we suffer from what I once heard Steven Pinker refer to as “The Curse of Knowledge”: Once we know something we can’t imagine what it is like to not know it. Meeting our past selves, we know how the story ends. We know which relationships flourished and failed. We know what came of the adventure. So try as we may to recall the anxiety of the “next chapter” that held our lungs and made our hands trouble, the mirage evaporates. We know how the chapter ended because now it’s the one closing behind us.
Ten years ago there was the prospect of possibilities, each branching indefinitely into the future, and we were terrified by it. But with every day and every act any one of a billion paths is buried away. Soon the story snaps into place and from the clutter nothing is left but a single line, a simple road, that in retrospect “feels” inevitable. But, in life, there are no guarantees. Even so, walking, we see in our admiration of the flora all around the conclusion that there was never any uncertainty: there was never any likely path but this one.
Thus, we project onto the past a narrative that appears to have never been in question — after all, it led us here (wherever here and now is and when)! We do with our personal histories as we’ve done to all history – whether it’s people, movements, or nations.
Memory is teleology.
“But of course,” one says to the incredulous! “How could Oscar Wilde ever have become anyone less than Oscar Wilde?” Their eyes light up and the crowd nods in agreement. After all, they have a point. Even Wilde must have known that he was destined to be the most-quotable human being of the last two hundred years. “And the same goes for all of the great thinkers and writers of the last century – I mean, look at Aldous Huxley and Hunter S. Thompson.”
Sharing anecdote after anecdote, they conclude: “They’re such large personalities that it’s hard to imagine them becoming anyone else.”
But! Before there was Oscar Wilde there was just an Irish boy named Oscar soliciting letters of recommendation for his poetry. Before there was Aldous Huxley and Hunter S. Thompson – two other men cited in this article – there were two guys struggling to get their articles published with one hanging around the English upper-class and the other fighting his way to Spain. Each seem to be hopeful but none know the future and not one would guess that many years later a young dude in Texas would be reading their letters.
Culled from several volumes, I’m reproducing here four letters written by four men in the May before their twenty-third birthdays. The title “Four Men in May,” then, is meant to be not only literal but symbolic: these men are in the “May” – the spring – of their life. Aged twenty-two, the cold of winter is just a dream and there’s no telling where the road ahead goes. There’s no guarantee of success; there’s only a series of days and acts snapping the ever-changing future into place.
Finally, the fourth letter I’ve included is one of my own. I do this not because I believe I’m worthy of such high company (I don’t and I’m not). Instead, I include it here because while we know how their stories ended, ahead of me there are only possibilities. Nothing is certain.
Sometimes it feels like fall, but for now it’s May and the cold of winter is just a dream.
Oscar Wilde: May 15, 1877
What follows comes from The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (2000) edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis (pages 47-48). Choosing only one letter to include was a bit tough so I’d like to give two a special mention. The first was written on May 14, 1877, to the former-Liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. In it, Wilde politely asks for the former-PM’s opinions on his sonnets so that, hopefully, he can ride the compliments into publication:
[P]erhaps if you saw any good stuff in the lines I send you, some editor … might publish them: and I feel sure that you can appreciate the very great longing that one has when young to have the words of one’s own published for men to read.
The next, dated only a few days later (May 17), is Wilde thanking Gladstone for his kind words and following up with another poem:
The idea of your reading anything of mine has so delighted me, that I cannot help sending you a second sonnet. I am afraid you will think it a poor return for your courtesy to repeat the offence, but perhaps you may see some beauty in it. …
Although this calls to mind my experience of sending a poem along to former President Jimmy Carter (who responded!), I wanted to use something that better captured his life as he was living it. So, I decided on the following, which is dated Tuesday, May 15, 1877, Merrion Square North. The news Wilde calmly refers to is a punishment he received from Oxford for “coming up … a month later after his journey to Greece.” This led to him being fined and “rusticated, i.e. sent down, for the rest of the academic year.”
My dear Boy, Thanks for your letter: I had made out the facts by a careful study of the statutes going up to town, but it was comforting all the same to have it confirmed by such an authority as the Schools Clerk.
I had a delightful time in town with Frank Miles and a lot of friends and came home on Friday. My mother was of course awfully astonished to hear my news and very much disgusted with the wretched stupidity of our college dons, while Mahaffy is raging! I never saw him so indignantly angry; he looks on it almost as an insult to himself.
The weather is charming, Florrie more lovely than ever, and I am going to give two lectures on Greece to the Alexandra College girls here, so I am rapidly forgetting the Boeotian [he then writes "Boorish insensitiveness" in Greek] of Allen and the wretched time-serving of that old woman in petticoats, the Dean.
As I expected, all my friends here refuse to believe my story, and my brother who is down at Moytura at present writes me a letter marked ‘Private‘ to ask ‘what it really is all about and why have I been rusticated’, treating my explanations as mere child’s play.
I hope you will write and tell me all about the College, who is desecrating my rooms and what is the latest scandal.
When Dunskie comes tell him to write to me and remember me to Dick and Gussy and little Dunlop and everyone you like or I like. Ever yours
I am going down I hope for my May fishing soon, but I am overwhelmed with business of all kinds.
Get Aurora Leigh by Mrs Browning and read it carefully.
Aldous Huxley: May 10, 1917.
Next, moving forward forty-years, we’re still at Oxford but this time following a young Aldous Huxley. Finishing up his education with less trouble than Wilde, by this time Great Britain is already three years into The Great War. Fortunately for him, Huxley’s notoriously poor eyesight disqualified him from service.
Furthermore, by this time Huxley had already written his first novel (at age 17) and was starting to take his writing seriously. Written to Lady Ottoline Morrell, a patron of the arts he knew since his first days at Oxford, his time with her would introduce him to some of the most-prominent members of the Bloomsbury Group, which was a group of English writers, philosophers, and artists that included Virginia Woolf, J.M. Keynes, Bertrand Russell, and others.
What follows now comes from The Selected Letters of Aldous Huxley (2007) edited by James Sexton (pages 51-52). It is plainly dated May 10, 1917:
I will try and get down on Saturday by the late train — no earlier one being possible as I never get my half day on Saturday but on Wednesday, which is a bore for week-end purposes. It will be interesting to see Massingham [editor of The Nation] … and I shall have very delicately to try and insinuate to [him] that it’s high time he should publish my thing in the Nation.
I dined with Katherine [an acquaintance] last night in her delightful rabbit hutch in Church Street and we proceeded to the second house at the Chelsea Palace, where there was a perfectly fabulous woman called Florrie [a music hall performer] singing a quite unbelievably wonderful song, of which the last lines of the refrain were: –
“Talk about the West End with its wonderful sights.
“But O-o-o-oh! Those Arabian nights!”
And the whole of her mountainous body positively shook with the voluptuousness of the conception. Katherine was very delightful and amusing, a little less acting a part than usual.
I hurried on to Ka Cox’s after the theatre and found only Dominick and a stranger in the process of departing, so that I had a very pleasant little tete-a-tete conversation with Ka about Things in General and the fallacies of Bloomsburyism in particular.
I have just received this morning a coming-out notice, to the effect that I am to present myself for re-examination at Oxford on the 21st, which I suppose I will have to do, unless I can gt the Air Board people to write a letter about me to the military, which they won’t do, I should think, considering the short time I’ve been there.
Au revoir and love to everybody,