Tuesday, February 23, 2010

“The Parting of My Little Boy”

No tragedy in Howard Pyle’s life could ever compare with the death of his son Sellers. The surrounding circumstances only made it more sad. He briefly outlined what happened in a letter I quoted, but here is some more...

Pyle’s journey to the West Indies was his first trip out of the country (with the probable exception of some Canadian jaunts in 1877). Jamaica was only supposed to be one stop on Pyle’s two-month-long itinerary: he also planned to visit Panama, the Bahamas, and other locales associated with his “Buccaneer heroes” in order to gather material for a couple of Harper’s Monthly articles and for a novel which he hoped would be his magnum opus. His wife, Anne, about nine weeks pregnant with their third child, would accompany him. Their two children would stay in Wilmington: Phoebe, 2, at home with Anne’s mother, and Sellers, 6, with his aunt (and Howard’s sister) Katharine Pyle, at the house she shared with her father at 802 Franklin Street.

Howard and Anne sailed from New York on February 9, 1889, on the Atlas Line steamship Ailsa. The voyage to Kingston took about a week and Pyle recorded his first impressions of their arrival in “Jamaica, New and Old” (Harper's Monthly, January 1890):
It was all like a dream, for there are times when the real and the unreal interweave so closely that it is hard to unravel the one from the other. Mostly gratification is the unfortunate part of anticipation; it is such a gross and tasteless fruit to be the outcrop of so pretty a flower; but that vision of the south coast of Jamaica, so long looked forward to, was at once so full of the lovely changes of afternoon and evening and moonlit night, and so full of suggestions of the romantic glamour of the past and by-gone life, that the bright threads of fancy and the duller strands of fact interwove themselves into such a motley woof that it was hard indeed to separate the one from the other.

It was almost yesterday that shivered under a heavy overcoat, with a bleak sky above and a sea of ice below; to-day floated upon the rise and fall of the great ground-swell of a tropic sea, flashing into spray under a humming trade-wind that set the feathery cocoa-palms and the ragged banana leaves upon the distant shore to tossing and swaying. Flying-fish shot like silver sparks, with a flash and gleam from the water to the right and the left, skimmed arrow-like across the heaving valleys of the waves, and disappeared far away with another flash and gleam.
Although Pyle’s article goes on to refer to Anne, it gives no hint of the awful way their plans changed.

Sellers Pyle died on the morning of February 22 and a telegram must have been sent to Jamaica almost immediately. In his Pyle biography, Henry Pitz wrote, “There was a desperate time of trying to find transportation back home and a wait of many days for a steamer sailing. They reached home long after the funeral.”

But I think Pitz was misinformed: Every Evening of February 23 stated, “The body of the boy was placed in a vault in the Wilmington and Brandywine cemetery to await the arrival of the bereaved parents,” and according to the “Marine Intelligence” of the New York Times, on February 25 the steamship Dorian - with the Pyles aboard - sailed from Morant Bay and arrived in New York on the evening of March 4. The Pyles may have spent the night in quarantine on the boat, but surely they arrived home by the following day, which also happened to be Howard’s 36th birthday.

Surprisingly, after only a week in Wilmington, Pyle returned alone to Jamaica to finish his work. He confined his travels and resultant two-part article solely to the island, however, and he never wrote a novel specific to the area.

Pyle’s leaving home so soon may seem cold-hearted, but his Swedenborgian faith had helped him find solace in a “firm and unfailing belief in a future life” - as well as in writing and drawing and painting.

“I have tried not to let my troubles interfere with my life’s work and ways and think I may say that I have pretty well succeeded,” he explained to Edmund Clarence Stedman. He added, “There are many sad things in this world but few that are unhappy excepting what we make for ourselves.”

And as time wore on, Pyle became more and more convinced that “the bitter delight of a keen and poignant agony” which Sellers’ death represented was necessary to make his own life complete: he saw it as “an agony that has dissolved much - almost all of the poison flesh leaving only a thin membrane to hide from the eyes the brighter light of a life beyond.” As he put it to W. D. Howells (after the publication of The Garden Behind the Moon, which he dedicated to Sellers), “Death is so thin a crust of circumstance that I can feel his heart beat just on the other side.”

1 comment:

kev ferrara said...

Beautifully presented and expertly researched. Thanks much, Ian.