- Edie: An American Biography by Jean Stein and George Plimpton
Cape, 455 pp, £9.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 224 02068 4
- Baby Driver: A Story About Myself by Jan Kerouac
Deutsch, 208 pp, £7.95, August 1982, ISBN 0 233 97487 3
The town of Stockbridge, in Massachusetts, is weird. Not in the diminished, all-too-contemporary sense of merely odd, or strange, but weird as Shakespeare might have meant it: ‘having the power to control the fate or destiny of men’, ‘partaking or suggestive of the supernatural’ (OED). Weird, too, in the way that Tennyson meant it, particularly as the word appears in his poem ‘The Princess’. The visitor to Stockbridge is liable to feel certain ghostlinesses in the town: a gloomy Puritan history lingers, a trace, perhaps, of the ferocious Calvinist divine Jonathan Edwards. There is also the eerie emptiness of nature in New England, the dark, wooded landscape that seems hollow, and menacing, without a history. Even the streets of Stockbridge seem empty. No one is around. They are, no doubt, in their cars, and another poet of weirdness, New England weirdness, Robert Lowell, knew also about cars: ‘A savage servility slides by on grease.’ There are antique shops in Stockbridge, where antique seems to mean the day before yesterday. And grand white wooden houses, behind evergreen trees, houses which turn out to be lunatic asylums. Stockbridge, peaceful home of Norman Rockwell, the people’s artist, who gave Middle America what it wanted. Stockbridge, where Melville said something unmemorable to Hawthorne. Stockbridge, the site of the family grave – known, weirdly, as ‘the Pie’ – of the Sedgwick family.
It is the history of the Sedgwick family that makes up Edie, a best-seller in the United States, and a haunted history stretching from 1774 to the present: the author, Jean Stein, and her co-editor, George Plimpton, of the Paris Review, acknowledge the familial dimension by providing a ‘genealogy of principal characters’ near the end of the book. The founding father was Judge Theodore Sedgwick who came to Stockbridge ‘after the Revolution’, and who was a friend of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. His descendants (but not, importantly, all of them) are buried, in ‘the Pie’, with their heads facing out and their feet pointing in, towards their ancestor. The legend is, apparently, that on Judgment Day the Sedgwicks will arise together, en famille, and see nothing but each other.
Jean Stein, perhaps influenced by the interview-seasoned Plimpton, has composed Edie as a series of conversational bursts, quanta of thoughts and recollections culled from tapes and discussions with those many souls acquainted with the Sedgwick family, and especially with Edith Minturn Sedgwick, or ‘Edie’ (1943-1971). The result is a long, dull and scary book, where the sense of dullness is actually part of the editorial skill: the skill at making conversations memorable even when they talk of the inevitable slide downhill, in certain predictable ways, of a group of unusual human beings. Edie is addictive, as a ‘read’, and alert to the dullness of addiction, which is one of its numerous subjects. There are some striking photographs, which evoke ancestral powers or places, especially graveyards and ranches. Photographs, too, of Edie herself. These commemorate an androgynous beauty, the effects of drugs, many, many fucks.
It is hard to tell quite where the history of a ‘family’ begins, which father or mother, but Edie concentrates, reasonably enough, on Francis Minturn Sedgwick (1904-1967). There is a reasonable idea in the fiction of inheritance, especially, say, Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, that grandparents or uncles provide the real genealogical clues: but Francis Sedgwick forces himself here into first place. Stories of this kind tend not to begin with Mother (Alice Delano de Forest, born 1908 and still alive). This is a story set in a certain kind of America, where bullying is pronounced and maternal tenderness and loyalty almost imperceptible. What kind of ‘male America’ is it?
Francis Minturn Sedgwick was born a frail child, the last of four. A sister that might have been, called Edith, lived for less than a day, and Francis’s elder brother, Minturn Sedgwick, can remember ‘picking flowers for her grave in the rain’. Francis’s career was standard early 20th-century East Coast rich: Groton, that exclusive school for the rearing of ‘perfect Christian gentlemen’, and then Harvard. At Harvard, Francis, who was now known as either ‘Fuzzy’ or ‘Duke’, proceeded fairly steadily through the world of exclusivity, joining, for example, the élite Porcellian Club. Yes, it was banking next: Lazard Frères, in London. But then things changed.
In poor health, ‘Fuzzy’ collapsed at work, and was invalided out of big business, to rest at the English country home of an American friend. The friend was one Charles de Forest, another Grotonian. At the house, ‘Fuzzy’ met Charles’s sister Alice. They eventually returned together to America, and married in May 1929. By this time ‘Fuzzy’ was already seeing John Millet, psychiatrist, at the Austen Higgs Centre in Stockbridge.