James Lincoln Collier
"B" [William Slater Brown]

[Spring 6 (1997): 128-151]


On April 17th, 1917, two young men on leave from Columbia University stood on the deck of a ship called the Touraine, watching the New York City skyline recede as the ship slipped out of the harbor toward France. They were volunteers for one of several ambulance units financed by Americans who wanted to show support for the French in the deadly trench warfare then raging east of Paris, without being drawn into combat. One of the men was Edgar Guy Lemmon, known to his friends as Red Lemmon. The other was William Slater Brown. Brown was a philosophic pacifist, and had recently been part of a group that had gone to Washington to badger the government, which was girding up for war. He would not fight. Nonetheless, World War I was the event of the time, which no young men of warm blood wanted to miss. The Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps would get him "over there" without jeopardizing his pacifist principles. "I wanted to get to France," he later told a Geoffrey Fitzgerald, who interviewed him extensively with the aim of writing a biography of him. "I was a great Francophile and was fascinated by Paris. And I wanted to see what the war was all about. It was partly adventure." [1]

It was chilly that April day, and after awhile Brown went down to his cabin to get a coat. When he came back, Lemmon was in conversation with another young man who had stopped to ask for a light for his cigarette. Introductions were made. The newcomer turned out to be a recent Harvard graduate. His name was Edward Estlin Cummings. Brown later told Professor George Wickes:

As soon as the bar was open we went down and had a drink. I remember that Cummings impressed both Red and me because he ordered a fine Napoléon, while Red Lemmon and I ordered some sort of plebeian drink like a gin fizz, a regular collegiate drink at the time. We got quite high and wandered around the boat. Cummings found a piano somewhere and sat down and played "Poor Butterfly" with all sorts of trills in a rather satiric way. I think it was that night or the following morning that we ran into a storm. I didn’t see Cummings again for two or three days. Finally he appeared looking very green. He had been fearfully seasick. After that, Cummings and I saw a good deal of each other. [2]  [end page 128] In fact, they hit it off immediately. Maury Werner, later a good friend of Brown’s whom Geoffrey Fitzgerald interviewed, said of the relationship, "They liked each other. They both liked to drink and they both enjoyed each other’s company. They both had a lot of wit . . . Brown had a fine sense of irony. Cummings could be hilarious in a burlesque kind of way. But Brown was more satirical and ironic . . . quiet. Quiet. Not at all demonstrative." [3]

The friendship between Cummings and Brown that began on the deck of the Touraine that April day in 1917 would last until the end of Cummings’ life. They would be drinking buddies, roommates, and as all students of Cummings well know, fellow prisoners in The Enormous Room. In the latter days the two men did not see as much of each other as they once had, due to the circumstances of their lives, but they remained good friends. Their relationship, as we shall see, was based on a good deal more than a common love of booze and irony.


William Slater Brown’s story, however, is worth telling for more than his relationship with E. E. Cummings. He was a central figure in a literary group that might be called an American Bloomsbury. He never achieved the literary reputation of some of his youthful compatriots, such as Edmund Wilson, Malcom Cowley, Hart Crane, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and, of course, Cummings. But he was in a way an exemplar, a figure who most closely approximated one of the major shifts in American cultural life, the advent of the modern.

For many years, as people like Cowley, Cummings, and Crane rose into fame, scholars were puzzled about Brown. Not only was he known to have been Cummings’ pal "B" in The Enormous Room, but his name kept popping out of library dust—author of some casual pieces in Broom and The Dial; mentioned with enthusiasm by Crane in a number of letters; footnoted in memoirs of the 1920s, such as Cowley’s classic Exile’s Return (1934); on the masthead of the New Republic and the New Masses. By the 1960s a few scholars had tracked him down and interviewed him. Then, in 1978 an independent scholar, Geoffrey Fitzgerald, one of those who had been curious about him, discovered that he was living in Rockport, Massachusetts, an hour or so’s drive from Fitzgerald’s home. He began interviewing Brown and gathering materials about him for a projected biography, which has yet to be completed, and he has most generously shared this material with me.

At about the same time, unaware of the Fitzgerald effort, I proposed to Brown, who is my uncle, that I work with him on some sort of memoir. He had been one of my favorite uncles since childhood, and I had grown up almost as a brother to his son, Gwilym. I thought he would do it, he would [end page 129] do it for me. I was confident I could interest my editor at Oxford in such a book. Brown and I dickered, but in the end he refused. He was seeing he biographies of his close friends comes out, for which he had been interviewed, and he felt that the people in the pages were not the people he had known. "Jamie," he told me, "I agree with Oscar Wilde that one of the new terrors of death is biography." He would not be interviewed by me, although he was still cooperating with Fitzgerald; but he continued to talk with me about these ancient friendships when we met.

In March of 1994, Brown’s brother, Frederick Davis Brown, always known as Fritz, died, leaving me as his executor a mass of family papers. I had always been interested in writing something about the family, and this seemed like the opportunity. What follows here is drawn from a projected family history, which is to be focused on the generation of Brown that ushered in modernism, a violent shift in a culture that, inevitably, destroyed many people, including, at least partially, William Slater Brown.


Brown was, as was the custom with well-born New Englanders of the nineteenth century, always called William by his parents and siblings. He wrote as Slater Brown, and in his latter years took to using the name Slater generally. His second wife called him Willy. But he was known elsewhere by everyone as Bill—uncle Bill to us—and I will so name him here.

The first important fact about Bill Brown is that his family had been in Massachusetts for a long time. There appear to be no Mayflower ancestors—at least none that various maiden aunts who looked for them could find—but the lines do go back into the seventeenth century, when Massachusetts was only beginning to escape from the religious oligarchy that had ruled it. [4] Historians, I think, have not generally taken into account the force of culture carried down the generations in families. It is true, of course, that individuals acquire portions of their beliefs and attitudes directly from the society, in the way that older children and adolescents pick up notions about dress and deportment from their peers, and certainly the media have an influence. But during those critical formative early years, a child’s direct contact with his society is small; his belief system is acquired almost entirely from his family.

We can see this quite clearly in the case of Brown and his family: the marks of his New England ancestry are quite clear in the way he developed. Those early Puritans were not Victorians. They routinely drank a great deal of wine and beer, they believed that sex was a blessing, and their philosophy included room for recreation as necessary to keep them fit to do God’s work. Nonetheless, pleasure was to be taken in moderation; drinking was no sin, but drunkenness was. Their lives were dedicated to God. They were [end page 130] unswervingly serious of purpose, and determined to live in decency and honor according to their own very strict notions of how a person ought to live. Selflessness was a central ideal (although in fact the point of the whole exercise was to be "saved," that is, to achieve immortality for their souls). God came first, then the church and the community; the needs of the self ran far behind. [5]

One important aspect of seventeenth-century New England Puritanism was its powerful intellectual bent. These people believed that God’s way could only be discovered by diligent and subtle analysis of His word in the Bible. They studied the original texts in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, and parsed sentences after the manner of the medieval scholastics. A startling number of first settlers were university men, especially from Cambridge: one historian has claimed that there were more university graduates in Boston in 1640 than have ever been gathered anywhere outside of a university itself. One of the first things these immigrants did was to found Harvard in order to provide trained ministers for the burgeoning New England settlement. They were by no means religious instinctualists, listening to the voice of God within, and they ran Anne Hutchinson out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and actually executed some Quakers, for insisting that God spoke not through the Bible but directly to the heart.

This high-mindedness could not be sustained, and through the eighteenth-century American society became increasingly secularized. By the end of the century in America, England, France, and much else of Europe, sensuality had got a grip on the culture. Alcohol consumption was double what it is today; probably half of women had sex before marriage, a figure that was not reached again until the mid-twentieth century; gambling was a major leisure pursuit; hogs roamed church aisles; the city streets and country farmyards were drenched in urine and heaped with manure. Fully ninety percent of Americans had no formal affiliation with a church, although higher percentages did go to religious services. [6]

How far New England followed this trend is problematic. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the level of debauchery found among the hard-riding squires of Virginia, the wholly unrestricted people on the frontiers, the rural farmers of the South, could not be matched in New London, Worcester, Providence. The men New England sent to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were notably cautious and controlled. Thomas Jefferson said of Connecticut’s Roger Sherman that he "never said a foolish thing in his life," and Sherman claimed of himself that he had got control of his emotions by the time he was twenty-one. [7] Another Connecticut delegate, William Samuel Johnson, wrote, "I must live in peace or I cannot live at all." [8] They were typical of New England, models of rectitude compared with scapegraces like Alexander Hamilton, William Blount, and Charles [end page 131] Pinckney. Thus, while eighteenth-century New Englanders undoubtedly lost some of the religiosity and high-mindedness that had characterized the area in the previous century, a good deal of the old attitude clung.

Whatever the case, in roughly 1830 there came a vast change in American culture—the rise of what we call Victorianism. [9] This was not precisely a recrudescence of Puritanism, but in reaction to the eighteenth-century debauch, it was a deliberate and conscious attempt to reinstill in Americans a sense of community before self, and to bring people back to God: among others, the Second Awakening accompanied the first rush of Victorianism in the 1830s.

Moreover, Victorianism was, like Puritanism, an intellectual enterprise. Ralph Waldo Emerson in America, John Stuart Mill in England, and others, were corresponding, reading each other’s books, and actively promoting the new ideal. They were, says one historian, "an avant garde isolated in the midst of the Anglo-American culture" who shared "common goals as reformers." [10] One facet of this intellectually-based idealism was Transcendentalism, which, we remember, was fomented fifteen miles from Boston. The ideals of Emerson, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, and the rest were still very much in the air when Brown was born. In fact, one of his sisters would marry a man whose grandmother had been engaged to marry Thoreau, and was a first cousin to the Alcotts.

Victorianism worked. Alcohol consumption dropped dramatically, premarital pregnancy rates were markedly reduced, the hogs were kicked out of the churches, the manure cleaned out of the barnyards. The watchwords were order and decency; selflessness became a standard that people actually tried to live up to, and the individual was put behind family and community.

By the time Brown was growing up, however, Victorianism had rigidified into the system of repression we now think of when we hear the word. Sex was anathematized, drinking was illegal in many places, smoking, swearing, even the free motion of the arms and legs were forbidden. Many of the young grew up in revolt against the whole system, and this was particularly true of young men from New England, such as Brown and Cummings, who saw the enemy not as Victorianism but, as some of them said expressly, New England. Harry Crosby, an expatriate writer and publisher, once visited Biskra near the African desert, where he saw a naked belly dancer, apparently in hopes of being drawn into an orgy of emotion. According to Cowley, writing about the incident, it did not produce "the desired effect." Crosby wrote, "God, when shall we ever cast off the chains of New England," and added, "And the chains of New England are broken and unbroken—the death of conscience is not the death of self-consciousness." [11] Bill Brown put it more succinctly. When asked why he had gone to [end page 132] Columbia instead of Harvard he said, "I wanted to get the hell out of New England." [12]


But there was the other side to New Englandism, the relentless intellectuality that had descended unbroken from the Puritan fathers. New England was awash in thinkers: they, more than its generals and sea captains, were its heroes: Edward Winthrop, Roger Williams, Samuel Sewall in the seventeenth century; Benjamin Franklin (born and raised in Boston) and Roger Sherman in the eighteenth; Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalists in the nineteenth—these men studied assiduously, thought hard, and wrote voluminously, and they characterized New England.

Cummings and Brown came out of this culture. It was all around them, but as I have said, we acquire our cultures through our families. They mediate it. Cummings’ father was a scholar and a minister. The key figures in Bill Brown’s childhood were three maiden aunts who lived in a grand house on a hill overlooking the homes of mill workers on which their by-now-diminished fortune had been built. The story of these people begins with Samuel Slater, born in Belper, Derbyshire, England, the son of a well-off yeoman farmer, who dabbled in business. [13] Slater, even as a youth an assertive boy with a clear eye for his future, apprenticed himself to William Strutt, an entrepreneur who was busily making himself rich with versions of Arkwright’s new cotton spinning machinery. Slater learned all about the machines, and when his term of apprenticeship was up—he was scrupulous about things like that—he slipped off to America—illegally, for Englishmen who knew about machinery were not allowed to emigrate. Americans had not yet found the secret of the spinning machine, despite large rewards offered to anyone who could devise one. Slater had the secret in his head. He found backing in Rhode Island, and created America’s first spinning machine in Pawtucket. Eventually disencumbering himself of his partners, he expanded his textile business throughout New England, until it became an industrial empire.

The heart of that empire lay in a little town in central Massachusetts that he founded, almost single-handedly created, and named Webster after the famous orator. Here he built several mills, houses for his workers, shops and farms, making what was essentially an industrial community, much studied by labor historians today. He made a fortune, and before he died was visited by President Andrew Jackson, who deemed him the Father of American Manufacturers, which was not far off the mark. Slater brought his sons into the business, and built for one of them, George Bassett Slater, the aforementioned grand house on the hill overlooking a mill. I spent a lot of time in that house growing up.[end page 133]

Regrettably, George Slater died young, leaving his widow and his son, William Strutt Slater, to dismantle their fortune. Before this happened, however, William married a woman ten years his junior, the daughter of an equally wealthy textile manufacturer with a long history in New England, Katharine Hodges. They had five daughters, and a son who died as an adolescent. These daughters grew up in great affluence, surrounded by servants, costumed by a dressmaker who the family employed full-time.

But these young women, we remember, were New Englanders. Despite their wealth, and status as the leading family in town, they were expected to be self-disciplined and high-minded. [14] They could have fun, were even frivolous. The house was always surging with visitors, many of whom were familiars and could come and go without knocking; they ate richly and heavily, as was the Victorian custom; they played tennis, swam in the local lake, rode out in sleighs in the winter, played cards and word games in the evenings. But duty always came first. They went to church several times a week, entertained the minister, distant cousins, and whoever else had a claim on them, no matter how boring. They belonged to do-good organizations, especially those connected to the church. And most particularly, they as a matter of course kept up the life of the mind. They went to the theater in Boston several times a year, and occasionally to the theater in New York. They attended concerts in nearby Worcester and Boston. One of them played the piano well, taught herself Greek. Most of them were sent to good private schools where they studied French, history, and the Latin classical works.

Above all, they read. It is probable that few days went by that they did not spend an hour or two reading, and there were many days when reading was their primary occupation. The house, as I remember it, was awash in books—not just an occasional bookshelf here or there, but walls lined with them in the sitting room, the study, the bedrooms. Nor were they reading only light trash: the eldest, Ruth, read George Sand; even one of the younger ones, Katharine, the lively, most frivolous one (she was the first woman in Webster to drive a car), read Henry James. These women, except perhaps Ruth, were not intellectuals in the modern sense; but they knew history, knew the classic authors, knew something about contemporary trends in music, art, and literature, and most important, placed a high value on mental activity.


The frivolous, open, good-hearted Katharine was Bill Brown’s mother. She married the family doctor, Frederick Augustus Brown, a man nearly twenty years older than she was. They had four children: Bill, the eldest; Katharine, or Kitty, as she was always called to distinguish her from her mother, who [end page 134] became my mother; Frederick, or Fritz, to distinguish him from his father; and Joyce. They were raised, in the early years, in a large comfortable house with stables, horses, several servants, and ample money. There were the usual problems: Dr. Brown could be difficult and demanding. Even more demanding and self-centered was his mother, who lived with them. Nonetheless, they were a healthy, good-natured, lively bunch. I knew them all well, and if anything especially characterized them it was a spirit of fun. They were intensely social, liked being with people, ran as a pack with their five Bartlett first cousins, and were always getting up skating parties, picnics, tennis matches.

Most particularly, they talked. They were, of course, raised to be well-spoken, as people of their class in New England must be; and they employed a quick, crisp accent with broad vowels—not an imitation of an English accent, but one with a slightly English flavor. Despite the high-mindedness in the air around them, their talk was light, filled with gossip, personal anecdotes, mild scandal. One of their highest commendations was to say that somebody "was awfully amusing." In later years I have seen Fritz and Kitty both talking to each other at once on different subjects, and perfectly happy about it.

Nonetheless, the youths of these children were dominated by the overshadowing presence of the house on the hill. Katharine Brown insisted on living within easy walking distance of her maiden sisters, and when the telephone came in she talked with them every day, several of them at once on the "party" line. Their precepts, for the young Browns and their Bartlett cousins, were law, and those precepts demanded restraint, selflessness, order, and decency.

Then, in 1913, the whole thing fell apart. I have not been able to find the exact sequence in the events, but one disaster after another overtook the family in the course of several months. First, the winning and good-hearted Katharine, who had been sick for some time, died of Bright’s disease. Dr. Brown never really recovered from the blow. He began to drink heavily, to the point where he once fell down the cellar stairs. Second, his brother Clifford was caught embezzling a substantial sum from the bank where he worked, was arrested, and jailed. None of it was Dr. Brown’s responsibility; but he nonetheless felt that as a matter of family duty he had to make restitution, and he did, in one blow destroying most of the family money. Third, it was discovered that the intellectual and high-minded Ruth, the head of the Slater family in the mansion on the hill, was, at the age of forty-five, having an affair with the man who ran the family farm. He threatened to sue for breach of promise, and had to be given a great deal of money to disappear. Ruth, in anguish, turned to drugs, and remained addicted to cocaine for the rest of her life. Finally, possibly due to Dr. Brown’s drinking, [end page 135] one of his patients died. He was sued for malpractice; his business dried up, and the Browns were reduced to penury, dependent upon their no-longer-rich aunts for their support. They moved into a smaller house, and the children grew accustomed to the shrill voices of creditors on the telephone demanding payment for coal, for milk.


In 1913, as these disasters struck, Bill Brown was sixteen. He was at the moment living with cousins in Boston in order to attend the Cambridge Latin School, by coincidence almost next door to the Cummings house on Irving Street, and was somewhat shielded from the disgrace. Nonetheless, it could not be avoided. The loss of his mother alone would have been a blow, but to simultaneously go broke and lose status must have been exceedingly painful; and I have no doubt that his sense of having been let down by his parents and his embezzling uncle (he probably did not know about Ruth’s problems) served to ratchet up his natural rebelliousness against the family culture.

Bill was, as Maury Werner said, quiet. He was a talker, certainly, like all the Browns, but he was somewhat less loquacious than the others—understated, ironic. His voice was high-pitched, almost musical, and his laugh a dry chuckle. But despite his low-key manner, he was rebellious from youth. His sister Joyce, when I interviewed her recently, said that their father was always saying, "I just don’t know what to do about that boy." [15] They battled constantly, father and eldest son.

Why some youths rebel and others don’t I cannot say. Two of the Browns did, two didn’t.

Kitty began to smoke when she was fourteen, joined the Radical Club at Radcliffe, bobbed her hair, refused to wear white gloves when she went out into Harvard Square. On her graduation she worked for a newspaper, and was a classic feminist of her time. The other two, Fritz and Joyce, conformed. Joyce married an appropriate husband, settled into a comfortable middle-class life, and successfully raised four children, who went on to marry and give her a slew of grandchildren. Fritz eventually moved into the grand Slater house on the hill to look after his aging aunts, a sentence that lasted for thirty years.

But Bill Brown was the genuine rebel. In high school he had access to the family car, which he used to attract girls, the first signs of what would become a relentless womanizing. He toyed with the idea of becoming a painter. At sixteen he discovered the poems of William Blake. He eventually was sent to Tufts, where he spent a miserable year, and dropped out. Then he decided to get the hell out of New England and went to New York to attend the Columbia School of Journalism. He didn’t like this, either—"It [end page 136] was just a phony place then," [16] he said later, by which he meant that it was teaching journalistic formulas and lacked the intellectual tenor Bill wanted. After a year and a half he transferred to the college.

In New York Bill began to pick up on a set of ideas that was just coming to the boiling point. He spent a lot of time in Greenwich Village, which around 1913 had only just started to become the nation’s center for the new ideas that would coalesce into the modern. When precisely Bill began to haunt the area I am not sure, but it eventually became his home. I feel certain that he was aware of The Seven Arts, a short-lived magazine that began coming out while Bill was at Columbia, and was printing stories by D. H. Lawrence, Sherwood Anderson, poems by Frost, Amy Lowell, Sandburg, articles by Dreiser, Dos Passos, Dewey, and many others. I am also sure he read Waldo Frank’s Our America, a manifesto for young intellectuals that appeared in 1919. He must certainly have been aware of Randolph Bourne, a hunchbacked journalist who managed to remain intellectually exuberant despite his affliction. Bourne, as a student at Columbia, had written a series of pieces from 1911 to 1913 for the Atlantic Monthly that he eventually collected under the title, Youth and Life.

Frank, Bourne, and others were seeing rising around them a new generation that was to bring into being a new America. It was a generation in revolt against "Puritanism," by which they meant primarily Victorianism. This was a very conscious—indeed self conscious—movement, which in many respects resembled the hippie movement of the 1960s, except that it had an intellectual base, which the flower children, with their belief in intuitive knowledge, lacked. All of this writing gave Bill an intellectual framework for his natural rebelliousness.


When we consider the life of Bill Brown, we need to keep firmly before us the culture of the New England family he had come from. He was in rebellion against it, but only against portions of it. He hated he Victorian code of Order and Decency, which too often translated itself into an abhorrence, not merely of sex and drunkenness, but of expressiveness and joy. The family culture seemed to him a trap, a web his parents, his aunts, his long-dead ancestors were trying to weave around him, to cloister him away from the free and expressive life he sensed was out there somewhere.

But there was, we must remember, another side to the family culture: that high-minded intellectuality—his bookish Aunt Ruth who read George Sand, the even more bookish Aunt Hope, who taught herself Greek, even his light-hearted mother who nonetheless read Henry James as his novels were appearing. Intellectuality was in the air in this family, and Bill Brown swallowed it down. [end page 137]

He was not alone. Somehow, making money did not come naturally to the family—indeed, its bent was to lose whatever it had. They liked swimming, sailing, playing tennis, baseball, but they were hardly ardent athletes. They seemed to fall easily into the world of books, of thought, of poetry and art. It was, somehow, the kind of pool they found it comfortable to swim in. My point is that family cultures have very real effects on their members. Kitty, who had many admirers, as the term was, eventually married a ne’er-do-well writer. Joyce married a distinguished professor at Harvard who has had a law of philology named for him, and when he died, married another Harvard academic. Fritz, after flunking out of prep school, became a highly respected landscape architect. Nor did the family culture thin out in succeeding generations. The Browns among them had nine children; no less than six have published books, and two of the others are married to published writers. That is my generation. The generation we spawned is again replete with scholars, writers, painters. It is difficult to see how a fairly numerous American family could go for three generations without producing a single businessman, but such is the case.


The young man who found himself drinking with Red Lemmon and Estlin Cummings was, then, very much a part of his time—a rebel in an age of rebellion, an anti-Victorian at a time when Victorianism was under attack, an intellectual and incipient writer as a great wave of American literature was about to break. It is hardly surprising that he found in Cummings a natural twin. Like Bill, Cummings was from a classic New England Victorian family. [17] His father had begun as a sociologist, then became a clergyman. As a gesture to democracy, Dr. Cummings sent his son to a public high school, Cambridge Latin, where Bill would spend a year. By further coincidence, the house Bill stayed in while at Cambridge was virtually next door to the Cummings home. However, if they met at this time, neither was aware of it.

Cummings inevitably went to Harvard, where he wrote for The Monthly, which was run by "scruffy poets, socialists, pacifists, or worse," according to Malcolm Cowley, who was a friend of both Brown and Cummings. [18] Cummings was somewhat shy, not a real joiner, but at Harvard he met John Dos Passos, and two rich young men who would eventually publish him, James Sibley Watson and Scofield Thayer. (In another coincidence, Watson was a Brown family connection.) Cummings graduated magna cum laude, and gave his disquisition on the modern art of people such as Amy Lowell and Gertrude Stein, not precisely what the Harvard authorities would have preferred. Cowley says, "At the time he was in full revolt against almost everything—except personal integrity—that Cambridge and his father stood for. Cleanliness, godliness, decorum, public spirit, then chastity went [end page 138]by the board." [19] Cummings developed a taste for low life, something that teemed in certain sections of Somerville and Boston. He spent a post-graduate year at Harvard, went down to New York where he worked at an office job for three months, and then quit to embark on the life of the artist.

Estlin Cummings, thus, was doing just what Brown had set out to do—thumb his nose at New England in order to find a life that was more personal, more at a gut level, more in touch with the realities of humanity, than what they had grown up with. Bill said, "I liked Cummings from the very beginning. . . . When I met him on the boat he was seeing things in an entirely different way than I saw them. I remember one of the things that he said to me that impressed me. He remarked that he had seen a cook once being ‘cruel to a cabbage.’ It was an attitude toward the world—animism, I suppose. He had a strong animistic streak. He’d never kill anything." He was also great fun. "He’d pretend he was a politician or something and a flood of clichés and twisted phrases would just pour out for fifteen minutes without a stop." [20]


They were clearly young men much alike—both bright, both suspicious of authority, both twisted a little away from the norm. The friendship got off to a fortuitous beginning. The ship landed at Bordeaux and, according to Bill, by chance he and Cummings got separated on the train from the other Norton-Harjes volunteers and ended up in Paris. The reader may believe that the trip to Paris was an accident if he chooses.

They ended up having a wonderful month in Paris, which just then was aboil with the new modernism in art and literature, despite the fact that not far away men were dying in mountainous heaps. They saw Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, they went to the première of Erik Satie’s Parade, they saw a lot of painting, and they established relationships with some little Parisian tarts. It was just the sort of thing young men wanted out of Paris, and it confirmed Bill in his Francophilia; but in the end the Norton-Harjes people caught up to them, and they were shipped off to the front. [21]

Students of Cummings will know all about the arrest of Brown and Cummings for some anti-war letters Bill wrote home to his family in Webster, and the stay in La Ferté Macé. The details in any case are in The Enormous Room. Among other things, Cummings and Brown had provoked their chef de section, a Mr. Anderson, with their anti-authoritarian and probably rather insolent attitudes, which had led them to become more friendly with the poilus attached to the unit than with their American fellows. Bill remembers the two of them once being in a café with French soldiers. "We were drinking wine. The soldiers made Cummings and me stand upon the table. They wanted us to sing ‘Tipperary.’ Cummings and I, we knew the [end page 139] chorus, but we didn’t know anything else. It didn’t faze Cummings. He made up this absolutely wonderful verse. . . . He made up a bunch of verse. The last one he sang was, ‘And to her maidenhead, I softly softly said, It’s a long way to Tipperary, it’s a long way to go.’" [22]

Anderson, by nature a disciplinarian, was not inclined to like these rowdies, and did little to help them. According to Bill, the real problem with the French authorities was that he and Cummings had heard from the French soldiers about mutinies in the French army, and he had written home about the story. Some of Bill’s letters were later found in State Department files by Charles Norman, a Cummings biographer. According to Bill, the letters were not accurate, and he suspected that they had been translated into French for the benefit of French authorities, and then translated back into English. (Bill later worked as a translator from the French and would have had some sense of this.) He says that there were more letters than Norman found; he believes that the letters mentioning the mutinies had been suppressed, or destroyed, by French authorities. [23]

Whatever the case, Cummings and Brown found themselves in a very dirty, and dangerous, French prison. Back in Massachusetts, Dr. Cummings began to pull strings—he was minister of a very fancy Boston church, among other things—and because Estlin had not actually written the letters in question, he was released after almost four months and shipped home. Some of the Browns were annoyed with Dr. Cummings for not doing more to get Bill sprung, but Dr. Cummings understandably may have been annoyed with Bill for getting Estlin in trouble in the first place.


When Cummings was released on December 19, 1917, Brown was shipped to a prison at Précigné. [24] This was not a holding pen like La Ferté Macé, but a real prison of the worst kind. The food ran almost entirely to beans, bread, and potatoes, which were frozen, and caused bloat. The farmers added pebbles to the beans, on which Bill cracked several teeth. On this poor diet he came down with scurvy, grew thin, his body covered with sores, his teeth decaying. Making matters worse, it was generally believed that the prisoners at Précigné were to be confined for the duration of the war. "A lot of people in Précigné died while I was there—the diseases that come from malnutrition. They’d come down with pneumonia and then they would suddenly disappear. You’d never see them again." [25]

There were other dangers. Bill told Professor Wickes, "At Précigné there were fights all the time. All day long people were fighting. The plantons would never stop them. A man we called the Fighting Sheeney used to go around and pick fights with people. I remember one day he came up to me, pointed his finger at me, and began saying, ‘You’re the next one.’" Bill was [end page 140] a small man, never much given to fighting in any case, and was seriously ill. The Fighting Sheeney might well have killed him. Fortunately he had a defender. "It happened that a man named Adam Dan, who claimed to be an American—he spoke English with an American accent—was talking to me at the time. He said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he took this Fighting Sheeney and grabbed him by his coat and shoved him out onto the stairs and knocked him all the way down a flight of stairs and jumped down and struck him up in a corner . . . I thought he was going to kill him." [26] There was, then, a real possibility that Bill would never survive Précigné. The experience inevitably served to harden his view of authority.

Fortunately, his family was not without its connections. His uncle, Spaulding Bartlett, was on the federal government’s wartime Textile Commission, and his father was acting as an army doctor. By February 5, 1918, Dr. Brown was writing to Bill’s younger brother Fritz at Loomis, "We had another cable from Paris which Major Hill sent, saying William will sail immediately, but gave no date of sailing or the name of the ship—perhaps because he is coming on a war ship. For all we know he may be on the sea now. I will let you know news of him. I’ve been laid up for more than a week with a sore foot which prevents my wearing a shoe—or walking much. I am being very careful of it because I want to go to New York to meet William." [27]

At about this time Bill was taken to Bordeaux and sent home on the French Line ship, the Niagara, which landed in New York on March 12th, a date Bill was to remember sixty years later. Dr. Brown went down to New York to meet him. Fritz said, "He was in absolutely terrible shape. Papa told me that when he got him back to Webster and gave him a bath, the dirt would come out of him, the water was gray. And of course his teeth absolutely fell apart." [28] Bill stayed in Webster for a month or so, recuperating, and then in April, about a year after he had set sail, he returned to New York and joined Cummings in a tiny apartment in a rundown building serviced by an outhouse in the backyard, at 11 Christopher Street, in the heart of Greenwich Village. (The building no longer exists.) Then, ironically, both men got drafted into the American army. Bill was sent home as soon as army doctors saw the condition of his teeth, but Cummings was held until January, 1919, when there was a general mustering out as a consequence of the war’s end. Bill had taken an apartment at 80 Washington Place, and when Cummings returned, the two of them moved into a tenement apartment at 15 West 14th Street, where they would spend a year.


Now they began to have fun. They frequented the Lower East Side, now called the East Village, which at the time was a neighborhood of immigrants, many of them Jewish and Italian. They spent a lot of time in bars and [end page 141] restaurants talking to the Jewish intellectuals who lived in the area, many of whom shared their interest in socialism. They often went to the National Winter Garden Theater on Houston Street, in the same area, a burlesque house. Sometimes they would walk down to the Battery at the bottom of Manhattan to visit an aquarium there, and would stop on the way home at Khouri’s Syrian restaurant at Washington Street and Rector. All of this was part of the Village philosophy that the immigrants and working people were more real than the families they had left in New England.

They did a good deal of drinking. They went to McSorley’s, the now-famous ale house that still exists on Seventh Street, not far from the Lower East Side. In the Village they drank in a place on Sixth Avenue and West Fourth called the Golden Swan, which was generally known as The Hell Hole, a hangout for gangsters and whores, as well as artists and writers. [29] A few years earlier it had been the regular drinking place for Eugene O’Neill, who later used it in his classic, The Iceman Cometh. The owner kept a pig in the cellar. One of the habitués was Dorothy Day, later to become famous as a left-wing journalist, cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement, and key figure in the influential paper, The Catholic Worker. According to Malcolm Cowley, the gangsters in the joint "admired Dorothy Day because she could drink them under the table." [30] Louis Sheaffer, in his book about O’Neill, gives a picture of Day. "She sat in the saloons for hours, matching the men drink for drink and knew ribald choruses of ‘Frankie and Johnny’ her companions never heard of." [31] And then, sometimes after a night of carousing, she would go to St. Joseph’s on Sixth Avenue for early mass.

When The Hell Hole was closed by the authorities after the arrival of Prohibition in the 1920s, the writers and artists moved over to the Columbian Saloon a few blocks north at Christopher and Sixth Avenue, which was known by them as the Working Girls’ Home. Coming home from some such place shortly before Christmas, Bill and Cummings came upon an empty lot in which were standing some unsold Christmas trees, which they carried up to their room. Bill reported to Echoes, a family newsletter, "At present our room is full of Christmas trees. . . . We have them standing around like a small forest." [32] When asked by a visitor why they had the trees in their room, Bill replied, "We’re planning on doing a lot of Wagner." [33]

Bill was at least theoretically attending Columbia, in hopes of getting his degree. In November, 1919, he reported to Echoes that he was taking anthropology with the famous Franz Boas. "He has the finest face I have ever seen, I think. Like Nietzsche, but milder." He was also taking a psychology course—"We test one another with curious experiments"—and several courses in French literature and civilization. But his main life was in the Village. Immediately after listing his courses for the enlightenment of the [end page 142] family, he added, "De Wolf and I went to a Greek restaurant the other evening, and then I showed him some of my Romanian dance halls. Tomorrow night I go to supper with Lu, a Chinese friend of mine." [34]


The Browns and Slaters were delighted that Bill had come home no worse than he was, but Dr. Cummings remained enraged. Bill told Fitzgerald:

Old man Cummings wanted Cummings to sue the French government for one million dollars for false arrest and imprisonment. Of course he couldn’t make any case of it until he’d gotten a report from Cummings. The moment Cummings got back, Dr. Cummings got after him, trying to get him to write this report. He wanted to bring the case up on the floor of the Senate to embarrass President Wilson. Lodge and Wilson hated each other and then he was going to demand a million dollars for Cummings. I don’t know what sort of person old Dr. Cummings thought his son was but I knew Cummings would never think of such an absolutely preposterous plan. I heard them arguing myself. Finally Cummings agreed to do it provided it would never be used in any kind of law suit. So old Dr. Cummings agreed to that. . . . I think Cummings told fibs to his parents to quiet the old man down. I think the old man had given him some money to write this but I don’t think Cummings had written very much because I never heard anything about it—this report. Finally Dr. Cummings, up in Silver Lake, asked me to stay with Cummings to keep him company while he wrote this book, so Cummings sat down and began writing it. I think he began right at the beginning and wrote the whole book. He worked all day long and late at night and would ask me questions. I stayed with him till the middle of October. [35] This was now 1920. Silver Lake is a place in New Hampshire where the Cummingses had a summer house. Bill and Estlin had spent part of the previous summer there, loafing, and in 1920 Bill continued to loaf, while Cummings worked, sleeping in a tent, and joining the family for meals. The book that resulted was called The Enormous Room, after the huge room in which they had lived at La Ferté Macé. (Bill is called only "B" throughout.)

Bill told Professor Wickes that Cummings probably started the book that September and finished in a couple of months. He turned it over to his father to find a publisher for it, went off to Paris with John Dos Passos, a Harvard friend, and didn’t see the book again until it was published, when he discovered, much to his ire, that some changes had been made in it. Bill
told Wickes: [end page 143]

Dr. Cummings peddled it around to any number of publishers, including Harpers. Finally Liveright took it. [The company was more receptive to advanced writing than many others.] Later Liveright thought he had been sold a bill of goods—that old Dr. Cummings had put something over on him. He had a low opinion of the book, particularly after some reviews came out. I think there was a particularly bad review by young [Robert] Littell. . . . Of course Liveright was shocked because of the word "shit." He had someone go through the books blacking out that word. [36] The Enormous Room was initially a commercial failure—in the end Dr. Cummings bought up a large number of remaindered copies. Eventually it proved to be an important work in the canon of modern American literature. Bill Brown never claimed to have played any serious role in its creation, except to fill Cummings in on details he had forgotten. However, Cummings said, "Bill and I were together at the writing, which sans his memory of events would have proved impossible." He wrote Bill, ". . . you could & did help me inestimably." [37] Whatever the case, if Bill had not written these foolish letters, The Enormous Room would never have been written.


Brown and Cummings continued to see each other from time to time. A couple of years later they made a bicycle tour of France and Italy. But, although their friendship never diminished, their ways grew separate. Among other things, Brown was now finding his way into a group of young writers, painters, and intellectuals that I have called the American Bloomsbury. It is a lengthy story, which I hope to tell someday, but I can only sketch in the outlines here.

Bill was ostensibly attending Columbia, and living on a very small income from the estate of his mother. Mainly through his Village connections he was meeting such people as Gaston Lachaise, Dos Passos, Djuna Barnes, and Edmund Wilson. Many of these people were connected with the little magazines of the time, Broom, which Bill wrote for and helped to edit, and The Dial, edited and backed by Cummings’ wealthy friend, Scofield Thayer.

Of particular importance to him would be an astonishing group of people from Peabody High School in Pittsburgh. The central figure in the group was an English émigré, James Light, a smart, well-read kid with a commanding presence.38 Light acted as a mentor to a classmate named Susan Winebiddle Jenkins, and the two of them were ringleaders in organizing a literary magazine for the school. They attracted two other bright students named Malcolm Cowley and Kenneth Burke, as well as another girl named Mary Blair, who would become an actress, marry Edmund Wilson, and become notorious by kissing the hand of Paul Robeson in an early Eugene O’Neill play.

Inevitably the group migrated to Greenwich Village. Light and Susan Jenkins were, or became, lovers, and married. Almost by chance, Light fell in with the Provincetown Players, eventually becoming one of their most important directors, a favorite of both O’Neill and Robeson, who says that Light was the man who encouraged him to start his singing career. The Provincetown was, really, the forerunner of the whole off-Broadway theater movement. Light was a force in it, and his role in American theater ought to be better known.

Light was, however, autocratic. He treated Sue as his protégé rather than as a wife. She was a bright, good-looking, energetic, highly verbal and witty woman—a classic feminist, who eventually became a Communist, and was cited by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee as early as 1939. [39] She and Bill were attracted to each other and when Light was on a theatrical sojourn in Europe—or possibly earlier—they began an affair. Bill was always attractive to women, and he usually responded. Edmund Wilson has left an account of catching Bill and his wife necking in Wilson’s apartment. (Wilson’s editor, Leon Edel, has identified the Brown in the tale as somebody else, but it was not.) [40] Dos Passos, in his 1925 novel Manhattan Transfer, includes a scene in which a man on a fire escape observes his wife in bed with another man. It is supposed that the man on the fire escape was Jimmy Light; the man in the bed was Brown . [41]

There is good reason to believe the story, for there are too many resemblances between the real people and the characters in the story to ignore. The man in the apartment, Jimmy Herf, is a disillusioned newspaper man who feels that his work is fraudulent. Bill, we remember, quit the Columbia School of Journalism because it was "phony place." He later worked briefly for a Boston newspaper and quit that, too. Herf, like Bill, went to Columbia; Herf, like Bill, has a small legacy from his mother; Herf, like Bill, at one point has an apartment on Washington Square. Herf is characterized as having "no ambitions," and while Bill was ambitious to find glory as a writer, he had set his face against the American striving for wealth and position. Herf is compared to a cousin who does succeed by doing the things his well-to-do family approves of; Bill, as a teenager, suffered by comparison to a cousin similarly situated.

Late in Manhattan Transfer Dos Passos has Jimmy Herf in a conversation with a relative:

"Why, I’ve got a job as a reporter on the Times. . . . a hellish rotten job and I’m sick of it," said Jimmy, drawling out the words. [end page 145]
"Don’t talk like that, Jimmy, you’re too young. . . . You’ll never get anywhere with that attitude."
"Well, suppose I don’t want to get anywhere." [42]
It could have been Bill Brown speaking.

There are resemblances to the others, too. The irate husband is named Jojo Oglethorpe. Like Jimmy Light, he has an English accent; like Light he is in the theater; and like Light he treats his wife as his protégé. There are differences, of course: Jimmy Herf is a somber, indeed saturnine man, with none of Bill’s charm and wit—Bill’s philosophic penchant for Rabelaisian enjoyment. Herf is given as being helplessly in love with Ellen, certainly not Bill’s posture toward women. Ellen is from a well-to-do family, ambitious to rise in the theater, which she does, making useful marriages and alliances, and casting people off when she no longer needs them, although Dos Passos manages to make her oddly sympathetic; Sue, by contrast, was the daughter of a Pittsburgh steelworker and eschewed any sort of a career in favor of literature and social causes. But the similarities are too many to be discounted.

Sue has given an account of her relationship with Bill in her memoir of Hart Crane, in which she has whitewashed the whole thing. [43] In fact, they may have been involved before Light went to Europe, and they certainly were a couple for several years before they married. In any case, they did marry, and Sue was therefore my aunt. I saw a good deal of her as a child, and remained close to her until her death in her eighties.

It is too much to say that the American Bloomsbury formed up around Sue and Bill, but they were certainly central figures in it. The main group consisted of Hart Crane, Malcolm Cowley, Allen Tate and his wife Caroline Gordon, Matthew Josephson, and Kenneth Burke. Not quite so central, but well-known to the group were Edna St. Vincent Millay, Djuna Barnes, Dorothy Day, Marianne Moore, John Dos Passos, and Edmund Wilson. Robeson was around—Bill and Sue used to have dinner with him and his wife Essie in Robeson’s Harlem club. O’Neill loathed Bill for having taken Sue away from Jimmy Light, but Sue remained on good terms with Agnes O’Neill, who for a period took care of her son.

What the others—Crane, Cummings, Cowley, Burke, Wilson, Josephson, and he rest—admired in Bill was a reckless intellectual bravado, a deeper commitment to épater le bourgeois than most of the others could make. He got drunker than they did, had more women, was more rumpled in appearance, less judicious in his comments on the straight world he was trying to untangle himself from. He seemed to care nothing for money, about the American moral code, about fidelity to family. He gloried in sloth. He appeared to the others to be, in a certain way, heroic. That, in any case, [end page 146] is how Dos Passos presents Jimmy Herf, as a man who will not bend to the ethic of success, hard work, self-discipline, and order. They all knew that Bill was destroying himself, that drink and resistance to self-discipline would prevent him from accomplishing very much. But that waste, too, seemed somehow heroic.

I once asked Malcolm Cowley why Bill and Sue were so well-thought-of by this group, all of whose attainments would eventually be considerably greater than theirs. He replied to the effect that, "They were great fun. You were always laughing when you were around them." Bill was considered by many of these people to be the most promising of them. No less than Ford Madox Ford, who was living in the Village for a time during this period, said that Bill was the most talented of the bunch. [44]


Thus by the early 1920s Bill Brown was sliding into the alcoholism that would steal from him thirty years of his life. Whatever genetic basis there may have been, there is no doubt in my mind, from Bill’s subsequent behavior, that the main problem was the incessant tension he felt between the family culture he had been raised in and the rowdy Bohemian life he was living—drinking, womanizing, doing as little work as possible, and generally helling around. As much as he tried, he could not throw off the family culture, and in the end the internal conflict came close to destroying him.

Through the 1920s and into the 1930s, Bill wrote occasional pieces for a variety of little magazines. The stuff he wrote in the 1920s was not much above a good college level. But after the coming of the Depression, when life suddenly turned serious for all these Bohemians and brought them into the left-wing camp, he got a job on the New Republic through Cowley, and sometimes wrote for the magazine. These pieces, reportage, and what later came to be called "casuals," were often extremely good—witty, ironic, and to the point. If Bill had cultivated this vein, from time to time publishing collections of his work, I truly believe that he would have eventually had the same sort of reputation gained by some of the New Yorker people, such as E. B. White and A. J. Liebling. But he wrote them only sporadically. Part of the trouble was alcohol. Part of the trouble was that he never took this work seriously; like so many others, he wanted to be a novelist.

Needless to say, alcohol was stunting his private life. He and Sue bought a wonderful old farmhouse in Dutchess County, New York, where a lot of their pals gathered frequently for croquet and quantities of drink. Some of them, such as Crane, Cowley, and Josephson, moved into the area. Others came up for weekends. For awhile the old Bohemianism clung. In 1928 Sue had a child, Gwilym, whom I was raised very close to. But the marriage was already going, and by 1930 Sue and Bill were drifting apart. [end page 147]

In about 1934 Bill became involved with Esther Rosenberg by whom he had a daughter, Rachel. But his drinking was now completely out of control. For long periods he was out of work, struggling to earn small sums turning out pulp fiction for the detective magazines and working on novels when he found time. He did little or nothing for his children, seeing them only sporadically and contributing almost nothing for their support. He began getting into barroom brawls, at least twice landing in hospitals from which he had to be rescued by various members of his Webster family.


Eventually he and Esther moved to Cape Cod, and tried to establish some sort of family life away from the temptations of the Village. Edmund Wilson, living nearby, and in a difficult marriage to Mary McCarthy, used to come over to sit drinking with Bill in the evenings. [45]

Yet despite everything, in 1943 Bill published a novel. He was helped by Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate, who gave him a room in their own home for a winter. Another winter he spent in the country house living on the cheapest possible food and keeping warm with wood fires. The book was called The Burning Wheel, a title taken from his old favorite, Blake. It is not, in my view, a great novel, but it is a good one, certainly as good as some of the novels of his much better-known friends, such as Wilson’s I Thought of Daisy, or Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer. From a technical viewpoint, the problem with The Burning Wheel is that the protagonist, a Mr. Jasper, is simply a passive observer, a commentator who plays little role in the events going on around him. In this he curiously resembled Bill, who was to a considerable degree paralyzed at the center of great events. He was there; he observed; he made dry, ironic asides. But he did not storm the barricades—write the novel, the poems, the criticism.

Nonetheless, if The Burning Wheel had been published in the 1920s, it would have established Slater Brown as one of the important young writers; if it had come out in the 1930s, it might also have given him some reputation.

But by 1943 America had seen a catastrophic Depression and was in the midst of an even more catastrophic World War. Nobody was much interested in an novel not concerned with major social issues. The reviews, some by his friends, were mixed—in some cases politics entered into them. The Burning Wheel was for Bill the culmination of aspirations dating back to his college time, if not before. Its failure was devastating; he had finally done it, and it was no good. Or so it seemed to him. In fact, if he had seen the novel as a good beginning, rather than an end, and immediately set to work on a new novel, he might eventually have established himself as a significant writer. There is no telling how a writer may develop. [end page 148]

Instead he sank further into liquor. Finally a point was reached where he knew he had to stop or die. For several years he struggled; but eventually, in part through Alcoholics Anonymous, he succeeded in breaking free of drink. In the process, however, he drifted out of the relationship with Esther. By 1951 he had conquered his alcoholism and was rebuilding his life.


And it is fascinating to see what that new life was. Bill, as I see him, had suffered all his life from the tension between the demands of his family culture and his own internal needs. In the end, he solved his problem by surrendering to the family culture. It was not just that he stopped drinking. He returned to the church, becoming a devout Christian. He began to put duty to family and community ahead of himself. For example, in 1974, when it was clear that his son Gwilym was dying of a brain tumor, he simply closed up his house, took a small apartment near to where Gwil was living, and did what he could to help. Again, in 1957 he married an elegant, austere middle-aged lady—there is no other term for her—from a Boston Brahmin family. Her name was Mary James, and she was very wealthy. She was a grandniece of the famous William and Henry James, and her sister Louisa was married to Alexander Calder. Remarkably, once again Bill had fallen in with important artists.

It is easy to be cynical about this marriage, but I think we should not be. Mary James was very deaf, demanding, and eccentric. To Bill, the marriage was in a certain sense a penance. He spent a great deal of time seeing to Mary’s wants and mediating her social life through her deafness. They were, in fact, a devoted couple and provided each other with much happiness. During the 1950s and into the 1960s, Bill wrote a few children’s books, and three works of nonfiction. They are all pleasant works, worth reading, but in no way remarkable. Bill thought that the last of these, called The Heyday of Spiritualism, might make a mark. But it didn’t, and after that he gave up. He was in his mid-sixties.

And so, finally, Bill had become exactly what the family had wished him to be: a responsible husband, a teetotaler, a devout believer, a leisured gentleman with literary interests.

The force of family culture on the shape of a life is sharply etched in the biography of William Slater Brown. In choosing an intellectual vocation for himself, he was following its dictates. The rest of it he hated; but in fighting against it, he nearly destroyed himself, and only when he finally accepted it did he find any peace. He was, in the end, as happy as it is given to most people to be. He could travel—they often visited the Calders in their house near the Loire. He had time to read and think, and he had a good many [end page 149] friends. But really, after he stopped drinking, he gave up his old friends from the Greenwich Village days. Crane, Cummings, and others were dead. He hardly ever saw Cowley or Josephson—I don’t think he saw Malcolm, with whom he had been close for three decades, for the last thirty years of his life. I once asked Malcolm about this. He replied, "Bill saw his old friends become more famous than he was, and it was difficult for him." [46] But I think it was more than that. In returning to the family culture, he simply had to give up the old rebels who were still in the fight. He had made his separate peace.


Until about 1990 William Slater Brown was still hale and vigorous, still driving his own car downtown for the newspaper. I would spend a night with him once or twice a year in his latter days, and we would talk about literature, about the old days, about the family. He still had the twinkle, the fine irony, the throaty chuckle. His old friends often said that when he stopped drinking he lost his charm, was no longer fun. I disagree, but it is certainly true that he was more understated than ever.

In about 1990 he suffered a number of small strokes, and his mind clouded over. He no longer recognized people. William Slater Brown died on June 22, 1997, at his home in Rockport at the age one hundred. He lived what was in its own way a classic life of the American twentieth century. Born with the century a Victorian, he struggled to help bring the modern world into existence, one of those unsung cultural foot soldiers who contributed his mite to a great event. In the course of the fight he was wounded and partly disabled—paralyzed at the center of things. But who can say the fight was not worth the wound?

—New York City
[end page 150]

Notes 1 Transcription of Fitzgerald interview, November 25, 1978, unpaged.

2 Transcription of an interview by George Wickes, September 22, 1967. Interview copyright Slater Brown, 1978, and provided by his daughter, Rachel Brown.

3 Interview by Fitzgerald of Maury Werner, unpaged and undated.

4 Family genealogy adapted by Katharine Collier, Brown’s sister, from one prepared by their aunt, Ruth Slater.

5 The literature on early Puritanism is voluminous. See, for example, David D. Hall, ed., Puritanism in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968; Edmund S. Munson, Visible Saints, New York: New York Univ. Press, 1963; Perry Miller, The Puritans, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1938.

6 James Lincoln Collier, The Rise of Selfishness in America (New York: Oxford, 1991), 3–7.

7 Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier, Decision in Philadelphia (New York: Random House Reader’s Digest Press, 1986), 95.

8 Ibid., 145.

9 I have discussed the rise of Victorianism at length in Collier, The Rise of Selfishness in America.

10 David D. Hall quoted from Daniel Waller Howe, ed., Victorian America. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1976, 87.

11 Malcolm Cowley, Exile’s Return (New York: Viking, 1951; Compass edition, 1956), 261.

12 Personal communication.

13 E. H. Cameron, Samuel Slater: Father of American Manufacturers (n.p.: Bond Wheelwright, 1960); Barbara M. Tucker, Samuel Slater and the Origins of the American Textile Industry 1790–1860 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell Univ. Press, 1984). The Cameron book was authorized by Slater’s descendants and subsidized by them.

14 Material about the Slaters is in part drawn from my own memories, but also from letters and diaries in my possession.

15 Interview with Joyce Bailey, October 14, 1994.

16 Fitzgerald interview. This material on Brown’s early days is culled from the Fitzgerald and Wickes interviews with Brown, as well as from family stories, and my own conversations with Brown.

17 Malcolm Cowley, A Second Flowering (New York: Viking, 1973), 90–92.

18 Ibid., 91.

19 Ibid.

20 Fitzgerald interview. [end page 151]

21 Wickes interview.

22 Ibid.

23 Stanford Pritchard, "My Friend B," Kenyon Review; XII-1, Winter 1990, 147–8.

24 The material on Précigné is culled from Wickes, Pritchard, and Fitzgerald interviews, as well as from family stories, and a letter from Brown’s brother, Fritz Brown, to me, December 16, 1992.

25 Fitzgerald interview.

26 Wickes interview.

27 Letter from Frederick Augustus Brown to Fritz Brown, February 5, 1918.

28 Interview with Fritz Brown.

29 Cowley, Exile’s Return, 69.

30 Ibid.

31 Louis Sheaffer, O’Neill: Son and Playwrite. Boston: Little Brown, 1968, 403.

32 Echoes, family newsletter, January 1920, Vol. II-2.

33 Fitzgerald interview.

34 Echoes, November 1919, II-1.

35 Fitzgerald interview.

36 Wickes interview.

37 Pritchard, Kenyon Review, 140.

38 Much of the material on Light comes from interviews with Susan Jenkins who was married to both Light and Brown, and was my aunt. See also Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O’Neill (New York: Harper, 1962); Martin Bauml Duberman, Paul Robeson (New York: Knopf, 1988); Robert Karoly Sarlos, Jig Cook and the Provincetown Players: Theater in Ferment (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1982).

39 New York Times, December 11, 1939, 14.

40 Edmund Wilson, The Thirties, Leon Edel, ed. (New York: Pocketbooks, 1980), 242.

41 Fitzgerald interview.

42 John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1925, 1953), 247.

43 Susan Jenkins Brown, Robber Rocks: Letters and Memories of Hart Crane 1923–1932 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1968–69).

44 Conversation with Susan Jenkins Brown.

45 Material from this period is from an interview with Brown’s daughter, Rachel Brown.

46 Personal conversation. [end page 152]

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