READING THE KEY: Hello, Van Twiller and the Missing Guard

text etching on copperThis is a story of exploration, discovery and actualization. Read on.

The READING THE KEY series began with an erratic decision on my part. More than a year ago, I was in metal-etching mode. I did lots of etching into sheet metal that I had not yet used. Among this was some text from some antique books in my collection. I used the text as a graphic for etching, with no consideration for the author’s identity or even the story’s plot. I simply chose paragraphs with interesting phrases therein, intending them to one day stand alone in an enigmatic way. Several of them have been developed in that way in this series, but not all.

As I revisited these etchings, I decided to learn more about the writing itself. There was one in particular that kept prodding me. I had chosen a paragraph that begins, “To be weak and to scorn your weakness, and not to be able to conquer it, is, as has been said, a hard thing….” As it continues it characterizes a gentleman’s growing affection for a performer. Van Twiller goes nightly to view Mademoiselle Olympe Zabriski from a private box in the theater. It was a short story — Mademoiselle Olympe Zabriski (1901) — by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, included in a small volume published in 1927 — The World’s One Hundred Best Short Stories, Vol. 4, Love.

Moving beyond my initial erratic decision to use this passage, I decided to do my homework. I contacted a literary friend of mine to try to learn more about Aldrich. The exchange went something like this:

“Who is Thomas Bailey Aldrich?”

“Strange question. Why do you want to know?”

(Huh? Is this really a strange question? Now I’m curious.)

“Art project.”


She sent me generic biographical information about Aldrich, and explained how I could be fairly well-educated and never have studied or even heard of Aldrich, a writer who is said to have inspired Mark Twain to write Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn with his own Story of a Bad Boy (1870).Thomas Bailey Aldrich Typically well-received for his poetry, short stories and novels,  Aldrich wrote one poem in 1895 that changed the course of his career. Unguarded Gates provided commentary on the influx of immigrants into young America, and it is deemed either racist or xenophobic. And yet, political cartoons of the time demonstrate the enormous strain of the coming of new Americans, and Aldrich’s own circle of friends indicates that he held not a racist heart. In a letter to a friend Aldrich first announces the poem and states that he wrote it in anger after being robbed.

I concluded at this point that, at least for the literary canonization of Aldrich, Unguarded Gates was a turning point. I became fascinated with the contrast of this sweet love passage of Van Twiller with the hatred in Unguarded Gates. Pardon the generalization, but every human being has a dark side. Here that dichotomy is illustrated in the contrast of these two pieces of writing from the same author. This is not surprising information, just interesting as a portrait of the human condition.

A contrast of two writing samples from Thomas Bailey Aldrich

"Weakness Scorned" provides contrast of two writing samples from Thomas Bailey Aldrich

The result of all this for me is a small-scale sculpture. “Weakness Scorned” is a hinged metal structure resembling a book in form. The Van Twiller passage is readily viewable and presented on the exterior of the structure. The lettering is high and strong. The structure opens, just like a book, although reversed, to reveal a dark and ominous interior, which includes phrases from Unguarded Gates. It is unpleasant to view, and to minimize discomfort, I am often quick to close it.WEAKNESS SCORNED (detail)

When it is closed, the presence of text on the exterior of a book form is a little strange, and I hope a persistent viewer will question it. It is pleasant enough to view, and even reading it connotes a sweet story of love from afar. But even it is not what it seems.WEAKNESS SCORNED (detail)

Mademoiselle Olympe Zabriski is a story that can be found online in its entirety. (If you prefer to read the entire short story, click here and stop reading, because the next section will spoil the ending for you.) It is an understatement to say that it has a surprise ending, which is actually quite hilarious.

WEAKNESS SCORNED (detail)Fueled by a growing but silent admiration, the dignified, educated gentleman Van Twiller develops a practice of going to the theater to observe Mademoiselle Olympe Zabriski on the trapeze. He is mesmerized by her graceful, elegant, strong performance, and nightly he observes her from a private box in the theater and then comes away with a rapid heartbeat. His thoughts are soon occupied by her night and day. Eventually Van Twiller’s behavior is discovered by his wife. She requires him to leave the city for a period of visiting his mother in the country upstate. He acknowledges the prudence of this change and obliges, but before departing sends a gift to Mademoiselle Olympe via the theater. It is a lush diamond bracelet fit for a princess. As any gentleman would, he encloses his card. Soon thereafter he receives the following correspondence on theater stationery:

Mr. Van Twiller Dear Sir–i am verry greatfull to you for that Bracelett. it come just in the nic of time for me. The Mademoiselle Zabriski dodg is about Plaid out. my beard is getting to much for me. i shall have to grow a mustash and take to some other line of busyness, I dont no what now, but will let you no. You wont feel bad if i sell that Bracelett. i have seen Abrahams Moss and he says he will do the square thing. Pleas accep my thanks for youre Beautifull and Unexpected present.

Youre respectfull servent,

Charles Montmorenci Walters

Ha! Van Twiller gladly visits his mother, and then goes abroad.

So, in “Weakness Scorned” the dark side is hidden both literally and figuratively. I am leaving further response to the viewer.

A concept emerges

While exploring the power of the written word, my series  — Reading the Key — is about three things:

  • the impact of the writing on the writer,
  • the impact of the writing on the reader, and
  • the impact of the writing on collective thought.

Aldrich is seldom included in even alternative literary anthologies. Granted, literature isn’t my field, but it seems to me that one piece of writing tainted the rest of his work by casting a contemptuous shadow.

Writers and artists develop a style that is generally consistent even with a change in subject matter. Did Aldrich write with conflicting undertones from one piece to the next? Or maybe it’s not such a conflict after all.  Even the Van Twiller story has dark undertones in the actions of Van Twiller – being a married man obsessed with a performer who would not be a proper mate for him, following her nightly, lurking in the shadows to study her like an addict studies a fix.

The surprising ending is, though shocking, the truest part of the story. When addressed on a personal level by the gift of the bracelet, young Charles makes no mystery of his identity, expresses gratitude for the gift, and foreshadows his plans for future endeavors — all in that short, ill-written note to Van Twiller. On the surface, it first seems that Charles Montmorenci Walters is one with the dark side. But is he really? Isn’t it actually the lurking, voyeuristic Van Twiller?

Consider the reader.

Perhaps the reader of Mademoiselle Olympe Zabriski is slow to recognize the dark side in Van Twiller because as we are reading of his changes, as told by fellow gentleman acquaintenances, we are able to relate. We see ourselves in him. We may or may not ever recognize this correlation, but whether we identify consciously with him, or are repulsed by him, we are still changed forever in some small way for having known him.

How are we shaped by what we choose to read? How might the sentiment of Unguarded Gates, though formally rejected by academia, have shaped the collective consciousness that made the American Civil Rights Movement necessary a half-century later?

❧ Comments?


~ by gingermeekallen on April 23, 2009.

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