A commentary on Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel and Cambridge, Mass. in the 1920's


Albert H. Morehead

It is time, it is dangerously late, for someone to supply this item in Wolfeiana, and I do mean Thomas Wolfe who wrote Look Homeward, Angel, and Of Time and the River, and maybe one or two other books.

I have read the biographies. I know the standard equations. But I have read no annotation to Of Time and the River, Book I, section XXXVI, wherein on folios 287-304 of the original plates appear "Miss Potter" and her menage. I can tell you who they were and no one else is likely to; indeed, very few other now can.

Jack Liston could have. He was a polio sufferer, one of the most exemplary of all times -- forty operations, Cushing's prize patient, a graduate from wheelchair to crutches to cane to driving a car -- and he got his degree from Harvard in three years, '27 as of '28, but it was all too much for Jack's heart and when he was 47 he lay down one day and tranquilly died. Liston was a regular at "Miss Potter's", but he did not tell during his lifetime and now alas he cannot.

Paul Henle could have. He was a young and brilliant member of our class of 1929 at Harvard. He majored in philosophy (we didn't use "majored" in those days, but I think I'd better now so I'll be understood), then he went through law school because his family wanted him to, then he went straight back to philosophy. He taught the girls at Smith; he went to Ann Arbor and became a full professor; he left Michigan and went to Northwestern as an associate professor. "Why, " I asked him in Chicago, "did you give up a full professorship there to take an associate professorship here?" He gave me the full professorial scowl, as to a backward pupil. "More money," he said. But a few years later he went back to Michigan, as head of the department of philosophy, and that is where he died, aged 52.

Adrien Gambet could have. He was graduated from Harvard in 1925 and that fall he entered Andover Theological Seminar. He wasn't religious, and being a brilliant scholar he had offers from several post-graduate schools. I asked him why he chose divinity school. "More money," he said. Even today's generation of Harvard students, forty years after, can feel some bond with their fellow alumnus Adrien Gambet because he was a co-founder of the Grolier Bookshop in Harvard Square, which his original partner Gordon Cairne carries on. Gambet, a cat lover, had two cats and promised one to a friend. He called the next day to renege. "My wife and I talked it over," he explained, "and we didn't feel we'd be comfortable without a spare cat." On Gambet's first visit to "Miss Potter's" the dear scatterbrained old lady could not deconfuse him from the Italian Gambetta and ultimately, getting the name right for once, exclaimed "Mr. Gambet [guhm'bei], wherever did you get such a peculiar name?" "It runs in the family, Miss Carrie," he explained gravely. But Gambet cannot tell about the fictional Miss Potter and who she really was. Gambet died in 1949 when he was 46.

Richard Thornton could have. He was the brashest of the youths attendant on "Miss Potter's" salon and the most unconventional -- red wool socks and Greek sandals with dinner jacket. So could have Bernard Eliasberg of Selma, Alabama, the shyest of the regular attendants, perhaps the only introvert in that gaggle of compulsive conversationalists. Thornton once asked and received permission of "Miss Potter" to give a tea for his friends in the large room under the eaves that she used for her salon, but when he arrived with canister, two loaves of cheap bread, and nothing to go with it but a pound of butter, he found "Miss Potter" already established behind her tea table with the pot bubbling and the usual platters of sandwiches and cakes awaiting his guests. "In my house," she said, "I always pour." Alas, neither Thornton nor Eliasberg can attest. They did not even stay for the untimely natural deaths that did devour the noble Liston, Gambet, Henle, and Tom Wolfe himself. Thornton, the athletic type, contrived his end by swimming out to sea beyond the point of no return. Eliasberg, the sedentary type, stood up for it. He hanged himself. Each before he was 30.

The ancients, those whose words of wisdom we went to hear, did not die untimely; but all this was forty years ago and they were elderly then, so they are gone. Harry Dana, nephew of Longfellow, was one of them. Others included Professors Taussig and M¸nsterberg, who respectively inspired and occupied the title role in the [Harvard] Lampoon's celebrated parody on Jabberwocky ("'Twas Taussig, and the Bushnell Hart/ . . . Beware the M¸nsterberg, my son/ He'll read your mind, you bet he can . . . "). There were two professors Carver, unrelated. There was the Workshop Baker before he left for Yale. There was the celebrated Sophie Hart, professor of English and arbiter of maidenly taste at Wellesley. There were other professors and a smattering of instructors. There were the bright young students, whose presence attracted the professors, authors, journalists, and elderly intellectuals, just as the elders' presence attracted them. Another inducement to the students was the pretty girls whom "Miss Potter," a wise old maid, introduced from time to time. Within my period as a "Potter" courtier I met five of them and I made passes at all five with a .400 batting average -- made it twice, struck out three times. My classmate Harris Hanley, whom I haven't seen since 1927, knows and knows well. He actually lived at "Miss Potter's" as a PG. According to our latest class directory he like me has thwarted the Fates that consumed so many of my college intimates too soon, far too soon. But he has not told, and I cannot risk the chance that he never will.

Richard Dubonnet, one of the regulars for a time, may be alive. I think probably he is. He would only be in his early sixties now and he appeared to be indestructible. He was called "Spud" for some reason and he was the strongest man I ever knew, the lift-a-heavy-table-with-thumb-and-forefinger, tear-a-telephone-book-in-half, put-your-fist-through-an-oak-door type. Spud was an earthy semi-literate and he attended the salons to acquire culture because he was contemplating holy matrimony with a Miss Rosamond Gregor, a Scottish post-post-debutante who spoke only in the loftiest terms. She arose each morning and attired herself. She wore garments upon her person and hose upon her limbs. She retired each night, having donned her nightdress. And at that point she must have become an entirely different female or I didn't know my Spud. The marriage never came off and I would be the last to pry into the reasons. Spud was a regular at "Miss Potter's" at the same time as the then unknown Tom Wolfe. But I have had no contact with Spud for nearly thirty-five years.

That leaves my older brother and me. At "Miss Potter's" my brother was a celebrity, the never-defeated champion at Guggenheim. Also he writes better than I do. But since my brother is too busy, it is up to me to make the definitive report on Thomas Wolfe's "Miss Potter."

In real life she was a Miss Caroline Norcross and her residence was indeed a Victorian house on Garden Street in Cambridge, in the block just beyond and in sight of the Common where George Washington assumed command of the Continental Armies.

Wolfe's "Miss Flitcroft," companion to "Miss Potter," is a composite of Miss Norcross's lifelong friend Miss Leonora Loveman of Nashville (probably a Stein-Toklas relationship with or without the sexual overtones) and Miss Norcross's hunchbacked sister, Miss Mary, who was carefully secluded in her room on the Jane Eyre theme, seldom emerging except for the ceremonial Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners when only "family" was present. I ranked as family, being some kind of distant connection, so I knew Miss Mary.

Leonora Loveman

Miss Norcross was always called "Miss Carrie," which some of her irreverent student-courtiers inevitably corrupted to "miscarriage" when speaking about her. I will not attempt to improve on Wolfe's description of her, nor even on his composite portrait of Miss Mary and Miss Leonora, though in the latter he was inaccurate whether deliberately or through fault of memory. Miss Leonora did not wear "a band of velvet" around her neck, unless Wolfe was sufficiently intimate with her to see her occasionally in a condition that she would have considered almost total undress. Miss Leonora, like Miss Carrie, wore a collar, an antique style of necklace that had no hang and was composed of linked large ornaments, possibly constructed of precious stones for the very rich but only jade, jet, opal, agate, rhinestone, amethyst, turquoise, or suchlike semi-preciousnesses among the merely affluent -- each stone in its longest dimension at least 3/4 inch and set in gold, perhaps within a ring of seed pearls. It was just as important among the upper middle classes to surround the female neck with a collar as it was in court society to crown the female head with a tiara.

By process of simplification, Wolfe also confused Miss Carrie with her sister Miss Mary when he wrote of the choking, gasping, striving for breath. It was not Miss Carrie who did that but Miss Mary, and it might have been either Miss Leonora or Miss Carrie who did the back-pounding and the scolding -- it might even, on occasion, have been me.

Wolfe also distorted, and perhaps never knew, the true relationship between Miss Carrie and Miss Leonora. Miss Leonora was not a retainer, not a companion in an inferior position. Miss Leonora was the rich one. She paid the taxes, the three servants, and the general overhead including annual trips to Europe. If Miss Leonora had been as effective a literary light as her cousin Amy Loveman of the Book-of-the-Month Club, she might have retained enough money to leave Miss Carrie a full competence; but since Miss Leonora not only spent beyond her means but also wrote several books and had to pay vanity publishers to get them into print, she was able when she died in the middle '20's to bequeath to Miss Carrie only a small number of thousands of dollars each year. Nothing cost as much then as it does now, but those few thousands were still not enough to maintain a 17-room house with a cook, two maids, and a neo-Tudor table, whereupon Miss Carrie resorted to that traditional device of genteel, elderly Victorian ladies and let it be known that she could be prevailed upon to entertain PGs. In case the euphemism has become obsolete, I shall explain that it means "paying guests," in a word "boarders."

There was no difficulty. The number of applicants for the guest rooms and the formally served meals at Miss Norcrosses house constituted a demand that exceeded the supply by ten to one. Miss Carrie could pick and choose and she puck and chose. She charged high prices for those times -- I believe $80 a week, today equivalent to about $240 a week. Ability to pay was no passport. The social standing of the PG had to be incontestable -- Cambridge intellectuals, Boston Brahmins, and Southerners (on whom Miss Carrie specialized, perhaps influenced by Miss Leonora's memory) who were grandchildren of Confederate generals or senators. Anyone in the student ages had to be attending Harvard or Radcliffe. Being a spinster, Miss Carrie preferred women so Radcliffe predominated. Miss Carrie considered herself the perpetual chaperone of her young female charges, but beamed on all their romantic bouts provided she approved of the eligibility of the young male. Once one of her girls was found to be in an embarrassing condition and was sent home to South Carolina in disgrace. All five of the girl's brothers converged on Boston to investigate and avenge, but the impregnatee never revealed the impregnator's name. It was the most delicious experience of Miss Carriers life. En famille in her downstairs parlor, or over raisins and uncracked nuts after dinner, or sometimes in her salon, she could not resist the topic, expressing abhorrence while gloating.

The downstairs parlor, where only family (including me) and special intimates could be received, was no more nor less than one would expect in a substantial house built about 1840. The salon was a different matter. Its home was on the second (fourth) story, two pairs of stairs up from the entrance floor, which itself was one level above kitchen, laundry, and servants' parlor and dining room. The slant of the roof extended to and eccentrically distorted the salon room, though there was space for an atticful of servants' bedrooms above it. One wall of the salon was hung with a fishing net once used by Miss Carrie's grandfather, not a fisherman but a shipowner-master whose sailors lived on the catch of fresh fish during voyages. The net was studded with abalone shells, oriental curios, printed invitations and holograph letters from names then eminent, and here and there a rare item of China china.

Miss Caroline Norcross was then about 70. She and her younger sister Miss Mary were the residual portion of a New England family that may not have spoken to God but were invited to parties of Hallowells, Cabots, Lowells, Saltonstalls, and Adamses. One of Miss Carrie's older sisters is in "Little Women" as the girl who arrived at the party too late. Father Norcross had been in the China trade and the cellar of the Garden Street house was packed high with fancy china pieces, not figurines in the Dresden and Meissen manner nor so flat as Lowestoft and Doulton, but cake plates and bonbon dishes and lemon trays for tea, plus teapots and slop bowls and creamers and cherry sinks, with filigree and mock lace, into which large stock Miss Carrie would delve each Christmas and Easter for gifts in friendship or duty -- by Christmas-dinner attendance I acquired several Norcross bits of china that are about the house still, such as probably cost Miss Carrie's father or grandfather a few pence apiece and might not be worth more than a few dollars apiece today.

In the salon Miss Carrie sat in the center of a banquette, a large circular tea table in front of her, with capacious teapot and hot [water] pot and caddy and slop jar, "sinks" full of brandied cherries and candied ginger, and large trays of sandwiches, crusts trimmed, and petits fours and cookies, the dishes being of porcelain. At her right was a hostess mirror, convex so she could see though in distorted image all persons and corners in the rambling room, which perhaps in its maximal dimensions was 30 x 20 feet. She handed out "tea" (plate, napkin on plate, saucer over napkin, cup over saucer, and take your own sandwich and cake) in due order of precedence. Harry Dana always came first even if President Lowell was there. Actually President Lowell never was there when I was, but I was told that he had been there, and Mrs. Lowell often was there complete with "work" (knitting, crocheting, embroidering, tatting).

We soon learned to remove napkin from between plate and saucer without spilling the tea, and then to handle (it is the precise term) plate and tea and cake or sandwich with thumb and three fingers, napkin between the fourth and little fingers, all on one knee, the other hand kept free for gesticulation because this was a salon, not a tea party. The technique is a feat of finger ability, utilizing the human advantage of the opposed thumb.

In this milieu Tom Wolfe was neither a celebrity nor a nonentity. He was remembered in the late '20's, before his first book came out, but I never heard it said that "This young man will go far." Certain frequenters of Miss Carrie's salon probably claimed, later, to have said it. To Wolfe, as to his character Ten Eyck, Miss Carrie's house no doubt represented security -- at least a partial free meal, sandwiches and cake, which in my college times and the imminent Depression times was a prime desideratum, and occasionally a full free meal, which was a bonanza. Miss Carrie did not like to sit down with fewer than eight at table, and strictly she believed ten to be the lowest respectable number. She always had dinner prepared for ten or twelve; and if her previous plans had not filled her table, she would issue invitations with delicate appreciation of protocol. I hope it will not be considered invidious if I say that I was very high on the list, or if I say that Wolfe was not. Family consciousness invoked the favoritism toward me; mild disapprobation of extravagant or iconoclastic utterances may have militated against Wolfe and a few others, although Miss Carrie fully appreciated the fact that the representation of such sentiments was essential to the success of her salon and her deprecation of them was as insincere as her condemnation of the pregnant miss.

Dinner at Miss Carrie's was fixed at 12 noon on Sundays, Christmas, and Thanksgiving, but was served precisely thirty minutes late; on other days the time was 7:30 p.m. and dinner was served as scheduled. A dinner guest at Miss Carrie's acquired total understanding of a term that was even then an archaism, "soup to nuts." The items varied (though slightly); the courses were always the same in number and nature.

Anna was president of the kitchen. She was an Irishwoman of stature imposing for her times, big-boned and sturdy, well-nourished and thoroughly corseted despite which facts and the calorific effect of her four coal-burning ranges she never showed visible evidence of perspiration. When I met her in 1924 she probably was not beyond 45 but to me, aged 15, she seemed older. Anna was an artist but also she was a conservative who did not believe in varying one's technique. In her kitchen she was probably aided by the third maid, of whom I was never fully aware, who slipped like a wraith through the halls and was subject to as much turnover as a third maid can be in an old maids' household, but I would guess that Anna received more help from the chief and permanent maid, Mary.

Mary served the meals. She was an Irishwoman only somewhat younger and smaller than Anna. She wore a stiff black skirt, a shirtwaist so heavily starched that it might have done subsidiary duty as the abutment of a bridge, and a cap as a badge of office. Conversational care in designation precluded any confusion in reference between Mary and Miss Mary.

Service was in American style, as elegant as the Russian or the French but much different. Soup and fish out of the way, on Miss Carrie's service plate were placed, one by one, the dinner plates of the guests. Miss Carrie, after perfunctory consultation with the recipient, filled each plate from the ample and varied platters and bowls that Mary had arranged before her in an arc of admirable composition. Each successive plate having been filled -- that is the word -- Miss Carrie leaned as far back as one can when her bust extends fifteen inches before her and nodded in the direction of the person who was to receive it. Thereupon Mary lifted the filled plate from off Miss Carrie's service plate, exchanged it for the service plate of the designated guest, placed the service plate on the sideboard, and from the sideboard gave Miss Carrie another dinner plate to fill, standing beside Miss Carrie to await fulfillment of the next plate and the directional nod. Mary was not deaf and besides she must have known who would be next in order, but she always waited.

Quality and quantity vied with each other. To leave Miss Carrie's table was to be overstuffed. Perhaps Ten Eyck and Eugene Gant thought this a privilege, but I never felt anything less than discomfort and often it was acute distress.

The soup came first and it was always a thick soup, prepoured into large soup plates, brought intact from the kitchen without spilling, and eaten with spoons larger than today's serving spoons.

Then fish, for was this not a New England house? Fish like soup was parceled out in the kitchen. There was no second helping of soup or fish unless someone, by exclaiming with delight, elicited an offer to everyone; but when this did occur there was always enough.

The meat! Flesh or fowl, roast beef or turkey or whatever, it was sliced by Anna in the kitchen and when the platter was set before Miss Carrie she had only to lift off the slices. With the meat were served no fewer, no more than five vegetables. To each some of each; only by desperate effort could I keep spinach off my plate.

Everyone having been served, the arc of platters and bowls that had hemmed in Miss Carrie was transferred to the sideboard, whence in due time they would be passed as often as indicated for self-help in the French manner. Anna had now emerged from the kitchen to pass along with Mary, accepting earned compliments on her way. By this time the neat pile of eight, ten or twelve (or more) dinner plates had vanished from the sideboard, making way for as neat a pile of so many service plates.

Salad, served separately; usually a slice of lettuce, dark green and ragged in the Boston tradition, with a dressing for those who relished it and a cut-glass salt cellar plus tiny perforated sterling shaker-spoon for those who take their lettuce neat. Once I took my friend John Boyle 0'Reilly (a great-nephew) to dinner at Miss Carrie's. He was impressed by the new freedom of her guests in cutting their lettuce with their knives. She was appalled by the very idea of having a dinner guest with an Irish name; but I found occasion to emphasize his preliminary "John Boyle" and suddenly she was reassured to the point of obsequiousness.

Three desserts. Always coffee gelatin, Anna's speciality. She brewed very strong coffee with sugar added in about three parts for two of coffee, a dash of vanilla, and just enough gelatin added before chilling. It always turned out perfect. Two pies. One squash pie. One fruit pie in season, but mince pie from Thanksgiving through Christmas.

The major ordeal passed, the terminal ordeal began. Individual dishes of nuts and raisins were placed before the victims and for one full additional hour everyone had to sit and munch and talk while every muscle in his body cried for release to run outside or to another room or closet of the house. The raisins were always in clusters, dried. The nuts were always in the shell with Georgian nutcrackers and nutpicks. The center of the table held a heaping large bowl, decorative in effect but conceived to replenish any personal supply that might become exhausted. I never saw this happen.

No wine or hard liquor was served in the Norcross house, nothing alcoholic except the brandied cherries that went into the tea, and after the salon there was no tea. There was no coffee, except in the gelatin, at the dinner table. There had been cider (sweet) if the meat dish was a fowl; otherwise only desperation could sufficiently dent a teen-aged boy's diffidence to induce him to ask that his water goblet (the best crystal) be refilled. Withdrawal of the ladies, leaving the men to port and uninhibited colloquy, would have been repugnant to Miss Carrie's philosophy. Coffee in small cups was served in the downstairs parlor, after an hour over the nuts.

Somehow the critical period always did pass, seconds before one could no longer resist the impulse to scream and go berserk, and everyone repaired to the parlor to indulge in polite conversation. Art and literature were the preferred topics, pedagogic gossip (Harvard, Radcliffe and Wellesley only) was acceptable, plus politics in season. Honorifics were de rigueur: Mr. McKinley, Lord Byron, President [of Princeton?] Wilson, and (we being in Massachusetts) Governor Coolidge, who was at that time President of the United States. Very slightly shocking doctrines, such as the Freudian, were pleasurably received if they were couched in sufficiently euphemistic language. It was treading a dangerous course to skirt the unspeakable, but the reward was commensurate: Be original in the right way and become summus gratus; transgress and not be invited again. We courted the former; where else in metropolitan Boston could one so well realize the goal of all collegians, the free meal?

Quite late, sometimes after ten o'clock, we went home.