There’s this scene in Finding Forrester, when the grizzled old writer William Forrester (Sean Connery) and his protege Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown) are at Madison Square Garden. Jamal asks William to wait for him while he goes to get their tickets, but William gets swept up in the crowd and ends up disoriented and panicked. This scene makes me cry every single time. If there’s one thing that gets to me, it’s an older person who was once strong and independent and commanding reduced to this weird, confused vulnerability.
And as I was reading J. M. Barrie’s dedication of Peter Pan to the five Davies boys, I ran across this:
“On Monday, as it seems, I was escorting No. 5 [Nico Davies] to a children’s party and brushing his hair in the ante-room; and by Thursday he is placing me against the wall of an underground station and saying, ‘Now I am going to get the tickets; don’t move till I come back for you or you’ll lose yourself.'”
I think it’s the words “placing me against a wall” that get me. It’s hard to understand without reading the entire dedication and indeed without reading a lot of Barrie (and in particular his novel The Little White Bird) just how powerfully sad this passage is. Barrie had become the guardian of the Davies boys after their parents died of cancer, and while there are many accounts of how happy he was in taking care of them, there are just as many examples of how it all seemed to fall apart. The eldest, George, was killed in World War I. Michael drowned in his college years, very likely a suicide. And Peter, after having a falling-out with Barrie about Peter’s relationship with a married woman, became an alcoholic and threw himself under a train. Peter had begun to call Peter Pan “that terrible masterpiece,” and was cruelly vocal about how much he hated being so closely associated with the title character. So while a lot of critics have written about Peter Pan as Barrie’s attempt to keep the boys young, at least inside of a book, it seems more like Barrie was the one staying behind, still a boy, as all of his closest companions left him.
I’ve found that in reading and writing about authors like Barrie I have this weird desire to protect them. (And protect Barrie, in particular, against charges of pedophilia, which in his case seem extremely unlikely… It’s harder to make this case for Lewis Carroll.) So much of what Barrie wrote is so sad and so exhausted. The Barrie website — maintained by the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, which still holds rights to Peter Pan — includes a lot of photographs of Barrie early and late in life, and there’s something really troubling about
Barrie playing with Michael, 1906
Of course much of this is in my head and probably part of some larger, personal discomfort with aging in general. And maybe that’s why I’m writing about children’s literature, which, while written for children, is almost always saturated not just with growing up but with growing old. Thinking back on some of the literature I’ve really enjoyed, this is kind of a prominent theme, really. T. S. Eliot’s “Among School Children,” for example. Or Henry Taylor’s poem “Shapes, Vanishings.” Or Peter Pan. Or The Little White Bird.
This is the strange part about beginning work on my disseration, because researching a seminar paper was a much shorter process, and I didn’t really have as much opportunity to see how my academic interests really intersect with these unexplainable mental tics I have. Like crying about old men lost in Madison Square Garden, or wanting to stand with Barrie against the wall in the subway, just so he’s not alone.