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

Later Barrie

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.

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7 thoughts on “

  1. Didn’t Barrie have serious emotional problems because his mother told him she wished he’d died instead of his brother? Or something? And didn’t he have some crazy stress-related growth disorder? Am I smoking crack?

    • All of this is somewhat true. Barrie’s brother, his mother’s favorite, did die, and he was so desperate to make his mother happy that he adopted some of the mannerisms of said brother. Which didn’t work. Again, breaks my heart.

      And he was less than five feet tall. But I don’t know if it was a growth disorder or just general unusual shortness.

      • My only source for information on Barrie is a lecture on stress I attended a million years ago. The guy argued that Barrie’s wee stature was a result of the phenomenal amounts of stress he underwent trying to please his mother etc. It was an interesting lecture but I don’t know how his facts check out in re: Barrie’s actual biography.

        I’m totally with you on the heartbreak of helpless old people thing, though. That would make me cry.

  2. I totally get where you’re coming from. When I was in high school, I read that Doris Lessing story about the old woman and her cat which ended, I believe, with the pitiful homeless woman dying and her cat being taken away to be euthanized. And I tore that story out of my book and burned it. Even now I can remember the horror and dread that settled on me when I read that story. I will never be able to forget it or erase it from my memory. If I could do Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on myself, that story would be gone (and there would also be post-it notes all around my apartment telling me to never read it).

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