Ushant Essay - Critical Essays

Conrad Aiken


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The “beginning without beginning” that affects D. throughout his life, and which is the source of his creative voyage toward both Ushant and the self-destructive elements in his life, lies in his discovery, at age eleven, of the bodies of his parents, whose bitter quarrel had resulted in a murder-suicide. He sees part of his quest as the attempt to reconcile these parents in himself and to deal with their deaths through his art. The chosen action for D. is to journey back and forth across the Atlantic, and the resolution of his odyssey will be the reconciliation of the opposites of his life through creativity.

The book’s six sections follow in the most general way the chronology of events in D.’s life, shifting time and place continuously. After the initial introduction to the form and method of the book and the appearance of D.’s cabin mates and the four translators of his life, D. returns to the world of his childhood and the images of his parents: the lackluster mother and the elegant, handsome doctor father. D. describes his house in Savannah and its two doors, one leading to the stately lawn and graceful garden and the other to the back streets and raw adventures. This dualistic view pervades the entire book, especially when D. is comparing England and the United States, his mother and father, Savannah and Boston, or East and West, and it clearly adds to his fears as a child and the ambiguities of his self-image as a man and an artist. At this point, D. does not tell how his parents died but only of his sense of dislocation when he was moved from Savannah to New England to be cared for by cousins, aunts, and uncles.

Section 2 of Ushant moves to the world of New England; it describes D.’s first recognition that he is caught between two worlds, a pattern which is repeated throughout his life and which leads him ultimately, though with difficulty, to a reconciliation of the two. D. remembers himself as a source of embarrassment to the family because of his parents’ deaths. He is passed from house to house until the family recognizes that it needs him as much as he needs them in order to deal with the guilt and sadness connected with past events. The portrayals of Aunt Sybil, the Beloved Uncle, and the powerful Aunt Maud are striking, particularly when D. contrasts their northern coolness and firmness with exciting, passionate Savannah, a place of beauty and “incredible and cruel fertility.” Nevertheless, it is in Boston, Concord, and later Cambridge that D. develops his poetry, that “deepest and most secret habit of his nature.”

These accounts of D.’s childhood are the most affecting sections of the book, because they are mainly centered on character portraits of the family past. The influences of environment and heredity become marvelously mixed when D. tells of ninety-five-year-old Aunt Jean, who, in her delirium, confuses D. with various family members who lived in the nineteenth century. In this scene, D. becomes a composite portrait of five generations; he feels a queer combination of anonymity and identity within the structure of his family, an ambiguity which he in turn passes on to the three D.’s who are his children. In his way, all D.’s relatives help compose the moving pattern of his life. Perhaps most significant, Aunt Sybil and the Beloved Uncle allow D. to see the portfolio of his father’s poems, thereby helping him to exorcise his guilt and shame and encouraging his desire to write by showing him that writing was a “family habit.”

The third section of the narrative centers on D.’s excursion into the world of Bloomsbury after his break with Harvard University. It begins with a contrast between D.’s adventurous Cousin Del, whose passion for ships and the sea D. shares, and the Frightened Uncle, who always sat on the fence and never learned to live. Though D. is not given to some of the dangerous exploits of his cousin, he does heed the words of the uncle who tells D. not to make his mistake. Consequently, D. decides to leave Harvard after a year and spend time in London. It is here that he meets Tsetse (T.S. Eliot), of whom he had heard at Harvard, and other American literary lights, most of whom, in the tradition of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, have returned to the motherland of the English language. D., speaking now as the poet, sees this as symbolic and describes people and places in England metaphorically. For example, he refers to his three...

(The entire section is 1822 words.)