A Summer in Italy, 1929 (Part 5)

Binkley Returns

RCB and one of the Victory sisters aboard the Arabic.

The beginning of the academic year at Smith College drew near, and Bob left Rome on the morning of Sept. 12. The leave-taking with Frances at the station was emotional. In the first of two letters he sent back to Frances that day, when the train stopped at Grosseto, he noted:

Hope that the unexpected reinforcement at the station, which saved us from a movie scene, saved you from weeping until you could get your nose into the Satevepost, as I have mine in Spengler.1

When the train crossed into his beloved France, he bought left- and right-wing newspapers at the first opportunity and rejoiced in the more congenial culture.

Whatever happens, I must give you a whole summer in France. I kept thinking this over and over again as I was coming through this country. And at Paris etc. same kind of incidents again – kindly servers, and no hand held out for a tip! Everyone happy & smiling. My gosh, this is a country. Better than America. I hate to go home[^2]

Frances and Bob wearing their berets.

In Paris he saw a show at the Comédie Française and bought berets for himself and Frances. On the 14th, their wedding anniversary, he left for Cherbourg and boarded the Arabic. Frances had not written in time to get a letter to him on the ship before it sailed, so he now faced the long gap during which no letters could pass between him and Rome:

It seems so strange that I will have to wait until 25 Sept. at the earliest to find out what happened after I left you day before yesterday, and it will require no less than 28 letters to keep you supplied till my first letters from New York can arrive. This is certainly an ample demonstration of the principle of relativity. Remember, it is cheating to open more than one letter a day.2

As it turned out he sent only enough letters to last until his cable should arrive from New York, leaving a gap of two weeks before Frances would have another letter. He attempted to amuse her with his usual nonsense:

Arriving at Cherbourg with a plateful of potato salad in my overcoat pocket, whom should I encounter, believe it or not, but all twenty seven of the people who had told me they wanted to go to America, and whom I had encouraged in this desire. They were all there, all with hopeful not to say wistful expressions on their respective countenances, for I had told them all that salaries were very high, and jobs easy to get. Fortunate it was that I had the potato salad in my pocket, for I drew this forth, and offered it to them, whereupon they each took a potato chip, and stuck it on their coat lapels with a bit of mayonnaise. “Fine,” I said, “you are all officers of the potato inspection service, now fall in line.” Then they fell in line and I marched them right up the gang plank of the ship – up one side and down the other. How they cheered me as I sailed away until a mere speck in the distance.3

Through the voyage Bob emphasized in his letters to Frances that he was getting a lot of rest, doing no work on preparing for his classes at Smith College. He enjoyed conversations with an architect named Swanson and hung out with a social crowd. He read Spengler, presumably The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes). This work was to have a great influence on his teaching: he held graduate seminars on it in 1931 and 1932 at least.4 The timelines in his unfinished undergraduate textbook A Sense of History are similar to Spengler’s system of periodicization, and the interdisciplinary approach in Realism and Nationalism (with chapters on science, art and literature) was probably also influenced. (I’ll have to write a fuller discussion in some future post, once I’ve read some Spengler.)

He continued to write daily letters to Frances, to be mailed on his arrival, though he sent the first two from Ireland when the ship touched briefly. During the ten days of the crossing he measured his and Frances’ life together against the lives of his fellow passengers. His cabin-mate was a young business-college graduate working for the Franklin Automobile Co., who longed for a career on the stage, and who called out anxiously in his sleep, “You can’t fire me now!”5 Bob rejoiced in his freedom from the stresses of the salary-man. The sweet young married couples reminded him of times when he and Frances were still mistaken for newlyweds, and he hoped they would continue so, at least when the baby was out of sight. He danced with girls who had not been through the “college mill”, and acknowledged the gulf that separated him from them. It all served to highlight the quality of his life with Frances:

I have been gloating again today – about you & me again. Just gloating & gloating. The minute I get away from you, I get an objective demonstration of how impossible it is for me to get along without you, and when I have a little time for day-dreaming, I find I am dreaming back about the episodes of our joint life – and what a fabric they are. Now there are the more recent ones to add to the rest – on the porch of the Belvedere looking over the bay of Naples, – in the room at the Nomentana having tea with you, all smiles & Bobbie insisting on sleeping – the Via Appia – the long long dinners in little cafes, especially when we went far out of town – the meeting with the Alliods – what a great budget of them we have. And what makes this transitory separation zestful is the thought of it as part of another unit, of another episode which includes meeting extravagantly and having much that will be new to share.6

This consciousness did not prevent him from competing with a French teacher named Louis Dufour, on his way to teach in Halifax, in trying to kiss one of a pair of Irish sisters — or from boasting of his success to Frances.

There are in particular two recruits which Frenchy & I brought in last night [to their social crowd] – two Irish girls whose last name is Victory.7 Frenchy said to me “Do you think we could kiss those girls.” “Hard to say,” I replied, “but we’ll find out.” So I took mine up on the upper deck, kissed her, and reported back to Frenchy that nothing was easier. But Frenchy had no luck. He said that all he could do was to kiss his girl’s hand. And in some way he frightened her off so that she won’t even walk the deck with him after dark.8

Dufour’s offence was to suggest that “any Irish girl would walk the deck with anybody.”9 Bob summed up the incident: “That just shows, by the way, how men are. As the words go in Frankie and Johnnie, you know.”10

In all of this Bob was working hard to raise Frances’s spirits, while rarely addressing directly the problems she might be having (which of course he could not know). He emphasizes how well their lives are going, how right they were not to try to travel with the baby right away, how much they have to look forward to in Northampton. He presents a vision of cloudless skies.

By the way, there are no icebergs in this season, nor in the season you will be in. This is just a sign that all the worrying you have probably done about this ship hitting an ice berg was wasted effort. So will all the rest of the worrying be wasted effort.11

In the tone of his letters he erred on the side of good cheer, but it is clear that he was concerned about Frances.

This voyage has been so restful to me, that I hope desperately that you too have been able to rest – to feel free & easy in all matters, and above all not to worry about me. It is hard for me not to worry about you, but I avoid it by picturing to myself you, having breakfast brought to you in bed, sitting at the window nursing Bobbie, walking on the Pincio with Caesarina, and being happy, and liking Rome not only for its memories of us two but for itself as well. And you must do the same for me – imagine me doing my work, happy, busy, and waiting for you, & loving you all the time.12

Apart from his normal optimism, this tone may have been sustainable because he had not yet fully absorbed the fact that the exciting new phase of their life would include a newborn. He rarely mentioned the baby. In one postscript he remarks: “Isn’t it funny – I find I am always thinking about you, not so much little Bobby. But I love him too.”13

The Arabic touched at Halifax on the 21st, and reached New York on Sept. 23.

I wish you could be here now to share in that strange excitement of changing the point of view. We passed Fire Island Lightship a few minutes ago; we will be in Quarantine at 10:00 A.M., and the dock by noon. And already everything changes color, beginning to appear in its land aspect. No longer the problem of passing time, but of using it; already at breakfast this morning the faces of my table mates seemed more strange, less familiar than they had been. Everyone returns to himself.14

Bob met the old gang at 49 Morton St. and picked up his mail, including proofs for two articles, in Social Forces and in the New Republic.15 Archie and Mollie Binns came in from Long Island and K.G. Robertson was there as well. The reunion dinner was at Ticino’s, Bob and Frances’s favourite restaurant, where Bob spoke “just enough Italian to show what I could do”, and where wine was now served in cups due to a police raid a few days before.16 Bob caught up on the scandals from the Morton St. crowd: the sub-lessee Amasa “Ted” Miller (who was acting as John Steinbeck’s literary agent at this time) and his fiancee Irma had quarrelled, and made up, and married. After dinner Bob took the train to Northampton and the new apartment on State St.

  1. Doc. 326: 1929-09-12. All letters cited in this posting are from RCB to FWB unless otherwise noted.↩︎

  2. Doc. 335: 1929-09-14.↩︎

  3. Doc. 331: 1929-09-13.↩︎

  4. Doc. 3799: RCB to William Grey, 1931-03-04; Doc. 3210: Anne Arnold to RCB, 1932-03-05.↩︎

  5. Doc. 331: 1929-09-13.↩︎

  6. Doc. 307: 1929-09-20.↩︎

  7. The passenger manifest lists Julia and Annie Victory, 28 and 30, of Castlepollard, Co. Westmeath, domestic servants.↩︎

  8. Doc. 323: 1929-09-18.↩︎

  9. Doc. 322: 1929-09-19.↩︎

  10. Doc. 306: 1929-09-29.↩︎

  11. Doc. 323: 1929-09-18.↩︎

  12. Doc. 318: 1929-09-21.↩︎

  13. Doc. 323: 1929-09-18.↩︎

  14. Doc. 317: 1929-09-23.↩︎

  15. Doc. 319: 1929-09-23: “Note on Preservation of Research Materials.” Social Forces 8, no. 1 (1929): 74–76 and “A Nation of Realtors.” New Republic 60, no. 775 (October 9, 1929): 196.↩︎

  16. Doc. 316: 1929-09-24.↩︎