"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
There are certain books that become a permanent part of your life, like an old tree that stands at the bend of a favorite path. You may not notice them, but if they were taken away, the world would be less mysterious, less friendly, less itself.
“The Wind in the Willows,” published 100 years ago this year, is one of those books. I first read Kenneth Grahame’s classic when I was 14, and I have been going back to it ever since. I just read it again, and its wonders seem greater than ever, its colors more glowing, its language more miraculous. Although it is uniquely mixed in style and matter, moving effortlessly from deadpan observation to piercing lyricism to raucous comedy to incantatory mysticism, it is a complete world. And like the old friend that it is, it always welcomes you back.
At the end of the fifth of its 12 perfect chapters, the Mole, who has rediscovered his old home, lays his head on his pillow in utter contentment. “But ere he closed his eyes he let them wander round his old room, mellow in the glow of the firelight that played or rested on familiar and friendly things which had long been unconsciously a part of him, and now smilingly received him back, without rancor.” Opening “The Wind in the Willows” again always feels like that to me.
Millions of other people share that feeling. Since its first publication, it has been issued in over a hundred editions and translated into many languages, with annual sales figures running into the hundreds of thousands. With Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia,” it is one of those rare books that speaks with the same eloquence to children and adults — and is equally beloved by both.
The pleasures of “The Wind in the Willows” are endless. Take the scene where Rat and Mole meet. Mole is shy. Rat rows across the river. Rat invites Mole to a picnic lunch. Afterward, Rat casually says, “Look here! I really think you had better come and stop with me for a little time.” Mole accepts, moves into Rat’s house, and as far as we know he is living there still. It’s an evocation of friendship right out of a fairy tale, where the prince and the princess fall in love at first sight. But it’s a fairy tale that Grahame makes real, capturing that moment when two people suddenly realize, without fanfare, that they’d rather spend time with each other than do anything else.
There is the deliciously dry account of what happens after Rat and Mole determine to make sure that Toad, who had shirked all caravan chores the previous morning, does his fair share of work. “In consequence, when the time came for starting next morning, Toad was by no means so rapturous about the simplicity of the primitive life, and indeed attempted to resume his place in his bunk, whence he was hauled by force.”
And always, there is the glorious language. It is apples and oranges to compare Grahame and the two other masters of genre-blurring imaginative prose, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Grahame cannot rival Tolkien’s epic grandeur, nor does he possess Lewis’ double ability to create completely different imaginary worlds and weave vivid and intricate stories. But neither of those geniuses handle English the way he does. Tolkien knows only the high style, and Lewis’ solid prose never soars. Grahame is the inheritor of the stately style of Thomas Browne and the lyrical effusions of Wordsworth, with a little Dickens and P.G. Wodehouse thrown in as ballast.
The book opens with a straightforward sentence: “The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.” But then one sentence later we come upon this: “Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.” Divine discontent and longing? It is only a hint of things to come, but just three sentences into the book we know we’re about to take a magic carpet ride on words so perfectly weighted, so musical, so right, that they fly all by themselves. The last line of the chapter is: “He learnt to swim and to row, and entered into the joy of running water; and with his ear to the reed-stems he caught, at intervals, something of what the wind went whispering so constantly among them.” If that sentence doesn’t give you goose bumps as if you were simultaneously riding in a canoe slipping through cat tails and approaching a Wordsworthian vision, you need to tune up your ear and your heart.
Grahame described “The Wind in the Willows” as “a book of Youth and so perhaps chiefly for Youth, and those who still keep the spirit of youth alive in them: of life, sunshine, running water, woodlands, dusty roads, winter firesides.” He was right, of course. And yet “The Wind in the Willows” is not the same book read at age 14 as it is at 55. For a child, “The Wind in the Willows” is the fantastic story of the adventures of four unforgettable animals, the Mole, the Rat, the Badger and, above all, the irrepressible Toad. (No discussion of Grahame’s book can fail to mention the perfect illustrations by Ernest Shepard, which have delighted generations of children and adults. When he met with Shepard, the aging Grahame simply said, “I love these little people, be kind to them.”) Mole’s terrible night in the Wild Wood, Rat’s huge pile of weapons, Badger’s secret tunnels and Toad’s wild escapades are simply irresistible. As a child you’re dimly aware of the darker, more complex notes of loss and longing and redemption, but those things remain at the edge of your field of vision. As an adult, those haunting notes become an inseparable part of your enjoyment, the way a connoisseur of wine learns to appreciate the subtlety of less obvious flavors. It is a book of happy dreams, and as you begin to realize how many of your own dreams will never come true, Grahame’s tale appears lit not just by the brilliant sun of noon but by the golden light of late afternoon.
“The Wind in the Willows” can be so many books during one reader’s lifetime because it is more than one book to begin with. It is at once a children’s book and an adult book, a wish-fulfillment and a satire, a comic adventure story and a poetic bildungsroman, the rollicking story of Toad and the inward-turning story of Mole. It exists half in the human world, half in the animal: the very nature of its four-legged characters is unstable. And it also tells the secret story of its author — a story few know, and one as profoundly sad as the book is profoundly happy. You do not have to know anything about Grahame to appreciate his masterpiece: “The Wind in the Willows” is great precisely because it cannot be reduced to either the facts of his life or to its historical context
In his superb biography “Beyond the Wild Wood: The World of Kenneth Grahame,” the eminent classicist Peter Green reveals that Grahame’s spirit was tragically riven. He could never reconcile the ideal vision of his youth with the reality of what his life had become. It was the tension between his dreams and the fallen reality that produced a masterpiece.
Grahame’s mother died when he was 5, and his weak, shattered father soon vanished from the family. Deprived of human love, raised by a dutiful but far from nurturing grandmother, the young Grahame was an outsider, who found his only solace in the British countryside and in solitude. He never lost his taste for either. The natural world, in a sense, took the place of human beings for Grahame: He once said to his wife, “You like people. They interest you. But I am interested in places!” This is not to say that Grahame was a wild man, a hermit, an unsocialized visionary. His pathos consisted precisely of the fact that he was a well-adjusted, dutiful member of society — but was never able to forget the “Golden City” he half-possessed as a child. C.L. Hinds, who was a guest at a regular Sunday gathering held at the house of Grahame’s first editor, W.E. Henley, described the 32-year-old Grahame as having “a startled air, as a fawn might show who suddenly found himself on Boston Common, quite prepared to go through with the adventure, as a well-bred fawn should do under any circumstances, but unable to escape wholly from the memory of the glades and woods whence he had come.”
Grahame’s first book, “The Golden Age,” was a series of thinly fictionalized autobiographical tales about his childhood. At once tough-minded and exquisitely sensitive, its elegant prose at times feels dated, but the book retains a quality of vivid, unmediated memory that recalls both Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer” and the Romantic poets. Those reviewers who were in thrall to the sentimental Victorian cult of childhood were horrified by its irreverence; Grahame mockingly refers to adults as “the Olympians” throughout — but it was an instant literary sensation and made Grahame’s name. (One of its admirers, and later a huge fan of “The Wind in the Willows,” was Teddy Roosevelt.)
The fault line in Grahame’s imaginative life between childhood and adulthood was echoed in his career. Grahame was an unlikely and peripheral member of the self-consciously “decadent” writers and artists associated with the aggressively “modern” journal the Yellow Book, a group that included Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde. At the same time, he was holding down an ultra-respectable job at the Bank of England, a post that he found constraining, but which he was never able to break away from. He spent most of his adult life as the secretary of the bank. (In the most bizarre episode of his career, a crazed socialist walked into the bank’s offices and opened fire at him with a gun, fortunately missing him.)
Like many of his literary contemporaries, Grahame was deeply affected by the cataclysmic societal changes of the late 19th century. Born in the heart of Victorian England, he watched with dismay the rise of the working class and the slow destruction of the old agrarian/aristocratic way of life, the triumph of the railroad and the motor car. Spiritually conservative by temperament, he took refuge for a time in paganism and the then-popular literary enthusiasm for the god Pan, but was too much of a realist to cling to pretty or grandiose illusions, whether pantheistic or aesthetic. He had to make his own idyll.
The great misfortune of Grahame’s life was his marriage. A lifelong solitary, he was perhaps not suited for marriage: There are no female characters in “The Wind in the Willows,” and male friendship is exalted above all other forms of human interaction. Asked by his publisher to describe the book, he tellingly wrote that it was “clean of the clash of sex.” But whether or not he should have mated, his wife, Elspeth Thomson, was the worst possible spouse. Pretentious, manipulative, sentimental and prone to self-aggrandizing illusions, she convinced herself and Grahame that they shared the same dreamy artistic vision. The baby-talk letters this surpassing master of English prose wrote to her are almost unreadable: “Darlin Minkie Ope youre makin steddy progress & beginning ter think of oppin outer yer nest & avin a short fly round.” Their marriage was almost immediately a bitter disappointment to them both, devoid of passion and filled with long separations. They did manage to have a child, Alastair, but that happy event ended in tragedy.
This, then, was the complex, wounded, decent, self-betraying, childlike, unlucky, exceptionally sensitive man who in 1907, at age 48, began writing a book based on the bedtime stories he had told his son. Green argues that if Grahame had not married Elspeth, it is highly unlikely that he would have written his masterpiece. Grahame may have been close to leaving his wife in 1907, but he did not; once he made the decision to stay, a door closed that would never open again. “[F]or the last time, Grahame compromised,” Green eloquently writes. “The dream of the solitary traveler was abandoned for ever. There would be no escape now, no enchanted and lonely pursuit of the warm, elusive Southern mirage, no miraculous new life. It was over and finished. And yet not quite finished: For one outlet still remained through which Grahame could obtain the emotional release he so desperately needed. Like Rat, he took a pencil and a few sheets of paper; he sucked and he scribbled; and out of his despair and yearning a classic was born.”
In his quiet extremis, by a kind of miraculous fictional alchemy, Grahame was able to take everything that had gone into his half-century of life, painful and pleasurable, comic and tragic, and turn it into gold. There are the four animals, each a part of Grahame: Mole the Everyman, Rat the artist, Toad the rebel, Badger the recluse. There is the indolent rural life Grahame knew never existed, but which he etched in perfect strokes. There are the loud and terrifying motor cars that poop-poop their way through the book and send Toad’s canary-colored cart, a doomed artifact from an earlier age, crashing into a ditch. (The speed limit for motor cars was raised to 20 mph in 1905, three years before “The Wind in the Willows” was published.) There are the villainous stoats and weasels, slithering representatives of the lower orders and social transformation that Grahame feared.
But the truly powerful symbols in “The Wind in the Willows” are larger and harder to pin down. The river, the most powerful presence in the book, stands for rural tradition, purity and innocence. But in a subtler way, it also represents the ceaseless flow of life, an inscrutable force, beyond judgment. The beauty of what the wind whispers in the willows is that it is unknowable. Then there is the Wild Wood, into which Mole rashly ventures. It may have some political significance as the home of the untrustworthy stoats and weasels, the lumpenproletariat rabble, but that is only a minor meaning. What it really signifies is something closer to the “dark wood” that Dante found himself in, the shadow side of nature, the threatening side of the dream kingdom that Grahame had been drawn to since he was a small child. When Mole gets lost there, Grahame is both terrifying us with a stark vision of “the dense, menacing, compact” mass of “Nature in the rough,” and reassuring us — and himself — that those who are tied to “tilled field and hedgerow, linked to the ploughed furrow, the frequented pasture, the lane of evening lingerings” have made a wise and justifiable choice.
The summit of this deeply conservative vision of the past — celebrating the familiar, the tried, the true — is found in one of the book’s most magnificent chapters, “Dulce Domum” (Sweet Home). In this chapter, Mole rediscovers his old, forgotten house. It is shabby and cold and empty, but thanks to the tireless efforts of Rat, Mole transforms it into a festive place where caroling field-mice share a memorable Christmas feast. With its celebration of friendship and its lyrical, dead-on evocation of the joys of home, “Dulce Domum” is the book’s anchor, just as Toad’s careening antics — which also always come out all right in the end — are its sail.
But if Grahame exalts fire-warmed domesticity, what makes that safe harbor feel earned is the way that he challenges it. The two most personal and enigmatic chapters in “The Wind in the Willows,” both of which fall outside the main narrative, are “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” and “Wayfarers All.” These chapters, as Green writes, “crystallize, mythically, the most intimate and intensely felt experiences that Grahame ever sustained.” And both of them potentially represent a full-blooded rejection of the careful, cautious hearth-god that Mole and Grahame worship.
In “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” Rat and Mole, who have decided to stay up all night looking for Otter’s son Portly, have a full-blown mystical experience: After being drawn by the sound of haunting, otherworldly piping, they are vouchsafed a vision of the demigod Pan. In exalted language that reveals unsuspected links between Edwardian pagan aestheticism and late 20th-century acidhead nature-worshippers, Grahame presents Pan as a kindly Friend and Helper, yet also as a chthonic demigod from the bowels of existence whose presence must be expunged from the animals’ memory. Not every reader likes this almost unbelievably purple chapter: In 1991 the British scholar Margaret Meek sneered, “The sentimental nonsense of the Piper at the Gates of Dawn put me off for years.” I confess that I love it. Its ambiguous view of nature, exalted but awe-inspiring, even terrifying, adds a necessary touch of the unknown to Grahame’s apotheosis of a comfortable and comforting physical world. “The Wind in the Willows” is a book of sublime wish-fulfillment; and the release it provides is so memorable and convincing precisely because there are dark forces moving around outside.
In “Wayfarers All,” the second of the two anomalous chapters in the book, Grahame tries to come to terms with his failure to pursue his dream. It opens with the words, “The Water Rat was restless, and he did not exactly know why.” It is late summer, and the field mice are preparing to move into their winter quarters. The birds, too, are preparing to fly south. Obscurely jealous and dissatisfied, the Rat sees another rat walking down the road. He turns out to be a Sea Rat, who has lived a romantic life of adventure. The Water Rat asks him to tell him some stories, “for my life, I confess to you, feels to me today somewhat narrow and circumscribed.” The Sea Rat talks of the warm nights of the South, of riding into Venice down a path of gold, of tearing North-Easters, of fights, escapes, rallies, comradeships. Finally, he rises to his feet, ready to resume his endless journey, and in an unforgettable passage calls on his listener to follow him. “And you, you will come too, young brother; for the days pass, and never return, and the South still waits for you. Take the Adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes! ‘Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new!”
The Rat, hypnotized, packs a bag and steps out the door, heading south. But just at that moment the Mole appears. Alarmed at Rat’s zombie-like behavior, Mole looks into his friend’s eyes and “saw that they were glazed and set and turned a streaked and shifting grey — not his friend’s eyes, but the eyes of some other animal!” The Mole grapples with the Rat and throws him down. Trembling, the Rat eventually calms down, but he is deeply depressed. The tactful Mole slips away and brings him a pencil and some paper, suggesting that he try writing some poetry. When he peers in on his friend, “the Rat was absorbed and deaf to the world; alternately scribbling and sucking the top of his pencil. It is true that he sucked a good deal more than he scribbled; but it was joy to the Mole to know that the cure had at least begun.”
It is hardly necessary to point out the parallels between the two Rats and Grahame himself. The Sea Rat embodies Grahame’s fantasy self, the one who pursued the Golden City; the Water Rat is his actual self. By giving the Sea Rat the stage, then letting him depart, while the Rat stays and rebuilds his life, Grahame succeeds in having it both ways, in vicariously drinking the cup of life to the lees while remaining safe and sound at home.
If these chapters are the book’s minor key, its interior shadow, and if Mole and Rat are idealized reflections of the grown-up author and his grown-up problems, then Toad is its major key, its glittering color, its childish heart. The combination is audacious and bizarre, but the book’s two facets somehow complement each other perfectly. Mole and Rat learn from their mistakes, grasp the meaning of friendship, come to understand their limitations. That’s all well and good, but rather grown-up. The antidote to this seriousness is someone who never learns anything, who never understands anything, who never regrets anything, who lives for the moment. The antidote is Toad.
Toad was present at the creation — in fact, he was the creation. “The Wind in the Willows” started out as bedtime stories Grahame told to his son, Alastair, and the first version was probably only about Toad, according to Green. Toad’s story is the one everyone remembers. How could you not? His picaresque adventures, from his unhappy career as a motor-car thief, fraudulent washerwoman and horse trader to the mock-Homeric “Return of Ulysses” chapter in which he and his friends creep through a secret tunnel to surprise the weasels who have usurped his house, appeal to the universal desire to humbug everybody and get away with it, to rise straight to heaven on the gas of one’s own ego.
Toad is one of the great comic characters in all of literature, a descendant of the braggart soldiers of Roman literature and the pompous cuckolds of commedia del’arte, the little blowhard brother of Falstaff and Don Quixote. Armed with invincible vanity, a complete lack of impulse control and a remarkably empty head, Toad is the consummate scenery-gobbler, a baked ham on legs who seizes the stage and never lets another character get a word in edgewise. Like cartoon characters who spring magically back to life after they have been folded, spindled and mutilated, Toad’s delicious appeal is that he always comes back, as gloriously stupid and lovable as ever: He cannot be anything but Toad. As Grahame told someone who inquired if Toad ever really changed, “Of course Toad never really reformed; he was by nature incapable of it.”
The book Grahame sent out into the world had it all: memorable characters, a rollicking plot, great psychological penetration, high and low comedy, emotional pathos, and beautiful writing. But the very things that we now recognize as making it a classic — its unfathomable mixture of the adult and the child’s perspective, its remarkable ability to blend disparate elements into a whole — baffled the critics. “The Wind in the Willows” had a decidedly mixed reception. The review in the Oct. 22, 1908, Times Literary Supplement established a benchmark for critical stupidity that may never be equaled: The reviewer calls it “a book with hardly a smile in it, through which we wander in a haze of perplexity, uninterested in the story itself and at a loss to understand its deeper purpose … Beneath the allegory ordinary life is depicted more or less closely, but certainly not very amusingly or searchingly; while as a contribution to natural history the work is negligible.” In its sheer fatuousness, this review sounds like something Toad might have written if he had developed an uncontrollable passion for literary criticism and hired an Oxford tutor to assist him. But the critics eventually came around, and of course the public loved the book.
One might have thought that such a joyous, affirmative book would be followed by others. But this dreamland could never be recaptured. “The Wind in the Willows” was the last artistic achievement Grahame had left in him. After he wrote it, the springs of his creativity seemed to go slack. He had made his final compromise, and sealed it with a book that, if only to himself, explained why; now, it seemed, there was nothing else to say. He had long dreamed of quitting the Bank of England; now he did, but discovered that the promised land of leisure and freedom was empty of magic. His marriage was a hollow shell. Even travel to his beloved Italy failed to rekindle any sparks. And then came the final blow. His son, Alastair, had always been physically impaired and psychologically troubled, not least because of his mother’s delusional attempts to mold him into something he never was. He was miserable at Oxford, and suffered an apparent religious crisis. One night in May 1920, he walked down to the railroad tracks, laid his head across them, and was decapitated by a train. A sympathetic inquest found that his death was accidental, but Grahame himself almost certainly realized the dreadful truth.
The light dimmed in the final years. Elspeth became more and more eccentric — Green describes her as “a pallid, haggard ghost whose meanness was proverbial” — and Grahame turned into a virtual recluse. (In 1906, returning to his old haunts like the Mole, he had bought a house in the very same part of Berkshire where he spent his childhood.) He wrote a few pieces and obsessively traveled, rarely returning to the same place twice. On July 5, 1932, he had a cerebral hemorrhage in the middle of the night and died without regaining consciousness.
The inscription on Grahame’s tombstone at Oxford, near his beloved Thames, reads: “To the beautiful memory of Kenneth Grahame, husband of Elspeth and father of Alastair, who passed the River on the 6 July 1932, leaving childhood and literature through him the more blest for all time.”
There is a strange dissonance between the sadness of Grahame’s life and the timelessly tranquil work that he created. He was once touched by an angel, and never forgot the experience, but something prevented him from finding that moment again. He lacked the courage of his innermost convictions, and he allowed his chances at happiness to blow away like grain in the wind. And yet this unhappy man wrote a book that glows with happiness, a book that has touched the hearts of millions and will continue to do so as long as there are readers. He created an Arcadian world that you can walk into, one as timeless as a myth and as solid as a bridge. He put all that was best and highest of himself into one book. And that is the way we should remember him. Drifting peacefully in a boat down a river, forever.
Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.More Gary Kamiya.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)