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Daguerreian Society


As this account is described as taking place on an "...August day...", 
I thought it appropriate to give at this time.
  Selected text is from Henry James, "A Small Boy and Others" (New 
York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913) Chapter VII, pp. 84-89:
- - - - - - - - -

  Those are great words for the daydream of infant ignorance, yet if 
success in life may perhaps be best defined as the performance in age 
of some intention arrested in youth I may frankly put in a claim to it.  
To press my nose against the sources of the English smell, so different 
for young bibliophiles from any American, was to adopt that sweetness 
as the sign of my "atmosphere"; round-about might be the course to 
take, but one was in motion from the first and one never lost sight of 
the goal.  The very names of places and things in the other world--the 
marked opposite in most ways of that in which New York and Albany, Fort 
Hamilton and New Brighton formed so fallacious a maximum--became to me 
values and secrets and shibboleths; they were probably often on my 
tongue and employed as ignorance determined, but I quite recall being 
ashamed to use them as much as I should have liked.  It was New 
Brighton, I reconstruct (and indeed definitely remember) that 
"finished" us at last--that and our final sordid school, W.J.'s and 
mine, in New York: the ancient order had somehow to be invoked when 
such "advantages" as those were the best within our compass and our 
means.  Not further to anticipate, at all events, that climax was for a 
while but vaguely in sight, and the illusion of felicity continued from 
season to season to shut us in.  It is only of what I took for 
felicity, however few the years and however scant the scene, that I am 
pretending now to speak; though I shall have strained the last drop of 
romance from this vision of our towny summers with the quite sharp 
reminiscence of my first sitting for my daguerreotype.  I repaired with 
my father on an August day to the great Broadway establishment of Mr. 
Brady, supreme in that then beautiful art, and it is my impression--the 
only point vague with me--that though we had come up by the Staten 
Island boat for the purpose we were to keep the affair secret till the 
charming consequence should break, at home, upon my mother.  Strong is 
my conviction that our mystery, in the event, yielded almost at once to 
our elation, for no tradition had a brighter household life with us 
than that of our father's headlong impatience.  He moved in a cloud, if 
not rather in a high radiance, of precipitation and divulgation, a 
chartered rebel against cold reserves.  The good news in his hand 
refused under any persuasion to grow stale, the sense of communicable 
pleasure in his breast was positively explosive; so that we saw those 
"surprises" in which he had conspired with our mother for our benefit 
converted by him in every case, under our shamelessly encouraged 
guesses, into common conspiracies against her--against her knowing, 
that is, how thoroughly we were all compromised.  He had a special and 
delightful sophistry at the service of his overflow, and never so fine 
a fancy as in defending it on "human" grounds.  He was something very 
different withal from a parent of weak mercies; weakness was never so 
positive and plausible, nor could the attitude of sparing you be more 
handsomely or on occasion even more comically aggressive.
  My small point is simply, however, that the secresy of our conjoined 
portrait was probably very soon, by his act, to begin a public and 
shining life and to enjoy it till we received the picture; as to which 
moreover still another remembrance steals on me, a proof of the fact 
that our adventure was improvised.  Sharp again is my sense of not 
being so adequately dressed as I should have taken thought for had I 
foreseen my exposure; though the resources of my wardrobe as then 
constituted could surely have left me but few alternatives.  The main 
resource of a small New York boy in this line at that time was the 
little sheath-like jacket, tight to the body, closed at the neck and 
adorned in front with a single row of brass buttons--a garment of scant 
grace assuredly and compromised to my consciousness, above all, by a 
strange ironic light from an unforgotten source.  It was but a short 
time before those days that the great Mr. Thackeray had come to America 
to lecture on The English Humourists, and still present to me is the 
voice proceeding from my father's library, in which some glimpse of me 
hovering, at an opening of the door, in passage or on staircase, 
prompted him to the formidable words: "Come here, little boy, and show 
me your extraordinary jacket!"  My sense of my jacket became from that 
hour a heavy one--further enriched as my vision is by my shyness of 
posture before the seated, the celebrated visitor, who struck me, in 
the sunny light of the animated room, as enormously big and who, though 
he laid on my shoulder the hand of benevolence, bent on my native 
costume the spectacles of wonder.  I was to know later on why he had 
been so amused and why, after asking me if this were the common uniform 
of my age and class, he remarked that in England, were I to go there, I 
should be addressed as "Buttons."  It had been revealed to me thus in a 
flash that we were somehow queer, and though never exactly crushed by 
it I became aware that I at least felt so as I stood with my head in 
Mr. Brady's vise.  Beautiful most decidedly the lost art of the 
daguerreotype; I remember the "exposure" as on this occasion 
interminably long, yet with the result of a facial anguish far less 
harshly reproduced than my suffered snapshots of a later ago.  Too few, 
I may here interject, were to remain my gathered impressions of the 
great humourist, but one of them, indeed almost the only other, bears 
again on the play of his humour over our perversities of dress.  It 
belongs to a later moment, an occasion on which I see him familiarly 
seated with us, in Paris, during the spring of 1857, at some repast at 
which the younger of us too, by that time, habitually flocked, in our 
affluence of five.  Our youngest was beside him, a small sister, then 
not quite in her eighth year, and arrayed apparently after the fashion 
of the period and place; and the tradition lingered long of his having 
suddenly laid his hand on her little flounced person and exclaimed with 
ludicrous horror: "Crinoline?"--I was suspecting it!  So young and so 
depraved!"


(The daguerreotype described was used as the frontispiece illustration 
for the book.)
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Posted for your enjoyment.     Gary W. Ewer     
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08-26-98


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