I’ve been taking great advantage of Hans Zinsser’s unique autobiography, As I Remember Him, to while away long hours of flights from Belgium to California today.
Zinsser wrote the book as he was battling leukemia, incurable when he was affected in the late 1930s. In its way, it’s as much a portrait of a life spanning a great transition as Henry Adams’ autobiography. Unlike Adams, though, Zinsser never retired from life. He was a pioneering medical researcher, one of the best-loved instructors at Harvard, a poet, organizer of professional societies, rider after the hounds. The spirit of As I Remember Him has more in common with Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture. It’s hard to imagine Adams taking a role in the following comic skit, from the chapter “R. S. and Women” (“R. S.” stood for “Romantic Spirit”–Zinsser’s stand-in for himself):
One evening we were sitting on the porch. The old man had talked himself to sleep, and began to snooze right in the middle of the Wilderness [Campaign–the old man was a Civil War veteran.–Ed.]. Invention had tired him. Pansy and I were sitting closer together than the temperature warranted, and her arm was pressed caressingly against my shoulder. There was a crescent moon, and a gentle breeze enfolded us with the fragrance of the honeysuckle vine. If her head had followed her arm at that moment, God knows what might have happened. But Pansy, though–I still truly believe–a good girl, possibly intent on a bolder yet–I insist–entirely innocent (innocent in the conventional sense) attack upon my emotions, asked me suddenly whether I would like to see their new calf. It was so darling, she said, and had such lovely eyes and such a soft, wet nose. It was a temptation, for the calf of course was in the barn; and the barn was isolated and dark and full of hay. I fell, and said I’d love to see the calf. Merely for convention’s sake, I think, Pansy lighted a stable lantern, so that we might at least fulfill the ostensible purpose of really looking at the calf. Oh, how sweet and aphrodisiacally caressing is the odor of a cowbarn at night, with its indescribable blending of clover, cow manure, sour milk, and animal! A gentle tremor ascended my spine as I stepped over the threshold, and I drew Pansy’s soft form closer to my side as we stumbled over the rough boards by the dim and swinging light in her hand. I had lost all interest in the calf, and dear Pansy I believe had completely forgotten it. Yet we dared not not look at it–half craving, half dreading what might happen when we had seen it. But here Pallas Athene–ever my guardian goddess–intervened. Pansy walked into the stall, put her chubby arm about the calf’s neck, and held the stable lantern at arm’s length in front of her. And here they were–both confronting me, the dim rays of the lantern illuminating both their faces. Fascinated, I gazed upon them. They appeared like two sisters–helpless, bucolic, kindly; infinite vacuity looked out at me from these two pairs of large, swimming eyes. The expression of Pansy’s warm and moist lips was not more invitingly tender than the soft, velvety nozzle of the calf. There they stood–poor innocents–two calves together; and I gazed and gazed, hypnotically held in the light of the lamp, until I did not know which was Pansy and which calf. And I bent down and kissed the calf tenderly on the nose. Then I went out quietly, and untied my horse from the hitching post. Pansy followed me out. There were tears in her eyes when she said good-night, as I mounted and rode away–sadly, but not without a sense of relief.
As I Remember Him, by Hans Zinsser
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1940