Remembering Eleanor, one remembers several women: those Eleanors who, contrasting and even conflicting as they appeared, did ultimately form a whole—as the disparate regions of Italy do at last make up in to an identifiable peninsula. The paradox was notable in her appearance: the wilderness woman in dungarees could transform herself into a distinguished and stylish beauty—as one sees in a heart-shaking photograph on the nineteen-fifties flap of her Rome and a Villa, a photograph so like Rosanna now as to suggest reincarnation. In the picture, Eleanor is wearing a fashionable dress and a handsome Greek necklace. All the same, looking into those eyes, you feel that the decorous trappings have been placed on a lion, or over a flame.
She was an American of her intelligent generation—born to earnestness and positive energies, and to a measure of didacticism; and to the development of one’s own best powers. She and her sister were raised to have what was then called a sense of duty (an expression since dwindled into “the work ethic”), and to full-heartedness. All those precepts, I think, never left her. Beyond that, with Eleanor there were no half-measures, no judicious equivocations on large themes, no pious resignation to the vagaries of human nature. She was passionate in her emotions, and impassioned in her opinions, and fairly ferocious at times in that debunking of sentiment that was part, perhaps, of Hemingway’s legacy to his youthful writing compatriots: one must talk tough lest one show oneself high-flown or dreamy. Looking back, ti does not seem that the chief threats to civilised expression, since then, have arisen from excess of sensibility or reverie. But an attachment to hard truths was part of Eleanor’s persona. (I remember that once, here at the Academy, on the day of the Ceremonial, a photograph was required of the four of us together—Robert Penn Warren and Eleanor, Francis and me—because we were at that moment the sole examples, in this particular captivity, of two couples who were all elected members. While the photographer did his work, Eleanor exorcised any dangerous taint of solemnity by telling him with some force that it was just as well that we four happened to be friends, since it could otherwise have been a most unwelcome occasion; and that the institution was clearly in a hurry to get an image of us on record before one or other of us dropped away and, as she put it, spoilt the show.)
It is in her writing, and most of all—I think—in Rome and a Villa and The Oysters of Locmariaquer that we come to know that Eleanor of introspective and reflective qualities into which she was not born: the Eleanor who loved and needed Europe—not only for spectacle and language and variety, and for a different incorrigible vitality, but also for what Thomas Hardy called “the tears that peoples old in tragedy have left upon the centuried years.” She carried within her a deep affinity for the pathos of realisation, the unabashed embrace of occasion; for the great gift of synthesis that is more and more denied to us by modern concepts; and for the ability to take many things for granted—most of all, our own mortality.
All that was in her, though rarely displayed—at least in my experience—outside her art. France and Italy were the centers of gravity to which her poetic self would ever return, for refreshment of the ear and eye as a matter of course; but more deeply for a spiritual invigoration that we should not hesitate to call inspiration.
Those of us who had the immense and intense good fortune to know Italy in the post-war years—a time of hope, when many terrible wounds were tended and some were actually healed— felt the surge of high feeling of Eleanor’s Rome writings as if it were our own. For all the immediacy of those vibrant passages in Rome and a Villa, their intelligence and observation arise from inwardness, and from acknowledgment of unbiddable mysteries.
After her own fashion, Eleanor was a private person; as Red Warren, in his entirely different way, was a very private man. That is one important aspect of their being well matched. They had a wide diversity of friends. But I think that in all those who were close to them there was—despite some tough talking and much proclaimed scepticism an imaginative core that may be called a soul. There came and went, at the Fairfield house, a continuity of extraordinary people who talked well and laughed well, and did enduring work, because thought and feeling had never ceased to form the center of their lives. Many of them were our copains from this assembly—among them, John Cheever and Peter De Vries, Peter Blume, Ralph Ellison; and Francis Steegmuller.
At Fairfield, on the last Christmas of Red Warren’s life, I was seated by him at dinner. Red said to me, “Now, look at this.” And we saw down the table his children Gabriel and Rosanna, and their families, and a handful of close friends. Red said, “Look at them all. Just the faces I love to see. And look at Eleanor.”
I said, “It’s too beautiful, troppo bello. And he responded: “Never can be troppo bello.” It was, I think, around that realisation that the talents of two strong personalities matured. It was in the theme of fulfillment—momentary or immemorial; vivid or obscure, or bizarre—that Eleanor addressed her best work.