When the midwife who delivered Oliver Twist lies dying in a workhouse, Dickens describes the changes in her body thus:

It is a common thing for the countenances of the dead, even in that fixed and rigid state, to subside into the long-forgotten expression of sleeping infancy, and settle into the very look of early life; so calm, so peaceful, do they grow again, that those who knew them in their happy childhood, kneel by the coffin’s side in awe, and see the Angel even upon earth.

Re-reading the book last week, I had the uncanny feeling of having come across a similar idea somewhere else recently. It took a few days to come to me, but at last I realized it’s in my friend Donald Antrim’s lovely memoir The Afterlife, when he and his sister are keeping watch over their mother’s deathbed:

At some point before dawn, my mother’s face relaxed and her skin cleared, and, though her throat and chest still rattled terribly, she smiled. It was a broad, unambiguous smile. Terry said to me, “Look, she’s getting younger.” It was true. In the hours before she died, Louanne began to resemble herself as the young woman we had seen in photographs taken before we were born—full of radiance and with her future and whatever crazed or credible hopes she had ahead of her. Amazingly, this effect occurred in spite of the absence of teeth.

And then, of course, there’s always the White Queen:

“That’s the effect of living backwards,” the Queen said kindly: “it always makes one a little giddy at first—”

“Living backwards!” Alice repeated in great astonishment. “I never heard of such a thing!”

“—but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.”

3 thoughts on “Backwards”

  1. Dr. Crain,

    I have been reading AMERICAN SYMPATHY for a Masters class I am taking on Emerson. I am using it as a major source for a paper I'm writing on Emerson and Whitman. It is a completely fascinating work – one of the best I have ever read. Thank you for your scholarship and insight.

  2. Yeah. I've had a similar feeling. Consider Charles Dickens, 1861:

    The fire lowers, and is all but subdued, though still every now and then a floor gives way with an earthquake crash, and into the still lurid dark air rises a storm of sparks like a hurricane of fire-flies. But suddenly there is a crowding together and whispering of helmeted heads. Brave Seth Johnson is missing; all the hook men and axe men are back but he; all the pumpers are there, all the loafers are there. He alone is missing…

    …Click-shough go the shovels, chick-chick- the pickaxes. A shout, a scream of Seth!

    He is there, pale and silent, with heaving chest, his breast-bone smashed in, a cold dew oozing from his forehead. Now they bear him to the roaring multitude, their eyes aching and watering with the suffocating gusts of smoke. They lay him pale, in his red shirt, amid the hushed voiceless men in the bruised and scorched helmets. The grave doctor breaks through the crowd. He stoops and feels Seth's pulse. All eyes turn to him. He shakes his head, and makes no other answer. Then the young men take off their helmets and bear home Seth, and some weep, because of his betrothed, and the young men think of her.

    "American Volunteer Firemen." Charles Dickens, "All the Year Round," March 16, 1861.

    …in light of Walt Whitman, 1855:

    I am the mashed fireman with breastbone broken . . . . tumbling walls buried me in their debris,
    Heat and smoke I inspired . . . . I heard the yelling shouts of my comrades,
    I heard the distant click of their picks and shovels;
    They have cleared the beams away . . . . they tenderly lift me forth.

    I lie in the night air in my red shirt . . . . the pervading hush is for my sake,
    Painless after all I lie, exhausted but not so unhappy,
    White and beautiful are the faces around me . . . . the heads are bared of their fire- caps,
    The kneeling crowd fades with the light of the torches.

    "Song of Myself," Leaves of Grass (1855).

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