Silent Snow, Secret Snow

I read the short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken when I was 13 years old. It is probably his best-known short story. I returned to it quite accidentally this past week though with thoughts of snow coming for this weekend and more than a slight identification with the story’s protagonist.

I see that the story is sometimes listed as psychological, fantasy or even as a horror story.

The boy in this story, 12-year-old Paul, is finding it hard and harder to focus on schoolwork. He is also feeling less connected to his family. Both those feelings were in me at 13.

He does more and more daydreaming and those daydreams are more and more about snow. One morning while still in bed he only hears silence from outside. It is the silence that happens when snow muffles sounds. But when he looks outside, there is no snow.

He sees secret snow that can surround you with a comforting silence and attachment from the world. His detachment is increasing. It’s hard to even get out of bed and get dressed.

I don’t think my parents had any sense of how I felt. Paul’s parents call in a doctor after telling the doctor about the secret snow, Paul runs to his bedroom and wants nothing to do eventually call a physician, who makes a house call to examine Paul. After revealing that he likes to think about snow, Paul runs to his bedroom and wants nothing to do with the doctor or his parents – or the world.

At 13, I don’t think I probably recognized any psychological symbolism in the story. Fantasy over reality and even isolation over social relationships didn’t seem to me to be wrong. They seemed reasonable responses to what was whirling around me that year.

I also didn’t fully recognize that Paul was slipping into depression or even sliding toward something that might be labeled schizophrenia at that time. The snow and the white noise of it become more powerful. “The hiss was now becoming a roar—the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow—but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.”

“Silent Snow, Secret Snow” appeared in 1934. FDR was in his first term in office and the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, while a fascist government was in power in Italy since 1922, another fascist government was established in Germany that year as the Nazis gained control of the country. It was certainly a time when escape from reality would be understandable.

It was also a time when the theories of Sigmund Freud were popular and began to be used to interpret literature. When the doctor asks Paul to read a passage from a book taken from a shelf in order to see if he has any eye problems, the book (which I only discovered through researching this essay) is Sophocles’ play Oedipus at Colonus. Is Aiken giving us a clue?

I also learned just this week that the Aiken family had a history of mental illness. When Aiken was eleven, his mentally ill father shot his mother, then himself. His sister later suffered serious mental issues and was hospitalized and Conrad worried about what might be hiding in his own mind.

Conrad Aiken wrote in several forms and genres, but preferred poetry and short stories. He wrote several novels which I found in my town library and I read Conversation because it seemed to be about people who were creative but I don’t recall liking (or understanding?) it.

Aiken also was a poet. He was a modernist and not what I was trying to write at that time or what I was reading, but I did get a book of his poems at the library. He received the Pulitzer Prize for his Selected Poems (1929) and a National Book Award for his Collected Poems (1953).

I read other stories by him, but it was this one story that has stayed with me.  I am not alone in having this story remain or perhaps haunt the memory. The story appears in many anthologies, and I found it online too.


The soundtrack for that part of my 13th year definitely included the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” the latter from the brilliant Pet Sounds album that came out that year and which I played over and over in my bedroom. I think Brain Wilson in the mid-1960s would have identified with Paul too.

Charly and Algernon

Charly
Cliff Robertson as Charlie with Algernon and the maze in the film Charly.

Daniel Keyes wrote and edited some pulp sci-fi and horror magazines and comics throughout the 1950s. In 1958, he wrote a novella called “Flowers for Algernon” about a laboratory mouse named Algernon whose intelligence is surgically enhanced and an experiment with a human subject.

I read that story in a high school English class and it sent me to find his 1966 novel-length expansion. Later that year, I saw the movie adaptation titled Charly. A decade later, I taught the shorter story to middle school students. I like all the versions and students usually liked the story and the film.

The story is narrated by Charlie Gordon. He is a janitor with a quite low IQ of 68 who is the first human test subject in an experiment to raise IQ.

I read some biographical info on Keyes. He was pushed to study medicine by his parents and struggled with the coursework. At some point in his studies, he began to wonder if it was possible to someone make someone by an intervention. He left medicine behind and later taught English to a class of special-needs students. The idea for his story was formed through both experiences.

“Flowers for Algernon” won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960. He was encouraged by his publisher to expand the story into a novel. They also wanted him to write a happier ending to the story. He refused.

The versions of his story have been around long enought that I don’t feel like it is a spoiler to say that the experiment works and Charlie becomes very smart, but the change is not permanent.

The book is written as Charlie’s journal entries and so the writing style, grammar and spelling change as Charlie changes. Algernon is a mouse that was an early test subject in the experiement. In a maze test, the mouse consistentlt beats Charlie in that task at the start of their experiment. But after the treatments, Charlie catches up and eventually is able to beat Algernon.

The story is science-fiction and certainly about experiments in increasing intelligence, but it is also a social commentary on how we treat mentally disadvantaged people in schools, the workplace, and society in general. It always sparked interesting classroom discussions.

The story ends with a poorly spelled note by a regressed Charlie to the reader to leave flowers on Algernon’s grave.

The novel version was published in 1966 and has sold more than five million copies and it has never been out of print. The story has been adapted for stage, screen, and TV several times. The feature film Charly (1968), won Cliff Robertson the Best Actor Oscar as Charlie. 

I also read Keyes’s book The Minds of Billy Milligan which is non-fiction written in novel form. It is the story of Billy Milligan, the first person in U.S. history acquitted of a major crime by pleading multiple-personality disorder. Milligan had 24 distinct personalities battling for control inside him. It’s quite a story.

 

The Snow on Kilamanjaro

Tonight on Mount Kilamanjaro, Tanzania, it is mostly cloudy and about 22 degrees F. (-6 C). Though there is less of it now, but there is still ice and snow year-round on the mountain’s upper reaches. There are massive glaciers, ice fields, and towering walls of ice that blaze in the equatorial sun and beckon.

This past week I reread Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilamanjaro.” It’s a long story about Harry, a writer, who is dying of gangrene from a wound, and Helen, who is with him on safari in Africa.

You can read it online at the Esquire magazine site where it was originally published in 1936.

The story begins with the epigraph: “Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called by the Masai “Ngàje Ngài,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”

Hemingway used symbols but didn’t like people interpreting symbolism in his writing. The leopard is sometimes seen as just foreshadowing of the ending.  At the end of the story, Harry falls asleep and dreams he is on the plane that was supposed to come and fly him out for medical treatment.

“…looking down he saw a pink sifting cloud, moving over the ground, and in the air, like the first snow in a blizzard, that comes from nowhere, and he knew the locusts were coming up from the South. Then they began to climb and they were going to the East it seemed, and then it darkened and they were in a storm, the rain so thick it seemed like flying through a waterfall, and then they were out and Compie turned his head and grinned and pointed and there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.”

Kilamanjaroo from a plane
Kilimanjaro from a plane   – by MAS pilotOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

The western summit of the mountain is called by the Masai people “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God and that is where Harry knows he is going.

The leopard also seems to have been on a quest to reach the top. I doubt that the leopard was seeking God. Perhaps, as with human mountain climbers, it climbed because it was there and is a challenge. One idea is that Harry is like the leopard. In college, I wrote a paper on this story and argued that Harry is not the leopard, but the hyena. The hyena is not noble or a true hunter. It is a scavenger.  He didn’t climb the mountain to the top. There’s no mention that of him ever seeking God. If he thinks that he is headed for Heaven, he’s dreaming.

Harry talks about how he has wasted much of his life and his talent by taking the easy path and marrying and being with rich women.

“The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious. He remembered poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, ‘The very rich are different from you and me.’ And how someone had said to Scott, Yes they have more money. But that was not humorous to Scott. He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren’t it wrecked him just as much as any other thing that wrecked him.”

They made a film adaptation of the story in 1952 starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward. But that’s Hollywood, so they threw in Ava Gardner as a character not in the story at all and changed the story almost completely. It’s not a spoiler 84 years later to say that in Hemingway’s story Harry dies in that tent in Africa with the hyenas sniffing outside. The film added a lot of “back story” about Harry’s life before the safari. For the film’s conclusion, Helen is able to clear the infection by following instructions in a first aid manual and the calvary medical party arrives by airplane in time. The vultures and hyena who have been awaiting Harry’s death leave. Ah, Hollywood. Of course, the film version was a critical and commercial success and was nominated for two Oscars. Maybe more people have seen it than have read the story. The film is in the public domain, so if you want to give it a viewing go to archive.org/details/Kilimanjaro.  I recommend you read the story,