Dreeming about Ailanthus

Greetings to all vWNYers from the pink city of Jaipur in the state of Rajasthan in India. My family and I are spending NYUAD’s Eid al-Adha break in India. Sorry for missing m post last Wednesday when we were on our way to Delhi. I’ll do a make-up at some point.

Meanwhile, it’s very odd to be thinking about Theodore Winthrop’s (1862) novel Cecil Dreeme while I’m nine-and-half time zones away from New York, because it’s always seemed to me to be such a local novel. Such an NYU novel. It’s set, after all, in a lightly fictionalized version of Washington Square. Winthrop calls it “Ailanthus Square,” because Of the ailanthus trees planted there. Henry James refers to the tree in one of our favorite paragraphs from his novel Washington Square (1880), which we will be reading later in the term:

The ideal of quiet and of genteel retirement, in 1835, was found in Washington Square, where the doctor built himself a handsome, modern, wide-fronted house, with a big balcony before the drawing-room windows, and a flight of white marble steps ascending to a portal which was also faced with white marble. This structure, and many of its neighbours, which it exactly resembled, were supposed, forty years ago, to embody the last results of architectural science, and they remain to this day very solid and honourable dwellings. In front of them was the square, containing a considerable quantity of inexpensive vegetation, enclosed by a wooden paling, which increased its rural and accessible appearance; and round the corner was the more august precinct of the Fifth Avenue, taking its origin at this point with a spacious and confident air which already marked it for high destinies. I know not whether it is owing to the tenderness of early associations, but this portion of New York appears to many persons the most delectable. It has a kind of established repose which is not of frequent occurrence in other quarters of the long, shrill city; it has a riper, richer, more honourable look than any of the upper ramifications of the great longitudinal thoroughfare–the look of having had something of a social history. It was here, as you might have been informed on good authority, that you had come into a world which appeared to offer a variety of sources of interest; it was here that your grandmother lived, in venerable solitude, and dispensed a hospitality which commended itself alike to the infant imagination and the infant palate; it was here that you took your first walks abroad, following the nursery-maid with unequal step, and sniffing up the strange odour of the ailanthus-trees which at that time formed the principal umbrage of the square, and diffused an aroma that you were not yet critical enough to dislike as it deserved; it was here, finally, that your first school, kept by a broad-bosomed, broad-based old lady with a ferule, who was always having tea in a blue cup, with a saucer that didn’t match, enlarged the circle both of your observations and your sensations. It was here, at any rate, that my heroine spent many years of her life; which is my excuse for this topographical parenthesis.

The trees make another appearance late in the book, when the protagonist’s aunt looks out her window on a July evening and thinks about the countryside.

In It Happened on Washington Square, Emily Kies Folpe notes that “only one very large ailanthus tree now remains in the Square, near the edge of the dog run.” (I’m assuming it has survived the renovation!) She adds, however, that the plant is stubborn and that “numerous others shoot up like weeds in courtyards and cracks of sidewalks all around the village.”

But here’s the rub, which makes my present vantage point a little less incongruous: the Ailanthus is actually native to Asia and Australia. (The Indian version is Ailanthus excelsa, but the most common variety is Ailanthus altissima, native to China and known as the “Tree of Heaven.” In North America, it’s considered an invasive species. Apparently, it was introduced to the U.S. in 1784 by a gardener in Philadelphia and, because it’s such a hardy plant, it was introduced into industrial cities like New York in the early nineteenth-century. [Click here for a fascinating article about the tree by Shiu Ying Hu.]

Bryan’s already posted about the novel, and we’ll have more to say about it later in the week.

[The picture of the University Building at the head of this post is from a watercolor and engraving by A.J. Davis, c. 1833. [For more information, click here. The illustration accompanying the quote from Washington Square is an 1881 lithograph. The view is roughly from the south, and you can see University Building and next to it the Southern Dutch Reform Church at the right. I'd like to think that it pictures Ailanthus trees. For more information, click here.]

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