In 1926, as an inquisitive 11-year-old, Henry May accompanied his Berkeley, Calif., family on a one-year trip to Europe. He was successively a guest at Tresillian, his maternal grandmother's country house in England, and a wide-eyed tourist in France. Back in America, the boy found himself seduced by a sense of the past awakened by his trip. "Wet smells could bring back the garden at Tresillian, cold winds recalled the pale-gray embankments of the Seine, spring rains the fruit trees blooming in cracks in the medieval towers of Villeneuve. . . . As to my own country, my feelings about that were challenged and deeply stimulated. Working them out was to take much of my life."
That 11-year-old grew up to be a distinguished expert on American intellectual history. (He is now an emeritus professor at the University of California.) This unusual book is his venture into family history. In it, May consciously runs a double risk, parlaying two methods traditionally regarded as antithetical--the first person Herodotean account and the third-person Thucididean reconstruction.
He begins by re-creating the lost world of his genteel childhood in 1920s Berkeley. Here as later, the dominant figure is the head of household, Harry May, 55 years old at the time of Henry's birth. The author's earliest memories of his father are of a rather gloomy and unapproachable old man. The senior May gradually comes into focus as a reserved New Englander weighed down by financial setbacks and the decline of a once-successful legal career. Part of Henry May's motivation in writing this book, one suspects, may have been to "come to terms" with a misunderstood and unloved parent. His distant, sad father clearly appeals less to the boy than does his young English mother--shy, proper, but affectionate with her children, and, like her husband, the representative of a vanished 19th-Century culture.