I may be lacking in imagination: I rarely if ever visualize characters in literature, and I’m always surprised when people report that they do. Indeed, there’s a book about it, whose title, What We See When We Read, takes it for granted that we visualize, even if I don’t.
But on occasion a visual image will present itself to me. When it does, I take it. Enter Donald Meek.
[Donald Meek, actor (1878–1946).]
I’ve seen Donald Meek in just two movies. In Little Miss Broadway (dir. Irving Cummings, 1938), a Shirley Temple vehicle (and fambly favorite), he plays Willoughby Wendling, an upper-crust fellow and member of a fuddy-duddy vocal quartet. In State Fair (dir. Walter Lang, 1945), he plays the mononymous Hippenstahl, a judge of pickles and mincemeat.
When I first read J. D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (1963), I instantly imagined the “tiny elderly man” of the story as Donald Meek. The little man is a member of an ill-fated wedding party: he is Seymour Glass’s bride Muriel’s father’s uncle. He is deaf and never says a word, communicating only with pad and pencil. He is never identified by name. Here are two descriptions of him, courtesy of the story’s narrator, Buddy Glass:
Twice, without any excuse whatever, out of sheer approval, I glanced around at the tiny elderly man. When I’d originally loaded the car and held the door open for him, I’d had a passing impulse to pick him up bodily and insert him gently through the open window. He was tininess itself, surely being not more than four nine or ten and without being either a midget or a dwarf. In the car, he sat staring very severely straight ahead of him. On my second look around at him, I noticed that he had what very much appeared to be an old gravy stain on the lapel of his cutaway. I also noticed that his silk hat cleared the roof of the car by a good four or five inches.“Rather more scrambled then gravitated,” “looked up and down, respectively,” “idiotic expressions of pleasure”: what funny, wonderful writing. But you’ll notice that aside from short stature, nothing in these descriptions suggests Donald Meek. (According to his IMDb bio, Meek was 5'4".) Why his image floated into my mind, I’ll never know.
The bride’s father’s uncle and I brought up the rear. Whether he had intuited that I was his friend or simply because I was the owner of a pad and pencil, he had rather more scrambled then gravitated to a walking position beside me. The very top of his beautiful silk hat didn’t quite come up as high as my shoulder. I set a comparatively slow gait for us, in deference to the length of his legs. At the end of a block or so, we were quite a good distance behind the others. I don’t think it troubled either of us. Occasionally, I remember, as we walked along, my friend and I looked up and down, respectively, at each other and exchanged idiotic expressions of pleasure at sharing one another’s company.
Via YouTube you can watch Willoughby and his cronies lip-sync with Shirley Temple on “Swing Me an Old-Fashioned Song” from Little Miss Broadway. Caution: the brief bit of “In the Evening by the Moonlight” may be cause for offense.
More from Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters
“A sort of jump-seat Mona Lisa”
“Love, Irving Sappho”