Part 4 out of 4
history, that I ever cared about. And I was pleased enough--for I
was a little girl when my fondness for it began--to hear our
minister say that he always read Diedrich Knickerbocker for his
tired Monday's recreation.
We were allowed to have books in the cloth-room. The absence of
machinery permitted that privilege. Our superintendent, who was a
man of culture and a Christian gentleman of the Puritan-school,
dignifed and reserved, used often to stop at my desk in his daily
round to see what book I was reading. One day it was Mather's
"Magnalia," which I had brought from the public library, with a
desire to know something of the early history of New England. He
looked a little surprised at the archaeological turn my mind had
taken, but his only comment was, "A valuable old book that." It
was a satisfaction to have a superintendent like him, whose
granite principles, emphasized by his stately figure and bearing,
made him a tower of strength in the church and in the community.
He kept a silent, kindly, rigid watch over the corporation-life
of which he was the head; and only those of us who were
incidentally admitted to his confidence knew how carefully we
We had occasional glimpses into his own well-ordered home-life,
at social gatherings. His little daughter was in my infant
Sabbath-school class from her fourth to her seventh or eighth
year. She sometimes visited me at my work, and we had our frolics
among the heaps of cloth, as if we were both children. She had
also the same love of hymns that I had as a child, and she would
sit by my side and repeat to me one after another that she had
learned, not as a task, but because of her delight in them. One
of my sincerest griefs in going off to the West was that I should
see my little pupil Mary as a child no more. When I came back,
she was a grown-up young woman.
My friend Anna, who had procured for me the place and work
besideher which I liked so much, was not at all a bookish person,
but we had perhaps a better time together than if she had been.
She was one who found the happiness of her life in doing
kindnesses for others, and in helping them bear their burdens.
Family reverses had brought her, with her mother and sisters, to
Lowell, and this was one strong point of sympathy between my own
family and hers. It was, indeed, a bond of neighborly union
between a great many households in the young manufacturing city.
Anna's manners and language were those of a lady, though she had
come from the wilds of Maine, somewhere in the vicinity of Mount
Desert, the very name of which seemed in those days to carry one
into a wilderness of mountains and waves. We chatted together at
our work on all manner of subjects, and once she astonished me by
saying confidentially, in a low tone, "Do you know, I am thirty
years old!" She spoke as if she thought the fact implied
something serious. My surprise was that she should have taken me
into her intimate friendship when I was only seventeen. I should
hardly have supposed her older than myself, if she had not
volunteered the information.
When I lifted my eyes from her tall, thin figure to her fair face
and somewhat sad blue eyes, I saw that she looked a little worn;
but I knew that it was from care for others, strangers as well as
her own relatives; and it seemed to me as if those thirty loving
years were her rose-garland. I became more attached to her than
What a foolish dread it is,--showing unripeness rather than
youth,--the dread of growing old! For how can a life be
beautified more than by its beautiful years? A living, loving,
growing spirit can never be old. Emerson says:
"Spring still makes spring in the mind,
When sixty years are told; "
and some of us are thankful to have lived long enough to bear
witness with him to that truth.
The few others who measured cloth with us were nice, bright
girls, and some of them remarkably pretty. Our work and the room
itself were so clean that in summer we could wear fresh muslin
dresses, sometimes white ones, without fear of soiling them.
This slight difference of apparel and our fewer work-hours seemed
to give us a slight advantage over the toilers in the mills
opposite, and we occasionally heard ourselves spoken of as "the
cloth-room aristocracy." But that was only in fun. Most of us had
served an apprenticeship in the mills, and many of our best
friends were still there, preferring their work because it
brought them more money than we could earn.
For myself, no amount of money would have been a temptation,
compared with my precious daytime freedom. Whole hours of
sunshine for reading, for walking, for studying, for writing, for
anything that I wanted to do! The days were so lovely and so
long! and yet how fast they slipped away! I had not given up my
dream of a better education, and as I could not go to school, I
began to study by myself.
I had received a pretty thorough drill in the common English
branches at the grammar school, and at my employment I only
needed a little simple arithmetic. A few of my friends were
studying algebra in an evening class, but I had no fancy for
mathematics. My first wish was to learn about English Literature,
to go back to its very beginnings. It was not then studied even
in the higher schools, and I knew no one who could give me any
assistance in it, as a teacher. "Percy's Reliques" and "Chambers'
Cyclopoedia of English Literature " were in the city library, and
I used them, making extracts from Chaucer and Spenser, to fix
their peculiarities in my memory, though there was only a taste
of them to be had from the Cyclopaedia.
Shakespeare I had read from childhood, in a fragmentary way.
"The Tempest," and "Midsummer Night's Dream," and "King Lear," I
had swallowed among my fairy tales. Now I discovered that the
historical plays, notably, "Julius Caesar" and "Coriolanus," had
no less attraction for me, though of a different kind. But it was
easy for me to forget that I was trying to be a literary student,
and slip off from Belmont to Venice with Portia to witness the
discomfiture of Shylock; although I did pity the miserable Jew,
and thought he might at least have been allowed the comfort of
his paltry ducats. I do not think that any of my studying at this
time was very severe; it was pleasure rather than toil, for I
undertook only the tasks I liked. But what I learned remained
with me, nevertheless.
With Milton I was more familiar than with any other poet, and
from thirteen years of age to eighteen he was my preference. My
friend Angeline and I (another of my cloth-room associates) made
the "Paradise Lost" a language-study in an evening class, under
one of the grammar school masters, and I never open to the
"High on a throne of royal state, which far
Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous east with richest hand
Showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold,"--
Without seeing Angeline's kindly, homely face out-lined through
that magnificence, instead of the lineaments of the evil angel
"by merit raised
To that bad eminence."
She, too, was much older than I, and a most excellent, energetic,
and studious young woman. I wonder if she remembers how hard we
tried to get
Satan except, none higher sat,"
into the limits of our grammatical rules,--not altogether with
success, I believe.
I copied passages from Jeremy Taylor and the old theologians into
my note-books, and have found them useful even recently, in
preparing compilations. Dryden and the eighteenth century poets
generally did not interest me, though I tried to read them from a
sense of duty. Pope was an exception, however. Aphorisms from the
"Essay on Man" were in as common use among us as those from the
Book of Proverbs.
Some of my choicest extracts were in the first volume of
collected poetry I ever owned, a little red morocco book called
"The Young Man's Book of Poetry." It was given me by one of my
sisters when I was about a dozen years old, who rather
apologized for the young man on the title-page, saying that the
poetry was just as good as if he were not there.
And, indeed, no young man could have valued it more than I did.
It contained selections from standard poets, and choice ones from
less familiar sources. One of the extracts was Wordsworth's
"Sunset among the Mountains," from the "Excursion," to read
which, however often, always lifted me into an ecstasy. That red
morocco book was my treasure. It traveled with me to the West,
and I meant to keep it as long as I lived. But alas! it was
borrowed by a little girl out on the Illinois prairies, who never
brought it back. I do not know that I have ever quite forgiven
her. I have wished I could look into it again, often and often
tbrough the years. But perhaps I ought to be grateful to that
little girl for teaching me to be careful about returning
borrowed books myself. Only a lover of them can appreciate the
loss of one which has been a possession from childhood.
Young and Cowper were considered religious reading, and as such I
had always known something of them. The songs of Burns were in
the air. Through him I best learned to know poetry as song. I
think that I heard the "Cotter's Saturday Night" and "A man's a
man for a' that" more frequently quoted than any other poems
familiar to my girlhood.
Some of my work-folk acquaintances were regular subscribers to
"Blackwood's Magazine" and the "Westminster" and "Edinburgh"
reviews, and they lent them to me. These, and Macaulay's
"Essays," were a great help and delight. I had also the reading
of the "Bibliotheca Sacra " and the "New Englander;" and
sometimes of the "North American Review."
By the time I had come down to Wordsworth and Coleridge in my
readings of English poetry, I was enjoying it all so much that I
could not any longer call it study.
A gift from a friend of Griswold's "Poets and Poetry of England"
gave me my first knowledge of Tennyson. It was a great experience
to read "Locksley Hall" for the first time while it was yet a new
poem, and while one's own young life was stirred by the prophetic
spirit of the age that gave it birth.
I had a friend about my own age, and between us there was
something very much like what is called a "school-girl
friendship," a kind of intimacy supposed to be superficial, but
often as deep and permanent as it is pleasant.
Eliza and I managed to see each other every day; we exchanged
confidences, laughed and cried together, read, wrote, walked,
visited, and studied together. Her dress always had an airy touch
which I admired, although I was rather indifferent as to what I
wore myself. But she would endeavor to "fix me up" tastefully,
while I would help her to put her compositions for the "Offering"
into proper style. She had not begun to go to school at two years
old, repeating the same routine of study every year of her
childhood, as I had. When a child, I should have thought it
almost as much of a disgrace to spell a word wrong, or make a
mistake in the multiplication table, as to break one of the Ten
Commandments. I was astonished to find that Eliza and other
friends had not been as particularly dealt with in their early
education. But she knew her deficiencies, and earned money enough
to leave her work and attend a day-school part of the year.
She was an ambitious scholar, and she persuaded me into studying
the German language with her. A native professor had formed a
class among young women connected with the mills, and we joined
it. We met, six or eight of us, at the home of two of these young
women,--a factory boarding-house,--in a neat little parlor
which contained a piano. The professor was a music-teacher also,
and he sometimes brought his guitar, and let us finish our
recitation with a concert. More frequently he gave us the songs
of Deutschland that we begged for. He sang the "Erl-King" in his
own tongue admirably. We went through Follen's German Grammar and
Reader:--what a choice collection of extracts that "Reader" was!
We conquered the difficult gutturals, like those in the numeral
"acht und achtzig" (the test of our pronouncing abilities) so
completely that the professor told us a native really would
understand us! At his request, I put some little German songs
into English, which he published as sheet-music, with my name.
To hear my words sung quite gave me the feeling of a successful
translator. The professor had his own distinctive name for each
of his pupils. Eliza was "Naivete," from her artless manners ;
and me he called " Etheria," probably on account of my star-
gazing and verse-writing habits. Certainly there was never
anything ethereal in my visible presence.
A botany class was formed in town by a literary lady who was
preparing a school text-book on the subject, and Eliza and I
joined that also. The most I recall about that is the delightful
flower-hunting rambles we took together. The Linnaean system,
then in use, did not give us a very satisfactory key to the
science. But we made the acquaintance of hitherto unfamiliar wild
flowers that grew around us, and that was the opening to us of
another door towards the Beautiful.
Our minister offered to instruct the young people of his parish
in ethics, and my sister Emilie and myself were among his pupils.
We came to regard Wayland's "Moral Science" (our text-book) as
most interesting reading, and it furnished us with many subjects
for thought and for social discussion.
Carlyle's "Hero-Worship" brought us a startling and keen
enjoyment. It was lent me by a Dartmouth College student, the
brother of one of my room-mates, soon after it was first
published in this country. The young man did not seem to know
exactly what to think of it, and wanted another reader's opinion.
Few persons could have welcomed those early writings of Carlyle
more enthusiastically than some of us working-girls did. The very
ruggedness of the sentences had a fascination for us, like that
of climbing over loose bowlders in a mountain scramble to get
sight of a wonderful landscape.
My room-mate, the student's sister, was the possessor of an
electrifying new poem,--"Festus,"--that we sat up nights to read.
It does not seem as if it could be more than forty years since
Sarah and I looked up into each other's face from the page as the
lamplight grew dim, and said, quoting from the poem,--
"Who can mistake great thoughts?"
She gave me the volume afterwards, when we went West together,
and I have it still. Its questions and conjectures were like a
glimpse into the chaos of our own dimly developing inner life.
The fascination of "Festus" was that of wonder, doubt, and
dissent, with great outbursts of an overmastering faith sweeping
over our minds as we read. Some of our friends thought it not
quite safe reading; but we remember it as one of the inspirations
of our workaday youth.
We read books, also, that bore directly upon the condition of
humanity in our time. "The Glory and Shame of England" was one of
them, and it stirred us with a wonderful and painful interest.
We followed travelers and explorers,--Layard to Nineveh, and
Stephens to Yucatan. And we were as fond of good story-books as
any girls that live in these days of overflowing libraries. One
book, a character-picture from history, had a wide popularity in
those days. It is a pity that it should be unfamiliar to modern
girlhood,--Ware's "Zenobia." The Queen of Palmyra walked among
us, and held a lofty place among our ideals of heroic womanhood,
never yet obliterated from admiring remembrance.
We had the delight of reading Frederika Bremer's "Home" and
"Neighbors" when they were fresh from the fountains of her own
heart; and some of us must not be blamed for feeling as if no
tales of domestic life half so charming have been written since.
Perhaps it is partly because the home-life of Sweden is in itself
so delightfully unique.
We read George Borrow's "Bible in Spain," and wandered with him
among the gypsies to whom he seemed to belong. I have never
forgotten a verse that this strange traveler picked up somewhere
among the Zincali:--
"I'll joyfully labor, both night and day,
To aid my unfortunate brothers;
As a laundress tans her own face in the ray
To cleanse the garments of others."
It suggested a somewhat similar verse to my own mind. Why should
not our washerwoman's work have its touch of poetry also?--
This thought flashed by like a ray of light
That brightened my homely labor:--
The water is making my own hands white
While I wash the robes of my neighbor.
And how delighted we were with Mrs. Kirkland's "A New Home:
Who'll Follow?" the first real Western book I ever read. Its
genuine pioneer-flavor was delicious. And, moreover, it was a
prophecy to Sarah, Emilie, and myself, who were one day thankful
enough to find an "Aunty Parshall's dish-kettle" in a cabin on an
So the pleasantly occupied years slipped on, I still nursing my
purpose of a more systematic course of study, though I saw no
near possibility of its fulfillment. It came in an unexpected
way, as almost everything worth having does come. I could never
have dreamed that I was going to meet my opportunity nearly or
quite a thousand miles away, on the banks of the Mississippi.
And yet, with that strange, delightful consciousness of growth
into a comprehension of one's self and of one's life that most
young persons must occasionally have experienced, I often vaguely
felt heavens opening for my half-fledged wings to try themselves
in. Things about me were good and enjoyable, but I could not
quite rest in them; there was more for me to be, to know, and to
do. I felt almost surer of the future than of the present.
If the dream of the millennium which brightened the somewhat
sombre close of the first ten years of my life had faded a
little, out of the very roughnesses of the intervening road light
had been kindled which made the end of the second ten years glow
with enthusiastic hope. I had early been saved from a great
mistake; for it is the greatest of mistakes to begin life with
the expectation that it is going to be easy, or with the wish to
have it so. What a world it would be, if there were no hills to
climb! Our powers were given us that we might conquer obstacles,
and clear obstructions from the overgrown human path, and grow
strong by striving, led onward always by an Invisible Guide.
Life to me, as I looked forward, was a bright blank of mystery,
like the broad Western tracts of our continent, which in the
atlases of those days bore the title of "Unexplored Regions." It
was to be penetrated, struggled through; and its difficulties
were not greatly dreaded, for I had not lost
"The dream of Doing,--
The first bound in the pursuing."
I knew that there was no joy like the joy of pressing forward.
FROM THE MERRIMACK TO THE MISSISSIPPI.
THE years between 1835 and 1845, which nearly cover the time I
lived at Lowell, seem to me, as I look back at them, singularly
interesting years. People were guessing and experimenting and
wondering and prophesying about a great many things,--about
almost everything. We were only beginning to get accustomed to
steamboats and railroads. To travel by either was scarcely less
an adventure to us younger ones than going up in a balloon.
Phrenology was much talked about; and numerous "professors" of it
came around lecturing, and examining heads, and making charts of
cranial "bumps." This was profitable business to them for a
while, as almost everybody who invested in a "character" received
a good one; while many very commonplace people were flattered
into the belief that they were geniuses, or might be if they
Mesmerism followed close upon phrenology; and this too had its
lecturers, who entertained the stronger portion of their
audiences by showing them how easily the weaker ones could be
brought under an uncanny influence.
The most widespread delusion of the time was Millerism. A great
many persons--and yet not so many that I knew even one of them--
believed that the end of the world was coming in the year 1842;
though the date was postponed from year to year, as the prophesy
failed of fulfillment. The idea in itself was almost too serious
to be jested about; and yet its advocates made it so literal a
matter that it did look very ridiculous to unbelievers.
An irreverent little workmate of mine in the spinning-room made a
string of jingling couplets about it, like this:--
"Oh dear! oh dear! what shall we do
In eighteen hundred and forty-two?
"Oh dear! oh dear! where shall we be
In eighteen hundred and forty-three?
"Oh dear! oh dear! we shall be no more
In eighteen hundred and forty-four,
"Oh dear! oh dear! we sha'n't be alive
In eighteen hundred and forty-five."
I thought it audacious in her, since surely she and all of us
were aware that the world would come to an end some time, in some
way, for every one of us. I said to myself that I could not have
"made up" those rhymes. Nevertheless we all laughed at them
A comet appeared at about the time of the Miller excitement, and
also a very unusual illumination of sky and earth by the Aurora
Borealis. This latter occurred in midwinter. The whole heavens
were of a deep rose-color--almost crimson--reddest at the zenith,
and paling as it radiated towards the horizon. The snow was fresh
on the ground, and that, too, was of a brilliant red. Cold as it
was, windows were thrown up all around us for people to look out
at the wonderful sight. I was gazing with the rest, and listening
to exclamations of wonder from surrounding unseen beholders, when
somebody shouted from far down the opposite block of buildings,
with startling effect,--
"You can't stand the fire
In that great day!"
It was the refrain of a Millerite hymn. The Millerites believed
that these signs in the sky were omens of the approaching
catastrophe. And it was said that some of them did go so far as
to put on white "ascension robes," and assemble somewhere, to
wait for the expected hour.
When daguerreotypes were first made, when we heard that the sun
was going to take everybody's portrait, it seemed almost too
great a marvel to be believed. While it was yet only a rumor that
such a thing had been done, somewhere across the sea, I saw some
verses about it which impressed me much, but which I only partly
remember. These were the opening lines:--
"Oh, what if thus our evil deeds
Are mirrored on the sky,
And every line of our wild lives
Daguerreotyped on high!"
My sister and I considered it quite an event when we went to have
our daguerreotypes taken just before we started for the West.
The photograph was still an undeveloped mystery.
Things that looked miraculous then are commonplace now. It almost
seems as if the children of to-day could not have so good a time
as we did, science has left them so little to wonder about. Our
attitude--the attitude of the time--was that of children climbing
their dooryard fence, to watch an approaching show, and to
conjecture what more remarkable spectacle could be following
behind. New England had kept to the quiet old-fashioned ways of
living for the first fifty years of the Republic. Now all was
expectancy. Changes were coming. Things were going to happen,
nobody could guess what.
Things have happened, and changes have come. The New England that
has grown up with the last fifty years is not at all the New
England that our fathers knew. We speak of having been reared
under Puritanic influences, but the traditionary sternness of
these was much modified, even in the childhood of the generation
to which I belong. We did not recognize the grim features
of the Puritan, as we used sometimes to read about him, in our
parents or relatives. And yet we were children of the Puritans.
Everything that was new or strange came to us at Lowell. And most
of the remarkable people of the day came also. How strange it was
to see Mar Yohannan, a Nestorian bishop, walking through the
factory yard in his Oriental robes with more than a child's
wonder on his face at the stir and rush of everything! He came
from Boston by railroad, and was present at the wedding at the
clergyman's house where he visited. The rapidity of the simple
Congregational service astonished him.
"What? Marry on railroad, too?" he asked.
Dickens visited Lowell while I was there, and gave a good report
of what he saw in his "American Notes." We did not leave work
even to gaze at distinguished strangers, so I missed seeing him.
But a friend who did see him sketched his profile in pencil for
me as he passed along the street. He was then best known as
Many of the prominent men of the country were in the habit of
giving Lyceum lectures, and the Lyceum lecture of that day was a
means of education, conveying to the people the results of study
and thought through the best minds. At Lowell it was more
patronized by the mill-people than any mere entertainment. We had
John Quincy Adams, Edward Everett, John Pierpont, and Ralph Waldo
Emerson among our lecturers, with numerous distinguished
clergymen of the day. Daniel Webster was once in the city, trying
a law case. Some of my girl friends went to the court-room and
had a glimpse of his face, but I just missed seeing him.
Sometimes an Englishman, who was studying our national
institutions, would call and have a friendly talk with us at
work. Sometimes it was a traveler from the South, who was
interested in some way. I remember one, an editor and author from
Georgia, who visited our Improvement Circle, and who sent some of
us "Offering" contributors copies of his book after he had
One of the pleasantest visitors that I recall was a young Quaker
woman from Philadelphia, a school-teacher, who came to see for
herself how the Lowell girls lived, of whom she had heard so
much. A deep, quiet friendship grew up between us two. I wrote
some verses for her when we parted, and she sent me one cordial,
charmingly-written letter. In a few weeks I answered it; but the
response was from another person, a near relative. She was dead.
But she still remains a real person to me; I often recall her
features and the tone of her voice. It was as if a beautiful
spirit from an invisible world had slipped in among us, and
quickly gone back again.
It was an event to me, and to my immediate friends among the
mill-girls, when the poet Whittier came to Lowell to stay awhile.
I had not supposed that it would be my good fortune to meet him;
but one evening when we assembled at the "Improvement Circle," he
was there. The "Offering" editor, Miss Harriet Farley, had lived
in the same town with him, and they were old acquaintances.
It was a warm, summer evening. I recall the circumstance that a
number of us wore white dresses; also that I shrank back into
myself, and felt much abashed when some verses of mine were read
by the editor,--with others so much better, however, that mine
received little attention. I felt relieved; for I was not fond
of having my productions spoken of, for good or ill. He commended
quite highly a poem by another member of the Circle, on
"Pentucket," the Indian name of his native place, Haverhill. My
subject was "Sabbath Bells." As the Friends do not believe in
"steeple-houses," I was at liberty to imagine that it was my
theme, and not my verses, that failed to interest him.
Various other papers were read,--stories, sketches, etc., and
after the reading there was a little conversation, when he came
and spoke to me. I let the friend who had accompanied me do my
part of the talking for I was too much overawed by the presence
of one whose poetry I had so long admired, to say a great deal.
But from that evening we knew each other as friends; and, of
course, the day has a white mark among memories of my Lowell
Mr. Whittier's visit to Lowell had some political bearing upon
the antislavery cause. It is strange now to think that a cause
like that should not always have been our country's cause,--our
country,--our own free nation! But antislavery sentiments were
then regarded by many as traitorous heresies; and those who held
them did not expect to win popularity. If the vote of the mill-
girls had been taken, it would doubtless have been unanimous on
the antislavery side. But those were also the days when a woman
was not expected to give, or even to have, an opinion on subjects
of public interest.
Occasionally a young girl was attracted to the Lowell mills
through her own idealization of the life there, as it had been
reported to her. Margaret Foley, who afterwards became
distinguished as a sculptor, was one of these. She did not remain
many months at her occupation,--which I think was weaving,--soon
changing it for that of teaching and studying art. Those who came
as she did were usually disappointed. Instead of an Arcadia, they
found a place of matter-of-fact toil, filled with a company of
industrious, wide-awake girls, who were faithfully improving
their opportunities, while looking through them into avenues
Toward profit and usefulness, more desirable yet. It has always
been the way of the steady-minded New Englander to accept the
present situation--but to accept it without boundaries, taking in
also the larger prospects--all the heavens above and the earth
beneath--towards which it opens.
The movement of New England girls toward Lowell was only an
impulse of a larger movement which about that time sent so many
people from the Eastern States into the West. The needs of the
West were constantly kept before us in the churches. We were
asked for contributions for Home Missions, which were willingly
given; and some of us were appointed collectors of funds for the
education of indigent young men to become Western Home Missionary
preachers. There was something almost pathetic in the readiness
with which this was done by young girls who were longing to fit
themselves for teachers, but had not the means. Many a girl at
Lowell was working to send her brother to college, who had far
more talent and character than he; but a man could preach, and it
was not "orthodox" to think that a woman could. And in her
devotion to him, and her zeal for the spread of Christian truth,
she was hardly conscious of her own sacrifice. Yet our ministers
appreciated the intelligence and piety of their feminine
parishioners. An agent who came from the West for school-teachers
was told by our own pastor that five hundred could easily be
furnished from among Lowell mill-girls. Many did go, and they
made another New England in some of our Western States.
The missionary spirit was strong among my companions. I never
thought that I had the right qualifications for that work; but I
had a desire to see the prairies and the great rivers of the
West, and to get a taste of free, primitive life among pioneers.
Before the year 1845, several of my friends had emigrated as
teachers or missionaries. One of the editors of the "Operatives'
Magazine" had gone to Arkansas with a mill-girl who had worked
beside her among the looms. They were at an Indian mission--to
the Cherokees and Choctaws. I seemed to breathe the air of that
far Southwest, in a spray of yellow jessamine which one of those
friends sent me, pressed in a letter. People wrote very long
letters then, in those days of twenty-five cent postage.
Rachel, at whose house our German class had been accustomed to
meet, had also left her work, and had gone to western Virginia to
take charge of a school. She wrote alluring letters to us about
the scenery there; it was in the neighborhood of the Natural
My friend Angeline, with whom I used to read "Paradise Lost,"
went to Ohio as a teacher, and returned the following year, for a
very brief visit, however,--and with a husband. Another
acquaintance was in Wisconsin, teaching a pioneer school. Eliza,
my intimate companion, was about to be married to a clergyman.
She, too, eventually settled at the West.
The event which brought most change into my own life was the
marriage of my sister Emilie. It involved the breaking up of our
own little family, of which she had really been the "houseband,"
the return of my mother to my sisters at Beverly, and my going to
board among strangers, as other girls did. I found excellent
quarters and kind friends, but the home-life was ended.
My sister's husband was a grammar school master in the city, and
their cottage, a mile or more out, among the open fields, was my
frequent refuge from homesickness and the general clatter. Our
partial separation showed me how much I had depended upon my
sister. I had really let her do most of my thinking for me.
Henceforth I was to trust to my own resources. I was no longer
the "little sister" who could ask what to do, and do as she was
told. It often brought me a feeling of dismay to find that I must
make up my own mind about things small and great. And yet I was
naturally self-reliant. I am not sure but self-reliance and
dependence really belong together. They do seem to meet in the
same character, like other extremes.
The health of Emilie's husband failing, after a year or two, it
was evident that be must change his employment and his residence.
He decided to go with his brother to Illinois and settle upon a
prairie farm. Of course his wife and baby boy must go too, and
with the announcement of this decision came an invitation to me
to accompany them. I had no difficulty as to my response. It was
just what I wanted to do. I was to teach a district school; but
what there was beyond that, I could not guess. I liked to feel
that it was all as vague as the unexplored regions to which I was
going. My friend and room-mate Sarah, who was preparing herself
to be a teacher, was invited to join us, and she was glad to do
so. It was all quickly settled, and early in the spring of 1846
we left New England.
When I came to a realization of what I was leaving, when good-bys
had to be said, I began to feel very sorrowful, and to wish it
was not to be. I said positively that I should soon return, but
underneath my protestations I was afraid that I might not. The
West was very far off then, a full week's journey. It would be
hard getting back. Those I loved might die; I might die myself.
These thoughts passed through my mind, though not through my
lips. My eyes would sometimes tell the story, however, and I
fancy that my tearful farewells must have seemed ridiculous to
many of my friends, since my going was of my own cheerful choice.
The last meeting of the Improvement Circle before I went away was
a kind of surprise party to me. Several original poems were read,
addressed to me personally. I am afraid that I received it all in
a dumb, undemonstrative way, for I could not make it seem real
that I was the person meant, or that I was going away at all.
But I treasured those tributes of sympathy afterwards, under the
strange, spacious skies where I sometimes felt so alone.
The editors of the "Offering" left with me a testimonial in
money, accompanied by an acknowledgment of my contributions
during several years; but I had never dreamed of pay, and did not
know how to look upon it so. I took it gratefully, however, as a
token of their appreciation, and twenty dollars was no small help
toward my outfit. Friends brought me books and other keepsakes.
Our minister, gave me D'Aubigne's "History of the Reformation" as
a parting gift. It was quite a circumstance to be "going out
The exhilaration of starting off on one's first long journey,
young, ignorant, buoyant, expectant, is unlike anything else,
unless it be youth itself, the real beginning of the real
journey-- life. Annoyances are overlooked. Everything seems
romantic and dreamlike.
We went by a southerly route, on account of starting so early in
the season there was snow on the ground the day we left. On the
second day, after a moonlight night on Long Island Sound, we were
floating down the Delaware, between shores misty-green with
buidding willows; then (most of us seasick, though I was not) we
were tossed across Chesapeake Bay; then there was a railway ride
to the Alleghanies, which gave us glimpses of the Potomac and the
Blue Ridge, and of the lovely scenery around Harper's Ferry; then
followed a stifling night on the mountains, when we were packed
like sardines into a stagecoach, without a breath of air, and the
passengers were cross because the baby cried, while I felt
inwardly glad that one voice among us could give utterance to the
general discomfort, my own part of which I could have borne if I
could only have had an occasional peep out at the mountain-side.
After that it was all river-voyaging, down the Monongahela into
the Ohio, and up the Mississippi.
As I recall this part of it, I should say that it was the
perfection of a Western journey to travel in early spring by an
Ohio River steamboat,--such steamboats as they had forty years
ago, comfortable, roomy, and well ordered. The company was
social, as Western emigrants were wont to be when there were not
so very many of them, and the shores of the river, then only
thinly populated, were a constantly shifting panorama of
wilderness beauty. I have never since seen a combination of
spring colors so delicate as those shown by the uplifted forests
of the Ohio, where the pure white of the dogwood and the peach-
bloom tint of the red-bud (Judas tree) were contrasted with soft
shades of green, almost endlessly various, on the unfolding
Contrasted with the Ohio, the Mississippi had nothing to show but
breadth and muddiness. More than one of us glanced at its level
shores, edged with a monotonous growth of cottonwood, and sent
back a sigh towards the banks of the Merrimack. But we did not
let each other know what the sigh was for, until long after. The
breaking-up of our little company when the steamboat landed at
Saint Louis was like the ending of a pleasant dream. We had to
wake up to the fact that by striking due east thirty or forty
miles across that monotonous Greenness, we should reach our
destination, and must accept whatever we should find there, with
such grace as we could.
What we did find, and did not find, there is not room fully to
relate here. Ours was at first the roughest kind of pioneering
experience; such as persons brought up in our well-to-do New
England could not be in the least prepared for, though they might
imagine they were, as we did. We were dropped down finally upon a
vast green expense, extending hundreds of miles north and south
through the State of Illinois, then known as Looking-Glass
Prairie. The nearest cabin to our own was about a mile away, and
so small that at that distance it looked like a shingle set up
endwise in the grass. Nothing else was in sight, not even a tree,
although we could see miles and miles in every direction. There
were only the hollow blue heavens above us and the level green
prairie around us,--an immensity of intense loneliness. We seldom
saw a cloud in the sky, and never a pebble beneath our feet. If
we could have picked up the commonest one, we should have
treasured it like a diamond. Nothing in nature now seemed so
beautiful to us as rocks. We had never dreamed of a world without
them; it seemed like living on a floor without walls or
After a while we became accustomed to the vast sameness, and even
liked it in a lukewarm way. And there were times when it filled
us with emotions of grandeur. Boundlessness in itself is
impressive; it makes us feel our littleness, and yet releases us
from that littleness.
The grass was always astir, blowing one way, like the waves of
the sea; for there was a steady, almost an unvarying wind from
the south. It was like the sea, and yet even more wonderful, for
it was a sea of living and growing things. The Spirit of God was
moving upon the face of the earth, and breathing everything into
life. We were but specks on the great landscape. But God was
above it all, penetrating it and us with his infinite warmth.
The distance from human beings made the Invisible One seem so
near! Only Nature and ourselves now, face to face with Him!
We could scarcely have found in all the world a more complete
contrast to the moving crowds and the whir and dust of the City
of Spindles, than this unpeopled, silent prairie.
For myself, I know that I was sent in upon my own thoughts deeper
than I had ever been before. I began to question things which I
had never before doubted. I must have reality. Nothing but
transparent truth would bear the test of this great, solitary
stillness. As the prairies lay open to the sunshine, my heart
seemed to lie bare beneath the piercing eye of the All-Seeing. I
may say with gratitude that only some superficial rubbish of
acquired opinion was scorched away by this searching light and
heat. The faith of my childhood, in its simplest elements, took
firmer root as it found broader room to grow in.
I had many peculiar experiences in my log-cabin school-teaching,
which was seldom more than three months in one place. Only once I
found myself among New England people, and there I remained a
year or more, fairly reveling in a return to the familiar,
thrifty ways that seem to me to shape a more comfortable style of
living than any under the sun. "Vine Lodge" (so we named the
cottage for its embowering honey-suckles), and its warm-hearted
inmates, with my little white schoolhouse under the oaks, make
one of the brightest of my Western memories.
Only a mile or two away from this pretty retreat there was an
edifice towards which I often looked with longing. It was a
seminary for young women, probably at that time one of the best
in the country, certainly second to none in the West. It had
originated about a dozen years before, in a plan for Western
collegiate education, organized by Yale College graduates. It was
thought that women as well as men ought to share in the benefits
of such a plan, and the result was Monticello Seminary. The good
man whose wealth had made the institution a possibility lived in
the neighborhood. Its trustees were of the best type of pioneer
manhood, and its pupils came from all parts of the South and
Its Principal--I wonder now that I could have lived so near her
for a year without becoming acquainted with her,--but her high
local reputation as an intellectual woman inspired me with awe,
and I was foolishly diffident. One day, however, upon the
persuasion of my friends at Vine Lodge, who knew my wishes for a
higher education, I went with them to call upon her. We talked
about the matter which had been in my thoughts so long, and she
gave me not only a cordial but an urgent invitation to come and
enroll myself as a student. There were arrangements for those who
could not incur the current expenses, to meet them by doing part
of the domestic work, and of these I gladly availed myself. The
stately limestone edifice, standing in the midst of an original
growth of forest-trees, two or three miles from the Mississippi
River, became my home --my student-home--for three years. The
benefits of those three years I have been reaping ever since, I
trust not altogether selfishly. It was always my desire and my
ambition as a teacher, to help my pupils as my teachers had
The course of study at Monticello Seminary was the broadest, the
most college-like, that I have ever known; and I have had
experience since in several institutions of the kind. The study
of mediaeval and modern history, and of the history of modern
philosophy, especially, opened new vistas to me. In these our
Principal was also our teacher, and her method was to show us the
tendencies of thought, to put our minds into the great current of
human affairs, leaving us to collect details as we could, then or
afterward. We came thus to feel that these were life-long
studies, as indeed they are.
The course was somewhat elective, but her advice to me was, not
to omit anything because I did not like it. I had a natural
distaste for mathematics, and my recollections of my struggles
with trigonometry and conic sections are not altogether those of
a conquering heroine. But my teacher told me that my mind had
need of just that exact sort of discipline, and I think she was
A habit of indiscriminate, unsystematized reading, such as I had
fallen into, is entirely foreign to the scholarly habit of mind.
Attention is the secret of real acquirement; but it was months
before I could command my own attention, even when I was
interested in the subject I was examining. It seemed as if all
the pages of all the books I had ever read were turning
themselves over between me and this one page that I wanted to
understand. I found that mere reading does not by any means make
It was more to me to come into communication with my wise teacher
as a friend than even to receive the wisdom she had to impart.
She was dignified and reticent, but beneath her reserve, as is
often the case, was a sealed fountain of sympathy, which one who
had the key could easily unlock. Thinking of her nobleness of
character, her piety, her learning, her power, and her sweetness,
it seems to me as if I had once had a Christian Zenobia or
Hypatia for my teacher.
We speak with awed tenderness of our unseen guardian angels, but
have we not all had our guiding angels, who came to us in visible
form, and, recognized or unknown, kept beside us on our difficult
path until they had done for us all they could? It seems to me as
if one had succeeded another by my side all through the years,--
always some one whose influence made my heart stronger and my way
clearer; though sometimes it has been only a little child that
came and laid its hand into my hand as if I were its guide,
instead of its being mine.
My dear and honored Lady-Principal was surely one of my strong
guiding angels, sent to meet me as I went to meet her upon my
life-road, just at the point where I most needed her. For the one
great thing she gave her pupils,--scope, often quite left out of
woman's education,--I especially thank her. The true education is
to go on forever. But how can there be any hopeful going on
without outlook? And having an infinite outlook, how can progress
ever cease? It was worth while for me to go to those Western
prairies, if only for the broader mental view that opened upon me
in my pupilage there.
During my first year at the seminary I was appointed teacher of
the Preparatory Department,--a separate school of thirty or forty
girls,--with the opportunity to go on with my studies at the same
time. It was a little hard, but I was very glad to do it, as I
was unwilling to receive an education without rendering an
equivalent, and I did not wish to incur a debt.
I believe that the postponement of these maturer studies to my
early womanhood, after I had worked and taught, was a benefit to
me. I had found out some of my special ignorances, what the
things were which I most needed to know. I had learned that the
book-knowledge I so much craved was not itself education, was not
even culture, but only a help, an adjunct to both. As I studied
more earnestly, I cared for fewer books, but those few made
themselves indispensable. It still seems to me that in the Lowell
mills, and in my log-cabin schoolhouse on the Western prairies, I
received the best part of my early education.
The great advantage of a seminary course to me was that under my
broad-minded Principal I learned what education really is: the
penetrating deeper and rising higher into life, as well as making
continually wider explorations; the rounding of the whole human
being out of its nebulous elements into form, as planets and suns
are rounded, until they give out safe and steady light. This
makes the process an infinite one, not possible to be completed
at any school.
Returning from the West immediately after my graduation, I was
for ten years or so a teacher of young girls in seminaries much
like my own Alma Mater. The best result to me of that experience
has been the friendship of my pupils,--a happiness which must
last as long as life itself.
A book must end somewhere, and the natural boundary of this
narrative is drawn with my leaving New England for the West. I
was to outline the story of my youth for the young, though I
think many a one among them might tell a story far more
interesting than mine. The most beautiful lives seldom find their
way into print. Perhaps the most beautiful part of any life never
does. I should like to flatter myself so.
I could not stay at the West. It was never really home to me
there, and my sojourn of six or seven years on the prairies only
deepened my love and longing for the dear old State of
Massachusetts. I came back in the summer of 1852, and the
unwritten remainder of my sketch is chiefly that of a teacher's
and writer's experience; regarding which latter I will add, for
the gratification of those who have desired them, a few personal
While a student and teacher at the West I was still writing, and
much that I wrote was published. A poem printed in "Sartain's
Magazine," sent there at the suggestion of the editor of the
"Lowell Offering" was the first for which I received
remuneration--five dollars. Several poems written for the
manuscript school journal at Monticello Seminary are in the
of my verses, among them those entitled "Eureka," "Hand in Hand
with Angels," and " Psyche at School." These, and various others
written soon after, were printed in the "National Era," in return
for which a copy of the paper was sent me. Nothing further was
asked or expected.
The little song "Hannah Binding Shoes"--written immediately after
my return from the West,--was a study from life--though not from
any one life--in my native town. It was brought into notice in a
peculiar way,--by my being accused of stealing it, by the editor
of the magazine to which I had sent it with a request for the
usual remuneration, if accepted. Accidentally or otherwise, this
editor lost my note and signature, and then denounced me by name
in a newspaper as a "literary thiefess;" having printed the
verses with a nom de plume in his magazine without my knowledge.
It was awkward to have to come to my own defense. But the curious
incident gave the song a wide circulation.
I did not attempt writing for money until it became a necessity,
when my health failed at teaching, although I should long before
then have liked to spend my whole time with my pen, could I have
done so. But it was imperative that I should have an assured
income, however small; and every one who has tried it knows how
uncertain a support one's pen is, unless it has become very
famous indeed. My life as a teacher, however, I regard as part of
my best preparation for whatever I have since written. I do not
know but I should recommend five or ten years of teaching as the
most profitable apprenticeship for a young person who wished to
become an author. To be a good teacher implies self-discipline,
and a book written without something of that sort of personal
preparation cannot be a very valuable one.
Success in writing may mean many different things. I do not know
that I have ever reached it, except in the sense of liking better
and better to write, and of finding expression easier. It is
something to have won the privilege of going on. Sympathy and
recognition are worth a great deal; the power to touch human
beings inwardly and nobly is worth far more. The hope of
attaining to such results, if only occasionally, must be a
writer's best inspiration.
So far as successful publication goes, perhaps the first I
considered so came when a poem of mine was accepted by the
"Atlantic Monthly." Its title was "The Rose Enthroned," and as
the poet Lowell was at that time editing the magazine I felt
especially gratified. That and another poem, "The Loyal Woman's
No," written early in the War of the Rebellion, were each
attributed to a different person among our prominent poets, the
"Atlantic" at that time not giving authors' signatures. Of course
I knew the unlikeness; nevertheless, those who made the mistake
paid me an unintentional compliment. Compliments, however, are
very cheap, and by no means signify success. I have always
regarded it as a better ambition to be a true woman than to
become a successful writer. To be the second would never
have seemed to me desirable, without also being the first.
In concluding, let me say to you, dear girls, for whom these
pages have been written, that if I have learned anything by
living, it is this,--that the meaning of life is education; not
through book-knowledge alone, sometimes entirely without it.
Education is growth, the development of our best possibilities
from within outward; and it cannot be carried on as it should be
except in a school, just such a school as we all find ourselves
in--this world of human beings by whom we are surrounded. The
beauty of belonging to this school is that we cannot learn
anything in it by ourselves alone, but for and with our
fellowpupils, the wide earth over. We can never expect promotion
here, except by taking our place among the lowest, and sharing
their difficulties until they are removed, and we all become
graduates together for a higher school.
Humility, Sympathy, Helpfulness, and Faith are the best teachers
in this great university, and none of us are well educated who do
not accept their training. The real satisfaction of living is,
and must forever be, the education of all for each, and of each
for all. So let us all try together to be good and faithful
women, and not care too much for what the world may think of us
or of our abilities!
My little story is not a remarkable one, for I have never
attempted remarkable things. In the words of one of our honored
elder writers, given in reply to a youthful aspirant who had
asked for some points of her "literary career,"--"I never had a