Part 4 out of 6
especially to "stump-speak," like men; next to an effeminate man
there is nothing so disagreeable as a mannish woman.
HERBERT. I heard one once address a legislative committee. The
knowing air, the familiar, jocular, smart manner, the nodding and
winking innuendoes, supposed to be those of a man "up to snuff," and
au fait in political wiles, were inexpressibly comical. And yet the
exhibition was pathetic, for it had the suggestive vulgarity of a
woman in man's clothes. The imitation is always a dreary failure.
THE MISTRESS. Such women are the rare exceptions. I am ready to
defend my sex; but I won't attempt to defend both sexes in one.
THE FIRE-TENDER. I have great hope that women will bring into the
newspaper an elevating influence; the common and sweet life of
society is much better fitted to entertain and instruct us than the
exceptional and extravagant. I confess (saving the Mistress's
presence) that the evening talk over the dessert at dinner is much
more entertaining and piquant than the morning paper, and often as
THE MISTRESS. I think the subject had better be changed.
MANDEVILLE. The person, not the subject. There is no entertainment
so full of quiet pleasure as the hearing a lady of cultivation and
refinement relate her day's experience in her daily rounds of calls,
charitable visits, shopping, errands of relief and condolence. The
evening budget is better than the finance minister's.
OUR NEXT DOOR. That's even so. My wife will pick up more news in
six hours than I can get in a week, and I'm fond of news.
MANDEVILLE. I don't mean gossip, by any means, or scandal. A woman
of culture skims over that like a bird, never touching it with the
tip of a wing. What she brings home is the freshness and brightness
of life. She touches everything so daintily, she hits off a
character in a sentence, she gives the pith of a dialogue without
tediousness, she mimics without vulgarity; her narration sparkles,
but it does n't sting. The picture of her day is full of vivacity,
and it gives new value and freshness to common things. If we could
only have on the stage such actresses as we have in the drawing-room!
THE FIRE-TENDER. We want something more of this grace,
sprightliness, and harmless play of the finer life of society in the
OUR NEXT DOOR. I wonder Mandeville does n't marry, and become a
permanent subscriber to his embodied idea of a newspaper.
THE YOUNG LADY. Perhaps he does not relish the idea of being unable
to stop his subscription.
OUR NEXT DOOR. Parson, won't you please punch that fire, and give us
more blaze? we are getting into the darkness of socialism.
Herbert returned to us in March. The Young Lady was spending the
winter with us, and March, in spite of the calendar, turned out to be
a winter month. It usually is in New England, and April too, for
that matter. And I cannot say it is unfortunate for us. There are
so many topics to be turned over and settled at our fireside that a
winter of ordinary length would make little impression on the list.
The fireside is, after all, a sort of private court of chancery,
where nothing ever does come to a final decision. The chief effect
of talk on any subject is to strengthen one's own opinions, and, in
fact, one never knows exactly what he does believe until he is warmed
into conviction by the heat of attack and defence. A man left to
himself drifts about like a boat on a calm lake; it is only when the
wind blows that the boat goes anywhere.
Herbert said he had been dipping into the recent novels written by
women, here and there, with a view to noting the effect upon
literature of this sudden and rather overwhelming accession to it.
There was a good deal of talk about it evening after evening, off and
on, and I can only undertake to set down fragments of it.
HERBERT. I should say that the distinguishing feature of the
literature of this day is the prominence women have in its
production. They figure in most of the magazines, though very rarely
in the scholarly and critical reviews, and in thousands of
newspapers; to them we are indebted for the oceans of Sunday-school
books, and they write the majority of the novels, the serial stories,
and they mainly pour out the watery flood of tales in the weekly
papers. Whether this is to result in more good than evil it is
impossible yet to say, and perhaps it would be unjust to say, until
this generation has worked off its froth, and women settle down to
artistic, conscien-tious labor in literature.
THE MISTRESS. You don't mean to say that George Eliot, and Mrs.
Gaskell, and George Sand, and Mrs. Browning, before her marriage and
severe attack of spiritism, are less true to art than contemporary
men novelists and poets.
HERBERT. You name some exceptions that show the bright side of the
picture, not only for the present, but for the future. Perhaps
genius has no sex; but ordinary talent has. I refer to the great
body of novels, which you would know by internal evidence were
written by women. They are of two sorts: the domestic story,
entirely unidealized, and as flavorless as water-gruel; and the
spiced novel, generally immoral in tendency, in which the social
problems are handled, unhappy marriages, affinity and passional
attraction, bigamy, and the violation of the seventh commandment.
These subjects are treated in the rawest manner, without any settled
ethics, with little discrimination of eternal right and wrong, and
with very little sense of responsibility for what is set forth. Many
of these novels are merely the blind outbursts of a nature impatient
of restraint and the conventionalities of society, and are as chaotic
as the untrained minds that produce them.
MANDEVILLE. Don't you think these novels fairly represent a social
condition of unrest and upheaval?
HERBERT. Very likely; and they help to create and spread abroad the
discontent they describe. Stories of bigamy (sometimes disguised by
divorce), of unhappy marriages, where the injured wife, through an
entire volume, is on the brink of falling into the arms of a sneaking
lover, until death kindly removes the obstacle, and the two souls,
who were born for each other, but got separated in the cradle, melt
and mingle into one in the last chapter, are not healthful reading
for maids or mothers.
THE MISTRESS. Or men.
THE FIRE-TENDER. The most disagreeable object to me in modern
literature is the man the women novelists have introduced as the
leading character; the women who come in contact with him seem to be
fascinated by his disdainful mien, his giant strength, and his brutal
manner. He is broad across the shoulders, heavily moulded, yet as
lithe as a cat; has an ugly scar across his right cheek; has been in
the four quarters of the globe; knows seventeen languages; had a
harem in Turkey and a Fayaway in the Marquesas; can be as polished as
Bayard in the drawing-room, but is as gloomy as Conrad in the
library; has a terrible eye and a withering glance, but can be
instantly subdued by a woman's hand, if it is not his wife's; and
through all his morose and vicious career has carried a heart as pure
as a violet.
THE MISTRESS. Don't you think the Count of Monte Cristo is the elder
brother of Rochester?
THE FIRE-TENDER. One is a mere hero of romance; the other is meant
for a real man.
MANDEVILLE. I don't see that the men novel-writers are better than
HERBERT. That's not the question; but what are women who write so
large a proportion of the current stories bringing into literature?
Aside from the question of morals, and the absolutely demoralizing
manner of treating social questions, most of their stories are vapid
and weak beyond expression, and are slovenly in composition, showing
neither study, training, nor mental discipline.
THE MISTRESS. Considering that women have been shut out from the
training of the universities, and have few opportunities for the wide
observation that men enjoy, isn't it pretty well that the foremost
living writers of fiction are women?
HERBERT. You can say that for the moment, since Thackeray and
Dickens have just died. But it does not affect the general estimate.
We are inundated with a flood of weak writing. Take the Sunday-
school literature, largely the product of women; it has n't as much
character as a dried apple pie. I don't know what we are coming to
if the presses keep on running.
OUR NEXT DOOR. We are living, we are dwelling, in a grand and awful
time; I'm glad I don't write novels.
THE PARSON. So am I.
OUR NEXT DOOR. I tried a Sunday-school book once; but I made the
good boy end in the poorhouse, and the bad boy go to Congress; and
the publisher said it wouldn't do, the public wouldn't stand that
sort of thing. Nobody but the good go to Congress.
THE MISTRESS. Herbert, what do you think women are good for?
OUR NEXT DOOR. That's a poser.
HERBERT. Well, I think they are in a tentative state as to
literature, and we cannot yet tell what they will do. Some of our
most brilliant books of travel, correspondence, and writing on topics
in which their sympathies have warmly interested them, are by women.
Some of them are also strong writers in the daily journals.
MANDEVILLE. I 'm not sure there's anything a woman cannot do as well
as a man, if she sets her heart on it.
THE PARSON. That's because she's no conscience.
CHORUS. O Parson!
THE PARSON. Well, it does n't trouble her, if she wants to do
anything. She looks at the end, not the means. A woman, set on
anything, will walk right through the moral crockery without wincing.
She'd be a great deal more unscrupulous in politics than the average
man. Did you ever see a female lobbyist? Or a criminal? It is Lady
Macbeth who does not falter. Don't raise your hands at me! The
sweetest angel or the coolest devil is a woman. I see in some of the
modern novels we have been talking of the same unscrupulous daring, a
blindness to moral distinctions, a constant exaltation of a passion
into a virtue, an entire disregard of the immutable laws on which the
family and society rest. And you ask lawyers and trustees how
scrupulous women are in business transactions!
THE FIRE-TENDER. Women are often ignorant of affairs, and, besides,
they may have a notion often that a woman ought to be privileged more
than a man in business matters; but I tell you, as a rule, that if
men would consult their wives, they would go a deal straighter in
business operations than they do go.
THE PARSON. We are all poor sinners. But I've another indictment
against the women writers. We get no good old-fashioned love-stories
from them. It's either a quarrel of discordant natures one a
panther, and the other a polar bear--for courtship, until one of them
is crippled by a railway accident; or a long wrangle of married life
between two unpleasant people, who can neither live comfortably
together nor apart. I suppose, by what I see, that sweet wooing,
with all its torturing and delightful uncertainty, still goes on in
the world; and I have no doubt that the majority of married people
live more happily than the unmarried. But it's easier to find a dodo
than a new and good love-story.
MANDEVILLE. I suppose the old style of plot is exhausted.
Everything in man and outside of him has been turned over so often
that I should think the novelists would cease simply from want of
THE PARSON. Plots are no more exhausted than men are. Every man is
a new creation, and combinations are simply endless. Even if we did
not have new material in the daily change of society, and there were
only a fixed number of incidents and characters in life, invention
could not be exhausted on them. I amuse myself sometimes with my
kaleidoscope, but I can never reproduce a figure. No, no. I cannot
say that you may not exhaust everything else: we may get all the
secrets of a nature into a book by and by, but the novel is immortal,
for it deals with men.
The Parson's vehemence came very near carrying him into a sermon; and
as nobody has the privilege of replying to his sermons, so none of
the circle made any reply now.
Our Next Door mumbled something about his hair standing on end, to
hear a minister defending the novel; but it did not interrupt the
general silence. Silence is unnoticed when people sit before a fire;
it would be intolerable if they sat and looked at each other.
The wind had risen during the evening, and Mandeville remarked, as
they rose to go, that it had a spring sound in it, but it was as cold
as winter. The Mistress said she heard a bird that morning singing
in the sun a spring song, it was a winter bird, but it sang
We have been much interested in what is called the Gothic revival.
We have spent I don't know how many evenings in looking over
Herbert's plans for a cottage, and have been amused with his vain
efforts to cover with Gothic roofs the vast number of large rooms
which the Young Lady draws in her sketch of a small house.
I have no doubt that the Gothic, which is capable of infinite
modification, so that every house built in that style may be as
different from every other house as one tree is from every other, can
be adapted to our modern uses, and will be, when artists catch its
spirit instead of merely copying its old forms. But just now we are
taking the Gothic very literally, as we took the Greek at one time,
or as we should probably have taken the Saracenic, if the Moors had
not been colored. Not even the cholera is so contagious in this
country as a style of architecture which we happen to catch; the
country is just now broken out all over with the Mansard-roof
And in secular architecture we do not study what is adapted to our
climate any more than in ecclesiastic architecture we adopt that
which is suited to our religion.
We are building a great many costly churches here and there, we
Protestants, and as the most of them are ill adapted to our forms of
worship, it may be necessary and best for us to change our religion
in order to save our investments. I am aware that this would be a
grave step, and we should not hasten to throw overboard Luther and
the right of private judgment without reflection. And yet, if it is
necessary to revive the ecclesiastical Gothic architecture, not in
its spirit (that we nowhere do), but in the form which served another
age and another faith, and if, as it appears, we have already a great
deal of money invested in this reproduction, it may be more prudent
to go forward than to go back. The question is, "Cannot one easier
change his creed than his pew?"
I occupy a seat in church which is an admirable one for reflection,
but I cannot see or hear much that is going on in what we like to
call the apse. There is a splendid stone pillar, a clustered column,
right in front of me, and I am as much protected from the minister as
Old Put's troops were from the British, behind the stone wall at
Bunker's Hill. I can hear his voice occasionally wandering round in
the arches overhead, and I recognize the tone, because he is a friend
of mine and an excellent man, but what he is saying I can very seldom
make out. If there was any incense burning, I could smell it, and
that would be something. I rather like the smell of incense, and it
has its holy associations. But there is no smell in our church,
except of bad air,--for there is no provision for ventilation in the
splendid and costly edifice. The reproduction of the old Gothic is
so complete that the builders even seem to have brought over the
ancient air from one of the churches of the Middle Ages,--you would
declare it had n't been changed in two centuries.
I am expected to fix my attention during the service upon one man,
who stands in the centre of the apse and has a sounding-board behind
him in order to throw his voice out of the sacred semicircular space
(where the aitar used to stand, but now the sounding-board takes the
place of the altar) and scatter it over the congregation at large,
and send it echoing up in the groined roof I always like to hear a
minister who is unfamiliar with the house, and who has a loud voice,
try to fill the edifice. The more he roars and gives himself with
vehemence to the effort, the more the building roars in
indistinguishable noise and hubbub. By the time he has said (to
suppose a case), "The Lord is in his holy temple," and has passed on
to say, "let all the earth keep silence," the building is repeating
"The Lord is in his holy temple" from half a dozen different angles
and altitudes, rolling it and growling it, and is not keeping silence
at all. A man who understands it waits until the house has had its
say, and has digested one passage, before he launches another into
the vast, echoing spaces. I am expected, as I said, to fix my eye
and mind on the minister, the central point of the service. But the
pillar hides him. Now if there were several ministers in the church,
dressed in such gorgeous colors that I could see them at the distance
from the apse at which my limited income compels me to sit, and
candles were burning, and censers were swinging, and the platform was
full of the sacred bustle of a gorgeous ritual worship, and a bell
rang to tell me the holy moments, I should not mind the pillar at
all. I should sit there, like any other Goth, and enjoy it. But, as
I have said, the pastor is a friend of mine, and I like to look at
him on Sunday, and hear what he says, for he always says something
worth hearing. I am on such terms with him, indeed we all are, that
it would be pleasant to have the service of a little more social
nature, and more human. When we put him away off in the apse, and
set him up for a Goth, and then seat ourselves at a distance,
scattered about among the pillars, the whole thing seems to me a
trifle unnatural. Though I do not mean to say that the congregations
do not "enjoy their religion " in their splendid edifices which cost
so much money and are really so beautiful.
A good many people have the idea, so it seems, that Gothic
architecture and Christianity are essentially one and the same thing.
Just as many regard it as an act of piety to work an altar cloth or
to cushion a pulpit. It may be, and it may not be.
Our Gothic church is likely to prove to us a valuable religious
experience, bringing out many of the Christian virtues. It may have
had its origin in pride, but it is all being overruled for our good.
Of course I need n't explain that it is the thirteenth century
ecclesiastic Gothic that is epidemic in this country; and I think it
has attacked the Congregational and the other non-ritual churches
more violently than any others. We have had it here in its most
beautiful and dangerous forms. I believe we are pretty much all of
us supplied with a Gothic church now. Such has been the enthusiasm
in this devout direction, that I should not be surprised to see our
rich private citizens putting up Gothic churches for their individual
amusement and sanctification. As the day will probably come when
every man in Hartford will live in his own mammoth, five-story
granite insurance building, it may not be unreasonable to expect that
every man will sport his own Gothic church. It is beginning to be
discovered that the Gothic sort of church edifice is fatal to the
Congregational style of worship that has been prevalent here in New
England; but it will do nicely (as they say in Boston) for private
There isn't a finer or purer church than ours any where, inside and
outside Gothic to the last. The elevation of the nave gives it even
that "high-shouldered" appearance which seemed more than anything
else to impress Mr. Hawthorne in the cathedral at Amiens. I fancy
that for genuine high-shoulderness we are not exceeded by any church
in the city. Our chapel in the rear is as Gothic as the rest of it,-
-a beautiful little edifice. The committee forgot to make any more
provision for ventilating that than the church, and it takes a pretty
well-seasoned Christian to stay in it long at a time. The Sunday-
school is held there, and it is thought to be best to accustom the
children to bad air before they go into the church. The poor little
dears shouldn't have the wickedness and impurity of this world break
on them too suddenly. If the stranger noticed any lack about our
church, it would be that of a spire. There is a place for one;
indeed, it was begun, and then the builders seem to have stopped,
with the notion that it would grow itself from such a good root. It
is a mistake however, to suppose that we do not know that the church
has what the profane here call a "stump-tail" appearance. But the
profane are as ignorant of history as they are of true Gothic. All
the Old World cathedrals were the work of centuries. That at Milan
is scarcely finished yet; the unfinished spires of the Cologne
cathedral are one of the best-known features of it. I doubt if it
would be in the Gothic spirit to finish a church at once. We can
tell cavilers that we shall have a spire at the proper time, and not
a minute before. It may depend a little upon what the Baptists do,
who are to build near us. I, for one, think we had better wait and
see how high the Baptist spire is before we run ours up. The church
is everything that could be desired inside. There is the nave, with
its lofty and beautiful arched ceiling; there are the side aisles,
and two elegant rows of stone pillars, stained so as to be a perfect
imitation of stucco; there is the apse, with its stained glass and
exquisite lines; and there is an organ-loft over the front entrance,
with a rose window. Nothing was wanting, so far as we could see,
except that we should adapt ourselves to the circumstances; and that
we have been trying to do ever since. It may be well to relate how
we do it, for the benefit of other inchoate Goths.
It was found that if we put up the organ in the loft, it would hide
the beautiful rose window. Besides, we wanted congregational sing-
ing, and if we hired a choir, and hung it up there under the roof,
like a cage of birds, we should not have congregational singing. We
therefore left the organ-loft vacant, making no further use of it
than to satisfy our Gothic cravings. As for choir,--several of the
singers of the church volunteered to sit together in the front
side-seats, and as there was no place for an organ, they gallantly
rallied round a melodeon,--or perhaps it is a cabinet organ,--a
charming instrument, and, as everybody knows, entirely in keeping
with the pillars, arches, and great spaces of a real Gothic edifice.
It is the union of simplicity with grandeur, for which we have all
been looking. I need not say to those who have ever heard a
melodeon, that there is nothing like it. It is rare, even in the
finest churches on the Continent. And we had congregational singing.
And it went very well indeed. One of the advantages of pure
congregational singing, is that you can join in the singing whether
you have a voice or not. The disadvantage is, that your neighbor can
do the same. It is strange what an uncommonly poor lot of voices
there is, even among good people. But we enjoy it. If you do not
enjoy it, you can change your seat until you get among a good lot.
So far, everything went well. But it was next discovered that it was
difficult to hear the minister, who had a very handsome little desk
in the apse, somewhat distant from the bulk of the congregation;
still, we could most of us see him on a clear day. The church was
admirably built for echoes, and the centre of the house was very
favorable to them. When you sat in the centre of the house, it
sometimes seemed as if three or four ministers were speaking.
It is usually so in cathedrals; the Right Reverend So-and-So is
assisted by the very Reverend Such-and-Such, and the good deal
Reverend Thus-and-Thus, and so on. But a good deal of the minister's
voice appeared to go up into the groined arches, and, as there was no
one up there, some of his best things were lost. We also had a
notion that some of it went into the cavernous organ-loft. It would
have been all right if there had been a choir there, for choirs
usually need more preaching, and pay less heed to it, than any other
part of the congregation. Well, we drew a sort of screen over the
organ-loft; but the result was not as marked as we had hoped. We
next devised a sounding-board,--a sort of mammoth clamshell, painted
white,--and erected it behind the minister. It had a good effect on
the minister. It kept him up straight to his work. So long as he
kept his head exactly in the focus, his voice went out and did not
return to him; but if he moved either way, he was assailed by a Babel
of clamoring echoes. There was no opportunity for him to splurge
about from side to side of the pulpit, as some do. And if he raised
his voice much, or attempted any extra flights, he was liable to be
drowned in a refluent sea of his own eloquence. And he could hear
the congregation as well as they could hear him. All the coughs,
whispers, noises, were gathered in the wooden tympanum behind him,
and poured into his ears.
But the sounding-board was an improvement, and we advanced to bolder
measures; having heard a little, we wanted to hear more. Besides,
those who sat in front began to be discontented with the melodeon.
There are depths in music which the melodeon, even when it is called
a cabinet organ, with a colored boy at the bellows, cannot sound.
The melodeon was not, originally, designed for the Gothic worship.
We determined to have an organ, and we speculated whether, by
erecting it in the apse, we could not fill up that elegant portion of
the church, and compel the preacher's voice to leave it, and go out
over the pews. It would of course do something to efface the main
beauty of a Gothic church; but something must be done, and we began a
series of experiments to test the probable effects of putting the
organ and choir behind the minister. We moved the desk to the very
front of the platform, and erected behind it a high, square board
screen, like a section of tight fence round the fair-grounds. This
did help matters. The minister spoke with more ease, and we could
hear him better. If the screen had been intended to stay there, we
should have agitated the subject of painting it. But this was only
Our next move was to shove the screen back and mount the volunteer
singers, melodeon and all, upon the platform,--some twenty of them
crowded together behind the minister. The,effect was beautiful. It
seemed as if we had taken care to select the finest-looking people in
the congregation,--much to the injury of the congregation, of course,
as seen from the platform. There are few congregations that can
stand this sort of culling, though ours can endure it as well as any;
yet it devolves upon those of us who remain the responsibility of
looking as well as we can.
The experiment was a success, so far as appearances went, but when
the screen went back, the minister's voice went back with it. We
could not hear him very well, though we could hear the choir as plain
as day. We have thought of remedying this last defect by putting the
high screen in front of the singers, and close to the minister, as it
was before. This would make the singers invisible,--"though lost to
sight, to memory dear,"--what is sometimes called an "angel choir,"
when the singers (and the melodeon) are concealed, with the most
subdued and religious effect. It is often so in cathedrals.
This plan would have another advantage. The singers on the platform,
all handsome and well dressed, distract our attention from the
minister, and what he is saying. We cannot help looking at them,
studying all the faces and all the dresses. If one of them sits up
very straight, he is a rebuke to us; if he "lops" over, we wonder why
he does n't sit up; if his hair is white, we wonder whether it is age
or family peculiarity; if he yawns, we want to yawn; if he takes up a
hymn-book, we wonder if he is uninterested in the sermon; we look at
the bonnets, and query if that is the latest spring style, or whether
we are to look for another; if he shaves close, we wonder why he
doesn't let his beard grow; if he has long whiskers, we wonder why he
does n't trim 'em; if she sighs, we feel sorry; if she smiles, we
would like to know what it is about. And, then, suppose any of the
singers should ever want to eat fennel, or peppermints, or Brown's
troches, and pass them round! Suppose the singers, more or less of
them, should sneeze!
Suppose one or two of them, as the handsomest people sometimes will,
should go to sleep! In short, the singers there take away all our
attention from the minister, and would do so if they were the
homeliest people in the world. We must try something else.
It is needless to explain that a Gothic religious life is not an idle
Perhaps the clothes question is exhausted, philosophically. I cannot
but regret that the Poet of the Breakfast-Table, who appears to have
an uncontrollable penchant for saying the things you would like to
say yourself, has alluded to the anachronism of "Sir Coeur de Lion
Plantagenet in the mutton-chop whiskers and the plain gray suit."
A great many scribblers have felt the disadvantage of writing after
Montaigne; and it is impossible to tell how much originality in
others Dr. Holmes has destroyed in this country. In whist there are
some men you always prefer to have on your left hand, and I take it
that this intuitive essayist, who is so alert to seize the few
remaining unappropriated ideas and analogies in the world, is one of
No doubt if the Plantagenets of this day were required to dress in a
suit of chain-armor and wear iron pots on their heads, they would be
as ridiculous as most tragedy actors on the stage. The pit which
recognizes Snooks in his tin breastplate and helmet laughs at him,
and Snooks himself feels like a sheep; and when the great tragedian
comes on, shining in mail, dragging a two-handed sword, and mouths
the grandiloquence which poets have put into the speech of heroes,
the dress-circle requires all its good-breeding and its feigned love
of the traditionary drama not to titter.
If this sort of acting, which is supposed to have come down to us
from the Elizabethan age, and which culminated in the school of the
Keans, Kembles, and Siddonses, ever had any fidelity to life, it must
have been in a society as artificial as the prose of Sir Philip
Sidney. That anybody ever believed in it is difficult to think,
especially when we read what privileges the fine beaux and gallants
of the town took behind the scenes and on the stage in the golden
days of the drama. When a part of the audience sat on the stage, and
gentlemen lounged or reeled across it in the midst of a play, to
speak to acquaintances in the audience, the illusion could not have
been very strong.
Now and then a genius, like Rachel as Horatia, or Hackett as
Falstaff, may actually seem to be the character assumed by virtue of
a transforming imagination, but I suppose the fact to be that getting
into a costume, absurdly antiquated and remote from all the habits
and associations of the actor, largely accounts for the incongruity
and ridiculousness of most of our modern acting. Whether what is
called the "legitimate drama" ever was legitimate we do not know, but
the advocates of it appear to think that the theatre was some time
cast in a mould, once for all, and is good for all times and peoples,
like the propositions of Euclid. To our eyes the legitimate drama of
to-day is the one in which the day is reflected, both in costume and
speech, and which touches the affections, the passions, the humor, of
the present time. The brilliant success of the few good plays that
have been written out of the rich life which we now live--the most
varied, fruitful, and dramatically suggestive--ought to rid us
forever of the buskin-fustian, except as a pantomimic or spectacular
We have no objection to Julius Caesar or Richard III. stalking about
in impossible clothes) and stepping four feet at a stride, if they
want to, but let them not claim to be more "legitimate" than "Ours"
or "Rip Van Winkle." There will probably be some orator for years
and years to come, at every Fourth of July, who will go on asking,
Where is Thebes? but he does not care anything about it, and he does
not really expect an answer. I have sometimes wished I knew the
exact site of Thebes, so that I could rise in the audience, and stop
that question, at any rate. It is legitimate, but it is tiresome.
If we went to the bottom of this subject, I think we should find that
the putting upon actors clothes to which they are unaccustomed makes
them act and talk artificially, and often in a manner intolerable.
An actor who has not the habits or instincts of a gentleman cannot be
made to appear like one on the stage by dress; he only caricatures
and discredits what he tries to represent; and the unaccustomed
clothes and situation make him much more unnatural and insufferable
than he would otherwise be. Dressed appropriately for parts for
which he is fitted, he will act well enough, probably. What I mean
is, that the clothes inappropriate to the man make the incongruity of
him and his part more apparent. Vulgarity is never so conspicuous as
in fine apparel, on or off the stage, and never so self-conscious.
Shall we have, then, no refined characters on the stage? Yes; but
let them be taken by men and women of taste and refinement and let us
have done with this masquerading in false raiment, ancient and
modern, which makes nearly every stage a travesty of nature and the
whole theatre a painful pretension. We do not expect the modern
theatre to be a place of instruction (that business is now turned
over to the telegraphic operator, who is making a new language), but
it may give amusement instead of torture, and do a little in
satirizing folly and kindling love of home and country by the way.
This is a sort of summary of what we all said, and no one in
particular is responsible for it; and in this it is like public
opinion. The Parson, however, whose only experience of the theatre
was the endurance of an oratorio once, was very cordial in his
denunciation of the stage altogether.
MANDEVILLE. Yet, acting itself is delightful; nothing so entertains
us as mimicry, the personation of character. We enjoy it in private.
I confess that I am always pleased with the Parson in the character
of grumbler. He would be an immense success on the stage. I don't
know but the theatre will have to go back into the hands of the
priests, who once controlled it.
THE PARSON. Scoffer!
MANDEVILLE. I can imagine how enjoyable the stage might be, cleared
of all its traditionary nonsense, stilted language, stilted behavior,
all the rubbish of false sentiment, false dress, and the manners of
times that were both artificial and immoral, and filled with living
characters, who speak the thought of to-day, with the wit and culture
that are current to-day. I've seen private theatricals, where all
the performers were persons of cultivation, that....
OUR NEXT DOOR. So have I. For something particularly cheerful,
commend me to amateur theatricals. I have passed some melancholy
hours at them.
MANDEVILLE. That's because the performers acted the worn stage
plays, and attempted to do them in the manner they had seen on the
stage. It is not always so.
THE FIRE-TENDER. I suppose Mandeville would say that acting has got
into a mannerism which is well described as stagey, and is supposed
to be natural to the stage; just as half the modern poets write in a
recognized form of literary manufacture, without the least impulse
from within, and not with the purpose of saying anything, but of
turning out a piece of literary work. That's the reason we have so
much poetry that impresses one like sets of faultless cabinet-
furniture made by machinery.
THE PARSON. But you need n't talk of nature or naturalness in acting
or in anything. I tell you nature is poor stuff. It can't go alone.
Amateur acting--they get it up at church sociables nowadays--is apt
to be as near nature as a school-boy's declamation. Acting is the
THE MISTRESS. Do you object to such innocent amusement?
MANDEVILLE. What the Parson objects to is, that he isn't amused.
THE PARSON. What's the use of objecting? It's the fashion of the
day to amuse people into the kingdom of heaven.
HERBERT. The Parson has got us off the track. My notion about the
stage is, that it keeps along pretty evenly with the rest of the
world; the stage is usually quite up to the level of the audience.
Assumed dress on the stage, since you were speaking of that, makes
people no more constrained and self-conscious than it does off the
THE MISTRESS. What sarcasm is coming now?
HERBERT. Well, you may laugh, but the world has n't got used to good
clothes yet. The majority do not wear them with ease. People who
only put on their best on rare and stated occasions step into an
OUR NEXT DOOR. I wonder if that's the reason the Parson finds it so
difficult to get hold of his congregation.
HERBERT. I don't know how else to account for the formality and
vapidity of a set "party," where all the guests are clothed in a
manner to which they are unaccustomed, dressed into a condition of
vivid self-consciousness. The same people, who know each other
perfectly well, will enjoy themselves together without restraint in
their ordinary apparel. But nothing can be more artificial than the
behavior of people together who rarely "dress up." It seems
impossible to make the conversation as fine as the clothes, and so it
dies in a kind of inane helplessness. Especially is this true in the
country, where people have not obtained the mastery of their clothes
that those who live in the city have. It is really absurd, at this
stage of our civilization, that we should be so affected by such an
insignificant accident as dress. Perhaps Mandeville can tell us
whether this clothes panic prevails in the older societies.
THE PARSON. Don't. We've heard it; about its being one of the
Englishman's thirty-nine articles that he never shall sit down to
dinner without a dress-coat, and all that.
THE MISTRESS. I wish, for my part, that everybody who has time to
eat a dinner would dress for that, the principal event of the day,
and do respectful and leisurely justice to it.
THE YOUNG LADY. It has always seemed singular to me that men who
work so hard to build elegant houses, and have good dinners, should
take so little leisure to enjoy either.
MANDEVILLE. If the Parson will permit me, I should say that the
chief clothes question abroad just now is, how to get any; and it is
the same with the dinners.
It is quite unnecessary to say that the talk about clothes ran into
the question of dress-reform, and ran out, of course. You cannot
converse on anything nowadays that you do not run into some reform.
The Parson says that everybody is intent on reforming everything but
himself. We are all trying to associate ourselves to make everybody
else behave as we do. Said--
OUR NEXT DOOR. Dress reform! As if people couldn't change their
clothes without concert of action. Resolved, that nobody should put
on a clean collar oftener than his neighbor does. I'm sick of every
sort of reform. I should like to retrograde awhile. Let a dyspeptic
ascertain that he can eat porridge three times a day and live, and
straightway he insists that everybody ought to eat porridge and
nothing else. I mean to get up a society every member of which shall
be pledged to do just as he pleases.
THE PARSON. That would be the most radical reform of the day. That
would be independence. If people dressed according to their means,
acted according to their convictions, and avowed their opinions, it
would revolutionize society.
OUR NEXT DOOR. I should like to walk into your church some Sunday
and see the changes under such conditions.
THE PARSON. It might give you a novel sensation to walk in at any
time. And I'm not sure but the church would suit your retrograde
ideas. It's so Gothic that a Christian of the Middle Ages, if he
were alive, couldn't see or hear in it.
HERBERT. I don't know whether these reformers who carry the world on
their shoulders in such serious fashion, especially the little fussy
fellows, who are themselves the standard of the regeneration they
seek, are more ludicrous than pathetic.
THE FIRE-TENDER. Pathetic, by all means. But I don't know that they
would be pathetic if they were not ludicrous. There are those reform
singers who have been piping away so sweetly now for thirty years,
with never any diminution of cheerful, patient enthusiasm; their hair
growing longer and longer, their eyes brighter and brighter, and
their faces, I do believe, sweeter and sweeter; singing always with
the same constancy for the slave, for the drunkard, for the
snufftaker, for the suffragist,--"There'sa-good-time-com-ing-boys
(nothing offensive is intended by "boys," it is put in for euphony,
and sung pianissimo, not to offend the suffragists), it's-
almost-here." And what a brightening up of their faces there is when
they say, "it's-al-most-here," not doubting for a moment that "it's"
coming tomorrow; and the accompanying melodeon also wails its wheezy
suggestion that "it's-al-most-here," that "good-time" (delayed so
long, waiting perhaps for the invention of the melodeon) when we
shall all sing and all play that cheerful instrument, and all vote,
and none shall smoke, or drink, or eat meat, "boys." I declare it
almost makes me cry to hear them, so touching is their faith in the
midst of a jeer-ing world.
HERBERT. I suspect that no one can be a genuine reformer and not be
ridiculous. I mean those who give themselves up to the unction of
THE MISTRESS. Does n't that depend upon whether the reform is large
THE FIRE-TENDER. I should say rather that the reforms attracted to
them all the ridiculous people, who almost always manage to become
the most conspicuous. I suppose that nobody dare write out all that
was ludicrous in the great abolition movement. But it was not at all
comical to those most zealous in it; they never could see--more's the
pity, for thereby they lose much--the humorous side of their per-
formances, and that is why the pathos overcomes one's sense of the
absurdity of such people.
THE YOUNG LADY. It is lucky for the world that so many are willing
to be absurd.
HERBERT. Well, I think that, in the main, the reformers manage to
look out for themselves tolerably well. I knew once a lean and
faithful agent of a great philanthropic scheme, who contrived to
collect every year for the cause just enough to support him at a good
THE MISTRESS. That's identifying one's self with the cause.
MANDEVILLE. You remember the great free-soil convention at Buffalo,
in 1848, when Van Buren was nominated. All the world of hope and
discontent went there, with its projects of reform. There seemed to
be no doubt, among hundreds that attended it, that if they could get
a resolution passed that bread should be buttered on both sides, it
would be so buttered. The platform provided for every want and every
THE FIRE-TENDER. I remember. If you could get the millennium by
political action, we should have had it then.
MANDEVILLE. We went there on the Erie Canal, the exciting and
fashionable mode of travel in those days. I was a boy when we began
the voyage. The boat was full of conventionists; all the talk was of
what must be done there. I got the impression that as that boat-load
went so would go the convention; and I was not alone in that feeling.
I can never be grateful enough for one little scrubby fanatic who was
on board, who spent most of his time in drafting resolutions and
reading them privately to the passengers. He was a very
enthusiastic, nervous, and somewhat dirty little man, who wore a
woolen muffler about his throat, although it was summer; he had
nearly lost his voice, and could only speak in a hoarse, disagreeable
whisper, and he always carried a teacup about, containing some sticky
compound which he stirred frequently with a spoon, and took, whenever
he talked, in order to improve his voice. If he was separated from
his cup for ten minutes, his whisper became inaudible. I greatly
delighted in him, for I never saw any one who had so much enjoyment
of his own importance. He was fond of telling what he would do if
the conven-tion rejected such and such resolutions. He'd make it hot
for them. I did n't know but he'd make them take his mixture. The
convention had got to take a stand on tobacco, for one thing. He'd
heard Gid-dings took snuff; he'd see. When we at length reached
Buffalo he took his teacup and carpet-bag of resolutions and went
ashore in a great hurry. I saw him once again in a cheap restaurant,
whispering a resolution to another delegate, but he did n't appear in
the con-vention. I have often wondered what became of him.
OUR NEXT DOOR. Probably he's consul somewhere. They mostly are.
THE FIRE-TENDER. After all, it's the easiest thing in the world to
sit and sneer at eccentricities. But what a dead and uninteresting
world it would be if we were all proper, and kept within the lines!
Affairs would soon be reduced to mere machinery. There are moments,
even days, when all interests and movements appear to be settled upon
some universal plan of equilibrium; but just then some restless and
absurd person is inspired to throw the machine out of gear. These
individual eccentricities seem to be the special providences in the
general human scheme.
HERBERT. They make it very hard work for the rest of us, who are
disposed to go along peaceably and smoothly.
MANDEVILLE. And stagnate. I 'm not sure but the natural condition
of this planet is war, and that when it is finally towed to its
anchorage--if the universe has any harbor for worlds out of
commission--it will look like the Fighting Temeraire in Turner's
HERBERT. There is another thing I should like to understand: the
tendency of people who take up one reform, perhaps a personal
regeneration in regard to some bad habit, to run into a dozen other
isms, and get all at sea in several vague and pernicious theories and
MANDEVILLE. Herbert seems to think there is safety in a man's being
anchored, even if it is to a bad habit.
HERBERT. Thank you. But what is it in human nature that is apt to
carry a man who may take a step in personal reform into so many
OUR NEXT DOOR. Probably it's human nature.
HERBERT. Why, for instance, should a reformed drunkard (one of the
noblest examples of victory over self) incline, as I have known the
reformed to do, to spiritism, or a woman suffragist to "pantarchism"
(whatever that is), and want to pull up all the roots of society, and
expect them to grow in the air, like orchids; or a Graham-bread
disciple become enamored of Communism?
MANDEVILLE. I know an excellent Conservative who would, I think,
suit you; he says that he does not see how a man who indulges in the
theory and practice of total abstinence can be a consistent believer
in the Christian religion.
HERBERT. Well, I can understand what he means: that a person is
bound to hold himself in conditions of moderation and control, using
and not abusing the things of this world, practicing temperance, not
retiring into a convent of artificial restrictions in order to escape
the full responsibility of self-control. And yet his theory would
certainly wreck most men and women. What does the Parson say?
THE PARSON. That the world is going crazy on the notion of individual
ability. Whenever a man attempts to reform himself, or anybody else,
without the aid of the Christian religion, he is sure to go adrift,
and is pretty certain to be blown about by absurd theories, and
shipwrecked on some pernicious ism.
THE FIRE-TENDER. I think the discussion has touched bottom.
I never felt so much the value of a house with a backlog in it as
during the late spring; for its lateness was its main feature.
Everybody was grumbling about it, as if it were something ordered
from the tailor, and not ready on the day. Day after day it snowed,
night after night it blew a gale from the northwest; the frost sunk
deeper and deeper into the ground; there was a popular longing for
spring that was almost a prayer; the weather bureau was active;
Easter was set a week earlier than the year before, but nothing
seemed to do any good. The robins sat under the evergreens, and
piped in a disconsolate mood, and at last the bluejays came and
scolded in the midst of the snow-storm, as they always do scold in
any weather. The crocuses could n't be coaxed to come up, even with
a pickaxe. I'm almost ashamed now to recall what we said of the
weather only I think that people are no more accountable for what
they say of the weather than for their remarks when their corns are
We agreed, however, that, but for disappointed expectations and the
prospect of late lettuce and peas, we were gaining by the fire as
much as we were losing by the frost. And the Mistress fell to
chanting the comforts of modern civilization.
THE FIRE-TENDER said he should like to know, by the way, if our
civilization differed essentially from any other in anything but its
HERBERT. We are no nearer religious unity.
THE PARSON. We have as much war as ever.
MANDEVILLE. There was never such a social turmoil.
THE YOUNG LADY. The artistic part of our nature does not appear to
THE FIRE-TENDER. We are quarreling as to whether we are in fact
radically different from the brutes.
HERBERT. Scarcely two people think alike about the proper kind of
THE PARSON. Our poetry is made out of words, for the most part, and
not drawn from the living sources.
OUR NEXT DOOR. And Mr. Cumming is uncorking his seventh phial. I
never felt before what barbarians we are.
THE MISTRESS. Yet you won't deny that the life of the average man is
safer and every way more comfortable than it was even a century ago.
THE FIRE-TENDER. But what I want to know is, whether what we call
our civilization has done any thing more for mankind at large than to
increase the ease and pleasure of living? Science has multiplied
wealth, and facilitated intercourse, and the result is refinement of
manners and a diffusion of education and information. Are men and
women essentially changed, however? I suppose the Parson would say
we have lost faith, for one thing.
MANDEVILLE. And superstition; and gained toleration.
HERBERT. The question is, whether toleration is anything but
THE PARSON. Everything is tolerated now but Christian orthodoxy.
THE FIRE-TENDER. It's easy enough to make a brilliant catalogue of
external achievements, but I take it that real progress ought to be
in man himself. It is not a question of what a man enjoys, but what
he can produce. The best sculpture was executed two thousand years
ago. The best paintings are several centuries old. We study the
finest architecture in its ruins. The standards of poetry are
Shakespeare, Homer, Isaiah, and David. The latest of the arts,
music, culminated in composition, though not in execution, a century
THE MISTRESS. Yet culture in music certainly distinguishes the
civilization of this age. It has taken eighteen hundred years for
the principles of the Christian religion to begin to be practically
incorporated in government and in ordinary business, and it will take
a long time for Beethoven to be popularly recognized; but there is
growth toward him, and not away from him, and when the average
culture has reached his height, some other genius will still more
profoundly and delicately express the highest thoughts.
HERBERT. I wish I could believe it. The spirit of this age is
expressed by the Calliope.
THE PARSON. Yes, it remained for us to add church-bells and cannon
to the orchestra.
OUR NEXT DOOR. It's a melancholy thought to me that we can no longer
express ourselves with the bass-drum; there used to be the whole of
the Fourth of July in its patriotic throbs.
MANDEVILLE. We certainly have made great progress in one art,--that
THE YOUNG LADY. And in the humane alleviations of the miseries of
THE FIRE-TENDER. The most discouraging symptom to me in our
undoubted advance in the comforts and refinements of society is the
facility with which men slip back into barbarism, if the artificial
and external accidents of their lives are changed. We have always
kept a fringe of barbarism on our shifting western frontier; and I
think there never was a worse society than that in California and
Nevada in their early days.
THE YOUNG LADY. That is because women were absent.
THE FIRE-TENDER. But women are not absent in London and New York,
and they are conspicuous in the most exceptionable demonstrations of
social anarchy. Certainly they were not wanting in Paris. Yes,
there was a city widely accepted as the summit of our material
civilization. No city was so beautiful, so luxurious, so safe, so
well ordered for the comfort of living, and yet it needed only a
month or two to make it a kind of pandemonium of savagery. Its
citizens were the barbarians who destroyed its own monuments of
civilization. I don't mean to say that there was no apology for what
was done there in the deceit and fraud that preceded it, but I simply
notice how ready the tiger was to appear, and how little restraint
all the material civilization was to the beast.
THE MISTRESS. I can't deny your instances, and yet I somehow feel
that pretty much all you have been saying is in effect untrue. Not
one of you would be willing to change our civilization for any other.
In your estimate you take no account, it seems to me, of the growth
MANDEVILLE. And you might add a recognition of the value of human
THE MISTRESS. I don't believe there was ever before diffused
everywhere such an element of good-will, and never before were women
so much engaged in philanthropic work.
THE PARSON. It must be confessed that one of the best signs of the
times is woman's charity for woman. That certainly never existed to
the same extent in any other civilization.
MANDEVILLE. And there is another thing that distinguishes us, or is
beginning to. That is, the notion that you can do something more
with a criminal than punish him; and that society has not done its
duty when it has built a sufficient number of schools for one class,
or of decent jails for another.
HERBERT. It will be a long time before we get decent jails.
MANDEVILLE. But when we do they will begin to be places of education
and training as much as of punishment and disgrace. The public will
provide teachers in the prisons as it now does in the common schools.
THE FIRE-TENDER. The imperfections of our methods and means of
selecting those in the community who ought to be in prison are so
great, that extra care in dealing with them becomes us. We are
beginning to learn that we cannot draw arbitrary lines with infal-
lible justice. Perhaps half those who are convicted of crimes are as
capable of reformation as half those transgressors who are not
convicted, or who keep inside the statutory law.
HERBERT. Would you remove the odium of prison?
THE FIRE-TENDER. No; but I would have criminals believe, and society
believe, that in going to prison a man or woman does not pass an
absolute line and go into a fixed state.
THE PARSON. That is, you would not have judgment and retribution
begin in this world.
OUR NEXT DOOR. Don't switch us off into theology. I hate to go up
in a balloon, or see any one else go.
HERBERT. Don't you think there is too much leniency toward crime and
criminals, taking the place of justice, in these days?
THE FIRE-TENDER. There may be too much disposition to condone the
crimes of those who have been considered respectable.
OUR NEXT DOOR. That is, scarcely anybody wants to see his friend
MANDEVILLE. I think a large part of the bitterness of the condemned
arises from a sense of the inequality with which justice is
administered. I am surprised, in visiting jails, to find so few
OUR NEXT DOOR. Nobody will go to jail nowadays who thinks anything
THE FIRE-TENDER. When society seriously takes hold of the
reformation of criminals (say with as much determination as it does
to carry an election) this false leniency will disappear; for it
partly springs from a feeling that punishment is unequal, and does
not discriminate enough in individuals, and that society itself has
no right to turn a man over to the Devil, simply because he shows a
strong leaning that way. A part of the scheme of those who work for
the reformation of criminals is to render punishment more certain,
and to let its extent depend upon reformation. There is no reason
why a professional criminal, who won't change his trade for an honest
one, should have intervals of freedom in his prison life in which he
is let loose to prey upon society. Criminals ought to be discharged,
like insane patients, when they are cured.
OUR NEXT DOOR. It's a wonder to me, what with our multitudes of
statutes and hosts of detectives, that we are any of us out of jail.
I never come away from a visit to a State-prison without a new spasm
of fear and virtue. The faculties for getting into jail seem to be
ample. We want more organizations for keeping people out.
MANDEVILLE. That is the sort of enterprise the women are engaged in,
the frustration of the criminal tendencies of those born in vice. I
believe women have it in their power to regenerate the world morally.
THE PARSON. It's time they began to undo the mischief of their
THE MISTRESS. The reason they have not made more progress is that
they have usually confined their individual efforts to one man; they
are now organizing for a general campaign.
THE FIRE-TENDER. I'm not sure but here is where the ameliorations of
the conditions of life, which are called the comforts of this
civilization, come in, after all, and distinguish the age above all
others. They have enabled the finer powers of women to have play as
they could not in a ruder age. I should like to live a hundred years
and see what they will do.
HERBERT. Not much but change the fashions, unless they submit them-
selves to the same training and discipline that men do.
I have no doubt that Herbert had to apologize for this remark
afterwards in private, as men are quite willing to do in particular
cases; it is only in general they are unjust. The talk drifted off
into general and particular depreciation of other times. Mandeville
described a picture, in which he appeared to have confidence, of a
fight between an Iguanodon and a Megalosaurus, where these huge
iron-clad brutes were represented chewing up different portions of
each other's bodies in a forest of the lower cretaceous period. So
far as he could learn, that sort of thing went on unchecked for
hundreds of thousands of years, and was typical of the intercourse of
the races of man till a comparatively recent period. There was also
that gigantic swan, the Plesiosaurus; in fact, all the early brutes
were disgusting. He delighted to think that even the lower animals
had improved, both in appearance and disposition.
The conversation ended, therefore, in a very amicable manner, having
been taken to a ground that nobody knew anything about.
Can you have a backlog in July? That depends upon circumstances.
In northern New England it is considered a sign of summer when the
housewives fill the fireplaces with branches of mountain laurel, and,
later, with the feathery stalks of the asparagus. This is often,
too, the timid expression of a tender feeling, under Puritanic
repression, which has not sufficient vent in the sweet-william and
hollyhock at the front door. This is a yearning after beauty and
ornamentation which has no other means of gratifying itself
In the most rigid circumstances, the graceful nature of woman thus
discloses itself in these mute expressions of an undeveloped taste.
You may never doubt what the common flowers growing along the pathway
to the front door mean to the maiden of many summers who tends them;
--love and religion, and the weariness of an uneventful life. The
sacredness of the Sabbath, the hidden memory of an unrevealed and
unrequited affection, the slow years of gathering and wasting
sweetness, are in the smell of the pink and the sweet-clover. These
sentimental plants breathe something of the longing of the maiden who
sits in the Sunday evenings of summer on the lonesome front
doorstone, singing the hymns of the saints, and perennial as the
myrtle that grows thereby.
Yet not always in summer, even with the aid of unrequited love and
devotional feeling, is it safe to let the fire go out on the hearth,
in our latitude. I remember when the last almost total eclipse of
the sun happened in August, what a bone-piercing chill came over the
world. Perhaps the imagination had something to do with causing the
chill from that temporary hiding of the sun to feel so much more
penetrating than that from the coming on of night, which shortly
followed. It was impossible not to experience a shudder as of the
approach of the Judgment Day, when the shadows were flung upon the
green lawn, and we all stood in the wan light, looking unfamiliar to
each other. The birds in the trees felt the spell. We could in
fancy see those spectral camp-fires which men would build on the
earth, if the sun should slow its fires down to about the brilliancy
of the moon. It was a great relief to all of us to go into the
house, and, before a blazing wood-fire, talk of the end of the world.
In New England it is scarcely ever safe to let the fire go out; it is
best to bank it, for it needs but the turn of a weather-vane at any
hour to sweep the
Atlantic rains over us, or to bring down the chill of Hudson's Bay.
There are days when the steam ship on the Atlantic glides calmly
along under a full canvas, but its central fires must always be ready
to make steam against head-winds and antagonistic waves. Even in our
most smiling summer days one needs to have the materials of a
cheerful fire at hand. It is only by this readiness for a change
that one can preserve an equal mind. We are made provident and
sagacious by the fickleness of our climate. We should be another
sort of people if we could have that serene, unclouded trust in
nature which the Egyptian has. The gravity and repose of the Eastern
peoples is due to the unchanging aspect of the sky, and the
deliberation and reg-ularity of the great climatic processes. Our
literature, politics, religion, show the effect of unsettled weather.
But they compare favorably with the Egyptian, for all that.
You cannot know, the Young Lady wrote, with what longing I look back
to those winter days by the fire; though all the windows are open to
this May morning, and the brown thrush is singing in the chestnut-
tree, and I see everywhere that first delicate flush of spring, which
seems too evanescent to be color even, and amounts to little more
than a suffusion of the atmosphere. I doubt, indeed, if the spring
is exactly what it used to be, or if, as we get on in years [no one
ever speaks of "getting on in years" till she is virtually settled in
life], its promises and suggestions do not seem empty in comparison
with the sympathies and responses of human friendship, and the
stimulation of society. Sometimes nothing is so tiresome as a
perfect day in a perfect season.
I only imperfectly understand this. The Parson says that woman is
always most restless under the most favorable conditions, and that
there is no state in which she is really happy except that of change.
I suppose this is the truth taught in what has been called the "Myth
of the Garden." Woman is perpetual revolution, and is that element
in the world which continually destroys and re-creates. She is the
experimenter and the suggester of new combinations. She has no
belief in any law of eternal fitness of things. She is never even
content with any arrangement of her own house. The only reason the
Mistress could give, when she rearranged her apartment, for hanging a
picture in what seemed the most inappropriate place, was that it had
never been there before. Woman has no respect for tradition, and
because a thing is as it is is sufficient reason for changing it.
When she gets into law, as she has come into literature, we shall
gain something in the destruction of all our vast and musty libraries
of precedents, which now fetter our administration of individual
justice. It is Mandeville's opinion that women are not so
sentimental as men, and are not so easily touched with the unspoken
poetry of nature; being less poetical, and having less imagination,
they are more fitted for practical affairs, and would make less
failures in business. I have noticed the almost selfish passion for
their flowers which old gardeners have, and their reluctance to part
with a leaf or a blossom from their family. They love the flowers
for themselves. A woman raises flowers for their use. She is
destruct-ion in a conservatory. She wants the flowers for her lover,
for the sick, for the poor, for the Lord on Easter day, for the
ornamentation of her house. She delights in the costly pleasure of
sacrificing them. She never sees a flower but she has an intense but
probably sinless desire to pick it.
It has been so from the first, though from the first she has been
thwarted by the accidental superior strength of man. Whatever she
has obtained has been by craft, and by the same coaxing which the sun
uses to draw the blossoms out of the apple-trees. I am not surprised
to learn that she has become tired of indulgences, and wants some of
the original rights. We are just beginning to find out the extent to
which she has been denied and subjected, and especially her condition
among the primitive and barbarous races. I have never seen it in a
platform of grievances, but it is true that among the Fijians she is
not, unless a better civilization has wrought a change in her behalf,
permitted to eat people, even her own sex, at the feasts of the men;
the dainty enjoyed by the men being considered too good to be wasted
on women. Is anything wanting to this picture of the degradation of
woman? By a refinement of cruelty she receives no benefit whatever
from the missionaries who are sent out by--what to her must seem a
new name for Tantalus--the American Board.
I suppose the Young Lady expressed a nearly universal feeling in her
regret at the breaking up of the winter-fireside company. Society
needs a certain seclusion and the sense of security. Spring opens
the doors and the windows, and the noise and unrest of the world are
let in. Even a winter thaw begets a desire to travel, and summer
brings longings innumerable, and disturbs the most tranquil souls.
Nature is, in fact, a suggester of uneasiness, a promoter of
pilgrimages and of excursions of the fancy which never come to any
satisfactory haven. The summer in these latitudes is a campaign of
sentiment and a season, for the most part, of restlessness and
discontent. We grow now in hot-houses roses which, in form and
color, are magnificent, and appear to be full of passion; yet one
simple June rose of the open air has for the Young Lady, I doubt not,
more sentiment and suggestion of love than a conservatory full of
them in January. And this suggestion, leavened as it is with the
inconstancy of nature, stimulated by the promises which are so often
like the peach-blossom of the Judas-tree, unsatisfying by reason of
its vague possibilities, differs so essentially from the more limited
and attainable and home-like emotion born of quiet intercourse by the
winter fireside, that I do not wonder the Young Lady feels as if some
spell had been broken by the transition of her life from in-doors to
out-doors. Her secret, if secret she has, which I do not at all
know, is shared by the birds and the new leaves and the blossoms on
the fruit trees. If we lived elsewhere, in that zone where the poets
pretend always to dwell, we might be content, perhaps I should say
drugged, by the sweet influences of an unchanging summer; but not
living elsewhere, we can understand why the Young Lady probably now
looks forward to the hearthstone as the most assured center of
If it should ever become the sad duty of this biographer to write of
disappointed love, I am sure he would not have any sensational story
to tell of the Young Lady. She is one of those women whose
unostentatious lives are the chief blessing of humanity; who, with a
sigh heard only by herself and no change in her sunny face, would put
behind her all the memories of winter evenings and the promises of
May mornings, and give her life to some ministration of human
kindness with an assiduity that would make her occupation appear like
an election and a first choice. The disappointed man scowls, and
hates his race, and threatens self-destruction, choosing oftener the
flowing bowl than the dagger, and becoming a reeling nuisance in the
world. It would be much more manly in him to become the secretary of
a Dorcas society.
I suppose it is true that women work for others with less expectation
of reward than men, and give themselves to labors of self-sacrifice
with much less thought of self. At least, this is true unless woman
goes into some public performance, where notoriety has its
attractions, and mounts some cause, to ride it man-fashion, when I
think she becomes just as eager for applause and just as willing that
self-sacrifice should result in self-elevation as man. For her,
usually, are not those unbought--presentations which are forced upon
firemen, philanthropists, legislators, railroad-men, and the
superintendents of the moral instruction of the young. These are
almost always pleasing and unexpected tributes to worth and modesty,
and must be received with satisfaction when the public service
rendered has not been with a view to procuring them. We should say
that one ought to be most liable to receive a "testimonial" who,
being a superintendent of any sort, did not superintend with a view
to getting it. But "testimonials" have become so common that a
modest man ought really to be afraid to do his simple duty, for fear
his motives will be misconstrued. Yet there are instances of very
worthy men who have had things publicly presented to them. It is the
blessed age of gifts and the reward of private virtue. And the
presentations have become so frequent that we wish there were a
little more variety in them. There never was much sense in giving a
gallant fellow a big speaking-trumpet to carry home to aid him in his
intercourse with his family; and the festive ice-pitcher has become a
too universal sign of absolute devotion to the public interest. The
lack of one will soon be proof that a man is a knave. The
legislative cane with the gold head, also, is getting to be
recognized as the sign of the immaculate public servant, as the
inscription on it testifies, and the steps of suspicion must ere-long
dog him who does not carry one. The "testimonial" business is, in
truth, a little demoralizing, almost as much so as the "donation;"
and the demoralization has extended even to our language, so that a
perfectly respectable man is often obliged to see himself "made the
recipient of" this and that. It would be much better, if
testimonials must be, to give a man a barrel of flour or a keg of
oysters, and let him eat himself at once back into the ranks of
We may have a testimonial class in time, a sort of nobility here in
America, made so by popular gift, the members of which will all be
able to show some stick or piece of plated ware or massive chain, "of
which they have been the recipients." In time it may be a
distinction not to belong to it, and it may come to be thought more
blessed to give than to receive. For it must have been remarked that
it is not always to the cleverest and the most amiable and modest man
that the deputation comes with the inevitable ice-pitcher (and
"salver to match"), which has in it the magic and subtle quality of
making the hour in which it is received the proudest of one's life.
There has not been discovered any method of rewarding all the
deserving people and bringing their virtues into the prominence of
notoriety. And, indeed, it would be an unreasonable world if there
had, for its chief charm and sweetness lie in the excellences in it
which are reluctantly disclosed; one of the chief pleasures of living
is in the daily discovery of good traits, nobilities, and kindliness
both in those we have long known and in the chance passenger whose
way happens for a day to lie with ours. The longer I live the more I
am impressed with the excess of human kindness over human hatred, and
the greater willingness to oblige than to disoblige that one meets at
every turn. The selfishness in politics, the jealousy in letters,
the bickering in art, the bitterness in theology, are all as nothing
compared to the sweet charities, sacrifices, and deferences of
private life. The people are few whom to know intimately is to
dislike. Of course you want to hate somebody, if you can, just to
keep your powers of discrimination bright, and to save yourself from
becoming a mere mush of good-nature; but perhaps it is well to hate
some historical person who has been dead so long as to be indifferent
to it. It is more comfortable to hate people we have never seen. I
cannot but think that Judas Iscariot has been of great service to the
world as a sort of buffer for moral indignation which might have made
a collision nearer home but for his utilized treachery. I used to
know a venerable and most amiable gentleman and scholar, whose
hospitable house was always overrun with wayside ministers, agents,
and philanthropists, who loved their fellow-men better than they
loved to work for their living; and he, I suspect, kept his moral
balance even by indulgence in violent but most distant dislikes.
When I met him casually in the street, his first salutation was
likely to be such as this: "What a liar that Alison was! Don't you
hate him?" And then would follow specifications of historical
inveracity enough to make one's blood run cold. When he was thus
discharged of his hatred by such a conductor, I presume he had not a
spark left for those whose mission was partly to live upon him and
other generous souls.
Mandeville and I were talking of the unknown people, one rainy night
by the fire, while the Mistress was fitfully and interjectionally
playing with the piano-keys in an improvising mood. Mandeville has a
good deal of sentiment about him, and without any effort talks so
beautifully sometimes that I constantly regret I cannot report his
language. He has, besides, that sympathy of presence--I believe it
is called magnetism by those who regard the brain as only a sort of
galvanic battery--which makes it a greater pleasure to see him think,
if I may say so, than to hear some people talk.
It makes one homesick in this world to think that there are so many
rare people he can never know; and so many excellent people that
scarcely any one will know, in fact. One discovers a friend by
chance, and cannot but feel regret that twenty or thirty years of
life maybe have been spent without the least knowledge of him. When
he is once known, through him opening is made into another little
world, into a circle of culture and loving hearts and enthusiasm in a
dozen congenial pursuits, and prejudices perhaps. How instantly and
easily the bachelor doubles his world when he marries, and enters
into the unknown fellowship of the to him continually increasing
company which is known in popular language as "all his wife's
Near at hand daily, no doubt, are those worth knowing intimately, if
one had the time and the opportunity. And when one travels he sees
what a vast material there is for society and friendship, of which he
can never avail himself. Car-load after car-load of summer travel
goes by one at any railway-station, out of which he is sure he could
choose a score of life-long friends, if the conductor would introduce
him. There are faces of refinement, of quick wit, of sympathetic
kindness,--interesting people, traveled people, entertaining people,
--as you would say in Boston, "nice people you would admire to know,"
whom you constantly meet and pass without a sign of recognition, many
of whom are no doubt your long-lost brothers and sisters. You can
see that they also have their worlds and their interests, and they
probably know a great many "nice" people. The matter of personal
liking and attachment is a good deal due to the mere fortune of
association. More fast friendships and pleasant acquaintanceships
are formed on the Atlantic steamships between those who would have
been only indifferent acquaintances elsewhere, than one would think
possible on a voyage which naturally makes one as selfish as he is
indifferent to his personal appearance. The Atlantic is the only
power on earth I know that can make a woman indifferent to her
Mandeville remembers, and I think without detriment to himself, the
glimpses he had in the White Mountains once of a young lady of whom
his utmost efforts could give him no further information than her
name. Chance sight of her on a passing stage or amid a group on some
mountain lookout was all he ever had, and he did not even know
certainly whether she was the perfect beauty and the lovely character
he thought her. He said he would have known her, however, at a great
distance; there was to her form that command of which we hear so much
and which turns out to be nearly all command after the "ceremony;" or
perhaps it was something in the glance of her eye or the turn of her
head, or very likely it was a sweet inherited reserve or hauteur that
captivated him, that filled his days with the expectation of seeing
her, and made him hasten to the hotel-registers in the hope that her
name was there recorded. Whatever it was, she interested him as one
of the people he would like to know; and it piqued him that there was
a life, rich in friendships, no doubt, in tastes, in many
noblenesses, one of thousands of such, that must be absolutely
nothing to him,--nothing but a window into heaven momentarily opened
and then closed. I have myself no idea that she was a countess
incognito, or that she had descended from any greater heights than
those where Mandeville saw her, but I have always regretted that she
went her way so mysteriously and left no glow, and that we shall wear
out the remainder of our days without her society. I have looked for
her name, but always in vain, among the attendants at the rights-
conventions, in the list of those good Americans presented at court,
among those skeleton names that appear as the remains of beauty in
the morning journals after a ball to the wandering prince, in the
reports of railway collisions and steamboat explosions. No news
comes of her. And so imperfect are our means of communication in
this world that, for anything we know, she may have left it long ago
by some private way.
The lasting regret that we cannot know more of the bright, sincere,
and genuine people of the world is increased by the fact that they
are all different from each other. Was it not Madame de Sevigne who
said she had loved several different women for several different
qualities? Every real person--for there are persons as there are
fruits that have no distinguishing flavor, mere gooseberries--has a
distinct quality, and the finding it is always like the discovery of
a new island to the voyager. The physical world we shall exhaust
some day, having a written description of every foot of it to which
we can turn; but we shall never get the different qualities of people
into a biographical dictionary, and the making acquaintance with a
human being will never cease to be an exciting experiment. We cannot
even classify men so as to aid us much in our estimate of them. The
efforts in this direction are ingenious, but unsatisfactory. If I
hear that a man is lymphatic or nervous-sanguine, I cannot tell
therefrom whether I shall like and trust him. He may produce a
phrenological chart showing that his knobby head is the home of all
the virtues, and that the vicious tendencies are represented by holes
in his cranium, and yet I cannot be sure that he will not be as
disagreeable as if phrenology had not been invented. I feel
sometimes that phrenology is the refuge of mediocrity. Its charts
are almost as misleading concerning character as photographs. And
photography may be described as the art which enables commonplace
mediocrity to look like genius. The heavy-jowled man with shallow
cerebrum has only to incline his head so that the lying instrument
can select a favorable focus, to appear in the picture with the brow
of a sage and the chin of a poet. Of all the arts for ministering to
human vanity the photographic is the most useful, but it is a poor
aid in the revelation of character. You shall learn more of a man's
real nature by seeing him walk once up the broad aisle of his church
to his pew on Sunday, than by studying his photograph for a month.
No, we do not get any certain standard of men by a chart of their
temperaments; it will hardly answer to select a wife by the color of
her hair; though it be by nature as red as a cardinal's hat, she may
be no more constant than if it were dyed. The farmer who shuns all
the lymphatic beauties in his neighborhood, and selects to wife the
most nervous-sanguine, may find that she is unwilling to get up in
the winter mornings and make the kitchen fire. Many a man, even in
this scientific age which professes to label us all, has been cruelly
deceived in this way. Neither the blondes nor the brunettes act
according to the advertisement of their temperaments. The truth is
that men refuse to come under the classifications of the pseudo-
scientists, and all our new nomenclatures do not add much to our
knowledge. You know what to expect--if the comparison will be
pardoned--of a horse with certain points; but you wouldn't dare go on
a journey with a man merely upon the strength of knowing that his
temperament was the proper mixture of the sanguine and the
phlegmatic. Science is not able to teach us concerning men as it
teaches us of horses, though I am very far from saying that there are
not traits of nobleness and of meanness that run through families and
can be calculated to appear in individuals with absolute certainty;
one family will be trusty and another tricky through all its members
for generations; noble strains and ignoble strains are perpetuated.
When we hear that she has eloped with the stable-boy and married him,
we are apt to remark, "Well, she was a Bogardus." And when we read
that she has gone on a mission and has died, distinguishing herself
by some extraordinary devotion to the heathen at Ujiji, we think it
sufficient to say, "Yes, her mother married into the Smiths." But
this knowledge comes of our experience of special families, and
stands us in stead no further.
If we cannot classify men scientifically and reduce them under a kind
of botanical order, as if they had a calculable vegetable
development, neither can we gain much knowledge of them by
comparison. It does not help me at all in my estimate of their
characters to compare Mandeville with the Young Lady, or Our Next
Door with the Parson. The wise man does not permit himself to set up
even in his own mind any comparison of his friends. His friendship
is capable of going to extremes with many people, evoked as it is by
many qualities. When Mandeville goes into my garden in June I can
usually find him in a particular bed of strawberries, but he does not
speak disrespectfully of the others. When Nature, says Mandeville,
consents to put herself into any sort of strawberry, I have no
criticisms to make, I am only glad that I have been created into the
same world with such a delicious manifestation of the Divine favor.
If I left Mandeville alone in the garden long enough, I have no doubt
he would impartially make an end of the fruit of all the beds, for
his capacity in this direction is as all-embracing as it is in the
matter of friendships. The Young Lady has also her favorite patch of
berries. And the Parson, I am sorry to say, prefers to have them
picked for him the elect of the garden--and served in an orthodox
manner. The straw-berry has a sort of poetical precedence, and I
presume that no fruit is jealous of it any more than any flower is
jealous of the rose; but I remark the facility with which liking for
it is transferred to the raspberry, and from the raspberry (not to
make a tedious enumeration) to the melon, and from the melon to the
grape, and the grape to the pear, and the pear to the apple. And we
do not mar our enjoyment of each by comparisons.
Of course it would be a dull world if we could not criticise our
friends, but the most unprofitable and unsatisfactory criticism is
that by comparison. Criticism is not necessarily uncharitableness,
but a wholesome exercise of our powers of analysis and
discrimination. It is, however, a very idle exercise, leading to no
results when we set the qualities of one over against the qualities
of another, and disparage by contrast and not by independent
judgment. And this method of procedure creates jealousies and heart-
Criticism by comparison is the refuge of incapables, and especially
is this true in literature. It is a lazy way of disposing of a young
poet to bluntly declare, without any sort of discrimination of his
defects or his excellences, that he equals Tennyson, and that Scott
never wrote anything finer. What is the justice of damning a
meritorious novelist by comparing him with Dickens, and smothering
him with thoughtless and good-natured eulogy? The poet and the
novelist may be well enough, and probably have qualities and gifts of
their own which are worth the critic's attention, if he has any time
to bestow on them; and it is certainly unjust to subject them to a
comparison with somebody else, merely because the critic will not
take the trouble to ascertain what they are. If, indeed, the poet
and novelist are mere imitators of a model and copyists of a style,
they may be dismissed with such commendation as we bestow upon the
machines who pass their lives in making bad copies of the pictures of
the great painters. But the critics of whom we speak do not intend
depreciation, but eulogy, when they say that the author they have in
hand has the wit of Sydney Smith and the brilliancy of Macaulay.
Probably he is not like either of them, and may have a genuine though
modest virtue of his own; but these names will certainly kill him,
and he will never be anybody in the popular estimation. The public
finds out speedily that he is not Sydney Smith, and it resents the
extravagant claim for him as if he were an impudent pretender. How
many authors of fair ability to interest the world have we known in
our own day who have been thus sky-rocketed into notoriety by the
lazy indiscrimination of the critic-by-comparison, and then have sunk
into a popular contempt as undeserved! I never see a young aspirant
injudiciously compared to a great and resplendent name in literature,
but I feel like saying, My poor fellow, your days are few and full of
trouble; you begin life handicapped, and you cannot possibly run a
I think this sort of critical eulogy is more damaging even than that
which kills by a different assumption, and one which is equally
common, namely, that the author has not done what he probably never
intended to do. It is well known that most of the trouble in life
comes from our inability to compel other people to do what we think
they ought, and it is true in criticism that we are unwilling to take
a book for what it is, and credit the author with that. When the
solemn critic, like a mastiff with a ladies' bonnet in his mouth,
gets hold of a light piece of verse, or a graceful sketch which
catches the humor of an hour for the entertainment of an hour, he
tears it into a thousand shreds. It adds nothing to human knowledge,
it solves none of the problems of life, it touches none of the
questions of social science, it is not a philosophical treatise, and
it is not a dozen things that it might have been. The critic cannot
forgive the author for this disrespect to him. This isn't a rose,
says the critic, taking up a pansy and rending it; it is not at all
like a rose, and the author is either a pretentious idiot or an
idiotic pretender. What business, indeed, has the author to send the
critic a bunch of sweet-peas, when he knows that a cabbage would be
preferred,--something not showy, but useful?
A good deal of this is what Mandeville said and I am not sure that it
is devoid of personal feeling. He published, some years ago, a
little volume giving an account of a trip through the Great West, and
a very entertaining book it was. But one of the heavy critics got
hold of it, and made Mandeville appear, even to himself, he
confessed, like an ass, because there was nothing in the volume about
geology or mining prospects, and very little to instruct the student
of physical geography. With alternate sarcasm and ridicule, he
literally basted the author, till Mandeville said that he felt almost
like a depraved scoundrel, and thought he should be held up to less
execration if he had committed a neat and scientific murder.
But I confess that I have a good deal of sympathy with the critics.
Consider what these public tasters have to endure! None of us, I
fancy, would like to be compelled to read all that they read, or to
take into our mouths, even with the privilege of speedily ejecting it
with a grimace, all that they sip. The critics of the vintage, who
pursue their calling in the dark vaults and amid mouldy casks, give
their opinion, for the most part, only upon wine, upon juice that has
matured and ripened into development of quality. But what crude,
unrestrained, unfermented--even raw and drugged liquor, must the
literary taster put to his unwilling lips day after day!
It was my good fortune once to visit a man who remembered the
rebellion of 1745. Lest this confession should make me seem very
aged, I will add that the visit took place in 1851, and that the man
was then one hundred and thirteen years old. He was quite a lad
before Dr. Johnson drank Mrs. Thrale's tea. That he was as old as he
had the credit of being, I have the evidence of my own senses (and I
am seldom mistaken in a person's age), of his own family, and his own
word; and it is incredible that so old a person, and one so
apparently near the grave, would deceive about his age.
The testimony of the very aged is always to be received without
question, as Alexander Hamilton once learned. He was trying a
land-title with Aaron Burr, and two of the witnesses upon whom Burr
relied were venerable Dutchmen, who had, in their youth, carried the
surveying chains over the land in dispute, and who were now aged
respectively one hundred and four years and one hundred and six
years. Hamilton gently attempted to undervalue their testimony, but
he was instantly put down by the Dutch justice, who suggested that
Mr. Hamilton could not be aware of the age of the witnesses.
My old man (the expression seems familiar and inelegant) had indeed
an exaggerated idea of his own age, and sometimes said that he
supposed he was going on four hundred, which was true enough, in
fact; but for the exact date, he referred to his youngest son,--a
frisky and humorsome lad of eighty years, who had received us at the
gate, and whom we had at first mistaken for the veteran, his father.
But when we beheld the old man, we saw the difference between age and
age. The latter had settled into a grizzliness and grimness which
belong to a very aged and stunted but sturdy oak-tree, upon the bark
of which the gray moss is thick and heavy. The old man appeared hale
enough, he could walk about, his sight and hearing were not seriously
impaired, he ate with relish) and his teeth were so sound that he
would not need a dentist for at least another century; but the moss
was growing on him. His boy of eighty seemed a green sapling beside
He remembered absolutely nothing that had taken place within thirty
years, but otherwise his mind was perhaps as good as it ever was, for
he must always have been an ignoramus, and would never know anything
if he lived to be as old as he said he was going on to be. Why he
was interested in the rebellion of 1745 I could not discover, for he
of course did not go over to Scotland to carry a pike in it, and he
only remembered to have heard it talked about as a great event in the
Irish market-town near which he lived, and to which he had ridden
when a boy. And he knew much more about the horse that drew him, and
the cart in which he rode, than he did about the rebellion of the
I hope I do not appear to speak harshly of this amiable old man, and
if he is still living I wish him well, although his example was bad
in some respects. He had used tobacco for nearly a century, and the
habit has very likely been the death of him. If so, it is to be
regretted. For it would have been interesting to watch the process
of his gradual disintegration and return to the ground: the loss of
sense after sense, as decaying limbs fall from the oak; the failure
of discrimination, of the power of choice, and finally of memory
itself; the peaceful wearing out and passing away of body and mind
without disease, the natural running down of a man. The interesting
fact about him at that time was that his bodily powers seemed in
sufficient vigor, but that the mind had not force enough to manifest
itself through his organs. The complete battery was there, the
appetite was there, the acid was eating the zinc; but the electric
current was too weak to flash from the brain. And yet he appeared so
sound throughout, that it was difficult to say that his mind was not
as good as it ever had been. He had stored in it very little to feed
on, and any mind would get enfeebled by a century's rumination on a
hearsay idea of the rebellion of '45.
It was possible with this man to fully test one's respect for age,
which is in all civilized nations a duty. And I found that my
feelings were mixed about him. I discovered in him a conceit in
regard to his long sojourn on this earth, as if it were somehow a
credit to him. In the presence of his good opinion of himself, I
could but question the real value of his continued life) to himself
or to others. If he ever had any friends he had outlived them,
except his boy; his wives--a century of them--were all dead; the
world had actually passed away for him. He hung on the tree like a
frost-nipped apple, which the farmer has neglected to gather. The
world always renews itself, and remains young. What relation had he
I was delighted to find that this old man had never voted for George
Washington. I do not know that he had ever heard of him. Washington
may be said to have played his part since his time. I am not sure
that he perfectly remembered anything so recent as the American
Revolution. He was living quietly in Ireland during our French and
Indian wars, and he did not emigrate to this country till long after
our revolutionary and our constitutional struggles were over. The
Rebellion Of '45 was the great event of the world for him, and of
that he knew nothing.
I intend no disrespect to this man,--a cheerful and pleasant enough
old person,--but he had evidently lived himself out of the world, as
completely as people usually die out of it. His only remaining value
was to the moralist, who might perchance make something out of him.
I suppose if he had died young, he would have been regretted, and his
friends would have lamented that he did not fill out his days in the
world, and would very likely have called him back, if tears and
prayers could have done so. They can see now what his prolonged life
amounted to, and how the world has closed up the gap he once filled
while he still lives in it.
A great part of the unhappiness of this world consists in regret for
those who depart, as it seems to us, prematurely. We imagine that if
they would return, the old conditions would be restored. But would
it be so? If they, in any case, came back, would there be any place
for them? The world so quickly readjusts itself after any loss, that
the return of the departed would nearly always throw it, even the
circle most interested, into confusion. Are the Enoch Ardens ever
A popular notion akin to this, that the world would have any room for
the departed if they should now and then return, is the constant
regret that people will not learn by the experience of others, that
one generation learns little from the preceding, and that youth never
will adopt the experience of age. But if experience went for
anything, we should all come to a standstill; for there is nothing so
discouraging to effort. Disbelief in Ecclesiastes is the mainspring
of action. In that lies the freshness and the interest of life, and
it is the source of every endeavor.
If the boy believed that the accumulation of wealth and the
acquisition of power were what the old man says they are, the world
would very soon be stagnant. If he believed that his chances of
obtaining either were as poor as the majority of men find them to be,
ambition would die within him. It is because he rejects the
experience of those who have preceded him, that the world is kept in
the topsy-turvy condition which we all rejoice in, and which we call
And yet I confess I have a soft place in my heart for that rare
character in our New England life who is content with the world as he
finds it, and who does not attempt to appropriate any more of it to
himself than he absolutely needs from day to day. He knows from the
beginning that the world could get on without him, and he has never
had any anxiety to leave any result behind him, any legacy for the
world to quarrel over.
He is really an exotic in our New England climate and society, and
his life is perpetually misunderstood by his neighbors, because he
shares none of their uneasiness about getting on in life. He is even
called lazy, good-for-nothing, and "shiftless,"--the final stigma
that we put upon a person who has learned to wait without the
exhausting process of laboring.
I made his acquaintance last summer in the country, and I have not in
a long time been so well pleased with any of our species. He was a
man past middle life, with a large family. He had always been from
boyhood of a contented and placid mind, slow in his movements, slow
in his speech. I think he never cherished a hard feeling toward
anybody, nor envied any one, least of all the rich and prosperous
about whom he liked to talk. Indeed, his talk was a good deal about
wealth, especially about his cousin who had been down South and "got
fore-handed" within a few years. He was genuinely pleased at his
relation's good luck, and pointed him out to me with some pride. But
he had no envy of him, and he evinced no desire to imitate him. I
inferred from all his conversation about "piling it up" (of which he
spoke with a gleam of enthusiasm in his eye), that there were moments
when he would like to be rich himself; but it was evident that he
would never make the least effort to be so, and I doubt if he could
even overcome that delicious inertia of mind and body called
laziness, sufficiently to inherit.
Wealth seemed to have a far and peculiar fascination for him, and I
suspect he was a visionary in the midst of his poverty. Yet I
suppose he had--hardly the personal property which the law exempts
from execution. He had lived in a great many towns, moving from one
to another with his growing family, by easy stages, and was always
the poorest man in the town, and lived on the most niggardly of its
rocky and bramble-grown farms, the productiveness of which he reduced
to zero in a couple of seasons by his careful neglect of culture.
The fences of his hired domain always fell into ruins under him,
perhaps because he sat on them so much, and the hovels he occupied
rotted down during his placid residence in them. He moved from
desolation to desolation, but carried always with him the equal mind
of a philosopher. Not even the occasional tart remarks of his wife,
about their nomadic life and his serenity in the midst of discomfort,
could ruffle his smooth spirit.
He was, in every respect, a most worthy man, truthful, honest,
temperate, and, I need not say, frugal; and he had no bad habits,--
perhaps he never had energy enough to acquire any. Nor did he lack
the knack of the Yankee race. He could make a shoe, or build a
house, or doctor a cow; but it never seemed to him, in this brief
existence, worth while to do any of these things. He was an
excellent angler, but he rarely fished; partly because of the
shortness of days, partly on account of the uncertainty of bites, but
principally because the trout brooks were all arranged lengthwise and
ran over so much ground. But no man liked to look at a string of
trout better than he did, and he was willing to sit down in a sunny
place and talk about trout-fishing half a day at a time, and he would
talk pleasantly and well too, though his wife might be continually
interrupting him by a call for firewood.
I should not do justice to his own idea of himself if I did not add
that he was most respectably connected, and that he had a justifiable
though feeble pride in his family. It helped his self-respect, which
no ignoble circumstances could destroy. He was, as must appear by
this time, a most intelligent man, and he was a well-informed man;
that is to say, he read the weekly newspapers when he could get them,
and he had the average country information about Beecher and Greeley
and the Prussian war (" Napoleon is gettin' on't, ain't he?"), and
the general prospect of the election campaigns. Indeed, he was
warmly, or rather luke-warmly, interested in politics. He liked to
talk about the inflated currency, and it seemed plain to him that his
condition would somehow be improved if we could get to a specie
basis. He was, in fact, a little troubled by the national debt; it
seemed to press on him somehow, while his own never did. He
exhibited more animation over the affairs of the government than he
did over his own,--an evidence at once of his disinterestedness and
his patriotism. He had been an old abolitionist, and was strong on
the rights of free labor, though he did not care to exercise his
privilege much. Of course he had the proper contempt for the poor
whites down South. I never saw a person with more correct notions on
such a variety of subjects. He was perfectly willing that churches
(being himself a member), and Sunday-schools, and missionary
enterprises should go on; in fact, I do not believe he ever opposed
anything in his life. No one was more willing to vote town taxes and
road-repairs and schoolhouses than he. If you could call him
spirited at all, he was public-spirited.
And with all this he was never very well; he had, from boyhood,
"enjoyed poor health." You would say he was not a man who would ever
catch anything, not even an epidemic; but he was a person whom
diseases would be likely to overtake, even the slowest of slow
fevers. And he was n't a man to shake off anything. And yet
sickness seemed to trouble him no more than poverty. He was not
discontented; he never grumbled. I am not sure but he relished a
"spell of sickness" in haying-time.
An admirably balanced man, who accepts the world as it is, and
evidently lives on the experience of others. I have never seen a man
with less envy, or more cheerfulness, or so contented with as little
reason for being so. The only drawback to his future is that rest
beyond the grave will not be much change for him, and he has no works
to follow him.
This Yankee philosopher, who, without being a Brahmin, had, in an
uncongenial atmosphere, reached the perfect condition of Nirvina,
reminded us all of the ancient sages; and we queried whether a world
that could produce such as he, and could, beside, lengthen a man's
years to one hundred and thirteen, could fairly be called an old and
worn-out world, having long passed the stage of its primeval poetry
and simplicity. Many an Eastern dervish has, I think, got
immortality upon less laziness and resignation than this temporary
sojourner in Massachusetts. It is a common notion that the world
(meaning the people in it) has become tame and commonplace, lost its
primeval freshness and epigrammatic point. Mandeville, in his
argumentative way, dissents from this entirely. He says that the
world is more complex, varied, and a thousand times as interesting as
it was in what we call its youth, and that it is as fresh, as
individual and capable of producing odd and eccentric characters as
ever. He thought the creative vim had not in any degree abated, that
both the types of men and of nations are as sharply stamped and
defined as ever they were.
Was there ever, he said, in the past, any figure more clearly cut and
freshly minted than the Yankee? Had the Old World anything to show
more positive and uncompromising in all the elements of character
than the Englishman? And if the edges of these were being rounded
off, was there not developing in the extreme West a type of men
different from all preceding, which the world could not yet define?
He believed that the production of original types was simply
Herbert urged that he must at least admit that there was a freshness
of legend and poetry in what we call the primeval peoples that is
wanting now; the mythic period is gone, at any rate.
Mandeville could not say about the myths. We couldn't tell what
interpretation succeeding ages would put upon our lives and history
and literature when they have become remote and shadowy. But we need
not go to antiquity for epigrammatic wisdom, or for characters as
racy of the fresh earth as those handed down to us from the dawn of
history. He would put Benjamin Franklin against any of the sages of
the mythic or the classic period. He would have been perfectly at
home in ancient Athens, as Socrates would have been in modern Boston.
There might have been more heroic characters at the siege of Troy
than Abraham Lincoln, but there was not one more strongly marked
individually; not one his superior in what we call primeval craft and
humor. He was just the man, if he could not have dislodged Priam by
a writ of ejectment, to have invented the wooden horse, and then to
have made Paris the hero of some ridiculous story that would have set
all Asia in a roar.
Mandeville said further, that as to poetry, he did not know much
about that, and there was not much he cared to read except parts of
Shakespeare and Homer, and passages of Milton. But it did seem to
him that we had men nowadays, who could, if they would give their
minds to it, manufacture in quantity the same sort of epigrammatic
sayings and legends that our scholars were digging out of the Orient.
He did not know why Emerson in antique setting was not as good as
Saadi. Take for instance, said Mandeville, such a legend as this,
and how easy it would be to make others like it:
The son of an Emir had red hair, of which he was ashamed, and wished