The Kingdom of Infancy
WHEN the present writer was a small boy, he firmly believed Fairyland to be in the asparagus-bed, and envied the house-cat her ability to traverse that weird and waving forest into which, through thick stems, he could only peer. And then, too, being allowed to sit up one night an hour later than usual, and listen to the reading of Irving’s “ Tour on the Prairies ” (just out), the next day he, with a comrade (in time a gallant captain of Massachusetts Volunteers), procured sticks that imagination shaped to rifles, and started due west from the streets of the seaside village. They went gloriously on, deep and deeper into the forest, in the full conviction that it opened first upon the borders of the land of deer and buffalo, when they came to a stone fence, and then a road, — a travelled and dusty highway. Right across their pioneer path it ran, and the sight of it struck a chill conviction to their hearts that civilization had gone ahead of them, and that they should never see buffalo. The writer never has seen buffalo to this day, except one herd of hideous brutes, that stared at him out of the Pontine Marshes, as he rode by on the banquette of the Rome and Naples diligence.
These two dreams of boyhood came back to us with the late fine autumnal weather, and set us to thinking upon the marvellousness of childhood. It is a world of life apart. It has its own laws, mysteries, illusions or realities, whichever you please. And nothing is more surprising than the way in which grownup men and women not only pass out of it, but of all memory of it, and become altogether different beings. If Wordsworth’s saying hold, — “ The child is father to the man,” — we can but retort the proverb, “It is a wise child that knows its own father.” Who shall read for us the riddle of boyhood ? It is not mimicry of manhood. Men and women are not children of a larger growth, they are men and women. We suppose the children of the Rollo Series might indeed be blown up into ordinary men and women, being such on a small scale ; but they are not at all like real boys and girls. What passes over childhood is a change, such as comes upon puppies and kittens and colts and lambs and cubs and whelps of every kind. Boys imitate men, and little girls likewise play at housekeeping; but in the manner of the imitation there is the same ludicrous disproportion and whimsicality which one sees in children dressed up in the clothes of their elders. There is unto them a law of their own. When the imitation is really well done, as in the mimic Senate of the pages of Congress, it is nothing but clever acting, and the most wearisome of sights. There is a story of a comedy performed by monkeys with wonderful spirit and gravity, till a mischievous spectator threw a handful of nuts on the stage, when kings, lovers, and heroes suddenly fell into a four-footed scramble, in utter oblivion of their parts. So the first question of personal interest thrown among these boy debaters would probably produce a scene compared to which the liveliest rows of the grown-up houses would be tame.
The Kingdom of Infancy is the direct heir of that of the Modes and Persians, whose laws alter not. Look at boys’ games. Do they change ? Men change. When we were a boy, we made our first journey to Boston in a stage-coach, and were treated to a ride in the first railway cars which had begun to unite the metropolis to the country towns. A wooden line-of-battle ship was a marvel in our eyes, —great, massive, invincible. Bunker Hill Monument rose then about seventy feet, and every one said would probably never be finished. A telegraph was a thing with wooden arms, which made strange signs in the air, like a lunatic windmill. The Atlantic Monthly of that day was called “ The United States Literary Gazette.” and a young man who signed himself “ L.” had just written for it a piece called “ Woods in Winter ”; while “ B.,” another, contributed a piece entitled “The Murdered Traveller.” Now, if we were to journey Bostonward, we should take a car in which we could go to bed and slumber composedly ; we should visit the navy-yard to see a monitor ; we should click a wire homeward to say that we were to stay another night in the city ; we should purchase the “ Flower-de-Luce,” and “Thirty Poems,” as also a couple of sun-likenesses of “ B.” and “ L.” Two or three years ago, we should have beheld a regiment of negro soldiers marching down Tremont Row, in full sight of a bland, bald-headed gentleman, whom (on our first visit to the three-hilled city) we once narrowly missed seeing hurried through Boston streets by a crowd benevolently bent on running him up to a lamp-post. We should have learned that these same troops were bound to New York (where it was once eloquently proved in the Tabernacle that they were not men, but only a secondary form of Simia); thence to Philadelphia (where we saw the yet smouldering ruins of Pennsylvania Hall); and thence to Baltimore and Washington (when we were last there a similar consignment arrived for the Southern market), not to be sold, but to be paid,, armed, and marched to the battle-field. There was some change in all this. “So lives the soul of man. It is the thirst of his immortal nature,” — as a young gentleman not long since said in a pretty Commencement poem. Beavers and boys, however, build the same now as of old. Only this very morning we stepped above a “hopscotch ” diagram, drawn after the precise pattern of those we used to scuff through in the days above described. There hangs a kite upon our neighbor’s barn gable, made after the same archaic pattern as our boyhood kites. The pegtops, the marbles, are as familiar to us now as in the time before the streaks of silver had begun to diversify our back hair, — and ingenuous youth persists in manipulating them after the pattern of old.
School-books change ; instead of Malte-Brun, goodness-knows-who geographies the rising mind, and young America turns up its nose at the dog’seared arithmetic which was our boyhood’s sorrow. But when we come to “ prisoner’s base,” and “ high-spy,” we think we might give the young gentlemen of the present day a point or two, without much risk. The Kingdom of Infancy is like the rule of the Bourbons, — nothing forgotten, nothing learned. Men in their games improve upon the past ; Morphy could have given Philidor pawn and move, and Tieman and Kavanagh are the Raphael and Buonarotti of billiards ; but your child this morning made its mud-pies in the precise way in which you constructed your first terraqueous pastry, and you may safely bet the nation’s collective income-tax against a five-cent note, that your grandchildren will do the same.
Who makes the laws of the Kingdom of Infancy ? Who determines when kite-time, top-time, marble-time, balltime, shall come ? Not the fitness of things, certainly. Boys in England will be perversely playing at the same sports as boys in America, in utter defiance of meteorological laws. Raging football in the hot summer, sedentary marbles in the cold, wet spring, are determined by some law which childhood is conscious of, yet cannot define, but which the man can never fathom.
Whence come the superstitions of childhood ? For what cause is it that the school-girl walks to school intent upon never setting foot across a crack in the pavement, and would rather be tardy than lose her game ? Her mother did it before her ; and what was the reproach, O staid matronly friend of my youth, which visited failure, you know not; but when even now you come to that well-remembered stone, — so narrow that it was an awkward marvel of skill to hit it, — you can hardly help trying the feat once more.
There is a creed established in our Kingdom, with unvarying traditions. You do not believe that Tompkins Pond is bottomless in some places, but you did in the days when you fished there for perch ; and you would not be in the least surprised to bear your Willy say at tea to-night, “ Father, is n’t there a place in Tompkins Pond where there is no bottom ? Jim Morse ” (a horrid Voltairean, whom we would gladly consign to the secular arm for an auto da fe) “ says there is n’t, but 1 know there is.” Boys have their worship, too. There is always one fellow' in a school who can do everything ; — or else is not in the school, but works for somebody in the neighborhood, and comes at recess and leans over the fence, and criticises, and sometimes takes a marvellous stroke with a ball-club, or a kick at a football, or is seen at the top of the big elm, where no one else has ever climbed. Him they revere.
We said the laws of the Kingdom never change ; but its fashions do. Can you not remember how it was the height ot felicity to possess some article which was neither a toy, nor eatable, nor pretty, nor useful, but simply the rage ? Of course you can. Dickens says slatepencil was a great treasure at his school. We have a faint recollection that horse-chestnuts paved the California of our young dreams. Then it was cat-tails. Then every boy was zealously cutting out letters in wood. Then it was the fashion to edit newspapers. We did our first journalizing in conjunction with another eight-yearling, who is at it yet. For auld lang syne, if this manuscript ever sees the light of type, we crave a kindly notice in the spirited journal whose columns he now touches but to adorn. Then every boy wrote for “ composition ” a voyage to Europe, and was mainly interested in meeting his schoolmates in Westminster Abbey, hurrying over the inevitable icebergs and whales of the voyage to reach that astounding climax.
Unfathomable are the prejudices of childhood, its likes and dislikes. Some teachers can never get the good-will of a school. They will go elsewhere and succeed à merveille. Even in college, a professor will be the idol of one class and the ridicule of the next, — why, only he who wrote the profound apothegm concerning Dr. Fell can say. For a season boys will be happy and harmonious in their games, and the next will do nothing at recess but hang about the play-ground and tease and quarrel. We remember how, for a whole summer, our school forsook its large and comfortable play-ground, and went at every recess almost a quarter of a mile to play football in a lot not nearly so convenient, whereby we lost five minutes off each end of our game. Teasing games will sometimes have a wonderful run. The little fellows hate them, yet will always be constrained by some occult magic to join in, though morally certain to come to grief before long. Then there are the feuds which prevail between different localities. We well remember when no raid into Rebeldom could have surpassed in thrilling excitement of adventure a simple errand into a street only a few rods off the one where we daily played in safety. Boston and Charlestown, we are told, used to make for each other the passes leading to and fro bridges of Lodi and Arcole. And we remember when North End and South End burned with an enmity like Clan Chattan and Clan Quhcle in the meads of Perth.
We called the boys of our neighboring village “ Coskies.” It has since come to us that we meant “ Corsicans,” as being democrats, and therefore followers of the bloody-minded usurper Bonaparte (who was quietly sleeping beneath the willow of St. Helena before we were born); and no vendetta was ever more religiously transmitted than our hate of them.
Where do the smart boys go? In the books we edit and approve for Sunday-school reading they come to wealth and honor ; but we do not remember that we can trace like careers in the pages of our own experience. There will be a king of the school, — studious, first in the play-ground, and possessor of marvellous secrets of art, — who can draw like a sucking Turner, and paint all the pictures in the geography, who makes watch-spring saws, and builds clipper schooners which always win the mill-pond regattas, and who by virtue of his gifts will be all in all among his companions. Infinite luck, resource, and will are his. But now where is the cricketer of the academy ? A quiet citizen, not over well to do, respectable and humdrum, standing behind his counter, and never even taking a hand at the great game of. politics at which so many win marvellous stakes. Wise men say, Find out a boy’s capacity and develop it ; but who shall teach us even to suspect the man’s incapacity and overcome it ?
It is a strange world, the Kingdom of Childhood. Its moral laws are not the laws of after life. The summer fruit, all melting into honeyed sweetness, is indeed harsh in its green spring-time. And the moral of our closing is this. Wherein it is safe to educate, educate for after-life ; wherein it is not safe, let alone. Into the sports, the child-life of youth, you cannot infuse men’s culture. You can teach gymnastics, if you will, profitably, but as you teach arithmetic or any other study ; yet you cannot make your boy play at them. He will leave the best-appointed set of horses and bars and ropes and ladders, to play tag, and climb fences, and hang by his feet from the crooked limbs of the old apple-tree. If you mix instruction with amusement, he will hate the one and not love the other. Check wrong ways by parental and pedagogic authority, but do not try to teach other ways save with great care. Did you ever seek to show children a better mode of playing a game ? It was probably a mortifying failure. We have seen boys taught to drill in admirable style ; yet when the drill was learned, they did not play soldiers any more, but recreated themselves with base-ball or making balloons. And do not ask to know too much about their ways and ideas. “ A boy’s will is the wind’s will, and the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.” The Jesuits will take a child, and through the confessional mould him just as they please ; but all they ever succeed in doing is to make little Jesuits into big ones. Plenty of affection, and a pure, high example at home, careful training in what is necessary for after-life to know, and then — wholesome neglect. Some things must be learned, but cannot be taught Dr. Arnold was a wise teacher ; but the wisest thing we ever heard of him was that recorded by his admiring pupil, who wrote in “ School - Days at Rugby,” that “ he knew when not to see.”