The Stand-Point of the Boarding-House

THE kernel has its meaning; and so, too, has each of its husks, if you can fairly get at them.

Now my object here is not to discuss the question of husks in general, for that would be a matter encyclopedic and endless. I propose rather to consider simply a mere variety of one of the physical husks of the soul, in connection with its parallel moral husk ; in other words, to look at the boardinghouse in the light of civilization. For the boarding-house is, I take it, the modern type of one of the soul s primeval husks, — the new-light version of the old-time idea of shelter and habitation, house and home, hearth and rooftree,— the lineal descendant of wigwam, perch, cabin, cell, bungalow, booth, den, pagoda, and all the rest.

It was the theory of Vico that Nature repeats herself; that history, civilization, society, and polity come back at last into themselves, their progress being always in circles conformed to one great archetypal plan. So that every large fact or form is sure to reappear sooner or later in the course of ages, whenever its round has been completed. Goethe, while he adopted the substance of this view, modified it so far as to represent the course of history as a spiral, instead of a circle. A law of advance blends with the law of returns; and hence epochs and phases and forms and events return, not just as before, but changed somewhat, and farther on along the winding line. This has always seemed to me a true solution of the problem of civilization, and the only one, inasmuch as it alone reconciles and explains the two great necessary and coequal facts of change, and of the equality of action and reaction. Here we have the key to much in literature too, as well as in life. Within the past month I have read the words of an American Plotinus, an English Thucydides, and a Gallic Aristophanes. In each there was the old Greek, but moved forward.

So, too, these habitable husks which man makes from age to age for shelter and home have their appointed cycle of change. How different the rooftrees under which the centuries have dwelt ! Yet each housing was an utterance of the spirit of the time, changing only with its informing spirit. Like man, like house. And as the race is sure to come back to the old traditions, and to stand by the old landmarks, sooner or later, so the household gods return after a while to their starting-point to sojourn for a period in their ancestral home, and quicken themselves at the native hearth.

Tecta mutautur, nos et mutamur in ilHs.”

In order to describe this household circle, at least three points must of course be fixed. In the present case, there seem to me to be four, all natural, necessary, and easily determined. For, leaving out of view all subordinate types and mere variations, men’s local habitations reduce themselves to these simple forms, — the Tent, the Cabin, the Castle, the Home. The circle then completes itself in the boardinghouse, which is at once both the original last form and the fac-simile or parody of the first form in the old circle, as well as the original first form in a succeeding series. The locus of the boarding-house, and its relations to society, I shall hope to define the more exactly by first outlining in a rough way the prominent features of each of its three predecessors just named. And,

I. The Tent. The type of this epoch is nomadism. Men live nowhere. They only exist, making bivouac for a night, and packing oft' in the morning. You don’t know where to find them : they have no cities, no streets, no fixed numbers on their houses. The places through which they range — they never inhabit — are deserts, yielding no good thing. The occupation of society is chronic war, not satisfactor)internecine destruction, but daily bickerings, endless feuds, and cavalier one-horse engagements. Everybody fights with everybody. The result is seldom serious : at it they go again : it is hammer and tongs forever. The great question in life is about their daily food. They produce nothing, and consume much. Each tribe is domineered over by a patriarch, — some hoary ruffian who gains his place either by seniority in the family, or by being less scrupulous than his fellows. His word is law ; his ipse dixit settles everything.

The arts and sciences never flourish here. The only talk is gossip, and speculations on the weather. The only reading, if there is reading at all, is the local news, and the war-bulletins of the patriarchs. The only fine art at all practised is music, which expresses itself partly in whistling, and partly in humming over plaintively the familiar airs of the country. There is also much thrumming of rude musical instruments, such as the jews-harp and its descendants ; and the fierce clangor of the gong both urges the tribes to food, and launches them against the enemy. The chief aim of this vagabond people, in the brief intervals of war, is to kill time. To this end the men prey upon society; and the women watch the weather, the neighboring tents, and the tunics of casual travellers.

Humanity looks back with fond fancy to this epoch of the tent, and sees it loom radiant through the mists of long generations. It is called the Age of Gold, either on the lucus-a-non-lucendo principle, or on the ojnne-ignotumpro-tnagnifico theory. Being most distant and different from the present, it is dreamed of, sighed for, and sung, as something never to be seen again. Yet it comes back, though changed.

II. By and by the Tent gives place to the Cabin. Restlessness, being tired, craves rest, and war subsides for a while into peace. As population increases, tillage begins, the land of itself not being able to feed swarms of idle reamers, who do nothing but graze and hunt and fight. So each man builds his rude cabin, ties himself to the earth, turns the sod, watches nature, and sees his bread at his own door. This should be the true Age of Iron, the time of the ploughshare, the spade, the axe, and the sickle. It is the era of naturalism, when man lives close to nature, likening himself to vegetables and animals. He strives to get at the heart of nature, hoping to conquer and make it his servant. Humanity is one vast peasantry, whose business it is to make the earth ready for future generations. Hard hands are funding capital for the use of the more subtile brain, the finer sense, the nicer taste, which shall come after. It is a pioneer age, standing in the van of civilization, — an age which creates, develops, subdues, and accumulates. Its cabin is the shanty of a farm-hand.

III. Time goes on, and the reign of the Castle begins. Just as war before reacted into peace, so now in turn peace reacts into war. The cabin falls to the rear, and the castle steps to the front. The peasant’s shantyyields the pas to the soldier’s fort. Hard knocks are the order of the day ; the strongest arm makes itself lord, and the weakest becomes vassal. Feudalism is the type of the age : a centralized society coheres in a series of successive links, all meeting at last in a suzerain who stands at the heart of tilings. Each dwelling becomes the centre of a wide circle, the focus of life far around. Each comes to stand for two facts. The first is Strength, and the second is Beauty,—a new revelation at the fireside. There must first be a strong-hold, then galleries, museums, and the decorations of art. The hoarded capital of the cabin epoch now blooms in luxury and splendor and airy forms : it is the radiant Age of Silver. The castle is tiie birthplace of much that is true and tender in our modern civilization, — first cradle of the arts, home of the graces, true shrine of social life. Here too, between the stormy blasts of war, were born or nurtured many of the finer virtues, — loyalty to woman, obedience, reverence, truth, the chastity of honor. self-sacrifice, and—-sublimest of all — martyrdom for an idea. Within these four walls lived cultured courtesy.

IV. At last the barons cut each others' throats for their ladies’ sake, cr die for king and crown, or leave house and land for fatal crusades. Then come the burghers, mortgagees cf fair estates, apostles of the new era, lovers of peace. They are family men, true to domestic ties, fond of home. For the shelter of their dear ones they build a Home, and live in it. It matters not what its form may be, — whether it be of wood, or brick, or marble,— whether it have Doric peristyle, or Gothic spire, or Egyptian column. The spirit is all, the form nothing; for the material home is but the husk to cover the glory that lives within. Where home is, there only and there always are there homes.

The home is the era of good feeling, the Age of Love, which, beginning at the hearth, goes out to the ends of the universe. Neither silver nor gold can rightly typify this fairest of epochs: naught can be its emblem save that precious metal of the alchemists, combining in itself the virtues of all the rest.

At the hearthstone all things centre : it is the final cause of society. The arts and sciences, culture, taste, heroic deeds, the far-reaching thought, the soaring imagination, the sweet affections, the fine courtesies, and all rightmindedness,— these, and all the generous things of life, culminate in the home era. The family is the true fostering-mother of the highest worth. The Lares are the best helps to all high thinking, high living, and well doing. By the fireside each true thing finds best expression.

V. Generations pass, and the cycle of civilization completes itself. Home deliquesces into the Boarding-House, and the series of tabernacles is at an end. For the old nomadic instinct has never wholly died out ; though long dormant, it still lives, and bursts out once more in undiminished vigor. The epoch of vagrancy returns : new editions of the tent, revised and corrected, are scattered broadcast over the land. For what is the boarding-house but a tent with modem improvements and an L ? Each is the very emblem of unrest, the home of the vagrant, the theatre of war. These two encampments, standing respectively in the van and at the rear, as the beginning and the end of civilization, serve to mark the limits of society, where extremes meet, and life returns into itself. If you will recall the outline of the first epoch, as sketched in Section I., you will find that many of its most characteristic features reappear under the regime of the boarding-house in the epoch of to-day.

The primary meaning of the boarding-house is, then, locomotion and unrest. Stung by a gad-fly within, which never dies nor tires, the modern Io is goaded up and down, and wanders uneasily over the face of the earth, finding no rest for the sole of her foot. Your representative nineteenth-century boarding-house man is only a developed Bedouin, a veneered and varnished Gypsy. He takes root nowhere ; lie has no flavor of the soil ; he grows into no natural fruitage. He is only a consuming waif, self-driven from tent to tent, and picked up by one landlady after another. He, the flotsam and jetsam of humanity, is tossed about on the currents, and tumbled against the headlands of life, with the wreckers and salvors in his wake. The great question always arises within us in regard to the disposition of his body, What will he do with it? Where next will he carry it ?

Look for a moment at the term, — “boarding-house.” Turn it over, pick it to pieces, and what do you make of it ? It is simply the word “board,” and the word “house,” most awkwardly tacked together, without moulding or blending in any degree. The terms do not mix, any more than oil and water. Now from this homeliness of make and texture, this awkwardness of juncture, this absence of welding, one or two inferences naturally follow. For, since all language is but the reflex of life, since, words arc but the images of things and ideas, and the character of the thing 01idea always modifies the character of its word in a certain definite way, —it follows that from the form, the moulding, and the currency of the word we can argue a posteriori as to the form, the moulding, and the currency of its parent idea. The word “boardinghouse,” then, is uncomely, simply because its idea is uncomely. The plain fact is simply this, — that our AngloSaxon likes not the idea of the boarding-house in life, and therefore shows no favor to the word boarding-house in language. The Saxon likes his home and believes in it, and therefore makes for it one of the sweetest and dearest of all words. He dislikes and disbelieves in the boarding-house, and, with characteristic frankness, will not stoop to veil his want of love and faith under any graceful circumlocution.

If it is argued that the wrant of honor for the boarding-house in our Saxon tongue comes simply from the inflexible nature of the language, making it impossible to mould a better term, I reply that whenever a strong desire is felt on the part of the community to Italicize some favorite thing, or to glorify a pet idea, no difficulty is found in magnifying the corresponding expression. And this is done either by inventing, or by substituting, or by transferring to the idea or thing in question some delicacy of diction, or some smooth and respectful word or paraphrase. If there is a general wish to pay honor, honor will be paid, or an attempt intended to pay honor will be made in good faith. Thus the tradesman, desiring not to sink, but to elevate the shop, is able, because the community consents, to dignify his place of business with the title of “ bazaar,” “emporium,” “establishment.” So,too, a house is called a “ mansion ” ; a little patch of ground, an “ estate ” ; a closet, an “apartment”; a school, a “college”; an academy, a “university” ; and anything popular, an “institution.” Partly for the same reason, and partly from a ridiculous squeamishness and false modesty, a leg is called a “limb,” shirt and drawers ‘‘underwear,” and so on. I do not bring forward these instances as worthy of imitation, or in order to defend their manifest vulgarity, but merely to show that the community can find, and do always find, when they choose to find, glorifying words, or—which amounts to the same thing—words intended and believed to glorify favorite ideas. The principle remains the same, no matter whether the glorifying word is in good or in bad taste. The only requisites to this sort of linguistic transformation are that the idea shall be popular, and its word unpopular ; while, on the other hand, if the idea is unpopular, but its word popular, there will result linguistic degradation. The word must adjust itself to the idea. If both are popular, or both unpopular, in an equal degree, the word remains unchanged.

One more inference may be drawn from language, namely, that the boarding-house is of modern growth. This inference history also confirms. I cannot conceive of a boarding-house in the reign of Elizabeth. In the reigns of Charles II. and Anne, such a thing might have been possible sporadically among a certain caste, but not otherwise. It was never organized into an institution ; the nation had nothing to do with it.

The word “boarding-house ” does not occur in Walker or Webster, but is found in Worcester, who represents a generation or two later. The next W. who provides a dictionary will probably sanction that horrible monstrosity, boarding-house-keeper. The thing exists, and will exist, and must have a name. And unless society changes radically, and Saxon ceases to be Saxon, there can be no other name. Our language will only tolerate the thing: it will show it no favor, decorate it with no euphemism. The word “boarder ” has a greater antiquity. Its former meaning, however, necessarily differed somewhat from the present, inasmuch as it indicated only unique specimens, anomalous offshoots of society. It never implied then, as now, a special class. For the boarder was then the exception, not the rule,—a monstrosity, not a normal product. I doubt not that some confused perception of the analogies existing between the nautical and the land boarder may have led to the first terrene application of the term ; it may have been thought that both are far from home, both are given to attack, both are devoted to the use of the knife, both rejoice in the grab-game, both are a law to themselves, and so on.

The boarding-house is simply an expression of materialism, — one phase in the religion of things. An age with materialism on the brain must have boarding - houses. As manufactures, motive-power, and all industrial interests grow, they grow: they are the home of the herding artisan, and from him come to permeate society. They are temples of the religion of the body, altars to the faith in things and the want of faith in ideas, propaganda of the gospel of conventions. Yet it is a mistake to say that the boarding-house is without an ideal: it has an ideal,— its front-parlor boarder. Its common faith and aspirations are unto him. So, too, it is not without worship : its homage is to the practical, to that which will pay. With it there is no success but success ; and success is dollars and cents. It worships steam, percentage, corner lots, mines, stocks, fly-wheels, and the various devices by which man divests himself of his manhood.

The boarding-house is civilization gone to seed, — the anti-climax of society, — the last trituration and dilution of the art of living. Its epoch is the Age of Brass, that factitious metal whose sole virtue lies in its superficial resemblance to something better. So the boarding-house is a parody of home, a caricature of comfort, and a forgery of society. Here lies the great battle-ground of the fripperies and vanities of life ; here is the arena in which the foibles of humanity contend without ceasing. No man cares to stand for what he is, to show himself in truth to-his fellow-boarders; he wants, like debased coin, to utter himself for more or other than he is worth. The homely virtues, the sweet sincerities of life, the truth of character, the high thought, the noble endeavor, the unselfish purpose, all languish here. A subtle poison gnaws at the very life of simplicity, integrity, and independence of character. Conventions take the place of convictions ; shams are the maxims of life ; the ad captandum is the aim of life ; and appearances are the test of life.

No true art, poetry, or science can flourish in the sterile soil of the boarding-house : they are flowers of homegrowth. Taste is vulgarized by cutting loose from the eternal fitness of things, and clinging to the shifting despotisms of coteries. The notion about science is, that it is a good help to labor-saving and money-making inventions. Literature worships the gods of the hour; poetry degenerates into ornament, and revels in the morbid excrescences of life and character ; and art becomes upholstery. Do you think that Homer, Phidias, or Aristotle could have lived anywhere else than at home ? And do you think that the stuff which heroes are made of is found at mercenary firesides ? The heroic, like the homely virtues, wither when moved from their native hearths. Did you ever hear of a great thought born in a boarding-house, — of sublime love of honor, of stern devotion to principle, of lofty self-sacrifice ? Such tilings, wherever they show themselves, were first nurtured at home. No nation ever fought for its boardinghouses. The wars of tent-dwelling races have always been raids for plunder, not strokes for principle. Conceive of a nation of boarding-houses,— what would they fight for but percentage and profit ? Would Marathon and Thermopylae have been fought, would Debras have devoted himself to death, would Regulus have kept his word, would the martyrs have welcomed the flames, if theirs had been ages of boarding-houses ?

The highest culture, true conversation, and all real contact of mind with mind, are in the boarding-house utterly null. Talk is limited to gossip, colds, and the weather. Gossip we know, and colds we know, and — thank Heaven for the weather ! The weather, past, present, and future, — fair, foul, or dubious, — illimitable, fresh, omnipotent forever ! Boundless stimulant of thought, neutral ground of the small affections, mother of small talk, nurse of sociality, regulator of the proprieties, sweet occasion of sweet offices, stop-gap of pauses, rippling stream through the desert ocean of strangerhood, fertilizer of friendship, herald of an era of good feeling, meetingplace of the conventionalities, pivot of society,—we hail thee, Weather, summum bonuvt of the talking boarder, solace of the silent, leading-string to the diffident, spur to the balky, crutch to the lame, life-boat to the foundered ! Great art thou alike in thy history, reality, and prophecy, — great alike, whether absolute, relative, or potential,—a blessing forever ! What were tire boardinghoikse without thee ? A solecism. And what can they do in the tropics, where for months thou changest not ?

The boarding-house, like the tent, has its patriarch. He is not, however, necessarily identical with the ideal alluded to on a preceding page. It matters not whether he dwells in garret or basement, or whether he is young or old ; his title and office come from seniority as boarder in a given household, and are merely honorary. The only privileges thereto appertaining are the right of acting as mediator between the two contending factions of the house, and of having his utterances on all subjects quoted as the law of the family. His usual title is Father of the House. So great is the migration in American households, that the title may be speedily earned and often transferred. Though only a single man, of not remarkable antiquity, I recollect that in one case, after sojourning under one roof for only some six to eight months, the title fell to me ; and I proposed to, and did, fight it out on that line all summer. In the early autumn a new champion of the table succeeded to a vacancy.

Think for a moment of the blessed influences going out from a true home. The old hearthstone of the child glows in the eye of the youth like the star of hope ; it is the rock of manhood, and in old age it is like the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.

Look then at a boarding-house child without home in esse, posse, or meminisse. Original castaway! Shuttlecock between the vanities and the inanities, bubble of bubbles, feather-tost on every wind of nothingness, young convert to materialism, unconscious martyr to the trumperies, human victim on the altar of the superficialities ! What is he good for ? What will he be good for ? What will you do with him ? He has no safeguards, no inspirations. Home is to him a word without meaning ; it can never be anything more than sundry numbers in sundry streets. Whence is his motive-power ? where are his ideals ? whither his aspirations ? A lady, having asked a former servant of hers where she was now living, received the answer, “ I don’t live, I board.” The answer was true in a sense not thought of. To live is one thing ; to board is another, — especially in the case of the young, whose character is still in the making. The child of the boarding-house only exists. He has no memories, no sanctities, no principles, no mainspring. Faith, and tenderness, and all spiritual things, are nipped in the bud ; and the bloom and sweetness of innocence and purity are wiped away. And when lie drags his existence to its prime, of what possible worth will he be to himself, to you, to me, to society ?

We are now only in the beginning of the boarding-house era. But when the climax is reached, when the minima become maxima, when tendencies work themselves out into facts, when exceptions become rules, when the elements have shaped themselves into an organization, and the parts have adjusted themselves to a system, — when, in short, the boarding-house has grown into a worldwide institution, and men dwell only in vast caravansaries, — then tell me where, in the language of the popular play, — Where shall we all go to ?