Norwood: Or Village Life in New England

Norwood: or Village Life in New England. By HENRY WARD BEECHER. New York : Charles Scribner & Co.
WE do not know how capable of dramatization “Norwood" may have proven, but we have felt, in reading the novel, that the author had a faculty which might be turned to pleasant account in writing for the stage. To be sure, this notion was less suggested by dramatic management of situations, or by sustained dialogue, than by a certain felicity in expressing the flavor and color of New England life in the talk of some such people as Hiram Beers, Mr. Turfmould, Polly Marble, and two or three other pure and simple Yankees. The range is narrow, and the grade is not that of the highest comedy ; but here is representation, not mere study, of character, and so far drama. We should be sorry to yield this point; for it is one of the few to be made in favor of the present novel as a work of fiction. The story is of flimsy texture, and it is quite impossible to describe the ruthlessness with which the author preaches, both in his own person and in that of his characters, spinning out long monologues and colloquies upon morals, religion, and the whole conduct of life. In spite, moreover, of an instinctive beauty and strength of diction, the style is at times slovenly and tasteless to a degree which leaves the reader little to imagine in the way of downright baldness, or of trivial ornament. Yet all this is not to the exclusion of thought and feeling, which give delight in their play amongst the quaint ins and outs of Yankee nature, and over the varied picturesqueness of village neighbors and neighborhoods. It would be a loss not to have read that description of a Sunday in Norwood, or the night-fishing, or the nutting-party, or the going to Commencement at Amherst ; and one could ill afford not to know the charm of the Quaker farm-life in Pennsylvania, as it appears here after the fatigues of one of the most wearisome and exhausting stories. The homilies and discourses and essays are intolerable for where they are rather than for what they are. The book shows hurried workmanship, and the faults of style occur oftener where the author has not had time to say less, than where he has not had leisure to say more; and, in spite of them, he contrives always to give us his conception.
Barton Cathcart, the son of a well-to-do farmer, near Norwood, loves from childhood Rose Wentworth, the daughter of the village physician; but, for insufficient reasons, believes that he cannot win her, and so does not tell his love till he goes to the war, in 1861. Then he tells it by letter, and naturally this letter never reaches Rose, who, when her brother is killed at Bull Run, resolves to go to the seat of war as a nurse. She becomes proficient in her vocation, — even to the amputation of a soldier’s leg when the operating surgeon happens to be shot down. In due course, by a pleasing, though not quite surprising, turn of fortune, General Cathcart is wounded in the battle of Gettysburg, and Rose (at the old farm-house of Friend Hetherington) nurses her hero back to life, through that terrible fever pretty sure to rage somewhere in fiction, and, returning to Norwood when the war is over, marries him. On the other hand, Alice Cathcart finds her lover, a young Virginian visitor at Norwood in other days, among the rebel dead at the same battle, and she, after the war is done, goes to Lynchburg, and teaches the black children. In the conduct of a plot like this, it is evident that far greater difficulty falls to the reader than to the author.
It is easy to understand how persons so uninteresting as Rose and Barton may be virtuous and happy, but that they are young and handsome seems doubtful ; and we should not believe it but that we have Mr. Beecher’s word for it. All the genteel and grammatical people in Norwood are somewhat insipid; and even such a character as Agate Bissell—the old maid disappointed in early love, and crystallized in a nature hard and angular without, but within full of light and purity and strength — takes hold rather upon the memory than the imagination. Of respectable folks thrown in to make talk, and repose the author’s invention, Mr. Chandler, the still, money-getting citizen, with his secret bibliomania, and his shyly accumulated library, is well sketched, and so is his wife ; while Mr. Tom Heywood is nobody, and Mr. Frank Esel rather worse. He, we are told, is an artist; and it appears that he has a fantastic love for an improbable mother, with whom he conducts a school-girl’s correspondence ; the fascinating brilliancy of conversation attributed to him affects the reader as little as it did Miss Wentworth, who, with an adventurous generosity, — perhaps too rare among young ladies, — rejects him anticipatively, telling him that they can never be more than third cousins before he has proposed a closer tie. Judge Bacon, the selfish, cold-hearted, smoothmannered sceptic and cynic, is less tangible in the author’s description, or his own expression, than in Hiram Beers’s racy talk: —
“ ‘ There comes Judge Bacon, white and ugly,’ said the critical Hiram. ‘ I wonder what he comes to meetin’ for. Lord knows he needs it, sly, slippery old sinner! Face ’s as white as a lily ; his heart’s as black as a chimney flue afore it’s cleaned. He’ll get his flue burned out if he don’t repent, that’s certain. He don’t believe the Bible. They say he don’t believe in God. Wal, I guess it’s pretty even between ’em. Should n't wonder if God did n't believe in him neither’ . . . . ‘ He talks to you,’ said Hiram, ‘just as Black Sam lathers you ; a kind of smooth rubbing goes on, and you feel soft and satisfied with yourself, and sort o’ lean to him, when he takes you by the nose and shaves, and shaves, and shaves, and it’s so smooth that you don’t feel the razor. But I tell you, when you git away your skin smarts. You’ve been shaved.’ ”
Tommy Taft, the swearing and woodenlegged old sailor, we suspect to be a copy from life, which is probably the case also with his pendant, Pete Sawmill, the vagabond half-wit, whom no well-regulated village is without. Neither is strongly portrayed, nor sufficiently idealized to be interesting, and we have far too much of both. Indeed, as the excellence of the whole book is in subordinate particulars, so Mr. Beecher seems most felicitous with characters casually introduced, and less consciously handled. For example, here is one, presented apropos of Barton Cat heart’s departure for college, in which the whole neighborhood takes an interest: —
“ Old Cyrus Mills was driving past, on his way to town, and seeing Barton in the front door, pulled up. His horse was always in favor of stopping.
“ ‘ Mornin’! So you 7re goin’ to college ?7
“ ‘ Yes, sir.’
“ The old man was about sixty years old, with small bones and no flesh on them, and for looks, like a weather-stained rye-straw crooked into a sickle or half a hoop.
“ ‘ My boy said so. Cost a sight o’ money, won’t it ? S’pose you mean to preach, don’t you? Most of ’em do, over to Amherst. My boy’s talkin’ ’bout eddication too. Should n’t wonder if Nicholas fetched it one of these days.’
“ ‘ Nicholas is a smart fellow,’ said Barton. ‘ He ought to make a good scholar.’
“ ‘ Middlin’. But not so good, I expect, as his brother would a bin, — him that’s gone. I’ve never felt exactly right, that I Would n’t let hhn go to college. He wanted to go awfully, and worried about it a good deal. Mebbe if I’d let him go he would n’t a strained himself and got into a decline.’ A juicier man would evidently have shed a tear, but old Cyrus Mills had not a drop of moisture in his body to spare, and so instead he winked nervously half a dozen times and then shut his eyes tight.”
The whole chapter, in which Mr. Turfmould, the sexton, relates his business rivalries with Tompkins the rival undertaker, is very good, — full of characteristic pathos, unforced and charming humor, to which quotation will do but scant justice. Mr. Turfmould is telling here how he triumphed over professional feeling when his own wife and child both lay dead in his house : —
“‘I said, “Git thee behind me, Satan. Tompkins shall have this funeral ; and so he did. I ’ll say this for him, that I believe he tried to do about right. But nature is strong, you know, and I did think he took on a leetle more than he need to. Mebbe, if it had been me, I should have done so too. It makes a difference, you know, whose house a funeral’s in. And when we was all in the carriages, and the two coffins was in the hearse, — he wanted two hearses, but that would not be in good taste. I didn’t like so much show, and besides, I knew the mother ought to keep her child close to her ; — and when the procession was ready, he came walkin’ up to see, for the last time, if all was right, it wa’n’t in human nature to keep in his satisfaction with the occasion ! And when he mounted and sat down with the driver on the leadin’ carriage, I do believe there wasn’t so proud a man in this town.’ ”
Mr. Turfmould carried this spirit of conciliation so far that he went to consult with Tompkins in preparing the funeral of the minister’s wife.
“ ‘Tompkins,’ says I, ‘this is a peculiar occasion.’
“ ‘ Yes,’ says he, ‘it is. It’s enough to make one’s reputation.’
“ ‘ Now I want,’ says I, ‘ to have just such a funeral as would suit her, so that if she could come back, she’d say, “ I thank you, Mr. Turfmould; you have done exactly to my mind.” You know that if there was a woman in this town who hated dirt, she’s that woman, and I think we ’re bound to respect her taste when she’s gone just as much as if she’s livin’.’
“ ‘ Well, that’s easy enough,’ said Tompkins. ‘We can slick up everything with extra care, and have a double inspection of all the materials — ’
“ ‘ Well, that of course; but I was thinkin’ about the grave. You know you can’t dig a grave and have no dirt. Deceive ourselves as we will, you know we’ve all got to come to it, — dust we are and to dust we return; but then, you know, we can break the matter gently like, keep a large tarpaulin lyin’ over the dirt, and then I mean to cover the outside box with turf, which keeps the gravel and stuff from rattlin’ in when the coffin is down.’
“‘That’s a good idea,’ sez he, ‘and I think all your arrangements are good. They are new, and ought to be fashionable.’
“ ‘ I don’t care for fashion,’ says I. ‘ I think it will be comfortin’ to the minister and respectful to her memory. I’ve seen things managed quite the contrary. You know when Bidwell’s wife died, they put him in the coach with his sister-in-law, and they had always quarrelled, and they did n't mend matters that journey. Old Bidwell told me of it. Says he, ‘ If I ever have another funeral, you shall have it, Turfmould. Jones is no sort of a manager. He just spoilt my wife’s whole funeral. I never took a bit of comfort in it from beginning to end.’
“‘But Dr. Buell had no reason to say that,’ says Tompkins. ‘ I am sure we did everything that we could. I think Kyle beat himself with those flowers. I never saw such splendid funeral flowers. I did n’t know what flowers was made for till I saw wreaths, and crosses, and dishes. Flowers is certainly very useful, and, if well managed, considerable profit may come from them.’ ”
But the marked success of the book, the exceptionally well-handled person among the prominent characters, is Hiram Beers, in whom divine grace has compromised with the sinful love of fast horses, and who commonly finds so much to engage him in the teams of the worshippers outside of the church on Sundays, that he is apt to be a delinquent at the services within. The sketch of Judge Bacon already given is from some pleasant discourse of his, in which he characterizes the chief members of the congregation as they arrive, and with that grotesque excess which qualifies the native growth of humor, brings the people before us: —
“ ‘ Here come the Bages, and the Weekses, and a whole raft from Hardscrabble,’ said Hiram, as five or six one-horse wagons drove up. At a glance one could see that these were farmers who lived to work. They were spare in figure, brown in complexion, — everything worn off but bone and muscle, — like ships with iron masts and wire rigging. They drove little nubbins of horses, tough and rough, that had never felt a blanket in winter or known a leisure day in summer.
“ ‘ Them fellers,’ said Hiram, ‘ is just like stones, I don’t believe there’s any blood or innards in ’em more ’n in a crow-bar. They work early, and work all day, and in the night, and keep working and never seem to get tired except Sunday, when they’ve nothin’ to do. You know when Fat Porter was buried, they couldn't git him into the hearse, and had to carry him with poles, and Weeks was one of the bearers, and they had a pretty heavy time of it, nigh about three hours, what with liftin’ and fixin’ him at the house, and fetchin’ him to the church door, and then carryin’ him to the graveyard, and Weeks said he had n’t enjoyed a Sunday so much he could n’t tell when.
“‘Hiram,’ sez he, ‘I should like Sunday as well as week days if I could work on it; but I git awful tired doin’ nothin’.’
“It was nearly twelve o’clock, when Dr. Wentworth, returning from his round of visits, found Hiram sitting on the fence, his labors over, and waiting for Dr. Buell to finish.
“‘Not in church, Hiram? I’m afraid you’ve not been a good boy.’
“ ‘ Don’t know. Somebody must take care of the outside as well as inside of church. Dr. Buell rubs down the folks, and I rub the horses; he sees that their tacklin’ is all right in there, and I do the same out here, Folks and animals are pretty much of a muchness, and they ’ll bear a sight of takin’ care of.’ ....
Whose nag is that one, Hiram, —the roan ? ’
“ ' That’s Deacon Marble’s.’
“ ‘ Why, he seems to sweat, standing still.’
“ Hiram’s eye twinkled.
“1 You need n’t say nothin’, Doctor, —but I thought it a pity so many horses should n’t be doin’ anything! Of course, they don’t know anything about Sunday, — it ain’t like workin’ a creatur’ that reads the Bible, — so I just slipped over to Skiddy’s widder, — she ain’t been out doors this two months, and I knew she ought to have the air, — and I gave her about a mile ! She was afraid ’t would be breakin’ Sunday. — “ Not a bit,” says I; “did n’t the Lord go out Sundays, and set folks off with their beds on their backs; and did n’t He pull oxen and sheep out of ditches, and do all that sort of thing ? ” If she ’d knew that I took the Deacon’s team, she’d been worse afraid. But I knew the Deacon would like it; and if Polly did n’t, so much the better. I like to spite those folks that ’s too particular ! — There, Doctor, there !s the last hymn,’
“ It rose upon the air, softened by distance and the enclosure of the building, — rose and fell in regular movement. Even Hiram’s tongue ceased. The vireo, in the tops of the elm, hushed its shrill snatches. Again the hymn rose, and this time fuller and louder, as if the whole congregation had caught the spirit. Men’s and women’s voices, and little children’s, were in it. Hiram said, without any of his usual pertness : —
“ ‘ Doctor, there’s somethin’ in folks singin’ when you are outside the church that makes you feel as though you ought to be inside. Mebbe a fellow will be left outside, up there, when they ’re singin’, — if he don’t look out.’ ”
This Christian philosopher has his proper vein of sentiment, which appears with due quaintness, when Dr. Wentworth, in passing a long bridge on the way to Commencement at Amherst, asks Hiram if “ people always mind the law and keep to a walk ” on it.
‘“That depends. When the boys are on a spree, and have had a little suthin’, I allus raises a trot about here: they thinks the bridge too long. But when a feller’s along with his gal, he allus thinks the bridge too short; and he’s particular about keepin’ the law. Only last week I was about here, and I heerd a sort of smack behind me, and the horses thought I was chirrupin’ for ’em to go on, and started off. But I cooled ’em down and began to whistle like, so that you could n’t hear any little sound. The fact is, Doctor, young folks will be young folks, and I never was one of them as wanted to larf at ’em. Let ’em have their time. I think it rather beautiful like to see young folks take to each other. The Lord knows they ’ll have trouble enough afore they get through livin’ with each other, and it would be a shame to spile the beginnin’, when it’s all sweet and pretty like.
“ ‘ No,’ said Hiram, virtuously straightening up; ‘when Zeke Lash driv over one day, and interrupted some little cooin’ and billin’ that he had no business with, and I heard him tellin’ of it in the stable, — You’re a darned fool, sez I, and if it had been any of my folks, I’d made you taste the horsewhip, every inch of it, from the tip of the lash to the but end. I’d as soon throw stones at the birds whirlin’ and kissin’ in the air. When they are old, and we ’re used to ’em I don’t object to throw a stone or two at a robin. But any feller that would do it when they fust come, he’s a mean cuss ! ’ ”
It is an excellent passage that follows this, describing Hiram’s discomfiture when passed on the road by Zeke Lash, and it is fine truth to Yankee nature that makes him warily praise his rival till he has retrieved himself by securing the advance again. In this sort of nature Mr. Beecher is as little likely to err as in that of the woods and fields and the creatures which inhabit them, and which he loves so well. The higher New England character he merely falls to make interesting, — which, however, is a great failure with a novelist. Still, we are glad of his book, and we know its value. The very burden of reminiscence, which contributes, with other things, to retard and dull it as a story, gives it an authentic charm as a study ; and one need by no means shut his eyes to its faults in order to enjoy its cordial and friendly humor, its pathos and sympathy, its generous and manly sentiment.