The Contributors' Club

To a Northern man the cost of railroad travel in the South seems arbitrary and excessive. It is rarely less than five cents a mile, and the distances are so magnificent that both factors combine to cause a rapid and unpleasant shrinkage in your pocket. There is, however, a good reason for their high charges. Railroads, except between large cities, depend to a great extent on their receipts from freight. The exportable products of the South, though valuable, are not heavy. An acre of land if sown to wheat will furnish a railroad twelve hundred pounds of freight, but if planted in cotton two or three hundred only. The value may be the same in the one case as in the other, but the railroad business is measured in pounds. The wheat raised in any one of the States where it is the staple weighs nearly as much as the entire cotton crop of the South. As there is in the South little to carry, the passenger receipts must pay a larger share of the operating expenses, and five cents a mile in Georgia is as cheap as two cents in New York. This view explains why the South can never be cut up with roads as Ohio is. The land cannot give them enough to do, and there must always remain as at present wide spaces to the centre of which the strongest wind cannot carry the locomotive’s whistle. In some of these isolated areas, now that they are free from the lazy, barren, oppressive incubus of slavery, we may reasonably expect to see a healthy growth of rural communities. A few low malarious districts, where the negroes greatly preponderate, will probably relapse into savagery, and in time be abandoned.

— It was my fortune, not long since, to spend a fortnight in the centre of one of these isolated districts. The family with whom I boarded seemed a curious von. reproduction of colonial life. It consisted of father, mother, and two daughters. They were people of marked intelligence, but their habits and modes of thought were those of Revolutionary times. The father, a fine specimen of hale age, called himself jestingly a “ blue light federalist.” Their stock quotations were from Boswell and Pepys, and although they were familiar with literature up to the beginning of the century they seemed quite unaware that anything had been written since. I happened one day to speak of Dombey and Son, when Mrs. -said that she “had heard it was very well written.” After that I confined myself to Shakespeare and Dr. Johnson. Mr. - assured me that he and his friends had been vehemently opposed to the ordinance of secession, but had been carried away by the tide. If we can trust evidence of this kind there were no original secessionists in the South, but each man was hurried along against his judgment by the pressure of all the rest.

I have no doubt, though, that my friend spoke the truth, for he is a brave, simple soul. In all matters of political history his knowledge was accurate and his generalizations broad. I do not know that 1 ever heard a man talk as well on the subject. On everything connected with physical science his ideas were those of a child. He accounted for a heavy rain by saying that “ a cloud struck the side of the mountain and bursted.” I noticed that any attempt to explain natural phenomena was distasteful to him as bordering on irreverence. He had in his employ a number of negroes as farm hands, and told me he was convinced that, from an economical point of view, free labor was much to be preferred to slave. The war had ruined him, but in the last two years he had begun to recover, and in ten years he hoped to be much better off than ever. This from a man of seventy-four ! “ Modern degeneracy had not reached him.” Fortunately Sherman’s advance guard had not reached him, either, before the rescinding of the order for subsisting on the country. So the old house and irregular out-buildings stood as they had been built sixty years ago. The house was a hideous rectangular brick structure, with a Grecian portico in front and rear. But it had such an air of being firmly rooted in the ground, its original incongruities had been so harmonized by time and by the vines and straggling rose-bushes growing on it, it had so much honesty and so little sentimentalism, that its ugliness was not displeasing. Within, not a bit of modern furniture or modern ornamentation, or a modern book or magazine, was to be seen. Scott’s novels were apparently the last thing out. Mr.— told me that he had read them aloud to his family six times.

The young ladies were rather more than pretty, and they and their father would have appeared to marked advantage in any society. In their manners there was no restlessness and no effort, but a mixture of dignity and careless bonhomie that is quite indescribable and altogether charming. The perfection of their physical health, which made a ride of twenty miles on horseback a matter of indifference, was apparent in every free, natural movement. Fine health, which in the North gives rise to exuberant animal spirits and a desire for bodily exertion, in the South seems to result in a well-balanced nervous organization and a sound physical basis, quite superior to the necessity for daily exercise. These people were entirely different from the conventional idea of Southerners, and I instance them to show that there are here and there families in the South in which the old type of life and the oldfashioned love of the country survives. There are, perhaps, not enough to influence the development of the new South. Such people are too charming to be numerous. It is sad to reflect that they are doomed. The spirit of the age is too pervasive. Although they are twenty miles from a railway station, Harper’s Bazar and the Franklin Square Library will reach them. The old people will resist. They are of too tough a fibre. Prosperity cannot spoil them. But I dread to think of those young ladies with their hair square cut and “villainously low ” on their foreheads, and their shapely persons loaded with the unclassified paraphernalia of a FrancoAmerican toilette.

— To a stranger the South seems to be inhabited exclusively by judges, doctors, generals, colonels, and a few majors. Young men under thirty are called by their Christian names. At about that age they graduate into one of the above classes, according to weight, height, and bearing. After that, promotion is very slow. It is rare that a colonel lives to be a general. Conductors and engineers on railway trains are made captains without reference to age or size, and never promoted. My friend-had received a medical education, and had thereby escaped the title of general, to which his appearance well entitled him. He had never practiced his profession, but had somehow acquired among the negroes a reputation as an exorcist of the “ voudoo.” It was believed that he could eject the most firmly seated devil, to whom the ordinary incantations were an object of derision. To be “ voudooed ” is to be bewitched by some enemy. It is a disease of the imagination, but I am told that the rural negroes are almost universally believers in it, and that one who conceives himself to be under the influence not unfrequently dies. The day after my arrival a stout young negro, who was badly voudooed, came to the doctor’s house to beg relief. The poor fellow was evidently in a very bad way. His pulse was irregular, he could scarcely walk, and his skin, originally a jet, had become the color of dirty cream. He described himself as enduring a “ pawful misery inny back, and a pawful misery inny head, and a pawful misery inny mind,” a complication of physical and mental disorders which would have taxed the skill of BrownSéquard. He, by the way, called his trouble " houdoo,” not “ voudoo,” but I should be unwilling to establish a pronunciation on his usage. His range was too limited. For instance, in saying, “ I don’t know, sir,” he employed but one vowel sound: " Aw daw naw saw.” Dr. -’s remedies consisted in mesmeric passes, burning a pungent drug, reciting Latin verse, and ended by administering two Sedlitz powders. I was ordered out of the room, as I betrayed too much inclination to laugh. Indeed, it was difficult to refrain from smiling when Dr. —, having tied the man in a chair, addressed to him, with fine old-fashioned scanning and impressive gesticulation, the lines beginning “ Æneadum genetrix hominum divumque voluptas.” The slightest symptom of mirth on my part, if discovered by the patient, would have rendered my friend’s efforts of no avail. The doctor was so solemn that I am not sure he did not believe in the reality of the voudoo himself. At least, he regarded the devil in question as a highly respectable fiend of ancient lineage, and not to be lightly spoken of by an outsider. In this case he was eminently successful; I saw the man two day afterwards at work, in the gayest of spirits. His appearance was entirely changed, and he seemed to have gained twenty pounds in weight. I tried to learn from him and others something about this singular superstition, but was unable to extract a word that would convey any information, though they talked freely on other subjects. The mention of the voudoo seemed to alarm them excessively. I discovered, however, that the biblical Satan and the voudoo evil spirit were regarded as the same person by some of them, but their ideas on subjects of this kind are too nebulous to be analyzed.

— It used to be thought that a chief characteristic of youth was impatience with the actual, a disdain of commonplace, and a disposition to measure persons and actions by the severe standard of its own lofty imaginations. The youth of promise was supposed to be possessed by a rash and restless ardor for the heroic, sublime, and beautiful, which needed the hand of maturer wisdom to rein it in and guide in the slow, safe track of every-day progression. Novels were looked upon with suspicion by parents as bad reading for this youth, tending to foster these romantic, unpractical habits of looking at life ; and girls, if allowed to read them at all, were warned not to take them as pictures of the real world, which in fact contained no such ideal personages or modes of living as were painted in the fiction. Where have these old-fashioned young people disappeared ? Have they emigrated to some younger and less strictly prosaic planet ? I may be mistaken, but I think they have mostly taken their departure some time ago. The young women I meet — I don’t know so much about young men — are not of the ancient sort we used to know. So far as lack of romance goes, the heads upon their young shoulders might be fifty instead of fifteen or twenty. It is wonderful to see how discreet and contented with life as they find it the girls of today are. They know far too much to take novels seriously, or model their ideas and actions in the slightest degree by the conduct of their favorite heroines. Indeed, the novel-writers themselves appear to comprehend the change in the minds of their readers, and refrain nowadays from picturing characters or incidents at all out of the way of ordinary existence; anything flavored with an extra amount of sentiment or ideality would, they know, only strike the young people as ridiculous. Of course, this change in the youth of both sexes makes the work of education a far easier one than formerly. Parents are spared much anxiety about the possible mischiefs the youth of old used to fall into. There is not so great need to warn and exhort against heedless and uncalculating attachments ; for if now and then a girl marries unadvisedly and without foresight as to her due provision of luxuries, it is well understood among young women in general that such is a very foolish proceeding, and the unwise one is sure to hear of it from her contemporaries as soon as from her elders. Ah, well! let me hope the change I speak of is not so universal as it seems, for it is anything but a pleasing one. From over-indulgence in sentiment and preoccupation with ideals to having no sentiment and no ideals at all is a long and a sad distance, and perhaps the young people have not swung yet the whole length of the pendulum, or will yet swing back to the happy middle point of rest. If the case were really so extreme as I have sometimes fancied, and the girls and boys were as old and as wise as their talk, their parents would after all find their training no easier, but rather harder, than before. It is harder to put in than to take out feelings and opinions; easier to replace one idea with another, a false with a true one, than to create something to fill a vacuum, and to make feelings and imaginations flourish and blossom in a barren soil.

— Is it not a pity that some things cannot be taught, as children are taught the three R’s and their higher school lessons ? I have thought of this with regard to the faculty or quality of humor, whichever it is to be called. Perhaps we should speak of it as either, indifferently, since it seems to pertain almost, if not quite, as much to the moral nature as to the mental constitution. Education can do so much for us in developing both mental and moral faculties that one almost expects it to be capable of creating them in us as well. And yet I believe that if a sense of humor is not born with a person it is impossible to put it into him. At least I have never heard of any way of doing so, and if any experienced educator knows a method of indoctrinating pupils with a feeling for humor I should be delighted to know of it too. People lacking in this sixth sense, or but poorly gifted with it, are difficult persons to have to do with ; they are terribly trying, at times, and yet one has no right to be provoked with them, since the defect is their misfortune, not their fault. There is something rather mysterious to me in this faculty ; I don’t care for definitions of it, but I should like to comprehend more clearly the nature of its kinship to or alliance with intellectual and moral qualities, such as imagination and tolerance or charity. We all know that these are apt to go together ; that the non-humorous man is more likely to be dull and narrow of perception than one whose sense of humor is keen and swift. The gift is so invaluable both to its possessor and to all those he comes in contact with that one longs to impart it in some way to those who have it not. If I were a poet I should before now have sat me down and written a hymn of praise to this sweetener of existence, of modifier of the ills of daily life, light the mind, and cheerer of the heart. What burden of annoyance or trouble ever presses so heavily when we have discovered its ludicrous side and been able to laugh at it ? The man that hath not humor in his soul may be a most estimable person, quite unfit for treason, stratagems, etc., but he is to be greatly pitied, and one whose companionship, by that want, is just so much the less to be enjoyed. Is it possible that by having begun young with him, and put him through a course of humorous reading, accompanied with short lectures on the text, — taking all varieties of the humorist for his teachers, Mark Twain, Dickens, Thackeray, Cervantes, Shakespeare, — he might have been turned out a different being, one “ evoluted ” from the lower, non-humorous into the higher, humorous type of man ? The tutor should, in such a case, be himself a man of humor, whose own conversation should abound with illustration of the subject he is coaching his pupil in. Of course such a tutor’s task being trying and laborious, he would require to be well paid for his services ; but if he were competent, parents should consider him cheap at a large salary.

— The contributor who launched forth into a kind of mild tirade against public libraries evidently has a nice taste in literature, and living near a circulating library must stop on his way home for a volume of the Spectator, even when he knows full well that his artistic eye will make him fall an easy victim to the subtle tints in the “ high decorative ” binding of the newest book, and that dear old Addison’s polished essays will be left to their unbroken quiet under their sober calf-skin covers. He blames the libraries for keeping what we want; you and I and all of us can no more seal our hearts against modern literature than against the circus.

I do not attempt to deny that most of us pass by with an unblushing neglect the rich field of good old English literature. But we live in the present; it may be our misfortune; it is nevertheless true that our joys, our sorrows, and our hopes belong to this nineteenth century. Then, why should we so condemn frail mortals who take the frothy writings of to-day, and leave the ponderous octavos of our worthy ancestors ?

Suppose we do read Fronde’s Cæsar, simply following our desire to do the correct thing ; we must get some good from it. And then we may venture to talk about a new book, even a profound one, without running the risk of appearing pedantic. I know a young lady who for some time has devoted a part of each day to the perusal of good books ; “ browsing at will on this fair and wholesome pasturage,” as Charles Lamb has it. She is a pupil of the Society for Home Studies (which, by the way, is doing a great good in a quiet fashion), and she has not lost courage even when ordered to attack the ecclesiastical polity and advancement of learning. This kind of reading is a wholesome discipline to her mind and a genuine pleasure likewise, for it makes her more a companion to herself. Still, she does not dare give point to her conversation by an apt quotation from a favorite author, lest she be thought a show-off sort of girl. In pure fun, she once attempted at an evening party a reference to her studies. She gravely informed a Yale graduate that she had just finished Milton’s Areopagitica, and found it highly interesting. “ Ah, yes, I’ve looked it over. Irene Macgillicuddy ? Awfully clever hit! ” answered the youth, unconsciously dooming the maiden to eternal silence on any subject older than Pinafore.

“ 1 ’m going to drop ancient history, and take up art. We can talk about art, you know,” said a charming girl, with all the candor of genuine young America. Yes, yes, we are all united in the search after knowledge, but we want only the kind which shows and adorns, and never think that a rich mind is the outgrowth of long years of patient, hidden work.

— There is a proverb that “ one wedding makes many,” but it may be fairly wondered whether it might not be even truer to say that one funeral makes many. Every one must be able to recall instances of serious, if not fatal, illnesses that have been produced by exposure at funerals. Supposing the funeral takes place in winter, the mourners, after first being chilled by a long drive to a remote grave - yard, must then comply with the rigid etiquette of these mortuary ceremonies by tramping, possibly through snow and slush, to the grave, and standing bare-headed while the last rites are performed. I have an instance in mind now. A very few weeks ago a man died and was buried. About two or three weeks later, I saw announced in the paper the death of a friend of his from an illness contracted at this funeral. To-day I see that this second man’s brother has just died from an attack of pneumonia which was the result of a severe cold caught at his brother’s funeral. And so it may go on indefinitely, only interrupted by the approach of summer.

While reformers are endeavoring in various ways to reduce the expense of these costly rites, and to make other plans for the disposition of human remains, is it not of more importance that steps should be taken to abolish this wholly unnecessary sacrifice of human life ? A story ran through the papers the other day that the king of Burmah had put to death seven hundred persons, to placate the angry deities who had afflicted him with disease. This sounds inconsequent enough, and indeed it has been declared untrue ; but is it, after all, noticeably unwiser than our way of encouraging illness and death by demanding, with all the sullen force of etiquette, that every one who dies in winter should put his surviving friends and relatives to an enormous risk ?

The barbaric habit of sacrificing a wife and slave for the dead man’s company should be left to the savage. We do the same thing without knowing it.

— It is not only the old countries of Europe that are afflicted with a foolish sense of inter-parochial rivalry, standing in the way of public spirit and of details of local improvement. Though it is not common among our people to talk of neighbors and fellow-citizens as “ foreigners,” as the Italians do, their old municipal traditions surviving in forms of speech, still a good deal of local jealousy is developed among ourselves in daily life. It is only in Fourth-of-July oratory that we hear of our national bond from sea to sea, and the oneness of our people interpreting the supreme unity of our principle of government. Near neighbors, not to say men from neighboring States, nevertheless display human pettiness in the matter of local boasts and local breaches. Cliques, animated by a bitter spirit, split up even villages of a few hundred souls, while the efforts or suggestions of progressive residents, not natives of the place, are often met by a wall of stolid resistance on the plea that “ what was good enough for our fathers is good enough for us.” A sort of surprised, defiant hostility to change is the bulwark of such conservatism all over the world; reasons and arguments are the last things thought of, local and personal traditions the first. “ We don’t do so here ” is considered a final decision, and there is a note of rather pitying and incredulous interrogation tacked to every statement about some improved way of managing a given thing elsewhere, or solving a given problem. Experiment is less a basis of action than tradition, and the simple fact that a man is a stranger is prima facie against any suggestion he may offer. Even money is seldom an inducement to a reconsideration of a new proposal. Offer to defray the expenses of a modest attempt at improvement, and the population will stand aloof, chuckling at your probable failure, and wondering at your incredible self-confidence; rather sorry to see you succeed, and hardly stirred into interest by such a result. If you fail, a loud pæan of ignorant exultation attests the local belief in the infallibility of the local methods; not because they are old or time-honored, or based upon mechanical principles hitherto considered true, but because they form part of the customs of the country. Even tolerably “live” places seldom take pride in any distinction attained by a citizen of their own, unless for the sake of the notoriety involved, and it is immaterial of what kind the celebrity may be, whether that of a new walking champion, or that of a useful scientific inventor. The feeling of localism, however, is generally enlisted on the antiquated side, and connected with personal partisanship. If such and such a place has an institution which it is possible to imitate, its next neighbors will not be content before they can say, “Oh, so have we, and ours can beat yours.” Emulation of the right sort never coexists with this spirit. What little energy there is is diverted into the channel of futile rivalry with neighbors perhaps better fitted to succeed in the line chosen, while solid, slow, silent improvement makes no progress and elicits no enthusiasm. The plea of precedent has some reason, but to make it the absolute test of right and wrong is singularly obstinate and eminently anti-American.

— If Mr. Edgar Fawcett, in his clever little study, A Hopeless Case, intends us to regard Miss Agnes Wolverton as a representative Brooklyn girl, he betrays a lack of acquaintance with that city which would be surprising if he were not a New Yorker, and if New Yorkers as a rule were not as profoundly ignorant of Brooklyn as they are of Boston and Philadelphia. This want in the case of his fellow-citizens Mr. Fawcett fully apprehends. “ Brooklyn was a sort of Kamschatka to both of them,” he says of two of his New York characters. “ They admitted its existence as a remote portion of the globe inhabited by obscure nobodies.” But in his own case he fails to recognize it, or relies upon some superficial observation and a vivid fancy to supply the lack.

Miss Wolverton, for example, is represented by the author as an engaging young lady, who has been to New York only three times in her life. She has neither the “ manner nor the accent ” to which her New York relatives — moving in the “ best society ” — are accustomed, accepts her host’s arm at a dinner party with “ stiff astonishment,” behaves “ very respectably at dinner,” “ but is dressed with no taste whatever,” and has “ no snap nor the least bit of style.” Everything that she wears needs “ radical alteration.” She spends four or five hours a day in reading; cannot dance, and does not want to learn.

Few people who have any knowledge of Brooklyn society will recognize this portraiture. In a somewhat extended acquaintance I have yet to meet the Brooklyn girl who does not dance, and who does not engage in it, moreover, with a zest and abandon to which her more conventional New York sister is a stranger. There is, to be sure, a good deal of domestic culture and quiet home life in Brooklyn; and these by no means take the place of social gayety, which in its way is quite as prevalent as in New York, though perhaps on a less conventional basis.

With respect to New York, where he ought to be at home, the author displays almost an equal lack of discernment. He describes it as a “ world that laughs and enjoys itself a great deal; that reads little, thinks little, and is very careless of to-morrow. It is an exceedingly dainty world, with no sympathies for what lies beyond its limits, no interests that do not concern its present amusements.” “ They don’t talk about books,” he makes one of his characters say of New York people ; “ they have n’t time ; they are too busy enjoying themselves.”

Now I do not deny that this is a picture of New York life ; but it is a picture as seen from the outside. Mr. Fawcett misses altogether its inner significance. He does not apprehend that the laughter and enjoyment, the gayety and mirth, are made to serve as a diversion from an immense amount of hard work, of benevolent effort, of true culture, of genuine sympathy, of hard study and painstaking care. He knows that New York girls spend their afternoons at receptions or teas, and their evenings at a German or the opera ; but he either does not know or fails to take into account the French, German, reading, music, and art classes that occupy their mornings, their industrial and mission-school work, the responsibilities of their home life, their service for charitable institutions, and the many duties which a wide social acquaintance imposes upon them; and any picture of New York life into which these elements do not enter is external and incomplete.

I am aware that not many people who discuss this subject, even in conversation, take this comprehensive view. Most of them, indeed, treat of it from Mr. Fawcett’s stand-point; and where one generous word is spoken in appreciation of the finer phases of society, a hundred expressions will be heard reprobating its empty pomps and vain shows. This may be due either to entire ignorance of the subject, the critic being one who has no access to society and is imbittered against it, or to a moral or intellectual myopia, which, though he be within society, limits the range of his observation. It is very far from being the case that the best New York society, even measuring its quality by the low standard of wealth, is unsympathetic; that it lives only an epicurean sort of life, —reading little, thinking little, and having no interests beyond its present amusement. It is especially untrue of the class which Mr. Fawcett has undertaken to describe, — the “ Knickerbocker ” element in New York society, — which, as a matter of fact, displays the dignity and repose of its Dutch ancestry, with the culture and refinement that have come from the uninterrupted possession of wealth and social distinction during a period of two hundred years.

— I have been much interested in the quality of an unpretending volume of verse, from the press of Messrs. A. Williams & Co., bearing the title of Risk and Other Poems. The author, Miss Charlotte Fiske Bates, has been known for several years as a contributor to the principal magazines and literary journals, and she has here collected some three or four score of her poems, old and new. They are not great poems, for none overpass the limit of a few stanzas, and the themes are such simple ones as touch the experience or the sympathy of all. Yet they have qualities which the reader often misses in greater and more ambitious poems, — an absolute purity of thought and a remarkable spirituality of feeling. There are many among them the sex of whose author it would be difficult to determine from internal evidence, so clear and impersonal is the sense of abstract reflection which they convey. Indeed, there are moments when this sense comes rather chillingly upon the reader, who may find, perhaps, rather more philosopher than poet in the verse. But he cannot help feeling the charm of its delicate and aspiring spirituality, which is as well illustrated in these lines as in any which I could cite : —


I wish that the day were over,
The week, the month, and the year;
Yet life is not such a burden
That I wish the end were near.
And my birthdays come so swiftly
That I meet them grudgingly:
Would it be so, were I longing
For the life that is to be ?
Nay: the soul, though ever reaching
For that which is out of sight,
Yet soars with reluctant motion,
Since there is no backward flight.