The Contributors' Club
WE have long known that there was nothing new under the sun, but only recently have we been taught that there is nothing old, either; or rather that no human element is old compared with the æons by which Mother Nature reckons her birthdays. Hence, Adam and the patriarchs existed, as one might say, but yesterday, though it is a yesterday that has become somewhat vague and obliterated by the march of subsequent events. It is also true that we cannot apply the words “old” and “new” to any philosophy or theory of life, except in regard to peculiar manifestations of these at certain epochs in the history of the world. Especially are we accustomed to consider the doctrine of woman’s equality with man as something of comparatively recent growth. But here we are all wrong. It is old, — old as — not perhaps as the hills, but older than the Sowsis, or the Golden Age, or the book of Genesis ; older, in fact, than Eve, having been first brought to light in the Garden of Eden by Eve’s predecessor, Lilith, who gave Adam so much trouble with her opinions that he finally caused her to be expelled from his abode, to make way for the society of the more docile Eve.
Poor Lilith was assigned to the devil as his bride; but that is no more in the way of persecution than has been accorded since by the intelligence and enterprise of man to those who have followed in her footsteps. Lilith, in fact, as is often said of great geniuses, lived at too early a period to be appreciated. She was a martyr to her convictions ; and because she maintained that her position as a woman was in no wise inferior to that of Adam as a man, he dismissed her from Paradise, and the ancient and respectable rabbins who have told her story quietly consigned her to the devil. But the glory of vindicating her remains to posterity. There are other legends to be told, besides those commonly extant, concerning Lilith, two or three of which will, we hope, not be uninteresting; for they seem to us curiously significant in consideration of some of the problems agitating our own day. The first is as follows : —
It came to pass that one day Adam and Lilith were walking near the borders of the garden, and they heard exceeding shrill cries, as of birds in pain or terror. They looked about them to see what caused the sounds, and beheld a large and a small bird iu fierce conflict. They shortly perceived that the smaller bird was defending its nest. The piteous sight moved Lilith’s heart, and she was about to run forward to rescue the little creature and restore it to the nest, but Adam restrained her.
“ Why hold me back ? ” said Lilith. “ Dost thou not behold the cruelty and injustice of that quarrel ? Shall not the little bird enjoy the fruit of its own labor? It has toiled to build the nest for itself and its young, and now why should we allow a wicked enemy to devastate what was wrought so patiently and well ? ”
“ Lilith,” answered Adam sternly, “ why wilt thou always give way to thine untutored impulses? What dost thou know of justice and injustice, save as I shall see fit to teach thee ? The world belongs to the strong. Those who are too weak to maintain themselves must of necessity suffer; and it is well it should be so, for they cumber the ground. What a man will do battle for and win, that is his right. So let me hear no more of thy doctrine.”
“ But, Adam,” persisted Lilith, “ is it not a blessed thing for us who are stronger than all to assist others ? And is it not better to help the weak bird, who does battle for what is his own as bravely as the other, who is but a robber? Wouldst thou not rather give thy aid to those who have need of it than to those who can take care of themselves ? ”
At this Adam was exceeding wrathful. “ By my posterity, Lilith,” said he, — “ and I sorely doubt whether thou art found worthy to share its glory with me, — thy language almost moveth me to chasten thee! Who art thou, that presumest to answer me again ? Shall I not have peace and submission in mine own borders ? Go now and curb thy fro ward tongue, or it shall be the worse for thee.”
“ I will go,” said Lilith, “ though I warn thee that I cannot agree with thee in this matter; and why I should be submissive unto thee I cannot tell, since I was created at the same time that thou wast, and from the same clay.” And Lilith departed into another part of the garden, leaving Adam in great wrath : but she secretly rejoiced that she had had the last speech, for she was not altogether without weakness.
In the mean time, the large bird had slain the smaller one, and scattered his feathers to the four winds. Also it had broken the eggs, and carried the nest away for its young to peck at in sport.
A short time after this, as Adam was passing through a brook in the garden, he cut his foot against a sharp pebble in the bed of the stream. He cried to Lilith to help him; and she came and bound up the wound with soft leaves and healing herbs, of which she had learned the use. As she stanched the blood, she said, “ How wonderful is the making of our flesh! How greatly would I like to know whence cometh the red fluid in our bodies, and what causeth it to flow when we are hurt, and what is the formation of the hard substances that support our frames ! ”
“ Lilith,” said Adam, not over-wrathfully, for she had not then finished binding up his wound, “ why must thou always be wanting to know things ? Rest content with the duties that have been given thee, nor seek to learn matters thou hast not the mind to comprehend aright. I shall tell thee of all these things when it is good for thee to know them.”
“ If thou wouldst tell me now,” said Lilith demurely, “ then I should know still better how to treat thy hurts. I should also know what is healthful for my children, and how to keep them from doing what would be evil and harmful to them.”
“ Thou babblest like a fool, Lilith ! ” answered Adam. “ Shall I not be here to watch over them as well as thou ? Is it likely I should permit them to do aught to their disadvantage ? If it were best for us to know what is inside our bodies, we should have been made so that we could see therein. But thou art never content with what appertains to thee.” This he spoke with anger, for Lilith had finished binding his foot, and the pain was much abated.
“ Nevertheless, tell me somewhat now,” said Lilith, “ or peradventure I shall think thou dost not know.”
“ Lilith ! ” cried Adam, with a loud voice. “ Thy stiff-necked behavior has caused me to be angry with thee many times, but never so much as now ! How darest thou presume to tell me what I know and what I do not know ! Get thee from my sight instantly, and think thyself exceeding fortunate that I do not thrust thee from the garden altogether, as I well foresee I shall some day be compelled to do, if thou changest not thy conduct marvelously ! ”
And Lilith went forth smiling to herself, for she well perceived that Adam knew no more of the matter than she herself.
At last there came a day when an angel descended into the garden, and met Adam and Lilith with a gracious and heavenly smile.
“ I have come to visit thee,” said he, “ and to tell thee of things it is good to know.”
“ Thou art welcome, my lord,” said Adam. “ Haste thee, Lilith, and prepare a feast, so that my lord may have wherewithal to refresh himself We will in to the garden in the mean time, and discourse upon themes too high for thee to have any interest in.”
“ I will indeed hasten,” answered Lilith, making a courteous obeisance to the angel, who looked at her kindly; " but I beseech my lord to remember that there are many things I, too, long to understand. I am, perchance, not so poor of intellect as thou thinkest, and though I am ignorant I would fain be wise.”
“ Thou art right, Lilith,” said the angel, regarding her with favor, though Adam scowled and was full of wrath; “ but do not be afraid. There is so much to learn that thou and Adam could not of any possibility comprehend more than the smallest iota of it all if thou wert to live thousands of years. Therefore, prepare the feast, and fear not afterwards to ask of me all that is in thy mind to learn.”
Then Lilith was exceeding joyful, and prepared a marvelous banquet of fruit and roots cut in dainty devices, and laid out in glorious fashion, to give the angel delight; for she thought it a noble thing to serve in this manner, and took much pleasure in it.
When all was ready she called them. And the angel praised her skill, but Adam said nothing, for his heart was full of bitterness, and he reflected that Lilith had done what was her duty to do, and no more. And at the banquet they held very high and wonderful discourse, and the angel told Lilith of many marvelous things, so that she was greatly uplifted thereby. And Lilith showed herself passing quick of apprehension, and extremely desirous of gaining knowledge ; so that the angel delighted in her, and held much cnverse with her, till the hour came when he should depart.
But after he had left Adam and Lilith alone, Adam turned upon his wife with rage. “ This shall be the end,” said he, “of all thy misbehavior and thy froward and stubborn pride. Is it not enough that I have borne with thee so far, but that thou must display thy folly before my lord, the angel, causing him to talk to thee of presumptuous matters wherein thou shouldst have held thy vain tongue ? Also I wished myself to converse, but thou filled the time with thy chatter. But never shalt thou do this thing again ; for I will drive tlhee forth from the garden, and a new companion shall be given unto me, who will know what is obedience and what is fitting to her, as thou hast never known.”
So Adam drave Lilith forth from the garden, and troubled himself no more concerning her.
And Eve was made in her stead.
— The London Spectator, in a review of Mr. James’s Washington Square, makes some general criticisms that are sound and some that seem to me strained. It points to the fact that Mr. James " is always more or less embarrassed by what he very likely regards as the artificial necessity of making a whole.” The unsatisfactoriness of tales which appear to have no real conclusion is something that all readers must feel. The short story may very properly concern itself with no more than a bit out of the middle of a life history; but we expect more in the novel, with its larger scope, and ask of the author that he shall at least furnish our imagination with material out of which to construct the future fate of the hero and heroine after the curtain has dropped between them and us. In The American Mr. James certainly seems to reply to this our natural and reasonable request that it would be superfluous for him to give us any hints as to the probable course of life or condition of soul of his hero. After taking Newman through an experience that must have powerfully and permanently affected him, the author gives not the slightest indication of what he did with his altered life, and leaves the fancy to wander helplessly among conjectures too various to choose from. As this novel is rightly called by the Spectator Mr. James’s most powerful book, it is the greater pity that this complaint of its final unsatisfactoriness can be legitimately brought against it. The Spectator, however, makes this charge a too sweeping one. I cannot see that the stricture applies to any other of the novels proper that preceded Washington Square. The Spectator asks wherefore we are not told why it is that Catherine Sloper’s “dead, dull weight of sorrow did not sour her.” The answer is given in the character itself, so carefully put before us ; a temper like that of this poor heroine never does sour under any circumstances, and one pictures her future life easily enough, without much aid from the author.
“ Mr. James strikes us as in nothing less humane than in the indifference with which he treats his characters after he has brought them through such melancholy shifts in their lot as he generally provides for them,” the Spectator continues complainingly. There are two methods of telling a tale, one of which is finely and strikingly exemplified in Tourgenef’s tales, where the author “ effaces himself ” completely, allowing no judgments of his to intrude ; where we look upon the picture presented as we do upon life, with no commentator at hand to interfere with the simplicity of the impression. It cannot be denied that this mode of relation is a highly effective one, and that the picture as such gains in force and life-likeness. But the other method is very possibly the more “ humane,” and the author’s commentary may be useful provided it be not too voluminous. There are novels — Mr. Trollope’s, shall we say ? — which we might enjoy more if we were favored with less of the author’s company through the progress of the story. Even the great Thackeray is tedious at times ; not in the easy, colloquial style of the narrative itself, which is always delightful, but in the interjected pages of moralizing, which we could so readily spare when once we have become familiar with the constant tone of them.
To say of Mr. James that he cares nothing for the “ moral equities of life ” is to make a hard accusation on insufficient grounds. If his sympathy with the moral equities is not so often nor so warmly expressed as it might be, it seems to me always clearly enough indicated not to be misunderstood. And to say that if he “ would only become suddenly aware of the real existence of a moral world ” his tales would increase in interest is certainly a perversion of judgment upon him. What is the interest of Roderick Hudson if not an ethical one ? There are two kinds of moral teaching : that which is direct and of purpose, as in George Eliot’s novels, and that which is only indirectly moral, as the spectacle of life itself is. If an author presents us with true pictures of moral human character and life, he gives us the pregnant text from which we may draw our own moral application ; and though he may not lift us above ourselves and give us insight into a world of higher spiritual thought and endeavor, as the great writer just referred to undoubtedly does, yet in his lighter way the undidactic novelist may benefit us, too. I have sometimes fancied that Mr. James suspects himself of an inclination to be too moral, and that it is out of a somewhat exaggerated care to guard against the artistic blunder of preaching that be occasionally makes the opposite mistake of seeming too little concerned about the moral equities.
What we do miss in Mr. James’s books is humor, a quality which is to be found, undoubtedly, in the most humane writers, and which is the saving grace of some who have not the tenth of Mr. James’s literary strength and skill.
— That there is not a little pleasure in finding motes in our brother’s eye, although we may be aware of the presence of very large beams in our own, few will deny ; and particularly is this so when this same brother has been successful in showing us the presence of the beams.
I must confess, then, to a bit of wicked gratification, on reading Mr. Grant White’s Recollections, in the March Atlantic, to find that Homer had nodded. In support of his opinion that the Church of England is a great conservative force, and chiefly valued as such, Mr. White quotes from her catechism the answer to the question, “ What is thy duty towards thy neighbor ? ” and gives us the answer: —
“ My duty to my neighbor is . . . to submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spiritual pastors, and masters ; to order myself lowly and reverently to all my betters ; . . . and to learn and labor truly to get mine own living and to do my duty in that state of life to which it has pleased God to call me.”
Mr. White then goes on to tell of his difficulty as a boy in reconciling these words, especially those in italics, with the constant striving to better one’s condition seen even in the religious world around him. We are afraid that Mr. White’s “spiritual pastors” neglected the training of their flock, or else this particular lamb early learned to stray away from “ catechising.” We have consulted various English and American Prayer Books, but in none of them can we find our “ duty ” as quoted by Mr. White. “ To do my duty in that state of life to which it shall please God to call me ” the catechism of the English Church of to-day, as well as of her American daughter, teaches, and in Prayer Books of many years ago we find no difference.
Mr. White should have remembered that the catechism was drawn up for no one class in society, but for “all sorts and conditions of men,” and to be learned by all who are brought to the bishop ; and that its sentences have been so wisely framed that they can be and are taught alike to the royal children at Marlborough House and the charity children at the Temple.
— About that last town-crier in America having been in Newport, R. I., in 1878, as stated in the Club in the May number,— that is all a mistake. At the Sherburne House, on the island of Nantucket, for the last four years, one of our amusements in our summer sojourns there has been to hear the towncrier. Last summer (1880) a second one had been added for the season, apparently because the amount of business required it. All our knowledge of daily events, of the coming concerts, and the auctions, and the returning Nantucketers who had reached New Bedford after a sea voyage, came with the ringing of the bell of the crier and his announcement. He would be heard nearly all day in some part of the town ; and if you wished to know the news you could stroll off in the direction of the sound, and learn what the latest novelty was. It is one of the boasts of the islanders that this “ institution ” has been maintained there, with many others equally quaint. But as the natives speak of the rest of America as “ the continent,” and do not really concede that their island is not a world by itself, perhaps Mr. White and the writer in the May Contributors’ Club can claim that my towncrier is not in America proper, but out at sea.
— I send you a poetical translation of that perfect epitaph of Martial’s, — the one on the little girl Erotion. My version is quite literal, I think, yet free enough to express the fullness of meaning that the old Latin poet has compressed into his terse, pregnant lines. I have tried especially to render to the full the sentiment of the last two lines, which are, in both translation and original, the soul of the whole epitaph.
EPITAPH ON EROTION.
(Martialis, Liber V. xxxiv.)
The while I place beside your graves her dust;
Let not my darling fear the dreadful shade,
Nor Cerberus’ fierce jaws.
As many days, had seen her life extend
Through six cold winters. Now ’t is at an end.
Between ye two, gray patrons, let her play,
And lisp my name, in childhood’s prattling way.
Above those tender limbs, erstwhile so free;
Press lightly on her form, dear Mother Earth,
Her little footsteps lightly fell on thee.