Two American Mémoires

TRAVEL is no doubt the most potent means of continentalizing one, but next to travel comes personal narrative. One may read a big newspaper every day of his life and still remain provincial, seeing all events from the habit of mind which belongs to the little circle in which he moves ; but there is something in personal narrative which has power to move us from our local judgment-seat, and help us to see that there are more worlds than one, more centres than that which happens to be under our chair. Especially in this many-minded America of ours, which we used to fancy could be comprehended by careful study of Jamestown and Plymouth, there is opportunity for endless variety of personal narrative which shall branch out from religious, political, social centres, all American, yet so diverse in character as to make one constantly aware, not how small the world is, after all, but how large it is, and how possible for people to move in large circles and be quite independent of other circles just as large and important.

We have not had many mémoires, although recent years have begun to bring them, and we have been especially wanting in those graceful, light reminiscences by women which give so charming a side entrance into historic fields. The French excel in literature of this order ; it is the salon in print; but there seems to be no reason why the vivacious American woman, who has been sought in Washington, or New York, or Boston, or who has been residing near any one of the many academic or literary courts, should not do this service instead of leaving the cheap imitation of it in the hands of the newspaper correspondent.

It happens that two books of this class have recently appeared, not equally good in literature, but both valuable for the glimpses which they give of very distinct forms of social life in America. Mrs. Kirby, who records her Years of Experience,1 was not an American by birth, but by a desultory training was fitted to enter into a curious phase of American society; and as the greater part of her life was spent here, her book may properly be classed as belonging to America. As Georgiana Bruce, she passed her childhood in England, and began battling with the world at fifteen, when she entered an English family as nursery-governess. Her own fortunes had been fickle, her education picked up in a random fashion, and now the family to which she became attached led her a roving life, and apparently gave her for her services chiefly affection and good-will. They went to Paris and came back, and finally emigrated to Canada, where Miss Bruce undertook to maintain herself by a small school in the woods. After a year or so of this life her friends pulled up stakes again, and returned to England. Then they started for Australia, and Miss Bruce, having served a sort of apprenticeship of wandering, set up for herself in the same business.

During this ugly-duckling period of her life, she had been at odds with the strict Calvinistic teaching which had been administered to her, and, her independence having been stimulated by circumstances, she seems to have taken a grim delight in combating this form of belief whenever she met it. Aggressive she must have been and somewhat unmanageable at all times, but now, having made up her mind that she never should get along in England after a taste of America, she started for New York without protection and with a small sum of money in her pocket. She was young, confident, and democratic, and if we are to take her word for it not over-attractive in person. She had a notion that once on a steamer full of wealthy travelers, she would find some lady who needed a nurse or care-taker.

“ The step was an insane one,” she writes, “ for a young girl to take, and I trembled afterwards when looking back on it. I had been so shielded and deferred to hitherto that I could not apprehend danger. The voyage was two weeks of continued misery and dread, owing to my friendless situation. Being an English girl, I did not dare to address strangers, but at last I did make my story known to a dear old lady, the mother of the lieutenant-governor of Canada, who was on her way to join her son. She understood my situation at once, and, though not really needing any service, she insisted that unless I made some other engagement I must go with her, or when she reached her new home she should feel uneasy about my fate. It finally happened as I hoped. The Rev. E. S. G., returning from Europe with his wife and infant, but no nurse, sought my assistance, and after a few days it was agreed that I should take charge of their little one.”

The persons in this book are mainly named after the alphabet, and not often does Mrs. Kirby come so near to spelling out the full name. Probably the persons themselves would rarely object, since she has a somewhat uncompromising way of saying what she thought of them. Her sketches of Boston life, as seen from an anomalous position within the household of a Unitarian minister, are not very full, but they are sometimes graphic, and give one the feeling that the G.’s must have been at their wits’ ends to know what do with this English girl who had camped out in their house. But they were clearly kind to her, and she seized on their good offers and sent to England for a younger brother, whom she was to provide for in various ways for some time to come.

She made a visit to Canada, with some notion of making her home there, but found that everything looked differently to her after a lapse of a few years, and she was glad to come back to Boston. It was at this time that Brook Farm precipitated the floating elements of human reform as conceived in Massachusetts, and Mr. G. advised Miss Bruce to take her brother and join the association.

“ I confess,” she says, “to a remarkable slowness of comprehension, and my conception of this scheme for the institution of justice in the world was quite vague until I had gone through a practical initiation. At the farm Mr. Ripley said, as illustrating the spirit prevailing there, that Wm. A., a young farmer from New Hampshire, and recently an employé of Theodore Parker’s, was going into Boston the next day, and that nothing would give him, Mr. R., more pleasure than to black his boots before he left. This was not intended as an insinuation that this member’s boots were in a bad state most of the time, but that Mr. R. had reached a point in brotherly love which had swept the class feeling entirely away. Such facts were almost incredible ! The friendly faces of the few who passed through the small oil-clothed reception room, while we were there, promised just the spiritual hospitality I had so longed for ; and Mr. Ripley further declared that it made no difference what I wished to learn, as the association was composed largely of cultivated persons filled with a missionary spirit, who were more than ready to make over their intellectual wealth to those who had hitherto been deprived of it.”

There is no lack of information regarding Brook Farm. So many persons connected with it have since been writers that its history and the philosophy of the movement have been abundantly exploited. Most people, indeed, who approach the subject with curiosity are apt to suffer disappointment; details respecting it are meagre, and the circumstance shrinks into very petty proportions. Pretty much all that remains in the mind is the impression of a picnic of visionaries. Mrs. Kirby’s reminiscences of this period constitute the most interesting part of her book, because they connect themselves with persons of note, but more because in the mind of this odd compound of English solidity and American vagary one may catch a reflection of the interior life of the community. Mrs. Kirby was in hearty sympathy with Brook Farm, but she seems not to have lost a shrewd capacity for observation, which discloses itself in her recollection of scenes of a half-grotesque character.

“ Many of our associates,” she writes, “ were of a spiritual cast of character, who valued solitude even more than society. It was an unprecedented gathering, and brought about such a clash of arms and such illumination of thought that some, who, like myself, were but novitiates, dwelt much of the time in a state of beatitude, while scraping the dinner-plates, scrubbing the stairs, or making check-shirts in the sewing-room. There was no frivolous conversation, no controversy, no desire on the part of one to force his views on another. . . . Mr. Ripley’s valuable library was ranged on either side of the wide entry that extended through the main building. One glass door opened from this hallway into the dining-room, and another into a window. Here Mr. Ripley might sometimes be seen absorbed in reading. On one occasion, as, full of happy buoyancy, I passed through this, his public retreat, I was moved to confide my satisfaction to the master of moral philosophy. At first he did not hear me; then I spoke louder, leaning over the banisters : —

“ ‘ Mr. Ripley, Mr. Ripley, I am perfectly happy.’

“ It had seemed to me abundantly worth while that he, who had been prominently instrumental in bringing this happiness about, should be apprised of the fact. But he only glanced up with an absent expression, and said, —

“ ‘ Ah, indeed ! ”

“ And my high spirits received a sensible check. I had not spoken at an opportune moment, nor could he immediately withdraw his attention from the book he was reading.

“ There was not one man at Brook Farm who would kill any animal larger than a chicken. A neighboring farmer, therefore, who no doubt laughed at our squeamishness, did all our butchering. Then it was asked, Why, if we instinctively recoiled from the thought of the deliberate slaughter of animals, did we encourage Mr. Orange in taking life? And again, if it brutalized a man to kill an ox, ought we to eat steak ? Was the craving for animal food natural or acquired ? No one could tell. Very few were willing to test the matter by abstaining from the use of meat for a sufficient length of time to insure an absolutely normal condition.”

It is difficult to believe that Mrs. Kirby has burlesqued Brook Farm. She was an enthusiast at the time, and never lost her respect for the association; but she was also evidently a hard-headed woman, who did not mean to surrender her judgment or her right of private opinion. Of her generous nature and her unflagging impulse of benevolence there is abundant illustration in the rest of the volume, which takes the writer through very varied experience. She joined Mrs. Farnham in her pioneer work at the woman’s prison in Sing Sing. She pushed her way westward, and with characteristic resolution and independence undertook to teach in the South and proclaim her anti-slavery sentiments at the same time. Her reminiscences of the anti-slavery movement, while perhaps throwing no new light, are vigorous, and have the interest of frankness and candor. At last she went to California in 1849, and there, it is to be inferred, ceased to be Miss Bruce and became Mrs. Kirby. Her reminiscences do not extend beyond this point, and her death since the publication of the book prevents us from asking her to give what could not have failed to be of value, her Californian experience. The book as it stands, while somewhat rude in its literary form, is singularly attractive, both as the sketch of a forcible character, and as a series of silhouettes of American life in a turbulent mental period, by one who from circumstances was just enough outside of it to see it sharply, while in such sympathy with it as to write down nothing in malice or in a spirit of petty criticism.

It is a different world that Mrs. Jessie Benton Frémont has seen. The book which contains her reminiscences2 is divided into two parts, corresponding to the two hemispheres in which her life has been passed. As daughter of Senator Benton, as wife of General Frémont, she has had another set of surroundings than belonged to Mrs. Kirby. Her Souvenirs open with an account of the Bodisco wedding in Washington, when she was a school-girl, and bridesmaid to the young bride, and close with a visit to Salzburg in recent years. Very few dates are given, but the successive periods are tolerably well indicated. Mrs. Frémont has apparently followed the course of her very eventful life, and jotted down those incidents and scenes which she thought would be interesting to girls and boys. The book was originally written in the form of papers for a young people’s magazine, and this has limited the scope of it somewhat, but it has affected Mrs. Frémont very little in her style. It is rather the choice of subjects than the mode of treatment which has been determined by the conditions, and the mature reader would scarcely know that Mrs. Frémont was not writing for him, if she did not now and then remind herself of her audience. No one, therefore, need hesitate to read this book for fear of falling upon merely childish stories.

Such caution will not be required, however, by any one who takes up the first chapter and reads the bright, gay narrative of the Bodisco wedding. Mrs. Frémont in this tells of a Washington social event as it fell to the fortune of a young girl, and she has kept perfectly the atmosphere of the scene ; nothing is prettier than her picture of the girlbridesmaids between the wedding breakfast and dinner. “ We bridesmaids were not let to go home,” she says ; “ it was not safe to disband the young troupe until the evening performance was over. Our venerable escorts retired after the breakfast, while we were given the range of one floor to ourselves, with all manner of picture-books and games laid out, but the excitement, the heavy dress, and the wrong hours we had been keeping made of us a sorry little company. A kind aunt of the bride knew what was best for us, and soon, with our wreaths laid away and loose, short gowns over our finery, we were carefully disposed upon sofas, and slept over into freshened color and spirits.”

Interesting, too, and dramatic is the chapter, The Talent in the Napkin, in which Mrs. Frémont tells the story of Mrs. Crugar, whom she had known in Washington in her younger days, and whom she came upon unexpectedly in the mountains of West Virginia, when she was in camp with General Frémont, in the early days of the war. Mrs. Crugar was then nearly over one hundred years old, but clear-headed and vigilant, an uncompromising Confederate, and living in almost absolute seclusion.

“ Her resolute living alone, with no one at all in her house, — even all servants locked out at sunset, — had given ground to certain distant relations to petition for a guardian to protect her and her property. The old lady asked to come into open court and prove her capacity. She came off with flying colors. It was made sure she was not only distinct as regarded the past, but as her memory of passing events was questioned she triumphantly told the Judge of a business-scandal with which his family name had lately been associated, and was let to go her own way unmolested.

“ We were told it was a risk to make the visit, for she was a few miles out of town, in a hilly country; but I was in a light carriage, and accompanied by the General and a party of officers on horseback, — men who knew how to look out and what to do if attacked.

“ It was lovely May weather, and everything in beauty, but no work was going on, for all the men were in one or the other army; you can’t think how sad it is to see war in possession of homesteads.

“ Coming out of the high, close hills, we crossed a gay, sparkling river, and found ourselves in the meadows belonging to ‘ The Stone House.’ All roads and paths were lost in the unchecked growth of many years, and the long grasses smothered the sounds of wheels and horses as we drove quite up to the door, — a long-closed door. The broad slabs of stone making its once handsome steps had sunk like old gravestones, and lay awry upon each other.

“ It was a well-built house of dressed stone, very large and solid, with the usual detached kitchen and long row of " negro quarters.” From these poured out a shining-faced, fat, smiling black crowd — old and young — scary young ones holding on to their mammies and peeping around at our group of uniformed officers — ‘ Linkum’s sojers.’ They scattered so when first spoken to that I followed up a woman with a heavy baby, and made her comprehend we only wanted to see Mrs. Crugar.

“ ‘ Ole Mis’ ? ’

“ ‘ Yes. Go in and take this card. Tell her she saved my life when I was a baby and had croup mighty bad, and I want to see her.’

“ She was afraid to venture in, but we made her, and she ran back, radiant; we were to come in.

“ Going back to the front door, we found ‘ Ole Mis’ ’ had had it unlocked for us, and the slanting sun sent its yellow light upon the thick, thick dust of the broad long hall.

“ In a large library lined with books we found, seated there, the old lady, who knew perfectly all about me, and understood why armèd men rode down her glen. She talked wonderfully of the conditions that caused the war and of one inevitable result; but all with no interest or feeling, merely knowledge.

“She was carefully dressed in rich black satin, with a cap of beautiful old yellowed lace, with its big bows of orange and red ribbons on top, and broad strings of the same tied under her chin; the inevitable false hair, dark, was framed in with rich lace quillings. Her age told in the skin of face and hands which were like crimped parchment, but the lips were firm, and the eyes, deep-set in wrinkled lids, were still dark and keen.

“ She had in her hand a volume of the Spectator, which she said was writing she liked. Her old books were the only kind she cared for. ‘ But I know all that’s going on,’ she said ; ‘ I take a New York daily paper (the Tribune it was, as we saw by the pile on the table beside her) and the Wheeling paper.’ And when she wanted other information, ‘ I send for my lawyer.'

“ She never left the house, and let no one come into it but for her few personal wants by day. Broths, eggs, and milk made her food; a bowl of milk and some bread was beside her on a small table, — her regular supper, she said, after which, at six o’clock, she locked the door and remained quite alone all night.

“ ‘ But,’ I asked, ‘ suppose you are ill?’

“ ‘ Well, but I never am. Maybe you think I might die here all alone ? So I might. But I have been alive over a hundred years and my time must come, — and I might as well be alone then, for nobody can keep it off.’

“ She remembered her duties as hostess, and said it might please ‘ the young people ’ to go up-stairs ; there was a ballroom there, and they might dance if they liked. ‘ It’s twenty-five years since I cared to go up there,’ she said. ‘ Sometimes I send the women up to clean, but I don’t know if they do.’

“ (She looked after them with some interest, then said disapprovingly, ‘ They are fine young men to be throwing their lives away.’)

“ The young people found it so curious that they made me go up. The ballroom was across the whole front of the house, with many windows and a handsome carved marble fireplace at each end, and deep closets either side of these fireplaces.

“ Like Queen Elizabeth, Mrs. Crugar would seem to have kept all her fine clothes. The whole walls were hung thick with dresses of silk and satin and velvet, ‘ pelisses’ trimmed with fur, braided riding habits, and elaborately trimmed mantles of queer rich damasked black silks; while the closets had endless bonnets and caps and turbans, — those bonnets of tremendous size and fine leghorn straw, costing from fifty to a hundred dollars, and their veils to the knee of fine old English lace ; gold and silver India muslin and fine gold embroidered cashmere turbans. Such things made a museum of fashions from about 1820 to 1840. Then seclusion had set in.

“ There were treasures of good lace in shawls and lace veils of great length, lovely things for front breadths. Some were in old English Honiton, a charming refined lace ; large capes with long sash-ends, in fine French needlework on muslin, and frilled richly with yards upon yards of Mechlin or spidery Brussels lace ; and there was a shawl and some flounces of yellowed Spanish blonde which it was distracting to see unused. Some India scarfs were left, — we fancied the shawls might have gone to the negro quarters.

“ The air of the room was still and dead, — only light ever penetrated there. Adjoining was a bedroom, with all things in perfect order — to the eye. The plump high feather bed and pillows had their fine time-stained old linen, and on the toilet table, which had the usual dimity cover and hangings, was a large pincushion. One of the officers accidentally rested his hand on this, when to his shock it crumbled into flatness.

“ The world astir outside — civil war in full progress — here the silence of the grave before death.

“ It seemed inhuman to leave her so. She said we had best start, that we had four miles of hilly road and the country not safe; ‘ and it’s time for me to get to bed.’ But as we looked back through the sunset at the silent house, and pictured that solitary old figure putting itself away for the night, we asked ourselves if that life was worth living. And, by way of answer, above the ringing trot of the horses and clank of ‘ sabre and spur,’ rose cheerfully a round young voice singing out his favorite German war-song: —

‘ The bullets ring —
The riders shout!
We ride where Death is lying.’ ”

We have been drawn into so long an extract from Mrs. Frémont’s delightful book that we can only hastily point out some other of the interesting incidents of her varied career. The descriptions of life in St. Louis are admirable, and we catch a little glimpse of Senator Benton’s home life. How close a hold he had upon the affections of Missouri is well seen in a graphic anecdote of an adventure which Mrs. Frémont had in California, when a phenomenal sinner became an angel of mercy at the mention of Tom Benton’s name.

Mrs. Frémont’s position at home and abroad gave her access to court society in London, and Paris, and Copenhagen, and her sketches of drawing-rooms, pageants, reviews, and imperial entrances are very vivid and full of color. There is a striking picture of Louis Bonaparte as he entered Paris as Emperor. “ Kinglake and some other writers have said the Emperor had not personal courage. That day it was tested. The Republicans who had put him in power warned him he should die if he altered the republican form of government. We saw his official entrance as Emperor. . . . Our house being midway between the Arc de Triomphe and the Palace, we saw everything from our own balcony. . . . He had used the Republicans to get into power, and now he was breaking every obligation to them. He knew he had deserved all their anger and hatred. Whether he had courage or not I do not know. What I do know is that I saw him ride, alone, no troops, not a single officer within forty feet of him to his front or rear, and open space on either side of him, along the broad avenue densely lined by crowds, quite separated and alone, his head bare. In one hand he held the reins, in the other his hat. Only his horse was to share any harm that might come to him. To us the thrill of response to such evident calm courage came with sudden conviction, and the applause from our balcony was strong and sincere.”

The whole book is so bright and winning, and displays such good taste and wise reserve, that we heartily wish Mrs. Frémont might be persuaded to write in earnest the full mémoires of her life. Such a book would unquestionably be of value in throwing a side light upon our history, for she has been close to men who have had a large share in the making of that history.

  1. Years of Experience. An Autobiographical Narrative. By GEORGIANA BRUCE KIRBY. New York : G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1887.
  2. Souvenirs of my Time. By JESSIE BENTON FREMONT. Boston: D. Lothrop Company. [1887.]