Another Side of Rural Life
— The Contributor who, in the May number of The Atlantic, writes of The Sadness of Rural Life leaves with the reader a mournful impression indeed. To one who not only “ knows something more of country life than appears on the surface to the eyes of the summer sojourners in our pleasant New England villages,” but has lived in one of these villages most of his years, and known of its life intimately, as no “ spectator ” could know, the dark side of country life seems not so dark, and its bright side much brighter than this Contributor would believe.
It is generally granted that all beings are capable of enjoyment just in proportion as they are capable of suffering. Then, either the country dweller suffers no more from the “ joyless monotony ” of his existence than he enjoys from the delights which call the summer sojourner, or he appreciates his happinesses as keenly as the man of more culture, though he might not tell you so as felicitously, and bears the loneliness and sorrow of his lot much as other human beings might. Is it possible that quiet peacefulness and “ joyless monotony ” might seem one and the same to a spectator ?
Let me tell something of what I know of life in one village, one of the prettiest to be found among our New England hills. In this, too, “ the houses of the more well-to-do ” are more or less pleasing and tasteful; and about even the poorer sort bloom in charming array, or often in more charming disarray, the old-fashioned posies our grandmothers loved. I could not say that “ the lives of the inmates are seldom cheerful ones.”
In a large white house set back from the street live a family moderately wellto-do. The mother is an invalid, who suffers much and requires much care; yet a sweeter and happier face one must look far to find. She has for every comer a pleasant, sparkling word, often a serious, thoughtful one, never a complaining one. No one can go out from her presence without feeling that he has been lifted up. An unmarried daughter lives at home, and gives her loving service to her mother’s need, never once thinking it a burden. The only son manages the estate, and he is — a cripple. A handsome, vigorous young man at twenty-eight, with a wife and one little son, he was visited by a long, serious illness, which resulted in many months of life in a wheel-chair. He now goes about on crutches, prematurely aged and bowed. Yet he has his mother’s happy temperament and “ pluck,” and never once have I heard a complaint fall from his lips. His “ acquiescence ” is far from “ spiritless,” though, and his life anything but a “ stupid ” one. I often contrast in thought this life with that of a young man I have known in one of our largest cities, likewise a cripple, and compelled to live in a wheel-chair. He has all that wealth can give, a negro servant to wait on him and wheel him about; but a sad soul looks from his eyes, and life appears to him utterly purposeless. In this country home, at least there is happiness ; and the childlife in it is natural and unburdened.
When sorrow has found us out, I wonder if oftener in the city mansion than in the country home the older inmates bravely take up their bereaved and saddened lives, so as to deprive the children of none of the gladness that belongs to them. Is it easier to do this in the city, with its bustling, unresponsive life, or in the country, with its calm solitudes and stillnesses that speak comfort to the aching heart ?
I have in mind another home, where there is an only son. The father and mother do not absolutely need him, as they are neither very old nor feeble, but they cling to him with the more absorbing affection as he is all there is left to them. It had been an ardent dream of the young man to go West. But his father wanted him. That settled it, though not until after a sharp struggle. But that son is to-day by far the stronger and nobler man for his sacrifice. He has come nearer to securing happiness, too, that most elusive possession that is found not by direct seeking. After all, life becomes heroic only as it presents difficulties to be overcome.
Not far away lives an old lady of ninety-three, of enfeebled body, but keen and active mind. Her faculties scarcely impaired, she takes as great an interest in the life about her as she ever did. Bright and entertaining, she and her daughter have many visitors ; and I can fancy her amused surprise if any one spoke of her lot as a “ dreary ” one.
Scores of homes I know, where recent books and magazines, helpful friends, happy and healthful pursuits, absorbing — hobbies, if you will, occasional outings and social pleasures, bind old and young together in a state which seems far indeed from “ stupid, spiritless acquiescence in the inevitable miscalled content.”
I should fancy there must be few places, city or village, where there is no “ poverty of the proud and independent kind.” A life not of absolute want or pauperism, but somewhat limited and restricted as to means, develops wonderfully ingenuity and genius, often talents that in a life of luxury might have remained dormant. Too many men whom America delights to call great — poets and statesmen, national leaders and heroes — have received their training in this proud and independent school for us to speak regretfully of its existence.
Is it true that “ the young women of superior intelligence and refinement have no escape but by marriage ” ? Suppose some do not consider country life as a state one should long to escape from! If one does, do you fancy her superior intelligence shows her no other than this one avenue of escape ? I imagine the emphatic dissent of the army of countrywomen in our larger towns and cities, successfully proving their own ability and independence. As to their marrying, it is true that “ their superiority limits their choice.” I am wondering if the fact that our girls are cultivating more and more the higher intellectual powers, while our boys so often neglect them in the mad race for money, might not partially explain the large numbers of unmarried women in city and country.
But, after all, what makes a cheerful, a happy life ? What is the best our infinitely varied sensibilities can give to us for enjoyment ? Let me quote from Dr. Hopkins : “ This good (or enjoyment) may come from the action upon our organization of those surroundings God has so wonderfully correlated to it : or from our independent activity; or from the interaction of our minds with other minds; or, which is highest of all, from such spiritual revelations as God can make of himself directly, and not through his works.”
Our happiness depends mostly upon ourselves; yet surroundings modify it wonderfully. And I have yet to be convinced that a rural life offers its help more grudgingly than a city life.