Desirable Occupations for Ancestors


IN a nice little New England town, the other day, I met a man who had got rich out West, and had come back to visit the home of his fathers. He was a fine, frank, sturdy man, and educated, too, with that admirable fullbreathing spontaneity which characterizes many of the people who are brought up on the prairies. He tipped his head upward a trifle, I fancied, as he said to me, “ My grandfather was a shoemaker in this town for fifty years.” But though the man may have held his head a little high, he had not at all the air of bragging because his grandfather was a shoemaker. Something in his tone caused my mind to take in the picture of a solid old Yankee pegging away honorably at a shoemaker’s bench through half a century, serving the Lord and his townspeople well, raising up a great family of children, saving money in order that he might send his boys and girls to school, and adding strength, purpose, patience, tenacity, to his race. I thought that the grandson might well have been proud of this ancestor, and that such a shoemaker might make a dignified figure in the Western man’s line of descent. And I went on to meditate a little on the difference in the dignity of various occupations, first as considered in connection with one’s family tree, and then with regard to the immediate purposes of life.

I dropped the shoemaker for the moment, and took into my mind a fashionable dentist who is my friend, and a certain farmer who sells me milk. Now, the occupation of the dentist, as my friend’s case proves, is consistent with great gentleness and fineness of character and with education in letters and science. Dentists are admitted, with perfect reason, to excellent society. My farmer’s state, on the contrary, seems to exclude him from the daily company of the great and the elegant. As to farmers in general, we commonly think of them as engaged in the less dignified departments of their daily toil; unpleasant things rise to our mind’s eye. Yet most of us, I fancy, would rather be descended from a line of farmers than from a line of dentists ; and we are more likely to point to a single farmer up in our family tree than to a dentist there.

I went on to make this comparison, in the retrospect, to the disadvantage of other pursuits which living men are elbowing one another to get into, such as stock-broking, manufacturing glue or trousers-buttons, soliciting life insurance, making shoddy, boiling soap, or packing pork ; though I was compelled to admit that there was much to say on the side of soap-boiling and porkpacking, even in this perspective. All these trades, it seemed to me, are very good for immediate and material purposes ; but in this country, at least, independent agriculture undoubtedly ranks higher than any of them for genealogical uses.

It struck me that if this difference in the retrospective dignity of callings were admitted, it might be possible to set up a scale of the dignity of occupations, Somewhat resembling, in the regularity of its gradation, the arrangement of ranks in the British peerage. And immediately (with that levity of mind which causes my friends such deep concern) I fell to wondering whether I should make a viscount or a baron of my ancestral farmer.

Of course, in setting up such a scale of Yankee genealogical dignities, I should have to make some concessions to merely snobbish preferences ; for instance, I must put the colonial governor at the top, and next him, perhaps, the colonial colonel (we seem never to hear of colonial generals), and then the judge, and then the divine who wrote a book. These might be the dukes and marquises ; but the man who was at once farmer, pioneer, and common soldier, might he not come in for an earldom in the scale ? I am not sure but a descent from an unbroken line of colonial Indian-fighting farmers, who pulled up their stakes from generation to generation to move along and found new towns, is prized more highly at the genealogical rooms in Somerset Street than descent even from a line composed largely of ministers. When men get together to study their genealogies in any country, there is always an atmosphere of fighting : in England, spears ring upon breastplates ; in this country, the perfume of gunpowder is in the air, shot-pouches rattle against powderhorns, and she who cannot endure a faint far-away flavor of old and very dry scalps should keep away from Somerset Street. I have seen a fine gleam light up the eyes of meek old clergymen, at the genealogical rooms, which seemed as if it were reminiscent through generations, when the exploits of some scalping hero of the French and Indian war were recounted. Alas for our philosophies ! We are Saxon or British or Norse war-dogs at heart, after all; give us but a hundred years, and we put the man of rude action, the puller of triggers, the leveler of forests, the patriarch, above the man who practiced the gentler arts. My colonial farmer or village artisan, who was also a soldier and a founder of a community, must crowd the colonial judge and divine closely in the scale of dignities.

As to agriculture without scalping, that must no doubt drop down a little below some more gentle occupations ; but a certain amount of perspective brings out its dignity wonderfully. In this perspective the more sordid and less poetic features of the farmer’s life pass out of sight, and the nobler and more ornamental actions come into the foreground. In the abstract, after the fashion in which we view a farmer ancestor, we see the man as the trusted minister of the creative forces of nature, calling into being all beneficent fruits ; we lose sight of him as the body-servant of beasts. The poetry of him lives ; the prose of him dies.

Now, precisely the reverse of this takes place with the soap-boiler, the dentist, the stock-broker. Perspective reduces their occupations to the one bald and naked physical performance which gives its name to each of their callings. There is no element of the ideal in the making of trousersbuttons, either, or the mechanical like of that manufacture ; it serves very well for present purposes, and men make money out of it sometimes ; and the making of money, provided it is not visibly dishonest, has a passing dignity of its own. Present success, at any rate, Supplies the usual American with all the sense of dignity that he feels the need of. But often the dignity of present success does not carry over into the second generation ; the man becomes desirable as an ancestor, not because of his soap or his trousers-buttons, but in spite of them, rather, and wholly for the sake of his money and the leisure it gives. Then the soap and the trousers-buttons are covered up as completely as possible, and never mentioned in Somerset Street.

So it seems to me that the fashion of studying colonial genealogies may turn out to be the reverse of a snobbish thing, if it brings this success-worshiping generation face to face with the fact that an honest whole occupation, like that of my friend’s shoemaker grandfather, has value in a line of descent above our modern tinkering fragments of trades, in which a man devotes his days before God to the manufacture of the third inner welt of a shoe or the galvanized bung of a beer-barrel. Fortunes fade, as a rule, unless the moral quality is bequeathed with them which commonly one can develop and transmit only through being poor : this is one of the numerous Hibernicisms of fate. But the memory of something concrete and useful in life, related visibly and personally with an interesting community, as of a sober and constructive manual calling, persistently followed, so that old people treasure up picturesque facts about it, and tell them to keenly listening grandchildren, — this is dignity and poetry. I have never heard that my grandfather, who was a farmer (you have guessed it long ago, gentle reader), served cattle in a stable, though I have not the smallest doubt he did ; but I have been taught to honor him for the home he carved out of the wilderness, and the virtues in which he trained his children, and I have eaten with delight of the fruit of the orchard he planted on the hillside ; and I would rather have him for an ancestor than any banker, railroad wrecker, politician, or pettifogger whom I have ever heard of.