A New England Hill Town: I. Its Condition
WE are an old-fashioned folk in Sweet Auburn, —we go to church. We think we ought to ; besides, we can’t help it. In Boston, they tell me, you expect your minister to draw. That is because you have newspapers. Our country parson never thinks of drawing; why should he ?
In “ meetin’,” as in no place else, is the latest bucolic legend or mythus bodied forth. To obey the insistent behest of the church bell is perchance to learn that Jim Asa meditates shingling his barn, or that Ichabod’s Alderney is stricken with the garget, or that Deacon Abram has slain his fatted Chester whites. When the old Cap’n Anthony homestead had gone up in lamentable flames late one Saturday night, and kept us all awake until morning, I said, “ Slender congregation to-day for the Little Giant,” — wherein I erred. There were more worshipers than usual. They came to talk it all over. So I have seen living beings bestir themselves at the newsboy’s cry of “ Extra ! ”
Moreover, at divine service one gets close and familiar glimpses of one’s neighbors. The “ dummies,” who have eyes et prœterea nihil, are punctual and indefatigable in their attendance. Isolated all the week upon scattered farms, these villagers become monstrously gregarious on Sunday. Not even our choir can scare them away from the weekly assemblies. The church is the club, and there is no other.
Furthermore, beyond a certain satisfaction at having worsted the moral law, there is no very zestful relish in staying at home. You cannot read a ponderous, “ feature"-laden journal, because, please God, you cannot get one. You cannot ride on a Sunday train, for ours is a Sabbatarian railroad. Should you mount your wheel for a quiet little spin across the valley, your ethical adviser would “ tuck it to you like a yellow wasp.” Before venturing upon anecdote or reminiscence, it is the part of godliness to ask yourself, “ Is that a Sunday story ? ” If you lie late in bed, as old rabbis urged the faithful to do, you must suffer a recital of the ancient quatrain : —
So airly from the dead ;
An’ shall we keep aour eyelids closed,
An’ waste aour haours in bed ? ”
In sugaring time, Deacon Abram deliberately lets five barrels of maple sap soak into the brown earth rather than gather it upon the Lord’s Day. Deacon Seth rides to church in a closed carriage, lest he sinfully behold the beauties of nature. As my worthy landlord was bringing in a basket of eggs, I said, “ How many, Mr. Glenn ? ” “ Dunno,” replied the conscientious patriarch ; “ don’t caount my aiggs of a Sabbath.” To be frank, we make Sunday a many-antlered, looming bugbear. Vis a tergo conspiring with vis a fronte, lo, the vast and reverent congregation!
Our reverence is, as Mr. Cable would say, “ remarkable.” “ Damn that Bill Wilkins! ” roared Cap’n Anthony. “I’ll whip him, — God knows I’ll whip him ! Snapped apple seeds at me, right in church, right in God’s haouse ! ” Sentiment hallows the church. It also flings an aura of sanctity round the person of the Little Giant. As we meet him we doff our hats (though we merely nod our heads to women), and we say with a sort of powdered and brocaded gallantry, “How do you do, Reverend — Mr.— Dorchester ? ” Little Ted Holliday, having inadvertently pitched snow at the clergyman, wept scalding tears of contrition, and would not be comforted. That is representative. But our devotion to our minister is not entirely personal ; it is also religious. To pay him his six hundred dollars per annum is an act of faith, to acquiesce in his teachings a requirement of godliness. The truth is, Sweet Auburn is half a century behind the times. It is as yet untouched by the influences that elsewhere have robbed the pulpit of its aforetime high prerogatives.
We are old-fashioned in our religion ; but in our theology, which is altogether a different matter, we mean to be progressive. We are Congregationalists of the liberal kind. We grant our preacher the utmost freedom of thought and utterance. He has lectured to us (and we packed the town hall to hear him) upon the Higher Criticism of the Bible, upon the Religious Interpretation of the Evolutionary Philosophy, and upon the Ethnic Faiths considered in their Relation to Christianity. We so earnestly respect his scholarship that we are ready to follow him out to the far, dim borders of truth, and there to stand and wait, and, peering, watch the horizon. Once, to my knowledge, — and I trust only once,—the Little Giant had doubt of his people. “I’m afraid I’m giving you too much new theology,” he said. “ Gawsh, no ! ” replied an enthusiastic parishioner. “ Let her sizzle ! ”
Sometimes, however, I wonder whether our liberalism is altogether ingenuous. I have begun to suspect that we relish dabbling in heterodoxy a little as we enjoy pulling the cat’s tail. It makes us feel clever. Our Sunday-school superintendent reads The Outlook to tease his wife; he has named his two bulldogs Preserved Smith and Dr. Briggs ; he was edified beyond all continency when the Little Giant said Lyman Abbott three times in one sermon. “ Docterns ” are obsolete; give us heresies. We fearlessly criticise the dogma of the Trinity. We are ever ready to discuss the probable fate of the wicked. We are fretted with impatience when we fail to elucidate the origin of evil. Yes, but why complain ? Heterodoxy makes us think. Nevertheless, it not infrequently recalls that shrewd aphorism of Confucius : “ Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is dangerous.”
Of course, it is not to be supposed that such tendencies in pulpit and pew go tranquilly unrebuked. Good Deacon Seth demurs. He believes in the divinity of Abraham, the deity of Moses, and the eternal procession of Daniel. He accepts the plenary inspiration of Pilgrim’s Progress. He takes all the patent medicines advertised in the Boston Congregationalist. He finds sweet peace in the eternal damnation of others. But his weakness — his pathetic and irremediable weakness — lies in this, that he is invariably sound asleep in sermon time.
Religion, viewed from the evolutionist’s standpoint, is first a sentiment, then a philosophy, then an ethical impulse. What now of our morality ? As Squeers would put it, you have come to the right shop for morals. In the two hundred years of its history there has never been a murder in Sweet Auburn. Ichabod was constable for twelve consecutive years, and never made an arrest. In the interest of the home, we vote regularly for prohibition. We believe also in kindness. Were ever hearts warmer than ours ? We delight to do you a service. Ask our cloak, and we thrust our coat upon you also ; bid us go with you a mile, and I defy you to prevent our going twain. Besides, we are in love with decency. We ostracize a youth who enters upon a career of vice : witness the case of Wilkins Glenn. Wilkins has “ gone right daown on his prayin’-bones to every gal in taown,” yet a doleful bachelor he remains, and all because he was “ church-mauled ” for going in bad company. But, rigorous though our enforcement of the moral law, I fear we are far from progressive in our application of religion to life. Sometimes I think that conduct and belief are quite separate. Be that as it may, we have here the neo-rabbinism of John Alden and Miles Standish.
Ethically considered, we are the children of the code. Like our forefathers in Howard Pyle drabs and russets, we maintain a dual tabulation of rights and wrongs. There is a white list for “ Thou shalt,” a black list for “ Thou shalt not.” In matters not treated in either column we do as we happen to please. We achieve our morality by inches, — line upon line, precept upon precept. We have no real grasp of broad principles. We have acquired cultivated memories rather than cultivated consciences. We have not yet attained to ethical autonomy.
Hence a world of incidental inconsistencies. We are intolerant of dancing, but indulgent toward kissing games. We are certain that if we drink a glass of beer we shall be cast into a lake of fire, but we consume hard cider with infinite enjoyment, and confidently look for a crown of glory that fadeth not away. By no possible device of rhetoric could you persuade our best deacon to smoke, though he raises tobacco by the acre for the use of his countrymen. None of us will steal your purse, yet few of us can baffle the serpentine temptation to cheat you. We think it sinful to tell malicious lies, though meanwhile we believe all the malicious lies that come to our ears, and we invariably condemn our neighbor unheard. What is this but a survival of stagnant, unthinking Puritanism ? We are as consistent as our consecrated Pilgrim ancestors, who never went to plays. Bless you, no ! Instead they went to hangings.
Would that the applied Christianity of Sweet Auburn suffered no graver lack than that of inconsistency. Vastly more serious is our intense individualism. We know nothing of social ethics. Our civic theory is atomic, not organic. We lack leadership, we lack public spirit, we lack genuine social consciousness. We need some fearless Whitman to tell us that a man is not contained between his hat and his boots. It has never occurred to us that isolation is irreligious.
As regards isolation, Sweet Auburn is like an enthusiastic invalid, joyfully making the worst of a bad matter. Instead of asserting the spirit of neighborliness, and earnestly alleviating the solitary, self-centred, insulated intensity of our lives, we shrink from one another. Evening calls are well-nigh gone out of memory. That is because the advent of city manners requires the farmer to array himself in his best ere he seeks his neighbor’s hearth. The process is slow. We shall not be started before eight o’clock, and we must be home again betimes to tuck in the “caows ” and get to bed by nine. Why so early ? Because we must bestir ourselves at five next morning, to milk Dolly and Lightfoot and Peggy and Old Jersey and Blackie and Rose. We rise with the red-winged blackbird, that our days may be long upon the land. Consequently, we hate calling. Such, I observe, is the mischief wrought by starched linen. The starch has struck through to our hearts.
That superb theme of Browning’s, the relativity of life, — what illustration does Sweet Auburn afford it ? Sweetly sings Pippa ; but who hears ? God in his heaven and Pippa at home. Few beside. One lovely character has little effect upon the lives about it. There is want of contact. We have not achieved the relativity of life; instead, we have simply accomplished its reflexivity; the soul is thrown back upon itself ; whence the provincialization of personality. Less extensive, life becomes more intensive. The narrow stream runs deep. It runs too deep. Better were it shallower, if broader.
The rural environment is psychically extravagant. It tends to extremes. A man carries himself out to his logical conclusions ; he becomes a concentrated essence of himself.
Miss Wilkins speaks of the tropical intensity of the rural New Englander. It is an admirable expression, though to watch us you would little think it. Our faces are stolid, our movements deliberate, our actions commonly reserved. The volcano is snow-capped. Time prepares the eruption. The eruption reveals the man.
I have met the young lady who complained that while waiting at the junction she had nothing to “ scatter her mind.” Ours is a similar affliction. Our characters suffer in consequence. In isolation, the thought dwells uninterrupted upon occurrences that would gradually fade to drab shadows in town. A bereavement scars the heart forever. It follows us into the “mowin’ ; ” it is with us at “ chores ; ” it bends over us at the fireside, as the sombre gray angel bends over the figure of Love in Watts’s picture. So of quarrels. I can show you enmities older than the elms. Solitude is the handmaid of malice. It takes time to be mean; Beelzebub himself affords no avocations. Or is it failure that embitters existence ? There is no forgetting the loss of last year’s crops, or the demise of brown Dobbin, or the collapse of the Montana Bank. Circumstances in the city are events in the country, and events are eternal.
In Boston, I never understood what theatres and football games and card parties and dances were for. Now I know. They are not chiefly for fun. They have a spiritual value. They redeem human life from unwholesome and even morbid extremes. The great desideratum of Sweet Auburn is what Mr. Pemberton Cressey has styled “ the gospel of demoralization.” Demoralization is what we need. Without it we fail to develop normal symmetry of character. Given a suitable amount of recreation, and Sweet Auburn would be a healthful moral environment — for women. New England countrywomen are superior to their husbands. Women thrive on domesticity ; men do not. Manhood comes to its best in action, — in broad, free, energetic exercise on a large scale. Masculine character spoils if it is shut up too long. It needs room, and it needs abundant materials to work with. Abraham Lincoln might have spent his life splitting rails, but he would have dwarfed his soul had he done so. Our Abraham Lincolns are making just that mistake.
Sometimes, in the warm summer evenings, Helen and I sit in my pretty blue skiff and watch the yellow lights come dripping down the water from the square windows of many a distant farmhouse. Then Helen is wont to tell me that this is precisely the kind of place she has all her life desired to live in. But I, meanwhile, am occupied with far variant reflections.
Were I to change places with the blue heron by the margin of the lake or with our New England country parson, I might perhaps be contented here. If a heron, I should stand aloof from human creatures and their troublous affairs ; if a parson, I should give myself heart and soul to the amelioration of existing conditions. Alas, I am neither. The jocund lights come dancing all gayly a-flicker where my oar blade starts the ripples, yet they sadden my spirit within me. Ethically considered, Sweet Auburn is not a town ; it is a misfortune. Its religion is fanciful, its morality artificial, its social atmosphere morbid. I think of Sweet Auburn’s sorrows, of its enmities, of its petty meanness, of its constricted narrowness, and of its diseased and abnormally exaggerated self - consciousness, and then my temperamental optimism assumes sublime proportions. I tell myself that the “ rush to the cities ” is an admirably good and beneficial movement. Spite of the church spire, quivering inverted amongst the lily pads, the hill town is a mistake.
The moral fallacy of the village is the venerable ecclesiastical fallacy of shaven crown and coarse habit and cloistered walk. Peaceful were it, in truth, to withdraw from the world ; altogether lovely to escape its noxious contamination ; very sweet to devote the still hours to the illumination of flowered missals or to the adornment of the angel-thronged abbey walls ; and a holy delight to chant in dim choirs, beneath tall, gleaming, mullioned windows, the praises of the Victor Christ! But what would come of it all ? Only personal blight and moral decay.
We approve of marriage, — of early marriage, of hasty marriage, of marriage without a bank account. We have no toleration for Keats. It was he who wrote : —
Is — Love, forgive us ! — cinders, ashes, dust.”
Yes, but single life in Sweet Auburn, — no heartless apologist has yet found valor to defend it. For then must one retain as housekeeper some neat-handed Phyllis of debatable years. So why not marry her, and cut short her wages ? Or, a still more felicitous contrivance, why not wed at once and for youthful love, and never hire any housekeeper at all ? Besides, if you wait, the merriest rosy-cheeked girls will be irrecoverably appropriated by your countless rivals. The choice is small; be quick. Indeed, it requires diligent back - pedaling to avoid the brink of matrimony. In town it is different. Livery bills, florists’ bills, confectioners’ bills, and the requisitions of the box office, — are not these the very bulwarks of celibacy ? Here you take your ladylove to prayer meetings, funerals, and fires. You and she go riding, and it costs you never a pin. Your noble roadster has manes on all four legs, and he lifts his hoofs with the meditative precision of a Shanghai rooster, and — best of all — he is your very own ; no livery bills for him. And when you visit the “ cattle show,” you both go in on exhibitors’ tickets, — she by grace of a gaudy crazy quilt, you by courtesy of a big pink squash.
Courtship is like intemperance. If there existed no cheering draught save imported champagne, then might we all wear blue ribbons. It is Milwaukee lager that addles the national pate. If there were only tall traps with red wheels, or solely “ American beauties ” at three dollars a dozen, or exclusively the choicest and costliest sweetmeats, or nothing but tickets to the Götterdämmerung, then might we remain sombre and unfeeling bachelors; but prayer meetings, funerals, and fires make married men of us.
In all concerns save the betrothal of our friends our policy is laissez faire. But when two ardent spirits meet in the beauty and the hope and the courage of a new affection, we rally to their support. We must assist the supernatural. And there being (humanly speaking) two methods of forcing a match, the direct and the indirect, we insure success by employing both.
The direct method involves mental suggestion. Abner takes Rachel to prayer meeting ; consequently, the entire town impresses upon each of the two its amiable conviction that they are shortly to be married. The news spreads. The countryside is a-thrill with the joy of it. The clover tells the honeybee, the bee tells the barn swallow, the swallow twitters the happy tidings to the men folks, and the men folks run and advise the women folks. What is fame ? Taking Rachel to prayer meeting. In three days it will he Sunday. Shall one take Rachel to church ? Yes, in the name of wise discretion, or have Sweet Auburn say, “He’s got the mitten.” Hazardous truly were such headlong measures, or want of measure, but for the uniform loveliness of our charming country lasses. The chance is wholly that Rachel, who is as shy as the shell-pink arbutus, is also as sweet. A fellow can scarce blunder in such a case.
The indirect method is, perhaps, not less enjoyable for the principals, though the seconds like it better. The inseparables will be teased. We call it a gracious courtesy to “ pony a feller ’baout the gal he’s a-sparkin’ on.”Happy are they that go courting in December. Santa Claus shall prepare for them at the public, coöperative, municipal Christmas tree such emblematic gifts as they thought not. Thus boorishly and incessantly tormented, they say individually, “ Might’s well die for a sheep ’s a lamb.” That is the beginning of the end. Matrimony yawns to receive them. Events are pushing them over the edge. Hitherto but one thing has been lacking ; it is now supplied. Efforts are made to break up the match. Mustering their forces, the relatives object, — in the interest of both parties. He’s not good enough for her, she’s not good enough for him ; nobody is so nice as anybody. Whence the inevitable result: —
She was warned ag’inst the man.
Naow, ef that don’t make a weddin’,
Why, they’s nahthin’ else that can.”
So, after refuting the tender allegation for a few impatient months (announced engagements are rare in Sweet Auburn), Abner tremulously requests the town clerk to indite a “ certificate.” Then he and the bride elect (their hearts throbbing with mingled fright and felicity) “drive over to see the minister,” or — as is incomparably the preferable way, being the more frugal — they procure the services of “ Square ” Glenn, who gladly pronounces them man and wife in consideration of the dollar and twenty-five cents allowed him by the paternal generosity of the law.
Now, I desire to set my opinion upon registry as, all things regarded, fairly indulgent toward matrimony. It can never be entirely suppressed, though in Sweet Auburn I think it ought to be regulated. Romance requires variety. Here we tend to a dreary, tan-colored uniformity. The mountains limiting communication with neighboring villages, Glenns have married Glenns from time immemorial. Hence a complete and inert solidarity. We have a single hearthstone seven miles long, eighty farms sit musing at the ingleside, our ancient rooftree shelters three hundred and fifty complicated kinsmen. Saving only the random stranger within our gates, we are a clan in the narrowest sense of the word. The town is own cousin to itself.
When you come to Sweet Auburn, greet the first man you meet with “ How are you, Mr. Glenn ? Do you think we ’re going to have a hay-day ? ” — and nine throws in ten you hit it. Either he is a Glenn, or he is related to the Glenns by blood or by law, or by both. In this respect Sweet Auburn is like Leverett, a beautiful village some twenty miles from us. As the saying goes, there are Fields enough in Leverett to set out all the Roots in Montague.
From the Glenn point of view, consanguine solidarity has its advantages. Even a mere Glenn-in-law feels himself a scion of the reigning house. Pleasant must the sensation be ; for our kinship serves as a holy alliance, offensive and defensive. Touch the Glenns, and you joggle the solar system.
Whoever expresses surprise that Hezekiah Glenn, whose conduct for thirty years has been highly offensive, continues to live in Sweet Auburn will be instructed that this is the only town where he can live. The bravest dare not object. Moreover, our blood ties save us, in no small measure, from malicious slander. A “ whole Bible-full of stories ” are discreetly smothered, lest they reach the ears of the Glenns. Politically, such fear and favor might be turned to profitable account; but we are not politicians, neither are we citizens. We are simply denizens. Yet the Tammany instinct runs in the blood (and crops out at church elections).
What the Medici were to Florence the Glenns are to Sweet Auburn. They even levy taxes, — indirectly, of course, and under garb of social, or rather tribal generosity. The best of us disapprove, though in the interest of the solar system we keep a modest stillness while our unscrupulous kinsmen loot the village. We tingle with red vicarious shame when Glenn the elder arranges a donation party for Glenn junior, well certified that in apt season Glenn junior will reciprocally devise a donation for Glenn the elder. From motives of unalloyed cowardice, the entire community subscribes to each donation. At suited intervals, an aggregate of fifty dollars is thus ingeniously raised, or, as it might perhaps be more truthfully said, lifted. Every non-Glenn and every mere Glennin-law declares himself “as mad as a wet hen,” but a third feudal occasion meets no more strenuous opposition than did the others. All the world goes up to be taxed, and taxed without^epresentation.
By just determination our reversion to the methods of the third George can hardly be accepted as illustrative. It is an excrescence upon the life of the clan. Vastly more faithful to the genius of the Glenns is our liege loyalty to one another. Before Uncle Jared’s auction I had not known it was so. Uncle Jared, who had injudiciously “ speccalated,” was victimized and ruined by a vampire syndicate in Nebraska. Great wealth he should rightly have earned ; but in place of dividends came an assessment, and after the assessment a proclamation of insolvency. The ancient farmstead, long since mortgaged, fell under the pitiless hammer. Hideous posters, nailed upon tree trunks and sugar houses, spread the announcement through half a county. Nothing else was talked of for more than a week. The disaster was everywhere interpreted as a visitation of divine Providence. Had not Uncle Jared set his affections upon worldly riches rather than upon those treasures which shall endure ? Was not Uncle Jared a backslider in the church? Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. And yet there dwells in human hearts a potency stronger than any theological prepossessions, — a knightly puissance that in its own merit constitutes a good and pure and noble religion.
False to the faith, but true to the blood, up rose the clan. Early upon the anxious day all Glenns came hasting from far and near. They crowded the house ; they made it impossible for aliens to enter; they prepared for the phenomenal. When the auctioneer began his glib preamble, he found himself facing a throng of solemn and resolute kinsmen. He had brought his accustomed store of pleasantries, but there they had only a sorry value. No, he was come into the hushed and holy presence of tribal devotion. It was the occasion of a sacrifice, and that vulgar auctioneer was to be its unconscious altar priest. For when all was over, whose, pray, should those many things be ? Whose, indeed, but Ichabod’s and Abram’s and Seth’s and Israel’s and Dwight’s, — whose but the Glenns’ ? Out of hardwon and long-hoarded savings the clan redeemed the farm, which they now restored to its former owner.
Uncle Jared told me the story himself. “ They done that to me, they did — up an’ saved the farm — saved the hull on’t — an’ me a sinful backslider an’ fell from grace ! ” Then, with quavering voice, " They call this taown Sweet Auburn, sir, an’ I vum it’s the dern sweetest Auburn on God’s hull green airth! Gee ! ”
Another pleasant feature of our kithand-kin Zusammenhang is our spirit of democracy. We are accustomed to say, “Put us in a bag, an’ we ’ll all come aout the same time.” We all go with our noses in the air, but Heaven help the man who carries his nasal pretensions higher than the rest of us! Liberté, égalité, fraternité! Each is so confidently reliant upon his own established position — for is he not related to the Glenns ? — that he can afford to tolerate his neighbors. Fear also has its perfect work.
Consequently, our scullery maid sits at table with us and leads the conversation. Mrs. Nathan Goodspeed and her farm hand sing out of the same hymn book. The proprietor of the wallet shop invites his truckman to dinner. Everybody bows to everybody. A washerwoman becomes a person of importance. The daughters of our old blue-blooded families work in the factory, quite as Lucy Larcom used to do in her girlhood in Lowell. Social distinctions, such as there are, rest mainly upon individual worth and character. In short, we accept the Declaration of Independence as an inspired document, and we resist the first intimation that we are not born free and equal.
Yet again I am convinced that no little emphasis should rightly accentuate a still further advantage of our intricate consanguinity. Note the brevity of our names. Why say Glenn, Glenn, Glenn, when everybody is a Glenn ? Jedediah is sixty, but our children speak of him by his Christian name. So of us all; thus are we called, like characters in Shakespeare’s plays, or in novels, or in Holy Scripture. Furthermore, the naming of men and women, in a town like ours, yields abundant play for inventive genius. Suppose you have four Jim Glenns, — what then ? The eldest only will be known as Jim. The others will take also the names of their fathers, — patronymics, — Jim Jared, Jim Anthony, Jim Dwight. Or in case you have five Jennie Glenns, — how designate the individual ? If married, add husband’s Christian name, — Jennie Joe, Jennie Noah, Jennie Asa. If unmarried, prefix father’s Christian name, possessive case,—Job’s Jennie or Hezekiah’s Jennie. On first settling in Sweet Auburn one should learn our names very deliberately, lest one heedlessly sprain one’s intellect.
Now I suggest —for there is another face to the story — that Glenns might advantageously stop marrying Glenns. To this end should matrimonial regulation be turned. I can think of nothing more stultifying than life in a clan. It develops an inert and all but paralytic domesticity. We have scarce any interests outside this tiny village. Sweet Auburn is composed of Mrs. Poysers of all ages and both sexes. The most resplendent ambition we cherish for our children is that they may live, as we have lived, in the bosom of the tribe ; to desert Sweet Auburn is to repudiate the blood. Mrs. Hezekiah’s attitude is an exception. She has one son at Annapolis, another is preaching in Philadelphia, a third is president of a Western railroad, and the one that died was on the way to preferment in national politics. Yet Mrs. Hezekiah’s example is viewed with apprehension. Let this go no further. Her boys succeeded, but they did not live in Sweet Auburn. Instead, they were forced to contract professional, social, and even matrimonial alliances with alien tribes.
Moreover, there is evidence that parental consanguinity tends to the exaggeration of personal peculiarities. You are, we will say, a Crowninshield. So be it, but was your mother a Crowninshield ? No, thank fortune, she was none other than a Harcourt. You are therefore, genealogically and psychologically, a well-favored composite. You are Harcourt-Crowninshield or CrowninshieldHarcourt. Composites, however, are rare in Sweet Auburn. Nearly every villager you meet is a Glenn-Glenn ; so were his parents, and theirs, and theirs, and theirs. He is Glenn to the nth power. Accordingly, Sweet Auburn abounds in “ characters.”
The Glenns are grasping and penurious. Those traits, converging through many generations, have produced Azariah, the hermit miser, who will on no account permit you to enter his cottage. People will tell you that that humble domicile contains five kitchen ranges, with never a fire in any one of them, albeit there is a kettle on every hole. Untold wealth, far surpassing that of Ormus and of Ind, lies buried beneath the floor. At least, “that’s the say-say.” Furthermore, the hermitage shelters several hundred tin cans. The Glenns are “ moderate.” Consequently, they have evolved Dwight, the storekeeper. Dwight’s nature is essentially Alpine. He moves like the Mer de Glace. Action being followed by reaction, Dwight has mollified the already molluscoid locomotive faculties of the Glenns. How gradual this town is ! At first I attributed our moderation to the eloquent example of the ox ; then I attempted to trace it to the silent influence of the tomato worm ; but at last I have it. Dwight Glenn is to blame for it all. We have become so inured to the Miltonic programme of standing and waiting that we have unconsciously adopted our storekeeper’s pace. The Glenns are witty, and particularly prompt and deft at repartee. Nine-andsixty strands of gorgeous polemic humor meet in Uncle Ichabod. Like Odysseus, he is intellectually panoplied against every possible contingency or surprise. As our farmers say, “ he’s always ready, cocked and primed.” Reprimanded by the Little Giant for habitual profane swearing, he answered, “ Waal, Reverend — Mr. — Dorchester, here’s haow ’t is : you pray an’ I swear, an’ we don’t neither on us mean nahthin’ by it.”
In Old Deerfield I have heard Miss Wilkins censured for caricaturing New England. No conceivable criticism could be more unjust. Were I to pass judgment upon Miss Wilkins’s work, I should say that it is a little deficient in artistic audacity ; she understates the case; there seems to me to be a scumble over every one of her portraits. Her fantastic types exist, though not in Old Deerfield ; they abound in the hill towns ; they are the natural results of reckless intermarriage within the clan.
Should one attempt a draught of the Glenn family tree, I wonder what manner of banyan we should have. Besides, what singular blossoms would bespangle its endlessly interarched and interwoven branches ! Yes, and not merely singular ; here and there quite hideous.
It is not nice to have six toes on each foot. It is worse to be hare-lipped. Cross-eyes are none the less disagreeable because very common. One of our families is “ muffle - chopped.” Another whole family is deaf and dumb. The proprietor of the sawmill stands three feet two inches and a half with his boots on. Israel Glenn is a giant, measuring seven feet in height. He has, as the Jesuit Féval said of Dr. Verron, “a double chin and a triple belly,” and he wears from three to six coats to increase his apparent bulk. Nor is he less eager to display his muscular prowess. He wields an axe, made especially for him, weighing nine pounds without the helve. He swings a scythe eleven feet long. “ How much can you mow in a day ? ” asked Helen. “ Ten acres, little girl,” replied the giant in a voice like the bellow of a Holstein bull, — “ ten acres ! ” Still, as I said, Glenns should stop marrying Glenns.
Abnormal heredity sets here and there its trace upon character. It occasionally blights or distorts or exaggerates the growth of the body. Would that that were all! It further results, and with shocking frequency, in the premature arrest of mental development. We have various expressions — very gentle, most of them, and tenderly sympathetic — to convey the hopeless and ugly fact of idiocy. We speak of “ backward children,” or of the “ belated ones,” or of “ them that ain’t over ’n’ above bright.” Medical men, I am told, distinguish between idiocy and high-grade idiocy ; the former being a total, the latter only a partial lack of mentality. Sweet Auburn has seven high-grade idiots.
Then must not our villagers be continually saddened by the sight of such unfortunates ? By no means. Accustomed to their presence, they regard it as nothing remarkable. The clan expects idiots, just as it expects midgets and giants and deaf-mutes. In the face of calamity that should be irresistibly deterrent, we still strew roses for the nuptials of cousins. Shall we never come to our senses ?
Truly the curse is upon the clan. Rural life, so exquisitely lovely in its possibilities, — ay, and so supremely, so regally magnificent in its lavish setting of forest and lake and hill and roaring brook, — disappoints, how grievously, when you know the inmost truth of it! It was so that you opened a volume of Wordsworth. You had thought to find The Daffodils. Instead you found The Idiot Boy.
In the beginning the Glenns created Sweet Auburn, “Toad Holler,” and Sweet Auburn “ City.” Nearly two hundred years have passed over the hill country since then, and what have we now ?
“ Podunk,” say those who know. “ The Jumping-Off Place,” say those who do not. “ Sociologic second - childishness and mere oblivion,” say I; “ sans inn, sans boarding house, sans butcher shop, sans trolley line, sans sidewalks, sans street lights, sans newspaper, sans fire brigade, sans doctor, sans — everything ! ” Sweet Auburn is like an old man : the highest compliment you can pay him is to call him well preserved.
There seems, indeed, to be something patriarchal about this whole region. The wry gables of houses and the sagging ridgepoles of barns and granaries speak of ancestral interests and family history. Lichens on old stone walls afford a sense of abode. Green mosses on dark, damp shingles suggest reposeful age. Broken, leaning tombstones lament the past. Old elms recall the solemn lines of Whitman :
“ Why are there trees I never walk under But large and melodious thoughts descend upon me? ”
The landscape is kindly, gracious, parental. Once, in a distant foreign capital,
I heard Patti sing The Old Folks at Home, and when she reached the words,
“ That, ’s where my heart is turning ever,
That’s where the old folks stay,”
Sweet Auburn came vividly before my mind, and a sudden dart of pain shot through me.
The benignant presence of the aged is certainly a dominant factor in the romantic self-consciousness of Sweet Auburn. It is this that binds us to the past, keeps old customs rife, maintains archaic and obsolescent standards. Think ! Only three hundred and fifty souls in our whole town, including “Toad Holler” and the “ City,” and yet this morning Helen and I counted fifteen old people above seventy-five, seven who by reason of strength have lived their fourscore years, three who have passed eighty by half a decade, and a “ smart ” old lady — she reminds me of Rembrandt’s mother, the National Gallery portrait — who is doing her own housework at ninety-four. In lovely Warwick I talked with the late Mr. Goldsbury, who lived to be nearly a hundred and two. In Shutesbury they show you the tombstone erected by the town over the grave of Ephraim Pratt. The inscription bears record that Ephraim Pratt “ departed this life at the age of a hundred and seventeen ; he swung a scythe one hundred and one consecutive years, and mounted a horse without assistance at the age of a hundred and ten.” Impressed with the amazing longevity of our people, I said, “ It seems to me you hill folk never die ; ” to which a waggish native replied, “ Waal, ’t is ’baout the larst thing we dew dew, I swum ! ”
Old New England survives in the personnel of the passing generation. When first I entered Sweet Auburn I could find no roadside tavern, but the Noah Glenns, an antique and wholly daguerreotype sort of couple, would put me up. The experience was like the scent of old musk in a long-closed chest of heirlooms. I got a glimpse of spinningwheels and rag carpets and blue-andwhite china and hundred-year-old clocks. (Every clock in Sweet Auburn is exactly a hundred years old, and stays so.) They lodged me in a room with paneled walls. There was a gilt-framed last-century looking-glass between the windows; there was a high-boy with seven drawers ; there was a warming-pan in one corner; there was a pair of bellows at the fireplace. The frame of the house showed through on the inside. The total effect was so magical that I looked twice at myself in the mirror to be sure I was not clad in Colonial blue and buff.
Little has yet been changed at Noah Glenn’s; for our elders, when they can gain their will, are “ very sot.” Noah, who resists such flagrant innovations as napkins and four-tined forks and white linen handkerchiefs, would set us moderns right. Mrs. Noah, who takes snuff and braids hats (though the latter custom went out of cry some forty years ago), and who still wears the immense hood that was part of the country habit in the days of John Quincy Adams, uniformly agrees with Noah. There is harmonious rebellion. The last leaf clings lovingly to the old forsaken bough.
Noah Glenn is eighty. He was “ corpril ” in the “ trainin’ comp’ny ; ” he was “ taown clerk nigh on to fifty year ; ” he was for three terms “ selectman ” in Sweet Auburn ; he was “ bass-viol player, by gum, in the meetin’ - haouse.” He remembers getting his boyish ears well boxed by the tithingman. “ Airthquakes and apple sass, what times them was!” Flip for the parson (you fizzed it with a hot poker) ; foot stoves filled “ in this very room whar you be, sir ; ” looms thumping and spinning-wheels a-whirring of a week day ; dye tubs about (“ we ’ve got one o’ them critters up chahmber naow, I suspicion”); tallow dips to read by (“ an’ I mistrust you ’ll find a candle mould in the shop ”) ; and all things as befitted the elder and better world. Those were indeed the good old times !
Yes, but what of Noah’s sons and daughters ? Have they any similar enthusiasm for things antiquary ? Little, in truth, care they ; little cares Sweet Auburn ; the Noah Glenns are exceptional. If the popular tendency meets no prompt and peremptory restriction, then it will be but a little while and all trace of old New England will be gone. Already the last loom has disappeared from our village, and the old oaken bucket has given room to the cast-iron pump. Search how you may, you cannot find a canopy bed, or a high dresser for pewter and china, or an unaltered example of antique wainscoting. Ravening agents from old curiosity shops make lavish bids for blueand-white tea sets. Heirlooms that have been hallowed for generations with an inviolate sanctity are bartered away for so many pieces of silver. How proudly will they adorn the tables of parvenus in town ! Noah thinks that a sacrilege of the first magnitude. “ Heavens to Betsey ! ” says he, “ them rascals might’s well bid fer the baby ! ”
Old - fashioned chimneys are being pulled down, because they take up too much room. The Cap’n Anthonys have made a dining room where their huge square chimney used to be. Despite the jeers of our elders, stoves have usurped the inglenook. Here and there a house is entirely “fixed over.” Queen Anne has set in. We should all tack red and yellow shingles on our dwellings, were the process less costly. The one conscious need of Sweet Auburn is money enough to make itself hideous.
All through New England the old order of life — with its romantic charm, its simplicity, its godliness, its reposeful calm — is yielding place to the beautiless affectations of a crude and very modern civilization. I view such tendencies with grief and with fretful anger. I am reminded of Charles Lamb, who, hearing it said that no careful mother would permit her daughter to read Rosamond Gray, cried out, “ Hang the age ! I '11 write for antiquity ! ” That is just my feeling. Hang the age ! Hang Wilkins Glenn’s high hand - shake ! Confound the new-fangled furniture ! Out upon the ruthless invasion of old folks’ holy places ! But the movement is irresistible ; the change must come. Then — though the words be painful enough — farewell, Romance !
Life ought to be cumulative ; normally, ten times ten are a hundred ; old age ought to mean, if it means anything, the best wine at the feast’s end ; but here it is not so. I pity our hoary patriarchs. I look with tender solicitude upon our sweet-faced aged women. They have fallen on evil times. The hill town is already an anachronism. It confronts an Everlasting No. It cannot maintain itself in opposition to the relentless forces of social reconstruction ; and consequently, those who hold all neighborly, ancestral, homely things most dear must witness not merely the æsthetic, but also the industrial, moral, and social decadence of their beloved Sweet Auburn.
“ Cheer up,” says Helen. “ Cheer up, cheer up, — the worst is yet to come ! ” It certainly is. Quick transportation began the ruin ; cheap transportation from the West and South will complete it. Montana and Wyoming, marauding giants, have reached across the continent and stolen our “ beef critters ; ” Minnesota and Iowa have sown tares amongst our wheat; Pennsylvania has substituted its coal for our wood fuel; Virginia has filled the national pipe with its own tobacco instead of ours; and Florida tempts Bostonian epicures with earlygrown dainties long, long before our first garden produce is ready for market. That is why (although we have as yet no abandoned farms, wherein we differ from our neighbors) no new fields are being cleared out of the forest. That is why there has not been a new house built in Sweet Auburn for sixteen years. That is why a building destroyed by fire is never replaced. That is why thirty of our eighty farms are mortgaged.
They say that living in Sweet Auburn is like hanging, — you don’t mind it when you get used to it. The same might be said of life in Billings, Montana, only with this difference: there you have hope, here you have none ; there you have a future, here you enjoy no such luxury ; there you look forward to a golden age, here everything golden lies far, far in the past.
Our altitude is our doom. Steadily the river vales, rich in water power, are robbing the uplands of their population. Massachusetts has built the factory and mortgaged the farm. The people of New England are rolling downhill. Our railroad, which promised immigration, has had the opposite effect. Sweet Auburn is only three quarters as big as it used to be. Says Noah, " All the spunkiest ones have up an’ got aout.” It is natural selection the other end to, —the survival of the unfittest.
Sweet Auburn is a mere skim-milk community. It consists of the ambitionless and the children of the ambitionless. We have contributed our best to the city ; the leavings remain. Our weak-willed boys get employment, from time to time, in larger towns, but back they come ere many days, like homing pigeons. The hours were excessive, the wages low, the work distasteful. They prefer Sweet Auburn. No valiant rovers are they. That is once more a matter of Darwinism. Sweet Auburn has been evolving the home-keeper for half a century. No influx from the city has disturbed the process. President Hyde put this forcibly when he said, " You can get cream from milk, but you can’t get milk from cream.”
I hate that snail-shell domesticity. I like to see the Wanderlust triumphant, — at least, at times. The one word in the language that seems to me to epitomize the sum total of enjoyment is the sturdy little Saxon word “ go.”
“ And we go — go — go away from here ! On the other side the world we’re overdue ! ’Send the road is clear before you when the old spring-fret comes o’er you And the Red Gods call for you ! ”
The Red Gods have ceased calling for our boys. The treasure seekers went rushing from ocean to ocean to rifle Alaskan gold fields, but our laddies were not among them. The Little Giant planned a grand excursion to New York, but the excursionists all changed their minds before the trysted day. The Cuban war fever spread broadcast through the country, but nobody in Sweet Auburn volunteered. These harmless swains are not inclined to beat their ploughshares into swords and their pruninghooks into spears. No, hut they are ever ready to attend the prayer meeting. That is the severest strain their spirits can bear.
Newcomers, of an undesirable sort, take up the cheapened and depleted farms. Newcomers — negroes chiefly — work in the wallet factory. Each year there are more negroes than before. Every hill town suffers in some such way. It happens that the people of Sweet Auburn are turning black.
All things regarded, is it surprising that we are beginning to think there must have been a dire fatality in the name our ancestors gave this town ? It will indeed be erelong a Deserted Village. Look at Pelham. When we see a vagrant crow flapping across the sky, we say, “ There goes one of Pelham’s selectmen! If our factory should break down, Pelhamization would set in. We should then write “Ichabod” on these crumbling walls. There’s a name for you, — Ichabod, signifying “ The Glory has Departed.”
Think what is taking the place of the glory ! Sweet Auburn is comparatively fortunate ; it has only begun its descent. If you would see country life at its worst, pray visit the Belchertown cattle show. There you may mingle with as wicked a throng of human creatures as ever congregated in Whitechapel or Bellevue or Five Points. French Canadians ? “ Poland - ers ” ? Foreigners of any breed or birth whatsoever ? Not they ! That loathsome rabble, — gathered from twenty decadent hill towns, — are they not, every soul of them, descended from the Puritans ? Their pre - Revolutionary blood is as good as your own. The upland has reduced them to barbarism ; they do but bespeak the future of rural New England.
The day is a picturesque and multifarious debauch, — athletic, alcoholic, social, and pugilistic: athletic, because the ploughboy will pitch baseballs at the woolly and evasive heads of artful dodgers ; alcoholic, because the pens especially constructed for the detention of violent inebriates are filled to overflowing before the third hour; social, because every hoodlum has struck hands with every other hoodlum, and they have insulted all the women on the grounds ; pugilistic, because the random fisticuff encounters that occupy the morning and afternoon are mere desultory rehearsals for the evening’s promiscuous dance, which is locally characterized as “ a reg’lar knock-daown an’ drag-aout.”
Happy might I be, could I but dismiss all recollection of that day and its significance. Must not Belchertown shudder at its dismal boding ? Must not Belchertown loathe the fair ? By no means. This is Belchertown’s gala day. This is a proud municipal event. The town common is turned over to the screaming fakirs and their roistering horde of ignorant dupes.
And the churches, — what have the churches to say ? Time was when some fearless rebuking prophet would have strode forth, in gown and bands, to foretell impending divine judgment upon human sin and shame. That time has passed. The churches serve as commissary for the assembled hosts. They turn their consecrated chapels into eating houses, where one may obtain a twenty-five-cent meal for half a dollar.
There is current among criminologists an aphorism both scientific and philosophical. “ The state,” say they, “ has only the criminals it deserves.” The state, say I, has only those pests and delinquents and dependents and defectives and degenerates whom it deserves. Degradation in the hills means sinful neglect in the power-holding city. In the last analysis, as I shall show more clearly in another paper, Boston is to blame for Belchertown and its decadent tributaries. The country has made the city. All that you boast of courage and vigor and dauntless progress, — have we not suffered a loss for every gain you have won? You have taken our strength: can you find no pity for our weakness ?
Some day — and it may be too late — you will come to a realization of your responsibilities. When the natives of Shutesbury describe their village as a place where “ they raise two crops a year, — huckleberries summers, and hell winters,” — when the ceremony of marriage has entirely disappeared from the social regimen of Ciderville, and when lovely Sweet Auburn is cursed with moral and mental and physical aberrations, it is time to recognize a problem of no less than national seriousness. What has happened in Alabama and Tennessee is happening in New England. We are evolving a race of poor whites.
Rollin Lynde Hartt.