Potential Gypsies

The drops of gypsy blood in my veins declare themselves about as frequently as the drops of rain on the Arizona desert. At least I have never had the smallest temptation to sell Bibles in Spain or to establish terms of intimacy with the nomadic families still to be seen on the shady sides of roads too dusty to be country, too rustic to be town. Yet I do not believe myself a unique citizen of the plodding variety in discovering a certain sympathy with those who do seek out the Romany brotherhood. After all, this may be coming as near to gypsydom as one comes to the poet’s place by thrilling at the sight of another who had once seen Shelley plain; and that is something.

It does seem to me, however, that if I were a gypsy scholar or a scholar gypsy I should not want to figure in my own biography entirely as “the Rye;” for I should probably be, like Mr. Charles Godfrey Leland,—whose biographer, his niece,1 clings resolutely in print to this pet name for him,—something considerably more than a student of Romany lore. It may be that Mr. Leland’s origin in Philadelphia and long identification with the place made his gypsy tendencies so conspicuous as to obscure all other tendencies. In New York or Chicago — I doubt it for Boston — might not one be a Rye, and yet retain one’s proper name, even though it were Timothy ? In Philadelphia, I suspect, being a Rye would transcend being a Biddle. Yet I should not like to be called incessantly “out of my name.” “Mr. Leland,” or even “Uncle Charles,” — if I were the subject of Mrs. Pennell’s book, — would better suit my post-mortem humor.

It would please any departed American well, however, to provide the material for a record so unusual as Mr. Leland’s in the literary biography of his country. The trouble with the lives of our men of letters in general, always excepting Poe and Whitman, is — from the reader’s point of view — their monotonous propriety. Imagine Whittier, for example, taking Leland’s naïve delight in appearing as “a mystery to the people of mystery.” His biographer tells us that “he liked to astonish the Gypsies by talking to them in their own language. He liked to be able, no matter where he chanced upon them, — in England or America, Hungary or Italy, Egypt or Russia,—to stroll up, to all appearance the complete Gorgio, or Gentile; to be greeted as one; and then, of a sudden, to break fluently into Romany, ‘to descend upon them by a way that was dark and a trick that was vain, in the path of mystery,’ and then to watch their wonder. That was ‘a game, a jolly game, and no mistake,’ — a game worth all the philological discoveries in the world, which, I must say, he played uncommonly well.” Imagine Longfellow, instead of “getting up” his Hiawatha backgrounds from such sources as Schoolcraft, discovering on his own account the tinker’s language, Shelta, — “a back-slang and rhyming cant, based on old or pre-aspirated Irish Gaelic.” Such is the philological definition of it. As a living tongue it was discovered through Leland’s propensity for intercourse with living tinkers. These nomads appealed to him no less than the Indians and Gypsies, to whose society he made himself as welcome as to the most sophisticated writers at home and abroad.

If Leland joined his name in no enduring way to any art or science, it may be because he was an enthusiastic amateur of too many. His contemporaries gave him reason to suspect that at least in giving them Hans Breitmann — who reads Hans Breitmann now ? — he had done the world a lasting service. But that did not quite satisfy him. Towards the end of his life he wrote to a friend: “I don’t dislike my Breitmann Ballads—indeed I love many of them — but I am sometimes highly pained when I find that people know nothing else about me, having never heard of my Practical Education, or what I have done in Industrial Art, Language, Tradition, etc. So when anybody begins by loading up on the Breitmann, I cannot help a mild despise.”

Here is the penalty to be paid by the versatile spirits who let their minds go gypsying in too many directions. But what a good time they have while they are doing it! And how contagious their enjoyment is! They — and not we who half approve their course — are the true potential gypsies. Not all of them are capable, like Borrow and Leland, and some of his Gentile friends, of sustaining personal relations with the picturesque disreputables of the Romany tribe. But to these men the rest of us owe a certain debt. They quicken our rather generalized gypsy sympathies, which really are worth keeping alive. Most of us will turn in at the office door at the proper hour to-morrow. Yet if we carry with us some sense of the open road, some memory — though it be at second hand — of unobstructed stars over our heads at night — shall we do our work the better, my practical friend ? Perhaps not, but then there are one or two things in the world beside the daily routine.

  1. Charles Godfrey Leland. A Biography. By ELIZABETH ROBINS PENNELL. TWO vols. Boston : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1906.