The Real Domestic Problem
THERE once was a young writer who coddled himself with the notion that he had a mission. This mission consisted in the celebration of a section of society which he, curiously enough, knew a great deal about, because he had lived in it and belonged to it. The section had nothing to distinguish it except that it was genuine, and was as far away as possible from the Frozen North and the Woolly West. In fact it consisted of a quiet, normal, domestic people, who, the reader will know at once, do not exist in literary America. But in the young writer’s opinion this very normality, besides being picturesque enough for the purposes of fiction, was doubly significant in that it was typical of society at large. For he had n’t read much in the magazines, and at this early period had a naïve trust in the evidence of his senses.
Now, the writer had many personal friends, — for he had n’t been writing long, — and it was the advice served out by these that made him begin to doubt. They kept an eye on the mails, and when a thick envelope came, addressed to him in his own handwriting, they commended his editors, and urged him to cut loose from his false ideals.
Said one, “ You never see that kind of stuff in the magazines. What you want to do is to go to New York or Chicago, and study the life in saloons, and tenements, and the tenderloin district. Study the great factories, live in a settlement, and attack the foreigner. You’ll get a taste of real life there. That’s what the magazines want. Look through them and see.”
The writer did as he was bidden. He could not detect a note of serene homelife, — except, perhaps, as a prelude to disaster. He was still unconvinced, for it seemed to him that his whole life had been spent in the study of that very thing. But the words of an idealist are vain when rejected manuscripts have found a tongue of denial and reproach. Another friend came in, accepted a dose of the poor writer’s cheap tobacco, and then, in revenge for what he really owed to his own indiscretion, he delivered the findings of pure reason.
“ I’m afraid you have no imagination,” he said. “ Your people never die with their boots on. You ought to take an ocean voyage, or at least read a steamship circular, so that you’ll know the position of the deck and the penal yardarm, — and then try a storm or a battle at sea, or a whaling voyage, with some ice-locked experiences in the Arctic. Go into a primitive forest, climb a mountain, thread the intricacies of a coal mine. That’s where you find life, real life, and that’s what the people want to read.
Misty sweat bath ’neath the line,
you remember, and
On many a hill an’ long portage,
Far far away from hees own vill-age
An’ sonn’ of de parish bell.
There’s just a tip for you. Use it right and you ’ll escape the auctioneer and live to a good old age. Take your reader away from home, and you win his heart in the first paragraph.”
He whipped out a periodical of fiction, as the cowboy of myth and fable would draw his revolver, and presented it straight at the writer’s head. The latter glanced it over, and surrendered, conditionally. But when yet another friend had glorified the tragedy of war, and one the delirium of high society, and one had gone out offended because the young writer would not explain his use of the patent-medical sounding name, Penates, the victim of all this advice sat down seriously to think.
Is there no taste at all for the pastoral and the home-life? Must a man have slain his lion and his bear in order to be anointed king, and is there no virtue in being a simple shepherd ? Are we so barbarous? Is there no interest in the Private History of Tom Jones, or in the genial domesticity of the good Vicar of Wakefield ? Is there really no longer any humble happiness by
The never-failing brook, the busy mill,
The decent church that topped the neighboring hill?
In other words, are there no more mothers who act as genius of the bath, the patch, and the stubbed toe; or no fathers who wield the disciplinary rod, and buy schoolbooks, and sit by the fire at night to “ smoake and reade ” ? Is there not one young man who stays from Klondike to live with his mother and sisters; or one young woman who performs the duties of daughter and sister, instead of going abroad for brave adventure? Have we, in short, no families who sit comfortably at home, all together, eat fried bacon and eggs, drink package coffee, and talk about their neighbors, as a normal, healthy family should ? Or has domestic life indeed vanished from the face of the earth ? Surely, in a land so broad, said the writer, there must be one or more families who live respectably and serenely, as those I have pictured in fancy.
But, after searching far and wide in magazines and late books, the poor writer concluded that he had been mistaken. There was no such life. Then he listened to the promptings of his ambition, and made a bid for posthumous fame. If he could preserve his manuscripts from fire and weather until the antiquarian should exhume them as a product of this age, so unlike would they be to any other contemporary writings that they would be styled the most grotesque and fanciful, or the most fundamental and searching work of genius the world has ever seen. Perhaps the writer had heard the story of Thoreau’s library of seven hundred volumes, “ written by himself.” Thus he died, — for the probabilities are he did die early, — illustrating the old old story of the man who was disappointed, and so became a philosopher.