The Provincial American

Viola. What country, friends, is this? Captain. Illyria, lady. Viola. And what should I do in Illyria ? My brother he is in Elysium.

Twelfth Night.

I AM a provincial American. My forbears were farmers or country-town folk. They followed the long trail over the mountains out of Virginia and North Carolina, with brief sojourns in Western Pennsylvania and Kentucky. My parents were born, the one in Kentucky, the other in Indiana, within two and four hours of the spot where I pen these reflections, and I was a grown man and had voted before I saw the sea or any Eastern city.

In attempting to illustrate the provincial point of view out of my own experiences I am moved by no wish to celebrate either the Hoosier commonwealth — which has not lacked nobler advertisement — or myself; but by the hope that I may cheer many who, flung by fate upon the world’s byways, shuffle and shrink under the reproach of their metropolitan brethren.

Mr. George Ade has said, speaking of our fresh-water colleges, that Purdue University, his own alma mater, offers everything that Harvard provides except the sound of a as in father. I have been told that I speak our lingua rustica only slightly corrupted by urban contacts. Anywhere east of Buffalo I should be known as a Westerner; I could not disguise myself if I would. I find that I am most comfortable in a town whose population does not exceed a fifth of a million, — the kind of place that enjoys street-car transfers, a woman’s club, and a post office with carrier delivery.


Across a hill-slope that knew my childhood, a bugle’s grieving melody used to float often through the summer twilight. A highway lay hidden in the little vale below, and beyond it the unknown musician was quite concealed, and was never visible to the world I knew. Those trumpetings have lingered always in my memory, and color my recollection of all that was near and dear in those days. Men who had left camp and field for the soberer routine of civil life were not yet fully domesticated. My bugler was merely solacing himself for lost joys by recurring to the vocabulary of the trumpet. I am confident that he enjoyed himself; and I am equally sure that his trumpetings peopled the dusk for me with great captains and mighty armies, and touched with a certain militancy all my youthful dreaming.

No American boy born during or immediately after the Civil War can have escaped in those years the vivid impressions derived from the sight and speech of men who had fought its battles, or women who had known its terror and grief. Chief among my playthings on that peaceful hillside was the sword my father had borne at Shiloh and on to the sea; and I remember, too, his uniform coat and sash and epaulets and the tattered guidon of his battery, that, falling to my lot as toys, yet imparted to my childish consciousness a sense of what war had been. The young imagination was kindled in those days by many and great names. Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman were among the first lispings of Northern children of my generation; and in the little town where I was born, lived men who had spoken with them face to face. I did not know, until I sought them later for myself, the fairy tales that are every child’s birthright; and I imagine that children of my generation heard less of

old, unhappy, far-off things
And battles long ago,

and more of the men and incidents of contemporaneous history. Great spirits still on earth were sojourning. I saw several times, in his last years, the ironwilled Hoosier War Governor, Oliver P. Morton. By the time I was ten, a broader field of observation opening through my parents’ removal to the state capital, I had myself beheld Grant and Sherman; and every day I passed in the street men who had been partners with them in the great, heroic, sad, splendid struggle. These things I set down as a background for the observations that follow, — less as text than as point of departure; yet I believe that bugler, sounding charge and retreat and taps in the dusk, and those trappings of war beneath whose weight I strutted upon that hillside, did much toward establishing in me a certain habit of mind. From that hillside I have since ineluctably viewed my country and my countrymen and the larger world.

Emerson records Thoreau’s belief that ‘the flora of Massachusetts embraced almost all the important plants of America, — most of the oaks, most of the willows, the best pines, the ash, the maple, the beech, the nuts. He returned Kane’s arctic voyage to a friend of whom he had borrowed it, with the remark, that most of the phenomena noted might be observed in Concord.’

The complacency of the provincial mind is due less, I believe, to stupidity and ignorance, than to the fact that every American county is in a sense complete, a political and social unit, in which the sovereign rights of a free people are expressed by the courthouse and town hall, spiritual freedom by the village church-spire, and hope and aspiration in the school-house. Every reader of American fiction, particularly in the realm of the short story, must have observed the great variety of quaint and racy characters disclosed. These are the dramatis personœ of that great American novel which some one has said is being written in installments. Writers of fiction hear constantly of characters who would be well worth their study. In reading two recent novels that penetrate to the heart of provincial life, Mr. White’s A Certain Rich Man and Mrs. Watts’s Nathan Burke, I felt that the characters depicted might, with unimportant exceptions, have been found almost anywhere in those American states that shared the common history of Kansas and Ohio. Mr. Winston Churchill, in his admirable novels of New England, has shown how closely the purely local is allied to the universal. ‘Woodchuck sessions’ have been held by many American legislatures.

When David, Harum appeared, characters similar to the hero of that novel were reported in every part of the country. I rarely visit a town that has not its cracker-barrel philosopher, or a poet who would shine but for the callous heart of the magazine editor, or an artist of supreme though unrecognized talent, or a forensic orator of wonderful powers, or a mechanical genius whose inventions are bound to revolutionize the industrial world. In Maine, in the back room of a shop whose windows looked down upon a tidal river, I have listened to tariff discussions in the dialect of Hosea Biglow; and a few weeks later have heard farmers along the un-salt Wabash debating the same questions from a point of view that revealed no masted ships or pine woods, with a new sense of the fine tolerance and sanity and reasonableness of our American people. Mr. James Whitcomb Riley, one of the shrewdest students of provincial character, introduced me one day to a friend of his in a village near Indianapolis who bore a striking resemblance to Abraham Lincoln, and who had something of Lincoln’s gift of humorous narration. This man kept a country store, and his attitude toward his customers, and ‘trade’ in general, was delicious in its drollery. Men said to be ‘like Lincoln’ have not been rare in the Mississippi Valley, and politicians have been known to encourage belief in the resemblance.

Colonel Higginson has said that in the Cambridge of his youth any member of the Harvard faculty could answer any question within the range of human knowledge; whereas in these days of specialization some man can answer the question, but it may take a week’s investigation to find him. In ‘our town’ — a poor virgin, sir, an ill-favored thing, sir, but mine own! — I dare say it was possible in that post bellum era to find men competent to deal with almost any problem. These were mainly men of humble beginnings and all essentially the product of our American provinces. I should like to set down briefly the ineffaceable impression some of these characters left upon me. I am precluded by a variety of considerations from extending this recital. The rich field of education I ignore altogether; and I may mention only those who have gone. As it is beside my purpose to prove that mine own people are other than typical of those of most American communities, I check my exuberance. Sad indeed the offending if I should protest too much!


In the days when the bugle still mourned across the vale, Lew Wallace was a citizen of my native town of Crawfordsville. There he had amused himself in the years immediately before the civil conflict, in drilling a company of ‘Algerian Zouaves’ known as the Montgomery Guards, of which my father was a member, and this was the nucleus of the Eleventh Indiana Regiment which Wallace commanded in the early months of the war. It is not, however, of Wallace’s military services that I wish to speak now, nor of his writings, but of the man himself as I knew him later at the capital, at a time when, in the neighborhood of the federal building at Indianapolis, any boy might satisfy his longing for heroes with a sight of many of our Hoosier Olympians. He was of medium height, erect, dark to swarthiness, with finely chiseled features and keen black eyes, with manners the most courtly, and a voice unusually musical and haunting. His appearance, his tastes, his manner, were strikingly Oriental.

He had a strong theatric instinct, and his life was filled with drama — with melodrama, even. His curiosity led him into the study of many subjects, most of them remote from the affairs of his day. He was both dreamer and man of action; he could be ‘idler than the idlest flowers,’ yet he was always busy about something. He was an aristocrat and a democrat; he was wise and temperate, whimsical and injudicious in a breath. As a youth he had seen visions, and as an old man he dreamed dreams. The mysticism in him was deep-planted, and he was always a little aloof, a man apart. His capacity for detachment was like that of Sir Richard Burton, who, at a great company given in his honor, was found alone poring over a puzzling Arabic manuscript in an obscure corner of the house. Wallace, like Burton, would have reached Mecca, if chance had led him to that adventure.

Wallace dabbled in politics without ever being a politician; and I might add that he practiced law without ever being, by any high standard, a lawyer. He once spoke of the law as ‘ that most detestable of human occupations.’ First and last he tried his hand at all the arts. He painted a little; he moulded a little in clay ; he knew something of music and played the violin; he made three essays in romance. As boy and man he went soldiering; he was a civil governor, and later a minister to Turkey. In view of his sympathetic interest in Eastern life and character, nothing could have been more appropriate than his appointment to Constantinople. The Sultan Abdul Hamid, harassed and anxious, used to send for him at odd hours of the night to come and talk to him, and offered him on his retirement a number of positions in the Turkish government.

With all this rich experience of the larger world, he remained the simplest of natures. He was as interested in a new fishing-tackle as in a new book, and carried both to his houseboat on the Kankakee, where, at odd moments, he retouched a manuscript for the press, and discussed politics with the natives. Here was a man who could talk of the Song of Roland as zestfully as though it had just been reported from the telegraph office.

I frankly confess that I never met him without a thrill, even in his last years and when the ardor of my youthful hero worship may be said to have passed. He was an exotic, our Hoosier Arab, our story-teller of the bazaars. When I saw him in his last illness, it was as though I looked upon a gray sheik about to fare forth unawed toward unmapped oases.

No lesson of the Civil War was more striking than that taught by the swift transitions of our citizen soldiery from civil to military life, and back again. This impressed me as a boy, and I used to wonder, as I passed my heroes on their peaceful errands in the street, why they had put down the sword when there must still be work somewhere for fighting men to do. The judge of the federal court at this time was Walter Q. Gresham, brevetted brigadiergeneral, who was destined later to adorn the cabinets of presidents of two political parties. He was cordial and magnetic; his were the handsomest and friendliest of brown eyes, and a noble gravity spoke in them. Among the lawyers who practiced before him were Benjamin Harrison and Thomas A. Hendricks, who became respectively President and Vice-President.

Those Hoosiers who admired Gresham ardently were often less devotedly attached to Harrison, who lacked Gresham’s warmth and charm. General Harrison was akin to the Covenanters who bore both Bible and sword into battle. His eminence in the law was due to his deep learning in its history and philosophy. Short of stature, and without grace of person, — with a voice pitched rather high, — he was a remarkably interesting and persuasive speaker. If I may so put it, his political speeches were addressed as to a trial judge rather than to a jury, his appeal being to reason and not to passion or prejudice. He could, in rapid flights of campaigning, speak to many audiences in a day without repeating himself. He was measured and urbane; his discourses abounded in apt illustrations; he was never dull. He never stooped to pietistic clap-trap, or chanted the jaunty chauvinism that has so often caused the Hoosier stars to blink.

Among the Democratic leaders of that period, Hendricks was one of the ablest, and a man of many attractive qualities. His dignity was always impressive, and his appearance suggested the statesman of an earlier time. It is one of immortality’s harsh ironies that a man who was a gentleman, and who stood moreover pretty squarely for the policies that it pleased him to defend, should be published to the world in a bronze effigy in his own city as a bandylegged and tottering tramp, in a frock coat that never was on sea or land.

Joseph E. McDonald, a Senator in Congress, was held in affectionate regard by a wide constituency. He was an independent and vigorous character who never lost a certain raciness and tang. On my first timid venture into the fabled East I rode with him in a day-coach from Washington to New York on a slow train. At some point he saw a peddler of fried oysters on a station platform, alighted to make a purchase, and ate his luncheon quite democratically from the paper parcel in his car seat. He convoyed me across the ferry, asked where I expected to stop, and explained that he did not like the European plan; he liked, he said, to have ‘full swing at a bill of fare.’

I used often to look upon the towering form of Daniel W. Voorhees, whom Sulgrove, an Indiana journalist with a gift for translating Macaulay into Hoosierese, had named ‘The Tall Sycamore of the Wabash.’ In a crowded hotel lobby I can still see him, cloaked and silk-hatted, the centre of the throng, and my strict upbringing in the antagonistic political faith did not diminish my admiration for his eloquence.

Such were some of the characters who came and went in the streets of our provincial capital in those days.


In discussions under captions similar to mine it is often maintained that railways, telegraphs, telephones, and newspapers are knitting us together, so that soon we shall all be keyed to a metropolitan pitch. The proof adduced in support of this is of the most trivial, but it strikes me as wholly undesirable that we should all be ironed out and conventionalized. In the matter of dress, for example, the women of our town used to take their fashions from Godey’s and Peterson’s via Cincinnati; but now that we are only eighteen hours from New York, with a welltraveled path from the Wabash to Paris, my counselors among the elders declare that the tone of our society — if I may use so perilous a word — has changed little from our good old black alpaca days. The hobble skirt receives prompt consideration in the ‘Main’ street of any town, and is viewed with frank curiosity, but it is only a one day’s wonder. A lively runaway or the barbaric yawp of a new street fakir may dethrone it at any time.

New York and Boston tailors solicit custom among us biennially, but nothing is so stubborn as our provincial distrust of fine raiment. I looked with awe, in my boyhood, upon a pair of mammoth blue-jeans trousers that were flung high from a flagstaff in the centre of Indianapolis, in derision of a Democratic candidate for governor, James D. Williams, who was addicted to the wearing of jeans. The Democrats sagaciously accepted the challenge, made ‘honest blue jeans’ the battle-cry, and defeated Benjamin Harrison, the ‘kid-glove’ candidate of the Republicans. Harmless demagoguery this, or bad judgment on the part of the Republicans; and yet I dare say that if the sartorial issue should again become acute in our politics the banner of bifurcated jeans would triumph now as then. A Hoosier statesman who to-day occupies high office once explained to me his refusal of sugar for his coffee by remarking that he didn’t like to waste sugar that way; he wanted to keep it for his lettuce. I do not urge sugared lettuce as symbolizing our higher provincialism, but mayonnaise may be poison to men who are nevertheless competent to construe and administer law.

It is much more significant that we are all thinking about the same things at the same time, than that Farnam Street, Omaha, and Fifth Avenue, New York, should vibrate to the same shade of necktie. The distribution of periodicals is so managed that California and Maine cut the leaves of their magazines on the same day. Rural free delivery has hitched the farmer’s wagon to the telegraph office, and you can’t buy his wife’s butter now until he has scanned the produce market in his newspaper. This immediacy of contact does not alter the provincial point of view. New York and Texas, Oregon and Florida, will continue to see things at different angles, and it is for the good of all of us that this is so. We have no national political, social, or intellectual centre. There is no ‘season’ in New York, as in London, during which all persons distinguished in any of these particulars meet on common ground. Washington is our nearest approach to such a meeting-place, but it offers only short vistas. We of the country visit Boston for the symphony, or New York for the opera, or Washington to view the government machine at work, but nowhere do interesting people representative of all our ninety millions ever assemble under one roof. All our capitals are, as Lowell put it, ‘fractional,’ and we shall hardly have a centre while our country is so nearly a continent.

Nothing in our political system could be wiser than our dispersion into provinces. Sweep from the map the lines that divide the states and we should huddle like sheep suddenly deprived of the protection of known walls and flung upon the open prairie. State lines and local pride are in themselves a pledge of stability. The elasticity of our system makes possible a variety of governmental experiments by which the whole country profits. We should all rejoice that the parochial mind is so open, so eager, so earnest, so tolerant. Even the most buckramed conservative on the Eastern coast line, scornful of the political follies of our far-lying provinces, must view with some interest the dallyings of Oregon with the Referendum, and of Des Moines with the Commission System. If Milwaukee wishes to try Socialism, the rest of us need not complain. Democracy will cease to be democracy when all its problems are solved and everybody votes the same ticket.

States that produce the most cranks are prodigal of the corn that pays the dividends on the railroads the cranks despise. Indiana’s amiable feeling toward New York is not altered by her sister’s rejection or acceptance of the direct primary, a benevolent device of noblest intention, under which, not long ago, in my own commonwealth, my fellow citizens expressed their distrust of me with unmistakable emphasis. It is no great matter, but in open convention also I have perished by the sword. Nothing can thwart the chastening hand of a righteous people.

All passes; humor alone is the touchstone of democracy. I search the newspapers daily for tidings of Kansas, and in the ways of Oklahoma I find delight. The Emporia Gazette is quite as patriotic as the Springfield Republican or the New York Post, and to my own taste, far less depressing. I subscribed for a year to the Charleston News and Courier, and was saddened by the tameness of its sentiments; for I remember (it must have been in 1884) the shrinking horror with which I saw daily in the Indiana Republican organ a quotation from Wade Hampton to the effect that ‘ these are the same principles for which Lee and Jackson fought four years on Virginia’s soil.’ Most of us are entertained when Colonel Watterson rises to speak for Kentucky and invokes the star-eyed goddess. When we call the roll of the states, if Malvolio answer for any, let us suffer him in tolerance and rejoice in his yellow stockings. ‘God give them wisdom that have it; and those that are fools, let them use their talents.’

Every community has its dissenters, protestants, kickers, cranks, the more the merrier. I early formed a high resolve to strive for membership in this execrated company. George W. Julian, — one of the noblest of Hoosiers, — who had been the Free-Soil candidate for Vice-President in 1852, a delegate to the first Republican convention, five times a member of Congress, a supporter of Greeley’s candidacy, and a Democrat in the consulship of Cleveland, was a familiar figure in our streets. In 1884 I was dusting law-books in an office where mugwumpery flourished, and where the iniquities of the tariff, Matthew Arnold’s theological opinions, and the writings of Darwin, Spencer, and Huxley were discussed at intervals in the day’s business.


It is constantly complained that we Americans give too much time to politics, but there could be no safer way of utilizing that extra drop of vital fluid which Matthew Arnold found in us. Epithets of opprobrium pinned to a Nebraskan in 1896 were riveted upon a citizen of New York in 1910, and who, then, was the gentleman? No doubt many voices will cry in the wilderness before we reach the promised land. A people which has been fed on the Bible is bound to hear the rumble of Pharaoh’s chariots. It is in the blood to feel the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely. The winter evenings are long on the prairies, and we must always be fashioning a crown for Cæsar or rehearsing his funeral rites. No great danger can ever seriously menace the nation so long as the remotest citizen clings to his faith that he is a part of the governmental mechanism and can at any time throw it out of adjustment if it does n’t run to suit him. He can go into the court-house and see the men he helped to place in office; or if they were chosen in spite of him, he pays his taxes just the same and waits for another chance to turn the rascals out.

Mr. Bryce wrote: ‘This tendency to acquiescence and submission; this sense of the insignificance of individual effort, this belief that the affairs of men are swayed by large forces whose movement may be studied but cannot be turned, I have ventured to call the Fatalism of the Multitude.’ It is, I should say, one of the most encouraging phenomena of the score of years that have elapsed since Mr. Bryce’s American Commonwealth appeared, that we have grown much less conscious of the crushing weight of the mass. It has been with something of a child’s surprise in his ultimate successful manipulation of a toy whose mechanism has baffled him that we have begun to realize that, after all, the individual counts. The pressure of the mass will yet be felt, but in spite of its persistence there are abundant signs that the individual is asserting himself more and more, and even the undeniable acceptance of collectivist ideas in many quarters helps to prove it. With all our faults and defaults of understanding,— populism, free silver, Coxey’s army, and the rest of it, — we of the West have not done so badly. Be not impatient with the young man Absalom; the mule knows his way to the oak tree!

Blaine lost Indiana in 1884; Bryan failed thrice to carry it. The campaign of 1910 in Indiana was remarkable for the stubbornness of ‘silent’ voters, who listened respectfully to the orators but left the managers of both parties in the air as to their intentions. In the Indiana Democratic State Convention of 1910 a gentleman was furiously hissed for ten minutes amid a scene of wildest tumult; but the cause he advocated won, and the ticket nominated in that memorable convention succeeded in November. Within fifty years Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois have sent to Washington seven presidents, elected for ten terms. Without discussing the value of their public services it may be said that it has been an important demonstration to our Mid-Western people of the closeness of their ties with the nation, that so many men of their own soil have been chosen to the seat of the presidents; and it is creditable to Maine and California that they have cheerfully acquiesced. In Lincoln the provincial American most nobly asserted himself, and any discussion of the value of provincial life and character in our politics may well begin and end in him. We have seen verily that

Fishers and choppers and ploughmen
Shall constitute a state.

Whitman, addressing Grant on his return from his world’s tour, declared that it was not that the hero had walked ‘with kings with even pace the round world’s promenade’; —

But that in foreign lands, in all thy walks with kings,
Those prairie sovereigns of the West, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois,
Ohio’s, Indiana’s millions, comrades, farmers, soldiers, all to the front,
Invisibly with thee walking with kings with even pace the round world’s promenade,
Were all so justified.

What we miss and what we lack who live in the provinces seem to me of little weight in the scale against our compensations. We slouch, — we are deficient in the graces, we are prone to boast, and we lack in those fine reticences that mark the cultivated citizen of the metropolis. We like to talk, and we talk our problems out to a finish. Our commonwealths rose in the ashes of the hunter’s campfires, and we are all a great neighborhood, united in a common understanding of what democracy is, and animated by ideals of what we want it to be. That saving humor which is a philosophy of life flourishes amid the tall corn. We are old enough now — we of the West — to have built up in ourselves a species of wisdom, founded upon experience, which is a part of the continuing unwritten law of democracy. We are less likely these days to ‘wobble right’ than we are to stand fast or march forward like an army with banners.

We provincials are immensely curious. Art, music, literature, politics — nothing that is of contemporaneous human interest is alien to us. If these things don’t come to us we go to them. We are more truly representative of the American ideal than our metropolitan cousins, because (here I lay my head upon the block) we know more about, oh, so many things! We know vastly more about the United States, for one thing. We know what New York is thinking before New York herself knows it, because we visit the metropolis to find out. Sleeping-cars have no terrors for us, and a man who has never been west of Philadelphia seems to us a singularly benighted being. Those of our Western school-teachers who don’t see Europe for three hundred dollars every summer get at least as far east as Concord, to be photographed by the rude bridge that arched the flood.

That fine austerity, which the voluble Westerner finds so smothering on the Boston and New York express, is lost utterly at Pittsburg. From gentlemen cruising in day-coaches — rude wights who advertise their personal sanitation and literacy by the tooth-brush and fountain-pen planted sturdily in their upper left-hand waistcoat pockets — one may learn the most prodigious facts and the philosophy thereof. ‘Sit over, brother; there’s hell to pay in the Balkans,’ remarks the gentleman who boarded the inter-urban at Peru or Connersville, and who would just as lief discuss the papacy or child-labor, if revolutions are not to your liking.

In Boston a lady once expressed her surprise that I should be hastening home for Thanksgiving Day. This, she thought, was a New England festival. More recently I was asked by a Bostonian if I had ever heard of Paul Revere. Nothing is more delightful in us, I think, than our meekness before instruction. We strive to please; all we ask is ‘to be shown.’

Our greatest gain is in leisure and the opportunity to ponder and brood. In all these thousands of country towns live alert and shrewd students of affairs. Where your New Yorker scans headlines as he ‘commutes’ homeward, the villager reaches his own fireside without being shot through a tube, and sits down and reads his newspaper thoroughly. When he repairs to the drug-store to abuse or praise the powers that be, his wife reads the paper, too. A United States Senator from a Middle Western State, making a campaign for renomination preliminary to the primaries, warned the people in rural communities against the newspaper and periodical press with its scandals and heresies. ‘ Wait quietly by your firesides, undisturbed by these false teachings,’ he said in effect; ‘ then go to your primaries and vote as you have always voted.’ His opponent won by thirty thousand, — the amiable answer of the little red schoolhouse.


A few days ago I visited again my native town. On the slope where I played as a child I listened in vain for the mourning bugle; but on the college campus a bronze tablet commemorative of those sons of Wabash who had fought in the mighty war quickened the old impressions. The college buildings wear a look of age in the gathering dusk.

Coldly, sadly descends
The autumn evening. The field
Strewn with its dank yellow drifts
Of withered leaves, and the elms,
Fade into dimness apace,
Silent; hardly a shout
From a few boys late at their play!

Brave airs of cityhood are apparent in the town, with its paved streets, fine hall and library; and everywhere are wholesome life, comfort, and peace. The train is soon hurrying through gray fields and dark woodlands. Farmhouses are disclosed by glowing panes; lanterns flash fitfully where farmers are making all fast for the night. The city is reached as great factories are discharging their laborers, and I pass from the station into a hurrying throng homeward bound. Against the sky looms the dome of the capitol; the tall shaft of the soldiers’ monument rises ahead of me down the long street and vanishes starward. Here where forests stood seventy-five years ago, in a state that has not yet attained its centenary, is realized much that man has sought through all the ages, — order, justice, and mercy, kindliness and good cheer. What we lack we seek, and what we strive for we shall gain. And of such is the kingdom of democracy.