The Immigrant's Portion
MOST good things came to me because I wanted them and sought them, but one thing that counted for much in the shaping of my life came in spite of myself. Hearing from my brother and sister enthusiastic accounts of Hale House, the social settlement on Garland Street, whose beneficent activities had attracted them, I was curious to see the place for myself. I did not mean to join any club, but before I knew it I had been adopted by the Natural History Club, composed of adult workers of Hale House. Now, I had a decided aversion from natural history, the very name of which chilled my imagination; but the miracles of science broke slowly through my ignorant prejudices, refashioned the world for me, and turned my thoughts into universal channels. From a bookworm I became an explorer of fields and woods. All my other enthusiasms paled before this new passion for outdoors. And among the men and women who ministered to me in this new life, I formed some of the friendships that mark the epochs of my spiritual history.
I did not always wait for my grownup friends to guide me to delectable lands. Some of the happiest days of that happy time I spent with my sister in East Boston. We had a merry hour at supper, Moses making clever jokes, without cracking a smile himself; and the baby romping in his high chair, and eating what was n’t good for him. But the best of the evening came later, when father and baby had gone to bed, and the dishes were put away, and there was not a crumb left on the red-and-white checked tablecloth. Frieda took out her sewing, and I took a book; and the lamp was between us, shining on the table, on the large brown roses on the wall, on the green and brown diamonds of the oil-cloth on the floor, on the baby’s rattle on the shelf, and on the shining stove in the corner. It was such a pleasant kitchen — such a cosy, friendly room — that when Frieda and I were left alone I was perfectly happy just to sit there. Frieda had a beautiful parlor, with plush chairs and a velvet carpet and gilt picture-frames; but we preferred the homely, homelike kitchen.
I read aloud from Longfellow, or Whittier, or Tennyson; and it was as great a treat to me as it was to Frieda. Her attention was inspiring. Her delight, her eager questions, doubled the meaning of the lines I read. Poor Frieda had little enough time for reading, unless she stole it from the sewing, or the baking, or the mending. But she was hungry for books, and so grateful when I came to read to her that it made me ashamed to remember all the beautiful things I had and did not share with her.
It is true I shared what could be shared. I brought my friends to her. At her wedding were some of the friends of whom I was most proud. Miss Dillingham came, and Mr. Charles; and the humbler guests stared in admiration at our editors and school-teachers. But I had so many delightful things that I could not bring to Frieda — my walks, my dreams, my adventures of all sorts.
The way she reached out for everything fine was shown by her interest in the incomprehensible Latin and French books that I brought. She liked to hear me read my Cicero, pleased by the movement of the sonorous periods. I translated Ovid and Virgil for her; and her pleasure illumined the difficult passages, so that I seldom needed to have recourse to the dictionary. I shall never forget the evening I read to her from the Æneid, the passage in the fourth book describing the death of Dido. I read the Latin first, and then my own version in English hexameters, that I had prepared for a recitation at school. Frieda forgot her sewing in her lap, and leaned forward in rapt attention. When I was through, there were tears of delight in her eyes; and I was surprised myself at the beauty of the words I had just pronounced.
Truly my education was not left entirely in the hands of persons who had licenses to teach. My sister’s fat baby taught me things about the origin and ultimate destiny of dimples that were not in any of my school-books. Mr. Casey of the second floor, who was drunk whenever his wife was sober, gave me an insight into the psychology of the beer-mug that would have added to the mental furniture of my most scholarly teacher. The bold-faced girls who passed the evening on the corner, in promiscuous flirtation with the cock-eyed youths of the neighborhood, unconsciously revealed to me the eternal secrets of adolescence. My neighbor of the third floor, who sat on the curbstone with the scabby baby in her bedraggled lap, had things to say about the fine ladies who came in carriages to inspect the public bathhouse across the street, that ought to be repeated in the lecture-halls of every school of philanthropy.
Instruction poured into my brain at such a rate that I could not digest it all at the time; but in later years, when my destiny had led me far from Dover Street, the emphatic moral of those lessons became clear. The memory of my experience on Dover Street became the strength of my convictions, the illumined index of my purpose, the aureola of my happiness. And if I paid for those lessons with days of privation and wrong, with nights of tormenting anxiety, I count the price cheap. Who would not go to a little trouble to find out what life is made of? Life, in the slums, spins busily as a schoolboy’s top, and one who has heard its humming never forgets. I look forward to telling, when I get to be a master of language, what I read in the crooked cobblestones when I revisited Dover Street the other day.
Dover Street was never really my residence — at least not the whole of it. It happened to be the nook where my bed was made, but I inhabited the City of Boston. In the pearl-misty morning, in the ruby-red evening, I was empress of all I surveyed from the roof of the tenement house. I could point in any direction and name a friend who would welcome me there.
Off toward the northwest, in the direction of Harvard Bridge, which some day I should cross on my way to Radcliffe College, was one of my favorite palaces, whither I resorted every day after school. A low, wide-spreading building with a dignified granite front it was, flanked on all sides by noble old churches, museums, and schoolhouses, harmoniously disposed around a spacious triangle called Copley Square. Two thoroughfares that came straight from the green suburbs swept by my palace, one on either side, converged at the apex of the triangle, and pointed off, across the Public Garden, across the historic Common, to the domed State House sitting on a height.
It was my habit to go very slowly up the low broad steps to the palace entrance, pleasing my eyes with the majestic lines of the building, and lingering to read again the carved inscriptions: Public Library — Built by the People — Free to All.
I loved to lean against a pillar in the entrance hall, watching the people go in and out. Groups of children hushed their chatter at the entrance, and skipped, whispering and giggling in their fists, up the grand stairway, patting the great stone lions at the top, with an eye on the aged policeman down below. Spectacled scholars came slowly down the stairs, loaded with books, heedless of the lofty arches that echoed their steps. Visitors from out of town lingered long in the entrance hall, studying the inscriptions and symbols on the marble floor. And I loved to stand in the midst of all this, and remind myself that I was there, that I had a right to be there, that I was at home there. All these eager children, all these high-browed women, all these scholars going home to write learned books — I and they had this glorious thing in common, this noble treasurehouse of learning. It was wonderful to say, This is mine; it was thrilling to say, This is ours.
Here is where I liked to remind myself of Polotzk, the better to bring out the wonder of my life. That I who was born in the prison of the Pale should roam at will in the land of freedom, was a marvel that it did me good to realize. That I who was brought up to my teens almost without a book should be set down in the midst of all the books that ever were written, was a miracle as great as any on record. That an outcast should become a privileged citizen, that a beggar should dwell in a palace — this was a romance more thrilling than poet ever sung. Surely I was rocked in an enchanted cradle.
From the Public Library to the State House is only a step, and I found my way there without a guide. The State House was one of the places I could point to and say that I had a friend there to welcome me. I do not mean the representative of my district, though I hope he was a worthy man. My friend was no less a man than the Honorable Senator Roe from Worcester, whose letters to me, written under the embossed letterhead of the Senate Chamber, I could not help exhibiting to my admiring schoolmates.
How did I come by a Senator? Through being a citizen of Boston, of course. To be a citizen of the smallest village in the United States which maintains a free school and a public library, is to stand in the path of the splendid processions of opportunity. And as Boston has rather better schools and a rather finer library than some other villages, it comes natural there for children in the slums to summon gentlemen from the State House to be their personal friends.
It is so simple, in Boston! You are a schoolgirl, and your teacher gives you a ticket for the annual historical lecture in the Old South Church, on Washington’s Birthday. You hear a stirring discourse on some subject in your country’s history, and you go home with a heart bursting with patriotism. You sit down and write a letter to the speaker who so moved you, telling him how glad you are to be an American; explaining to him, if you happen to be a recently-made American, why you love your adopted country so much better than your native land. Perhaps the patriotic lecturer happens to be a Senator, and he reads your letter under the vast dome of the State House; and it occurs to him that he and his eminent colleagues, and the stately capitol, and the glorious flag that floats above it, all gathered on the hill above the Common, do his country no greater honor than the outspoken admiration of an ardent young alien.
The Senator replies to your letter, inviting you to visit him at the State House; and in the renowned chamber where the august business of the State is conducted, you, an obscure child from the slums, and he, a chosen leader of the people, seal a democratic friendship based on the love of a common flag.
Even simpler than to meet a Senator was it to become acquainted with a man like Edward Everett Hale. ‘The Grand Old Man of Boston,’ the people called him, from the manner of his life among them. He kept open house in every public building in the city. Wherever two citizens met to devise a measure for the public weal, he was a third. Wherever a worthy cause needed a champion, Dr. Hale lifted his mighty voice. At some time or another his colossal figure towered above an eager multitude from every pulpit in the city, from every lecture platform. And where is the map of Boston that gives the names of the lost alleys and backways where the great man went in search of the lame in body, who could not join the public assembly, in quest of the maimed in spirit, who feared to show their faces in the open? If all the little children who have sat on Dr. Hale’s knee were started in a procession on the State House steps, marching four abreast, there would be a lane of merry faces across the Common, out to the Public Library, over Harvard Bridge, and away beyond to remoter landmarks.
That I met Dr. Hale is no wonder. It was as inevitable as that I should be a year older every twelvemonth. He was a part of Boston, as the salt wave is a part of the sea. I can hardly say whether he came to me or I came to him. We met, and my adopted country took me closer to her breast.
A day or two after our first meeting I called on Dr. Hale, at his invitation. It was only eight o’clock in the morning, you may be sure, because he had risen early to attend to a hundred great affairs, and I had risen early so as to talk with a great man before I went to school. I think we liked each other a little the more for the fact that when so many people were still asleep we were already busy in the interests of citizenship and friendship. We certainly liked each other.
I am sure I did not stay more than fifteen minutes, and all that I recall of our conversation is that Dr. Hale asked me a great many questions about Russia, in a manner that made me feel that I was an authority on the subject; and with his great hand in good-bye he gave me a bit of homely advice, namely, that I should never study before breakfast!
That was all, but for the rest of the day I moved against a background of grandeur. There was a noble ring to Virgil that day that even my teacher’s firm translation had never brought out before. Obscure points in the history lesson were clear to me alone, of the thirty girls in the class. And it happened that the tulips in Copley Square opened that day, and shone in the sun like lighted lamps.
A busy life I led on Dover Street, a happy, busy life. When I was not reciting lessons, or writing midnight poetry, or selling papers, or studying sociology, or interviewing statesmen, I made long entries in my journal, or wrote forty-page letters to my friends. It was a happy thing that poor Mrs. Hutch did not know what sums I spent for stationery and postage-stamps. She would have gone into consumption, I do believe, from inexpressible indignation; and she would have been in the right — to be indignant, not to go into consumption. I admit it; she would have been justified — from her point of view. From my point of view I was also in the right; of course I was. To make friends among the great was an important part of my education, and was not to be accomplished without a liberal expenditure of paper and postage-stamps. If Mrs. Hutch had not repulsed my offer of confidences, I could have shown her long letters written to me by people whose mere signature was prized by autographhunters.
It is true that I could not turn those letters directly into rent-money — or if I could, I would not — but indirectly my interesting letters did pay a week’s rent now and then. Through the influence of my friends my father sometimes found work that he could not have got in any other way. These practical results of my costly pursuit of friendships might have given Mrs. Hutch confidence in my ultimate solvency, had she not remained obstinately deaf to my plea for time, her heart being set on direct, immediate, convertible cash payment.
That was very narrow-minded, even though I say it who should not . The grocer on Harrison Avenue who supplied our table could have taught her to take a more liberal view. We were all anxious to teach her, if she only would have listened. Here was this poor grocer, conducting his business on the same perilous credit system which had driven my father out of Chelsea and Wheeler Street, supplying us with tea and sugar and strong butter, milk freely splashed from rusty cans, potent yeast, and bananas done to a turn, —with everything, in short, that keeps a poor man’s family hearty in spite of what they eat, — and all this for the consideration of part payment, with the faintest prospect of a future settlement in full. Mr. Rosenblum had an intimate knowledge of the financial situation of every family that traded with him, from the gossip of his customers around his herring barrel. He knew without asking that my father had no regular employment, and that, consequently, it was risky to give us credit. Nevertheless he gave us credit by the week, by the month, accepted partial payment with thanks, and let the balance stand by the year.
We owed him as much as we owed the landlady, I suppose, every time he balanced our account. But he never complained; nay, he even insisted on my mother’s taking almonds and raisins for a cake for the holidays. He knew, as well as Mrs. Hutch, that my father kept a daughter at school who was of age to be put to work; but so far was he from reproaching him for it, that he detained my father by the half hour, inquiring about my progress and discussing my future. He knew very well, did the poor grocer, who it was that burned so much oil in my family; but when I came in to have my kerosene can filled, he did not fall upon me with harsh words of blame. Instead, he wanted to hear about my latest triumph at school, and about the great people who wrote me letters, and even came to see me; and he called his wife from the kitchen behind the store to come and hear of these grand doings.
Mrs. Rosenblum, who could not sign her name, would come out in her faded calico wrapper, and stand with her hands folded under her apron, shy and respectful before the embryo scholar; and she would nod her head sidewise in approval, drinking in with envious pleasure her husband’s Yiddish version of my tale. If her black-eyed Goldie happened to be playing jackstones on the curb, Mrs. Rosenblum would pull her into the store, to hear what distinction Mr. Antin’s daughter had won at school, bidding her take example from Mary, if she also would go far in education.
‘Hear you, Goldie? She has the best marks in everything, Goldie, all the time. She is only five years in the country, and she’ll be in college soon. She beats them all in school, Goldie — her father says she beats them all. She studies all the time — all night — and she writes, it is a pleasure to hear. She writes in the paper, Goldie. You ought to hear Mr. Antin read what she writes in the paper. Long pieces — ’
‘You don’t understand what he reads, ma,’ Goldie interrupts mischievously; and I want to laugh, but I refrain.
Mr. Rosenblum does not fill my can; I am forced to stand and hear myself eulogized.
‘Not understand? Of course I don’t understand. How should I understand? I was not sent to school to learn. Of course I don’t understand. But you don’t understand, Goldie, and that’s a shame. If you would put your mind on it, and study hard, like Mary Antin, you would also stand high, and you would go to High School, and be somebody.’
‘Would you send me to High School, pa?’ Goldie asks, to test her mother’s promises. ‘Would you really?’
‘Sure as I am a Jew,’ Mr. Rosenblum promptly replies, a look of aspiration in his deep eyes. ‘Only show yourself worthy, Goldie, and I’ll keep you in school till you get to something. In America everybody can get to something, if he only wants to. I would even send you farther than High School — to be a teacher, maybe. Why not? In America everything is possible. But you have to work hard, Goldie, like Mary Antin — study hard, put your mind on it.’
‘Oh, I know it, pa!’ Goldie exclaims, her momentary enthusiasm extinguished at the thought of long lessons indefinitely prolonged.
Goldie was a restless little thing who could not sit long over her geographybook. She wriggled out of her mother’s grasp now, and made for the door, throwing a ‘back-hand’ as she went, without losing a single jackstone.
‘I just hate long lessons,’ she said. ‘When I graduate from grammar school next year I’m going to work in Jordan Marsh’s big store, and get three dollars a week, and have lots of fun with the girls. I can’t write pieces in the paper, anyhow. — Beckie! Beckie Hurvitch! Where you going? Wait a minute, I’ll go along.’
And she was off, leaving her ambitious parents to shake their heads over her flightiness.
Mr. Rosenblum gave me my oil. If he had had postage-stamps in stock, he would have given me all I needed, and felt proud to think that he was assisting in my important correspondences. And he was a poor man, and he had a large family, and many customers who paid as irregularly as we. He ran the risk of ruin, of course, but he did not scold, — not us, at any rate. For he understood. He was himself an immigrant Jew of the type that values education, and sets a high price on the higher development of the child. He would have done in my father’s place just what my father was doing: borrow, beg, go without, run in debt — anything to secure for a promising child the fulfillment of the promise. That is what America was for. The land of opportunity it was, but opportunities must be used, must be grasped, held, squeezed dry. To keep a child of working age in school was to invest the meagre present for the sake of the opulent future. If there was but one child in a family of twelve who promised to achieve an intellectual career, the other eleven, and father, and mother, and neighbors, must devote themselves to that one child’s welfare, and feed and clothe and cheer it on, and be rewarded in the end by hearing its name mentioned with the names of the great.
So the poor grocer helped to keep me in school for I do not know how many years. And this is one of the things that is done on Harrison Avenue by the people who pitch rubbish through their windows. Let the City Fathers strike the balance.
From my little room on Dover Street I reached out for the world, and the world came to me. Through books, through the conversation of noble men and women, through communion with the stars in the depth of night, I entered into every noble chamber of the palace of life. I employed no charm to win admittance. The doors opened to me because I had a right to be within. My patent of nobility was the longing for the abundance of life with which I was endowed at birth; and from the time I could toddle unaided, I had been gathering into my hand everything that was fine in the world around me.
Given health and standing room, I should have worked out my salvation even on a desert island. Being set down in the garden of America, where opportunity waits on ambition, I was bound to make my days a triumphal march toward my goal. The most unfriendly witness of my life will not venture to deny that I have been successful. For aside from subordinate desires for greatness, or for wealth, or for specific achievement, my chief ambition in life has been to live, and I have lived. A glowing life has been mine, and the fires that blazed highest in all my days were kindled on Dover Street.
I have never had a dull hour in my life; I have never had a livelier time than in the slums. In all my troubles I was thrilled through and through with a prophetic sense of how they were to end. A halo of romance floated before every to-morrow; the wings of future adventures rustled in the dead of night. Nothing could be quite common that touched my life, because I had a power for attracting uncommon things. And when my noblest dreams shall have been realized, I shall meet with nothing finer, nothing more remote from the commonplace, than some of the things that came into my life on Dover Street.
To be alive in America, I found out long ago, is to ride on the central current of the river of modern life; and to have a conscious purpose is to hold the rudder that steers the ship of fate. I was alive to my finger-tips, back there on Dover Street, and all my girlish purposes served one main purpose. It would have been amazing if I had stuck in the mire of the slum. By every law of my nature I was bound to soar above it, to attain the fairer places that wait for every emancipated immigrant.
A characteristic thing about the aspiring immigrant is the fact that he is not content to progress alone. Solitary success is imperfect success in his eyes. He must take his family with him, as he rises. So when I refused to be adopted by a rich old man, and clung to my family in the slums, I was only following the rule; and I can tell it without boasting, because it is no more to my credit than that I wake refreshed after a night’s sleep.
This suggests to me a summary of my virtues, through the exercise of which I may be said to have attracted my good fortune, I find that I have always given nature a chance, I have used my opportunities, and have practiced self-expression. So much my enemies will grant me; more than this my friends cannot claim for me.
In the Dover Street days I did not philosophize about the immigrant and his ways. I lived the life, and the moral took care of itself. And after Dover Street came Applepie Alley, Letterbox Lane, and other evil corners of the slums of Boston, till it must have looked to our friends as if we meant to go on forever exploring the underworld.
But we found a short cut — we found a short cut! And the route we took from the tenements of the stifling alleys to a darling cottage of our own, where the sun shines in at every window, and the green grass runs up to our very doorstep, was surveyed by the Pilgrim Fathers, who transcribed their field notes on a very fine parchment, and called it the Constitution of the United States.
It was good to get out of Dover Street — it was better for the growing children, better for my weary parents, better for all of us, as the clean grass is better than the dusty pavement. But I must never forget that I came away from Dover Street with my hands full of riches. I must not fail to testify that in America a child of the slums owns the land and all that is good in it. All the beautiful things that I saw belonged to me, if I wanted to use them; all the beautiful things that I desired approached me. I did not need to seek my kingdom. I only had to be worthy, and it came to me, even on Dover Street. Everything that was ever to happen to me in the future had its germ or impulse in the conditions of my life on Dover Street. My friendships, my advantages and disadvantages, my gifts, my habits, my ambitions — these were the materials out of which I built my after life, in the open workshop of America. My days in the slums were pregnant with possibilities; it only needed the ripeness of events to make them blossom out in realities. Steadily as I worked to win America, America advanced to lie at my feet. I was an heir, on Dover Street, awaiting maturity. I was a princess waiting to be led to the throne.