The Family Circle

‘THE Family Circle’ is a phrase, like ‘the bosom of the family’ or ‘hearth and home,’ associated in our minds with the intimate and narrow confines of the living-room or the dining-room of the house in which we were reared. But why? There is ‘the human family,’ and ‘the family tree,’ expressions indicating a point of view with a wider outlook. Take for instance the family tree — even that is a misnomer. It is likely to carry suspended from its boughs the names of only those among our ancestral and contemporary bloodrelations who have the name of our father; but how about our mother and all our million grandmothers? Are we not equally descended from them?

There is another genealogical emblem, a sort of chart composed of everwidening circles, which is more truly indicative of ancestry. It looks something like a picture of a cell multiplying by fission, as shown in a textbook on biology. One’s own personal self and name are represented in a little circle in the middle, a sort of nucleus or nucleolus, encompassed by rounded boxes containing the names of one’s two parents, beyond each of which spread his and her parents, and so on ad infinitum, until in ten generations one reaches the appalling number of more than two thousand little boxes, which should contain names of as many ancestors, who are just as much bloodrelations as those ten in the narrow paternal line. The family circle as thus envisaged is an affair of such geometrically progressive immensity as to stagger the genealogist bent on a knowledge of his forbears rather than of the mere bearers of his name.

So also among one’s contemporary relations the family circle may embrace more people and things than are dreamt of in the philosophy of those of us who keep our eye fixed singly on the relationships that are too near to be denied or too advantageous to be ignored. Suppose we should systematically acquaint ourselves with all our blood-relations, whether poor relations or rich relations, whether near or distant, whether reputable or disreputable — how our family circle would widen out under our startled vision! And we should touch with brotherly and cousinly hand the extremities of the human family. As we can, by going back far enough, reach the king on his throne and the savage on his mud-sill, so, by going about far enough, we may reach the millionaire and the nobleman in one direction, and in the other the criminal, the lunatic, and the pauper. To know all phases of life one has only to know one’s own cousins.

As each of us can speak best of his own affairs, I would illustrate my point by telling about a few of my own cousins. I have among my extant cousins one who is a European prince and another who keeps the post office and general store in a village in Vermont. Among my deceased cousins whom I knew in earlier years, I number two of real and enduring fame — one of the greatest of our American poets and one of the greatest of our American criminals. The former figures in our anthologies, the latter monopolized for months the largest headlines and the most advantageous space on the first page of the newspapers from Maine to California. And all these four are cousins of one another as well as of obscure me. I don’t know whether my cousins, the poet and the parricide, were friends as well as cousins. I remember them both as very fine gentlemen, the latter an especially gilded and glittering youth, of a devastating charm to a little country mouse of a cousin from New England on her infrequent visits to the bewildering metropolis.

My contemporaries, however, the Prince and the Postmaster, are enthusiastically friendly, and boast of their cousinship at every opportunity. The Prince was, of course, the offspring of one of those international marriages between an American heiress and the impoverished scion of a noble line, which are customarily inveighed against by the patriots of our native press and pulpit. When the Postmaster first heard that his uncle’s daughter was to disgrace the family by going back on the bulwarks of democracy and over to the pride and prejudice of caste, he formulated the usual provincial eloquence that is de rigueur on these occasions; but when, twenty-five years later, the Prince appeared on his first visit to the States, and eagerly sought out the relations whom he had made every preparation to meet, — including the elimination from his vocabulary of the word peasant and the acquisition of an expletive for use in moments of emotional stress: ‘Gosh!’ —and treated them as if their acquaintance were the most broadening experience and the greatest privilege of his hitherto socially limited existence, the Postmaster discovered that the infusion of good red American blood into the weak blue fluid that circulates through the veins of the European aristocracy was the recipe for the redemption of the effete civilization of the continent.

The Prince moved among the natives of his ancestral home as one to the manner born. His serious thoughtful head, containing his omnivorously inquiring mind and a range of intellectual curiosity never before exhibited on Vermont soil, was to be viewed for hours on end by anyone visiting the post office and general store for a possible letter or an essential grocery, and was generally inclined in rapt attention toward Cousin Postmaster and his agricultural and mechanical friends, who were sawing the air on every conceivable aspect of American life from the Vermont point of view. No one so avid of information and so undiscriminating as to its nature had ever appeared in those parts before. The Prince so entirely threw the summer visitors into the shade as to shove them into the outer darkness of complete contempt. He might be a prince, but everyone was made comfortable in his presence by feeling himself temporarily a king. The foreign prince sat at the feet of the native kings and queens, and eagerly drank their words of wisdom.

Cousin Prince’s powers of adaptation were indeed exceptional, as was proved on many occasions. One that I vividly recall was that of the entertainment given in his honor by Mrs. Postmaster. She had read in the ladies’ periodical which she subscribed for and diligently perused, that the breakfast party combined the chic with the informal. A suggested menu for such an occasion was elaborately set forth, but the appropriate hour was omitted from the directions for performing this feat of hospitality. This omission, however, was hardly noticed by Mrs. Postmaster, for, of course, anyone knew what was the proper time for breakfast; so the guests were summoned for 7.30 A.M. The Prince was overwhelmed with delight at the opportunity afforded him to assist at so unique an American function. He foresightedly borrowed from the kitchen shelf that admirable native invention, the alarm clock, and in the course of his early morning toilet manufactured a defense against the ravages of the imminent feast: he was regretfully forced to confess to a slight indisposition,— the location and nature of which he elaborated with dismaying frankness, — which made it necessary for him to take only tea and toast from the festive and groaning board that had been spread in his honor. No one suffering from an alimentary affection had ever before, however, so brilliantly performed all the other functions of a guest; and the hostess had the consolation of observing that he scrutinized the courses with intense interest, even if he did not partake of them, and subsequently asked her for a copy of the menu, which she was able to furnish by just cutting out a paragraph from the printed page of her monthly guide, philosopher, and friend.

Cousin Prince had a succès fou in Vermont; and doubtless Cousin Postmaster would have given equal delight to the social set of his kinsman if he had been able to afford the trip across. Indeed, so might all of us enjoy these privileges of contact with circles where we do not ordinarily live and move and have our being. Here is a field which would produce a rich harvest of true democracy; for the brotherhood of man is n’t a patch on the authentic cousinship of men and women. This is the one touch of nature that makes the whole world kin.