One Case of the American Malady: A Very Personal Experience
MR. LANGDON MITCHELL, writing in the February Atlantic on the ‘American Malady,’ has diagnosed the subtle trouble from which a large class of Americans are suffering — whether they know it or not — as lack of spontaneous joy in beauty. I am sure he is quite right, and it occurs to me that it may interest him and some others to hear the true story of a perfectly normal young woman who married into such an infected community, caught the disease, and suffered from it until something happened which cured her.
This young woman, as I remember her, was one of the most ebulliently joyful young beings imaginable until at an early age she married and went to live in a New England city where society was supposed to be in an advanced stage of civilization.
As a girl she bubbled over in all directions, singing, drawing, dancing, writing poetry, and acting in plays, all with originality and charm. At twenty she found herself the mistress of a pleasant house and the devoted wife of a rising young professional man, and there seemed to be no reason in the world why she should not be a very happy and useful woman.
I have said that her husband was a rising young man, which means that he worked early and late — so early and so late that, as his wife said, his toothbrush never had time to dry. But he was also a very practical man and soon saw that to be at his best for his work he must get exercise in the open air. Moreover, it did not suffice to take bicycle rides with his wife. He got a more vigorous reaction from a game of golf with other men.
These games were good for him and he came home often a little late for the evening meal, but really hungry and healthily sleepy — so sleepy, in fact, that he almost invariably fell into a heavy slumber as soon as they were settled down for the evening. Mending or reading was then the only possible programme for the wife, and this was what she did on an average of five nights out of seven.
Her daytime occupation was divided between housework, marketing, and returning calls that a dutiful neighborhood had made on the bride. The neighborhood conscience had recently been stirred by the report that a certain young married woman had become mentally unbalanced because no one had come to see her during the two years that she had lived there, so our bride was called upon during the first year by more than a hundred women, who came usually when she was trying to make concentration take the place of experience in getting a dinner for the rising man.
When she was free in the earlier hours of the day, she often tried to persuade some neighbor to play with her, but the others were all very busy women, engaged in conducting children to dancing-school or riding-school or some other educational luxury beyond their means and taken very seriously with all due consideration of the physical benefits that would ensue. If not occupied in this way, these city mothers were working for some Cause, charitable or political, or hearing a lecture on a proposed governmental reform. They cordially invited the young bride to join them and she did as often as she could bear it. Not that these things failed to interest her, for she loved all right things and went ahead and worked sincerely with the rest, but she began to feel old and she never sang or danced about the house any more. Instead she sat at her desk and kept her accounts straight, because although there were no children, the young husband’s salary was small, the golf-club’s dues were large, and Causes clamored for contributions. For ten years she marked off lines in a big blank-book and labeled the columns, ‘Food,’ ‘Rent,’ ‘Clubs,’ ‘Church and Causes,’ ‘Amusements.’ There were many entries under ‘Causes’ and almost none under ‘Amusements.’
It was toward the end of this tenyear period that a younger brother of an old friend of the husband called to see him one evening. He proved to be very congenial, interested in all the things the young bride used to enjoy, — and found she still did enjoy, — the criticism of books, the writing of poetry, music, and laughter. It did not disturb the husband’s nap to have the others talk and laugh softly across the room, and it did help out the evenings for the young wife, no longer a bride. She expanded and grew more attractive with this return to her natural element of joy in beauty. The housework seemed lighter and the suffrage meetings less serious after an evening of exchange of thoughts with a congenial friend.
Then after a winter of such companionship came a spring day and a bicycle ride together— the wife and the friend — out into the country, where they sat on a hillside and drank in together the beauty on every hand. They could not express their joy in words and the local civilization had provided no normal outlet for it, so they looked into each other’s eyes; and from that look sprang, first, the illusion of a quasi-happiness, then disillusion, a woman’s loss of confidence in herself, and a resultant selfcondemnation which threatened to become a mania in a woman sensitive but inhibited on many sides.
May we ask who was to blame? During all these years this woman had been truly loving her husband as deeply as most young women in their twenties know how to love. Moreover she had neglected no duty that she understood. Her house was always homelike, her meals attractive; sick neighbors were visited, accounts kept, calls returned, causes supported — but there was no place for joy. Once in her early married experience she had been invited to a reception at the house of the intellectual feudal-lord of the neighborhood. Up to that time her spontaneity had not been entirely quenched, and on this occasion it burst out in some observation not based on the local Decalogue of the community, whereupon the elderly sister of the host raised a gold lorgnette and looking the young barbarian over, murmured, ‘How extr’ord’n’ry!’ Being rather sensitive to atmosphere, the newcomer learned repression from that hour.
A wiser woman will say, ‘Why did n’t the little idiot find her own group in that big city? Surely there must have been literary or artistic or musical groups in which she would have found an outlet for all that was being choked within her.’
Let me answer that such groups are not easy for a newcomer to find, or having found, to enter. This girl was not a trained performer; she was only a born rejoicer. If there had been community-singing in her group, how she would have enjoyed it! Some brave soul did start such a chorus and meetings were arranged in the high-school building. The young bride went gleefully as long as it lasted, but after three or four attempts the project faded out for lack of general interest. Everybody was always too busy or too tired. A great many people were chronically tired in that city and there was much sickness. The young bride often wondered why there was not more sickness. What object was there in being well?
Is it not true that in some countries this girl would have found a normal channel for the expression of joy in her everyday intercourse with neighbors? A foreign friend has told me recently that in her country the young people sing in the streets and then get together and sing in groups. In some other lands young and old meet in each other’s houses to dance. Who shall blame our thirsty young people if the cup of joy, coming suddenly to them, finds them unable to stop and consider who is offering it ?
Moreover, what vision can we take with us, we older ones, who go about in sombre dress to reform the world? Is it safe to go on such a mission without joy and a sense of humor? As for charities, what profits it if we give our bodies to be burned and have not joy to offer in love to those less fortunate? As for our young people, I have heard them say, ‘Deliver me from being good like my parents, if it means never having any better times than they do!'
And the cure for the ‘American malady?’ Humbly let me suggest that it may lie in the belief— if one is fortunate enough to possess it — that God is good and that joy is therefore reasonable. Such a belief is supposed to be the heritage of Christian people, the gift of that valiant man who, though thoroughly acquainted with the seamy side of life, could say, ‘These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full’; and speaking of the light-hearted child, ‘Of such is the kingdom of Heaven!’
I started my story by saying that the young wife suffered from the American malady until something happened which cured her. What happened was that she found the Source of joy, and having found it, she did her bit to radiate it, so that she at least would not be responsible for the crushing out of another’s happiness.
Rabindranath Tagore says that ‘God woos us with his beauty.’ Does He in America?
Julia Ward Howe wrote: —
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.
Does it in America?
Is it too much to expect of a community which calls itself Christian that it shall cease to crucify its young lovers of beauty and joy? Shall we not rather, if we are genuine followers of Jesus of Nazareth, draw the hearts of young America to Christianity by showing them that one of the fruits of the Spirit is joy, showing them by our example that joy can be expressed through countless healthy channels that bring blessing to all the world and a curse to no man?
Must this matter end in a wordy diagnosis, or will the patient, our practical Uncle Sam, turn himself and live?