Georgia and Vermont--a Contrast
FOR many years I observed with intense envy the Englishman traveling in America. From Dickens to Arnold Bennett he brought with him a brilliant and fascinating sport which he practised with the utmost enjoyment — the sport of observing Americans and talking about them. We listened with dazed wonder, and did nothing. We liked America too well to go to England and turn the tables on him; and it never occurred to us that we could get the same sort of fun by watching each other.
But one day a liberating thought struck me. If an Englishman could get an exquisitely painful delight from writing twenty pages about an American sleeping-car, why could n’t a Georgian, covered with cotton dust, see something to amaze him in a Vermont sugar-house? Or a Vermonter, who had spent half his life throwing chunk-wood into the cellar, have his mind broadened by discovering that in Georgia there are no cellars?
I basked in this thought; and my happiness was intensified by the realization that I was better qualified to write this treatise on ‘America as Seen by an American’ than any other living person. I remembered how nonpartisan I was; for I was born in the only State which had seceded from both the Union and the Confederacy — West Virginia. As a part of old Virginia it had left the Union, and then had insisted on seceding back again to show that there was n’t any such thing as secession. Great numbers of people had the jarring experience of going to bed in the South and waking up in the North.
Then I thought by what a mellow process my ancestors had migrated. Coming over from England on the good ship Arabella, a few years after the advent of the Mayflower, they had comfortably settled themselves in western Massachusetts and southern Vermont, where they lived for several generations and became numerous. There were hardly any of the New England traditions that they did n’t pick up on the way. Then in 1816, made restless by a series of very cold winters, they loaded their traditions and other household utensils into ox wagons, and set out for West Virginia, which had just been discovered by Daniel Boone. After killing off all the Indians and wolves, they waited for seventy-five years or so until I was born. Then they decided to leave.
This time my parents went to Georgia, where their New England traditions were still in such good repair that we were known as ‘Yankees’; and my father preached in one of the few Congregational churches which enlighten those vast waste-lands south of the Mason and Dixon line. Although I am known as a Yankee in the South, I have never been able to get any Vermonter to admit my condition. So I am a man with two countries
— or with none; and each time I return to Vermont or Georgia I have strangely mixed feelings of coming home and of visiting some beautiful foreign port.
Several years ago I was living in a pleasant little city ten miles from Atlanta. I had spent the previous year in Vermont, and all my impressions were heightened by the contrast. The morning sunshine was deliciously bright, and the air was too soft for early spring. Dogwood and azalea gleamed from the hillsides, and seedling peach-trees, with their riotous pink bloom, almost impeded the sidewalk that led to the public square a mile away. Rambling houses, with large yards full of irresponsible but pleasing shrubbery, bordered one side of the street; untouched woodland, all too soon to be cut up into city lots, lined the other side.
I was n’t going anywhere, but I suddenly caught sight of an interesting figure in front of me, who evidently was. He was an old man of seventyfive, and to my surprise he wore the gray uniform and hat of the men who fought under Lee. The easy surety of his unhastened step and the erect height of his figure caught my attention. His beard was white, but his cheeks were fresh-colored; he had a fine forehead and a handsome nose. As I overtook him he turned toward me with courteous dignity.
‘ I have often seen you pass, sir, and have meant to ask you to come in. If you’re a stranger, I want you to feel at home. My name is Colonel Hayes, and I live up there on the hill.’
I thanked him, gave him my name, and then asked: ‘What is the band playing for, up on the square? Is some sort of celebration going on?’
‘Why, yes; this is the hundredth anniversary of the founding of Dekalb County. You will see an historical pageant of all that ever happened here. We have been getting ready for it for weeks. I am to march at the head of the Confederate veterans,’ he added proudly, laying his hand on his sword. As we approached the square, the burst of music grew louder. The lawns and porches were covered with spectators, and the actors in the pageant scurried for their places. It was easy to see that neither past, present, nor future was to be neglected. The very products of the town were personified. Pretty girls disguised as milk bottles or spring chickens chatted and flirted with blocks of Stone Mountain granite.
Ferdinando de Soto was huddling his savages into their places. ‘Why in heck don’t you Indians act like Indians? Quit bumping into Oglethorpe’s settlers!’
‘Aw, shut up, Jim! You don’t know yerself whether we happened before Oglethorpe or after him.’
‘We happened before him, you poor fish! Oglethorpe won’t be born till I’ve been at the bottom of the Mississippi a hundred years. Look out for Eli Whitney’s cotton gin! Let it get up there in front of the Civil War!’
After a great deal of chatter and confusion and prancing of horses, the different parts of the pageant were properly arranged, and the whole started forward to the sound of music and the waving of banners. The care which had been spent in the preparation of the floats was amazing. Here came a farm wagon, pulled by oxen, and filled with men and women who represented old-time country people. The women wore sunbonnets, and the men cracked long blacksnake whips. Lanterns, bundles of fodder, and homemade baskets were carelessly tied on the back, while half a dozen gaunt yellow hounds trailed behind. Of even greater interest was a miniature logcabin on wheels, with an aged Negro uncle sitting in the doorway. He was no make-believe uncle, but a real one, who had n’t been allowed to change his clothes or anything. In front of the door was fixed a persimmon tree, in whose branches a live possum blinked sleepily.
The part of the pageant which aroused most acclamation was that which depicted the golden days ‘befo’ de wah.’ (There is still only one war in the South. The World War was merely a skirmish between foreigners.) A stately barouche of the days of Andrew Jackson was drawn down the street by shining black horses, and it was followed by a float representing an old-time garden, where a blooming girl in hoop skirts listened bashfully to her dashing lover as he leaned against the white gate. The costumes they wore were not makeshifts, but had been taken carefully from some old trunk that escaped the destructive eye of General Sherman on his march to the sea.
I watched all this with keenest pleasure, and with a comparative eye. How pretty the girls were, and how conscious they were of being girls! There was a general air of physical comeliness, of healthy well-being about the crowd. Among the old people — and there were many of them — I noted the serene, cheerful eyes, the gracious manner, the consciousness of not having lived in vain. I saw none of those sour, wizened, disappointed faces that I confess have constantly pained me in New England, whether in the Boston subways or in the back country. Nor did I see on a single face the thwarted look of an old maid. I thought to myself, ‘Vermonters look like rodents in comparison with this lordly race. How delightful is their hospitality, their scorn of pettiness, their willingness to give or lend a neighbor all they have!’ I had never before seen a whole community take a day off for such joyous play.
When the procession was over, all gathered round the courthouse steps to hear the speeches. Several handpicked high-school boys were to deliver declamations, and then the Governor was to give an address. There was a rather taking air about the easy confidence with which the boys faced their audience, but I was made uncomfortable to see with what enthusiasm their platitudes were received, and to note the priggish pompousness with which the youngsters strutted off the platform. And if the boys made me uncomfortable, the Governor filled me with despair. Could it be possible that these people were listening with eager approval to this terrible stream of outworn bombast, race hatred, religious intolerance, and repudiation of all modern thought?
As the gathering dispersed, I went into a little restaurant with most of my happier thoughts scattered. I reflected gloomily on the Klan, and all the sinister implications of a civilization founded on serfdom. But it would n’t do to spoil a holiday this way, so I turned my mind to the assertion of Walter Hines Page that the two greatest curses of the South were oratory and fried food. I agreed as to the oratory. Now for the food.
‘Uncle Ned,’ I said to the waiter, ‘what have you to-day?’
‘Well, suh, we ‘ve got some nice fried chicken, an’ some fried ham.’
‘But I ‘m not very hungry; have n’t you some vegetables or fruit?’
‘No, suh; I don’t reckon we has, boss. Dey’s some right nice ‘sparagus, what Marse Henry’s Yankee fren’ sent ‘im de roots of, a-growin’ out in de garden. Ef you ‘ll wait a minute, I ‘ll fry you a good mess o’ dat.’
‘You don’t mean to say you ‘d fry asparagus ?’
‘Yassuh. Dat ‘s de onlies’ way dey is to cook it, suh.’
I glanced at the menu card in despair. ‘No. Bring me some coffee and a slice of watermelon.’
The next September I was in Vermont again, facing a brisk and disagreeable wind. The brilliant maple leaves were swirling down in showers.
‘Autumn suits the mood of this stern country,’ I thought. ‘See how tight-shut each little house is, huddled graspingly over the stores in its cellar. The doorways seem to repel rather than invite the stranger.’
But just then my genial friend, the professor of Greek, came out and called me: ‘ Come in and sit by my fire, and drink some cider with me!’
‘ I really believe you Vermonters are as hospitable as Southerners when one gets to know you,’ I said. ‘ I ‘m homesick for Georgia, and I hope you won’t mind if I talk about it.’
‘Of course not,’ he replied sympathetically.
‘Well, to begin with, why don’t you have any front porches in Vermont? The houses look positively bald without them. Is it because winter begins before summer has ended?’
‘That is one reason; but the chief one is that no Vermonter would have time to sit on a porch if he had one.’ This offered food for meditation; but our attention was attracted to a stoop-shouldered young instructor hurrying furtively across the campus with a baby carriage, as if humiliated at his own indiscretion.
‘How unusual to see a Vermont teacher with a baby,’ I remarked. ‘A Georgia professor thinks nothing of flinging his eight children into a Ford and taking them to the river for a day’s fishing. If one or two of them get struck by lightning or kicked by mules, he has some left. There’s no race-suicide among us Anglo-Saxons down in Georgia,’ I concluded proudly.
‘I know it,’ my friend replied sadly. ‘You ‘re quite right. You have vitality down there, and the future is before you. Up here we have our frozen hillsides, and a past, and plenty of experience.’
‘Yes,’ I agreed, ‘and you know more than we do, and live more deeply. Vermonters may look like rats and feel like hedgehogs, but they think and work and aspire like human beings. Certainly you hear nothing of Klans and mobs and the “honor of a gentleman,” and legislators passing laws against the fact of evolution. After going through one of your winters, I no longer wonder that your Vermont farmer is n’t lavishly hospitable; he deserves infinite credit for merely keeping alive.’
‘Yes,’ declared my Greek professor warmly, ‘I suppose there is a more subtle and seasoned philosophy behind the gnarled face of our Vermont farmer than behind the handsome exterior of a Southern colonel. It is n’t easy to plumb the heart of a Vermonter,’ he mused, almost betraying a trace of sentiment.
‘It’s true,’ I conceded. ‘I’m afraid you have us beaten on a good many counts. I certainly feel more within the confines of civilization here. And if I ‘m choosing a creed, I ‘ll have to take yours/
‘You are really very flattering,’ he murmured.
‘But,’ I cried, with a burst of enthusiasm, ‘if I give Vermont the allegiance of my head, may I not leave my heart in Georgia, near the blue hills? And may I not, like Odysseus, weep for longing to see the smoke rise from my native land?’
‘You may!’ declared my friend generously. ‘You may!’
And so I left him.
‘Really,’ I said to myself, ‘really, if I ‘m to enjoy this new British sport as it deserves to be enjoyed, I must n’t take it too seriously. No, I positively will not take it seriously.’
And with that I went to bed.