Grandmother Brown's Hundred Years

by Harriet Connor Brown. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. (An Atlantic Monthly Press Publication.) 1929. 8vo. xvi+369 pp. Illus. $3.00.
THERE is a strange satisfaction about living in the past. We find it as individuals, and more and more as we get older delight to recall and revive the little incidents and circumstances, the varied, long-forgotten human relations, which in their far-reaching insignificance have made us what we are to-day. And the charm attaches more broadly and deeply to the memory of humanity in general. It is not only an interest of mere gossiping curiosity, the collecting and classifying of odd, unrelated events for mere pastime. But all this curious investigation of the past has direct and constant bearing on the present. By learning something of what men have been we are able to divine something of what they are and what they are likely to become.
And it is not only the study of great historical events which makes the past and so the present alive for us. The penetration into the minute detail of the daily life of individuals is often more helpful and more significant. Thus such a vast canvas as is unrolled in this intimate record of Grandmother Brown’s long years, petty and trivial as it sometimes seems, sheds a baring, revealing light upon life just as you and I live it, right here, to-day. We are swept back over three generations and find men and women toiling and suffering and hoping and laughing and weeping over the same petty, absorbing human matters which engross ourselves, in their momentary vastness, to the exclusion of everything else.
Here is the rude struggle for existence as it went on in the Middle West in the first half of the nineteenth century, the close sense of the bare realities of life, the gripping pressure of elementary need met by the strenuous exertion of elementary human capacity. Here is the education of a hundred years ago, primitive as it seems to us, yet sturdy and solid in implanting the essentials. Here are the domestic manners, simple, homely, direct, yet with the kindly sympathy that comes from deeper understanding. Here is the sure structure of morals, built not on a slippery expediency, but on the firm basis of the Commandments. ‘I’ll not compromise when I think a thing is wrong,’says the old lady. And again, in view of some of the things she sees about her: ‘If immodesty is n’t immoral, what is?’ And under it all is the substantial fabric of orthodox Christianity, as securely Fundamentalist as anything in Dayton, Tennessee.
When we read of it all and look about us, we feel in that earlier world an atmosphere of restraint, repression, discipline, which would stifle the rampant twentieth century. ‘Do, not as you would, but as you ought.’ What a strange, antediluvian, incomprehensible doctrine! Those were the days when the categorical imperative meant something. We wonder just how much it means now.
And here comes in the bearing of past upon present. For it was precisely these instincts, habits, virtues, we used to call them, which made the America of our fathers. If they are forgotten, or banished, or explained and psychoanalyzed, which comes to much the same thing, will the twentieth century unmake America, or will it develop a better, richer, surprising, more satisfying world? Some of us may live to see.