The Country Bug

IT is rather interesting to notice how persistently our popular literature keeps on exploiting the various aspects of American country life, and how insatiable the popular appetite for that sort of literature appears to be. All of twenty years ago fictioneers began giving us a horse-doctor’s drench of revolting romance about the goings-on in barnyards of the Mississippi Valley; and from this there followed on in logical order the still more revolting fictional exploitation of crackerdom, share-croppers, and denizens of the dust bowl. A new development has lately taken place, however, which perhaps promises better; in theory, at least, it is better. Publishers seem to have become aware that the best they can do with our rural life is by way of personal narrative, and that this best may be a very good best indeed; it may be something which a civilized spirit can read with interest and gratitude. Perhaps their enlightenment may some day spread to cover our urban life as well; one sincerely hopes so.

Thus we have lately had the lifestories of persons presumably more or less typical, who for one reason or another have taken up with rural life and like it; at least they say they like it, and one may not go behind the returns. We have had the epic of the country doctor and the country lawyer. A friend remarked to me yesterday that the country dentist had not as yet been heard from; no doubt his turn is coming. As I say, two of the four learned professions — Law, Literature, Theology, and Medicine — have already been accounted for, and it is now the turn of Theology, which has come forward with a volume called Forty Years a Country Preacher, by a clergyman of the Episcopalian persuasion, Reverend George B. Gilbert.

The preface, which is by another hand, seems to suggest that the production of the book was not arrived at spontaneously. It states that by some kind of poll or plebiscite Mr. Gilbert was chosen as ‘the typical country minister of the United States,’ and that he wrote the book by request. Who organized the poll, or who did the requesting, is not clear. Sinful persons, like my cynical friend who made the remark about the country dentist, might smell the blood of a publisher in this account of the enterprise. That, however, is as it may be; and if the suspicion were ever so well founded, it puts no discount on the very great merit of either book or author.

The story is simple. Mr. Gilbert has put in a lifetime at every conceivable kind of hard work in the service of what our demagogues and uplifters are fond of calling ‘underprivileged’ people, mostly sub-proletarian, in an appalling brokendown region of central Connecticut. This sort of thing is exactly what he was cut out to do, and what he most liked to do, and therefore he got the reward of a happy life. That is all there is to it. Under those circumstances a man is bound to be happy — there is no help for it, he can’t be unhappy if he tries; and if he writes a book he can’t help producing a happy book. Mr. Gilbert’s book is no more introspective than a glass eye. What a relief it is to turn up a life-story without a shade of self-questioning, uncertainty, or disappointment.

For thus bringing the reader into the powerful and salutary contagion of sheer happiness, this story, simple as it is, deserves the strongest recommendation. Its spirit cannot possibly be counterfeited. Mr. Gilbert is not carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, and neither is he taking refuge in any snuffy piosity, still less in any fraudful and vapid Pollyannaism. There are few such stories going, far too few; and for those few the civilized reader would cheerfully swap off the whole dismal mess of pseudo-Freudian autobiography at a ratio of sixteen to one, and throw in all the share-croppers, crackers, barnyards and dust bowls, for lagniappe.

Mr. Gilbert’s book makes him out to be a man of many gifts. It does this casually, without putting on any airs about it, but the inference is clear. He seems to be a first-class farmer, a good plain cook, a pretty fair jackleg plumber, and something quite considerable in the way of a builder, painter, carpenter, barber and all-round mechanic. His idea seems to have been to make himself the social-service factotum of all outdoors, not to Episcopalians especially, but to anybody whom he could help and make happier; and there were so many of these in that wretched locality that he had no trouble about finding plenty to do.

He preached anywhere and everywhere, and faithfully administered the offices of the Church, but there is no evidence that he thought much about rounding up a congregation or ‘ building up his parish ‘ in the conventional way. His congregations pretty well made themselves; so did his Sunday Schools. He liked children, knew what they liked and needed, and was promptly on hand with whatever resources he had to brighten their lives; and so the poor jetsam of those regions for miles around cottoned to him valiantly with no sense of being under any institutional pressure. Mr. Gilbert did not use his gifts as bait to get children into his Sunday School or their elders into his church. His notion was that the exercise of those gifts— cooking, haircutting, tinkering of all kinds — was an integral part of his Christian ministry, as much so as preaching, baptizing, burying. His job was to keep those gifts in action among all the needy souls in his bailiwick, and whatever came of it was the Lord’s lookout, not his.

This division of responsibility seems to have worked uncommonly well with all hands except Mr. Gilbert’s bishop and most of his clerical brethren. They were rather in a quandary. Brother Gilbert certainly got results — there was no doubt about that. He was no heretic, not ‘unsound,’ — whatever that is,— nor was he even irregular. He did not make much of the purely ecclesiastical and theological sides of his calling, but he kept within the law. He was informal to the last degree; that was the trouble. He cooked rousing beef stews in church, between services, for his poverty-stricken people who hardly ever had a square meal. He sometimes forgot to remember to put on vestments on a broiling summer Sunday. He brought a rockingchair to church for a very old woman who could not sit comfortably in a pew; and another for a woman who had a fretful baby. All this sort of thing was not exactly wicked or profane, and he could not be had up for it, but it was improper, indecorous. Worst of all, Brother Gilbert had the scandalous habit of speaking his mind in full on any subject whenever he saw fit; and in orthodox clerical circles that is one of the things that simply aren’t done. So the brethren bore down hard on Brother Gilbert for a while, but, finding that nothing came of it, they finally decided to charge him off to profit and loss, and let him alone; which, he says, was all he ever wanted.

Mr. Gilbert’s book sets one to wondering afresh about the actual connection between religion and organized Christianity. His case seems to make it pretty clear that they are not the same thing. Put him through any test that the New Testament sets, and he qualifies as a religious man, doing a religious work. Saint James, who ought to be something of an authority, says that pure and undefiled religion is to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. Brother Gilbert seems to have filled this bill in a rather distinguished way. He was as unworldly as they come, naïvely so, and he not only visited the derelict but spent his life feeding them, cleaning them up, cutting their wood, mending their roofs, riding herd on their children, and standing by with every conceivable kind of comfort and assistance. This being so, the interesting question is, what part did organized Christianity — that is to say, the Christian Church as an institution— actually play in it? Putting a sort of spiritual cost-system on the production of Brother Gilbert’s results, how much do we write up to the credit of the institution, and how much to the credit of the man behind the gun?

It is a hard question, for the answer has to take account of so many imponderabilia; yet the interesting thing about activities like Brother Gilbert’s is that they make us ask it. Certainly those who are impatient with organized Christianity and would make a clean sweep of it should look up their history and think again. Just as one little matter by way of illustration, in the Dark Ages, from the fifth to the eleventh century, it was Christianity, organized in the monastic institutions, that preserved the seed of whatever civilization we now have. That is a fairly long mark to its credit. If our civilization is on its way into another Dark Age, as seems by no means impossible, what institution now existing can be relied on to perform a like service? I know of none.

On the other hand, it is clear that Brother Gilbert’s branch of organized Christianity distinctly did not appreciate him beyond the point of a chilly and ungracious tolerance. As in the Church of the Middle Ages, from the eleventh century to the sixteenth, his conception of practical religion was distinctly not that of the organization. As a Christian minister, Saint James would have as rough going in a Connecticut or New York parish today as he would have had under the papacy of Julius II or Leo X; the terrible experiences of Leo’s successor, Adrian VI, are worth recalling in this connection — he lasted only one year. There is a close parallel here with political party organization. In republican politics, as Benjamin Franklin observed and as we all now so plainly see, one’s duty to the party takes precedence of duty to the country; and as John Stuart Mill further observed, the political test of a great mind is its power of agreement with the opinions of small minds. Much the same is true of organized Christianity, as Brother Gilbert seems to have discovered. The brethren looked askance at him because it was his first duty to become an ‘organization man’; essentially the same requirement that Tammany puts upon all its votaries, from the Grand Sachem down to the humblest wardsman.

Brother Gilbert did not see it that way. He had no favors to ask. He was doing very well where he was, and had no personal ambition — indeed, when the chance of some slight preferment came his way, he declined it. Being an ‘organization man’ involved too much that is nonessential to what he regarded as the main enterprise, too much even that is dead against it; too much finesse, too many hostages to expediency, too much indirection, too much sheer intellectual dishonesty, too much moral and spiritual dishevelment — no, the organization’s favor was not worth the price. He was loyal, conscientious, lawabiding, and that ought to be enough. So Brother Gilbert and the organization were finally content to establish a modus vivendi on terms of what the diplomatists call ' distinguished consideration.’

This somehow seems rather a pity. One thinks that the organization would have done better by itself if it had loosened up a little, taken Brother Gilbert wholeheartedly ‘as is’ and made the most of his gifts. In the long run, the accumulation of power and prestige is as bad for an institution as it is for an individual. Today, for example, our political system has become institutionalized to the point where great numbers of people regard a man’s acceptance of public office as prima facie evidence that he is utterly unfit to hold it — and who can be quite sure that they are wrong? This is bad for the institution, for if its power and prestige are best served for the moment by pliant knaves and charlatans it will attract no other, and in the end its supporting social structure rots away. The case of the Church seems analogous; if it chooses to be manned and represented chiefly by ‘organization men’ and gives them preferential treatment for the sake of an immediate and temporary self-edification, it is merely fostering the conditions of its own ultimate decay.

Besides being an animating and delightful story, Mr. Gilbert’s book presents a number of matters which are worth some thought; for instance, his few words about our rural slums’ being as bad, or almost as bad, as our urban slums. No doubt they are bad, and my own impression is that Mr. Gilbert’s lot was cast among specimens as bad as any we have. No doubt they should be improved. But while his words fall in very well with the great popular urge for ‘social legislation’ and the current to-do over the one-third — or was it twothirds?— who are ‘ill-fed, ill-clad, iilhoused,’ one ought not to forget the curious fact first observed, I believe, by Herbert Spencer, that the more things improve, the louder become the exclamations about their badness.

We all remember that we were by a long way farthest towards being a sober nation when the great movement for prohibition set in. When women were actually under serious legal and social disabilities, not much was said or thought about it; the earlier assertions of ‘women’s rights’ aroused more derision than excitement, even in the disabled sex itself. It was only when the disabilities had been removed and most of the rights secured — that is to say, about twentyfive years ago — that the hullabaloo began. So with labor; so with education; so with the franchise; so with general social welfare. When things were at their worst, little was said about their badness; it was always when they were at their best that a great sweat set in.

It is well to keep this rule in mind, because getting into a great sweat is the worst thing that an excitable, violent, ill-balanced people can do. It has kept us at the mercy of designing demagogues, propagandists and swindlers throughout our national existence, and dearly have we paid for every indulgence. Here is a signal merit of Mr. Gilbert’s book — he sets us an example of sanity and common sense which it would be money in our pocket to follow. He says that while outrural slum conditions have notably improved, they are still bad; but he does not get up a great sweat about them. He is calm, just, clear-minded, too well informed to think the job can be done overnight by magic; and at the same time he is resolute about doing his share of improvement wherever and however he can. One lays his book aside in full belief that a couple of regiments of Gilberts scattered about the country would do an infinitely more intelligent and lasting job of slum clearance in six months than all the planners, crusaders, bureaucrats and social-service wizards in Washington could do in twenty-five years; nor yet would they set us all by the ears or pick our pockets while they did it.