Mrs. Macdowell and Her Colony

Biographer, novelist, and lecturer of the homespun truth. ROLLO WALTER BROWN has written a series of memora - ble portraits in his most recent book, Harvard Yard in the Golden Age. Twenty-five years ago, when he was struggling to get his footing us a writer. Mr. Brown enjoyed the stimulating friendship of the MacDowell Colony. Out of that association and out of his abiding admiration for Mrs. MacDowell comes this tribute to a great American and the creative spirit which she has kept alive.

by ROLLO WALTER BROWN

1

IT is time to take a considered look at the life of Mrs. Edward A. MacDowell and the retreat for the creative-minded which she established in 1 he hills of New Hampshire. For what she set out to do — at fifty years of age — was potentially one of the most significant enterprises ever undertaken in the United States. And now, after forty years, it should be possible to see something of the extent to which the cherished dream of her life has been fruitful.

Her understanding of the needs of workers in all the chief arts had its origin in her complete understanding of the needs and the tragedy of one composer. When she went as a young woman — her name was Marian Nevins — to study music in Germany, and was disappointed in her hope of becoming the pupil of Clara Schumann, she swallowed her pride about studying with a German and became the pupil of an American just then professor of pianoforte in the Darmstadt Conservatory — a brilliant young man named Edward MacDowell. In two or three years, without much awareness on the part of either of them, something deeper than a musical friendship developed. When she was ready to return to America, he confessed to her that he could now see that she was indispensable to his life.

From the time when he returned to America a year later, insistent upon marrying her, she never failed to reveal the understanding of the creativeminded that was to become notable in the last halfcentury of her life. She told MacDowell that she had five thousand dollars, and that she would marry him on condition that he would put aside all thought of teaching, live with heron three thousand dollars of the live thousand as long as it would last, and devote himself to composing.

He would do nothing of the sort. Did she think he was going to marry a wife and then settle down to live on her money? Yet he was sure he could not live without the wife. In the end, he came to see how more than perfect her proposed arrangement could be made. And back in Germany in the 1880’s they could live for a long time on three thousand dollars.

Within six months after their marriage, she explained long after, she sat down and arrived at a conclusion. “I had had fleeting visions of a good -even a big-career as a pianist. But MacDowell had the greater talent, and I meant to devote my life to helping him. For ten years after I made that decision I never touched the piano.”

And when they were back in their own country she made her role as helper more inclusive. Much later, when MacDowell had come to be thought of chiefly even exclusively — as a composer, it was not easy to think of him as a pianist that critics not diverted by the “newness” of his manner put near Paderewski — his exact contemporary. But his success at the piano was tremendous, and his wife meant to contribute anything she could toward its maintenance and its increase.

Very unobtrusively she looked out for him. She purchased railroad tickets, she traveled with him, she made hotel reservations, she unpacked and repacked his bags, she saved him from people who might have disturbed his mental preparation for his recital —she left him with nothing to think about except the perfect performance toward which he always looked.

He was full of the tenseness of the thoroughbred. Sometimes in the wings, before he was ready to step out on the stage and face the great audience, he was seized by the dread that this time he might not be able to come up to the very high expectations. Or he imagined that he was not quite completely concentrated, and found excuse for putting in time -until she assured him firmly, and possibly gave him a little push in the direction of the piano. In a flash he was lost in the deep concerns of his program — and so thoroughly alive that he took his audience by storm, as always.

It was a great life — in an America youthful enough to think much more about performers in music than composers. And there would be a greater life still when he could give all of his time to composing. For he was a composer — this she knew. Her objection to his accepting the professorship in music at Columbia when he was invited there was that he would use up all his creative energies in teaching.

When it turned out that the duties of his important post did in fact rob him of much of his time for composing, they tried to make up for it in the long summers on their hill farm in New Hampshire. They had added a music room for him that was well isolated from the rest of the house by means of doors and hallway. But it was not well enough isolated from what was outside of the house — from admiring callers, for instance. So one season Mrs. MacDowell presented to him a Log Cabin that she had designed and that the workmen had brought near to completion. It was deep in the woodland, where he could be absolutely undisturbed, and where there was a view of Mount Monadnock through the trees — in his own words,

A house of dreams untold —
It looks out over the whispering treetops
And faces the setting sun.

Here he could come each day and work without interruption as long as he chose. When he was ready to go home, he could carry to his most perfect of all critics the record of what he had done or had been able to contemplate in fuller detail.

The Log Cabin was the happiest of all arrangements for getting the best of one’s work done. And as his life as a composer suffered more and more at Columbia, the Log Cabin became a symbol of something perfect. He had a vast dream for music and the other arts at Columbia, but when Nicholas Murray Butler became president, MacDowell’s dream did not meet with his approval. The roughshod administrative dismissal of his dream as “impossible and revolutionary" was heartbreaking. So also was the resolution of condemnation which President Butler and the trustees addressed to MacDowell after he had sought to show that President Butler’s explanation in the press had been “misleading.”The whole unhappy incident made only too clear the tragic hazards of a sensitive creative mind lost in a great depersonalized institution.

In the harrowing days of mental depletion and sickness that followed, MacDowell saw how he was only an instance of what was happening to artists in America. His concern for them became almost an obsession. They must have something of the undisturbed opportunity to work that he had found in the Log Cabin.

One morning at four o’clock, in great distress he awakened his wife to tell her how fearful he had been in his sleeplessness, how troubled about the future for her, for their New Hampshire homestead, and for all these others who needed the freedom and the enriching solitude that he had found in the hills. She comforted him by assuring him that she meant to begin at once on a plan. She would make this place where he had found sanctuary into a retreat where some of these others could come and enjoy something of his best experience.

2

THUS it came about that when she was fifty, and while Edward MacDowell still lived, she set out to extend the idea of the Log Cabin. And after his going, she only multiplied her efforts — for nearly four decades. In the beginning she found place each year for a few creative workers, not only in music, but in poetry, playwriting, fiction, painting, and sculpture. She organized an Edward MacDowell Association to acquire more land and build more studios — twenty or twenty-five eventually, she hoped. She would develop comfortable houses, too, in which the Colonists could lodge in quite normal fashion when they were not in their studios.

As for the necessary funds, she knew where she would get them. She would take up the piano again, and give recitals of MacDowell’s music. His work was enjoying a steady popularity, and even if she had played indifferently, there would have been plenty of audiences to welcome her in a recital of this unusual kind. But when audiences heard her they were so startled and delighted by her mastery that in a brief time she was traveling to all parts of the United States to play MacDowell’s music and earn money for her Colony.

She had a way of her own. She was a smallish woman, and often she gave a first impression of being matter-of-fact. As she walked modestly to the piano she somehow suggested that she was of course only of secondary importance on this interesting occasion. But when she was seated, very evidently in complete command of herself, and lifted her hands to the keyboard, suddenly her face was touched with a youthful brightness and her hands were alive with a youthful confidence that made her listeners sure they were hearing the young woman who had long ago played so convincingly for Edward MacDowell. At eighty, when she was ready to give a recital, she lifted her hands to the keyboard in the same characteristic fashion, and in a flash brushed from sight twenty or thirty years of her age.

Her audiences were enthusiastic far beyond their own prepared expectations. They felt as if they had never heard MacDowell’s music played until now. She must play more, and still more. So somewhere along the way, before she played for them yet once again, she stood beside the long piano, with one hand resting on it, and told them about her Colony, and how she cherished the idea of it, and how she knew they would. In consequence, individual friends of music sent her checks; music clubs and sororities sent others; organizations of those interested in one or another of the arts pledged themselves to annual contributions. And of course she turned her own fees for the recitals into the general fund with the rest. In the early period of the development of the Colony, something like eighty or ninety per cent of all the financial support it received came either directly or traceably from her recitals.

She was engaged in an effort to have the human spirit get free and be itself. Measured by what we like to think of as the American ideal, here was one of the most American enterprises imaginable. But representations of the American ideal always look best to us when the agony is over.

There was an old worn-out argument in which many “patrons of art ” took refuge. Weren’t artists born, not made? Could anything be done to help such people? If they had genius in them, wouldn’t it just naturally come out, despite everything, without anybody’s investment of money in them, until their symphonies were being played, and their poems were everywhere being read, and their pictures were hanging in the Metropolitan Museum?

“After all,” a visitor with money in his pocket asked DuBose Heyward, “you could work somewhere else if you just had to, couldn’t you?” When DuBose very courteously replied that as he understood the matter it was not a question of seeing how much resistance a man could overcome in order to get a chance at his work, the visitor said that his interest was in “the finished product.” A dozen or a score of men and women quietly at work in the country on symphonies or choral works or sonatas, on poems or plays or biographical portraits, on significant landscapes, on figures or faces in cool clay, constituted such a simple fact that he could not feel sure that masterpieces would result.

Mrs. MacDowell was concerned with the earlier step when the symphony and the poem and the revealing fragment of fictional life had to come naturally from an honest creative experience that could be completely arrived at only when the outward circumstances of one’s life collaborated with one’s native ability in just the right way. She was sure that someone had declared a truth when he said that the best poem was the one that just escaped not being written at all.

So she worked on for what she knew, as well as anyone can know anything, was a sound idea. When the directors of the Association were skeptical about buying more low-priced New Hampshire farms with more barns and houses, she managed somehowshe was not without diplomatic skills — to keep the idea well planted in their minds until they were ready to admit that she had been right about the matter front the first. Sometimes she was so skillful that some of them came in the end to think of her proposal as one that they themselves had originated. Farmers tilled the soil and cut the hay and corded up the firewood; and builders-in part the men who did the other work — kept adding studios.

3

SO THERE it was, by the middle 1920’s, as she had brought it to a kind of first completion. Just out to the north and west of the village of Peterborough the several hundred acres stretched far over low hills, deep into heavily wooded hollows, and down into the valley of the cheerful little Nubanusit River. On a spreading plateau of a low ridge Colony Hall had evolved from an old barn that the swallows insisted was still there. Very close at hand, the farmhouse had been converted into a lodge for women —The Eaves, spelled by the light-hearted, “Eves.” Just beyond that was a built cottage for married couples when both members of the family engaged in work in the arts. And off to the southward where there was a commanding view of Monadnock to the west and Pack Monadnoek to the east, Mrs. MacDowell had spent six years in building a stone Men’s Lodge. Dark lustrous areas of pine and hemlock that covered hills and filled hollows and surrounded orchards and meadows invited one constantly to pause and enjoy a silence that somehow seemed not to be broken by the echoing chorus of thrushes.

In the 1920’s, too, the Colony seemed to arrive at menial maturity. The Colonists had great diversity of interests, and they had their own self-disciplined excellencies. Merely to watch them move off after breakfast, in their own freedom, in their own way, to an uninterrupted period of work that each one could make as long or as short as he liked, was to catch something of the whole purpose of the Colony and know the atmosphere of creative work that it had come to possess.

Edwin Arlington Robinson, in white golf hat and gray suit, enjoyed walking across the level meadow in the direction of his woodland studio and taking occasional rhythmic swings at clover heads or daisies; Henry F. Gilbert, who looked every inch the composer, seemed to be hurrying away to some movement of an awaiting symphony, lest it escape him; Mabel Daniels went so quietly toward her white studio in the broken shadow of the pines that one was scarcely aware of her coming and going; Elizabeth Sparhawk Jones moved off in such complete command of her proposed day of painting — and all other matters — that there was no reason for not hearing the brightest bit of news available; Thornton Wilder went cheerfully, but as if he were not only enjoying the world but thinking earnestly about it; Grant Reynard rushed away to a spot where he knew the light would be perfect just then; Constance Rourke, very gray but youthful, walked thoughtfully; Herbert Gorman wore a kind of constant expression of appreciation of the place; William Rose Benét moved along in deep serenity; Elinor Wylie flowed across the landscape as regally as a Greek goddess, yet very humanly aware that she was doing the landscape no injury in looks; Leonora Speyer moved with a gust of poetic energy; Padraic and Mary Colum walking together seemed always to be moving at two different speeds. It became a place of recognized importance. The merest list of books and compositions and works in sculpture and painting and black-and-white growing in whole or in part out of summers at the Colony fills many long pages. Edwin Arlington Robinson is more than a fair instance, since he was longer at the Colony than most. But in the two decades of summers when he was there, he wrote either in whole or largely all but four or five of the score of volumes that he published in a lifetime — including The Man Against the Sky, Lancelot, The Man Who Died Twice, Tristram, Cavender’s House, Nicodemus, Talifer, and Amaranth.

DuBose Heyward and Dorothy worked in a double studio where they were undisturbed by each other’s presence, but could talk together whenever they liked; Paul and Alma Ellerbe worked in one studio, as did Alfred Kreymborg and Dorothy; Hervey Allen required plenty of tree-chopping, as I did, and Mrs. MaeDowell marked for us the excess trees that she would be glad to have us take out; Bashka Paeff worked so intently at what she was modeling that she never knew when another Colonist passed close by in the woodsy road; Roy Harris said, after the day’s work was over for two of us, “This is what I am going to make inlo that symphony’; Aaron Copland seemed always to be looking circumspectly ahead; Percy MacKaye en joyed working down close by the Nubanusit River; Douglas Moore found solitude in the most distant corner of the deep woodland, where only terrifying thunderstorms and the occasional visits of a harmless snake distracted him; Margaret Starr McLain, the youngest of all the Colonists at that time, found the whole world alive with poetic suggestions suited to the composer’s needs; Stephen Benét crumpled discarded pages of manuscript into balls and fired them into a corner behind the sofa until his successor in the studio found a bushel or two of fragments of whatever was in mind that summer; Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, quietly alert, represented to everyone the full dignity of music.

Suchi as these were the ones for whom Mrs. MacDowell had been developing a retreat for work — a place that encouraged the creative-minded to do their best, and saved them from any compulsion to do their worst. And here they were—these very ones—together “under the same roof" in the course of a few summers.

4

EVERY two or three weeks Mrs. MacDowell drove up to each studio in a dogcart—drawn by a horse that had made the trips so many times that he required no guidance-and gave a little “Oh-ooh” of a call that meant that she wished to know whether one’s firewood was getting low, or whether there might be any other need. Sometimes she would chat in undisturbing fashion for a minute or two, and then cluck to the horse and drive away. She avoided all impression that she was “running” the place. Once when she walked the half-mile from Hillcrest to Colony Hall, a long automobile drew up in the woodland road and the man at the wheel asked if she did not wish a lift. She accepted. As they rode along slowly in the dusty warmth of August, he asked, “Are you one of the help?” And she replied very truthfully, and without amplification, “ Yes, I am.” That was how it was.

Not even lunch time was to be disturbing. A man drove round in a light truck and left one’s lunch in a basket on the doorstep. There was no obligation to eat the lunch, or even to go out and get the basket, though Mary at Colony Hall did like to have the basket brought back for the next day. Of course, every now and then someone was accepted as a Colonist who had never heard of selfdiscipline and who found the unlimited vagaries of freedom altogether unmanageable. Perhaps he did nothing himself, perhaps he bothered others. Then Mrs. MacDowell very quietly asked for a conference over at Hillcrest and extended an invitation to go.

Nor were the evenings of these quiet days made tense by anybody’s planning or programs. After dinner in a pleasant dining room where there were no visitors. Colonists bowled on the green, or walked to the village for the late mail, or watched Carly Ranck or Chard Powers Smith or Edwin Stringham try to beat E. A. Robinson at cowboy pool, or enjoyed centers of good talk round the fireplace — cenlers created by Elinor Wylie or Esther Willard Bates or Jean Starr Untermeyer or Morris Cohen or Margaret Widdemer or someone else. Sometimes DuBose Heyward read Gullah stories to the group with such brilliance that we knew what the story was saying even if we did not understand the language.

But Sunday evening was an exception. On Sunday evening everybody went over to Hillcrest to have supper with Mrs. MacDowell-and usually a few guests who were interested in the Colony. It was a diverting occasion, with Mrs. MacDowell busy as “help” in seeing that everyone had at least two servings of everything. And then in the presence of the sunset over Monadnock, the Colonists sat on the wide piazza and experienced a slightly different understanding of one another as they talked together away from “home”; or they walked in the garden of old-fashioned New England flowers; or they slipped away to have an informal hour or two of music; something from Bach, something from Gilbert and Sullivan—anything familiar— and occasionally something that Harold Morris or some other composer present had been working on and was willing to play. And then the next day, back to work.

Yet in these years of recognized importance when everything possible was being done to give the Colony permanence, Mrs. MacDowell had to face the most terrible irony of her experience. The great hurricane of 1938 swept through the region and left the Colony such a pitiable lot of wreckage that many people quickly assumed that now the magnificent dream had come to an end. Vast areas of evergreen woodland had been flattened into a confused tangle of treetops and broken trunks and upedged circular beds of roots still clinging to granite boulders. Studios which day before yesterday had stood unnoticed in deep seclusion were now left so completely exposed that it was difficult to believe they had been in the landscape all the while.

Mrs. MacDowell disclaimed thought of abandoning the Colony; yet she admitted that to reopen it would require hard work, and more money than was anywhere in sight. She wrote countless letters. She turned to the piano again — in her early eighties. In all, she needed at least forty thousand dollars.

The stump-pullers and the lumbermen went to work. In a year, areas that had been solid woodland were as bare as a pasture field. The Colony that one remembered was not to be seen. Yet somehow it was still the Colony. The idea had not been destroyed. The earth could be depended upon to heal its own wounded nakedness — in time. While nations were seeing how completely they could destroy one another in a second World War, the trees of Peterborough grew.

And the march of the years brought another problem — the basic inescapable problem that sooner or later presents itself in any enterprise that has been developed by an individual. This individual has the great necessary initial enthusiasm for the idea upon which the enterprise is based. In the course of time when inevitably he must step aside, how can his clear-sightedness and high faith be taken over and perpetuated by a board of directors whose members are primarily occupied with something else? There is danger that the original idea will become so deeply incrusted in substitutes for vitality, in casual trappings, in the machineries of organization, that the essential breath of life will be smothered. All kinds of basically important ideas pass through such a state of crisis, and whether they survive depends upon their good or bad fortune in having someone rise up who sees with the clairvoyance of the founder — and with something added to meet the new circumstances. At ninety-one, when Mrs. MacDowell can look back over forty years of the Colony’s life, she can know that her idea by its own nature has found so deep a response in the lives of those who have benefited by it that they will have it go on in perpetuity.

“If I had never done anything else,”she once said, “than give Edwin Arlington Robinson a place to work for twenty years when he was sure he never would be able to find such a place, I’d feel that the Colony had been worth while.” But it is not a matter of one such distinguished person; it is not a matter of the group that seemed in the 1920’s to mark the Colony’s arrival at maturity. She has the greater assurance provided by a vast procession of several hundred Colonists now working in the arts in America. Not all of them have the complete devotion to the Colony that Robinson had, but their total devotion is very great. And men and women who were not yet born when the Colony came into existence are every year arriving in Peterborough with their own fresh vitalities to perpetuate the original conception in new ways.

The creativeness of the idea touched Mrs. MacDowell’s own will to live. It filled her with a great reason for going on and on. When her eyes were darkened by cataracts, she dictated her letters, talked to anyone who came to see her, and awaited the operation that would enable her to have some of her sight back so that she could do more work. When she was dangerously ill in her eighties, she nodded toward the nurses and attendants with an appreciative smile of tolerance and said to the village dentist, an old friend, ”They think I am going to die!” When she was ninety and one day fell and broke her hip, everybody shuddered. But in two or three months she was going about on the latest-style crutches and riding to the village with her devoted friend Nina Maud Richardson. The Association had taken over the direction of the Colony, with Mrs. Parker Fillmore in charge, but one Sunday evening Mrs. MacDowell had all the Colonists come over to Hillcrest for supper with her, just as she had always done. Never was Charles W. Eliot more occupied at ninety with the fortune of ideas, nor Bernard Shaw keener of mind.

There had come to be an unusual kind of summing-up. Shelves in her house or in the very useful Colony library that she had patiently developed were lined with volumes written by Colonists and sent in appreciation—just as composers sent scores, and painters sent illustrated catalogues, and workers in black-and-white sent prints. In other parts of the country friends of the arts began to remember the Colony in their wills. In other parts of the country, too, where efforts were being made to give the creative-minded a fairer chance, the Colony was used as a model. And all these many evidences of what Mrs. MacDowell had set in unending motion found her actively here to see them. She has provided the ultimate demonstration that the creative spirit is in truth creative.