My Island Home

This is the second installment of one of the most endearing American autobiographies the Atlantic has ever published. My Island Home recounts the aspirations and adventures of an Iowa boy who early in this century worked his way through school and college and whose dream it was to find an island solitude where one day he would write. It was not until his return from a German prison camp in 1919 that JAMES NORMAN HALL made friends with Charles Nordhoff, and out of their friendship which ripened in Paris came a literary partnership unique in American letters. The Atlantic’s four-part abridgment comprises about one third of this memoir.



ON a morning in late September of 1906 I boarded the train for Grinnell with the feeling of having burned my bridges behind me. I was in a sober mood and my father’s parting words kept repeating themselves in my mind. He was disappointed that I had not accepted Mr. Gould’s offer but made no attempt to dissuade me from going to college. As we stood on the station platform watching the train coming down the Mitchellville grade, he said, “ Well, son, I hope you are doing the right thing. Only time can tell.”

The train was filled with students, some for Grinnell but most of them for the state university at Iowa City. Across the aisle from me sat a young fellow who looked as though he, too, were going to college for the first time. We glanced at each other in a speculative way and presently he crossed over to sit with me.

“Where to — Grinnell?” he asked.

The fact that we were both bound there as freshmen made an immediate bond between us, and this was strengthened when we learned that we were in the same fix with respect to money. He came from Westside, Iowa, and his name was Chester C. Davis. Chester was on the first leg of a journey that was to take him to Washington, D.C., a generation later as head of the AAA in President Roosevelt’s administration, and later to St. Louis, where he is now president of the Federal Reserve Bank.

On that September day Chester’s reserves in cash were like my own — a bit scanty. Each of us had enough money to pay our tuition, $65, with two or three spare five-dollar bills for immediate expenses. Chester’s heart was as light as his pocketbook; it was reassuring to meet a man so completely certain of the rightness of going to college, and my own small misgivings melted away before we had talked five minutes.

We were both naturally concerned about the prospects of getting immediate employment. As it proved, we need not have worried. There was a Student Reception Committee on the station platform; from this we were passed on to the Student Employment Committee, and that same afternoon I was raking autumn leaves from the lawn of a house on Park Street, bordering the west side of the campus and within a block of the place where I had first heard the Glee Club Marching Song. I found enough work doing odd jobs to pay my room rent $3.50 per week — and another job peeling potatoes at the Grinnell Kitchen, a rather small restaurant in town, provided board. Chester, with more foresight and enterprise, started a student laundry agency and had the further resource of being made janitor of one of the College buildings.

The proprietor of the Grinnell Kitchen, who was also the cook, was a big pothellied man with closeset eyes, and always with two or three days’ growth of beard on his greasy face. My kitchen companion was a dried-up little woman around sixty, with no teeth and no voice. When she spoke, it was in a whisper and she was scared stiff of our boss. Her name was Abbie.

It was all but incredible to me that anyone could peel potatoes so fast; she could do four to my one. What annoyed me was to have the proprietor stand by, with his big greasy hands on his hips, watching me at work with Abbie; naturally, that did not make me any more efficient. Steaks and French fried potatoes were the specialty of the house. Luckily, the boss was so busy at the stove most of the time that he could not watch over me; nevertheless, he managed to give me a few words of encouragement now and then.

In time I became a fairly good potato peeler, leaving more and more of the potato intact. Abbie was a first-rate teacher, and instead of four to one it became two to one. I might not have been fired at all except for my reading of “The Passing of Arthur.” During the week that followed, although I went as usual to the Kitchen, I was not really there, but in

the place of tombs,
Where lay the mighty bones of ancient men,
Old knights, and over them the sea-wind sang
Shrill, chill, with flakes of foam. . . .

I could not explain to Boss Kay the reason for my absent-mindedness, and so ended my potato-peeling job.

Looking back to those days, I now see how large a part of the benefits I received from college came indirectly, merely by my being exposed to such influences as that of Professor George L. Pierce, head of the School of Music. It was thanks largely to him that our lives were so filled with music, absorbed unconsciously, through the pores of our skin, so to speak. Most of us came from small towns where our knowledge of music had been confined to school songs, church and Sunday-school hymns, and Saturday night band concerts. I say nothing in disparagement of such music, for I am still fond of it — just as I am of barbershop quartets, developed in Iowa to their highest perfection; but young men and women, often without realizing the fact, are ready and eager to go on from there. At Grinnell I heard orchestral music for the first time. There was a college orchestra, directed by Professor Pierce, and a string quartet in which he played the cello; both gave concerts throughout the year, and I must by no means forget the pipeorgan music of Professors Seheve and Matlack, heard daily at chapel and the Sunday vesper service. The vesper service came at five in the afternoon, and I doubt whether, at any college in the U.S.A., a more beautiful one could have been heard.

In the spring of every year was held the May Festival, when members of the Chicago or the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra visited the College for a series of concerts, and what these meant to the students of my day could not be measured in terms of words.

It was my new friend, Roy Ray Roberts, who suggested that we should enter the glee club tryouts. He had an excellent bass voice and bubbled over with self-confidence for the pair of us; and so we were among the thirty or more hopefuls who gathered in the chapel for the first tryout.

Professor Pierce, who directed the men’s glee club, was of medium stature, quiet in speech, and his nose glasses gave him an air of good will. I felt en rapport with him at once, and when my turn came to stand at the piano while he tried out the range of my voice, I “ahed” up and down the scale with a semblance, at least, of Roy Roberts’s ease of manner. When Professor Pierce had thoroughly tested my range he glanced up with an encouraging smile. “A quite good second-tenor voice,” he remarked to the other members of the club who were listening, grouped around the piano. Then came the test at sight-reading. With Roy I survived the second and third tryouts and eventually I received a little formal note on glee club stationery notifying me that I was accepted.

The members of the glee club came from all four classes, and owing to their close association I found here an epitome of the Band of Brothers I had so often dreamed of. Furthermore, the men’s and the women’s glee clubs made up the vesper choir, with the result that we were always present at the Sunday vesper service. This service was something to be looked forward to from week to week. I was not a devout young man, in the accepted meaning of the term. I did not belong to the College Y.M.C.A. and attended none of the Bible-study classes. But the vesper service seemed to me true spontaneous worship.

My second-tenor part in the glee club was exactly suited to my abilities. I enjoyed it with all my heart, particularly when, during the Christmas and spring vacations, we set out for the usual concert tours through Iowa and the adjoining states. We sang in small towns and large towns, and during the spring vacation of 1909 we made a tour as far as he Pacific Coast, giving concerts all the way along, both going and coming. But the greatest pleasure, to me at least, came when we sang in towns in our own part of the country. The concerts were usually given in churches always packed to the doors, with additional seats placed in the aisles. It was wonderful being able to assist in giving such evident pleasure to so many people. Belonging to the glee club was my heaven on earth at this time.


HAVING been fired as a potato peeler I had to find a new job without delay. Luckily Mrs. Silver, who owned the Bristol House, gave me employment as one of her student waiters. Learning to be a waiter was a far easier task then mastering the art of potato peeling. My first duties at the Bristol House were to fill glasses with ice water and set one at each place, along with a pat of butter, as the guests entered the dining room; then to act as bus boy when they had finished their meals. I soon became expert at this job and could hoist on one hand a large tray stacked high with dirty dishes, kick my way through the swinging doors to the kitchen, and slide the dishes across the come-back table within easy reach of the claws of Grandma Ridder who presided there. From this job I soon graduated to waiting on table.

The Bristol House served excellent meals — nothing fancy, but good country fare of the first quality. Mrs. Silver did her own marketing and would have nothing but the best cuts of meat and the finest and freshest of fruits and vegetables. She was an extremely careful buyer, for quantity as well as quality; she made the closest possible estimates of her need for the day, bound that nothing should go to waste. And nothing ever did.

Mrs. Silver was a far more striking figure than my former employer, Boss Kay of the Kitchen. She may have been around sixty-five at this time, although I doubt that anyone could have guessed her age within a dozen years. Her face had the color of old parchment and was so crisscrossed with fine wrinkles as to be quite expressionless; but her eyes were as blue and cold as polar ice, and her smile had all the warmth of late afternoon sunlight on Siberian snows in the dead of winter. Her hair was snow-white and beautifully dressed, but later I discovered that this was a wig. On one memorable occasion I caught a glimpse of her without the hair, in her own apartment adjoining the lobby. Her head was bald as an egg and somewhat the shape of one. The picture of her that remains indelibly in mind is the one she presented at mealtime, seated at the cash register in the lobby as the guests came from the dining room. She was always immaculately dressed in gowns of heavy silk. She wore large diamond earrings, and her hands, covered with rings,

trembled with diamond sparks
Myriads of topaz lights and jacinth-work
Of subtlest jewelry

as she turned the crank of the cash register. No music could have been sweeter to Mrs. Silver than the ringing of the register bell and the clink of silver falling into the various compartments of the drawer.

One Saturday, toward the end of the luncheon hour, I served a man who sat alone at a table by one of the windows, He was a stranger but had none of the overstuffed appearance of the usual commercial traveler, and when I went to take his order, instead of scowling he greeted me very pleasantly. He ate abstractedly, reading the while from a book propped open before him. It was a book of verse, which aroused my immediate interest. I wanted to know whose poetry it was, but I couldn’t very well stand behind him, peering over his shoulder.

My tour of duty on Saturdays, when I had no classes, came during the latter half of the luncheon hour. The stranger’s attention was so deeply engaged in his book that he read on until the other guests had left the dining room and the doors were closed. At last, glancing up, he beckoned to me and ordered his dessert. I cleared away the other dishes and brought him a piece of apple pie, cheese, and coffee. When he had finished he placed a quarter by the side of his plate. “That was a very nice lunch,” he remarked.

“I’m sorry,” I replied. “We students don’t take tips.”

He glanced at me over the top of his nose glasses.

“I fancied that you were a student,” he said. “Isn’t that all the more reason why you should take them? But no offense, young man,” and he put the quarter back in his pocket. He then questioned me in no perfunctory manner about the College, my studies, what I planned to major in, and the like. When I told him that English literature was to be one of the majors he was particularly interested.

“Good! You are making no mistake,” he remarked. He took up the book he had been reading. “ Would you consider a volume of poetry a tip?” he then asked.

“No, sir,” I replied, promptly.

“Then if one isn’t, neither are two,” he said. He had a brief case propped against the table leg. From this he took another small volume and handed me the two of them. “These books cost me nothing, so you need feel no hesitation in accepting them. They are by an English poet. I think you may enjoy them.” With that he rose, gave me a friendly nod, and left the dining room.

Oh, red-letter day! Oh, increasing, fructifying double tip!

A quarter of an hour later—this was in the spring of 1907 — with all the afternoon at my disposal, I was breathing the fragrance of May from a bench in the Grinnell park, just across the street from the Bristol House. The books were Poems and New Poems, by Francis Thompson. I read on and on, poem after poem, with the eyes of the spirit opened for the first time, it seemed. I had a strange awareness of wakening, budding out —perhaps spring had something to do with this — even as I sat there, taking in new ideas and conceptions in a manner for which “exhilaration” would be far too feeble a word. I had just turned twenty and was behind rather than abreast of the usual burgeoning period in youth. Francis Thompson’s poems furnished the human plant the kind of nourishment needed to force it — to make it put out leaves and twigs and branches on the instant, so to speak. Here for the first time I found explained the brooding nature of the creative spirit before, or between, periods when intense creative energy is again released. I felt that I had always known this, not knowing that I knew.

At supper that evening my unknown benefactor was again at his table. When he asked whether I had read any of Francis Thompson, my fumbling attempt to thank him was, perhaps, more eloquent than any smoothness of speech would have been. He was a discerning man, but even so he could not have guessed the value of his gift to me, at that particular time. His name was Curtis W. Coe, and he was a traveling representative of the Pilgrim Press, a Congregational publishing house in Boston. Later I again met him there, and the acquaintanceship, begun when I was “tipped" Francis Thompson’s poetry, ripened to a friendship that lasted until his death.


AT Grinnell we students had the freedom of the library stackroom, which contained, if I remember correctly, around fifty thousand volumes at that time. The only section that I then cared to explore thoroughly was that devoted to poetry. There was a table by the window giving a good light where I spent some of the happiest hours of my reading life — more than I should have, perhaps, but I have never regretted one of them. There was such a plenitude of choices and directions, and, to me, such a vast amount of unknown territory, that during my freshman year I was like a grasshopper not caring which way I hopped or flew.

At the beginning of my sophomore year I decided that a more orderly progress was called for; and so, remembering the awesome delight I had gotten as a child from the Doré illustrations and the quotations beneath them in Paradise Lost, I decided to read the whole of Milton. But when I realized the extent of the task and computed the amount of time I could allow for it — having board and lodging to earn and other subjects beside poetry to consider — I reluctantly postponed the plan and read only the shorter poems. But there was one poet I read complete at this time — Matthew Arnold. I “consumed" the whole of the Collected Poems, beginning at page one and taking each in the order in which it appeared. Then came a sudden revulsion of feeling with respect to Arnold, for the reason, perhaps, that I had read too much of him at once. I already knew most of Bryant, Poe, Whittier, Holmes, Longfellow, and Lowell, but had never read any of Sidney Lanier or Walt Whitman. It was a curious experience for a young man not yet oriented to come of a sudden upon Whitman. I could always find a message directed to me personally by whatever poet, and Walt did not fail to add his. What he told me was deeply encouraging: namely, that the raw material for poetry lies everywhere about; that the earth and all human life upon the earth are a great inexhaustible reservoir of it.

My ignorance of the outside world, and of much that had happened there throughout the period of boyhood and youth, was abysmal. As I think of it now, it seems all but incredible that any youth could have been so unaware of life beyond his own horizons. It is an indication of how self-centered and self-contained life was at that time in small country towns of the Middle West. I was no reader of newspapers, and had the further limitation of the introvert who spends so much time looking within himself that much of what is taking place around him passes unnoticed. The gaze turned so steadily inward accounts for the great arc of blankness that meets his eyes when they are turned in the opposite direction. It is not that the introvert has any feeling of self-importance; he thinks much about himself but less than nothing of himself. How could it be otherwise with any honest inward-looker?

But I could not be oblivious to my wretched grades in trigonometry, and my flat failure in the final examination was an intellectual defeat. I knew I would not graduate with my class unless I conquered that specter of mathematics. He could not be faced at Grinnell, where there was no summer school, but I learned that he might be, at the University of Chicago. And so to Chicago I went. The gloom of that great city met me in the appalling suburbs, made even gloomier and grimmer by my awareness of the specter.

I got a job to pay for board by waiting on table at the University Commons; then, for a day or two until the summer session opened, I looked about me, waving invisible antlike antennae to get the “feel” of this new environment. The Spirit of the Place seemed to be the collective spirit of millions of human ants completely indifferent to one another, unable to speak to one another even had they wanted to because of the thundering, never ceasing “I will!” of Chicago in the abstract.

That summer was one long period of profound disillusionment, and the University of Chicago seemed to me as inhuman as the city itself. It was far too large, an educational factory rather than a university in the fine sense. Mine was, of course, a superficial view: that of a country youth without human connections there and oppressed by the worst form of loneliness, the solitude of multitude.

The most valuable part of my education during this summer was the discovery of the slums of Chicago. At the University, Sunday was my one day off, and although I sometimes visited the parks, art galleries and the like, most of the time was spent in wandering through those grim districts that I had glimpsed upon first arriving in the city. It seemed necessary to do this, to atone for my ignorance of such places by viewing them week after week so that the romanticist might never forget this side of life in modern Camelot. Perhaps, during one of these day and night rambles, I rubbed elbows with Carl Sandburg, who saw what I saw but was not dismayed, looking over and beyond these cesspools of humanity to the City with the Big Shoulders.

What I saw was no matter for sneering. I went to extremes, no doubt, in seeing so much of one side of Chicago that, except for the University, I was scarcely conscious of any other. I could not picture the city as a husky, brawling, laughing Youth, proud of his strength, and saying “I will!” with the joy and confidence of a great Builder and Creator. When in the early autumn I started for home and the train emerged from the gloom of that great human ant heap into the green country, golden in the September sunshine, I looked back with feelings of profound relief. I had come away with a passing grade and trigonometry was never again to trouble my waking hours.


AMONG the various student organizations at Grinnell were a number of societies whose common purpose was partly social, partly literary. Membership in one or another was open to all and they played an important part in the student life of those days. One evening in my senior year I read a paper on Alfred Tennyson to my group. I don’t remember what impression, if any, I made upon my fellow members, but I was so stirred by the magic of “Mariana” that at the close of the meeting I wandered out to the south campus to cool off.

It was a cloudless starry night and I stretched out on the grass near the outdoor theater, a raised platform of lawn-covered earth surrounded by fine old trees and clumps of shrubbery. Presently I heard voices which I recognized. Two faculty members, Mr. John D. Stoops, Professor of Philosophy, and Professor Peck, Head of the History Department, were having an evening stroll and seated themselves at a corner of the turf-covered stage within a dozen feet of where I lay hidden by shrubbery. They were discussing various students who were or had been in their classes, and presently my name was mentioned.

“He’s another example of the exasperating type of student,” Professor Stoops said. “They seem to have ability in the abstract; it can’t be defined in any other way. You hope it will crystallize so that you can see what it is composed of, but it remains in solution.”

“I know,”Professor Peck replied. “Their promise is always better than their performance. How do you grade such students at the end of the semester?”

There was a moment of silence; then Professor Stoops said, “My tendency is to give them the benefit of the doubt. I’ve been teaching long enough to know how difficult it is to judge them by classroom performance. I believe that most of them get more out of their work than the record shows.”

I listened with deep attention, but they said nothing more on the subject of students. They switched to a discussion of education in general, comparing that given by colleges such as Grinnell with the more specialized training of the universities. Professor Peck feared that liberal arts colleges would, eventually, have to abandon their long struggle for survival. Odds were too greatly against them. Professor Stoops was more hopeful. “Unless life changes beyond anything we have reason to expect,” he said, “liberal arts colleges will never outlive the need for them, provided that they remain true to their long-range purpose.” He was silent for a moment, then added: “And that is to teach young men and women that the bird in the bush is worth two in the hand.”

Presently they resumed their walk, and I remained where I was, puzzling over this remark of Professor Stoops. I puzzled over it for several days. I was encouraged rather than disheartened at having been classed with students having ability in the abstract. It was comforting to assume that one might have it. Nevertheless, as Commencement drew near, I spent some anxious hours thinking of the immediate future. I envied those of my classmates with decided bents and aptitudes; who had known a good two years in advance in what direction they were heading. Some planned to return to the farms, others to go on to scientific, law, or medical schools. But I had Professor Stoops to thank for giving a name to the vocation I hoped to follow: Pursuit of the Bird in the Bush. The only trouble was I couldn’t earn a living by it. However, I was soon to graduate cum laude from the Bristol Hotel. If worst came to worst I could always get by, waiting on table, until something better turned up.

Meanwhile, the return of Halley’s Comet with its great luminous tail announced Commencement for the Class of 1910, and, to the world at large, the belated end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. I doubt whether many college graduates could have received their degrees with more reluctance than I did mine. I would have been content to have “the classic bell” ring me back to old Grinnell for an indefinite period; but whether I would or no, I was now a bachelor of philosophy.

Among the alumni who returned to Grinned during Commencement Week was a graduate of one of the 1890 classes, Mr. C. C. Carstens. He was Director of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, in Boston, and was seeking a young college graduate to join the Society’s staff of Special Agents. I learned of this through Dr. Steiner, Professor of Applied Christianity, who arranged for me to meet Mr. Carstens. As a result of the interview I was offered a position with the Society at a salary of $60 per month.

Mr. Carstens had suggested that upon arriving in Boston, until I’d had time to find suitable lodgings, I should stay at his home in Brookline. I arrived late on a Sunday afternoon and was given a friendly welcome by Mr. and Mrs. Carstens and their three children. After supper he took me into the library, and when we were seated he said with a faint smile, “Now for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.”With his hand he felt his jaw lightly, as though fearing that it had become slightly dislocated, adding: “More commonly referred to as the M.S.P.C.C.” He went on to speak of the many organizations in Boston, both public and private, concerned with social welfare work and so aroused my interest that I went to bed in an eager frame of mind.

Monday morning early we walked together from the Park Street subway station to the State House, and along Mt. Vernon Street, and I followed Mr. Carstens up the footworn sandstone steps into the cool interior of the building at 43 Mt. Vernon Street.

It had once been a spacious old family mansion, and the changes made to convert it to the uses of the M.S.P.C.C. had not been so great as to alter its character. A broad stairway led from the hallway to the upper floors. Fronting Mt. Vernon Street was the office of Mr. Carstens, and adjoining it one for the Assistant General Agent. Behind them were the telephone operator’s booth and switchboard, and the desk of Miss Butler, Mr. Carstens’s secretary, who also received reports of cruelty to children that were brought by complainants in person. The remainder of the lower floor was occupied by a large room, lighted by tall windows facing Joy Street, where the desks of the Special Agents were placed and those for the stenographers and filing clerks.

Having introduced me to the staff, Mr. Carstens left me to my own devices. I was to have no assignments during the first week and to spend my time getting “acclimated” and in learning procedure. Most of the agents were young men, recent graduates of Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, and other colleges and universities.

The records of the Society were kept in filing cases in a large vault adjoining the agents’ room. There I spent much of my time during the first week familiarizing myself with the work I would soon be doing. Some of the records were bulky, to say the least, with cross reference to others where one found the neglected children of one generation becoming the neglectful parents of the next. The early records of the Society were handwritten and dealt for the most part with physical cruelty, some of it incredibly grim. There were cases of beatings and mannings, incest, infanticide, poisoning, death by deliberate starvation. For such revelations one needed more preparation than I had had. Indeed I had such arrears of ignorance to make up that I read evenings as well. The doors at 43 Mt. Vernon closed at 5 P.M. but the agents often remained late, talking over the events of the day, studying the blue complaint sheets impaled on their spindles, outlining the facts of new cases to be investigated.

I had seen no more of Boston than the small area between the Park Street subway station and 43 Mt. Vernon Street. On Saturday evening of my first week I decided to take a stroll and keep a lookout for a possible lodginghouse. My good angel led me in exactly the right direction. I followed Mt. Vernon Street down the hill till I came to Louisburg Square. When I saw that charming little place with its treeshaded grass plot in the center and the dignified old brick houses surrounding it, I thought: “This is the place! If only I could live here!”

I made the circuit once and was halfway around the second time when I stopped short at the Pinckney Street end of the Square, before the house at No. 91. There was a small, neat card, with the word LODGINGS printed on it, in the corner of one of the windows. It turned out that there was a room available which was exactly what I wanted, and on the spot I paid my landlady, Mrs. Atherton, $4.00, a week’s rent in advance.


DURING those early weeks in Boston I was, in fact, a little homesick, and as I sat by the window of an evening I would close my eyes and imagine that I was under the linden tree on my Hill. But my work was so varied and interesting that I soon forgot to be homesick, and when the day ended I looked forward with increasing pleasure to returning to my dormer room on Louisburg Square.

My assignments took me to many a street and alley lined with tenements, and I was conscious of a deepening feeling of indignation toward the City Fathers of Boston who allowed such abominations to exist, and more particularly toward the owners who drew fat revenues from them. A boyhood spent in a small country town in the Middle West had kept me free from any proletarian feeling; it was not until the Chicago summer that I became aware of the gulf that separates the poor from the well-to-do. There were no classes in Colfax. But in Boston the contrast between the dwellings of Beacon Street, Commonwealth Avenue, and other districts in the Back Bay, and the rat warrens of the slums was appalling.

While carrying on with my work at the M.S.P.C.C., at Mr. Carstens’s suggestion I attended the weekly meetings of the Monday Evening Club, held at 3 Joy Street, where papers were read by eminent authorities on social welfare work, followed by round-table discussions. Why is it, I wonder, that I have so faint a recollection of these meetings when I remember so clearly the impromptu lectures of John Powers, janitor at the M.S.P.C.C., and the “roundtable” discussions that followed between John and his audience of one?

John slept in the basement of the building, and in the summer evenings he sat outside the Joy Street entrance, his chair tipped back against the wall, taking his ease as he watched the passers-by. He was a grimy old Diogenes, with a walrus mustache of such proportions that the bowl of his pipe barely reached beyond it. His clothing looked as though he slept in it, and he shaved only now and again. After supper I often joined him at his observation post. John would bring me out a chair and the lecture would begin, interrupted by frequent pauses to relight his pipe.

His opinions on social reform and the various agencies connected with it, including the M.S.P.C.C., were not orthodox. One of his favorite expressions was: “I’m only tellin’ you how it looks to me”; and how things looked to John furnished matter for many discussions between himself and the earnest young social worker from the Corn Belt. He had an innate distrust of all social workers, and others who believed in the possibility, or the desirability, of social betterment. He liked Boston just as it was, particularly the slum areas, and the dingier, the more crowded they were, the better he liked them. I came to think of him as “Old Slum,” the name seemed to fit him so well. One evening when I had told him of my visits to Mullin Court, on one of my cases, and of the conditions there, his comment was: “People in them places has plenty of fun.”

“Fun!” I said. “You think that human beings enjoy being herded in tenements not fit for pigs; that lack even the most primitive conveniences? They are quarreling from morning to night.”

“That’s what I was tellin’ you,” said John. “They love fightin’ and they get more chance when they’re all pigged in together. Mr. Hall, if you was to give every one of them families a nice cottage in the country all fixed up clean an’ tidy, inside of two weeks they’d want to come back to Mullin Court or any other court.”It was useless trying to convince him that all people love decency and privacy and order. “You don’t know nothin’ about it,” he would say. “ You was born and raised in the farmin’ country where everybody has their own home, with cows an’ chickens walkin’ around. You couldn’t give that kind of home to people who was born an’ raised in the tenements. They don’t mind noise an’ dirt; they wouldn’t be comfortable without it. These social workers make me laugh, inside. They think they’re goin’ to change human nature. You do, yourself.”

“No,”I said, “but I think the conditions under which tens of thousands of human beings are forced to live will be changed.” He gave a sardonic grin. “ When they are, you come around an’ tell me. You don’t know Boston. It’s full of shanty Irish, but of course the shanties is bigger here than they was in the Old Country. . . . No, I ain’t login’ no sleep about what social workers will do in Boston.”

One of his contentions disturbed me because I felt that there was truth in it. He believed that it was better for children to be neglected at home than well cared for in whatever institution. “Take the kind of children we have to do with: there ain’t one in a hundred that wouldn’t ruther be in his own home, no matter how bad it is, than in any Home, no matter how good it is.” A considerable number of my later experiences as an agent of the M.S.P.C.C. bore this out. More than once I had a case before Judge Baker, in the Juvenile Court, in which the evidence showed the most gross and palpable neglect, moral and physical, on the part of fathers and mothers who were a disgrace to parenthood. And yet, when the moment came to decide what was to be done with the children, there was no doubt as to their wishes: they wanted to stay with the parents. I realize that this is no valid reason for permitting them to remain. Nevertheless, when the bonds of love between parents and children were unmistakable, it was disturbing, to say the least, to see them broken. I can still hear Judge Baker’s voice, and his words, meant to be reassuring, when the decision was made. “Now, children, I’m going to send you to a good Home where you will be well cared for. I am sure that you will be very happy there.” The children would look at him forlornly as though not understanding, or not believing that such a thing could be; and the parents, well knowing how just the decision was, would listen in woeful silence. And when the moment of parting came, the scenes that followed were, often, deeply affecting. I would try to remain wooden-faced, but it was no easy matter.


NOT far from the broad walk that leads across a corner of Boston Common from the Park Street subway station to the steps mounting to Beacon Street where the Shaw Memorial stands, there is a bench that has for me many happy memories connected with my reading life during the years 19101914. It was no different from other benches that bordered the walks crossing the Common, but it became my custom to choose this particular one when reading out-of-doors in fine weather, on Sundays and during other hours of leisure. When I was last in Boston, I again sat on the identical bench — at least it looked the same — thinking of the books I had read, in whole or in part, at that spot: Don Quixote, Charles Lamb’s Letters, an 850-page pocketsize abridgment of Pepys’s Diary, Edwin Arlington Robinson’s The Children of the Night and Captain Craig. And how many other associations connected with books cluster around that bench! But one stands out above all others. While sitting there one midsummer Sunday I first opened a book which a friend had loaned me: Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.

I read through the whole of that Sunday, missing both lunch and supper, and when the out-of-doors light faded I hurried back to my room on Louisburg Square and read on, until I had finished the tale. The first reading was followed within a week by a second, and I will not venture to say how many times I have reread it since those days. Patusan — the Lord Jim country — is, to me, the most glamorous of all lands that have been imaginatively revealed in the Kingdom of Romance.

As my reading indicates, I continued my double life throughout my four years in Boston: the hope of becoming a writer was the one I held in my heart of hearts. Knowing well by this time my limitations as a poet, I did not aspire beyond them. As I think back to the winter of 1913-1914, the mood of quiet desperation which prevailed during that winter returns to me. I was still tramping through slush and snow along tenement streets in various parts of Boston, with the familiar blue complaint sheets in my pocket. I continued to be deeply interested in my work, and the fact that my wages had been raised from $60 to $100 per month seemed to indicate that Mr. Carstens was, at least, satisfied with it. But I had a growing conviction that the Society’s efforts were of a purely palliative nature. I never doubted the usefulness of the work, but as I peered ahead I could not even dimly glimpse a time when the conditions of life that made it so would no longer exist; and I could see myself, twenty or thirty years later, in a rut growing steadily deeper, and, perhaps, at that time, resigned to remaining within it.

But if I gave up my job, what then? I had no desire to go into any kind of business, and the prospect of making a living by writing seemed hopeless. The net result of four years of such effort in my spare time amounted to: my poem, “October,”printed in the Boston Transcript; “Charwomen,” sold to The Bellman Magazine for $5; and one other poem, “Fifth Avenue in Fog,” for which The Century Magazine paid me $15. My entire earnings, by writing, during four years in Boston amounted only to $20. If I was to leave the M.S.P.C.C. I needed some gainful occupation that would at least keep body and soul together.

During these years I kept in touch with my old roommate, Chester Davis, who had gone West and was then editor of the Miles City Daily Star at Miles City, Montana. In one of his letters he gave me a hint for a possible job that greatly appealed to the solitude-loving part of my nature: that of a sheepherder on the great Western plains. I remember the vagueness of my conception of the actual duties of a sheepherder, but Chester’s picture of his solitary delights, sitting warm and snug by the little stove in his wagon during the long winter nights, perhaps twenty or thirty miles from his nearest neighbor, reading to his heart’s content with the winter winds howling about his shelter, convinced me that there was the life I wanted — for a year, at least. And who could say what literary by-product might not result from the experienced? I could see myself, at the end of the year, with The Memoirs of a Sheepherder under my arm and $600 in cash in my pocket, ready for the next remote destination.

The result was that, early in April, on the spur of the moment, I decided to call the Boston chapter of experience closed. I remember my guilty feeling as I came from Mr. Carstens’s office after a lame attempt to explain the reason for this sudden decision. I had spent four years under his skilled supervision and training, and now I was pulling out with no adequate explanation for such a course of action. I wanted to tell him of my chosen avocation: pursuit of the Bird in the Bush, but, for some reason, I had never felt on easy terms with Mr. Carstens. He never unbent, even when we were drawn together over some of my case histories, cases that were fresh in my mind when we had our last interview. There was feeble-minded Effie, a lanky girl in her late teens, her limbs twitching convulsively. I remember my railway journey with Effie halfway across the state of Massachusetts to the town of Palmer where the Home for Epileptics was located. She was subject to fits, and throughout that interminable journey she kept assuring me that she was “gonna have one.”But she failed to keep her promise and I was able to turn her over to the authorities at Palmer without having had the experience of being male nurse to an epileptic having a fit in the crowded day coach of a Boston & Albany train. There was Mrs. H — and her brood of hopeless children. My guess is that the case history of the H — family is far from complete even today, and that the children of those children are now the neglectful parents of a new brood; for the H — children bred young. The age of consent, with the girls, might be described as “Anytime. Any where. Anyone.” And there was Mrs. O’Brien, the giantess armed with a butcher knife, who when half drunk had chased me round and round her kitchen table; all that saved me was her drunken eagerness to get at me. She tripped and fell, which gave me a chance to dodge out the door, and I barely missed being “crowned” by a china chamber pot which she hurled down at me as I came out the entryway below. I sometimes felt that Mr. Carstens did not fully realize the difficulty in getting complete records in cases of this kind.

I traveled homeward in the day coaches of local trains, all the way from Boston to Colfax. Trains could never go too slowly for me. I loved seeing the country, conscious all the while of the vastness of the continent which we Americans have the good fortune to call Home. As the westbound local crossed the Mississippi into Iowa I had an immediate sense of an altered Spirit of Place. Ever since my Chicago summer the influence of that city seemed to spread westward across Illinois until it reached the Mississippi and there the river halts it. “Thus far but no farther,” it says. To this day I am a kind of Tam o’ Shanter, not feeling safe until the train has crossed the bridge to the Iowa side; then I lean back in my seat and thoroughly enjoy the rest of the journey, through West Liberty, Iowa City, Marengo, and other towns that bring back so many happy memories of boyhood days.

(To be continued)