Charles Dudley Warner.

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And I'm not sure but the church would suit your retrograde ideas.
It's so Gothic that a Christian of the Middle Ages, if he were alive,
couldn't see or hear in it.

HERBERT. I don't know whether these reformers who carry the world on
their shoulders in such serious fashion, especially the little fussy
fellows, who are themselves the standard of the regeneration they seek,
are more ludicrous than pathetic.

THE FIRE-TENDER. Pathetic, by all means. But I don't know that they
would be pathetic if they were not ludicrous. There are those reform
singers who have been piping away so sweetly now for thirty years, with
never any diminution of cheerful, patient enthusiasm; their hair growing
longer and longer, their eyes brighter and brighter, and their faces, I
do believe, sweeter and sweeter; singing always with the same
constancy for the slave, for the drunkard, for the snufftaker, for the
suffragist, - "There'sa-good-time-com-ing-boys (nothing offensive is
intended by 'boys,' it is put in for euphony, and sung pianissimo, not
to offend the suffragists), it's-almost-here." And what a brightening up
of their faces there is when they say, "it's-al-most-here," not doubting
for a moment that "it's" coming tomorrow; and the accompanying melodeon
also wails its wheezy suggestion that "it's-al-most-here," that
"good-time" (delayed so long, waiting perhaps for the invention of the
melodeon) when we shall all sing and all play that cheerful instrument,
and all vote, and none shall smoke, or drink, or eat meat, "boys." I
declare it almost makes me cry to hear them, so touching is their faith
in the midst of a jeer-ing world.

HERBERT. I suspect that no one can be a genuine reformer and not be
ridiculous. I mean those who give themselves up to the unction of the

THE MISTRESS. Does n't that depend upon whether the reform is large or

THE FIRE-TENDER. I should say rather that the reforms attracted to them
all the ridiculous people, who almost always manage to become the most
conspicuous. I suppose that nobody dare write out all that was ludicrous
in the great abolition movement. But it was not at all comical to those
most zealous in it; they never could see - more's the pity, for thereby
they lose much - the humorous side of their performances, and that is why
the pathos overcomes one's sense of the absurdity of such people.

THE YOUNG LADY. It is lucky for the world that so many are willing to be

HERBERT. Well, I think that, in the main, the reformers manage to look
out for themselves tolerably well. I knew once a lean and faithful agent
of a great philanthropic scheme, who contrived to collect every year for
the cause just enough to support him at a good hotel comfortably.

THE MISTRESS. That's identifying one's self with the cause.

MANDEVILLE. You remember the great free-soil convention at Buffalo, in
1848, when Van Buren was nominated. All the world of hope and discontent
went there, with its projects of reform. There seemed to be no doubt,
among hundreds that attended it, that if they could get a resolution
passed that bread should be buttered on both sides, it would be so
buttered. The platform provided for every want and every woe.

THE FIRE-TENDER. I remember. If you could get the millennium by
political action, we should have had it then.

MANDEVILLE. We went there on the Erie Canal, the exciting and
fashionable mode of travel in those days. I was a boy when we began the
voyage. The boat was full of conventionists; all the talk was of what
must be done there. I got the impression that as that boat-load went
so would go the convention; and I was not alone in that feeling. I
can never be grateful enough for one little scrubby fanatic who was on
board, who spent most of his time in drafting resolutions and reading
them privately to the passengers. He was a very enthusiastic, nervous,
and somewhat dirty little man, who wore a woolen muffler about his
throat, although it was summer; he had nearly lost his voice, and could
only speak in a hoarse, disagreeable whisper, and he always carried
a teacup about, containing some sticky compound which he stirred
frequently with a spoon, and took, whenever he talked, in order to
improve his voice. If he was separated from his cup for ten minutes, his
whisper became inaudible. I greatly delighted in him, for I never saw
any one who had so much enjoyment of his own importance. He was fond
of telling what he would do if the convention rejected such and such
resolutions. He'd make it hot for them. I did n't know but he'd make
them take his mixture. The convention had got to take a stand on
tobacco, for one thing. He'd heard Gid-dings took snuff; he'd see.
When we at length reached Buffalo he took his teacup and carpet-bag of
resolutions and went ashore in a great hurry. I saw him once again in
a cheap restaurant, whispering a resolution to another delegate, but he
did n't appear in the convention. I have often wondered what became of

OUR NEXT DOOR. Probably he's consul somewhere. They mostly are.

THE FIRE-TENDER. After all, it's the easiest thing in the world to sit
and sneer at eccentricities. But what a dead and uninteresting world it
would be if we were all proper, and kept within the lines! Affairs would
soon be reduced to mere machinery. There are moments, even days, when
all interests and movements appear to be settled upon some universal
plan of equilibrium; but just then some restless and absurd person
is inspired to throw the machine out of gear. These individual
eccentricities seem to be the special providences in the general human

HERBERT. They make it very hard work for the rest of us, who are
disposed to go along peaceably and smoothly.

MANDEVILLE. And stagnate. I 'm not sure but the natural condition
of this planet is war, and that when it is finally towed to
its anchorage - if the universe has any harbor for worlds out of
commission - it will look like the Fighting Temeraire in Turner's

HERBERT. There is another thing I should like to understand: the
tendency of people who take up one reform, perhaps a personal
regeneration in regard to some bad habit, to run into a dozen other
isms, and get all at sea in several vague and pernicious theories and

MANDEVILLE. Herbert seems to think there is safety in a man's being
anchored, even if it is to a bad habit.

HERBERT. Thank you. But what is it in human nature that is apt to carry
a man who may take a step in personal reform into so many extremes?

OUR NEXT DOOR. Probably it's human nature.

HERBERT. Why, for instance, should a reformed drunkard (one of the
noblest examples of victory over self) incline, as I have known the
reformed to do, to spiritism, or a woman suffragist to "pantarchism"
(whatever that is), and want to pull up all the roots of society, and
expect them to grow in the air, like orchids; or a Graham-bread disciple
become enamored of Communism?

MANDEVILLE. I know an excellent Conservative who would, I think, suit
you; he says that he does not see how a man who indulges in the theory
and practice of total abstinence can be a consistent believer in the
Christian religion.

HERBERT. Well, I can understand what he means: that a person is bound
to hold himself in conditions of moderation and control, using and not
abusing the things of this world, practicing temperance, not retiring
into a convent of artificial restrictions in order to escape the full
responsibility of self-control. And yet his theory would certainly wreck
most men and women. What does the Parson say?

THE PARSON. That the world is going crazy on the notion of individual
ability. Whenever a man attempts to reform himself, or anybody else,
without the aid of the Christian religion, he is sure to go adrift, and
is pretty certain to be blown about by absurd theories, and shipwrecked
on some pernicious ism.

THE FIRE-TENDER. I think the discussion has touched bottom.


I never felt so much the value of a house with a backlog in it as during
the late spring; for its lateness was its main feature. Everybody was
grumbling about it, as if it were something ordered from the tailor, and
not ready on the day. Day after day it snowed, night after night it blew
a gale from the northwest; the frost sunk deeper and deeper into the
ground; there was a popular longing for spring that was almost a prayer;
the weather bureau was active; Easter was set a week earlier than the
year before, but nothing seemed to do any good. The robins sat under the
evergreens, and piped in a disconsolate mood, and at last the bluejays
came and scolded in the midst of the snow-storm, as they always do scold
in any weather. The crocuses could n't be coaxed to come up, even with
a pickaxe. I'm almost ashamed now to recall what we said of the weather
only I think that people are no more accountable for what they say of
the weather than for their remarks when their corns are stepped on.

We agreed, however, that, but for disappointed expectations and the
prospect of late lettuce and peas, we were gaining by the fire as much
as we were losing by the frost. And the Mistress fell to chanting the
comforts of modern civilization.

THE FIRE-TENDER said he should like to know, by the way, if our
civilization differed essentially from any other in anything but its

HERBERT. We are no nearer religious unity.

THE PARSON. We have as much war as ever.

MANDEVILLE. There was never such a social turmoil.

THE YOUNG LADY. The artistic part of our nature does not appear to have

THE FIRE-TENDER. We are quarreling as to whether we are in fact
radically different from the brutes.

HERBERT. Scarcely two people think alike about the proper kind of human

THE PARSON. Our poetry is made out of words, for the most part, and not
drawn from the living sources.

OUR NEXT DOOR. And Mr. Cumming is uncorking his seventh phial. I never
felt before what barbarians we are.

THE MISTRESS. Yet you won't deny that the life of the average man is
safer and every way more comfortable than it was even a century ago.

THE FIRE-TENDER. But what I want to know is, whether what we call
our civilization has done any thing more for mankind at large than to
increase the ease and pleasure of living? Science has multiplied wealth,
and facilitated intercourse, and the result is refinement of manners and
a diffusion of education and information. Are men and women essentially
changed, however? I suppose the Parson would say we have lost faith, for
one thing.

MANDEVILLE. And superstition; and gained toleration.

HERBERT. The question is, whether toleration is anything but

THE PARSON. Everything is tolerated now but Christian orthodoxy.

THE FIRE-TENDER. It's easy enough to make a brilliant catalogue of
external achievements, but I take it that real progress ought to be in
man himself. It is not a question of what a man enjoys, but what he can
produce. The best sculpture was executed two thousand years ago.
The best paintings are several centuries old. We study the finest
architecture in its ruins. The standards of poetry are Shakespeare,
Homer, Isaiah, and David. The latest of the arts, music, culminated in
composition, though not in execution, a century ago.

THE MISTRESS. Yet culture in music certainly distinguishes the
civilization of this age. It has taken eighteen hundred years for
the principles of the Christian religion to begin to be practically
incorporated in government and in ordinary business, and it will take a
long time for Beethoven to be popularly recognized; but there is growth
toward him, and not away from him, and when the average culture has
reached his height, some other genius will still more profoundly and
delicately express the highest thoughts.

HERBERT. I wish I could believe it. The spirit of this age is expressed
by the Calliope.

THE PARSON. Yes, it remained for us to add church-bells and cannon to
the orchestra.

OUR NEXT DOOR. It's a melancholy thought to me that we can no longer
express ourselves with the bass-drum; there used to be the whole of the
Fourth of July in its patriotic throbs.

MANDEVILLE. We certainly have made great progress in one art, - that of

THE YOUNG LADY. And in the humane alleviations of the miseries of war.

THE FIRE-TENDER. The most discouraging symptom to me in our undoubted
advance in the comforts and refinements of society is the facility
with which men slip back into barbarism, if the artificial and external
accidents of their lives are changed. We have always kept a fringe of
barbarism on our shifting western frontier; and I think there never was
a worse society than that in California and Nevada in their early days.

THE YOUNG LADY. That is because women were absent.

THE FIRE-TENDER. But women are not absent in London and New York, and
they are conspicuous in the most exceptionable demonstrations of social
anarchy. Certainly they were not wanting in Paris. Yes, there was a city
widely accepted as the summit of our material civilization. No city was
so beautiful, so luxurious, so safe, so well ordered for the comfort
of living, and yet it needed only a month or two to make it a kind of
pandemonium of savagery. Its citizens were the barbarians who destroyed
its own monuments of civilization. I don't mean to say that there was
no apology for what was done there in the deceit and fraud that preceded
it, but I simply notice how ready the tiger was to appear, and how
little restraint all the material civilization was to the beast.

THE MISTRESS. I can't deny your instances, and yet I somehow feel that
pretty much all you have been saying is in effect untrue. Not one of
you would be willing to change our civilization for any other. In your
estimate you take no account, it seems to me, of the growth of charity.

MANDEVILLE. And you might add a recognition of the value of human life.

THE MISTRESS. I don't believe there was ever before diffused everywhere
such an element of good-will, and never before were women so much
engaged in philanthropic work.

THE PARSON. It must be confessed that one of the best signs of the times
is woman's charity for woman. That certainly never existed to the same
extent in any other civilization.

MANDEVILLE. And there is another thing that distinguishes us, or is
beginning to. That is, the notion that you can do something more with a
criminal than punish him; and that society has not done its duty when
it has built a sufficient number of schools for one class, or of decent
jails for another.

HERBERT. It will be a long time before we get decent jails.

MANDEVILLE. But when we do they will begin to be places of education and
training as much as of punishment and disgrace. The public will provide
teachers in the prisons as it now does in the common schools.

THE FIRE-TENDER. The imperfections of our methods and means of selecting
those in the community who ought to be in prison are so great, that
extra care in dealing with them becomes us. We are beginning to learn
that we cannot draw arbitrary lines with infallible justice. Perhaps
half those who are convicted of crimes are as capable of reformation as
half those transgressors who are not convicted, or who keep inside the
statutory law.

HERBERT. Would you remove the odium of prison?

THE FIRE-TENDER. No; but I would have criminals believe, and society
believe, that in going to prison a man or woman does not pass an
absolute line and go into a fixed state.

THE PARSON. That is, you would not have judgment and retribution begin
in this world.

OUR NEXT DOOR. Don't switch us off into theology. I hate to go up in a
balloon, or see any one else go.

HERBERT. Don't you think there is too much leniency toward crime and
criminals, taking the place of justice, in these days?

THE FIRE-TENDER. There may be too much disposition to condone the crimes
of those who have been considered respectable.

OUR NEXT DOOR. That is, scarcely anybody wants to see his friend hung.

MANDEVILLE. I think a large part of the bitterness of the condemned
arises from a sense of the inequality with which justice is
administered. I am surprised, in visiting jails, to find so few
respectable-looking convicts.

OUR NEXT DOOR. Nobody will go to jail nowadays who thinks anything of

THE FIRE-TENDER. When society seriously takes hold of the reformation
of criminals (say with as much determination as it does to carry an
election) this false leniency will disappear; for it partly springs from
a feeling that punishment is unequal, and does not discriminate enough
in individuals, and that society itself has no right to turn a man over
to the Devil, simply because he shows a strong leaning that way. A part
of the scheme of those who work for the reformation of criminals is
to render punishment more certain, and to let its extent depend upon
reformation. There is no reason why a professional criminal, who won't
change his trade for an honest one, should have intervals of freedom in
his prison life in which he is let loose to prey upon society. Criminals
ought to be discharged, like insane patients, when they are cured.

OUR NEXT DOOR. It's a wonder to me, what with our multitudes of statutes
and hosts of detectives, that we are any of us out of jail. I never
come away from a visit to a State-prison without a new spasm of fear and
virtue. The faculties for getting into jail seem to be ample. We want
more organizations for keeping people out.

MANDEVILLE. That is the sort of enterprise the women are engaged in, the
frustration of the criminal tendencies of those born in vice. I believe
women have it in their power to regenerate the world morally.

THE PARSON. It's time they began to undo the mischief of their mother.

THE MISTRESS. The reason they have not made more progress is that they
have usually confined their individual efforts to one man; they are now
organizing for a general campaign.

THE FIRE-TENDER. I'm not sure but here is where the ameliorations of the
conditions of life, which are called the comforts of this civilization,
come in, after all, and distinguish the age above all others. They have
enabled the finer powers of women to have play as they could not in a
ruder age. I should like to live a hundred years and see what they will

HERBERT. Not much but change the fashions, unless they submit themselves
to the same training and discipline that men do.

I have no doubt that Herbert had to apologize for this remark afterwards
in private, as men are quite willing to do in particular cases; it is
only in general they are unjust. The talk drifted off into general and
particular depreciation of other times. Mandeville described a picture,
in which he appeared to have confidence, of a fight between an Iguanodon
and a Megalosaurus, where these huge iron-clad brutes were represented
chewing up different portions of each other's bodies in a forest of the
lower cretaceous period. So far as he could learn, that sort of thing
went on unchecked for hundreds of thousands of years, and was typical of
the intercourse of the races of man till a comparatively recent period.
There was also that gigantic swan, the Plesiosaurus; in fact, all the
early brutes were disgusting. He delighted to think that even the lower
animals had improved, both in appearance and disposition.

The conversation ended, therefore, in a very amicable manner, having
been taken to a ground that nobody knew anything about.



Can you have a backlog in July? That depends upon circumstances.

In northern New England it is considered a sign of summer when the
housewives fill the fireplaces with branches of mountain laurel, and,
later, with the feathery stalks of the asparagus. This is often, too,
the timid expression of a tender feeling, under Puritanic repression,
which has not sufficient vent in the sweet-william and hollyhock at the
front door. This is a yearning after beauty and ornamentation which has
no other means of gratifying itself.

In the most rigid circumstances, the graceful nature of woman thus
discloses itself in these mute expressions of an undeveloped taste. You
may never doubt what the common flowers growing along the pathway to the
front door mean to the maiden of many summers who tends them; - love and
religion, and the weariness of an uneventful life. The sacredness of the
Sabbath, the hidden memory of an unrevealed and unrequited affection,
the slow years of gathering and wasting sweetness, are in the smell
of the pink and the sweet-clover. These sentimental plants breathe
something of the longing of the maiden who sits in the Sunday evenings
of summer on the lonesome front doorstone, singing the hymns of the
saints, and perennial as the myrtle that grows thereby.

Yet not always in summer, even with the aid of unrequited love and
devotional feeling, is it safe to let the fire go out on the hearth, in
our latitude. I remember when the last almost total eclipse of the sun
happened in August, what a bone-piercing chill came over the world.
Perhaps the imagination had something to do with causing the chill from
that temporary hiding of the sun to feel so much more penetrating
than that from the coming on of night, which shortly followed. It
was impossible not to experience a shudder as of the approach of the
Judgment Day, when the shadows were flung upon the green lawn, and we
all stood in the wan light, looking unfamiliar to each other. The
birds in the trees felt the spell. We could in fancy see those spectral
camp-fires which men would build on the earth, if the sun should slow
its fires down to about the brilliancy of the moon. It was a great
relief to all of us to go into the house, and, before a blazing
wood-fire, talk of the end of the world.

In New England it is scarcely ever safe to let the fire go out; it is
best to bank it, for it needs but the turn of a weather-vane at any
hour to sweep the Atlantic rains over us, or to bring down the chill of
Hudson's Bay. There are days when the steam ship on the Atlantic glides
calmly along under a full canvas, but its central fires must always be
ready to make steam against head-winds and antagonistic waves. Even
in our most smiling summer days one needs to have the materials of a
cheerful fire at hand. It is only by this readiness for a change that
one can preserve an equal mind. We are made provident and sagacious by
the fickleness of our climate. We should be another sort of people if
we could have that serene, unclouded trust in nature which the Egyptian
has. The gravity and repose of the Eastern peoples is due to the
unchanging aspect of the sky, and the deliberation and regularity of the
great climatic processes. Our literature, politics, religion, show
the effect of unsettled weather. But they compare favorably with the
Egyptian, for all that.


You cannot know, the Young Lady wrote, with what longing I look back to
those winter days by the fire; though all the windows are open to this
May morning, and the brown thrush is singing in the chestnut-tree, and
I see everywhere that first delicate flush of spring, which seems too
evanescent to be color even, and amounts to little more than a suffusion
of the atmosphere. I doubt, indeed, if the spring is exactly what it
used to be, or if, as we get on in years [no one ever speaks of "getting
on in years" till she is virtually settled in life], its promises and
suggestions do not seem empty in comparison with the sympathies and
responses of human friendship, and the stimulation of society. Sometimes
nothing is so tiresome as a perfect day in a perfect season.

I only imperfectly understand this. The Parson says that woman is always
most restless under the most favorable conditions, and that there is no
state in which she is really happy except that of change. I suppose this
is the truth taught in what has been called the "Myth of the Garden."
Woman is perpetual revolution, and is that element in the world which
continually destroys and re-creates. She is the experimenter and the
suggester of new combinations. She has no belief in any law of eternal
fitness of things. She is never even content with any arrangement of her
own house. The only reason the Mistress could give, when she
rearranged her apartment, for hanging a picture in what seemed the most
inappropriate place, was that it had never been there before. Woman has
no respect for tradition, and because a thing is as it is is sufficient
reason for changing it. When she gets into law, as she has come into

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Online LibraryCharles Dudley WarnerBacklog Studies → online text (page 9 of 12)