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Infinite. Enough of this. Let us live while we live, and
snatch each fleeting moment of truth and love and

It may easily be maintained that Mrs. Ripley carried
intellectual sincerity too far. She was so conscientious
that she made a dogma, and finally even a duty, of doubt.
She too often overlooked the blessed privilege of thor
ough scepticism, which is that it leaves hope as permissi
ble as despair. Yet such singular, lucid, unfailing de
votion to pure truth is highly notable in any one. I do
not know whether a man may be forgiven for assuming
that it is especially notable in a woman.

It is in this connection that I find a peculiar interest
in Mrs. Ripley s intimacy with her nephew by marriage,
Emerson. It would seem as if the two must have been
an infinite source of stimulus and solace to each other.
That there was always the deepest affection and respect


between them is perfectly evident. When Mrs. Ripley
refers to Waldo in her earlier letters, it is as to a spirit
inspired and almost super-earthly. And in her old age
she writes of his absence, " I miss my guide and support
in many ways." Emerson s tone is no less enthusiastic^
not only in the eulogy of his friend, published soon after
her death, but in many passages of his " Journal."

Yet, with all this, one is rather surprised to note that
the two seem to see little of each other, do not seek in
each other s society that constant sympathy that one
would think they would have found there. The truth
is, their ways of looking at life were radically different.
Mrs. Ripley records a conversation between them in
which she remarked that "the soul s serenity was at
best nothing more than resignation to what could not be
helped " ; and Emerson rejoined : " Oh, no, not resigna
tion, aspiration is the soul s true state ! What have we
knees for, what have we hands for? Peace is victory."

This difference of attitude peeps out slyly in a touch
here and there in Mrs. Ripley s letters. It is glaringly
marked in the study of her, printed at large in the sixth
volume of Emerson s "Journal." He does, indeed, re
peat, with entire sincerity, much of his former praise.
But he adds these somewhat harsh comments: "She
would pardon any vice in another which did not obscure


his intellect or deform him as a companion. She knows
perfectly well what is right and wrong, but it is not from
conscience that she acts, but from sense of propriety, in
the absence, too, of all motives to vice. She has not a
profound mind, but her faculties are very muscular, and
she is endowed with a certain restless and impatient
temperament, which drives her to the pursuit of knowl
edge, not so much for the value of the knowledge, but for
some rope to twist, some grist to her mill."

Few spiritual touches could be more instructive than
this conflict of minds so akin in many interests and so
closely thrown together. A certain justice in Emer
son s complaints is undeniable. Mrs. Ripley s was in no
way a creative, original intelligence. She knew that it
was not, and perhaps we may say, did not wish it to be.
Her mental activity does at times appear an effort at
diversion and distraction, rather than a passionate
struggle toward the ultimate ends of thought. Yet it is
hard to be satisfied with Emerson s criticism, when one
reads passages like the following: " Religion has become
so simple a matter to me a yearning after God, an
earnest desire for the peace that flows from the con
sciousness of union with Him. It is the last thought that
floats through my mind as I sleep, the first that comes
when I wake. It forms the basis of my present life,


saddened by past experience. It bedims my eyes with
tears when I walk out into the beautiful nature where
love is all around me. And yet no direct ray comes to
my soul."

The true cause of the difference between Mrs. Rip-
ley and Emerson was that her unconquerable, uncom
promising dread of illusion did not suit his persistent
and somewhat willful optimism. The lucid shafts of
her penetrating intelligence drove right through his
gorgeous cloud- fabric. Doubtless she listened to his
golden visions with the profoundest attention and re
spect. But she was ten years older than he; she had
known him as a boy and from boyhood, and she read
the boy in the man and the angel, and he knew she did.

I have no direct evidence whatever, but I am inclined
to suspect that she regarded those eager pages, peppered
with capitalized abstractions, as Waldo s pretty play
things, which amused Waldo and could hurt nobody.

Emerson s verdict on Mrs. Ripley s moral character
also, if not unjust, is misleading. It might naturally be
expected that scepticism so complete would have some
moral effects; but in this case those mainly perceptible
are a divine gentleness and tolerance. Theoretical dis
belief is apt to blight action. But action was so forced
upon Mrs. Ripley all her life, that she could neither


shun it nor neglect it. As to her moral instincts, Emer
son himself indicates their sureness and delicacy. They
never failed her in any connection. It was far more
than a negative correctness of conduct. It was the most
subtle and pervading sympathy with purity, holiness,
and sacrifice, wherever they might be found. Above
all, there was in her letters as in her life and this
Emerson fully recognizes a singular tenderness, a
pervading grace of comprehension, that endeared her
to all who knew her. And hers is the saying, notable in
one who so greatly prized all honesty and veracity.
"The law of love is higher than the law of truth." In
short, it may well be said that she believed in nothing
but goodness, kindliness, the dignity of virtue and the
unfailing delight of the pursuit of knowledge. Even as
to these things she sometimes doubted, though they were
clamped with iron tenacity to the inmost fiber of her
soul, as to the existence of which she doubted also.

But, however great the charm of Mrs. Ripley s pure
and saintly external life, the chief interest of her char
acter, and of her example, must always lie in her ex
traordinary devotion to intellectual matters. It is to be
observed that from her early childhood to her age this de
votion was absolutely disinterested. Most men who make
a business of study combine it with some ulterior object,


either professional success, or financial profit, or the
glory of literary achievement or of scientific discovery.
This woman never entertained the slightest suggestion
of such advantage. With her there was but one aim,
the pure exercise of thought for itself, the perpetual
probing a little deeper and a little deeper and a little
deeper into the vast, elusive mystery of existence. Such
a tremendous and unceasing voyage of discovery car
ried its own triumph and its own satisfaction with it, and
its resources of desire and delight were as varied as
they were inexhaustible.

In Pater s "Imaginary Portrait," Sebastian van
Storck says to his mother, "Good mother, there are
duties towards the intellect also, which women can but
rarely understand." No man ever understood those
duties to the intellect better than this woman understood



Mary Lyon

Born in Buckland, Massachusetts, February 28, 1797,
Mount Holyoke Seminary opened November, 1837.
Died March 5, 18491.


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MARY LYON, the foundress of Mount Holyoke College,
had a magnificently persistent spirit. She did what
she set out to do and got what she wanted to get. No
doubt the grit and determination in her were fostered,
if not bred, by the sturdy, rugged training of her child
hood. Born at the very close of the eighteenth cen
tury, on a farm in western Massachusetts, she was
brought up by a widowed mother with many children
and small means. The discipline was stern, but it rooted
character deep down among the solid needs and essen
tial efforts of existence. Every moment of life was of
use and was put to use. When Mary was hardly out
of infancy, her mother found her one day apparently
trifling with the hourglass, but she explained that she
thought she had discovered a way of making more
time. 1 As years went on, she did make more time, by
getting double work and thought into what there was.
It was not time only; but every resource of life must
be made to yield all there was in it and a little more.


"Economy," she said to her pupils later, "is not
always doing without things. It is making them do the
best they can." 2 Nothing helps so much towards this
final extraction of utility as knowing the exact nature
of things, not only what they serve for, but how they
are made, even knowing how to make them one s self.
Mary made her own clothes from cloth made by her
own hands. Many other women did this; but Mary,
when she lived near a brickyard, wanted to make brick,
and did it. Always she had the instinct and the habit
and the genius for doing something.

Very early, however, she appreciated that to do some
thing, in her sense, a wider and ampler education was
needed than a New England farm would give her. The
most essential education that of character she could
indeed give herself. Self-training, self-discipline, she
began early and kept up to the end. When a friend
ventured to suggest the getting rid of certain little awk
wardnesses, she replied, with perfect good humor, " I
have corrected more such things than anybody ought
to have." 3 She corrected little defects as well as great.

But no one knew better than she that education
could not come wholly from within. There were broad
regions of spiritual joy and spiritual usefulness which
must be explored by the help and the guidance of others.


The means of obtaining such help and guidance for
women in those days were limited, and Mary s situa
tion and circumstances made them doubly limited for
her. But what persistent and determined effort could
do, she did. Her natural capacity for acquisition was
undoubtedly great. She said of herself, in a connec
tion that precluded boasting, "My mind runs like
lightning." 4 It not only moved swiftly, but it held
what it seized as it went. She was given a Latin gram
mar on Friday night. On Monday she recited the
whole of it. I do not know how much this means, not
having seen the grammar; but obviously it means
enough, even with her humiliating confession that she
had studied all day Sunday*

In her case, however, it was less the brilliancy than
the everlasting persistence that counted. She had no
money to get an education. Very well, she would get
the money first and the education afterward. She went
to school when she could ; when she could not, she taught
others for seventy-five cents a week and her board.
The opportunities that she did get for her own work
she improved mightily. Those with whom she boarded
when she was studying say that she slept only four
hours out of the twenty- four. They add, with the
amazement which persons differently constituted feel


for such endeavor: "She is all intellect: she does not
know that she has a body to care for." B

But do not imagine that she was a mere human
machine, created to think of work only. She had her
ups and downs, as those who sleep only four hours must
her days when work seemed impossible and, what is
worse, not worth doing; her utter discouragements,
when the only relief was tears. She inquired one night
how soon tea would be ready; was told, immediately;
and on being asked the reason of her evident disap
pointment, replied : " I was only wishing to have a good
crying-spell, and you could not give me time enough." 6

How far other emotions touched her active youth we
do not know. She was always sweet and merry with
her companions, but she had not leisure for much social
dissipation. One or two vague glimpses come of lov
ing or, much more, of being loved, but they lead to
nothing. Other interests more absorbing filled that
eager and busy heart. As she looked back from later
triumphs at the struggles of these early days, she said :
"In my youth I had much vigor was always aspiring
after something. I called it loving to study. Had few
to direct me aright. One teacher I shall always re
member. He told me education was to fit one to do

99 t


Whatever education might be, she sought it with a
fervent zeal which was an end in itself as well as a
most efficient means.


To get an education for herself, with heroic effort, was
not enough for Miss Lyon. In getting it, she came to
feel its value and others need of it. Obtaining it for
them was an object for as much zeal and devotion as
she had bestowed upon her own. No one then felt it
necessary that women should be educated as men were.
Men, whether educated themselves or not, felt it to be
distinctly unnecessary; and the suggestion of system
atic intellectual training for the weaker, domestic sex
did not fill the ordinary husband and father with en
thusiasm. A fashionable finishing school was a girl s
highest ambition, and to be accomplished, pending being
married, was the chief aim of her existence. To Miss
Lyon it seemed that women had brains as well as men,
were as well able to use them, and often more eager.
And she determined very early to devote her life to
giving them the opportunity.

Her object was certainly not money-making. Her
personal standards were always simple, and her earn
ings, when she did earn, would seem, even to the mod-


ern teacher, pitiful. In fact, her view of profit and the
teacher s profession, like that of Socrates, was ideal
to the point of extravagance. "If money-making is
your object," she cries, "be milliners or dressmakers;
but teaching is a sacred, not a mercenary employment." 8

So with the ambition to be great and prominent and
remembered. Who shall say that any one is wholly
free from the subtle and searching temptation here?
But at least she is free from it so far as she knows
herself. Some, she writes, will say that Miss Grant and
Miss Lyon wish to have " a great institution established,
and to see themselves at the head of the whole, and
then they will be satisfied." 9 And she recognizes that
this is human nature, and 1 she does not trouble herself
to deny the allegation directly, but her tone implies that
it touches her not.

Nor did she seek to be of use to those who had wealth
or social prominence or influence. They could take care
of themselves. What she wished to provide for was
the great mass of women throughout the country who
had little means or none, but the same devouring thirst
for better things that had tormented her. She would
exclude no one who was really worthy, no one, as she
said herself, but " harmless cumberers of the ground "
and those " whose highest ambition is to be qualified to


amuse a friend in a vacant hour." 10 Such, rich or poor,
might find their vocation elsewhere. The saving of their
souls was not her business.

So, trusting in the goodness of God and in her own
unbounded energy, she set about taking a great step
in the forward progress of the world. She was prac
tically unknown; she had no money; she had no in
fluence, she had no access to the many agencies which
facilitate the advancement of great undertakings. She
had only courage and hope. " When we decide that it
is best to perform a certain duty, we should expect suc
cess in it, if it is not utterly impossible/ n she said
quietly; and she practiced as she preached. She was
ready to make any sacrifice. "Our personal comforts
are delightful, not essential." 12

She approached every one who could possibly help
her, with tireless, but not tedious, persistency. She
went into people s homes and pointed out what she was
trying to do for them, showed fathers and mothers
what their daughters needed and how little effort would
help to get it.

She spoke publicly on formal occasions; she spoke
privately to any one who she thought might assist her,
even to strangers. Some of her friends complained of
this. In that day it seemed odd for a woman to make


herself so conspicuous, and the doubters feared that she
might injure her cause instead of aiding it. She dif
fered from them positively. "What do I do that is
wrong?" she urged. "I hope I behave like a lady; I
mean to do so." Who that knows anything of her will
question that she did? But she was working for a great
cause and she did not mean to let trifles stand in her
way. " My heart is sick," she cried ; " my soul is pained
with this empty gentility, this genteel nothingness. I am
doing a great work. I cannot come down." 13

Of course there were discouragements, crying spells,
no doubt, as in the earlier days ; times when everything
went wrong, and the world seemed utterly indifferent.
The very vastness of the hope made it shadowy, and
she had her lurking possibilities of scepticism. "I
always fear when I find my heart thus clinging to the
hope of future good." 14 There was physical collapse,
too, under such enormous effort, even in a body mainly
healthy. For two or three days, sometimes, she would
give herself up to a state of partial stupor, forgetting
even hope and duty in an absolute relaxation of all
nervous energy.

Then she would emerge, with fatigue and depression
behind her,, ready to face any difficulty and overcome
any obstacle. " It is one of the nicest of mental opera-


tions," she said, "to distinguish between what is very
difficult and what is utterly impossible/ 15 But what
was impossible to others was apparently only difficult
to her. Walls hardly built and hardly paid for might
fall down, and her only comment was one of delight
that no one was hurt. Stupid and obstinate people
might oppose her methods, but somehow or other she
accomplished the result. "She made the impression
on every one with whom she had anything to do, from
the common day-laborer to the president of a college,
that if she set herself to do anything, it was of no use
to oppose her." 18

This does not mean that she was rough or overbear
ing in her methods, that she forced money out of
pockets, or souls into the kingdom of God. She had,
indeed, her share of the prophet s severity. If she had
let herself go, she might have reprehended and repri
manded with a righteous scorn. In one wealthy house
hold, where she had expected much, she got nothing,
and to friends who had foretold her failure she con
fided, with bitterness : " They live in a costly house ; it
is full of costly things; they wear costly clothes, but
oh, they re little bits of folks!" 17

Such bitterness she mainly kept to herself, however.
She knew that her progress must be slow, often hin-


dered, and often tortuous. She disciplined herself not
to hope too much and to forget disappointments. She
practiced infinite patience. " I learned twenty years ago
never to get out of patience." 18 She would not dispute
or argue. She would state her position, her plans, her
prospects. She would answer every question which
really tended to clarify. Then the conscience of her
hearers was left to work by itself. Attacks, abuse, sar
casm, slander, touched her not. She did not deserve
them, why should she heed them ? They distressed her
friends, and one of the closest, Professor Hitchcock,
wrote an answer which he submitted to Miss Lyon s
consideration. "That was the last I ever saw of it/
he said. 19

Instead of this sharper combativeness, she worked
by persuasion, by insinuation, by tact and sympathy.
She would not yield a syllable of her main theory; but
if anything was to be gained by meeting criticism in a
detail, by accepting a minor suggestion, she was always
ready. "In deviating from others," she advised, "be
as inoffensive as possible; excite no needless opposi
tion" 20 She excited none, where it could be avoided,
and people found themselves agreeing with her before
they knew it, and almost against their will. She con
quered less by formal argument than by personal charm,


and had the golden faculty of making others feel that
her will was their own. One who knew her well said
that she held men "by invisible attractions which it
was hard to resist and from which very few wished to
be released." 21 Another simpler mind put it still better :
" I would have done anything she asked me to. Every
body would/ 22

The habit of getting what she wanted from others
came naturally. That of making use of what she got,
perhaps somewhat less so. She had to train herself a
little in business methods. This a clear and sound
brain can always do, and she did it. But order and
system and punctuality seem at first to have been diffi
cult for her. She was not born neat and tidy in trifles.
Some women s things, she said, seemed to have feet
and to know their right places and return to them of
their own accord. Hers did not. She was not born
punctual or with a consciousness of time. If she got
interested in a task, she wanted to finish it, regardless
of the arrival of the hour for doing something else.
She wanted to go to bed when she pleased, to get up
when she pleased; not at a set and given minute.

But she understood these weaknesses, and had con
quered them in all essentials, before she entered upon
her great work. If she was not born a woman of busi-


ness, she made herself one, and she had overcome inner
obstacles before she began her fight with those with
out. Therefore she was able, not only to raise the
sums she needed, but to use them wisely; and, after
innumerable difficulties, in the autumn of 1837, Mount
Holyoke Seminary was opened.

It was a day of triumph for Miss Lyon of pure,
personal triumph, of course it was. She would not have
been human if it had not been. She had labored through
years of toil and vexation. Now at last the way was
clear to accomplish what she had dreamed. Of an
earlier time of prosperity she says: "There is an un
usual evenness and uniformity in my feelings, freedom
from excitement, or any rising above the common
level." 23 But on that November day in 1837 her spirits
certainly did rise above the common level. She saw
all that she had 1 longed for and hoped for realized in
that plain, square building with its vast possibilities,
and her words have the inspiration of a prophetess:
"The stones and brick and mortar speak a language
which vibrates through my very soul." 24


So she had performed her huge task, her practically
single-handed task, of preparing the material facilities


for extending education. Now came the subtle and
complicated labor of conveying it. And first as to the
negative problem, so to speak, that of discipline. This
considerable body of girls had been brought together,
unaccustomed to the restraints of community life. How
to train them to do their best work without injuring
themselves or each other?

To begin with, Miss Lyon did not believe too much
in formal rules. Of course a certain number of sucH
rules was necessary, as always. But she endeavored
to impress upon her girls the spirit of those rules and
not the letter. She brought home to them vividly the
struggle between the body and the mind, and the ab
solute necessity of making the mind master at the start.
" The mind/ she told them, " should not sit down and
wash the body s feet, but the body should obey the
mind." 25

So in relations with others. It was not so much a
question of following rules as of getting into the right
tone. " Avoid trying the patience or irritating the feel
ings of others," 26 she reminded them. She made her pre
cise directions flow from such general precepts as these.

Then she trusted the girls to carry them out. Of
course, they could not always be trusted, and she knew
that they could not. They were human and young and


girls, and had their weaknesses. Dress and boys were
in their thoughts, as they always have been and always
will be. But something about Miss Lyon s presence
took the place of rules something about the thought
of her presence. " One could not do wrong where she
was/ 27 writes one pupil. There were occasionally those
who could do wrong and did, either from carelessness
or even from contumacy. With them Miss Lyon had

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Online LibraryGamaliel BradfordPortraits of American women → online text (page 4 of 14)