The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 06, No. 38, December, 1860 online

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"Margaret!" I exclaimed. "You are wearing yourself away. You were never
made for such labor. You cannot learn this sort of toil. You are of the
sunshine, to play above the dusty earth, to gladden the dreary places.
Look at my hands, that are large for work, - at my heavy shoulders,
fitted to bear the yoke. Let me work for us both, and you shall still be
the inspiration of my work, and the sunshine that makes it gold. The
work we talked of is drudgery for you; you cannot bear it."

I think she would not agree to what I said about her work. She "had
began to learn how to find life in every-day work, just as she saw a new
sun rise every day." But she did agree that we would work together,
without asking where our sunshine came from, or our inspiration.

So it was settled. And her work was around and within the old
"natural-colored" house, whose walls by this time were half-embowered in
vines. There was gay sunshine without and within. And the lichen was
yellow that grew on the deeply sloping roof, and we liked to plant
hollyhocks and sunflowers by the side of the quaint old building, while
scarlet honeysuckles and trumpet-flowers and gay convolvuli gladdened
the front porch.

There was but one question that was left to be disputed between us.
Margaret still believed I was an artist, all-undeveloped.

"Those sunbeams" -

"I had nothing to do with them. They married golden threads that seemed
kindred to them."

"It is not true. Sunbeams cannot exist without the sun. Your magnetic
power, perhaps, attracted the true sunbeam, and you recreated others."

She fancies, if I would only devote myself to Art, I might become an
American Murillo, and put a Madonna upon canvas.

But before we carried the new sunshine into the old house, I had been
summoned again by Mr. Clarkson. Another wonderful piece of carpeting had
gone out from the works, discovered by our agent before it had left our
warehouse. It was the Water-Lily pattern, - lilies sitting among green
leaves with sunshine playing in and out and among them. So dazzling it
seemed, that it shed a light all round the darkened walls of the
warehouse. It was priceless, he thought, a perfect unique. Better,
almost, that never such a pattern should appear again. It ought to
remain the only one in the world.

And it did so remain. The rival establishment built a new chimney to
their mill, which shut out completely all sunshine or hope of sunshine
from our narrow windows. This was accomplished before the next May, and
I showed Mr. Clarkson how utterly impossible it was for the most
determined sunbeam ever to mingle itself with our most inviting fabrics.
Mr. Clarkson pondered a long time. We might build our establishment a
story higher; we might attempt to move it. But here were solid changes,
and the hopes were uncertain. Affairs were going on well, and the
reputation of the mills was at its height. And the carpets of sunshine
were never repeated.

* * * * *


Whoever would read a profound political pamphlet under the guise of a
brilliant novel may find it in "Sibyl, or The Two Nations." The gay
overture of "The Eve of the Derby," at a London club, with which the
curtain rises, contrasts with the evening amusements of the _prolétaire_
in the gin-palaces of Manchester in a more than operatic effectiveness,
and yet falls rather below than rises above the sober truth of present
history. And we are often tempted to bind up the novel of the dashing
Parliamenteer with our copy of "Ivanhoe," that we may thus have, side by
side, from the pens of the Right Honorable Benjamin Disraeli and Sir
Walter Scott, the beginning and the end of these eight hundred years of
struggle between Norman rule and Saxon endurance. For let races and
families change as they will, there have ever been in England two
nations; and the old debate of Wamba and Gurth in the forest-glade by
Rotherwood is illustrated by the unconscious satires of last week's
"Punch." In Chartism, Reform-Bills, and Strikes, in the etiquette which
guards the Hesperides of West-End society, in the rigid training which
stops many an adventurer midway in his career, are written the old
characters of the forest-laws of Rufus and the Charter of John. Races
and families change, but the distinction endures, is stamped upon all
things pertaining to both.

We in America, who boast our descent from this matrimony of Norman and
Saxon, claim also that we have blent the features of the two into one
homogeneous people. In this country, where the old has become new, and
the new is continually losing its raw lustre before the glitter of some
fresher splendor, the traces of the contest are all but obliterated.
Only our language has come to us with the brand of the fatherland upon
it. In our mother-tongue prevails the same principle of dualism, the
same conflict of elements, which not all the lethean baptism of the
Atlantic could wash out. The two nations of England survive in the two
tongues of America.

We beg the reluctant reader not to prematurely pooh-pooh as a "miserable
mouse" this conclusion, thinking that we are only serving up again that
old story of Wamba and Gurth with an added _sauce-piquante_ from Dean
Trench. We admit that we allude to that original composition of English
past and present from a Latin and a Teutonic stock. But that is to us
not an ultimate, but a primal fact. It is the premise from which we
propose to trace out the principle now living and working in our present
speech. We commence our history with that strife of the tongues which
had at the outset also their battle of Hastings, their field of Sanilac.
There began the feud which to-day continues to divide our language,
though the descendants of the primitive stocks are inextricably mingled.

For it is as in "Sibyl." That novel showed us the peer's descendants at
the workman's forge, while the manufacturer's grandchildren were wearing
the ermine and the strawberry-leaves. There is the constant passing to
and fro across the one border-line which never changes. Dandy Mick and
Devilsdust save a little money and become "respectable." We can follow
out their history after Mr. Disraeli leaves them. They marry Harriet and
Caroline, and contrive to educate a sharp boy or two, who will rise to
become superintendents in the mills and to speculate in cotton-spinning.
They in turn send into trade, with far greater advantages, their sons.
The new generation, still educating, and, faithful to the original
impulse, putting forth its fresh and aspiring tendrils, gets one boy
into the church, another at the bar, and keeps a third at the great
_Rouge-et-Noir_ table of commerce. Some one of their stakes has a run of
luck. Either it is my Lord Eldon who sits on the wool-sack, or the young
curate bids his Oxford laurels against a head-mastership of a public
school and covers his baldness with a mitre, or Jones Lloyd steps from
his back parlor into the carriage which is to take Lord Overstone to the
House of Peers. From the day when young Osborne, the bold London
'prentice, leaped into the Thames to fish up thence his master's
daughter, and brought back, not only the little lady, but the ducal
coronet of Leeds in prospective, to that when Thomas Newcome the elder
walked up to the same London that he might earn the "bloody hand" for
Sir Brian and Sir Barnes, English life has been full of such gallant

So it has been with the words these speak. The phrases of the noble
Canon Chaucer have fallen to the lips of peasants and grooms, while many
a pert Cockney saying has elbowed its sturdy way into her Majesty's High
Court of Parliament. Yet still there are two tongues flowing through our
daily talk and writing, like the Missouri and Mississippi, with distinct
and contrasted currents.

And this appears the more strikingly in this country, where other
distinctions are lost. We have an aristocracy of language, whose
phrases, like the West-End men of "Sibyl," are effeminate, extravagant,
conventional, and prematurely worn-out. These words represent ideas
which are theirs only by courtesy and conservatism, like the law-terms
of the courts, or the "cant" of certain religious books. We have also a
plebeian tongue, whose words are racy, vigorous, and healthy, but which
men look askance at, when met in polite usage, in solemn literature, and
in sermons. Norman and Saxon are their relative positions, as in the old
time when "Ox" was for the serf who drove a-field the living animal, and
"Beef" for the baron who ate him; but their lineage is counter-crossed
by a hundred, nay, a thousand vicissitudes.

With this aristocracy of speech we are all familiar. We do not mean with
the speech of our aristocracy, which is quite another thing, but that
which is held appropriate for "great occasions," for public parade, and
for pen, ink, and types. It is cherished where all aristocracies
flourish best, - in the "rural districts." There is a style and a class
of words and phrases belonging to country newspapers, and to the city
weeklies which have the largest bucolic circulation, which you detect in
the Congressional eloquence of the honorable member for the Fifteenth
District, Mass., and in the Common-School Reports of Boston Corner, - a
style and words that remind us of the country gentry whose titles date
back to the Plantagenets. They look so strangely beside the brisk,
dapper curtnesses in which metropolitan journals transact their daily
squabbles! We never write one of them out without an involuntary
addition of quotation-marks, as a New-Yorker puts to his introduction of
his verdant cousin the supplementary, "From the Jerseys." Their
etymological Herald's Office is kept by schoolmasters, and especially
schoolma'ams, or, in the true heraldic tongue, "Preceptresses of
Educational Seminaries." You may find them in Mr. Hobbs, Jr.'s,
celebrated tale of "The Bun-Baker of Cos-Cob," or in Bowline's thrilling
novelette of "Beauty and Booty, or The Black Buccaneer of the Bermudas."
They glitter in the train of "Napoleon and his Marshals," and look down
upon us from the heights of "The Sacred Mountains."

Occasionally you will find them degraded from their high estate and
fallen among the riff-raff of slang. They become "seedy" words, stripped
of their old meaning, mere _chevaliers d'industrie_, yet with something
of the air noble about them which distinguishes them from the born
"cad." The word "convey" once suffered such eclipse, (we are glad to say
it has come up again,) and consorted, unless Falstaff be mistaken, with
such low blackguards as "nim" and "cog" and "prig" and similar
"flash" terms.

But we do not propose to linger among the "upper-ten" of the
dictionaries. The wont of such is to follow the law of hereditary
aristocracies: the old blood gets thin, there is no sparkle to the
_sangre azul_, the language dies out in poverty. The strong, new,
popular word forces its way up, is heard at the bar, gets quoted in the
pulpit, slips into the outer ring of good society. King Irving or King
Emerson lays his pen across its shoulder and it rises up ennobled, till
finally it is accepted of the "Atlantic Monthly," and its
court-presentation is complete.

We have thus indicated the nature of the great contest in language
between the conventional and the idiomatic. Idioms are just what their
name implies. They are the commonalty of language, - private, proletarian
words, who do the work, "_dum alteri tulerunt honores_." They come to us
from all handiworks and callings, where you will always find them at
their posts. Sharp, energetic, incisive, they do the hard labor of
speech, - that of carrying heavy loads of thought and shaping new ideas.

We think them vulgar at first, and savoring of the shop; but they are
useful and handy, and we cannot do without them. They rivet, they forge,
they coin, they "fire up," "brake up," "switch off," "prospect," "shin"
for us when we are "short," "post up" our books, and finally ourselves,
"strike a lead," "follow a trail," "stand up to the rack," "dicker,"
"swap," and "peddle." They are "whole teams" beside the "one-horse"
vapidities which fail to bear our burdens. The Norman cannot keep down
the Saxon. The Saxon finds his Wat Tyler or Jack Cade. Now "Mose" brings
his Bowery Boys into our parlor, or Cromwell Judd recruits his Ironsides
from the hamlets of the Kennebec.

We declare for the prolétaires. We vote the working-words ticket. We
have to plead the cause of American idioms. Some of them have, as we
said, good blood in them and can trace their lineage and standing to the
English Bible and Book of Common Prayer; others are "new men," born
under hedge-rows and left as foundlings at furnace-doors. And before we
go farther, we have a brief story to tell in illustration of the
two tongues.

A case of assault and battery was tried in a Western court. The
plaintiff's counsel informed the jury in his opening, that he was
"prepared to prove that the defendant, a steamboat-captain, menaced his
client, an English traveller, and put him in bodily fear, commanding him
to vacate the avenue of the steamboat with his baggage, or he would
precipitate him into the river." The evidence showed that the captain
called out, - "Stranger, ef you don't tote your plunder off that
gang-plank, I'll spill you in the drink."

We submit that for terseness and vigor the practitioner at the bar of
the Ohio had the better of the learned counsel who appeared at the bar
of justice, albeit his client was in a Cockney mystification at
the address.

The illustration will serve our turn. It points to a class of phrases
which are indigenous to various localities of the land, in which the
native thought finds appropriate, bold, and picturesque utterance. And
these in time become incorporate into the universal tongue. Of them is
the large family of political phrases. These are coined in moments of
intense excitement, struck out at white heat, or, to follow our leading
metaphor, like the speakers who use them, come upon the stump in their
shirt-sleeves. Every campaign gives us a new horde. Some die out at
once; others felicitously tickle the public ear and ring far and wide.
They "speak for Buncombe," are Barn-Burners, Old Hunkers, Hard Shells,
Soft Shells, Log-Rollers, Pipe-Layers, Woolly Heads, Silver Grays,
Locofocos, Fire-Eaters, Adamantines, Free Soilers, Freedom Shriekers,
Border Ruffians. They spring from a bon-mot or a retort. The log-cabin
and hard-cider watchwords were born of a taunt, like the "Gueux" of the
Netherlands. The once famous phrase, Gerrymandering, some of our readers
may remember. Governor Elbridge Gerry contrived, by a curious
arrangement of districts in Massachusetts, to transfer the balance of
power to his own party. One of his opponents, poring over the map of the
Commonwealth, was struck by the odd look of the geographical lines
which thus were drawn, curving in and out among the towns and counties.
"It looks," said he, "like a Salamander." "Looks like a _Gerry_-mander!"
ejaculated another; and the term stuck long and closely.

Now and then you have the aristocratic and democratic sides of an idea
in use at the same time. Those who style themselves "Gentlemen of the
Press" are known to the rest of mankind as "Dead Heads," - being, for
paying purposes, literally, _capita mortua_.

So, too, our colleges are provided, over and above the various dead
languages of their classic curriculum, with the two tongues. The one
serves the young gentlemen, especially in their Sophomoric maturity,
with appropriate expressions for their literary exercises and public
flights. The other is for their common talk, tells who "flunked" and was
"deaded," who "fished" with the tutor, who "cut" prayers, and who was
"digging" at home. Each college, from imperial Harvard and lordly Yale
to the freshest Western "Institution," whose three professors fondly
cultivate the same number of aspiring Alumni, has its particular dialect
with its quadrennial changes. The just budded Freshmen of the class of
'64 could hardly without help decipher "The Rebelliad," which in the
Consulship of Plancus Kirkland was the epic of the day. The good old
gentlemen who come up to eat Commencement dinners and to sing with
quavery voices the annual psalm thereafter, are bewildered in the mazes
of the college-speech of their grandsons. Whence come these phrases few
can tell. Like witty Dr. S - - - 's "quotation," which never was
anything else, they started in life as sayings, springing full-grown,
like Pallas Athene, from the laboring brain of some Olympic Sophister.
Here in the quiet of our study in the country, we wonder if the boys
continue as in our day to "create a shout," instead of "making a call,"
upon their lady acquaintances, - if they still use "ponies," - if they
"group," and get, as we did, "parietals" and "publics" for the same.

The police courts contribute their quota. Baggage-smashing,
dog-smudging, ring-dropping, watch-stuffing, the patent-safe men, the
confidence men, garroters, shysters, policy-dealers, mock-auction Peter
Funks, bogus-ticket swindlers, are all terms which have more or less
outgrown the bounds of their Alsatia of Thieves' Latin and are known
of men.

Even the pulpit, with its staid decorums, has its idioms, which it
cannot quite keep to itself. We hear in the religious world of
"professors," and "monthly concerts," (which mean praying, and not
psalmody,) of "sensation-preaching," (which takes the place of the
"painful" preaching of old times,) of "platform-speakers," of
"revival-preachers," of "broad pulpits," and "Churches of the Future,"
of the "Eclipse of Faith" and the "Suspense of Faith," of "liberal"
Christians, (with no reference to the contribution-plates,) of
"subjective" and "objective" sermons, "Spurgeonisms," and "businessmen's
meetings." And we can never think without a smile of that gifted genius,
whoever he was, who described a certain public exercise as _"the most
eloquent prayer ever addressed to a Boston audience."_ He surely created
a new and striking idiom.

The boys do, as Young America should, their share. And the sayings of
street urchins endure with singular tenacity. Like their sports, which
follow laws of their own, uninfluenced by meteorological considerations,
tending to the sedentary games of marbles in the cold, chilly spring,
and bursting into base-and foot-ball in the midsummer solstice, strict
tradition hands down from boy to boy the well-worn talk. There are still
"busters," as in our young days, and the ardent youth upon floating
cakes of ice "run bendolas" or "kittly-benders," or simply "benders." In
different latitudes the phrase varies, - one-half of it going to Plymouth
Colony, and the other abiding in Massachusetts Bay. And this tendency to
dismember a word is curiously shown in that savory fish which the
Indian christened "scup-paug." Eastward he swims as "scup," while at the
Manhattan end of the Sound he is fried as "porgie." And apropos of him,
let us note a curious instance of the tenacity of associated ideas. The
street boys of our day and early home were wont to term the _hetairai_
of the public walks "scup." The young Athenians applied to the classic
courtesans the epithet of [Greek: saperdion], the name of a small fish
very abundant in the Black Sea. Here now is a bit of slang which may
fairly be warranted to keep fresh in any climate.

But boy-talk is always lively and pointed; not at all precise, but very
prone to prosopopeia; ever breaking out of the bounds of legitimate
speech to invent new terms of its own. Dr. Busby addresses Brown, Jr.,
as Brown Secundus, and speaks to him of his "young companions." Brown
himself talks of "the chaps," or "the fellows," who in turn know Brown
only as Tom Thumb. The power of nicknaming is a school-boy gift, which
no discouragement of parents and guardians can crush out, and which
displays thoroughly the idiomatic faculty. For a man's name was once
_his_, the distinctive mark by which the world got at his identity.
Long, Short, White, Black, Greathead, Longshanks, etc., told what a
person in the eyes of men the owner presented. The hereditary or
aristocratic process has killed this entirely. Men no longer make their
names; even the poor foundlings, like Oliver Twist, are christened
alphabetically by some Bumble the Beadle. But the nickname restores his
lost rights, and takes the man at once out of the _ignoble vulgus_ to
give him identity. We recognize this gift and are proud of our
nicknames, when we can get them to suit us. Only the sharp judgment of
our peers reverses our own heraldry and sticks a surname like a burr
upon us. The nickname is the idiom of nomenclature. The sponsorial
appellation is generally meaningless, fished piously out of Scripture or
profanely out of plays and novels, or given with an eye to future
legacies, or for some equally insufficient reason apart from the name
itself. So that the gentleman who named his children One, Two, and
Three, was only reducing to its lowest term the prevailing practice. But
the nickname abides. It has its hold in affection. When the "old boys"
come together in Gore Hall at their semi-centennial Commencement, or the
"Puds" or "Pores" get together after long absence, it is not to inquire
what has become of the Rev. Dr. Heavysterne or his Honor Littleton Coke,
but it is, "Who knows where Hockey Jones is?" and "Did Dandy Glover
really die in India?" and "Let us go and call upon Old Sykes" or "Old
Roots" or "Old Conic-Sections," - thus meaning to designate
Professor - - , LL.D., A.A.S., F.R.S., etc. A college president who had
no nickname would prove himself, _ipso facto_, unfit for his post. It is
only dreadfully affected people who talk of "Tully"; the sensible all
cling to the familiar "Chick-Pea" or Cicero, by which the wart-faced
orator was distinguished. For it is not the boys only, but all American
men, who love nicknames, the idioms of nomenclature. The first thing
which is done, after a nominating convention has made its platform and
balloted for its candidates, is to discover or invent a nickname: Old
Hickory, Tippecanoe, The Little Giant, The Little Magician, The Mill-Boy
of the Slashes, Honest John, Harry of the West, Black Dan, Old Buck, Old
Rough and Ready. A "good name" is a tower of strength and many votes.

And not only with candidates for office, the spots on whose "white
garments" are eagerly sought for and labelled, but in the names of
places and classes the principle prevails, the democratic or Saxon
tongue gets the advantage. Thus, we have for our states, cities, and
ships-of-war the title of fondness which drives out the legal title of
ceremony. Are we not "Yankees" to the world, though to the diplomatists
"citizens of the United States of America"? We have a Union made up upon
the map of Maine, New Hampshire, etc., to California; we have another in
the newspapers, composed of the Lumber State, the Granite State, the
Green-Mountain State, the Nutmeg State, the Empire State, the Keystone
State, the Blue Hen, the Old Dominion, of Hoosiers, Crackers, Suckers,
Badgers, Wolverines, the Palmetto State, and Eldorado. We have the
Crescent City, the Quaker City, the Empire City, the Forest City, the
Monumental City, the City of Magnificent Distances. We hear of Old
Ironsides sent to the Mediterranean to relieve the Old Tea-Wagon,
ordered home. Everywhere there obtains the Papal principle of taking a
new title upon succeeding to any primacy. The Norman imposed his laws
upon England; the courts, the parish-registers, the Acts of Parliament
were all his; but to this day there are districts of the Saxon Island
where the postman and census-taker inquire in vain for Adam Smith and
Benjamin Brown, but must perforce seek out Bullhead and Bandyshins. So
indomitable is the Saxon.

We have not done yet with our national idioms. In the seaboard towns
nautical phrases make tarry the talk of the people. "Where be you
a-cruising to?" asks one Nantucket matron of her gossip. "Sniver-dinner,
I'm going to Egypt; Seth B. has brought a letter from Turkey-wowner to
Old Nancy." "Dressed-to-death-and-drawers-empty, don't you see we're
goin' to have a squall? You had better take in your stu'n'-sails." The
good woman was dressed up, intending, "_as soon as ever_ dinner was
over," to go, not to the land of the Pharaohs, but to the negro-quarter
of the town, with a letter which "Seth B." (her son, thus identified by
his middle letter) had brought home from Talcahuana.

For the rural idioms we refer the reader to the late Sylvester Judd's
"Margaret" and "Richard Edney," and to the Jack Downing Letters.

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Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 06, No. 38, December, 1860 → online text (page 5 of 20)