Adventures In Contentment
Part 3 out of 3
----I forgot to say that the Scotch Preacher chose the most impressive
text in the Bible for his talk at the funeral:
"He that is greatest among you, let him be ... as he that doth serve."
And we came away with a nameless, aching sense of loss, thinking how,
perhaps, in a small way, we might do something for somebody else--as the
old Doctor did.
AN EVENING AT HOME
"How calm and quiet a delight
Is it, alone,
To read and meditate and write,
By none offended, and offending none.
To walk, ride, sit or sleep at one's own ease,
And, pleasing a man's self, none other to displease."
--_Charles Cotton, a friend of Izaak Walton_, 1650
During the last few months so many of the real adventures of life have
been out of doors and so much of the beauty, too, that I have scarcely
written a word about my books. In the summer the days are so long and
the work so engrossing that a farmer is quite willing to sit quietly on
his porch after supper and watch the long evenings fall--and rest his
tired back, and go to bed early. But the winter is the true time for
Days like these! A cold night after a cold day! Well wrapped, you have
made arctic explorations to the stable, the chicken-yard and the
pig-pen; you have dug your way energetically to the front gate, stopping
every few minutes to beat your arms around your shoulders and watch the
white plume of your breath in the still air--and you have rushed in
gladly to the warmth of the dining-room and the lamp-lit supper. After
such a day how sharp your appetite, how good the taste of food!
Harriet's brown bread (moist, with thick, sweet, dark crusts) was never
quite so delicious, and when the meal is finished you push back your
chair feeling like a sort of lord.
"That was a good supper, Harriet," you say expansively.
"Was it?" she asks modestly, but with evident pleasure.
"Cookery," you remark, "is the greatest art in the world----"
"Oh, you were hungry!"
"Next to poetry," you conclude, "and much better appreciated. Think how
easy it is to find a poet who will turn you a presentable sonnet, and
how very difficult it is to find a cook who will turn you an edible
I said a good deal more on this subject which I shall not attempt to
repeat. Harriet did not listen through it all. She knows what I am
capable of when I really get started; and she has her well-defined
limits. A practical person, Harriet! When I have gone about so far, she
begins clearing the table or takes up her mending--but I don't mind it
at all. Having begun talking, it is wonderful how pleasant one's own
voice becomes. And think of having a clear field--and no interruptions!
My own particular room, where I am permitted to revel in the desert of
my own disorder, opens comfortably off the sitting-room. A lamp with a
green shade stands invitingly on the table shedding a circle of light on
the books and papers underneath, but leaving all the remainder of the
room in dim pleasantness. At one side stands a comfortable big chair
with everything in arm's reach, including my note books and ink bottle.
Where I sit I can look out through the open doorway and see Harriet near
the fireplace rocking and sewing. Sometimes she hums a little tune which
I never confess to hearing, lest I miss some of the unconscious
cadences. Let the wind blow outside and the snow drift in piles around
the doorway and the blinds rattle--I have before me a whole long
* * * * *
What a convenient and delightful world is this world of books!--if you
bring to it not the obligations of the student, or look upon it as an
opiate for idleness, but enter it rather with the enthusiasm of the
adventurer! It has vast advantages over the ordinary world of daylight,
of barter and trade, of work and worry. In this world every man is his
own King--the sort of King one loves to imagine, not concerned in such
petty matters as wars and parliaments and taxes, but a mellow and
moderate despot who is a true patron of genius--a mild old chap who has
in his court the greatest men and women in the world--and all of them
vying to please the most vagrant of his moods! Invite any one of them to
talk, and if your highness is not pleased with him you have only to put
him back in his corner--and bring some jester to sharpen the laughter of
your highness, or some poet to set your faintest emotion to music!
I have marked a certain servility in books. They entreat you for a
hearing: they cry out from their cases--like men, in an eternal struggle
for survival, for immortality.
"Take me," pleads this one, "I am responsive to every mood. You will
find in me love and hate, virtue and vice. I don't preach: I give you
life as it is. You will find here adventures cunningly linked with
romance and seasoned to suit the most fastidious taste. Try _me_."
"Hear such talk!" cries his neighbour. "He's fiction. What he says never
happened at all. He tries hard to make you believe it, but it isn't
true, not a word of it. Now, I'm fact. Everything you find in me can be
"Yes," responds the other, "but who cares! Nobody wants to read you,
As their voices grow shriller with argument your highness listens with
the indulgent smile of royalty when its courtiers contend for its
favour, knowing that their very life depends upon a wrinkle in your
* * * * *
As for me I confess to being a rather crusty despot. When Horace was
over here the other evening talking learnedly about silos and ensilage I
admit that I became the very pattern of humility, but when I take my
place in the throne of my arm-chair with the light from the green-shaded
lamp falling on the open pages of my book, I assure you I am decidedly
an autocratic person. My retainers must distinctly keep their places! I
have my court favourites upon whom I lavish the richest gifts of my
attention. I reserve for them a special place in the worn case nearest
my person, where at the mere outreaching of an idle hand I can summon
them to beguile my moods. The necessary slavies of literature I have
arranged in indistinct rows at the farther end of the room where they
can be had if I require their special accomplishments.
* * * * *
How little, after all, learning counts in this world either in books or
in men. I have often been awed by the wealth of information I have
discovered in a man or a book: I have been awed and depressed. How
wonderful, I have thought, that one brain should hold so much, should be
so infallible in a world of fallibility. But I have observed how soon
and completely such a fount of information dissipates itself. Having
only things to give, it comes finally to the end of its things: it is
empty. What it has hived up so painfully through many a studious year
comes now to be common property. We pass that way, take our share, and
do not even say "Thank you." Learning is like money; it is of prodigious
satisfaction to the possessor thereof, but once given forth it diffuses
"What have you?" we are ever asking of those we meet. "Information,
We take it cruelly and pass onward, for such is the law of material
"What have you?" we ask. "Charm, personality, character, the great gift
How we draw you to us! We take you in. Poor or ignorant though you may
be, we link arms and loiter; we love you not for what you have or what
you give us, but for what you are.
I have several good friends (excellent people) who act always as I
expect them to act. There is no flight! More than once I have listened
to the edifying conversation of a certain sturdy old gentleman whom I
know, and I am ashamed to say that I have thought:
"Lord! if he would jump up now and turn an intellectual handspring, or
slap me on the back (figuratively, of course: the other would be
unthinkable), or--yes, swear! I--think I could love him."
But he never does--and I'm afraid he never will!
When I speak then of my books you will know what I mean. The chief charm
of literature, old or new, lies in its high quality of surprise,
unexpectedness, spontaneity: high spirits applied to life. We can fairly
hear some of the old chaps you and I know laughing down through the
centuries. How we love 'em! They laughed for themselves, not for us!
Yes, there must be surprise in the books that I keep in the worn case at
my elbow, the surprise of a new personality perceiving for the first
time the beauty, the wonder, the humour, the tragedy, the greatness of
truth. It doesn't matter at all whether the writer is a poet, a
scientist, a traveller, an essayist or a mere daily space-maker, if he
have the God-given grace of wonder.
"What on _earth_ are you laughing about?" cries Harriet from the
When I have caught my breath, I say, holding up my book:
"This absurd man here is telling of the adventures of a certain
"But I can't see how you can laugh out like that, sitting all alone
there. Why, it's uncanny."
"You don't know the Knight, Harriet, nor his squire Sancho."
"You talk of them just as though they were real persons."
"Real!" I exclaim, "real! Why they are much more real than most of the
people we know. Horace is a mere wraith compared with Sancho."
And then I rush out.
"Let me read you this," I say, and I read that matchless chapter wherein
the Knight, having clapped on his head the helmet which Sancho has
inadvertently used as a receptacle for a dinner of curds and, sweating
whey profusely, goes forth to fight two fierce lions. As I proceed with
that prodigious story, I can see Harriet gradually forgetting her
sewing, and I read on the more furiously until, coming to the point of
the conflict wherein the generous and gentle lion, having yawned, "threw
out some half yard of tongue wherewith he licked and washed his face,"
Harriet begins to laugh.
"There!" I say triumphantly.
Harriet looks at me accusingly.
"Such foolishness!" she says. "Why should any man in his senses try to
fight caged lions!"
"Harriet," I say, "you are incorrigible."
She does not deign to reply, so I return with meekness to my room.
* * * * *
The most distressing thing about the ordinary fact writer is his
cock-sureness. Why, here is a man (I have not yet dropped him out of
the window) who has written a large and sober book explaining life. And
do you know when he gets through he is apparently much discouraged about
this universe. This is the veritable moment when I am in love with my
occupation as a despot! At this moment I will exercise the prerogative
"Off with his head!"
I do not believe this person though he have ever so many titles to
jingle after his name, nor in the colleges which gave them, if they
stand sponsor for that which he writes, I do not believe he has
compassed this universe. I believe him to be an inconsequent being like
myself--oh, much more learned, of course--and yet only upon the
threshold of these wonders. It goes too deep--life--to be solved by
fifty years of living. There is far too much in the blue firmament, too
many stars, to be dissolved in the feeble logic of a single brain. We
are not yet great enough, even this explanatory person, to grasp the
"scheme of things entire." This is no place for weak pessimism--this
universe. This is Mystery and out of Mystery springs the fine
adventure! What we have seen or felt, what we think we know, are
insignificant compared with that which may be known.
What this person explains is not, after all, the Universe--but himself,
his own limited, faithless personality. I shall not accept his
explanation. I escape him utterly!
Not long ago, coming in from my fields, I fell to thinking of the
supreme wonder of a tree; and as I walked I met the Professor.
"How," I asked, "does the sap get up to the top of these great maples
and elms? What power is there that should draw it upward against the
force of gravity?"
He looked at me a moment with his peculiar slow smile.
"I don't know," he said.
"What!" I exclaimed, "do you mean to tell me that science has not solved
this simplest of natural phenomena?"
"We do not know," he said. "We explain, but we do not know."
No, my Explanatory Friend, we do not know--we do not know the why of the
flowers, or the trees, or the suns; we do not even know why, in our own
hearts, we should be asking this curious question--and other deeper
* * * * *
No man becomes a great writer unless he possesses a highly developed
sense of Mystery, of wonder. A great writer is never _blase_; everything
to him happened not longer ago than this forenoon.
The other night the Professor and the Scotch Preacher happened in here
together and we fell to discussing, I hardly know how, for we usually
talk the neighbourhood chat of the Starkweathers, of Horace and of
Charles Baxter, we fell to discussing old Izaak Walton--and the nonsense
(as a scientific age knows it to be) which he sometimes talked with such
"How superior it makes one feel, in behalf of the enlightenment and
progress of his age," said the Professor, "when he reads Izaak's
extraordinary natural history."
"Does it make you feel that way?" asked the Scotch Preacher. "It makes
me want to go fishing."
And he took the old book and turned the leaves until he came to page
"Let me read you," he said, "what the old fellow says about the
'fearfulest of fishes.'"
"'... Get secretly behind a tree, and stand as
free from motion as possible; then put a grasshopper
on your hook, and let your hook hang a quarter of
a yard short of the water, to which end you must rest
your rod on some bough of a tree; but it is likely
that the Chubs will sink down towards the bottom
of the water at the first shadow of your rod, for a
Chub is the fearfulest of fishes, and will do so if but
a bird flies over him and makes the least shadow
on the water; but they will presently rise up to the
top again, and there lie soaring until some shadow
affrights them again; I say, when they lie upon the
top of the water, look at the best Chub, which you,
getting yourself in a fit place, may very easily see,
and move your rod as slowly as a snail moves, to
that Chub you intend to catch, let your bait fall
gently upon the water three or four inches before
him, and he will infallibly take the bait, and you
will be as sure to catch him.... Go your way
presently, take my rod, and do as I bid you, and I
will sit down and mend my tackling till you return
"Now I say," said the Scotch Preacher, "that it makes me want to go
"That," I said, "is true of every great book: it either makes us want
to do things, to go fishing, or fight harder or endure more
patiently--or it takes us out of ourselves and beguiles us for a time
with the friendship of completer lives than our own."
The great books indeed have in them the burning fire of life;
.... "nay, they do preserve, as in a violl,
the purest efficacie and extraction of that living
intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively,
and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous
Dragon's teeth; which being sown up and down, may
chance to spring up armed men."
How soon we come to distinguish the books of the mere writers from the
books of real men! For true literature, like happiness, is ever a
by-product; it is the half-conscious expression of a man greatly engaged
in some other undertaking; it is the song of one working. There is
something inevitable, unrestrainable about the great books; they seemed
to come despite the author. "I could not sleep," says the poet Horace,
"for the pressure of unwritten poetry." Dante said of his books that
they "made him lean for many days." I have heard people say of a writer
in explanation of his success:
"Oh, well, he has the literary knack."
It is not so! Nothing is further from the truth. He writes well not
chiefly because he is interested in writing, or because he possesses any
especial knack, but because he is more profoundly, vividly interested in
the activities of life and he tells about them--over his shoulder. For
writing, like farming, is ever a tool, not an end.
How the great one-book men remain with us! I can see Marcus Aurelius
sitting in his camps among the far barbarians writing out the
reflections of a busy life. I see William Penn engaged in great
undertakings, setting down "Some of the Fruits of Solitude," and Abraham
Lincoln striking, in the hasty paragraphs written for his speeches, one
of the highest notes in our American literature.
* * * * *
"I am going up now; it is very late."
"You will bank the fire and see that the doors are locked?"
After a pause: "And, David, I didn't mean--about the story you read. Did
the Knight finally kill the lions?"
"No," I said with sobriety, "it was not finally necessary."
"But I thought he set out to kill them."
"He did; but he proved his valour without doing it."
Harriet paused, made as if to speak again, but did not do so.
"Valour"--I began in my hortatory tone, seeing a fair opening, but at
the look in her eye I immediately desisted.
"You won't stay up late?" she warned.
"N-o," I said.
Take John Bunyan as a pattern of the man who forgot himself into
immortality. How seriously he wrote sermons and pamphlets, now happily
forgotten! But it was not until he was shut up in jail (some writers I
know might profit by his example) that he "put aside," as he said, "a
more serious and important work" and wrote "Pilgrim's Progress." It is
the strangest thing in the world--the judgment of men as to what is
important and serious! Bunyan says in his rhymed introduction:
"I only thought to make
I knew not what: nor did I undertake
Thereby to please my neighbour; no, not I:
I did it my own self to gratify."
Another man I love to have at hand is he who writes of Blazing Bosville,
the Flaming Tinman, and of The Hairy Ones.
How Borrow escapes through his books! His object was not to produce
literature but to display his erudition as a master of language and of
outlandish custom, and he went about the task in all seriousness of
demolishing the Roman Catholic Church. We are not now so impressed with
his erudition that we do not smile at his vanity and we are quite
contented, even after reading his books, to let the church survive; but
how shall we spare our friend with his inextinguishable love of life,
his pugilists, his gypsies, his horse traders? We are even willing to
plow through arid deserts of dissertation in order that we may enjoy the
perfect oases in which the man forgets himself!
Reading such books as these and a hundred others, the books of the worn
case at my elbow.
"The bulged and the bruised octavos,
The dear and the dumpy twelves----"
I become like those initiated in the Eleusinian mysteries who, as
Cicero tells us, have attained "the art of living joyfully and of dying
with a fairer hope."
* * * * *
It is late, and the house is still. A few bright embers glow in the
fireplace. You look up and around you, as though coming back to the
world from some far-off place. The clock in the dining-room ticks with
solemn precision; you did not recall that it had so loud a tone. It has
been a great evening, in this quiet room on your farm, you have been
able to entertain the worthies of all the past!
You walk out, resoundingly, to the kitchen and open the door. You look
across the still white fields. Your barn looms black in the near
distance, the white mound close at hand is your wood-pile, the great
trees stand like sentinels in the moonlight; snow has drifted upon the
doorstep and lies there untracked. It is, indeed, a dim and untracked
world: coldly beautiful but silent--and of a strange unreality! You
close the door with half a shiver and take the real world with you up to
bed. For it is past one o'clock.
[Illustration: "The beauty, the wonder, the humour, the tragedy, the
greatness of truth"]
In the city, as I now recall it (having escaped), it seemed to be the
instinctive purpose of every citizen I knew not to get into politics but
to keep out. We sedulously avoided caucuses and school-meetings, our
time was far too precious to be squandered in jury service, we forgot to
register for elections, we neglected to vote. We observed a sort of
aristocratic contempt for political activity and then fretted and fumed
over the low estate to which our government had fallen--and never saw
the humour of it all.
At one time I experienced a sort of political awakening: a "boss" we
had was more than ordinarily piratical. I think he had a scheme to steal
the city hall and sell the monuments in the park (something of that
sort), and I, for one, was disturbed. For a time I really wanted to bear
a man's part in helping to correct the abuses, only I did not know how
and could not find out.
In the city, when one would learn anything about public matters, he
turns, not to life, but to books or newspapers. What we get in the city
is not life, but what someone else tells us about life. So I acquired a
really formidable row of works on Political Economy and Government (I
admire the word "works" in that application) where I found Society laid
out for me in the most perfect order--with pennies on its eyes. How
often, looking back, I see myself as in those days, read my learned
books with a sort of fury of interest!--
From the reading of books I acquired a sham comfort. Dwelling upon the
excellent theory of our institutions, I was content to disregard the
realities of daily practice. I acquired a mock assurance under which I
proceeded complacently to the polls, and cast my vote without knowing a
single man on the ticket, what he stood for, or what he really intended
to do. The ceremony of the ballot bears to politics much the
relationship that the sacrament bears to religion: how often, observing
the formality, we yet depart wholly from the spirit of the institution.
It was good to escape that place of hurrying strangers. It was good to
get one's feet down into the soil. It was good to be in a place where
things _are_ because they _grow_, and politics, not less than corn! Oh,
my friend, say what you please, argue how you like, this crowding
together of men and women in unnatural surroundings, this haste to be
rich in material things, this attempt to enjoy without production, this
removal from first-hand life, is irrational, and the end of it is ruin.
If our cities were not recruited constantly with the fresh, clean blood
of the country, with boys who still retain some of the power and the
vision drawn from the soil, where would they be!
"We're a great people," says Charles Baxter, "but we don't always work
"But we talk about it," says the Scotch Preacher.
"By the way," says Charles Baxter, "have you seen George Warren? He's up
"I haven't yet."
"Well, go around and see him. We must find out exactly what he intends
to do with the Summit Hill road. If he is weak on that we'd better look
to Matt Devine. At least Matt is safe."
The Scotch Preacher looked at Charles Baxter and said to me with a note
of admiration in his voice:
"Isn't this man Baxter getting to be intolerable as a political boss!"
* * * * *
Baxter's shop! Baxter's shop stands close to the road and just in the
edge of a grassy old apple orchard. It is a low, unpainted building,
with generous double doors in front, standing irresistibly open as you
go by. Even as a stranger coming here first from the city I felt the
call of Baxter's shop. Shall I ever forget! It was a still morning--one
of those days of warm sunshine--and perfect quiet in the country--and
birds in the branches--and apple trees all in bloom. Baxter whistling
at his work in the sunlit doorway of his shop, in his long, faded apron,
much worn at the knees. He was bending to the rhythmic movement of his
plane, and all around him as he worked rose billows of shavings. And oh,
the odours of that shop! the fragrant, resinous odour of new-cut pine,
the pungent smell of black walnut, the dull odour of oak wood--how they
stole out in the sunshine, waylaying you as you came far up the road,
beguiling you as you passed the shop, and stealing reproachfully after
you as you went onward down the road.
Never shall I forget that grateful moment when I first passed Baxter's
shop--a failure from the city--and Baxter looking out at me from his
deep, quiet, gray eyes--eyes that were almost a caress!
My wayward feet soon took me, unintroduced, within the doors of that
shop, the first of many visits. And I can say no more in appreciation of
my ventures there than that I came out always with more than I had when
I went in.
The wonders there! The long bench with its huge-jawed wooden vises, and
the little dusty windows above looking out into the orchard, and the
brown planes and the row of shiny saws, and the most wonderful pattern
squares and triangles and curves, each hanging on its own peg; and
above, in the rafters, every sort and size of curious wood. And oh! the
old bureaus and whatnots and high-boys in the corners waiting their turn
to be mended; and the sticky glue-pot waiting, too, on the end of the
sawhorse. There is family history here in this shop--no end of it--the
small and yet great (because intensely human) tragedies and humours of
the long, quiet years among these sunny hills. That whatnot there, the
one of black walnut with the top knocked off, that belonged in the old
"Charles Baxter," calls my friend Patterson from the roadway, "can you
fix my cupboard?"
"Bring it in," says Charles Baxter, hospitably, and Patterson brings it
in, and stops to talk--and stops--and stops--There is great talk in
Baxter's shop--the slow-gathered wisdom of the country, the lore of
crops and calves and cabinets. In Baxter's shop we choose the next
President of these United States!
You laugh! But we do--exactly that. It is in the Baxters' shops (not in
Broadway, not in State Street) where the presidents are decided upon. In
the little grocery stores you and I know, in the blacksmithies, in the
schoolhouses back in the country!
* * * * *
Forgive me! I did not intend to wander away. I meant to keep to my
subject--but the moment I began to talk of politics in the country I was
beset by a compelling vision of Charles Baxter coming out of his shop in
the dusk of the evening, carrying his curious old reflector lamp and
leading the way down the road to the schoolhouse. And thinking of the
lamp brought a vision of the joys of Baxter's shop, and thinking of the
shop brought me naturally around to politics and presidents; and here I
am again where I started!
Baxter's lamp is, somehow, inextricably associated in my mind with
politics. Being busy farmers, we hold our caucuses and other meetings in
the evening and usually in the schoolhouse. The schoolhouse is
conveniently near to Baxter's shop, so we gather at Baxter's shop.
Baxter takes his lamp down from the bracket above his bench, reflector
and all, and you will see us, a row of dusky figures, Baxter in the
lead, proceeding down the roadway to the schoolhouse. Having arrived,
some one scratches a match, shields it with his hand (I see yet the
sudden fitful illumination of the brown-bearded, watchful faces of my
neighbours!) and Baxter guides us into the schoolhouse--with its shut-in
dusty odours of chalk and varnished desks and--yes, leftover lunches!
Baxter's lamp stands on the table, casting a vast shadow of the chairman
on the wall.
"Come to order," says the chairman, and we have here at this moment in
operation the greatest institution in this round world: the institution
of free self-government. Great in its simplicity, great in its
unselfishness! And Baxter's old lamp with its smoky tin reflector, is
not that the veritable torch of our liberties?
This, I forgot to say, though it makes no special difference--a caucus
would be the same--is a school meeting.
You see, ours is a prolific community. When a young man and a young
woman are married they think about babies; they want babies, and what
is more, they have them! and love them afterward! It is a part of the
complete life. And having babies, there must be a place to teach them to
Without more explanation you will understand that we needed an addition
to our schoolhouse. A committee reported that the amount required would
be $800. We talked it over. The Scotch Preacher was there with a plan
which he tacked up on the blackboard and explained to us. He told us of
seeing the stone-mason and the carpenter, he told us what the seats
would cost, and the door knobs and the hooks in the closet. We are a
careful people; we want to know where every penny goes!
"If we put it all in the budget this year what will that make the rate?"
inquires a voice from the end of the room.
We don't look around; we know the voice. And when the secretary has
computed the rate, if you listen closely you can almost hear the buzz of
multiplications and additions which is going on in each man's head as he
calculates exactly how much the addition will mean to him in taxes on
his farm, his daughter's piano his wife's top-buggy.
And many a man is saying to himself:
"If we build this addition to the schoolhouse, I shall have to give up
the new overcoat I have counted upon, or Amanda won't be able to get the
That's _real_ politics: the voluntary surrender of some private good for
the upbuilding of some community good. It is in such exercises that the
fibre of democracy grows sound and strong. There is, after all, in this
world no real good for which we do not have to surrender something. In
the city the average voter is never conscious of any surrender. He never
realises that he is giving anything himself for good schools or good
streets. Under such conditions how can you expect self-government? No
service, no reward!
The first meeting that I sat through watching those bronzed farmers at
work gave me such a conception of the true meaning of self-government as
I never hoped to have.
"This is the place where I belong," I said to myself.
It was wonderful in that school meeting to see how every essential
element of our government was brought into play. Finance? We discussed
whether we should put the entire $800 into the next year's budget or
divide it paying part in cash and bonding the district for the
remainder. The question of credit, of interest, of the obligations of
this generation and the next, were all discussed. At one time long ago I
was amazed when I heard my neighbours arguing in Baxter's shop about the
issuance of certain bonds by the United States government: how
completely they understood it! I know now where they got that
understanding. Right in the school meetings and town caucuses where they
raise money yearly for the expenses of our small government! There is
nothing like it in the city.
The progress of a people can best be judged by those things which they
accept as matters-of-fact. It was amazing to me, coming from the city,
and before I understood, to see how ingrained had become some of the
principles which only a few years ago were fiercely-mooted problems. It
gave me a new pride in my country, a new appreciation of the steps in
civilisation which we have already permanently gained. Not a question
have I ever heard in any school meeting of the necessity of educating
every American child--at any cost. Think of it! Think how far we have
come in that respect, in seventy--yes, fifty--years. Universal education
has become a settled axiom of our life.
And there was another point--so common now that we do not appreciate the
significance of it. I refer to majority rule. In our school meeting we
were voting money out of men's pockets--money that we all needed for
private expenses--and yet the moment the minority, after full and honest
discussion, failed to maintain its contention in opposition to the new
building, it yielded with perfect good humour and went on with the
discussion of other questions. When you come to think of it, in the
light of history, is not that a wonderful thing?
One of the chief property owners in our neighbourhood is a rather
crabbed old bachelor. Having no children and heavy taxes to pay, he
looks with jaundiced eye on additions to schoolhouses. He will object
and growl and growl and object, and yet pin him down as I have seen the
Scotch Preacher pin him more than once, he will admit that children ("of
course," he will say, "certainly, of course") must be educated.
"For the good of bachelors as well as other people?" the Scotch
Preacher will press it home.
"Certainly, of course."
And when the final issue comes, after full discussion, after he has
tried to lop off a few yards of blackboard or order cheaper desks or
dispense with the clothes-closet, he votes for the addition with the
rest of us.
It is simply amazing to see how much grows out of these discussions--how
much of that social sympathy and understanding which is the very
tap-root of democracy. It's cheaper to put up a miserable shack of an
addition. Why not do it? So we discuss architecture--blindly, it is
true; we don't know the books on the subject--but we grope for the big
true things, and by our own discussion we educate ourselves to know why
a good building is better than a bad one. Heating and ventilation in
their relation to health, the use of "fad studies"--how I have heard
those things discussed!
How Dr. North, who has now left us forever, shone in those meetings, and
Charles Baxter and the Scotch Preacher--broad men, every one--how they
have explained and argued, with what patience have they brought into
that small schoolhouse, lighted by Charles Baxter's lamp, the grandest
conceptions of human society--not in the big words of the books, but in
the simple, concrete language of our common life.
"Why teach physiology?"
What a talk Dr. North once gave us on that!
"Why pay a teacher $40 a month when one can be had for $30?"
You should have heard the Scotch Preacher answer that question! Many a
one of us went away with some of the education which we had come,
somewhat grudgingly, to buy for our children.
These are our political bosses: these unknown patriots, who preach the
invisible patriotism which expresses itself not in flags and oratory,
but in the quiet daily surrender of private advantage to the public
There is, after all, no such thing as perfect equality; there must be
leaders, flag-bearers, bosses--whatever you call them. Some men have a
genius for leading; others for following; each is necessary and
dependent upon the other. In cities, that leadership is often perverted
and used to evil ends. Neither leaders nor followers seem to
understand. In its essence politics is merely a mode of expressing human
sympathy. In the country many and many a leader like Baxter works
faithfully year in and year out, posting notices of caucuses, school
meetings and elections, opening cold schoolhouses, talking to
candidates, prodding selfish voters--and mostly without reward.
Occasionally they are elected to petty offices where they do far more
work than they are paid for (we have our eyes on 'em); often they are
rewarded by the power and place which leadership gives them among their
neighbours, and sometimes--and that is Charles Baxter's case--they
simply like it! Baxter is of the social temperament: it is the natural
expression of his personality. As for thinking of himself as a patriot,
he would never dream of it. Work with the hands, close touch with the
common life of the soil, has given him much of the true wisdom of
experience. He knows us and we know him; he carries the banner, holds it
as high as he knows how, and we follow.
Whether there can be a real democracy (as in a city) where there is not
that elbow knowledge, that close neighbourhood sympathy, that conscious
surrender of little personal goods for bigger public ones, I don't know.
We haven't many foreigners in our district, but all three were there on
the night we voted for the addition. They are Polish. Each has a farm
where the whole family works--and puts on a little more Americanism each
year. They're good people. It is surprising how much all these Poles,
Italians, Germans and others, are like us, how perfectly human they are,
when we know them personally! One Pole here, named Kausky, I have come
to know pretty well, and I declare I have forgotten that he _is_ a Pole.
There's nothing like the rub of democracy! The reason why we are so
suspicious of the foreigners in our cities is that they are crowded
together in such vast, unknown, undigested masses. We have swallowed
them too fast, and we suffer from a sort of national dyspepsia.
Here in the country we promptly digest our foreigners and they make as
good Americans as anybody.
"Catch a foreigner when he first comes here," says Charles Baxter, "and
he takes to our politics like a fish to water."
The Scotch Preacher says they "gape for education," And when I see
Kausky's six children going by in the morning to school, all their
round, sleepy, fat faces shining with soap, I believe it! Baxter tells
with humour how he persuaded Kausky to vote for the addition to the
schoolhouse. It was a pretty stiff tax for the poor fellow to pay, but
Baxter "figgered children with him," as he said. With six to educate,
Baxter showed him that he was actually getting a good deal more than he
Be it far from me to pretend that we are always right or that we have
arrived in our country at the perfection of self-government. I do not
wish to imply that all of our people are interested, that all attend the
caucuses and school-meetings (some of the most prominent never come
near--they stay away, and if things don't go right they blame Charles
Baxter!) Nor must I over-emphasise the seriousness of our public
interest. But we certainly have here, if anywhere in this nation, real
self-government. Growth is a slow process. We often fail in our election
of delegates to State conventions; we sometimes vote wrong in national
affairs. It is an easy thing to think school district; difficult,
indeed, to think State or nation. But we grow. When we make mistakes,
it is not because we are evil, but because we don't know. Once we get a
clear understanding of the right or wrong of any question you can depend
upon us--absolutely--to vote for what is right. With more education we
shall be able to think in larger and larger circles--until we become,
finally, really national in our interests and sympathies. Whenever a man
comes along who knows how simple we are, and how much we really want to
do right, if we can be convinced that a thing _is_ right--who explains
how the railroad question, for example, affects us in our intimate daily
lives, what the rights and wrongs of it are, why, we can understand and
do understand--and we are ready to act.
It is easy to rally to a flag in times of excitement. The patriotism of
drums and marching regiments is cheap; blood is material and cheap;
physical weariness and hunger are cheap. But the struggle I speak of is
not cheap. It is dramatised by few symbols. It deals with hidden
spiritual qualities within the conscience of men. Its heroes are yet
unsung and unhonoured. No combats in all the world's history were ever
fought so high upward in the spiritual air as these; and, surely, not
And so, out of my experience both in city and country, I feel--yes, I
_know_--that the real motive power of this democracy lies back in the
little country neighbourhoods like ours where men gather in dim
schoolhouses and practice the invisible patriotism of surrender and
"Oh, Universe, what thou wishest, I wish."
I come to the end of these Adventures with a regret I can scarcely
express. I, at least, have enjoyed them. I began setting them down with
no thought of publication, but for my own enjoyment; the possibility of
a book did not suggest itself until afterwards. I have tried to relate
the experiences of that secret, elusive, invisible life which in every
man is so far more real, so far more important than his visible
activities--the real expression of a life much occupied in other
When I first came to this farm, I came empty-handed. I was the veritable
pattern of the city-made failure. I believed that life had nothing more
in store for me. I was worn out physically, mentally and, indeed,
morally. I had diligently planned for Success; and I had reaped defeat.
I came here without plans. I plowed and harrowed and planted, expecting
nothing. In due time I began to reap. And it has been a growing marvel
to me, the diverse and unexpected crops that I have produced within
these uneven acres of earth. With sweat I planted corn, and I have here
a crop not only of corn but of happiness and hope. My tilled fields have
miraculously sprung up to friends!
This book is one of the unexpected products of my farm. It is this way
with the farmer. After the work of planting and cultivating, after the
rain has fallen in his fields, after the sun has warmed them, after the
new green leaves have broken the earth--one day he stands looking out
with a certain new joy across his acres (the wind bends and half turns
the long blades of the corn) and there springs up within him a song of
the fields. No matter how little poetic, how little articulate he is,
the song rises irrepressibly in his heart, and he turns aside from his
task with a new glow of fulfillment and contentment. At harvest time in
our country I hear, or I imagine I hear, a sort of chorus rising over
all the hills, and I meet no man who is not, deep down within him, a
singer! So song follows work: so art grows out of life!
And the friends I have made! They have come to me naturally, as the corn
grows in my fields or the wind blows in my trees. Some strange potency
abides within the soil of this earth! When two men stoop (there must be
stooping) and touch it together, a magnetic current is set up between
them: a flow of common understanding and confidence. I would call the
attention of all great Scientists, Philosophers, and Theologians to this
phenomenon: it will repay investigation. It is at once the rarest and
the commonest thing I know. It shows that down deep within us, where we
really live, we are all a good deal alike. We have much the same
instincts, hopes, joys, sorrows. If only it were not for the outward
things that we commonly look upon as important (which are in reality not
at all important) we might come together without fear, vanity, envy, or
prejudice and be friends. And what a world it would be! If civilisation
means anything at all it means the increasing ability of men to look
through material possessions, through clothing, through differences of
speech and colour of skin, and to see the genuine man that abides within
each of us. It means an escape from symbols!
I tell this merely to show what surprising and unexpected things have
grown out of my farm. All along I have had more than I bargained for.
From now on I shall marvel at nothing! When I ordered my own life I
failed; now that I work from day to day, doing that which I can do best
and which most delights me, I am rewarded in ways that I could not have
imagined. Why, it would not surprise me if heaven were at the end of all
Now, I am not so foolish as to imagine that a farm is a perfect place.
In these Adventures I have emphasised perhaps too forcibly the joyful
and pleasant features of my life. In what I have written I have
naturally chosen only those things which were most interesting and
charming. My life has not been without discouragement and loss and
loneliness (loneliness most of all). I have enjoyed the hard work; the
little troubles have troubled me more than the big ones. I detest
unharnessing a muddy horse in the rain! I don't like chickens in the
barn. And somehow Harriet uses an inordinate amount of kindling wood.
But once in the habit, unpleasant things have a way of fading quickly
and quietly from the memory.
And you see after living so many years in the city the worst experience
on the farm is a sort of joy!
In most men as I come to know them--I mean men who dare to look
themselves in the eye--I find a deep desire for more naturalness, more
directness. How weary we all grow of this fabric of deception which is
called modern life. How passionately we desire to escape but cannot see
the way! How our hearts beat with sympathy when we find a man who has
turned his back upon it all and who says "I will live it no longer." How
we flounder in possessions as in a dark and suffocating bog, wasting
our energies not upon life but upon _things_. Instead of employing our
houses, our cities, our gold, our clothing, we let these inanimate
things possess and employ us--to what utter weariness. "Blessed be
nothing," sighs a dear old lady of my knowledge.
Of all ways of escape I know, the best, though it is far from
perfection, is the farm. There a man may yield himself most nearly to
the quiet and orderly processes of nature. He may attain most nearly to
that equilibrium between the material and spiritual, with time for the
exactions of the first, and leisure for the growth of the second, which
is the ideal of life.
In times past most farming regions in this country have suffered the
disadvantages of isolation, the people have dwelt far distant from one
another and from markets, they have had little to stimulate them
intellectually or socially. Strong and peculiar individuals and families
were often developed at the expense of a friendly community life:
neighbourhood feuds were common. Country life was marked with the
rigidity of a hard provincialism. All this, however, is rapidly
changing. The closer settlement of the land, the rural delivery of
mails (the morning newspaper reaches the tin box at the end of my lane
at noon), the farmer's telephone, the spreading country trolleys, more
schools and churches, and cheaper railroad rates, have all helped to
bring the farmer's life well within the stimulating currents of world
thought without robbing it of its ancient advantages. And those
advantages are incalculable: Time first for thought and reflection
(narrow streams cut deep) leading to the growth of a sturdy freedom of
action--which is, indeed, a natural characteristic of the man who has
his feet firmly planted upon his own land.
A city hammers and polishes its denizens into a defined model: it
worships standardisation; but the country encourages differentiation, it
loves new types. Thus it is that so many great and original men have
lived their youth upon the land. It would be impossible to imagine
Abraham Lincoln brought up in a street of tenements. Family life on the
farm is highly educative; there is more discipline for a boy in the
continuous care of a cow or a horse than in many a term of school.
Industry, patience, perseverance are qualities inherent in the very
atmosphere of country life. The so-called manual training of city
schools is only a poor makeshift for developing in the city boy those
habits which the country boy acquires naturally in his daily life. An
honest, hard-working country training is the best inheritance a father
can leave his son.
And yet a farm is only an opportunity, a tool. A cornfield, a plow, a
woodpile, an oak tree, will cure no man unless he have it in himself to
be cured. The truth is that no life, and least of all a farmer's life,
is simple--unless it is simple. I know a man and his wife who came out
here to the country with the avowed purpose of becoming, forthwith,
simple. They were unable to keep the chickens out of their summer
kitchen. They discovered microbes in the well, and mosquitoes in the
cistern, and wasps in the garret. Owing to the resemblance of the seeds,
their radishes turned out to be turnips! The last I heard of them they
were living snugly in a flat in Sixteenth Street--all their troubles
solved by a dumb-waiter.
The great point of advantage in the life of the country is that if a man
is in reality simple, if he love true contentment, it is the place of
all places where he can live his life most freely and fully, where he
can _grow_. The city affords no such opportunity; indeed, it often
destroys, by the seductiveness with which it flaunts its carnal graces,
the desire for the higher life which animates every good man.
While on the subject of simplicity it may be well to observe that
simplicity does not necessarily, as some of those who escape from the
city seem to think, consist in doing without things, but rather in the
proper use of things. One cannot return, unless with affectation, to the
crudities of a former existence. We do not believe in Diogenes and his
tub. Do you not think the good Lord has given us the telephone (that we
may better reach that elbow-rub of brotherhood which is the highest of
human ideals) and the railroad (that we may widen our human knowledge
and sympathy)--and even the motor-car? (though, indeed, I have sometimes
imagined that the motor-cars passing this way had a different origin!).
He may have given these things to us too fast, faster than we can bear;
but is that any reason why we should denounce them all and return to
the old, crude, time-consuming ways of our ancestors? I am no
reactionary. I do not go back. I neglect no tool of progress. I am too
eager to know every wonder in this universe. The motor-car, if I had
one, could not carry me fast enough! I must yet fly!
After my experience in the country, if I were to be cross-examined as to
the requisites of a farm, I should say that the chief thing to be
desired in any sort of agriculture, is good health in the farmer. What,
after all, can touch that! How many of our joys that we think
intellectual are purely physical! This joy of the morning that the poet
carols about so cheerfully, is often nothing more than the exuberance
produced by a good hot breakfast. Going out of my kitchen door some
mornings and standing for a moment, while I survey the green and
spreading fields of my farm, it seems to me truly as if all nature were
making a bow to me. It seems to me that there never was a better cow
than mine, never a more really perfect horse, and as for pigs, could any
in this world herald my approach with more cheerful gruntings and
But there are other requisites for a farm. It must not be too large,
else it will keep you away from your friends. Provide a town not too far
off (and yet not too near) where you can buy your flour and sell your
grain. If there is a railroad convenient (though not so near that the
whistling of the engines reaches you), that is an added advantage.
Demand a few good old oak trees, or walnuts, or even elms will do. No
well-regulated farm should be without trees; and having secured the
oaks--buy your fuel of your neighbours. Thus you will be blessed with
beauty both summer and winter.
As for neighbours, accept those nearest at hand; you will find them
surprisingly human, like yourself. If you like them you will be
surprised to find how much they all like you (and will upon occasion
lend you a spring-tooth harrow or a butter tub, or help you with your
plowing); but if you hate them they will return your hatred with
interest. I have discovered that those who travel in pursuit of better
neighbours never find them.
Somewhere on every farm, along with the other implements, there should
be a row of good books, which should not be allowed to rust with
disuse: a book, like a hoe, grows brighter with employment. And no farm,
even in this country where we enjoy the even balance of the seasons,
rain and shine, shine and rain, should be devoid of that irrigation from
the currents of the world's thought which is so essential to the
complete life. From the papers which the postman puts in the box flow
the true waters of civilisation. You will find within their columns how
to be good or how to make pies: you will get out of them what you look
for! And finally, down the road from your farm, so that you can hear the
bell on Sunday mornings, there should be a little church. It will do you
good even though, like me, you do not often attend. It's a sort of Ark
of the Covenant; and when you get to it, you will find therein the True
Spirit--if you take it with you when you leave home. Of course you will
look for good land and comfortable buildings when you buy your farm:
they are, indeed, prime requisites. I have put them last for the reason
that they are so often first. I have observed, however, that the joy of
the farmer is by no means in proportion to the area of his arable land.
It is often a nice matter to decide between acres and contentment: men
perish from too much as well as from too little. And if it be possible
there should be a long table in the dining-room and little chairs around
it, and small beds upstairs, and young voices calling at their play in
the fields--if it be possible.
Sometimes I say to myself: I have grasped happiness! Here it is; I have
it. And yet, it always seems at that moment of complete fulfillment as
though my hand trembled, that I might not take it!
I wonder if you recall the story of Christian and Hopeful, how, standing
on the hill Clear (as we do sometimes--at our best) they looked for the
gates of the Celestial City (as we look--how fondly!):
"Then they essayed to look, but the remembrance
of that last thing that the shepherds had showed them
made their hands shake, by means of which impediment
they could not look steadily through the glass:
yet they thought they saw something like the gate, and
also some of the glory of the place."
How often I have thought that I saw some of the glory of the place
(looking from the hill Clear) and how often, lifting the glass, my hand
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