THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A JOURNALIST
WILLIAM JAMES STILLMAN
IN TWO VOLUMES
That a man should assume that his life is worth the venture of a record in the form of an autobiography suggests a degree of self-conceit of which I am not guilty. From my own initiative this would never have been written, and the first suggestion that I should write it, coming from a man of such experience in books and judgment of men as the late Mr. Houghton, then head of the firm of Houghton, Mifflin & Co., was as much a surprise to me as the publication will be to any one. The impression it made on me was so vivid that I have never forgotten the details of the occasion which called it out. I had gone with Mr. Houghton and his daughters to the ruins of the Villa of Hadrian, at Tivoli, and, wandering idly amongst them on a beautiful autumn morning, not in the spirit of crude sightseeing, I was led to talk of my experiences more than is my wont to do. "You should write your life," he said to me with a manner of authority which at once convinced me, and I decided that if there should come in my life a pause in which the past could be considered rather than the needs of the present and the cares of the future, I would set about it. Had I at some earlier date entertained such a project, I should have preserved many documents and data now lost, and have been able to write more precisely of some things of greater interest than my personal adventures. But in that part of my life which may be considered relatively of a public character, or in which events of a public interest occurred, I have ample record made at the time. In what is peculiar to myself, and so of relatively trivial moment, dates and the order of events are of little importance. It occurred to me in the connection, that to give a human document of Puritan family life, and the development of a mind from the archaic severity of New England Puritanism to a complete freedom of thought, by a purely evolutionary process, without revolt or revulsion, might be worth doing. For what it is worth I have done it without much consideration of my own dignity, and, candidly, not as to my blunders and peccadilloes, which are of no importance to the story, but as to the earlier mental conditions which were a part of the process. So much for the personality.
Orthodox journalists may object to my assumption of their title. In my multifarious occupation and random life I have, as I see when I look back found my highest activity, and rendered my most serious services to others, in my occupation as a journalist—all the rest was fringe or failure. If I have been good for anything it was in connection with, or through my position on, the press. And it would be ungrateful and dishonest if I should omit to bear my testimony to the noble character and large sincerity of the great journal to which the most of my strength for more than twenty years has been given. If ever I had a noble impulse, aroused by wrongs that came to my knowledge during those years, a good cause to defend, or a public abuse to attack, "The Times" has never refused to give me room to tell my story, nor have I ever been expected to conform my views to those of the office, or shape my correspondence to any ulterior purpose; nor have I ever done so. And I consider it the greatest honor that has ever come to me to have been so many years in its service, and to have maintained the confidence of its direction.
To my critics much that I have told may seem trivial. I cannot judge of what may interest others. I should hardly have believed that my life as a whole could interest a public that does not know me, and I am equally unable to judge of the value which its details may have to others. In default of any criterion beyond my own judgment, I have selected the items which had to me most importance, or had a marked influence on my life or an interest beyond myself. I have told things that will seem trite to Americans, and others that will be commonplace to Englishmen, but I have two publics to think of, differing in slight matters in their knowledge of things.
In affixing to the book the portraits of myself, I have yielded my own opinion, which was opposed to it, to that of the publishers and my friends, who urged it. To me it seemed a vanity for one almost unknown to assume that a public would care what manner of man he might be, and that such an assumption should follow an expressed general desire; but the views of the publishers are imperative, and those of my friends weightier than my own.
The drawing by Rowse was done about 1856, so that the interval between its doing and that by my daughter in 1900 included all the active period of my life, unless I except the Hungarian expedition. When the Rowse drawing was executed, Lowell said of it, "You have nothing to do for the rest of your life but to try to look like it." Since that time every friend I then had, except Rowse and Norton, is gone where I must soon follow.
DEEPDENE, FRIMLEY GREEN, Surrey, England.
I. A NEW ENGLAND MOTHER AND HER FAMILY.
II. NATURE WORSHIP—EARLY RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCES.
III. AN AMERICAN EDUCATION.
IV. COLLEGE LIFE.
V. ART STUDY IN AMERICA.
VI. ART STUDY IN ENGLAND.
VII. ON A MISSION FOR KOSSUTH.
VIII. AN ART STUDENT IN PARIS.
X. LIFE IN THE WILDERNESS.
XIII. THE ADIRONDACK CLUB—EMERSON AND AGASSIZ.
XV. THE ADIRONDACKS AND FLORIDA.
XVI. ENGLAND AGAIN.
XVIII. PARIS AGAIN—THE CIVIL WAR IN AMERICA.
XIX. MY ROMAN CONSULATE.
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A JOURNALIST
A NEW ENGLAND MOTHER AND HER FAMILY
A theory is advanced by some students of character that in what concerns the formation of the individual nature, the shaping and determination of it in the plastic stage, and especially in respect to the moral elements on which the stability and purpose of a man's life depend, a man is indebted to his mother, for good or for ill. The question is too abstruse for argument, but, so far as my own observation goes, it tends to a confirmation of the theory. I have often noticed in children of friends that in childhood the likeness to the mother was so vivid that one found no trace of the father, but that in maturity this likeness disappeared to give place to that of the father. In my own case, taking it for what it is worth, I can only wish that the mother's part had been more enduring, not that I regret the effect of my father's influence, but because I think my mother had some qualities from which my best are derived, and which I should like to see completely carried out in the life of a man, while I recognize in a certain vagarious tendency in my father the probable hereditary basis of the inconstancy of purpose and pursuit, which may not have deprived my life of interest to others, but which has made it comparatively barren of practical result. As a study of a characteristic phase of New England life which has now entirely disappeared, I believe that a picture of her and her family will be of interest to some readers.
In my oldest brother, Thomas B. Stillman, known in the last generation as the chief of the steam engineering of his day in the United States, the mentor of that profession, I can see more of my mother than in any other of the six brothers. He inherited, like all of us, his father's mechanical tendency and inventiveness, and added to it a persistency and constancy of purpose peculiarly hers, which none of the other children inherited to the same extent; and he had in its fullness the devotional sentiment, the absorption in religious duties, as the chief motive in life, which was her ruling passion,—for passion it was in her,—the hanging on the Cross of everything she most valued in life.
My mother, Eliza Ward Maxson, was born in Newport, Rhode Island, on September 11, 1783, my father being seven years her senior. The childhood of both was, therefore, surrounded by the facts and associations of the war of American independence. He, in fact, as I have heard him say, was born under the rule of the King of England, and his father considered the Revolution so little justified that to the day of his death he refused to recognize the government of the United States; but, living a quiet life on his farm, he was never disturbed by the pressure which exiled the noted and active Tories.
My mother's earliest recorded ancestor was a John Maxson, one of the band of Roger Williams, driven by the Puritans out of Massachusetts into the wilder parts of "Rhode Island and Providence Plantations," where—in the absence of all established law, as well as government—they might worship God in the way their consciences dictated, free from the restrictions on the liberty of conscience imposed by the Pilgrim Fathers. There, at last, complete freedom of dissent was found, and one of the consequences was that the colony became a sort of field for Christian dialectics, where the most extreme doctrines on all points of Christian belief were discussed without other or more serious results of the odium theologicum than the building of many meeting-houses and the multiplication of sects. Among these sects was one which played an important part in the local theology of that day and for many years afterward, that known as the "Seventh-Day Baptist," to which, it seems, John Maxson belonged. It was not a new invention of the colonists, but had existed in England since the days of early dissent, and it is possible that John Maxson had brought the doctrine with him from England. Adhering to the practice of baptism by immersion, the sect also maintained the immutable obligation of the Seventh-Day Sabbath of the Ten Commandments, the Jewish day of rest.
The grave disabilities imposed on them in Massachusetts by the obligatory abstention from labor on two days, on one day by conscience and the other by the rigorous laws of the Puritans, made Roger Williams's little state the paradise of the Sabbatarians, and the sect flourished greatly in it, while the social isolation consequent on the practice of contracting marriages only in their church membership—made imperative if family dissensions were to be avoided on a question of primary importance to that community, which had sacrificed all worldly advantages to what it believed to be obedience to the Word of God—at once knit together their church in closer relations, and drew to it others from the outside, attracted by the magnetism of a more ascetic faith.
Amongst the emigrants from England on the Restoration were a family by the name of Stillman, who, having had relations with the regicides, went into what was then the most obscure and remote part of New England and settled at Wethersfield, in Connecticut. One of the brothers,—George,—hearing of this strange doctrine denying the sanctity of the "Lord's Day," came to Newport to convert the erring brothers; but, convinced by them, remained in the colony, where he became a shining light. Thus it happened that both lines of my ancestry became involved in the mystic bonds of a faith which was shut off in a peculiar manner from all around them. The consequent isolation, I fear, made much for self-righteousness. In their eyes it was this observance which maintained continuity between the Christian church and the institutions imposed in Paradise, and therefore made them peculiarly the people of God. This amiable fanaticism, fervent without being uncharitable, interfered in no wise with the widest exercise of Christian sympathy with other sects, the observance of the Seventh-Day Sabbath not being held as an essential to godliness or to Christian fellowship, the non-observance being possibly only due to ignorance, so that the relations of the historic First Seventh-Day Baptist Church at Newport with the churches observing the "Lord's-Day Sabbath" were always most kindly. The meeting-house occupied by the Sabbatarians on the seventh day was occupied by one of the Sunday-observing sects on the first, and the preachers of one often officiated for the other. But the worldly advantage enjoyed by the Sunday keeper was so considerable that all who did not hold to the finest scruple of conscience in their conduct passed over to the majority, and were excluded from the communion as a precaution against the Sunday keepers becoming a majority in the church and taking it away from the Sabbath keepers, as did actually occur with one of their congregations in Vermont. In our community generally there was a most scrupulous avoidance of any occupation on Sunday which might annoy those who held it as Sabbath, and though in the State of New York the laws were extremely liberal in this respect, my father in my boyhood always made it a point not to allow in his workshop any work which would be heard by the neighbors.
The absolute freedom of religious belief and practice, for the first time found in this colony, had, as its first effect, the banishment of all forms of sectarian persecution, so that the maxim of the Broad Church—"Freedom in non-essentials"—was here put in practical activity to an extent probably never before known in the Christian world.
It can be readily understood that this continual selection of the most scrupulous consciences, the closest thinkers, and the least worldly characters in the church of my ancestors must have developed a singularly fine and cutting-edge temper in its adherents, and the succession of generations of men and women who had graduated in the school of Scripture dialectics, and knew every text and its various interpretations, made a community of Bible disputants such as even Massachusetts could not show.
Amongst the refugees for religious liberty who found their billet at Newport were many Jews, between whom and the Sabbatarians the community of the Sabbath was a strong tie, and amongst the formulas of prayer in use even down to my own boyhood I remember a common petition for the restoration of Israel; and the Sabbatarian eye of prophecy looked forward to the day when, in the peace of the millennium, the Jews in Jerusalem should be the witnesses of the faith of the Seventh-Day Baptist Church in the keeping alive the observance of the Eden repose initiated by the Creator. Amongst my own earliest personal recollections concerning Newport is that of a visit of some Jewish friends of my mother's girlhood, who lived there, to my father's house in Schenectady.
My mother's grandfather, on her mother's side, was a clergyman, Elder Bliss, who, though a non-combatant, was a fiery patriot, two of whose sons were in the Revolutionary army. His house was in a valley under the fort held by the British force in occupation, between whose guns and those of a battery held by the rebels there was occasional firing, during which the balls sometimes went through the house, so that when the first shot was heard he used to order all the family down into the cellar, which afforded a valid protection. The girls of the household were patriots, in whom zeal often overran discretion, and the pranks they played on the British officers must sometimes have tasked the gentlemen in the latter to a point on the limits of endurance. I remember one incident recounted by my grandmother to my mother, and by her to me, in which two of the girls stole past the sentry in the British fort, or battery, for I could never learn exactly what was the nature of these two outposts of authority and rebellion, and, running the flag down, tore it into thirteen stripes and ran it up again and escaped unseen. This insult brought the whole force about their ears, and the commandant came, with his staff, to question the household if any clue to it could be found. Fortunately, when the girls had come back from their expedition and went giggling in their glee to their mother, she suspected some dangerous venture and peremptorily ordered them to hold their tongues and not come to her with any of their mischief. She was thus able to reply to the officer charged with the inquisition that she knew nothing of the matter, and such was the rigid obligation of the truth in that Puritan community that even the danger of a court-martial would not have induced her to tell a falsehood, however the truth might compromise the family. The officers, who well knew their sometime hosts, were so well assured of this that the seniors were at once acquitted, and, regarding the girls, they were too gentlemanly to push an inquiry which might have punished a childish freak with the gravest military consequences, for, as the officer on the quest said, "Even it's being a woman would not protect the author of such a grave insult to the flag." Irrepressible as they were, in spite of the danger they had so narrowly escaped, they, not much later, stole the sword of one of the officers when they were all temporarily quartered on the preacher, and, when the island was evacuated by the British forces, brought it out and gave it to the brother, an officer in the American army.
A feat of practical housewifery, which my mother used to tell of, shows another side of the Rhode-Islander, which is not less illustrative of the stock. One of the boys of the pastor's family volunteered, or was drawn, in the militia for active service; but, as he had no clothes fit for the camp, the sisters had a black and white sheep brought from the pasture and clipped, and within twenty-four hours had spun, woven, and made up a suit of mixed gray clothes for the brother to go to the war in. No doubt such things have been done in many another home, even in later times, but this is the home I have to deal with, and in this my mother grew up. She was the eldest of a family of five, left motherless when she was sixteen. Her father was the director of the smallpox hospital in Newport, then an institution of grave importance to the community, as the practice of obligatory inoculation prevailed, and all the young people of the colony had to go up in classes to the hospital and pass the ordeal. Her mother's death left her the matron of the hospital and caretaker of her sister and brothers, and the stories of her life at that time, which she told me now and then, showed that, with the position, she assumed the effective authority, and ruled her brothers with a severity which my own experience of her maturer years enables me to understand. "Spare the rod and spoil the child" was the maxim which flamed in the air before every father and mother of that New England, and my mother's physical vigor at sixty, when her conception of authority began to relax,—I being then a lad six feet high and indisposed to physical persuasion,—satisfied me that when her duty had required her to assume the responsibility bequeathed her by her mother, she was fully competent to meet it.
Accustomed to the hardest life, the most rigid economy in the household, and without servants, for, except rare and lately emancipated negro slaves, there was then no servile class in that colony, the children had to perform all the duties pertaining to the daily life, official or private, and my mother was able to pull an oar or manage the sail-boat with her brothers, and catch the horses and ride them bareback from pasture, when necessary for the daily work, which was not insignificant, for Newport was really the seaport of that section of the State, and as it was on an island of importance, the intercourse with the mainland called for sea and land service. The boys were all fishermen, for a large part of the subsistence of the family came from the fishing-grounds outside the harbor, and, as the oldest brother took early to the sailor's life, my mother had to assume a larger share of all the harder services. The hospital was also the quarantine station, and received all the cases of smallpox which came to the port, and they must have been many and fatal, for I have heard her say that she had to go the rounds of the hospital at night, and that there would sometimes be five or six dead in the dead-room at once.
The first acquaintance of my parents with each other was made in the inoculating class, my father being resident in Westerly, a town of Rhode Island on the borders of Connecticut. The marriage must have taken place about two years later, on the second marriage of my grandfather Maxson to the daughter of Samuel Ward, one of the leading delegates from Rhode Island to the convention which drew up and promulgated the Declaration of Independence. Their early days of married life must have been passed in an extreme frugality, for my father was one of a large number of children, and, brought up on a farm, learned the trade of ship-carpenter, which he alternated, as was generally the habit of the young men of the New England coast, with fishing on the banks of Newfoundland in the cod-fishing season. Having, in addition, a share of the Yankee inventiveness, he became interested in the perfecting of a fulling-machine, to introduce which into what was then the West, he made a temporary residence in New York State, at the old Dutch town of Schenectady, at that time the entrepot of commerce between the Eastern cities and New York, and the Northwest. Utica was then a frontier settlement, Buffalo an outpost in the wilderness, and, the country having barely recovered from the war of 1812-15 between the United States and England, enterprise and exploration had just begun to push through the thin lines of settlements along the valleys of the Mohawk and upper Hudson, westward by Buffalo and the great lakes to Ohio (then the Far West), and northward to the valley of the St. Lawrence. Schenectady was the distributing point of this wagon-borne commerce and movement until the completion of the Erie Canal, which, down to my own period of recollection, was the quickest channel of communication westward, with its horse "packets," traveling at the creditable speed of four miles an hour, the traffic barges making scarcely more than two.
[Footnote 1: Mr. Ward died just before the signing of the Declaration, so that his name does not figure in the list of signers.]
Hardly established in what was intended for a temporary visit, the residence of the family became fixed at Schenectady, owing to the partner of my father, left to manage the business at Westerly, becoming involved in personal embarrassments which brought on the bankruptcy of the firm and the seizure of all my father's little property, and, what was worse, the certainty of imprisonment for debt in the case of his returning home. Owing to the judgments hanging over him, which a succession of misfortunes prevented him from ever satisfying, it was late in my own remembrance, I think about 1848 or 1850, before he was enabled to visit his early home. Hard times came on the whole people of that section, and the practical destruction of his business by the loss of all his capital drove him into seeking any employment which would give a momentary relief.
Of this period of their existence my mother rarely spoke, and it must have been one of severe privations. She has told me that she often went to bed hungry, that the children might have enough to eat. She had no assistance in her household duties, except that of her daughter, a girl of tender years, and, having her husband's five journeymen as members of the household, with five children, of whom my sister was the second, she not only did the daily household duties, including washing and baking, but spun and wove the cloth for the clothes of her husband and children, cut and made them up. Her cheerful faith in an overruling Providence must have been, in those days, a supreme consolation, for, even in recalling them in the days of my boyhood, the light of it still illumined her, and she never questioned that He who had led them into the wilderness would maintain them in it. She seemed to have but one care in her life while I knew her—to know and do her duty. She found a special providence in every instance of relief from their pressing wants, and I recall the religious serenity with which she told me of the greatest strait of the hardest winter of that period, when resources seemed to have been exhausted to the last crumb, and they unexpectedly received from one of her half brothers, who had gone farther west, and lived in what was practically the wilderness, a barrel of salted pigeons' breasts. There had been one of those almost fabulous flights of the now nearly extinct passenger pigeons, which used to come north to breed in such numbers that the forests where they colonized were so filled with their nests that the settlers went into them and beat the young down with poles, and the branches became so overloaded with the broods in their nests that their weight often broke them down and threw the young on the ground. They had that year chosen the forests in my uncle's neighborhood for their nesting ground, and had been killed by thousands and salted down for winter provision, only the breast being used, owing to the superabundance of the birds. The gift came like the answer to a prayer, for there was hunger in the house and the snow was heavy on the ground, all the community being more or less in the same straits.
Being the youngest of nine children, I can remember my mother only in the days of comparative freedom from anxiety, when, the day's work over and the house quiet, she used, as she sat by the fire with her knitting, which occupied all the moments when her hands were not required for other duties,—she knit all the stockings required for the family,—to tell me incidents of her past life, mostly to show how kind God had been to her and hers, and how faith in his providence was justified in the event. Of herself she spoke only incidentally. Dominating every act and thought of her existence was the profoundest religious veneration I have ever met with, an openness of her mind upward, as if she felt that the eternal eye was on her and reading her thoughts. The sense of her responsibility was so serious that I think that only the absorbing activity of her daily life, and the way in which every moment was occupied with positive duties, prevented her from falling into religious insanity. Her life was a constant prayer, a wrestling with God for the salvation of her children. No image of her remains in my mind so clear as that in which I see her sitting by the fireside in the dim light of our single home-made candle, her knitting-needles flying and her lips moving in prayer, while the tears stole down her cheeks in the fervency of her devotion, until she felt that she was being noticed, when the windows of her soul were suddenly shut, and she turned to some subject of common interest, as if ashamed to be discovered praying, for she permitted herself no ostentation of devotion, but reserved it for her nights and solitary moments. Of her own salvation she had only a faltering hope, harassed always by a fear that she had at some time in her life committed the unpardonable sin, as to the nature of which she knew nothing, and which was, therefore, all the more feared, as the nature of it was to her the terrible mystery of life and death.
What I inherit from her, and doubtless the indelible impression of her fervent faith overshadowing my young life, produced a moulding of my character which has never changed. I lived in an atmosphere of prayer and trust in God which impressed me so that to this day the habit of thought and conduct so formed is invincible, and in all the subsequent modifications of the primitive and Hebraic conception of the spiritual life which she inoculated me with, an unconscious aspiration in prayer and an absolute and organic trust in the protection of the divine Providence persist in my character, though reason has long assured me that this is but a crude and personal conception of the divine law. Truly from the environment of our early religious education we can never escape. This the Jesuits know and profit by.
My mother was also haunted by the dread of God's wrath at her loving her children more than she did Him, for, with all the fervency of her gentle devotion, she never escaped the ghastly Hebrew conception of God, always in wrath at every omission or transgression of the Law, who, at the last great day, would demand of her an account of every neglect of duty, every idle word and thought, and especially of the manner in which she had taught her children to obey his commandments. She seemed to scan her life continually to find some sin in the past, for which she had not specifically repented, and, at times, as I knew by the confidences of my later years, when she would appeal to me for my opinion, the problem of the unpardonable sin became one of absorbing study, which she finally laid aside in the supreme trust in his goodness, who alone knew her intentions and desire to be obedient to the Law.
Every one of her sons, as they were born, she dedicated to the service of the Lord, in the ardent hope that one of them would become a minister, and over me, the last, she let her hopes linger longest, for, as I was considered a delicate child, unable to support the life of hard work to which my older brothers had taken, she hoped that I might be spared for study. Only the eldest son ever responded to her desire by the wish to enter the service of the church, and he was far too important to my father's little workshop to be spared for the necessary schooling. He struggled through night schools, and in the intervals of day leisure, to qualify himself to enter the college in our city. Before doing so he fell under the notice of old Dr. Nott, president of the college, who was, beside being a teacher of wonderful ability, a clever inventor, and, perceiving my brother's mechanical capacity, persuaded him to abandon the plan of entering the ministry, and made him foreman of his establishment, the "Novelty Iron Works," at New York, for many years known as the leading establishment of its kind in America. The next two brothers, having more or less the same gifts, followed the eldest to New York; the next, an incurable stammerer, was disqualified for the pulpit, and studied medicine, being moreover of a fragile constitution; and the next, having the least possible sympathy for the calling, also took to medicine.
With the migration of the three older brothers to New York, the diminution of the family, and the aid the brothers in New York were able to give the younger children at home, my mother's life took on a new activity, in her resolute determination that the younger boys should have such an education as the college (Union) afforded them. This determination was opposed by my father, whose idea of the education needed by boys did not go beyond the elements, and who wanted them in the workshop. But it had become to my mother a conception of her duty, that, as the relations between my eldest brother and the president of the college led to an offer of what was practically a free education, the younger boys should be permitted to profit by the offer, and when duty entered her head there was no force capable of driving it out. Charles, the first of us to graduate, became the college bell-ringer, to pay his fees, but Jacob and myself were in turn excused, even from this service. My father's practical opposition, the refusal to pay the incidental expenses for what he always persisted in regarding as a useless education, was met, in Charles's case, by my mother's taking in the students' washing, to provide them. In the cases of Jacob and myself, this drudgery was exchanged for that of a students' boarding-house.
In all the housework involved in this complication of her duties, she never had a servant until shortly before my birth, when she took into the house a liberated African slave, the only other assistance in the house, in my childhood, being a sister six years older than myself and the daughter of one of our neighbors, who came as a "help" at the time of my birth, and subsequently married my second brother. My mother was also the family doctor, for, except in very grave cases, we never had any other physician. She pulled our teeth and prescribed all our medicines. I was well grown before I wore a suit which was not of her cutting and making, though sometimes she was obliged to have in a sewing-woman for the light work. She made all the bread we ate, cured the hams, and made great batches of sausages and mincemeat for pies, sufficient for the winter's consumption, as well as huge pig's-head cheeses. How she accomplished all she did I never understood.
But with all her passionate desire to see one of her boys in what she considered the service of God, there was never, on my mother's part, the least pressure in that direction, no suggestion that the sacrifices she was making demanded any measure of deviation from our views as to the future. It was her hope that one of us would feel as she did, but she cheerfully resigned the hope, as son after son turned the other way. A boy who was born three years before me, and whose death occurred before my birth, was, perhaps, in her mind, the fulfillment of her dedication, for he was, according to the accounts of friends of the family, a child of extraordinary intelligence, and she felt that God had taken him from her. In one of those moments of confidence, in the years when I had become a counselor to her, I remember her telling me of this boy (known in the family as "little William," to distinguish him from me), and the sufferings she endured through her doubts, lest he should have lived long enough to sin, and had not repented, for, though her dreary creed taught that the rigors of eternal damnation rested on every one who had not repented of each individual sin, and that adult baptism was the only assurance of redemption, it did not teach, nor did she believe, that the innocence of childhood required the certificate of the church. All the rest of her children had professed religion and received baptism according to the rites of the Baptist Church, but little William left in the mother's heart the sting of uncertainty. Had he lived long enough to transgress the Law and not repented? was to her an ever-present question of terrible import. Years rolled by without weakening this torture of apprehension that this little lamb of all her flock might be expiating the sin of Adam in the flames of Eternity, a perpetual babyhood of woe. The depth of the misery this haunting fear inflicted on her can only be imagined by one who knew the passionate intensity of her love for her children,—a love which she feared to be sinful, but could not abate. Finally, one night, as she lay perplexing her soul with this and other problems of sin and righteousness, she saw, standing near her bed, her lost child, not as she supposed him to be, a baby for eternity, but apparently a youth of sixteen, regarding her silently, but with an expression of such radiant happiness in his face that the shadow passed from her soul forever. She needed no longer to be told that he was amongst the blessed. She told me this one day, timidly, as something she had never dared tell the older children, lest they should think her superstitious, or, perhaps, dissipate her consolation by the assurance that she had dreamed. Dream she was convinced it was not; but only to me, in her old age, had she ever dared to confide this assurance, which had been so precious to her.
In charity, comfort for the afflicted, help,—not in money, for of that there was little to spare,—but in food; in watching with the sick and consoling the bereaved in her own loving, sympathetic mother's way, she abounded. There was always something for the really needy, and I remember that one of her most painful experiences came from having refused food to a begging woman, to whose deathbed she was called the next day, a deathbed of literal starvation. She recognized the woman, who had come to our house with a story of a family of starving children, but as my mother's experienced eye assured her she had never been a mother, she refused her as a deceiver what the poor always got. "Why did you tell me you had children," mother asked her, "when you came to me yesterday?" "It was not true," said the dying woman, "but I was starving, and I thought you would be more willing to help me if you thought I had children." But from that day no beggar was turned from our door without food. Silently and in secret she did what good works came to her to be done, letting not her right hand know what her left hand was doing, but all the poor knew her and her works.
Silent too and undemonstrative in all her domestic relations she always was, and I question if to any other of her family than myself she ever confided her secret hopes or fears. And to me even she was so undemonstrative that I never remember her kissing me from a passing warmth; only when I went away on a journey or returned from one did she offer to kiss me, and this was the manner of the family. And her maintenance of family discipline was on the same rigorous level, dispassionate as the law. If I transgressed the commands of herself or of my father the punishment was inevitable, never in wrath, generally on the day after the offense, but inexorable; she never meant to spoil the child by sparing the rod, but flogged with tears in her eyes and an aching heart, often giving the punishment herself, to prevent my father from giving it, as he always flogged mercilessly and in anger, though if I could keep out of his sight till the next day he forgot all about it; she never forgot, and though the flogging might not come for a week, it was never omitted when promised. And her worst severity never raised a feeling of resentment in me, for I recognized it as deserved, while my father's floggings, inflicted in the unreasoning severity of anger, always made me rebellious. I remember only one occasion on which I was punished unjustly by my mother.
A neighboring farmer had asked me to go to his field and shake down the fruit from two apple-trees. It was in the hour before dinner, and the regulations of the family were very severe about being at meals, and unfortunately I had, in my glee at having a job of paying work to do, infringed on the dinnertime. In payment for my services I received from the farmer two huge pumpkins, charged with which I hastened home, looking forward to my mother's praise and pleasure, but was met by her in the hall, strap in hand, with which she administered a solid flogging, explaining that my father was so angry at my being out at dinner that she gave me the punishment to forestall his, which would be, as I well knew, much severer. It is more than sixty years since that punishment fell on my shoulders, but the astonishment with which I received the flogging instead of the thanks I anticipated for the wages I was bringing her, the haste with which my mother administered it lest my father should anticipate her and beat me after his fashion, are as vivid in my recollection as if it had taken place last year. This was a sample of the family discipline. I was forbidden to walk with other boys when I drove the cow to pasture; forbidden to bathe in the mill-pond near by except at stated times, to play with certain children, to amuse myself on the Sabbath, and other similar doings, all to my childish apprehension harmless in themselves, and the punishment never failed to follow the discovery of the transgression. Naturally I learned to lie, a thing contrary to my inclination and nature, and a torture to my conscience, but I had not the courage to meet the flogging, or the firmness to resist temptation and the persuasion of my young companions who rejoiced in a domestic freedom of which I knew nothing. My father's severity finally brought emancipation by its excess. He used to follow me to see if I obeyed his orders, and one day when I had been persuaded by some boys of our neighborhood to go and bathe in the forbidden hours, he found me in the pond, led me home, and, cutting two tough peartree switches about the thickness, at the butt, of his forefinger, he took me down into the cellar, and making me strip off my jacket, broke them up to the stumps over my back, protected only by a cotton shirt. This was the deciding event which determined me to run away from home, which I did the next week, and though my escapade did not last beyond ten days, on my return the rod was buried.
NATURE WORSHIP—EARLY RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCES
Looking back at my mother, after a lapse of nearly forty years since I saw her last, I am surprised at the largeness of character developed in the narrow and illiberal mould of the exclusive Puritanism of the church of her inheritance, her freedom from bigotry, and the breadth of her knowledge of human nature, as well as at the justice of her instincts of religious essentials, which always kept her cheerful and hopeful in spite of the gloomy doctrine imposed on her by her education and surroundings. Believing firmly in the eternity of hell-fire, with the logical and terrible day of judgment casting its gloomy shadow over her life, she maintained an unbounded charity for all humanity except herself, admitting the extenuation of ignorance for all others, keeping for herself even to the tithes of mint and cummin, but condoning, in her judgment of those who differed from her, the offenses which for herself she would have thought mortal sins. In her own household all latitude in religious observance was resisted with all her strength.
In my paternal grandfather's house the Seventh Day was a day of feasting, and after the church services all the connection went to the ancestral home to eat the most sumptuous dinner of the week. Against this infraction of the law which forbade on the Sabbath all work not of mercy or necessity, my mother set her face, and when this was done there was no long resistance possible and my father had to give way, so that on that day we had a cold dinner, cooked on Friday. At sunset on Friday, all work and all secular reading or amusements ceased, and only a Sabbath day's journey was permitted so far as she could control. But my father was a rover from his youth, and Saturday being his only leisure day he used to take me with him on long walks in the woods and fields, according to the season; and the weather and the length of the day were his only limitations. In the house she ruled, but out of it he made his own conscience, and so it happened that the only pleasures that I owe him, except the bringing me a few books when he came back from his business trips to New York to sell his machines, were those long walks in the face of nature. He was, in his family, apparently a cold, hard man, but out of it, kindly and benevolent, melting always to distress which came in his way; with a passionate love of animals and of nature. He was a poor business man, for he could never press for the payment of debts due to him, but his honesty was so rigid that it became a proverb in our town that a man should be "as honest as old Joe Stillman," and that good name was all he gave or left his children.
My father died in one of my occasional absences in Europe, and when I saw my old mother in the black she never again laid off, she told me, tranquilly and with a firm voice, but with the tears running down her cheeks, how he died, and said, "He was so handsome that I wanted to keep him another day." The warmth of expression struck me strangely, for in all my home experience I had never heard before a word which could be taken as a token of conjugal tenderness, but when I reflected, I could see that it was and always had been the same with the children. Of the nine children she bore, five died before she did, including her second and, during my life, her only daughter, but in all the bereavements she retained her calm, self-contained manner, weeping silently, and tranquilly going about the house, comforting those who shared the bereavement, uncomplaining, reconciled in advance; she had consigned her beloved to the God who gave them to her, and would have thought it rebellion to repine at any dispensation which He sent her. In the most sudden and crushing grief I remember her to have experienced, that which came with the news that my brother Alfred had been killed by the explosion of a steamboat boiler at New Orleans, there was one brief break-down of her fortitude, an hour's yielding, and then all her thought was for the widow and the children. No detail of the household duties was neglected, and nothing was forgotten that concerned the comfort of others. She avoided all external signs of grief, and, until my father died, she never wore mourning. Her bereavements and her prayers were matters that concerned only God and herself.
What I have said might give her the character of an ascetic, but nothing could be further from her. She was always optimistic as to earthly troubles, always cheerful and fond of mild festivities. At times no one was more merry than she, and I have seen her laughing at a good joke or story till the tears ran down her cheeks. Cheerfulness was to her a duty which was never violated except when she was laying her case before God.
Her ardent desire that her children should have a liberal education came to a climax on me, the last, born at the end of the period of child-bearing. She taught me my letters before I could articulate them, when I was two I could read, and at three I was put on a high stool to read the Bible for visitors, so that I cannot remember when I could not read, and when not more than five or six I used to be at the head of the spelling classes and spelling matches, in which all the boys and girls were divided into equal companies, and the school-teacher gave out the hardest words in the spelling-book to each side in turn, all who failed to spell their word sitting down, until the solitary survivor on one side or the other decided the victory, and even before I was seven I was generally that survivor. I read insatiably all the good story-books they would let me have, and I cannot recall the time at which there was anything even in the Bible new to me. With an incipient passion for nature and animal life, I read with delight all the books of natural history I could get, and I have heard in later years that in all the community of Sabbatarianism I was known as a prodigy. Fortunately I was saved from a probable idiocy in my later life by a severe attack of typhoid fever at seven, out of which attack I came a model of stupidity, and so remained until I was fourteen, my thinking powers being so completely suspended that at the dame's school to which I was sent I was repeatedly flogged for not comprehending the simplest things. I got through simple arithmetic as far as "Long Division," and there had to turn back to the beginning three times before I could be made to understand the principle of division by more than one figure.
In the humiliation of this period of my life, in which I came to consider myself as little better than a fool, my only consolation was the large liberty I enjoyed in the woods and fields with my father on Saturdays, or with my brothers Charles and Jacob on their long botanizing excursions, or in the moments of leisure when I was not wanted to turn the grindstone or blow the bellows in the workshop. Those long walks, in which I was indefatigable, and the days or nights when I went fishing with my brother Jacob, who was ten years older than myself, and who inherited the wandering and adventurous longings of my father, are the only things I can remember of this period which gave me any pleasure. I can see vividly the banks of the Mohawk, where we used to fish for perch, bream, and pike-perch; recall where, with my brother Charles, we found the rarer flowers of the valley, the cypripediums, the most rare wild-ginger, only to be found in one locality, the walking fern, equally rare, and the long walks in the pine forests, whose murmuring branches in the west wind fascinated me more than any other thing in nature.
Perhaps I mingle in recollection the nature-worship of the two septennates, for of the former was my first rapturous vision of the open sea, which comes back to me with the memory of the pines. I had gone with my father and mother to New York on a visit to my eldest brother, who had just then finished the engines of the steamer Diamond, which was the first that by her build was enabled to run through from New York to Albany, past the "overslough" or bar formed in the Hudson, which prevented the steamers of greater draught from getting up to the wharf at Albany; and he had profited by her first trip to visit home again and take us back with him. My brother pointed out to me the Clermont, Fulton's trial steamer, then disused and lying at Hoboken, but a cockboat to the Diamond, which was one of the greatest successes of the day. Machinery fascinated me, being of the mechanical breed, and I can recall the engines of the boat, which were of a new type, working horizontally, and so permitting larger engines in proportion to the draught of the steamer than had been before used. We all went one day to Coney Island, on the southern shore of Long Island, since a fashionable bathing place for New York, but then a solitary stretch of seashore, with a temporary structure where bathers might get refreshments, and a few bathing boxes. We drove out in my brother's buggy, and as, at a turn in the road, I caught a glimpse of the distant sea horizon, I rose in the buggy, shouting, "The sea! the sea!" and, in an uncontrollable frenzy, caught the whip from my brother's hand and slashed the horse in wild delirium, unconscious of what I was doing. The emotion remains uneffaceable after more than threescore years, one of the most vivid of my life. It was a rapture and an interesting case of heredity, for I had not before been within a hundred and fifty miles of the sea.
And how ecstatic was the sensation of the plunge into the breakers, holding fast to my mother's hand, and then the race up the beach before the next comber, trembling lest it should catch me, as if it were a living thing ready to devour me. They never come back, these first emotions of childhood; and though I have loved the sea all my life, I have never again felt the sight of it as then.
Of this first period, I remember very well the grand occasion of the opening of the Hudson and Mohawk Railroad, the first link in that line which is now the New York Central, and see vividly the curious old coaches,—three coach bodies together on one truck. This was in 1832, when I was four years old. The road was, I believe, the first successful passenger railway in America, and was sixteen miles long, with two inclined planes up which the trains were drawn, and down which they were lowered by cables. There was an opposition line of stagecoaches between Albany and Schenectady, running at the same price and making the same time.
Of the second period, that of nature worship, was my first trout, another delirium. My mother had taken me to visit one of her brothers, a farmer in the western section of New York, soon after made famous by the anti-rent war, in which my uncle was one of the "Indian Chiefs," and there I went fishing in the brook that ran through his farm. I caught a small trout and did not know what fish it might be, till I saw the crimson spots on his side and remembered that the trout in books bore them, and then I threw him on the grass and danced a wild dance around him, a powwow as furious as a red Indian's scalp-dance, while he, poor little fingerling, jumped in the unkindly herb. Then I caught him up and raced to the house nearly half a mile, to show him, and put him in the trough under the pump, where he arrived still gasping but alive, and where he remained for all my recollection of his fate thereafter. But I remember that the beauty of the little creature gave me more pleasure than the capture.
[Footnote 1: The bands which carried on what became an actual insurrection against the civic authorities were led by men disguised as red Indians and called chiefs.]
About this time I began to try to draw, and especially birds and beautiful forms, though years before I had begun to color the wood-cuts in my books. And my mother, who had an utterly uncultivated but most tender love of art, gave up finally the oft-renewed ambition to see one of her boys in the pulpit, and made every opportunity for me to learn drawing,—I never quite understood why, for my abilities in that line were little more than nine boys out of ten show.
It was a fortunate thing for my after-life that I lived so near the forests that all my odd time was spent in them and in the surrounding fields, and I knew every apple-tree of early fruiting for miles, and every hickory-tree whose nuts were choice; and one of the joyous experiences of the time was running down a young gray squirrel in the woods, and catching him with my bare hands, and badly bitten they were. I took him home and tamed him perfectly, and was very happy with him, my first pet. He used to come and sleep in my pocket, and was never kept in a cage. My father one morning left the window of our room open, and "Bob" went out to explore, but, when he tried to find his way back again, a dog of the neighborhood, as a neighbor told us, chased him away, and to my intense grief he was shot by a hunter a few days after in the adjoining forest. I cannot to this day see a squirrel without emotion and affectionate remembrance of "Bob." The love of animals, which I inherited from my father, was one of the passions of my childhood, and I had an insatiate longing for pets.
Naturally my religious education during these early years was of the severest orthodox character, and my mother's sincere, fervent, and practical piety brought home to me, with the conviction of certainty, the persuasion of its divine authority. Hell and its terrors were always present to me, and she taught me that the wandering suggestions of childish imagination, the recurrence of profane expressions heard from others, and all forms of irreverent fantasies were the very whisperings of the devil, to her, as to me, consequently, an ever-present spirit, perpetually tempting me to repeat, and so make myself responsible for the wickedness in them. I remember with great vividness a caricature of Mrs. Trollope in a satirical illustrated edition of her travels in America, representing her sitting in a large armchair surrounded by negroes on their knees, one of whom was represented as saying, "De Lord lub Missee Trollope," an expression which my mother stigmatized as impious and not to be repeated, but which perhaps for that very reason would recur to me in thought, and which I set myself to pray against as the very whisper of the devil in my ears. And naturally, the more I tried to put it out of my head, the more it got fixed there, and it was long a source of great misery to me that I could not keep the devil away from my ears. I was never allowed a candle to go to bed with, and as I slept in the huge garret, covering the whole house, I used to shut my eyes when I left the kitchen, where we all sat in the evening, and groped my way to bed without ever again opening my eyes until the next morning, for fear of seeing the devil on my way. Awful spiritual presences haunted me always in the dark, when I passed a churchyard or an empty and solitary house. Such a house stood in the pasture where I used to drive the cow, and when it happened that she had not come home at nightfall, and I had to go to find her, the panic I endured from the necessity of searching around this old house no one can imagine but a boy naturally timid and accustomed to see ghosts and evil spirits in the dusk. But I kept my fears to myself and always made a conscientious search.
The peculiar ideas concerning conversion and regeneration, held in common by all the branches of the adult-Baptist churches, were in my mother's mind an obsession. Conviction of sin, repentance, the public confession, profession of faith, and baptism were the necessary degrees to regeneration, and, looking back on the tortures to which my mother was subjected by those theological problems and the daily anxiety she endured until each of us had passed through the gates of salvation into the narrow way, I must wonder at that divine maternal instinct which made her rejoice at my birth, as I know she did.
The whole community in which we lived, with the exception of a small Episcopal church, had the same ideas of conversion and regeneration, and a prominent feature in our social existence was the frequent recurrence of the great revival meetings in which all the rude eloquence of celebrated and powerful preachers, Baptist, Methodist, and of other sects, was poured out on excited congregations. There were "protracted meetings," or campaigns of prayer and exhortation, lasting often a fortnight, at which all the resources of popular theology were employed to awaken and maintain their audiences in a state of frenzy and religious delirium, during which conviction of sin was supposed to enter the heart more effectually. The tortures of hell alternated with the delights of heaven, in imagery calculated to drive the timid and conscientious young folks to insanity, at these meetings, to which, once awakened, the subject of conviction went three times a day, until the hysteria, the prolonged excitement so produced, came as a sign of acceptance. As each new convert rose on the "anxious seat," where he or she went when the first feeling of conviction came, and afterwards made the declaration of salvation found, the shouts and cries of "Glory to God," the sobbing and groans of the congregation were redoubled, and the exhortations of the preacher renewed, to the still unconvicted to come forward to the anxious seat where they would become subject to the concentrated and personal prayers of the whole assembly. These meetings were the substitutes for all other social diversions or emotions. There was a revival preacher by the name of Knapp, whose lurid eloquence in this vein made him famous, and whose imagery was equal in ghastliness to anything that the Catholic Church could produce. I remember one of his most dramatic bits, borrowed from a much earlier preacher, a passage in his description of hell. In hell, he said, there was a clock, which, instead of "tick," "tick," said, "Eternity," "Eternity," and when the damned, weary of their tortures down in the depths, came up to see what time it was, they heard the sentence of the clock, and turned in despair to go down into the depths again as far as they could.
[Footnote 1: The front line of seats next the pulpit, set apart for those who had "found conviction."]
To these meetings my mother used to send me, giving me a holiday from school for all the time the protracted meeting lasted. But conviction never came. I was honest with myself, and though the frenzied and ghastly exhortations harried my soul with dread, and I longed for the coming of the ecstasy which was the recognizable sign of the grace of God, I could not rise to the participation in it which the most material and hysterical of the congregation enjoyed, and day after day I went home saddened by the conviction that I was still one of the unregenerate. The sign never came, but several years later I went to make a visit to my brother Charles, who had then removed to Plainfield, N.J., where he practiced medicine, and was one of the main supports of the church in a community where the sect was large enough to have a constant worship, which it never had in Schenectady. Here I came under the influence of a beloved brother of my mother, one of the most earnest and humble Christians I have ever known, and here were gathered others of the denomination at a protracted meeting, at which some of my friends of my own age became seriously inclined, and we drifted together into the profession of Christian faith. But here there was nothing of the ghastly terrors of the great revival agitations. My uncle was a man of the world, had been all his early life a sailor, and had taken late to what, in his experiences of men and the vicissitudes of life, he considered the only reality, the duty of making known to his fellows the importance of the spiritual life. To fit himself for the ministry, he taught himself Hebrew and Greek as well as Latin, and many years later was chosen as one of the New Testament revisers for the American revision committee. But to him the profession of religion was an act of the reason, not of revival excitement, and in his ministrations he shunned carefully all the frenzied exhortation of the revivalists. Associated with him in the ministry and leading the meetings was another of the Sabbatarian pastors, Elder Estee, a grave and earnest man like my uncle, who inspired me with great confidence.
As I look back from the standpoint of one who reposes in the evolutionary philosophy, in which the accidental and ecstatic disappear, upon this phase of psychology, in which hysteria becomes an element of moral reform, it seems to me worth while to record the experience of one subjected to the forces which were counted as such powerful aids to the spread of Christianity,—of one either under the influences of the pomp of ceremony, the stimulus of music, the purely sensuous stimulants to devotion,—or in the crude form of that ecstatic exaltation in which the individual is carried into a supersensuous state, in which perception, reason, and even responsibility to a great extent are, if not suspended, so far made abnormal that analysis becomes impossible. The term for this latter condition amongst revivalists was "the power," and it was distinctly a phenomenon sought for as the evidence of divine grace. The uncle of whom I have spoken had once during his prior religious experience felt the "power," and described it as an emotion which for the time lifted him above the consideration of his surroundings, and left him subsequently indifferent to that very curious shame which generally accompanies the early yielding to the revivalist urgency of acknowledging the necessity of change of heart,—a sense of having made one's self ridiculous, which was, in my own and many other cases in my knowledge, a powerful influence adverse to the "going forward" at the meetings, or being understood to be "religious," as those were considered who became serious in their attention at the meetings. This was recognized by the preachers as the "fear of the world," and was the object of attack of the most eloquent adjurations. Once carried away by this hysteria, one had no longer any of this shame or fear of the taunts of his irreligious companions, which was very heavy with a nervous and sensitive boy like myself. But though I had all through my attendance on the revival meetings earnestly desired to attain to that exaltation, and considered it an indication of my graceless state, that I was so insensible to the "spirit," which was another term for the frenzy, I found it impossible to provoke it. It is a curious subject, this usurpation of the reasoning faculties by the irrational, which is permitted when religion becomes emotional, either in the revolutionary condition of the revivalist or that of the conservative and decorous ecclesiastical forms.
The movement at Plainfield, finding me in different surroundings from those in my native place, and under the influence of deliberate and sober-minded people, put the religious question under another light, but, still under the persuasion, the natural result of my life's training, that some special emotion or spiritual change, recognizable as such, was an indispensable sign of the "change of heart" which was desired, I was unhappy that no such sign appeared. I can distinctly remember that the desire to satisfy my mother's passionate longing for what she considered my regeneration was a large part of my desire to meet the change, and, if I might, provoke it. I did not in spite of my efforts really understand the view which my mother, in common with most evangelical Christians, took of the work of regeneration. The calm, rational conviction that all men are sinners, was clear enough to me even in my youth, and the necessity of turning from what we call "the world," to the cultivation of the higher and spiritual development of character was equally clear, though not so in all points was the distinction between the things condemned as worldly and those approved as religious, the theatre, games of chance, dancing, and frivolous amusements in general being all in the index of those severe theologians.
As I remember my extreme youth I was, in spite of occasional falsehoods,—mainly the consequence of the severity of the parental discipline and the desire to escape the punishments I had to endure when transgressing the sometimes whimsical injunctions laid on me,—morbidly conscientious. I was absent-minded and often forgot my duties, feeling, however, always the sting of remorse for any omission, but, beyond taking apples or nuts for my own eating, I do not think that I ever transgressed a commandment deliberately or knowingly; I was, in fact, regarded by the boys of the neighborhood as hopelessly "goody." I could not understand why the desire to go to a dancing-school and dance should be a moral transgression, though when I asked permission of my father to accept the offer of an ex-dancing-master for whom I had been able to do some work in the workshop, to give me preparatory lessons so that I might appear less clumsy on entering the class, I was sternly brought to a sense of the enormity of the matter by my father's replying, "William! I would rather see you in your grave than in a dancing-school." I could only understand that I had not been lifted by the divine grace from the condition of total depravity in which I had been born, and I knew that the preternatural indication of my redemption, which would be recognized in the descent of the spirit in the form of the revival frenzy, was wanting. I longed for it, prayed for it, and considered myself forsaken of God because it would not come, but come it never did, and it seemed to me that I was attempting to deceive both my mother and the church when I finally yielded to the current which carried along my young friends, and took the grace for granted, since, as I thought, having asked the special prayers of the elders, men of God, and powerful in influence with Him, I had a right to assume the desired descent of the redeeming light on me, though I had never had that peculiar manifestation of it which my companions seemed to have experienced. I felt not a little twinge of conscience in assuming so much, but I could not consent to prolong my mother's suspense and grave concern at the exclusion of one of her children from the fold of grace. I put down the doubts, accepted the conversion as logical and real, and went forward with the others. I remember that at the relation of our "experience" which followed as a rite on the presentation of the convert for membership of the church, I was the only one who told it calmly and audibly, all the others being inaudible from their excitement and timidity, so that the presiding elder was obliged to repeat to the audience what they said in his ear, trembling, weeping with the emotion of the event. I felt as if I were a hypocrite, and only the thought of my mother's satisfaction gave me the courage to go through the ceremony. We were baptized, my companions and I, in the little river in midwinter, after a partial thaw, the blocks of ice floating by us in the water.
I must have been about ten or eleven when I went through this experience, and I never got rid of the feeling of a certain unreality in the whole transaction, but on the other hand I had the same feeling of unreality in the system of theology which led to it. I tried to do my best to carry out the line of spiritual duties imposed upon me. I made no question that I was a bad boy, but the conception of total depravity in the theological sense never gained a hold on me, and once inside the church there seemed to be a certain safeguard thrown over me. The sense of ecstasy (which my Uncle William had experienced in his religious relation, the "power" of the revivalists) I have since known in conditions of extraordinary mental exaltation, and understand it as a mental phenomenon, as the momentary extension of the consciousness of the individual beyond the limitations of the bodily sense—a being snatched away from the body and made to see and feel things not describable in terms of ordinary experience, but in my religious evolution it had no place, then or since.
The intellectual slowness of which I have spoken continued through all these years. I had left the dame's school, where the rule of long division proved my pons asinorum, and went to a man's school, where I earned my schooling by making the fires and sweeping the schoolroom, and here I learned some Latin and the higher rules in arithmetic by rote, always with the reputation of a stupid boy, good in the snowball fights of the intermission, when we had two snow forts to capture and defend; in running foot-races, the speediest, and in backhand wrestling, the strongest, but mentally hopeless. All this period of my life seems dreary and void, except when I got to nature, and the delight of my hours in the fields and woods is all that remains to me of a childhood tormented by burdens of conscience laid on me prematurely, and by a domestic discipline the severity of which, with all the reverence and gratitude I bear my parents, I can hardly consider otherwise than gravely mistaken and disastrous to me, though my mother's discipline has never made me an enemy of the rod for children. My own experience as child and parent convinces me that an inexorable, though mild, physical punishment is the only remedy for the obstinacy of certain fractious child natures, in the years before reason operates, and for the assurance of necessary discipline in families.
The incessant Bible lessons, filling my mind with indigestible conceptions of life present and to come, mysteries for the contemplation of a philosopher, not for a boy of ten; the recognition of my total depravity, as manifested in the trivial transgressions of a thoughtless child, to whom life had hardly yet offered a duty to fulfill or transgress; the terrible gloom of this Puritan horizon, on which no light showed me promise of better things, only to be hoped for through a process of repentance and atonement for the sins of Adam, the fitness and method of which process were far beyond my capacity to comprehend, as beyond that of any child,—all these things made my intellectual life so sombre that I can but regard the long interval of intellectual apathy as a fortunate provision against some form of mental malady consequent on the morbid development of my early childhood.
Our winters were long and hard, and I remember the snow falling on Thanksgiving Day (the last Thursday in November) and not thawing again until the beginning of March, and that, in the house where I was born, we had the fall of snow so heavy that we could tunnel the path to the barn, the drift covering the door of the house. The coming of spring was my constant preoccupation through the winter, and my joy was intense at the first swelling of the buds, the coming color in the willow twigs, which ushered in the changes of spring; then the catkins, the willow leaves, and the long rains which carried off the snow, all welcome as daylight after a weary night, because they restored me to the forests and the wildflowers, the fields and the streams; and for miles around I knew every sunny spot where came the first anemones, hepaticas, and, above all, the trailing arbutus, joy of my childhood, the little white violets, their yellow sisters, then the "dog-tooth violet," and a long list of flowers whose names I have forgotten long ago.
The perennial delight of this return of springtime was the great feature of my life, and then began the excursions into the forests around us, and the succession of sights and sounds, the order of the unfolding of the leaves, from the willow to the oak, the singing of the frogs in the marshes, and the birds in the copses and fields (for in the great woods there are few singing birds). I knew them all, and when and where to hear them. The bluebird, or blue robin, as it was called in our neighborhood, was the first, and he assured us that spring had really come with a plaintive song, the sweetest to memory of all nature's voices; then the American robin (the migratory thrush), a bold, cheery note, full of summer life; and after those the chief was the bobolink, singing up into the sky like the skylark, and with which we connected the ripening of the strawberry, the merriest and most rollicking of all bird songs, as that of the bluebird was the tenderest. Then came the hermit thrush, heard only in the depth of the forest, shy and remote in his life and nesting, and the whip-poor-will, in the evening. Each was a new leaf turned over in my book of life, the reading of which was my only happiness. What else, or more, could be expected of an existence hedged in by the terrors of eternity, the hauntings of an inevitable condemnation, unless I could obtain some mysterious renovation, only attainable through an act of divine grace which no human merit could entitle me to, and which I tried in vain to win the benediction of? And how dreary seemed the heaven I was set to win—no birds, no flowers, no fields or forests, only the eternal continuation of the hymn-singing and protracted meetings, in which, in our system, consisted the glorification of God, which was the end and aim of our existences! I wonder how many religious parents remember the misery of child life under such influences.
The struggles of conscience through which I went in those days can be imagined by no one, and I can hardly realize them myself, except by recalling little incidents which show what the pressure must have been. I have mentioned an escapade of this period, connected with the last flogging my father gave me, but of which that was only the secondary cause, determining the moment but not the movement. It was a matter of conscience at bottom. My mother had, when I was about six years old, taken a little octoroon girl of three, the illegitimate daughter of a quadroon in our neighborhood, with the intention of bringing her up as a servant. The child was quick-witted and irrepressible, and disputes began between us as soon as she felt at home. I suppose she must have been inclined to impertinence, for she had to be whipped, and as at her age no difference of condition was evident to her, she became a severe trial to my equanimity. Every outbreak of temper induced by her conduct toward me became occasion of a period of penitence, for I was taught that such outbreaks were sinful, and as neither had I the amount of self-control that I needed to overlook the provocations she gave, nor had she the power of understanding the position, the transgressions that my conscience had to bear up under became an intolerable load.
At this juncture came the brutal and as I felt most unmerited flogging of which I have told the story earlier: this precipitated a decision which had been slowly forming from my conscientious worries. I determined to go away from home, and seek a state of life in which I could maintain my spiritual tranquillity. I discussed the subject with a playmate of my age, the son of a gardener living near us, and, as his father had even a stronger propensity to the rod than mine, we sympathized on that ground and agreed to run away and work our passages on some ship to a land where we could live in a modified Robinson Crusoe manner,—not an uninhabited land, but one where we could earn, by fishing and similar devices, enough to live. I had been employed for a few months before in carrying to and fro the students' clothes for a washerwoman, one of the neighbors, and had earned three or four dollars which my mother had, as usual with any trifle I earned, put into the fund for the daily expenses. I do not know how it was with the older boys, but for me the rule was rigid—what I could earn was a part of the household income. I inwardly rebelled against this, but to no effect, so I never had any pocket-money. I submitted, as any son of my mother would have done at my age or have given a solid reason why not; but on this occasion, when money was indispensable to that expedition on which so much depended, I quietly reasserted my right to my earnings, and took the wages I had received, from the drawer where they were kept. My companion had no money at all, and thus my trifle had to pay for both as far as it would go,—fortunately, perhaps, as it shortened the duration of the expedition.
We went by train to Albany, where we took deck passage on a towing steamer for New York. The run was longer than that of a passenger steamer, so that the New York police who were warned to look out for us by the post, had given us up when we arrived and search was diverted in another direction. We arrived at New York with my funds already nearly exhausted by the food expenses en route, and my companion's courage had already given out—he was homesick and discouraged, and announced his determination to return home. My own courage, I can honestly say, had not failed me,—I was ready for hardship, but to go alone into a strange world damped my ascetic ardor and confounded all the plans I had made. I yielded, and with the last few "York shillings" in my pocket bargained for a deck passage without board on a barge back to Albany. It was midsummer, and the sleeping on some bags of wool which formed the better part of the deck-load gave me no inconvenience, and the want of provisions of any sort was remedied as well as might be by a pile of salt codfish which was the other part of the deck-load, and which was the only food we had until our arrival at Albany, which we reached at night after a voyage of twenty-four hours. We slept under a boat overturned by the shore that night until the rising tide drove us out, when we decided to take the road back to Schenectady on foot, through a wide pine forest which occupied the intervening country, a distance of about sixteen miles. Passing on the way a stable in which there was nobody, not even a beast, we turned in to sleep away the darkness, and I remember very well what a yielding bed a manger filled with salt gave me. With the dawn we resumed the journey, and by the way ate our fill of whortleberries, with which the forest abounded.
[Footnote 1: 121/2 cents each.]
The joy of my mother at our unhoped-for arrival—for she had received no news of us since our departure—is easily imagined, but for me the failure of all my plans for an ascetic and more spiritual life was made more bitter by the fact that the little octoroon, who had heard read the letter which I left for my mother, giving the motives for my self-exile, had repeated it to all the neighborhood, so that I not only had failed, but became the butt of the jokes of the boys of the neighborhood, who already held a pique against me for my serious ways and my habit of rebuking certain vices amongst them. I was jeered at as the boy "who left his mother to seek religion," and this made life for a time almost intolerable. But it was in part compensated for by the change in the situation in the household. It was clear that I had ceased to be the boy I used to be, and that I was to be taken seriously, and reasoned with rather than flogged. I had escaped from the pupa state of existence. But what I still look back to with surprise was my unflinching confidence in the future to which I committed myself in this escapade. I thought I was right, and that the aspiration for spiritual freedom, which was the chief motive of my leaving home, was certain to be supported by Providence, to whom I looked with serene complacence. If my companion had not deserted me I should not have turned back, but his defection destroyed all my plans. In several of my maturer ventures, I can recognize the same mental condition of serene indifference to danger while doing what I thought my duty, owing, perhaps, in a great measure to ignorance or incapacity to realize the danger, but also largely to ingrained confidence in an overruling Providence which took account of my steps and would carry me through.
AN AMERICAN EDUCATION
Whether on account of the escapade related in the preceding chapter or from influences of which I knew, and still know, nothing, it was decided not long after that I should go to New York to attend a public school there and live with my eldest brother, who, being twenty-five years older than myself, and childless, had always treated me with an indulgence which was perhaps due in part to the rigor of my father's rule, and in part to his fondness for me, of which I retain some early recollections in his annual visits home. My brother's wife, a fellow townswoman of ours, and a marriage-convert to the Seventh Day Baptist Church, was one of the most disagreeable persons I have ever had to deal with, and hysterical to a degree of occasional insanity. She had adopted the severities of our Puritanic system with aggravations. The Sabbath under her rule became a day of preatonement for the sins I was foreordained to commit. Dinner, as was the general custom in those days, was at noon, but on Saturday I had none till I had committed to heart and recited a portion of Scripture, and as the mental apathy of the period still weighed on me, the task of the Seventh Day was a sarcastic comment on the divine rest, in commemoration of which it was supposed to be instituted, and it made me grateful for the Sunday, which I generally passed in mechanical occupations in the workshop of my third brother, Paul, the foreman of the department in which the minor articles of the works were made, steam-gauges, models of inventions, etc., and as I had my share of the family manual dexterity, I found interest enough in the workshop. As my brothers always observed the Sabbath rigidly, they attracted around them a few of the New England mechanics who were "Sabbath-keepers" and mostly related to us, and so we had a small congregation and a church of our way of thinking.
The school to which I was sent was one of those founded by the Public School Society, a voluntary association of well-to-do citizens, who, in the absence of any municipal initiative, had organized themselves for the encouragement and support of primary education. As they were originally excluded from the management of the schools, the politicians, finding this a new field of operations and partisan activity, presently established the rival system of the municipal schools called "ward schools." At that time the political intrigues of the Catholic Church for the control of the public school system had just begun. The Public School Society had been organized for the free and non-sectarian education of all children unable to meet the expense of education in the private schools, and received subsidies from the municipality. Not only were all children under sixteen admitted to these schools without any fees, but the books, stationery, and all other material necessary were furnished gratuitously, and those who were shoeless were even provided with shoes, the only requisites being cleanliness and regular attendance. The direction was rigidly non-sectarian. The trustees were unpaid, and they comprised many of the leading citizens interested in popular education. They had built for their service sixteen schoolhouses in New York, and in each of these there were on an average a thousand children. The schoolhouses, of three stories, had a primary department for such children as were too young to be taught their letters or were not yet able to read and write, and to them the basement was given, the second story to the older girls, and the upper to the boys. The teaching for the boys' department was limited to the elements of arithmetic, elementary algebra, astronomy, and geometry, but within these limits the education was thorough, and all who went through it were qualified for places in offices or counting-rooms. The day was always opened by the reading of Scripture and prayer by the principal or one of the assistants, and this practice was made the ground of attack by the Catholic politicians, who objected to the Protestant Bible, all the school-books being already expurgated of every passage to which the bishops objected.
As our assistant principal was a Catholic, and often had to read the chapter, there could have been little harm done even to a Catholic pupil, but the political pressure was sufficient to induce the corporation of the city to adopt the political or "ward school" system, controlled by the politicians, and the new schools, one of which was or was to be established in each ward of the city, began to run an active opposition to the society schools, which they eventually drove out of existence.
At the time I was in the school, the interference of politics had just begun to make itself felt in the schools, but the corporation had not the courage to introduce its system on a large scale by supplanting en bloc the society schools, which might have made a political revolt; the Irish Catholic influence was still a feeble one, and the population at large was hardly aware of its tendency, but as the ward schools were gradually brought into active competition with the society schools the children were drawn off from the latter by various inducements and pressure on the parents. Each of our schools had four paid teachers—the principal, an assistant, and a junior and a senior monitor; and the elder pupils were employed in the instruction of the younger and in the preservation of order in school and in the school yard during the intermissions in which the gymnastics were enforced. My mental apathy must have been still very profound, for I remember that it often happened that when a question which had passed other pupils came to me in the class, the senior monitor used to address me, "Well, stupid, what do you say?" I evidently was the most stupid boy in the class—nothing seemed to penetrate my mental dullness, but, having grown tall and strong for my age, I was often made "yard monitor," to keep order during the physical training.
There was a gang of young ruffians, street boys, who used to hang around the school gates and maltreat the stragglers and even the boys in the yard, if the gate was left open, and I remember one day three or four of them invading the school-yard after I had dismissed the boys to go upstairs at the end of the intermission, thinking that they would have a fine game with the monitor. One made a pretext to quarrel with me, and, gripping me round the body, called to his companions to go and get some stones to pound me on the head with, this being the approved manner of the young roughs of New York. Finding that I could not extricate myself from his grip, I dragged him to the wall, and, catching him by the ears, beat his head against the rough stones until he dropped insensible, when, to the astonishment of his comrades, instead of stamping on him and finishing him at once, I ran upstairs as fast as my legs could carry me, so that when they came with their stones they had only their champion to carry out.
On the holidays there were generally stone-fights between the boys of our quarter and one of the adjoining quarters, and I shall carry to my grave the scars on my head of cuts received in one of these field combats, in which I refused to follow my party in flight, and took the onslaught of the whole vanguard of the enemy, armed with stones, and had my head pounded yellow, being only saved from worse by the intervention of the men of the vicinity. This fight gave me the unmerited reputation of courage and fighting power, and I was thereafter unmolested by the young roughs, though, in fact, I was timid to a degree and only stood my ground from nervous obstinacy; I never provoked a quarrel, and only revolted against a bully when the position became intolerable. I can remember the amazement of a companion older than myself, who had been in the habit of bullying me freely, until one day he went too far and I took him by the collar and shook and swung him till he was dizzy and begged for mercy, for of downright pugilistics I knew nothing, and a deliberate blow in the face with my fist in cold blood was a measure too brutal to enter into my mind.