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Backlog Studies - Second Study Post by :prospertogether Category :Essays Author :Charles Dudley Warner Date :May 2012 Read :2027

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Backlog Studies - Second Study

I

The log was white birch. The beautiful satin bark at once kindled into a soft, pure, but brilliant flame, something like that of naphtha. There is no other wood flame so rich, and it leaps up in a joyous, spiritual way, as if glad to burn for the sake of burning. Burning like a clear oil, it has none of the heaviness and fatness of the pine and the balsam. Woodsmen are at a loss to account for its intense and yet chaste flame, since the bark has no oily appearance. The heat from it is fierce, and the light dazzling. It flares up eagerly like young love, and then dies away; the wood does not keep up the promise of the bark. The woodsmen, it is proper to say, have not considered it in its relation to young love. In the remote settlements the pine-knot is still the torch of courtship; it endures to sit up by. The birch-bark has alliances with the world of sentiment and of letters. The most poetical reputation of the North American Indian floats in a canoe made of it; his picture-writing was inscribed on it. It is the paper that nature furnishes for lovers in the wilderness, who are enabled to convey a delicate sentiment by its use, which is expressed neither in their ideas nor chirography. It is inadequate for legal parchment, but does very well for deeds of love, which are not meant usually to give a perfect title. With care, it may be split into sheets as thin as the Chinese paper. It is so beautiful to handle that it is a pity civilization cannot make more use of it. But fancy articles manufactured from it are very much like all ornamental work made of nature's perishable seeds, leaves, cones, and dry twigs,--exquisite while the pretty fingers are fashioning it, but soon growing shabby and cheap to the eye. And yet there is a pathos in "dried things," whether they are displayed as ornaments in some secluded home, or hidden religiously in bureau drawers where profane eyes cannot see how white ties are growing yellow and ink is fading from treasured letters, amid a faint and discouraging perfume of ancient rose-leaves.

The birch log holds out very well while it is green, but has not substance enough for a backlog when dry. Seasoning green timber or men is always an experiment. A man may do very well in a simple, let us say, country or backwoods line of life, who would come to nothing in a more complicated civilization. City life is a severe trial. One man is struck with a dry-rot; another develops season-cracks; another shrinks and swells with every change of circumstance. Prosperity is said to be more trying than adversity, a theory which most people are willing to accept without trial; but few men stand the drying out of the natural sap of their greenness in the artificial heat of city life. This, be it noticed, is nothing against the drying and seasoning process; character must be put into the crucible some time, and why not in this world? A man who cannot stand seasoning will not have a high market value in any part of the universe. It is creditable to the race, that so many men and women bravely jump into the furnace of prosperity and expose themselves to the drying influences of city life.

The first fire that is lighted on the hearth in the autumn seems to bring out the cold weather. Deceived by the placid appearance of the dying year, the softness of the sky, and the warm color of the foliage, we have been shivering about for days without exactly comprehending what was the matter. The open fire at once sets up a standard of comparison. We find that the advance guards of winter are besieging the house. The cold rushes in at every crack of door and window, apparently signaled by the flame to invade the house and fill it with chilly drafts and sarcasms on what we call the temperate zone. It needs a roaring fire to beat back the enemy; a feeble one is only an invitation to the most insulting demonstrations. Our pious New England ancestors were philosophers in their way. It was not simply owing to grace that they sat for hours in their barnlike meeting-houses during the winter Sundays, the thermometer many degrees below freezing, with no fire, except the zeal in their own hearts,--a congregation of red noses and bright eyes. It was no wonder that the minister in the pulpit warmed up to his subject, cried aloud, used hot words, spoke a good deal of the hot place and the Person whose presence was a burning shame, hammered the desk as if he expected to drive his text through a two-inch plank, and heated himself by all allowable ecclesiastical gymnastics. A few of their followers in our day seem to forget that our modern churches are heated by furnaces and supplied with gas. In the old days it would have been thought unphilosophic as well as effeminate to warm the meeting-houses artificially. In one house I knew, at least, when it was proposed to introduce a stove to take a little of the chill from the Sunday services, the deacons protested against the innovation. They said that the stove might benefit those who sat close to it, but it would drive all the cold air to the other parts of the church, and freeze the people to death; it was cold enough now around the edges. Blessed days of ignorance and upright living! Sturdy men who served God by resolutely sitting out the icy hours of service, amid the rattling of windows and the carousal of winter in the high, windswept galleries! Patient women, waiting in the chilly house for consumption to pick out his victims, and replace the color of youth and the flush of devotion with the hectic of disease! At least, you did not doze and droop in our over-heated edifices, and die of vitiated air and disregard of the simplest conditions of organized life. It is fortunate that each generation does not comprehend its own ignorance. We are thus enabled to call our ancestors barbarous. It is something also that each age has its choice of the death it will die. Our generation is most ingenious. From our public assembly-rooms and houses we have almost succeeded in excluding pure air. It took the race ages to build dwellings that would keep out rain; it has taken longer to build houses air-tight, but we are on the eve of success. We are only foiled by the ill-fitting, insincere work of the builders, who build for a day, and charge for all time.


II

When the fire on the hearth has blazed up and then settled into steady radiance, talk begins. There is no place like the chimney-corner for confidences; for picking up the clews of an old friendship; for taking note where one's self has drifted, by comparing ideas and prejudices with the intimate friend of years ago, whose course in life has lain apart from yours. No stranger puzzles you so much as the once close friend, with whose thinking and associates you have for years been unfamiliar. Life has come to mean this and that to you; you have fallen into certain habits of thought; for you the world has progressed in this or that direction; of certain results you feel very sure; you have fallen into harmony with your surroundings; you meet day after day people interested in the things that interest you; you are not in the least opinionated, it is simply your good fortune to look upon the affairs of the world from the right point of view. When you last saw your friend,--less than a year after you left college,--he was the most sensible and agreeable of men; he had no heterodox notions; he agreed with you; you could even tell what sort of a wife he would select, and if you could do that, you held the key to his life.

Well, Herbert came to visit me the other day from the antipodes. And here he sits by the fireplace. I cannot think of any one I would rather see there, except perhaps Thackery; or, for entertainment, Boswell; or old, Pepys; or one of the people who was left out of the Ark. They were talking one foggy London night at Hazlitt's about whom they would most like to have seen, when Charles Lamb startled the company by declaring that he would rather have seen Judas Iscariot than any other person who had lived on the earth. For myself, I would rather have seen Lamb himself once, than to have lived with Judas. Herbert, to my great delight, has not changed; I should know him anywhere,--the same serious, contemplative face, with lurking humor at the corners of the mouth,--the same cheery laugh and clear, distinct enunciation as of old. There is nothing so winning as a good voice. To see Herbert again, unchanged in all outward essentials, is not only gratifying, but valuable as a testimony to nature's success in holding on to a personal identity, through the entire change of matter that has been constantly taking place for so many years. I know very well there is here no part of the Herbert whose hand I had shaken at the Commencement parting; but it is an astonishing reproduction of him,--a material likeness; and now for the spiritual.

Such a wide chance for divergence in the spiritual. It has been such a busy world for twenty years. So many things have been torn up by the roots again that were settled when we left college. There were to be no more wars; democracy was democracy, and progress, the differentiation of the individual, was a mere question of clothes; if you want to be different, go to your tailor; nobody had demonstrated that there is a man-soul and a woman-soul, and that each is in reality only a half-soul,--putting the race, so to speak, upon the half-shell. The social oyster being opened, there appears to be two shells and only one oyster; who shall have it? So many new canons of taste, of criticism, of morality have been set up; there has been such a resurrection of historical reputations for new judgment, and there have been so many discoveries, geographical, archaeological, geological, biological, that the earth is not at all what it was supposed to be; and our philosophers are much more anxious to ascertain where we came from than whither we are going. In this whirl and turmoil of new ideas, nature, which has only the single end of maintaining the physical identity in the body, works on undisturbed, replacing particle for particle, and preserving the likeness more skillfully than a mosaic artist in the Vatican; she has not even her materials sorted and labeled, as the Roman artist has his thousands of bits of color; and man is all the while doing his best to confuse the process, by changing his climate, his diet, all his surroundings, without the least care to remain himself. But the mind?

It is more difficult to get acquainted with Herbert than with an entire stranger, for I have my prepossessions about him, and do not find him in so many places where I expect to find him. He is full of criticism of the authors I admire; he thinks stupid or improper the books I most read; he is skeptical about the "movements" I am interested in; he has formed very different opinions from mine concerning a hundred men and women of the present day; we used to eat from one dish; we could n't now find anything in common in a dozen; his prejudices (as we call our opinions) are most extraordinary, and not half so reasonable as my prejudices; there are a great many persons and things that I am accustomed to denounce, uncontradicted by anybody, which he defends; his public opinion is not at all my public opinion. I am sorry for him. He appears to have fallen into influences and among a set of people foreign to me. I find that his church has a different steeple on it from my church (which, to say the truth, hasn't any). It is a pity that such a dear friend and a man of so much promise should have drifted off into such general contrariness. I see Herbert sitting here by the fire, with the old look in his face coming out more and more, but I do not recognize any features of his mind,--except perhaps his contrariness; yes, he was always a little contrary, I think. And finally he surprises me with, "Well, my friend, you seem to have drifted away from your old notions and opinions. We used to agree when we were together, but I sometimes wondered where you would land; for, pardon me, you showed signs of looking at things a little contrary."

I am silent for a good while. I am trying to think who I am. There was a person whom I thought I knew, very fond of Herbert, and agreeing with him in most things. Where has he gone? and, if he is here, where is the Herbert that I knew?

If his intellectual and moral sympathies have all changed, I wonder if his physical tastes remain, like his appearance, the same. There has come over this country within the last generation, as everybody knows, a great wave of condemnation of pie. It has taken the character of a "movement!" though we have had no conventions about it, nor is any one, of any of the several sexes among us, running for president against it. It is safe almost anywhere to denounce pie, yet nearly everybody eats it on occasion. A great many people think it savors of a life abroad to speak with horror of pie, although they were very likely the foremost of the Americans in Paris who used to speak with more enthusiasm of the American pie at Madame Busque's than of the Venus of Milo. To talk against pie and still eat it is snobbish, of course; but snobbery, being an aspiring failing, is sometimes the prophecy of better things. To affect dislike of pie is something. We have no statistics on the subject, and cannot tell whether it is gaining or losing in the country at large. Its disappearance in select circles is no test. The amount of writing against it is no more test of its desuetude, than the number of religious tracts distributed in a given district is a criterion of its piety. We are apt to assume that certain regions are substantially free of it. Herbert and I, traveling north one summer, fancied that we could draw in New England a sort of diet line, like the sweeping curves on the isothermal charts, which should show at least the leading pie sections. Journeying towards the White Mountains, we concluded that a line passing through Bellows Falls, and bending a little south on either side, would mark northward the region of perpetual pie. In this region pie is to be found at all hours and seasons, and at every meal. I am not sure, however, that pie is not a matter of altitude rather than latitude, as I find that all the hill and country towns of New England are full of those excellent women, the very salt of the housekeeping earth, who would feel ready to sink in mortification through their scoured kitchen floors, if visitors should catch them without a pie in the house. The absence of pie would be more noticed than a scarcity of Bible even. Without it the housekeepers are as distracted as the boarding-house keeper, who declared that if it were not for canned tomato, she should have nothing to fly to. Well, in all this great agitation I find Herbert unmoved, a conservative, even to the under-crust. I dare not ask him if he eats pie at breakfast. There are some tests that the dearest friendship may not apply.

"Will you smoke?" I ask.

"No, I have reformed."

"Yes, of course."

"The fact is, that when we consider the correlation of forces, the apparent sympathy of spirit manifestations with electric conditions, the almost revealed mysteries of what may be called the odic force, and the relation of all these phenomena to the nervous system in man, it is not safe to do anything to the nervous system that will--"

"Hang the nervous system! Herbert, we can agree in one thing: old memories, reveries, friendships, center about that:--is n't an open wood-fire good?"

"Yes," says Herbert, combatively, "if you don't sit before it too long."

III

The best talk is that which escapes up the open chimney and cannot be repeated. The finest woods make the best fire and pass away with the least residuum. I hope the next generation will not accept the reports of "interviews" as specimens of the conversations of these years of grace.

But do we talk as well as our fathers and mothers did? We hear wonderful stories of the bright generation that sat about the wide fireplaces of New England. Good talk has so much short-hand that it cannot be reported,--the inflection, the change of voice, the shrug, cannot be caught on paper. The best of it is when the subject unexpectedly goes cross-lots, by a flash of short-cut, to a conclusion so suddenly revealed that it has the effect of wit. It needs the highest culture and the finest breeding to prevent the conversation from running into mere persiflage on the one hand--its common fate--or monologue on the other. Our conversation is largely chaff. I am not sure but the former generation preached a good deal, but it had great practice in fireside talk, and must have talked well. There were narrators in those days who could charm a circle all the evening long with stories. When each day brought comparatively little new to read, there was leisure for talk, and the rare book and the in-frequent magazine were thoroughly discussed. Families now are swamped by the printed matter that comes daily upon the center-table. There must be a division of labor, one reading this, and another that, to make any impression on it. The telegraph brings the only common food, and works this daily miracle, that every mind in Christendom is excited by one topic simultaneously with every other mind; it enables a concurrent mental action, a burst of sympathy, or a universal prayer to be made, which must be, if we have any faith in the immaterial left, one of the chief forces in modern life. It is fit that an agent so subtle as electricity should be the minister of it.

When there is so much to read, there is little time for conversation; nor is there leisure for another pastime of the ancient firesides, called reading aloud. The listeners, who heard while they looked into the wide chimney-place, saw there pass in stately procession the events and the grand persons of history, were kindled with the delights of travel, touched by the romance of true love, or made restless by tales of adventure;--the hearth became a sort of magic stone that could transport those who sat by it to the most distant places and times, as soon as the book was opened and the reader began, of a winter's night. Perhaps the Puritan reader read through his nose, and all the little Puritans made the most dreadful nasal inquiries as the entertainment went on. The prominent nose of the intellectual New-Englander is evidence of the constant linguistic exercise of the organ for generations. It grew by talking through. But I have no doubt that practice made good readers in those days. Good reading aloud is almost a lost accomplishment now. It is little thought of in the schools. It is disused at home. It is rare to find any one who can read, even from the newspaper, well. Reading is so universal, even with the uncultivated, that it is common to hear people mispronounce words that you did not suppose they had ever seen. In reading to themselves they glide over these words, in reading aloud they stumble over them. Besides, our every-day books and newspapers are so larded with French that the ordinary reader is obliged marcher a pas de loup,--for instance.

The newspaper is probably responsible for making current many words with which the general reader is familiar, but which he rises to in the flow of conversation, and strikes at with a splash and an unsuccessful attempt at appropriation; the word, which he perfectly knows, hooks him in the gills, and he cannot master it. The newspaper is thus widening the language in use, and vastly increasing the number of words which enter into common talk. The Americans of the lowest intellectual class probably use more words to express their ideas than the similar class of any other people; but this prodigality is partially balanced by the parsimony of words in some higher regions, in which a few phrases of current slang are made to do the whole duty of exchange of ideas; if that can be called exchange of ideas when one intellect flashes forth to another the remark, concerning some report, that "you know how it is yourself," and is met by the response of "that's what's the matter," and rejoins with the perfectly conclusive "that's so." It requires a high degree of culture to use slang with elegance and effect; and we are yet very far from the Greek attainment.

IV

The fireplace wants to be all aglow, the wind rising, the night heavy and black above, but light with sifting snow on the earth, a background of inclemency for the illumined room with its pictured walls, tables heaped with books, capacious easy-chairs and their occupants,--it needs, I say, to glow and throw its rays far through the crystal of the broad windows, in order that we may rightly appreciate the relation of the wide-jambed chimney to domestic architecture in our climate. We fell to talking about it; and, as is usual when the conversation is professedly on one subject, we wandered all around it. The young lady staying with us was roasting chestnuts in the ashes, and the frequent explosions required considerable attention. The mistress, too, sat somewhat alert, ready to rise at any instant and minister to the fancied want of this or that guest, forgetting the reposeful truth that people about a fireside will not have any wants if they are not suggested. The worst of them, if they desire anything, only want something hot, and that later in the evening. And it is an open question whether you ought to associate with people who want that.

I was saying that nothing had been so slow in its progress in the world as domestic architecture. Temples, palaces, bridges, aqueducts, cathedrals, towers of marvelous delicacy and strength, grew to perfection while the common people lived in hovels, and the richest lodged in the most gloomy and contracted quarters. The dwelling-house is a modern institution. It is a curious fact that it has only improved with the social elevation of women. Men were never more brilliant in arms and letters than in the age of Elizabeth, and yet they had no homes. They made themselves thick-walled castles, with slits in the masonry for windows, for defense, and magnificent banquet-halls for pleasure; the stone rooms into which they crawled for the night were often little better than dog-kennels. The Pompeians had no comfortable night-quarters. The most singular thing to me, however, is that, especially interested as woman is in the house, she has never done anything for architecture. And yet woman is reputed to be an ingenious creature.

HERBERT. I doubt if woman has real ingenuity; she has great adaptability. I don't say that she will do the same thing twice alike, like a Chinaman, but she is most cunning in suiting herself to circumstances.

THE FIRE-TENDER. Oh, if you speak of constructive, creative ingenuity, perhaps not; but in the higher ranges of achievement--that of accomplishing any purpose dear to her heart, for instance--her ingenuity is simply incomprehensible to me.

HERBERT. Yes, if you mean doing things by indirection.

THE MISTRESS. When you men assume all the direction, what else is left to us?

THE FIRE-TENDER. Did you ever see a woman refurnish a house?

THE YOUNG LADY STAYING WITH US. I never saw a man do it, unless he was burned out of his rookery.

HERBERT. There is no comfort in new things.

THE FIRE-TENDER (not noticing the interruption). Having set her mind on a total revolution of the house, she buys one new thing, not too obtrusive, nor much out of harmony with the old. The husband scarcely notices it, least of all does he suspect the revolution, which she already has accomplished. Next, some article that does look a little shabby beside the new piece of furniture is sent to the garret, and its place is supplied by something that will match in color and effect. Even the man can see that it ought to match, and so the process goes on, it may be for years, it may be forever, until nothing of the old is left, and the house is transformed as it was predetermined in the woman's mind. I doubt if the man ever understands how or when it was done; his wife certainly never says anything about the refurnishing, but quietly goes on to new conquests.

THE MISTRESS. And is n't it better to buy little by little, enjoying every new object as you get it, and assimilating each article to your household life, and making the home a harmonious expression of your own taste, rather than to order things in sets, and turn your house, for the time being, into a furniture ware-room?

THE FIRE-TENDER. Oh, I only spoke of the ingenuity of it.

THE YOUNG LADY. For my part, I never can get acquainted with more than one piece of furniture at a time.

HERBERT. I suppose women are our superiors in artistic taste, and I fancy that I can tell whether a house is furnished by a woman or a man; of course, I mean the few houses that appear to be the result of individual taste and refinement,--most of them look as if they had been furnished on contract by the upholsterer.

THE MISTRESS. Woman's province in this world is putting things to rights.

HERBERT. With a vengeance, sometimes. In the study, for example. My chief objection to woman is that she has no respect for the newspaper, or the printed page, as such. She is Siva, the destroyer. I have noticed that a great part of a married man's time at home is spent in trying to find the things he has put on his study-table.

THE YOUNG LADY. Herbert speaks with the bitterness of a bachelor shut out of paradise. It is my experience that if women did not destroy the rubbish that men bring into the house, it would become uninhabitable, and need to be burned down every five years.

THE FIRE-TENDER. I confess women do a great deal for the appearance of things. When the mistress is absent, this room, although everything is here as it was before, does not look at all like the same place; it is stiff, and seems to lack a soul. When she returns, I can see that her eye, even while greeting me, takes in the situation at a glance. While she is talking of the journey, and before she has removed her traveling-hat, she turns this chair and moves that, sets one piece of furniture at a different angle, rapidly, and apparently unconsciously, shifts a dozen little knick-knacks and bits of color, and the room is transformed. I couldn't do it in a week.

THE MISTRESS. That is the first time I ever knew a man admit he couldn't do anything if he had time.

HERBERT. Yet with all their peculiar instinct for making a home, women make themselves very little felt in our domestic architecture.

THE MISTRESS. Men build most of the houses in what might be called the ready-made-clothing style, and we have to do the best we can with them; and hard enough it is to make cheerful homes in most of them. You will see something different when the woman is constantly consulted in the plan of the house.

HERBERT. We might see more difference if women would give any attention to architecture. Why are there no women architects?

THE FIRE-TENDER. Want of the ballot, doubtless. It seems to me that here is a splendid opportunity for woman to come to the front.

THE YOUNG LADY. They have no desire to come to the front; they would rather manage things where they are.

THE FIRE-TENDER. If they would master the noble art, and put their brooding taste upon it, we might very likely compass something in our domestic architecture that we have not yet attained. The outside of our houses needs attention as well as the inside. Most of them are as ugly as money can build.

THE YOUNG LADY. What vexes me most is, that women, married women, have so easily consented to give up open fires in their houses.

HERBERT. They dislike the dust and the bother. I think that women rather like the confined furnace heat.

THE FIRE-TENDER. Nonsense; it is their angelic virtue of submission. We wouldn't be hired to stay all-day in the houses we build.

THE YOUNG LADY. That has a very chivalrous sound, but I know there will be no reformation until women rebel and demand everywhere the open fire.

HERBERT. They are just now rebelling about something else; it seems to me yours is a sort of counter-movement, a fire in the rear.

THE MISTRESS. I'll join that movement. The time has come when woman must strike for her altars and her fires.

HERBERT. Hear, hear!

THE MISTRESS. Thank you, Herbert. I applauded you once, when you declaimed that years ago in the old Academy. I remember how eloquently you did it.

HERBERT. Yes, I was once a spouting idiot.

Just then the door-bell rang, and company came in. And the company brought in a new atmosphere, as company always does, something of the disturbance of out-doors, and a good deal of its healthy cheer. The direct news that the thermometer was approaching zero, with a hopeful prospect of going below it, increased to liveliness our satisfaction in the fire. When the cider was heated in the brown stone pitcher, there was difference of opinion whether there should be toast in it; some were for toast, because that was the old-fashioned way, and others were against it, "because it does not taste good" in cider. Herbert said there, was very little respect left for our forefathers.

More wood was put on, and the flame danced in a hundred fantastic shapes. The snow had ceased to fall, and the moonlight lay in silvery patches among the trees in the ravine. The conversation became worldly.

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I The fire on the hearth has almost gone out in New England; the hearth has gone out; the family has lost its center; age ceases to be respected; sex is only distinguished by a difference between millinery bills and tailors' bills; there is no more toast-and-cider; the young are not allowed to eat mince-pies at ten o'clock at night; half a cheese is no longer set to toast before the fire; you scarcely ever see in front of the coals a row of roasting apples, which a bright little girl, with many a dive and start, shielding her sunny face
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