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The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 108/Childhood: a Study

CHILDHOOD: A STUDY.

There is a rushing southwest wind. It murmurs overhead among the willows, and the little river-waves lap and wash upon the point below; but not a breath lifts my hair, down here among the tree-trunks, close to the water. Clear water ripples at my feet; and a mile and more away, across the great bay of the wide river, the old, compact brick-red city lies silent in the sunshine. Silent, I say truly: to me, here, it is motionless and silent. But if I should walk up into State Street and say so, my truth, like many others, when uprooted from among their circumstances, would turn into a disagreeable lie. Sharp points rise above the irregular profile of the line of roofs. Some are church spires, and some are masts,—mixed at the rate of about one church and a half to a schooner. I smell the clear earthy smell of the pure gray sand, and the fresh, cool smell of the pure water. Tiny bird-tracks lie along the edge of the water, perhaps to delight the soul of some millennial ichnologist. A faint aromatic perfume rises from the stems of the willow-bushes, abraded by the ice of the winter floods. I should not perceive it, were they not tangled and matted all around so close to my head.

Just this side of the city is the monstrous arms factory; and over the level line of its great dike, the chimneys of the attendant village of boarding-houses peep up like irregular teeth. A sail-boat glides up the river. A silent brown sparrow runs along the stems of the willow thicket, and delicate slender flies now and then alight on me. They will die to-night. It is too early in the spring for them.

The air is warm and soft. Now, and here, I can write. Utter solitude, warmth, a landscape, and a comfortable seat are the requisites. The first and the last are the chiefest; if but one of the four could be had, I think that (as a writer) I should take the seat. That which, of all my writing, I wrote with the fullest and keenest sense of creative pleasure, I did while coiled up, one summer day, among the dry branches of a fallen tree, at the tip of a long, promontory-like stretch of meadow, on the quiet, lonely, level Glastenbury shore, over against the Connecticut State Prison at Wethersfield.

Well, here on the river-shore, I begin; but I shall not tell when I stop. Doubtless there will be a jog in the composition. The blue sky and clear water will fade out of my words all at once, and a carpet and hot-air furnace, perhaps, will appear.

 

Nothing.

Then, a life. And so I entered this world: a being, sliding obscurely in among human beings. But whence, or whither? Those questions belong among the gigantic, terrible ones, insoluble, silent,—the unanswering primeval sphinxes of the mind. We can sit and stare at such questions, and wonder; but staring and wondering are not thought. They are close to idiocy: both states drop the lower jaw and open the mouth; and assuming the idiotic physique tends, if there be any sympathetic and imitative power, to bring on the idiotic state. If we stare and wonder too long at such questions, we may make ourselves idiots,—never philosophers.

I do not recollect the innocent and sunny hours of childhood.[1] As to innocence, the remark of a certain ancient and reverend man, though sour, was critically accurate,—that "it is the weakness of infants' limbs, and not their minds, which are innocent." It is most true. Many an impotent infantine screech or slap or scratch embodies an abandonment and ecstasy of utter uncontrolled fury scarcely expressible by the grown-up man, though he should work the bloodiest murder to express it. And what adult manifestation, except in the violent ward of an insane retreat, or perhaps among savages,—the infants of the world,—equals, in exquisite concentration and rapture of fury, that child's trick of flinging himself flat down, and, with kicks and poundings and howls, banging his head upon the ground? Without fear or knowledge, his whole being centres in the one faculty of anger; he hurls the whole of himself slap against the whole world, as readily as at a kitten or a playmate. He would fain scrabble down through the heart of the earth and kill it, rend it to pieces, if he could! If human wickedness can be expressed in such a mad child, you have the whole of it,—perfectly ignorant, perfectly furious, perfectly feeble, perfectly useless.

And as to the sunny hours, I believe those delights are like the phantasmal glories of elf-land. When the glamour is taken away, the splendid feasts and draperies, and gold and silver, and gallant knights and lovely ladies, are seen to have been a squalid misery of poor roots and scraps, tatters and pebbles and bark and dirt, misshapen dwarfs and old hags. Or else, the deceitful vision vanishes all away, and was only empty, unconscious time. Or am I indeed unfortunate, and inferior to other men in innate qualities, in social faculty, in truthfulness of remembrance?

Let me see. Let me "set it out," as an attorney would say. Let me state and judge those primeval, or preliminary, or forming years of my life.

How many were they? More at the North, than in the hot, hurrying South. As a rule, the Northerner should be twenty-five years old before assuming to be a man. For my own part, I have always had an unpleasant consciousness, which I am only now escaping from, of non-precocity, anti-precocity, in fact, postcocity. I have been relatively immature. In important particulars I have been, somehow, ten years behind men—boys if you like—of my own age. The particulars I mean are those of intercourse with other people.

The first ten years of my life seem to me now to have been almost totally empty. I can conjure up, not without some effort, a scanty platoon of small, dim images from school and Sunday school and church and home; but they are few and faint.

I remember a little dirty-faced rampant girl at an infant school in Pine Street, who was wont to scratch us with such fell and witch-like malignity and persistence, that the teacher was fain to sew up her small fists in unbleached cotton bags,—Miss Roquil's school (I never found out that the name was Rockwell until ten years afterwards,—so phonetic is nature!) in Parade Street, where the huge, cunning Anakim of the first class used to cajole me, poor little man, always foolishly benevolent, into bestowing upon them all the gingerbread of my lunch, which I gave, and found a dim, vague sense of incorrectness remaining in my childish mind. They must have been boys of fourteen or fifteen; but I remember them as of giantly stature and vast age.

A grisly being haunted the neighborhood through which I had afterwards to pass to another school,—a great, hulking, brutal fellow, Tom Reddiford by name, from whom I apprehended unimaginable tortures. I crept back and forth in such dumb, nameless frights as frontier children may have felt, who, in old times of Indian war, passed through woods where the red hand of a Wyandot might grasp them out of any bush. I have not the least idea why this wretched Reddiford used to hunt me so, as when one doth hunt a partridge in the mountains, unless out of pure beastly enjoyment of my childish frights. He did, once or twice, hustle me about, I believe, but never inflicted actual bodily harm. I told my parents; but they helped me not at all. Either they thought I was not really scared, or that the experience would do me good; but it was a mistake. My father should have searched out this young bully and effectually quieted him. Fright is a most beneficial thing for bullies, but a sadly harmful one for a little boy. How fervently I vowed to "lick" that Tom Reddiford, if I ever grew half as big as he! Very likely he has died in a brawl or a poor-house by this time. But his outrages burnt into my mind scars so deep that they are part of its structure. I will pay him off yet, if I meet him.

Another awful figure haunted the same neighborhood,—"Old Britt," a street sot,—an old, filthy, unshorn hog of a man, moving in a halo of rags and effluvium,—whom I used to meet lurching along the pavement, or sometimes prone by the roadside in a nauseous rummy sleep. Him I passed by with a wide circuit of fear and disgust and detestation.

My local attachments must have been stunted, like the roots of plants often transplanted. They twine close and strong about no place. How could they, when in my native city alone—not to mention the six other towns where I have sojourned, four of whose names begin with the syllable "New"—I can count twenty houses where I remember to have lived? The Wandering Jew is a parable for a tenant housekeeper that "moves" every spring; and I might be his son. Cursed be moving! What a long list of houses! There is the A——— house, which I dimly recollect, and where I think we had some beehives; the S——— house, where we boarded, and I fell down and broke a bone; the L——— house, where also we boarded, and there were many young girls. There I dreamed of an angel,—a person about eight feet long, flying along past the second-story side-windows, in the conventional horizontal attitude, so suggestive of a "crick in the neck," with great, wide wings, tooting through a trumpet as long as himself; and out of each temple, as I distinctly remember, grew a thing like a knitting-needle, with a cherry on the end. There was also the Cl——— house, where was a tree of horrible, nauseating red plums; the W——— house, quaint and many-gabled; the C——— house, where I had my last whipping. Ah, that whipping,—those other whippings! How resolutely did they each make me vow that the next ugly thing which I could safely do should surely be done! A whipping inflicted upon a child old enough to remember it is almost certainly a horrible mistake. No one knows how often it happens that a child's sense of personal insult or degradation, though incapable of expression, is every whit as quick and deep as a man's.

Other houses I remember,—in broad streets, narrow streets,—in close-built blocks, in open outskirts,—even a mile or two away among the green fields,—lived in, boarded in. I am cheated in heart by injurious superfluity of houses. One home, remembered alone, would stand embowered forever,—if not among ancestral trees and vines, then in clustering memories far more lovely and more cherished. But what dignity or beauty or quiet or distinctness can attach to the score of tenements that scurry helter-skelter through my memory? It is little better than the vision of the drunken men-at-arms in the castle of the parodist:—

"Then straight there did appear, to each gallant Gorbalier,
Forty castles dancing near, all around!"

An unblest memory!

I believe I once stole a quantity of rather moist brown sugar, and hid it, a clumsy, sticky, brown-paper parcel, between my bed and the sacking. A chambermaid discovered the corpus delicti, and something was done,—I forget what. But I wish I had never done anything worse!

O dear! I used to have to go to church twice every Sunday, and to Sunday school before forenoon service beside. I cannot express the extreme dreariness to me, poor little boy, of perching on those uncomfortable, old-fashioned, grown-up seats, too high for my little legs, too wide for my short thighs, so that I sat backless above and dangling below. What had I to do with those grown-up sermons? Men's talk is babble to a child, as much as children's to a man. The wind that blew past my ears meant as much, and sounded better. Or what were the prayers to me, or the singing? This perfunctory, formal early piety of mine had much influence, long afterward, by natural reaction. Nothing can better shadow forth the weariness of those weekly jornadas del muerto than the fact that I found now and then an oasis of delight in pious stories for children, out of the Sabbath-school library. Thus we hear of starving men chewing upon an old boot, or famished desert-travellers sucking rapturously at a hole full of mud. I remember once being so absorbed in a story during sermon-time, that, coming to a word of new and queer physiognomy, and having forgotten all circumstance, I repeated it, according to my custom, quite aloud. "Cuddy," I said, in the middle of the silence of a pause in the sermon. Everybody stared quickly at me. I might as well have uttered a round oath. The awful shame that flushed me and crushed me cannot be imagined. My parents talked kindly, but seriously, to me for such an irreverence; yet I suspect that by themselves they laughed. This book was a story called "Erminia," with an East India voyage in it. I don't know why the name should stick so fast in my memory these thirty years.

My parents, alike inflexible in hygiene and morality, had reasons out of either realm against those stomachic reinforcements to religion which can mollify so sweetly the child's desert pathway through "meeting." Neither cooky, raisin, nor peppermint lozenge would they dispense. It would violate two important rules,—"Attend to the sermon," and "No eating between meals";—the latter law, otherwise of Medo-Persic stringency, having only this severe and secular exception: "My son, if you are hungry, you can eat a piece of good dry bread. You may have that."

So much the more lovely is the remembrance of that kind interceder, usually an occupant of the same pew with ourselves, who, regarding the minister the while with unmoved countenance, was wont ever and anon, with quiet hand, to insinuate within my childish grasp the beatifying lozenge, or the snow-white and aromatic sassafras or wintergreen "pipe." The sweet savor of those frequent gifts, sweeter for their half-secret, half-forbidden conferring, will never disappear out of my memory. That candy, if I had the power, should be paid for with rewards (not one whit more worth, if loving-kindness in giving be any criterion), in a place where, we are told, "congregations ne'er break up, and Sabbaths have no end,"—and where, therefore, let us earnestly hope, their delights are superior to those of their earthly antetypes.

Behind us, all one year, there sat in church a platoon of imps. They were children of a red-eyed father, who must have been a drinker; they were curiously ugly in countenance; and they used at once to prove and practise their petty demonism by tormenting us who sat in the pew just before them. They slyly pulled our hair; poked us, and then, when we turned round, made frightful, malignant faces close to ours; talked loud in sermon-time; dropped crumbs down the backs of our necks; and whispered loudly in our scandalized ears that standing, supreme reproach and insult of my childish days—then confined to little boys, since adopted by the great Democratic party—of "Nigger! Nigger!"

We had not, perhaps, too many rules at home. (There were sometimes too many at school.) Some of them were well enough. We might not have both butter and molasses, or butter and sugar, on the same piece of bread. One luxury was enough. Flavors too compound coax toward the Epicurean sty; the most compound of all is doubtless that of the feast which the pig eateth. "Shut the door,"—a good rule. "No reading before breakfast, nor by firelight, nor by lamp-light, nor between daylight and dark,"—an indispensable rule for such book-devouring children as we were. But on the question of rules it is to be observed, that the thing to be desired is to train a child to understand or feel a principle, and to apply it, not merely to remember and obey a rule. The reason and the moral nature should be enlisted in support of the law. The theory of American mental and moral education is, Minimum, of formal law and brute force, maximum of intelligent self-control and kindly adaptation. Mere codes of rules, whether at home or at school, set the children at work, with all their sharp, unregenerate little wits, to pick flaws, draw distinctions, and quibble on interpretations. They become abominably shrewd in a degrading, casuistical strict-constructionism. In spite of everything, the little, cunning, irresponsible, non-moral beings will be successfully appealing to the letter of the law against the spirit, and warping and drying up all their tenderness of conscience, all their capability of broad and generous applications of right and noble principle.

I disliked fat meat and fat people. I used to like to be with the hired girls in the kitchen. I was entirely untouched by the often-repeated expositions made to me of the vulgarity of such habits, and of the low esteem in which I should be held in consequence. What is vulgarity to a child? Spontaneity, unconscious existence, has no vulgarities. Vulgarity comes of restraints and distortions; and a child's life is commonly for a time untouched by the girdling and compression of forms and conventionalities. Besides, to a child of positive traits, those persuasions are utterly forceless which, instead of being addressed to the prominent faculties, are directed to those comparatively deficient. It is no matter how well such considerations are suited to the character of the persuader, to a conventional human nature, to the a priori child. Thus, in the matter of kitchen-haunting, the appeal was made to my regard for the opinions of others. As I was naturally disregardful of the opinions of others, the appeal did not affect me.

Besides, we used to have hired girls as superior to the Biddies of to-day as a patriarch is to a laquais de place. Possibly hereditary friendly relations with a few individuals may have made us more fortunate than some other families. From whatever cause, we enjoyed through most of my childhood the ministrations of two or three women of American race, of intelligence, character, and self-respect. It is scarcely possible that the vulgarity which my parents apprehended was anything worse than colloquial New England provincialism. It is possible that they may have feared lest in time the kitchen-door should introduce me to that Devil's school for boys, the city street.

These domestics were themselves competent housekeepers, and could have maintained good repute and creditable hospitality, had they possessed the means, even among the far-renowned "old-fashioned H——— housekeepers." My remembrances of them are scanty. There were Lois and Hannah, tall, thin, angular Yankee women, grave, trustworthy, and efficient. There was Emily, a dignified personage, portly and composed, an excellent and faithful woman and a good manager, unfailingly kind to us little folks, a wondrously skilful compounder of pies, cakes, and gingerbreads. She was wont to wear a white turban or similar head-dress of wreathed draperies; and often, with serious face, she puzzled me, and silenced my childish inquiries about the nature or purpose of ingredient or process, by saying that it was "Laro for meddlers." In those days I speculated deeply as to whether there did exist any such real substance as "Laro." In this mystic and apparently underived term, the a is broad, as in "ah!" It may be spelled "Lahro," for what I know.

I do remember, in particular, a tidy, laborious, parsimonious, pragmatical little Scotchwoman, Christiana. Once upon a time, in the days of allopathic rule, my mother compounded a mighty pitcher of senna mixture. This—its actual deglutition, by some blessed chance, not becoming necessary—she set up, with a housekeeper's saving instinct, on the pantry shelf, instead of pouring it into the gutter. So Christiana, thrifty soul, and still more saving, could not endure the wasting of so much virtue, and set herself stoutly to utilize the decoction by consuming it to her own sole use and behoof, which she accomplished by way of relaxation, so to speak, in single doses, at leisure times, within a few days. Her own and her employer's respective economies were fitly rewarded by an illness, through which my mother had to take care of her.

One morning, so early that it was not quite light, I hung about the kitchen table, slyly securing little lumps of the cold hasty-pudding which was being sliced in order to be fried for breakfast. Having snapped up a very nice one, as big as a walnut, lo and behold! when I chewed, it was lard. There was direful retching and hasty ejection. The disagreeable, cold, soft, greasy rankness of the morsel is extreme: if you don't believe it, try it. I think this affair may have been a cold-blooded scheme of the hired-girl. But it was years before I became so suspicious as to place this sad construction upon the occurrence, though I often remembered it.

Like all children, I was fond of candy, sweetmeats, and spices. Yet not of allspice or nutmeg, nor of mace, which tastes of soap. I have known of cases where parents claimed that their children were not fond of such things. Believe them not. I liked pie, but not pudding; the rich, heavy fruit-cake of weddings, good, honest gingerbread, the brisk, crispy heat of the brittle ginger-snap, but not "plain cake,"—absurd viand! It is of the essence of cake not to be plain. As well say, acid sweetness. Nor did I like the hereditary election-cake of my ancient State and city. Fat pork I could not swallow; nor onions nor cabbage,—gross, indelicate vegetables! And even now, as well present upon my table that other diabolic cabbage of the New England swamps,—in old legend said to have been conjured up out of the ground by the Indian pow-wows, to beautify and perfume the dank and gloomy resorts where Satan was wont to drill them in their hellish exercises,—as its grandchild, the big booby of the garden. For is it not deservedly, if disrespectfully, named a cabbage-head? That is because it is the Vegetable Booby.

Naturally, I did not like that concoction so dear to the heart of good old-fashioned Connecticut folks, a biled-dish (accent on biled). This, O vast majority of ignoramuses, is corned beef and cabbage boiled together. As for onions, if I could not escape them in any other way, I would organize a party on the Great Wethersfield Question, and lead it, a Connecticut Cato, with the motto, "Censeo Wethersfieldiam delendam esse." Nor would I rest until that alliaceous metropolis was fairly tipped over into Connecticut River, and sent drowning down to Long Island Sound.

There is yet another cell in the cavern of memory,—a gloomy and horrid one,—the torture-chamber. It is the remembrance of sickness and its attendant pharmaceutic devils. O ye witch's oils, hell-broths red and black, pills, and electuaries! the unsuccessful experiments—instrumentalities of death too slow for the occasion, but masterly in their kind—of the Pandemoniac host in those Miltonian, infernal chemics which resulted in gunpowder and cannon-balls! What agonies from horrific stench and flavor, in close, dreary rooms, under hot, unwelcome blankets, do ye recall!

It is not that I complain of all those inexplicable diseases, opprobria medicinæ, so pusillanimously submitted to by civilized humanity and its physicians,—chicken-pox, measles, whooping-cough, mumps. I complain, indeed, of no diseases, but of their treatment. But let me not delay longer than is needful amid such distressful recollections. Three hateful decoctions were known to me by the phonetics, Lixipro, Lixaslutis, and Lixusmatic. I don't know what they were, and I don't want to know. Devil's elixirs were they all. Rubbub and magnesia,—endless imprecations rest upon that obnoxious red mixture! And chiefest of them all—Arimanes of the whole bad crew, though Agag is the only really suitable royal name I can think of—is that slow, greasy horror, whose superhuman excess of unutterable abomination no words can express, and even inarticulate ejaculations made on purpose cannot at all show forth,—as urk! huk! agh!—chiefest among them all, castor oil!

I hurry away from the awful scene. Let me be thankful that I swallowed but little calomel. Let me be thankful that, after a time, I could not swallow castor oil. Spasmodic regurgitations, as if one had attempted to load a gun having a live coal at the far end, closed perforce that chapter of torments. And soon thereafter arose the benign genius of homœopathy, with healing in its neat little white-paper wings. Beautiful Homœopathy, the real Angel in the House, if Mr. Coventry Patmore had only known it! Hast thou not long ago appeared, veiled in an allegory, before an unrecognizing world? Surely, what but homœopathic medicine was that wondrous talisman with which Adonbec El Hakim cured the Melech Ric? To be taken in a tumbler about two thirds full of water, as now; but in those early times, and for such a very large man, at one gulp, instead of by hourly teaspoonfuls. Or perhaps the manuscripts may have been corrupted in that passage by unscrupulous mediæval physicians of the school of Salerno, or other regular institutions.

I suppose I must have played a good deal; but there are reasons why this may not have been the case. The chief of them is, that whereas I have subsequently commonly attained a fair degree of excellence in what I have learned, I did not in the staple games of my childhood do so. In marbles, spinning top, and ball I was inferior,—indeed, scarcely at home in the technics of some of them. The games of marbles which I see now-a-days seem to centre upon the projection of the missile into a hole in the ground. In my day we used to play upon the surface of the earth; sometimes "in the big ring," where each combatant fired at the marbles grouped in the centre, from any point upon the external orbit; sometimes "in the little ring," where the shot was made from the place where the projectile lodged last; sometimes "at chasings," where the players fired alternately, each at the marble of his adversary. Concerning this last game, I remember the following terms: "ebs," which, seasonably vociferated, that is, when it is the speaker's turn to play and before his adversary can say anything, serves as an incantation authorizing the speaker to deliver his fire from any point other than that where his marble lies, equally distant from the objective point; "clearings," in like manner, authorizing the preparation of a reasonably unobstructed line of fire; and "fen ebs," "fen clearings," and "fen everythings," to be pronounced before the other player speaks, and which, by virtue of the prohibitory syllable "fen" (défendre, Fr.), prevent respectively ebs, clearings, and everything,—that is to say, any elusion or amelioration of the existing conditions of fire.

In games of ball, to confess the truth, I was but feeble. Scarce, indeed, was I of average skill in any of them except the simplest two,—"bung-ends," and "one old cat." In the first of these, one boy throws the ball against the side of a house, or other perpendicular unelastic plane, while the other smites it with his club at the rebound. In the second, played as a trio, boy A throws the ball at boy B, standing opposite, whose duty is to smite, while boy C, behind B, catches B out in case of a miss.

I was pretty good at "tag" and "catch," games of running and dodging. In these, one boy is called "it," i. e. leader, or victim. He pursues the rest; and the games are alike, except that in "catch" he who is to be made "it" must be caught and held by him who is "it," whereas in "tag" a touch is sufficient to transfer the responsibility, and inaugurate the new choragus.

There. Such quaint scraps are all that is left me of my existence as a little child. I know men who say, that, within their own consciousness and memories, they have the witness and knowledge of a life even before that of this humanity. But, for my own part, I should never know, by anything in my own memory, that I had been a baby,—that I was or did anything before that first school where the ferocious little girl was handcuffed in unbleached-cotton bags, for scratching.

"The child is father of the man," saith the great poet of dry sentimentalizing. Therefore the man's endeavor to remember about his childhood might reasonably be expected to bring him into limbo patrum. But it is a dim and narrow field to grope in. It is not wandering in a darkened world,—it is feeling in a dark closet.

It was an unconscious brief advance from nothing to very little. Yes, but still there must have been some dim features of the dawning character. No doubt. The heedless, complying, unjudging benevolence, for instance, that gave away all my gingerbread to the young Anakim of Parade Street, was one. It was liable afterwards to invert, by reacting from such over-operation as that, into an equally unjudging disregard of the wants and needs of others.

And now, What was it? This is no foolish nor unimportant inquiry. If I could answer it sufficiently, I should at once supply the basis of whole systems of mental and moral art and science. Such whole systems indeed—for instance, the muddy distractions of the Scotch metaphysicians—have already been based upon the phantasms of wiggy old doctors who dived backward into themselves,—jumping down their own throats, as it were, in their search after knowledge, as did the seventh Arabian Brother in the Spectator (is it not?) "with seven candles in each hand, lighted at both ends,"—and said, "When I began to think, I must necessarily have thought thus and thus." This was all very scientific. But for usefulness it would have been better to inquire, not what they must have thought, but what they did think.

Indeed, hitherto the history of mental philosophy is the history of the ignorance of man about himself; and since science must be built upon induction, and since phrenology has now established a classification—approximately correct and sufficient for working purposes—of the mental faculties, it is now quite in order to review the old inductions from the history of the individual, and to accumulate new ones. Even the mere trifles of these recollections of mine, some of them at least, must have an actual philosophical value, if only they are true and well enough stated.

Thank goodness, that, at any rate, I was not a remarkable child! It is the average record which has most value. The remarkable child is not a magnified child, but a distorted one; not a young giant, but a young monster.

No tract or little 24mo. would have been published about me by the American Sunday-School Union, if I had died young. No brilliant repartees by me are on record. No sweet remembrance is in blossom about me of a grim, unchildish pleasure in preferring the convenience or enjoyment of others to my own. In an instance where I remember to have tried to do as the good boys do in the story-books, by giving away my one cooky, the quick reaction into common sense sent me in grief to my mother, making use of natural tears and a specious plea of what I had done to get me another cooky, or perchance two. It was a dead failure. My mother knew too well the importance of the great moral lesson to let me reap material advantage from my good deed. She relegated me to the unfailing good dry bread, explaining how I could find abundant satisfaction within my own breast for doing a kind action,—how virtue was to be its own reward. I looked for the said reward, but could not see it. It was not satisfaction within my breast that I wanted, but within my stomach and on my palate. Benevolence will not supplement alimentiveness in the small boy. If I gathered any reward at all, it was in the hard wisdom of my resolve not to be caught in any such nonsense again.

I had not, as had a little monster of misplaced piety whose case is recorded in the good children's books, "at the early age of six made up my mind on all the great questions of the day." Yet I think I can remember yelling out "Hurra for Jackson!" because it was a good easy shout, although my father was a strong, steady Whig. There is practical democracy in that. First choice of shouts is much toward winning the battle.

I was not remarkable for early piety, sweetness of disposition, wit, beauty (I must certainly have been, as a child, skinny), or helpful kindness (except that irrational benevolence of mine).

I have been told that I learned to read, nobody knew how, all by myself, by the time I was four years old. How that may be I don't know; but I do know that I did not know how to read when I was twenty years old.

I was a "natural speller." It is no joke, but one of the proverbial fools' truths, which Dogberry enounces when he says that "reading and writing come by nature." They do. And so does spelling. Abundance of well-educated people never escape from occasional perturbations in orthography, just as they never learn a desirable handwriting, nor how to read silently fast and well, or well aloud. It is because they cannot; because they have not what Nature gave Neighbor Seacoal; because spelling and reading and writing are "gifts,"—they come by nature.

What I learned at school in those first ten years I do not know. Almost nothing. I have utterly forgotten what. I might have been much better taught. I might have been instructed in thinking. I do not mean that a child of eight or nine years old can or should be made to see, judge, and conclude upon new matters with the discovering and advancing power of a philosopher. But he may be made to perform his own proper little mental operations, no matter how small they are, on the same principle,—on the principle of actual understanding, instead of mere sole memorizing.

All my instructors, whether they meant to do so or not, did in fact proceed as if they believed children's minds to be, not live fountains, but empty cisterns; not to be capable of thought; like an empty house, to be furnished for a tenant; needing to be fitted up with a store of lifeless forms, which the adult life, when it came, was to breathe vitality into and turn to living uses. I learned rules. "Here, little boy," they said, "swallow these oyster-shells. They will lie naturally and easily in your stomach until you grow up, because little boys' stomachs are adapted for the storage of oyster-shells; and when you are a man, and want oysters, put some in there." But does it stand to reason that children, who manipulate words and figures, and produce results without understanding the rules they apply,—just as a wizard's apprentice could evoke his master's demons without knowing the meaning of the awful syllables he recited, so that Southey's arcanum of Aballiboozobanganorribo might respectably serve as one of them,—does it stand to reason that these unhappy young jugglers will the better learn to do the same work intelligently afterwards? No; for they have to dislodge the bad habit which has pre-empted, before they can install the good one. As well undertake to train a new Mozart by making the bright little music-loving boy grind ten years on a barrel-organ with La ci darem in its bowels.

I remember a fondness for long, large, grown-up words; doubtless, in some measure, a result of my constant practice of reading grown-up people's books. It was a mere verbal memory, the driest of all the intellectual faculties. Scarcely a faint perfume of meaning lingered about the rattling piles of husks that I could say and spell.

What I learned at Sunday school and church was to be inexpressibly weary of them. What I learned at home I can perhaps define but little better. I gained no important result from any direct instruction. I gained something of good-boy behavior and decent manners, diligently trained into me. But what was most valuable in my home education was unconscious infiltration from a good home-atmosphere. This is an influence of incalculable importance, a thousand times outweighing all the schools. It is that for which God established the family; the one single possible real and efficient means of well bringing up the young. And whatever shades of repression, misunderstanding, ungeniality, restraint, may have sometimes troubled me, still I constantly feel and fully know that that pure, calm, quiet, bright, loving, intelligent, refined atmosphere of my home silently and unconsciously penetrated and vivified all my being. If now I should be told, "You are no very splendid exemplar of the results of such influences," I should still say, "Most true, unfortunately true; but what should I have been without them?"

I had brothers and sisters,—a few playmates; but neither they, nor any other human beings, not even my parents, seem to have been during those years, to any important extent, directly operative within or upon the sphere and character of my own real conscious existence. That life figures itself in my memory much like a magic circle, within which I was alone, and did my scanty little thinkings and imaginings alone. The rest of the living were outside, unreal,—phantoms moving to and fro, around and without, but never coming within that limit,—never entering into living communion with me. This constitutional solitude of mind has a useful office, perhaps not to be easily explained, but sometimes not otherwise to be performed.

This isolation was, in part, unnecessary. To a certain extent the necessity for it still remains. But in part it was artificial,—my unconscious reaction against an ill-adapted influence,—the resisting force of a trait which, like all those other early traits, has become visible to me, like the blind paths over bogs, now that I am a long way off. This trait I have already spoken of. It was an insensibility to a certain motive, rather prominent among those commonly proposed to me for my own government of myself. This was variously framed thus:—It is not usual to do this; it is usual to do that; if you proceed so and so, it will seem singular; people will talk about it; you will offend people's usages and habits; you will seem singular and odd. Against such cautions I rebelled with a mute, indignant impulse, which I was not old enough to enounce or to argue. It was, however, the result of two characteristics;—one, the natural lack of instinctive desire for the good opinion of others; and the other, a corresponding instinct for living out my own life fully and freely, not so as to infringe upon the just rights of others, but not stinting or distorting or amputating myself, even though others set the example. It was the old fable reversed,—the fox disinclined to cut off his tail, even though all the other foxes had cut off theirs. And the fact that people older than I, and several of them, and for year after year, urged upon me the considerations I have spoken of, never availed. That key would not move the mechanism of my mind. It did not fit.

My childhood seems to me far more memorable for what it had not, was not, than for what it had and was. I do not believe this is because mine was an especially unfortunate or unhappy childhood. As I have hinted before, it was because childhood is empty,—an unconscious, imperfect life,—almost animal,—germinal,—a life in the egg, in the jelly, in the sap. The experiences of childhood are seed-leaves. They drop quickly away and utterly disappear, and even the scars where they grew cease to show on the stem. Probably I seemed to myself to enjoy life when I was a child. Children whom I see daily seem to do so. But thought is life. Mere enjoyment is dreaming. It may seem to cover hours or days or years of experience, but when we awake it has been only a point of time. But this pleasure-dream is worse than a sleep-dream. Over its costly actuality of time, cut out and dropped down out of life, the hither and thither ends of the shortened thread of existence must be knotted together into a cord of diminished length, strength, and value.

In sum: This child which I was was a semi-embryonic creature, mostly unconscious, whose ten years' career, now chiefly faded into entire blankness, showed not many mental traits. The chief were quick and retentive verbal memory, quick, undiscriminating, impulsive, unreasonable kind-heartedness, and an insensibility, even an instinctive opposition, to the approvings or disapprovings of others. Or the child might be stated thus: Nervous and sensitive organization, intellect predominant; in the intellect the perceptive faculties most active, and of these chiefly that which notices and compares exteriors; beside the intellect, a kind-heartedness without balance, and therefore too great; too little caution, and too little love of approbation. Around these features others have grown up, of course; but these were, so to speak, the primary strata of the formation, underlying the other elements, determining their tendencies, and cropping out through them.

This child was all but empty, unsubstantial, imperfect; incapable, then, of much life from within itself, little helped by thoughts or other aid from without. The efforts made by others to operate on it were faithful, kindly, well meant, but not adapted to its individuality. The fact is, that, so far as they had any supposed basis on system, it was on the Scotch empirical analysis of perception, conception, reason, will; a Procrustean mental philosophy which absolutely ignores individuality, and assumes that all human beings are alike. It is as good as the little boys' conventional system of portraiture. A round O, two dots, a perpendicular line between them, and a horizontal one across below, displays every face. Such was Christ and such was Judas; such was Messalina and such was Florence Nightingale. But there is a better philosophy of the mind.


  1. The paragraphs here following were written in the summer of 1862, and had been meditated or memorandumed long before. Thus they were not derived from the similar disquisitions of Gail Hamilton in the Atlantic for January, 1863. There is no danger that anybody will suspect that spirituelle lady of extracting her sunbeams out of my poor old cucumbers.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.