The following is a Gaslight etext....
A message to you about copyright and permissions
Back to the Mauve Decade menu
They laid Jesse James in his grave and Dante Gabriel Rossetti died immediately. Then Charles Darwin was deplored and then, on April 27, 1882, Louisa May Alcott hurried to write in her journal: "Mr. Emerson died at 9 p.m. suddenly. Our best and greatest American gone. The nearest and dearest friend Father has ever had and the man who helped me most by his life, his books and his society. Illustrious and beloved friend, good-bye!" So she made a lyre of yellow jonquils for Ralph Waldo Emerson's preposterous funeral and somehow steered Bronson Alcott through the dreary business until he stood beside the coffin in the damp cemetery and mechanically drawled out the lines of a dire poem. Under the shock the tall old idler was a mere automaton with a bloodless face that startled watchers as he stepped back from the grave into which his one importance sank. Emerson was going from him! He was losing his apologist, his topic. His fingers fell on the shoulder of a little boy who had pressed forward to see and the grip became so cruel that Louisa saw and her hoarse voice rose in the hush, commanding: "Pa! Let go! You're hurting Georgie's arm!" But her father could hear nothing. She stooped and wrenched the child's arm free.
All summer long, Bronson Alcott paced through Concord's placid loveliness, being Bronson Alcott still, still ready to let flow the wondrous volume of his stored inanity on any victim. But ghosts may have stalked with him beneath the royal elms, for when his school of limp philosophers gathered in July, he said to Frances Hedges: "I am the last. They are all gone but me." And they were gone Hawthorne, Thoreau, the obsessed Sumner and the bloody Theodore Parker; and now Emerson had left him. True, Holmes survived, and so did Lowell. But they had never been too friendly, and neither was young Howells a great admirer, nor that dapper, handsome poet, much too suave his name was Aldrich who once so upset a session of the Radical Club by reciting some satirical verses about an improper woman in a harem.
No, Bronson Alcott was wasted on this new society of fribbles and light poets in which men applauded the ribaldries of Mark Twain, whose flippancy Louisa had reproved in her "Eight Cousins," in which the Radical Club was forgotten. His occupation and his audience ceased beside Emerson's flowery casket. Emerson had approved him in all his stages Platonist schoolmaster, vegetarian, communist, transcendentalist, abolitionist.
Bronson Alcott had repaid the devotion with devotion. A new phrase of his Emerson roused in the shallow pond of his intelligence the noisy splash of a log rolled down some slope into a tepid flood. As he lounged from hotel to hotel in summers, he spoke of Emerson as warmly as he spoke of Duty or Domestic Loyalty or Purity or Unselfishness. For Alcott was not an ungrateful man, although an idealist by profession and practice. Idealism is best supported on an income and, after the death of his proud wife's father, Alcott had no banker.
He somehow married the daughter of Samuel May, a rather leonine lady, kin to the Sewalls and Frothinghams. She refused food when her husband's idiotic communist farm at Harvard failed, perhaps from sheer exhaustion, as she had toiled in the fields with her impubic children while Alcott, clad in white linen, talked to callers and explained his high purposes to Margaret Fuller under shady trees. Emerson rescued the family. Emerson brooded affectionately over the growing girls while Mrs. Alcott had an employment office in Boston, on behalf of Alcott's inexhaustible idealism. The older daughters wore frocks bestowed by cousins and an aunt. Louisa went out as a maid once, and once contemplated marriage with a wealthy unloved suitor and once considered suicide. She taught school; she wrote trash for newspapers; she ran errands. Alcott addressed her as "duty's faithful child" in one of his insufferable poems and rhetorically clasped her to his bosom in recognition of her merits, which, he wrote to a friend, gave him every satisfaction. It seems fair. Her first, forgotten novel "Moods" had just made a stir, even causing Henry James, Junior "a very literary youth," says Louisa's journal to commit an act of enthusiasm in print. But "Moods" did not sell and Emerson's benevolence continued. It appears that he found for Alcott a paying post in the hospital service at Washington when war broke out, but he was obliged to tell the offering powers that Mr. Alcott had "other projects," which consisted, as far as there is record, in a hearty admiration of the Bostonian excitement over a situation highly profitable to Boston, together with some occasional speeches for the holy cause.
Louisa went to nursing in the hospitals and Alcott quite closely approached the rim of slaughter when he had to bring her home in icy trains, delirious with typhoid and pneumonia, all the way from Washington to Concord. What Louisa thought of his notions about tending a sick daughter we shall never know, as she destroyed much of her journal in the autumn of 1887 when she was so wrecked that she took refuge with Dr. Rhoda Lawrence and sat making penwipers of flannel in the shape of carnations, waiting for death at the age of fifty-four. But the experience gave her material for "Hospital and Campfire Sketches." She became popular, and money oozed on the arid contours of Alcott's massive debts. Then her publisher wanted a book for girls. She didn't much like girls. Girls, it is possible, had always been rather shy of the Alcott sisters with their bad gowns and their curious papa. But she could write of herself and her family, so she wrote that first part of "Little Women" and there it is, simple and as effortless as though she had spilled bright rags of silk from her lap on sunlit grass beneath a blowing lilac-tree.
Louisa May Alcott was famous. Her bones ached; her voice had become hoarse and coarse; doctors gave her opiates and treatments that would scare a modern physician badly; she had no use for popularity and no taste for the world that now blandished before her. Pleasure? A trip to Europe with her youngest sister, May. She must nurse her mother and pay Pa's debts and make sure of the family's future. Alcott went beaming and rosy in the very best broadcloth and linen to lecture on Duty, Idealism and Emerson before larger audiences which now looked eagerly at the grandfather of "Little Women." Duty's child was hard at work, writing "moral pap for the young," in her own phrase, and paralysing a thumb by making three copies of a serial at once. Once she walked across the lawns of Vassar among the thronging girls who tore bits of lace from her dull gown, shook hands with Maria Mitchell, the astronomer, who privately held that Miss Alcott's books were namby-pamby nonsense, but thought the tall spinster a fine woman. And once at Syracuse she faced a congress of her sex and heard its applause as women wrung her fingers. She worked, and Alcott prattled to and fro. Her mother slowly died after looking up at Alcott with the odd remark, "You are laying a very soft pillow for me to go to sleep on." And in the summer of 1882 she worked still, arranging monstrous lunches and teas for the students of the Alcottian school of philosophy, scolding her adored, handsome nephews, permitting Miss Frances Hedges to help her with preserves and ginger cakes, and pausing between jobs to mend a coat or stitch a baseball for any lad who swung over the fence and came prowling around to the kitchen in search of Miss Lou. Men had no interest for Louisa, but a court of adolescents hummed about her to be lectured for sneaking off to Boston to see that awful French troupe in La Grande Duchesse and La Belle Hélène, and to be fed ginger cakes. Little Miss Hedges had come to be irradiated by the wisdom of Bronson Alcott, but she fell into subjection before Alcott's daughters and wrote to her father in crude Illinois: "I just cannot see anything remarkable or interesting in Mr. Alcott at all, but it is a privilege to know Miss Alcott and Mrs. Pratt [the "Meg" of "Little Women"]. They had the awfullest time when they were girls. Sometimes they did not have enough to eat and I have met some ladies here who think that Mr. Alcott has always treated his family shamefully. . . ." Alcott would probably have been much astonished to know that anybody had such thoughts of him. There is an indurating quality in the practice of idealism. It is true that Louisa's journal contains notes of restlessness under the spell of duty. In April of 1877 she wrote: "I'm selfish. I want to go away and rest in Europe. Never shall," and in August of 1882 she sent word after Miss Hedges that she was going to take her favourite nephew, Johnny Pratt, out to California and have "a good, long, selfish rest." Never did. In September her father collapsed and thereafter lay a prisoner in a pretty room lined with books, chattering more and more feebly, but chattering still.
All this while the fat volumes of Louisa May Alcott had gone swarming in ugly covers across America from the press of Roberts Brothers, spreading the voice not of Bronson Alcott but of Abba May, his wife, a Puritan lady born in 1799. Her biographer admits that Louisa was unfitted by nature to comprehend Bronson Alcott. In the journal he is "my handsome old philosopher" but it isn't evident that his child cared for transcendentalism. In "Little Women," "Little Men" and "Jo's Boys," Pa is the merest shadow, and the heroic males of the long series are either handsome lads or brisk, successful bearded doctors, men who would hardly lug a delirious lady four hundred miles in railway coaches and who always have cash in pocket. Such philosophy as the books hold is just what Abba May had taught her children, and when the young folk of the tales have flared into a moment of wilful hedonism, it is a firm, kind lady, middle-aged, who steps forward and puts them right. Louisa was writing "moral pap." She couldn't conceive an unmoral book for children, and her own morality hadn't shifted since it was pressed into her by Ma, who had Louisa analyse her small self in a diary for inspection. Pa's lessons, such as "Apollo eats no meat and has no beard . . ." seem to have faded from her completely. God's ministrant is always female, sometimes abetted in virtue by one of the bearded doctors, and always a success. The children wriggle for a breath and then are towed meekly in the cool tide of rectitude. One learns a deal of Abba May Alcott in the progress. She was charmed with "Eight Cousins," in which her representative rebukes current books for boys, the nonsense of Horatio Alger and Oliver Optic, with a fleet slap for "Innocents Abroad," and comments: "It gives them such wrong ideas of life and business; shows them so much evil and vulgarity that they need not know about. . . . It does seem to me that someone should write stories that should be lively, natural and helpful tales in which the English should be good, the morals pure and the characters such as we can love in spite of the faults that all may have. . . ." She must have been delighted with "Rose in Bloom," in which Rose Campbell gives talks on conduct to other girls in the dressing- rooms of balls, throws over her lover when he comes in a state of champagne to wish her a happy New Year, and waltzes only with her male cousins. She did not live to read "Jo's Boys," which decides that men who have been, no matter how forgivably, in prison may not woo pure young girls. Righteous diversion? A jolly picnic on the river or a set of patriotic tableaux; a romp on the sands at Nonquit; red apples and a plate of gingerbread after sledding in winters; tennis and rootbeer under the elms in summer.
It is a voice of that fading generation which crowned William Dean Howells and shuddered with pleasure as it dabbled its hands in strong Russian waters, for Miss Alcott found "Anna Karenina" most exciting and liked "Kings in Exile" with its pictures of a dissolute Europe. She would even recommend Le Père Goriot as suitable reading for a girl of eighteen, but as for "Huckleberry Finn," why, "if Mr. Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses, he had best stop writing for them." . . . But she went on writing moral pap for the young and it sold prodigiously. The critics paid no particular attention. Miss Alcott wrote admirably for our little folk. It seems to have struck nobody that Miss Alcott's first audience, the girls who had wept over "Little Women" in the latter '60's, were now rearing their daughters in an expanded world on the same diet. In 1882 Joseph Choate turned on a witness in one of his cross-examinations with the cry, "Good God, madame! Did you think that your husband was one of Miss Alcott's boys?" but the lawyer was a profane fellow, given to whist and long dinners. There was no discussion of Miss Alcott's morality, and certainly nobody talked of her art: she wrote for the young.
As spring of 1888 drew near, certain improvident small Bostonians in the region of Louisburg Square's marshalled prettiness were aware of a benevolent goddess whose dark carriage came daily to a rented house. If you ran quickly to open the door, you were sure of a hoarse joke and some pennies and, if you were a small male, a kiss and the loan of a laced handkerchief should your nose need wiping. The goddess, known by the rather Syriac title of "Msalkot," was in the form of a tall lady whose handsome body shivered constantly under furred wraps and whose brown hair showed no grey. Sometimes she came out of the house with a plate of some quivering dessert or a bunch of black foreign grapes untouched by the dotard upstairs in his hired shrine. Sometimes she came out weeping quietly on the arm of a grave nephew if Pa had not known her that day. Once she picked up little Patrick Keogh and held him against her weary barrenness all the way to Dunreath Place and gave him a bath in Rhoda Lawrence's tub. She had nothing left for herself. Her sister's sons were grown. Her will was made, asking that she be buried across the feet of her family, as she had always cared for them in life and would rest better so. On March 3rd some acute infant may have noted that the lady wore no furs. Chill wind pursued the carriage as she drove away. In the morning came the daze and agony of a new pain. She asked: "Is it not meningitis?" But at noon she could not know that Bronson Alcott had stopped talking, and before a second sunset duty's child went hurrying after him.
The journals observed that she had been an admirable writer for the young. Mayo Hazeltine stated casually that "Miss Alcott has found imitators among writers who aspired to something more than the entertainment of nurseries." The gentle, forgotten Constance Woolson exclaimed on paper: "How she has been imitated!" and resumed the imitation of Henry James, a habit in which she so far progressed that "A Transplanted Boy" might have been written and destroyed by James himself. It was plain, to be sure, that a cooing legion was now busy in devising tales on the Alcottian formula, and one follower, Margaret Sidney, was simply a vulgar duplicate of Miss Alcott, But the reviewers generally had little to say of an influence, loosed and active for a quarter of a century, embedded in grown women from the nursery, familiar as a corset. Louisa May Alcott passed without judgment or summary. The critics faced thrilling importations just then and space must be kept for the discussion of "Robert Elsmere," an announcement by a Mrs. Humphry Ward that she had receded from strict belief in the divine origin of Jesus Christ, a fact somehow more exhilarating than the similar recession of her kinsman Matthew Arnold. And then there was "As in a Looking-Glass" with delicious illustrations by George Du Maurier, in whose pages one learned of a raffish woman who married a virtuous landholder and then poisoned herself when her past rose to be a nuisance. Its morality had to be discussed in long columns, just as the morality of its stepchild, "The Second Mrs. Tanqueray," would be discussed sixty months later. These foreign wares had natural precedence of the case of an American spinster, born of a dismoded philosopher, and full justice had been done when six notices mentioned that Louisa May Alcott was a type of the nation's pure and enlightened womanhood.
Even before the Civil War, orators had flung to the female margin of their audiences some variation of a phrase that always concluded with the trisyllabic word, "womanhood." Theodore Parker used "our pure and enlightened womanhood" four times in two years. Daniel Sickles produced "our world conquering and enlightened womanhood" a few days before he shot his wife's paramour in the streets of Washington. Roscoe Conkling sprinkled his speeches with references to "a pure, enlightened and progressive womanhood" and had more than six hundred babies named for him, to say nothing of one proved "Roscina Conkling" in Ohio. Chester Arthur begot "our cultured and enlightened womanhood" shortly after he startled a dinner in his honour at Saratoga by remarking that he might be President of the United States but his private life was nobody's damned business. Ulysses Grant was also President, but he said nothing much about women and was defended by his doctors and family in his last days from committees of ladies and ancillary clergymen demanding that he sign warnings against the use of alcohol and tobacco. Robert Ingersoll spoke touchingly of the nobility of womanhood quite often, and his version of the tribute is identical with that used by Susan Brownell Anthony and Lucy Stone. There was some convention of the editorial desk and platform in favour of a noble womanhood currently to be viewed in America, and the phrase echoed broadly in 1889 when a yearning for suffrage crystallized under the leadership of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Miss Grace Ralston caught the words from air about her and made use of "the nobility of womanhood" to a courtly, charming gentleman in a Bostonian drawing-room. "Just what," he asked the girl, "is the nobility of womanhood?" Miss Ralston was annoyed. She had in her possession a dried rose once the property of Elizabeth Stanton and some letters from Lucy Stone. The nobility of womanhood was . . . why, it was the nobility of womanhood! The pleasant gentleman seemed amazingly dull. What precisely was the nobility of womanhood? Miss Ralston had to lecture him stringently. The nobility of womanhood meant the nobility of womanhood! Anybody knew that! "Yes," said William James, "but just what is it, my dear?"
The year 1889 is stippled with unrecorded criticism of American womanhood, besides the printed observation of Rudyard Kipling who found it wasted time to call on the grand pirates of San Francisco in their homes as wives and daughters adopted the dark young man from India. The house belonged to the womenfolk and it was vain to hint that he had come to see its owner. In March Mlle. Suzanne Beret was appalled by the strangeness of Cleveland as she taught French in a wealthy family and wrote to a cousin in New York: "The ladies talk of nothing but adultery to each other, although they never tell amusing stories of love-affairs. . . . I do not accustom myself to the rudeness with which young girls treat men older than themselves. M. Eltinoit1 made Miss X a compliment on her costume at a dinner last week by saying she resembled Sarah Bernhardt. She responded: 'Shut up! How dare you compare me to such a woman!' . . . They treat their sons and husbands as rudely before people as though they were bad servants. . . . They are much more loyal to each other than Frenchwomen would be. . . ." She could make nothing of such a situation. Home- sickness overcame her and she went back to Nantes and to matrimony. In June a Mrs. Edward Wharton of Boston gave offense to a matron from Chicago by remarking on the rudeness of American ladies to their sons, but was something forgiven on account of a lovely white parasol. In October the curious Grant Allen gave some advice to an English friend starting for New York and concluded: "Be careful about involving yourself in arguments with ladies. American women take offence easily. With them argument is not intellectual but always emotional and if you attack any little belief or vanity you will find that they can be very rude indeed." Allen knew countless Americans and was himself a Canadian. He later chose to refer rather coldly to "American girls indulged by 'poppa' and spoiled beyond endurance by 'mamma' who make life intolerable and ordinary conversation inaudible for a considerable distance around them," although, among his many avocations, he was a feminist and raised a storm with a feminist novel, "The Woman Who Did," in 1895. His whole literary course was unsteady and a perplexity to critics. He applauded good popular art as good popular art and found the low comedian, Dan Leno, more amusing than Sir Henry Irving. He wrote readable bits of botany, translated from Catullus, composed guide-books, and invented, in a story, a prelude to the psychological entertainments of Sigmund Freud. One comes to-day on his name in volumes of reminiscence or in dusty copies of the Strand with some surprise.
But, for all these dubious undertones, 1889 was a year of triumph for American womanhood. Without parade or notice, outside Chicago, a settlement for the poor was opened by Jane Addams and Ellen Starr in September with the name, "Hull House," and at Lake Forest, on Christmas Day, Helen Kimball, a child of ten, was asked to define the word "author" and with the speed of true intelligence answered: "An author is a dreadful person who likes to write books." The last decade of the nineteenth century could now begin.
It began with a handsome exhortation from Phillips Brooks, who urged it to be a good decade. Susan Anthony wished it well, but symptoms of frivolity appeared too soon. In the West some young Indians imagined that they saw a Son of the Great Spirit walking the waters and their aboriginal fancy led them to represent this messenger as having nail-pierced hands and feet. The absurdity didn't prevent tribes from believing that a promise of a happier land teeming with buffalo had been made. So lone agents and commanders of outlying forts were alarmed by the Ghost Dance. Naked altogether or striped with paint and floating wolfskins, lads spun and trotted in monotonous rhythms. Some whisper ran down deserts into Mexico and there they danced with green feathers laced to ankles above feet that padded in the noise of drums. Old Sitting Bull now had callers at his shack. His attitude toward the paleface had always been tinged by a dour conservatism, and after Major Kossuth Elder translated to him Longfellow's awful poem on the death of Custer at the Little Big Horn he was heard to state a preference for Negroes. It is said that he was spider in a vast conspiracy, red and black, to drive the white man altogether from America but unhappily he was killed before his plans had time to mature. . . In the East, too, dancing held the eye. Dandies packed Koster and Bial's profane hall nightly to applaud the stamp and flutter of Carmencita as the tall Spaniard whirled and swayed in smoky light. Ladies came veiled to inspect the prodigy and she outdid in gossip the fame of Richard Harding Davis or of Richard Mansfield, who returned to female favour in the "Beau Brummell" of a young playwright, Clyde Fitch. Carmencita's red and yellow gowns covered her legs entirely and her shoulders were hidden in sleeves. It is plain that she wore corsets and nothing lewd is recorded of her performances, in public, while in private she seems to have been an estimable, stupid creature, like most artists, but in October the peace of the Sun's office was invaded by five matrons from Chicago, headed by a Mrs. Walker, who demanded that Charles Dana suppress Carmencita forthwith. The editor was habitually deferential to women and notably patient in conversation with fools, but his cynical humour roused behind the kindly mask. He asked if the committee had seen the Spaniard dance. No, but she was an immoral person and the Sun must wither this ribald bloom straightway. Chicago then contained a dive of ferocious note among men, mentioned discreetly in journals when it vanished and since recalled in the documents of psychiatrists. Did the ladies not think they should suppress "the Slide" before they began to rearrange New York? They had never heard of such a place. "Well," said Dana, "you go back to Chicago and have them shut the Slide, and then I'll have Carmencita run out of town for you." The committee bustled forth. . . . Carmencita danced and danced. In 1893 male tourists went secretly and timidly to behold the odd assemblies at the Slide when the World's Fair packed Chicago. But on April 7, 1891, Dana wrote to an old friend in Illinois: "I do not see why you cannot keep your lady reformers at home. They come in here so thick and fast that I am thinking of attaching a portcullis to my office just to keep them out. If I do not let them waste my time proposing some foolish amendment to the laws they insult me by mail, and if I do see them they insult me anyhow. If you hear of any more nuisances starting for the Sun, tell them to try Godkin at the Post."
America had already seen the two best criticisms of its civilization produced by European authority, and neither Matthew Arnold nor James Bryce had taken much heed to the problem, simple in England, of housekeeping in the United States. It was bad enough for women of the Eastern ports to find suitable servants. Civil War and Indian troubles had kept immigration scanty in the Middle West through the '70's and '80's. The Swedes and Germans arrived, to be sure, but either as tribes or as bachelors. Life in Chicago was made more difficult by "the servant question," and life among the moneyed in Omaha and Council Bluffs was nothing less than a twisted cozenage of Karens and Ludmillas, certain to betray a mistress for the gain of another weekly dollar and always likely to announce a sudden marriage with some dumb suitor just as invitations had been sent for an important dinner. In 1882 an heiress of Omaha saw for the first time in her twenty years a house in Chicago attended by four servants, and the primary renown of Mrs. Potter Palmer outside her windy realm along the Lake was that she kept six servants. The condition suppled and made practical young wives of the midland. They must be practical or perish, socially. Dinner had to be cooked and the clock from the Philadelphia Centennial had to be dusted. Rudyard Kipling briefly bade his friends in India be thankful for their cheap and biddable hirelings after he had dashed from side to side of the continent, seeing half of the situation. As early as 1880 there began to be talk of "the lure of the great cities" and bright in the golden phantasmagory of a house in New York or Chicago stood the shape of the Hired Girl. So when Grace had scolded or cajoled Olga in the kitchen toward some pallid comprehension of boiling jelly and had bestowed Robby in his red express cart under the maples of the front yard with a hope that Sue wasn't playing with those possibly lousy Swedish children around the corner, she fell wearily into the hammock with Mrs. Constance Cary Harrison's new novel and permitted the perfume of that metropolitan world to thrill her gently. A nurse-maid for the children was usually as fantastic a dream as the English governess of mundane fiction. She could read of shopping-trips along Twenty-third Street, but if she sketched one for herself, why, who would take care of Sue and Robby? Thus Fred, idling up the street at half past four, or driving in from an inspection of the farm outside town left to his namesake by Uncle Fred, might be met by a wistful suggestion about the "niceness" of living in New York or Chicago. Perhaps some second blooming of the Teutonic immigration took over the desk at the bank; one of old man Hoffmeister's nine boys leased the white farm-house built after the model of white houses in the Connecticut hills. Fred and Grace were off to fill a wooden shell on Chicago's fringe or to conciliate timidly earlier settlers in Roselle, New Jersey. Or, if Fred was obdurate, Grace resigned herself to the battle and then it must have been consoling to remember how simply the March sisters lived in "Little Women" and to hear how Miss Frances Willard deprecated the frivolities of the cities. William James could presently explain that "we are thus driven by the necessities of our condition to proclaim that condition admirable and to seek precedents for so proclaiming it," and ladies of New York or Boston, in the stinking constriction of railroad coaches, were likely to be told off-hand that society in Sioux City was just as refined as society in the East, and that the High School had been called just as good as Andover or Saint Paul's for Rob but when it came to the question of Sue, it was probably better for her to go on East for a little finishing and if Sue's father had risen to be President of the First National Bank, there might be a year in Europe. And meanwhile the Middle Western woman had quietly become a fixture on the American social chart, a shadowy Titaness, a terror to editors, the hope of missionary societies and the prey of lecturers. . . . Was she fabulous? No, but she existed rather as a symptom of America's increasing cheapness than as an attitude of womankind. Her performances were listlessly sanctioned by men whose covert emotionalism she openly and more courageously expressed in an instinctive envy of all that was free, cool or unhaltered in life, in art and affairs. She was an emblem, a grotesque shape in hot black silk, screaming threats at naked children in a clear river, with her companionable ministers and reformers at heel. The collapse of American thought excused her forays; all that had been finely stalwart in the Bostonian age had vanished, the reckless courage and self-willed individualism of Emerson, Thoreau and Channing, the deliberate cultivation of research into the motives, not the manners of human action. The confusion of morals with manners, apparently inherent in the world that speaks English, had helped the mental lassitude of the Americans to destroy what was honourable in the Bostonian tradition, and from the remains of that tradition welled a perfume of decay, cants and meaningless phrases: "the nobility of democracy," "social purity" and the like. In the weak hands of the Alcotts individualism ceased to be a sacred burden, save when it showed itself as a vague and vaguer aspiration toward some prettiness still severe in outline, the grim nymph who navigates above the swinging soldiery of the Shaw memorial tablet in Boston's self. This nymph hovered upon shoals of women shuffling and cawing in congresses of the World's Fair in 1893. Here the Titaness of the midlands was hostess to her more restrained sisters of the East and West. The ungainly women of little towns sidled among the gowns of receptions and shyly fingered bows and laces of opulent robes. A gorgeous materialism had made a cavern for voices of the nation and the noises blended in a roar.
Ambrose Bierce had already testified a good memory of obscure French prose by noting in the San Francisco Examiner that applause is the echo of a platitude. The nation now hastened to applaud this prodigiousness of white stucco pinned to iron between Chicago's smoky breast and the blue water. Architects had paid a valiant compliment to the Beaux Arts, and mankind now gaped at studded domes and classicized fronts in the best mood of that school infesting Paris after the reign of the vulgar, useful Baron Haussmann. French tourists shrugged in the dining-room of the Hotel Richelieu. All this had done service at their own exposition of 1889. Could the Americans think of nothing fresher? Why not vast wigwams? But there was a certain cleverness in detail. The columns of the Fisheries Building amused with their capitals of twining eels and lobsters. There was dignity in the mass of the Agricultural Building with its Indian woman leaning on the challenging bull before the entrance. By night Edison's perfected bulbs dripped glitter on the shivering lagoons. Rockets swam across faint stars. The Midway's shows and bands roared wonderfully. Edwin Booth could not give his promised season of Shakespeare, because he died in June, but you could hear the metallic, just soprano of Lillian Russell in La Cigale or shudder as the colonel's daughter of "The Girl I Left behind Me" intoned the Burial Service while Apaches whooped outside the stockade and her father reserved a bullet to save his child from rape an effect which Henry George found most distasteful, for the parent of the single tax could conceive art only as a vehicle for "good and noble" purposes. But George was touched by the Fair. He stood one night with Charles Nolan, watching the crowds of the Midway, and dreamed aloud: the people had done all this! It was "of the people, by the people, for the people!" The lawyer argued: "No, most of the money was subscribed by rich men. The people had nothing to do with designing the buildings." The economist pulled his beard and sighed. Anyhow, the people were enjoying it, and his friend Altgeld would govern Illinois. Perhaps the Kingdom of God was a little nearer. He strolled among the crowds and scandalized a waiter at the Auditorium by demanding for late supper cold stewed tomatoes, sugared, while his host drank champagne. Materialism triumphed around him; Grover Cleveland had offered William Whitney a place in the Cabinet; nobody had protested the sending of troops to Buffalo, last year, to curb the strike in the railroad shops; Edward McGlynn had gone back to the Church of Rome and the reconciliation was announced quietly, after the awful tumults of the priest's excommunication in 1886. But there was hope in Altgeld and the People's Party, even if Cleveland had gone over to capitalism and McGlynn's social criticism would henceforth be limited to the admonitions of a formal creed. The Prophet drifted through the show, shook hands with Mrs. Potter Palmer at the Women's Building into which she had somewhere driven a nail of precious metals, and then he vanished eastward, courting no notice.
But clamour filled the ears of ticket-sellers on the morning of June 22nd. That day all California seemed rushing westward, bound for the funeral of Leland Stanford, whom Henry George had denounced as an able thief. The immense man lay dead in Palo Alto suddenly. He had never been unpopular in his State. The easy casuistry which protected all the railroad-builders had peculiarly worked on his behalf, and he had been genial, truly kind. He tossed gold coin to newsboys on the streets of Washington; his dinners were royal; his stable thrilled sportsmen; he had given the State a complete university in the memory of his only child, and after that criticism swooned into a mere mutter. But no kindness woke in the being of Mrs. Ada Channing Walker, lately landed at San Francisco with her niece after an inspection of Japan. She wrote a denunciation of Stanford, not the financier, but the "winebiber, atheist and horseracer," and sent it by messenger to the Chronicle, which failed to print it. Mrs. Walker persevered and in person visited the offices of journals. Editors were deaf. The man was unburied and flags of San Francisco flew at half-mast for him. Her shamed and frightened niece implored Mrs. Walker to be still and then found an ally in a young Methodist preacher when her aunt decided to attend the funeral and call attention vocally to Stanford's defects. The preacher wrought powerfully and in some way deflected Mrs. Walker's zeal. She took a train for Chicago, and Leland Stanford was buried in peace. . . . He lies with his wife and son in a temple of slick grey stone under the patronage of a superb oak-tree. The tomb is guarded before by two male sphinxes of Semitic aspect and at the rear by two female sphinxes wearing Florentine necklaces. The right-hand sphinx is obviously insane and her eyes glare furiously at a barrier of foliage as if it hid some enemy. Beyond this silent corner of the park, lads with hair bleached by perpetual sunshine swirl in fast motors and profanely flaunt jerseys of cardinal red, as though death and judgment did not matter much.
Besides Mrs. Walker, battalions of the virtuous now appeared at the Fair. Congress after congress for the correction of mankind drew ladies to galleries. Walter Besant, an English writer, described literature as engaged in social tasks with a new sobriety and purpose. There were ripplings and shiverings while E.T. Gerry assured the Purity Congress that prostitution existed in the United States and that abominable practices among Romish choirboys had been rumoured. Susan Anthony and Frances Willard congratulated the new Anti-Saloon League. Celebrities gleamed in frocks with ruffled sleeves at receptions of the Woman's Club. Provincial gentlewomen might stare upon the gowns of Mrs. Potter Palmer or Mrs. Charles Henrotin and then shift their adoration to Mrs. Frances Hodgson Burnett, mother of "Little Lord Fauntleroy" and lately mother of "One I Knew the Best of All" in Scribner's Magazine, a graceful summary of her English childhood which fascinated William James and S. Weir Mitchell but found thin sales with her usual audience. So presently mothers trapped restless offspring and read to them the record of Mrs. Burnett's return to her stall in the sugar market with "Two Little Pilgrims," which tells how two quaint and fanciful children went to the beautiful World's Fair and were adopted by the kindest rich gentleman. Then there was the quiet, dry woman known as "Octave Thanet" who soon would assert that American women in crowds lost their manners. And always there was Frances Willard, whose shrine was in Chicago.
Women celebrated in other capacities might be seen. Amused journalists of New Orleans chatted with their city's leading procuress, who had brought her entire stock, suitably costumed, on a holiday to broaden their minds. And there was the aureate creature of whom Mark Twain lazily remarked that the average man would rather behold her nakedness than Ulysses Grant in his full dress uniform. Indeed, ladies wearing white ribbons besought the Mayor of Chicago to exclude painted women from the Fair's grounds, but uselessly. So in that city, on the night of July 5th, as it slumbered under the doubled protection of Mrs. Palmer and Miss Willard, there came the birth of an American folksong. The agent of a New York bank was roused and brought hastily to room 202 in a packed hotel. The room held a priest, some doctors, a handsome, scared lad from a small town in Iowa who blubbered that the lady just told him she was taking some headache medicine, and the bared body of a wonderful woman stretched on a bed in the muscular torments that follow a dose of strong poison. There was also a purse that enclosed a startling bankbook and some cards. The adolescent knew nothing. She had spoken to him on the Midway at the Fair. They let him go. The priest prayed and the body stirred until dawn. Delicate and just audible, voices filled the room and there came the scents of Jockey Club and heliotrope, the fluttering whisper of laces, the chuckled gossip of "The Black Crook's" dressing-room. . . . Kitty, did y'see Jim Fisk's sleigh with the silver bells yest'day? . . . Say, Kitty, who gave you the house in Twelfth Street? Honest, Kitty, I won't tell! . . . Kitty! Kitty, Ned Stokes shot Jimmy over at the Grand Central an' the p'lice are lookin' for Josie Mansfield! . . . These astral echoes floated over the fair body until it loathsomely stiffened on the bed. And then something slim and exquisite rose in a cloud from the sagging wreck. She stood preening the ruffles and the slanting hat in which Brady photographed her for the delight of bucks along Broadway in 1869. She hitched tighter to the famous ankles her striped Watteau stockings and her feet that once ran bare across bogs in County Glare now tripped in those ridiculous little shoes from which men drank champagne. Outside a misty door Kitty dawdled, a bit scared, uncertain in the gloom pierced by red shadows rolling up from Purgatory, and then a voice ineffably French murmured behind her: "Ma toute belle!" and Kitty turned to beam professionally on a delicious gentleman, smartly groomed once more, whose grin suggested release from some sharp agony. They looked and liked. The gallant blond fellow tucked under one arm a ghostly advance copy of M. Pierre Louys's Songs of Bilitis, not yet published, after turning down the page at . . . "Mon dernier amant, ce sera toi, je le sais. Voici ma bouche, pour laquelle un peuple a pâli de désir. . ." and pretty Kitty went down the ordained steps with Guy de Maupassant chattering tenderly in her ear, and now the ribald sing:
And in New York a balance of more than three hundred thousand dollars acquired by a dancing-girl who didn't dance was split among her Irish kin. She was not yet forty. In Constantine perhaps Pierre Louys was polishing off, "Se peut il que tout soit fini! Je n'ai pas encore vécu cinq fois huit années . . . et déjà voici ce qu'll faut dire: On n'aimera plus . . .
The Fair went on. Mr. John Pierpont Morgan stalked through the palace of Fine Arts and brutally remarked of the French exhibits that they seemed to have been picked by a committee of chambermaids. Indeed, artists were disappointed with the French exhibits, and that disappointment speaks in William Walton's official volume on the Fair's art. Where were the Impressionists? These Monets, Seurats and Renoirs cried up in the magazines weren't to be seen. Mr. Brownell had been describing the new movements in Scribner's, but where were the symptoms of all this fever? Instead, here was the full Academic tone and scope military pieces, the inevitable Madeleine Lemaire, the inescapable Debat-Ponsan, the "Wasp's Nest" of William Bouguereau, lent by Charles Yerkes, a financier who had rightfully succeeded Bouguereau's first American patron, the gambling procurer "Cash" Brown. Mrs. Grace Ralston Lewis escorted party after party of rural folk through the galleries and was disgusted because the Iowans and Kansans would stop to stare at Edwin Weeks' "Last Voyage," a dead Hindu rowed toward the burning ghat, in the American section, when they should have hurried to gaze at the Whistlers and Lord Leighton's "Garden of the Hesperides." She could not interest them in her favourite English painter, Ellen Terry's first husband, who had sent over as a free gift to the United States one of his best pictures. It showed the tanned captain of an Eton crew clad in an apron of misty shadow leading a naked but pretty imbecile up a slope of rock toward nowhere. The picture had already been displayed in America without popularity or comment. It was called "Love and Life." Mrs. Lewis, on her own admission, was then a rather sentimental person, lately wed, and she thought well of "Love and Life," but her guests and visitors weren't enthralled. It wasn't the nudity of Love or Life that annoyed them. They simply didn't care for Art in the rendition of George Frederick Watts. She recalls small outcries before the "Temptation" of Claude Bourgonnier, a very buxom trollop lolling on the shoulder of an addled Saint Anthony, and before Rosset-Granger's "Jetsam," a dead lady wallowing in the backwash of a wave on some Bohemian seashore. But nobody protested "Love and Life."
All through the '80's had risen a discussion of "the nude" that soft, then hard insinuating syllable that nearly rhymes with "lewd." The nude had been denounced by Anthony Comstock and, of course, had been mentioned in his amazing "Traps for the Young." Will Low and Kenyon Cox had written conjointly a defence of the nude in Scribner's, the sounding-box of art in the '90's. At the World's Fair the artists who essayed the nude announced by every concession of windblown drapery, floating vegetable matter and opportune posture that they considered a naked body most obscene. As usual the statues were more daring than the pictures and, as usual, nobody cared. Paul Bartlett's completely naked Ghost Dancer was admired and people merely chuckled over Rudolph Maison's enthusiastically naked Negro bouncing on a donkey. Corn-stock had declared that "nude paintings and statues are the decoration of infamous resorts, and the law-abiding American will never admit them to the sacred confines of his home," forgetting comfortably that the Greek Slave of Hiram Powers had been copied and distributed freely years before and that a statue of George Washington dressed in nothing but a blanket constantly faced the Capitol at Washington. Elbert Hubbard wagered that Comstock would appear at Chicago and make himself heard against the Fine Arts. Comstock lost the bet for the fantastic editor. But another force moved. Mild paragraphs dotted the journals . . . "a powerful organization of ladies" had protested the sending of "Love and Life" to Grover Cleveland. The papers were not specific. The ladies were "members of a society to promote temperance," or "some members of a semi-religious society headed by Miss Frances Willard of Chicago." Incorrect versions blew about. The Young Women's Christian Association was blamed, and so were the suffragists. Excitement broke out in the small artistic quarter of New York. A group of young artists, headed by William Sonntag, went from editor to editor, until James Gordon Bennett of the Herald told them blandly that he had no intention of fighting women and they broke up in discouragement. A pure and enlightened womanhood had won without a struggle.
The World's Fair definitely set afire the suffragists. Without doubt and in spite of some ferocious squabbles, Mrs. Potter Palmer and the Board of Lady Managers had shown great competence. At receptions of the Woman's Club in Chicago there had been a parade of quietly effective professional women Jane Addams, Florence Hunt, Jane Logan and the rest. Suffrage now woke with a roar. Bills to enfranchise women were offered in New York and in other eastern States. There were speeches and canvassings. The Reverend John Buckley implored male voters to respect female moral superiority by making sure that it wouldn't be soiled and degraded by putting a bit of paper in a ballot box. The Honourable George Hoar begged the men to let female moral superiority purify politics by voting. Rebecca Harding Davis remarked in Philadelphia that "silly, superficial arguments" were being used on both sides, and declined to take part. The usual pointless insults were exchanged in drawing-rooms, and the usual number of intelligent gentlewomen were lied to and rebuffed by politicians at Albany. New York showed the excitement at its highest. The campaign faltered along and its written record displays all the reasons why, twenty years later, Inez Milholland remarked: "They raised enemies for themselves in the clubs and whisky distilleries with every breath," for the question of woman's moral superiority constantly took shape as a direct threat of what woman would do to all these barkeepers and rich men's clubs and the like, and in the midst of the mild little tumult a certain Rose Lipschowsky got up on a soap-box in Union Square to say violently: "Why don't all these ladies do something to help the Garment Workers' Union instead of saying how good and refined they are?" She was much applauded, got down from her soap-box and vanishes altogether, an unconscious symbol of what suffrage in the '90's omitted from its speeches and programs. It would be a long time yet before a woman would ask in print: "Are women people?" and it is in character that Alice Duer's career in prose began with the fable of an undecided nymph and a cynical owl. The suffragists of the '90's, if it's fair to quote the words of their representatives, were on another tack. They were not people; they were "women, trained by the essence of our natures to deeds of moral elevation, education and the work of God!" This moral superiority, Frances Willard wrote in 1892, had been a thousand times declared by the mouth of man. And so it had. But one sees curiously little about moral superiority in Constance Cary Harrison's novel, "A Bachelor Maid," written in the winter of 1893 with her customary smoothness. Mrs. Harrison's principal treasure was a hatred of fools. She interrupted work one afternoon to see some callers. One of them, a heavily moral young matron, observed about a girl of good family lately mother of an illegitimate baby: "She's behaved like a woman of the working-class!" Mrs. Harrison mildly gazed at this idiot and mildly drawled: "I believe that illegitimate babies are arranged for in just the same way in all classes, my dear!" and signalled Mrs. William Tod Helmuth to remove this creature from her sight. "A Bachelor Maid" says neither Yes nor No to suffrage. It is competent light satire the professional suffragist of the tale is an ignoble fraud sketched from a specimen that floated close to Mrs. Harrison's hand; there is suitable demonstration that woman's place isn't always the home. This is merely clever journalism and it had no chance of much discussion, for Harper's Magazine was publishing "Trilby."
With "Trilby" there came a sudden exposition of American woman. Du Maurier's drawings had always been published in Harper's and the house had brought out "Peter Ibbetson" in 1891. This second novel began with the January number of 1893 and instantly came storm, cancellations of subscriptions, and an increase of circulation. In June a jeweller produced a scarfpin, Trilby's foot in gold or silver, and women wore the badge. The soul of James McNeill Whistler was riven by Du Maurier's sketch of himself. He protested aloud and the cartoonist let the portrait be suppressed when the novel was published. The critics saw that this was Thackeray in solution, but a craze had begun among women and now comedians in light opera asked each other: "Where's Mamie? . . . Upstairs reading 'Trilby'?" and feet and shoes were suddenly "Trilbies" while ladies in the beginning literary clubs debated Trilby's ethics and clergymen regretted to point out to fashionable parishes that Mr. Du Maurier was no Christian. Harper's Brothers paid royalties on edition after edition. Virgins posed as Trilby in her Greek gown in the tableaux of two winters. A bathsuit, a cigarette, a cigar and a restaurant were named for Du Maurier's marshmallow goddess. Suffrage got tangled with the question of nude art. Trilby had something to do with woman's independence. Saint Gaudens said airily at a male dinner party: "Every other woman you meet thinks she could be an artist's model," and the hunchbacked Paul Leicester Ford wanted to know of the same group: "What would happen to an American if he'd written 'Trilby'?"
The question was unfair. But young John Ford Bemis was just then finding out what happens to an American novel in which conventional religion is mocked no more sharply than Du Maurier had mocked it in "Trilby." He had written on his uncle's farm in Georgia the story of a preacher named John Orme who took to reading history and then collapsed into agnosticism. He was driven from his church and sat enjoying Kant in a hut beside a swamp, after his wife had abandoned him in the name of Christ. She returned as a mob came to lynch him after the tumult of a camp-meeting near by. The pious chased the pair into the swamp and slaughtered them. Their bodies sank into the muck, the symbol of modern religion. All this was told nimbly and discreetly in the manner of Bret Harte. Mr. Bemis sent it to his mother's friend, Frank R. Stockton, for approval. Stockton advised: "You had best get the couple out of the swamp alive, but your conclusion is logical and right." He recommended the book to the Century. Richard Gilder wrote, when returning the manuscript, a kind, long letter explaining that the Century's large domestic circulation wouldn't receive this story placidly. Lippincott's Magazine, able to publish Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray," was afraid of the "religious element" in the American book. For Harper's Weekly, Henry Mills Alden wrote: "Would it not be possible to mitigate the final scenes? Is it strictly necessary that Mrs. Orme should die with her husband? We have so many ladies on the list of our subscribers. . . ." Mr. Bemis came up to fight for his infant. Alden and Charles Dudley Warner were firmly kind. Yes, to be sure, "Trilby" contained agnosticism, an unhappy ending and some harlotry to boot, but Well, Mr. Bemis had an income. His novel could wait. It is dismoded, now, but it had many merits for the day and he retired from letters with that sense of the sewer which will float among American writers for a long time yet, perhaps. He didn't recognize that Paris is the Amneran Heath of the American woman on which anything is likely to happen, and that the legend of a naked woman beside the Seine was safe from that certain censorship of the Titaness.
This question of American woman and letters seems to have been much debated just then and Charles Nolan fell foul of the shrewd Julian Ralph in an argument on a steamer. Ralph assured him that editors were really bothered and often insulted by notes from women and when the lawyer hooted the idea Ralph proved his point by collecting twenty-five specimens of abuse addressed to Harper's, the Century and, it seems, to Lippincott's. Three letters are dated from New York. The rest came from Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. The main topics of objurgation are three. . . . A nice woman has been killed or failed of marrying the right man in some story. Liquor, including beer and claret has been drunk by otherwise respectable people or has been mentioned without assault in an article. The story teaches nothing. In six of these letters the name of Louisa Alcott is cited as a proper writer and to one of them is signed the name of Frances Willard. By way of minor complaint one learns that John Fox's "A Cumberland Vendetta" has ungrammatical passages and contains coarse language unsuited to growing boys, that Lester Raynor's tale of the intriguing Mrs. Deepwater who arranged her dinners by getting in one celebrity to meet another is an insult to "Western womanhood," that it is "disgusting and unmanly" to mention the Pope in an article containing the name of Edward McGlynn, author of "The Pope in Politics," and that the words "breasts," "belly," "damn," "vomit," and "rape" are unfit for Christian women to read. The one attack on "Trilby" is signed by Ada Channing Walker, whose activities were now ending. She had lately discovered that William Whitney was a horse-racer and had written Grover Cleveland to oust him from the Democratic Party without getting satisfaction. So she drew up a document on marriage for her niece, advising her to marry only a man resembling "our precious Saviour, Jesus Christ, in manners and appearance." Unable to do so, from lack of data, the girl mourned her aunt two months and married a sugar broker, six feet three inches long.
A trait binds these letters: they are dated directly on the offence. Emotion took up a pen and wrote on the best paper. There is not a trace of intellectual process. They were annoyed; etiquette had been battered or an opinion expressed that they didn't like. It is the voice of the porch shaded by dusty maples along Grand Avenue in a hundred towns, a resolute violence of the cheapest kind, without breeding, without taste. And there comes, too, a hint of the slow battle between the city and the small town. "You people in New York" are doing thus and so. "I suppose," said Mrs. Janette B. Frobisher, "the society women in New York like to read swear words, but " . . . And yet in Bucyrus, Ohio, a copy of Zola's "Nana" went from soft hand to soft hand until it came back to its owner in the state of a worn Bible and slim fingers stained the pages of a tall "Salammbô" opposite to the plate of Matho squatting with his head against the knees of the Princess, who cried out: "Moloch, thou burnest me!" while the kisses of the warrior, Gustave Flaubert said, seared her body, more biting than flames. However, he was French. From France, too, came the monotone of a querulous oboe, languidly reciting how sure pain was, how fleet light love in Constantine or Nagasaki. He had joined Mrs. Humphry Ward in rejecting the sacraments, but then he mourned so prettily: "O Christ of those who weep, O calm white Virgin, O all adorable myths that nothing will replace, you who make tears to run more gently, you who show your smile at the edge of death's black trench, you alone give courage to live on to childless mothers and sons motherless, be ye blessed! And we who have for ever lost you kiss while weeping the prints left by your tread as it moves from us." So an untidy infant at play in a park owned and managed by a fat squirrel named James G. Blaine concluded that Mr. Loti was a great ladies' man, probably one of those who sometimes sang of their darling Clementine at night behind red nipples of cigars, beside a moonlit cottonwood, rustling over laughter and music of guitars. . . .
But if you were a proper editor, bred in the society of Newark or of Hartford, you did not trifle with the Titaness and for her sake you issued tales of women, by women, for women, in which one discovers the strangest things about that duel of the sexes, a deal discussed in the '90's. It would be fun to know what Sarah Jewett, Agnes Repplier or Margaret Deland thought of stories printed alongside their work. The voice of Louisa Alcott echoes in these tales: Alice Perrine on a trip to Boston found that her betrothed had once tried to kiss the pretty wife of a professor during a dance. He is given no chance to explain. Tears dribbled on a box which takes his ring back to him: Miss Cornwall finds that her lover once wooed a girl who scorned him. The other girl is now very sorry. Miss Cornwall, allegedly fond of her swain, simply packs him off to his former fancy. The gentleman gulps and goes to his doom. Another Miss Cornwall finds her affianced once lived, ten years before, in Rome, with "a woman." He is dispatched to find and marry the girl, and "with bowed head, he faced the long path of his duty." Charles Milton's lungs have sent him to California, orange-growing, and he is very comfortable and prosperous. But his wife yearns for Boston, the scene of her girlhood, and on finding that out he simply sells the orange grove and takes her home, "for he had earned what he owed to her womanhood at last." And again you hear Louisa Alcott in tales of Aunt Semanthy and Cousin Hetty from the country who set the frivolous city folk to rights with advice and chicken broth, flatteries of the farm against the triumphant urban women whose photographs spotted the New York Herald, whose balls were detailed in a dozen journals of widest circulation.
Now too there appeared, sparsely, another fictional flattery of women, often written by men, in which young girls decide the winning of great football matches by sending some player a violet at the right second, in which maidens repel and crush a male animal in high lust by a simple stare of wonder, in which the female principal is risen above romance and becomes an opalescent cloud, dripping odours which had nothing to do with the processes of child-bearing at all . . . and concurrently in Chicago a living lawyer was consulted by a young woman of fashion about a marriage contract in which her husband would pledge himself not to consummate the marriage. He reported this to a friend of his calling in New York, and on March 9, 1898, found that the metropolitan lawyer had already been consulted about a dozen such contracts. A few months before, in England, George Bernard Shaw had inquired whether it was true that American women really liked to be worshipped on false pretences.
Did they? It has been argued that an extraordinary deference to women began in America with the sexual starvation of the colonial time. In 1709 some cynic named E. Lea wrote, on the margin of a "Venice Preserved," that "I did see in New York for 8 years together that any punk may marry her well who had not her calling too rank on her face, so strong the men were to wive." And that phenomenon against prudery occurs in all colonized societies. Scarcity excuses the offerred article. E. Lea's notation simply records the obvious source of innumerable American, Canadian and Australian families. But with the nineteenth century that situation had altered; in the East old maids were plentiful. As the century waned, all the European ills had arrived. Prostitution had increased immensely. Female workers in the industrial centres were abominably paid although associations mostly organized by foreign Jewesses had a little improved the condition in New York and Chicago. The farmer's wife continued to raise welts of muscle along her arms beside the sink and in the garden. In the South, ladies of place smiled as Sphinxes smile when told by Northern tourists that they lacked practical gifts, and went on planning gowns to last three years, writing sketches for newspapers and subtly urging their men out of the stagnation then changing its colours. Everywhere, the schoolteacher starved along on disgusting wages. But for the woman of any means a terrific machine of flatteries had been patented. Her social importance had climbed higher and her since the Civil War and in the following twenty years of rank commerce. There was no longer any talk of hosts in the great cities: social columns announced the acts of hostesses. The men were too busy to bother. The men were too busy to bother with their own homes, and with the '90's they were suddenly informed of woman's power. A spattering foam of satire flecked new comic weeklies Puck, Life, Judge, Truth. Women, is seemed, were bullying husbands and fathers for money so he spent on frocks, French tenors, flowers for actresses and actors. Women were listening to Oriental philosophers and reformers, sitting to expensive painters, running ahead to hunt down titled Europeans, gouging man's eyes out with hatpins, hiding his view of the stage at plays with vast hats, adorning his house with costly gewgaws, making him damned miserable in all ways.
In 1895 the neurologist S. Weir Mitchell wrote so a dead man of his dead wife: "You are entirely responsible for Mrs. . . . 's condition. I say so on your own admissions so the effect that you have accustomed her to spend money on herself and your daughters without stint and men all her demands in the way of entertainment. I am tired of writing letters such as this, for the tendency of American men to leave the management of their homes and families to their wives without advice or supervision is growing malignant in its results. Mrs. . . . now feels herself deeply aggrieved by your interference and her condition is dangerous in the extreme. A meaningless and injudicious deference so her wishes has done the harm . . . I advise a permanent separation." A meaningless deference so the wishes of Mrs. . . . had caused her to tear down a superb Georgian house while her husband was abroad and to order the erection of a French manor in white stone which hideously existed until it happened to burn ten years after the psychiatrist's advice.
Indeed it was a singularity of the Titaness that she had quite succumbed to all exterior ornaments of France and every summer saw her in augmenting swarms as she invaded the world's most successful shop, acquiring stereotyped clothes, furniture, attentions and parasites with that wide-eyed credulity which remains her great excuse and charm. Richard Harding Davis saw her browbeating bandmasters for American tunes, just as he had seen her romping and running races in staid English hotels, and brotherly gave her warning that relatives of a French husband would hold her beauty small and herself no better than the Indian squaw whose voice she possessed, whose dignity she has not yet assumed. But Mamma and the Girls were abroad to see the world, and it was theirs. Europe beheld them jamming past the guardians of secret, obscene galleries in Naples, set there to guard their famed innocence; they aimed cameras at William Hohenzollern, Donatello's simpering David and the Prince of Wales with equal zest. In spring they flooded New York's marmoreal hotels, waving steamer tickets from table to table and threatening to meet each other in London, and autumn saw them home again, radiant in fresh frocks, hats rejected by the prostitutes of Paris as too gaudy for their use. So Charles Dana Gibson portrayed his Mr. Pipp, bullied all across Europe by Mother and the Girls, these last a pair of goddesses, certain of admiration everywhere, miraculously sprung from ugliness. For the American Girl had been invented. The saponaceous New York Herald announced her as "better dressed, better mannered, more lovable and lovelier than any maiden of Europe," and now she glowed in coloured calendars, on the lids of candy boxes and the covers of magazines, more and more vividly as the decade wilted down. There came the Gibson Girl, the Christy Girl, the Gilbert Girl, and the paler, more subtle virgins of Henry Hutt, the slim patrician girls of Albert Wenzell a parade of incredibly handsome, smartly dressed young things without existence anywhere. The beauty of two Englishwomen, Mary Mannering and Julia Marlowe, was set in rings of roses on pasteboard to show Flowers of the American Stage. The exquisite Julia Arthur, a Canadian of Irish parentage, was announced as "the supreme bloom of our national beauty" when she conquered the critics in "A Lady of Quality," which proved that the best way of ending an illicit love is to brain your paramour with a riding-crop. But Paul du Chaillu went hunting across New York for "those women that I see in your newspapers" and seems to have been slightly disappointed in the results of his chase. The commercial worth of these flatteries has been quite forgotten by critics, native and foreign, who have chattered of a feminized society. "In America," wrote Aline Gorren in 1899, "it is the business of the artist, the shopkeeper and the publisher to show vain women an improved photograph of themselves." And to the improvement of that photograph had been added the suppression of all other images. Adept lecturers promulgated the notion of a native literature pruned for the benefit of the virgin and the sedate matron, who were reading Alphonse Daudet's Sapho, D'Annunzio's "Triumph of Death," Rudyard Kipling's "Light That Failed" and "Love o' Women." It could be proved by Hamilton Wright Mabie that Tolstoy's "Resurrection" was admirable and worthy the attention of any lady, but that Stephen Crane's "George's Mother" was "harsh and unnecessarily frank" even after the phrase "for he had known women of the city's painted legions" had been stricken from its third chapter. The Titaness in the garments of Cybele must be placated as the priests of the Great Mother were wont to do. William Winter would lash the playwrights in her behalf and at the first night of "Arizona" Acton Davies would find himself surrounded by a band of ladies denouncing Augustus Thomas for his picture of the sullen, bored officer's wife, tired of the desert, ready to elope with a lover in whom she has no belief. Even Pierre Berton's "Zaza" would be tagged with a last scene showing the strumpet redeemed, successfully regnant as a great actress.
Then, and on March 1, 1900, a version of "Sappho" was produced at the Casino theatre in New York. Clyde Fitch had softened the tale carefully. Fanny Legrand was no longer a woman on the edge of age, hunting a lover, but a goddess, applauded as she came down a staircase, to music, by the guests of the masked ball. Miss Olgo Nethersole, the English actress who appeared as Fanny, had already pained William Winter by kissing actors on the mouth in "Carmen," and now there rose a scandal when she permitted her leading man, an excellent amateur photographer, to lug her bodily up winding steps to a theoretic bedroom at the end of the first act. The curtain fell for a minute, and then Jean Gaussin was shown descending in the light of dawn to a twitter of zinc birds in the wings. Horrible noises ensued. Miss Nethersole was bullied by the press and arraigned in court for indecency. A committee of gentlewomen gathered at the house of Mrs. William Sonntag and hastily wrote a petition to the Mayor of New York stating that "the version of this novel is in no respect obscene and is in fact milder than the novel itself, which has had free circulation in the United States. Miss Nethersole's performance is entirely proper and restrained. . . . It is derogatory of the public intelligence that a celebrated work of art should be altered or expurgated. . . . Since this prosecution has been asked in the name of American women, we find it necessary to protest. The petition was circulated for two days and signed by suffragists, writers and women of the smart world. The prosecution had already become silly. Miss Nethersole was acquitted; the play went on. Ladies stormed the theatre. William Winter was horribly upset. But on April 4th a minor actor in the company received a note from the head mistress of a school for girls in the Hudson valley, requesting him to remove his daughter, a child of eleven, "as several mothers of several students have seen the play in which you are appearing and they cannot consider Margaret a fit companion for their daughters in consequence. . . . "
It is not alleged against the women of the Mauve Decade that they invented cheap cruelty and low social pressures, but they erected these basenesses into virtues by some defensive sense of rectitude, and a generation of sons was reared in the shadow of the Titaness, aware of her power, protected by nothing from her shrill admonitions. Is it matter for such wonder among critics that only satire can describe this American of our time who drifts toward middle age without valour, charm or honour?
(End of chapter.)
To the next chapter
Back to the Mauve Decade menu