The 1860s, that is.
Since I'm in no condition to blog I thought I'd turn things over again to someone who shares my mitochondrial (a.k.a. matrilineal) DNA, my great-grandmother's sister Rebecca Harding Davis. My first excerpt from her memoir, Bits of Gossip, which Houghton Mifflin published in 1904 , is here. That chunk, which I called "A Walk with Nathaniel Hawthorne," is preceded by a bit of background which I won't repeat.
This shorter clip includes a hilarious dining moment-of-truth with Bronson Alcott, as seen in part through the eyes of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Also RHD's musings on the Concord circle as a whole — its moral and philosophical airs and impracticalities, especially as contrasted with the actual Civil War, which she had observed firsthand — and a first encounter with Alcott's daughter Louisa, later of course of Little Women fame.
Note: a "second girl" was "a household domestic in a subordinate position," according to The Rebecca Harding Davis Reader (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995).
I wish I could summon these memorable ghosts before you as I saw them then and afterward. To the eyes of an observer, belonging to the commonplace world, they did not appear precisely as they do in the portraits drawn of them for posterity by their companions, the other Areopagites, who walked and talked with them apart — always apart from humanity.
That was the first peculiarity which struck an outsider in Emerson, Hawthorne, and the other members of the "Atlantic" coterie; that while they thought they were guiding the real world, they stood quite outside of it, and never would see it as it was.
For instance, during the Civil War, they had much to say of it, and all used the same strained high note of exaltation. It was to them "only the shining track," as Lowell calls it, where
. . . "heroes mustered in a gleaming row,
Beautiful evermore, and with the rays
Of morn on their white shields of expectation."
These heroes were their bravest and their best, gone to die for the slave or for their country. They were "the army" to them.
I remember listening during one long summer morning to Louisa Alcott's father as he chanted paeans to the war, the "armed angel which was wakening the nation to a lofty life unknown before."
We were in the little parlor of the Wayside, Mr. Hawthorne's house in Concord. Mr. Alcott stood in front of the fireplace, his long gray hair streaming over his collar, his pale eyes turning quickly from one listener to another to hold them quiet, his hands waving to keep time with rotund sentences which had a stale, familiar ring as if often repeated before. Mr. Emerson stood listening, his head sunk on his breast, with profound submissive attention, but Hawthorne sat astride of a chair, his arms folded on the back, his chin dropped on them, and his laughing, sagacious eyes watching us, full of mockery.
I had just come up from the border where I had seen the actual war; the filthy spewings of it; the political jobbery in Union and Confederate camps; the malignant personal hatreds wearing patriotic masks, and glutted by burning homes and outraged women; the chances in it, well improved on both sides, for brutish men to grow more brutish, and for honorable gentlemen to degenerate into thieves and sots. War may be an armed angel with a mission, but she has the personal habits of the slums. This would-be seer who was talking of it, and the real seer who listened, knew no more of war as it was, than I had done in my cherry-tree when I dreamed of bannered legions of crusaders debouching in the misty fields.
Mr. Hawthorne at last gathered himself up lazily to his feet, and said quietly: "We cannot see that thing at so long a range. Let us go to dinner," and Mr. Alcott suddenly checked the droning flow of his prophecy and quickly led the way to the dining-room.
Early that morning when his lank, gray figure had first appeared at the gate, Mr. Hawthorne said: "Here comes the Sage of Concord. He is anxious to know what kind of human beings come up from the back hills in Virginia. Now I will tell you," his eyes gleaming with fun, "what he will talk to you about. Pears. Yes. You may begin at Plato or the day's news, and he will come around to pears. He is now convinced that a vegetable diet affects both the body and soul, and that pears exercise a more direct and ennobling influence on us than any other vegetable or fruit. Wait. You'll hear presently."
When we went in to dinner, therefore, I was surprised to see the sage eat heartily of the fine sirloin of beef set before us. But with the dessert he began to advocate a vegetable diet and at last announced the spiritual influence of pears, to the great delight of his host, who laughed like a boy and was humored like one by the gentle old man.
Whether Alcott, Emerson, and their disciples discussed pears or the war, their views gave you the same sense of unreality, of having been taken, as Hawthorne said, at too long a range. You heard much sound philosophy and many sublime guesses at the eternal verities; in fact, never were the eternal verities so dissected and pawed over and turned inside out as they were about that time, in Boston, by Margaret Fuller and her successors. But the discussion left you with a vague, uneasy sense that something was lacking, some back-bone of fact. Their theories were like beautiful bubbles blown from a child's pipe, floating overhead, with queer reflections on them of sky and earth and human beings, all in a glow of fairy color and all a little distorted.
Mr. Alcott once showed me an arbor which he had built with great pains and skill for Mr. Emerson to "do his thinking in." It was made of unbarked saplings and boughs, a tiny round temple, two storied, with chambers in which were seats, a desk, etc., all very artistic and complete, except that he had forgotten to make any door. You could look at it and admire it, but nobody could go in or use it. It seemed to me a fitting symbol for this guild of prophets and their scheme of life.
Mr. Alcott at that time was their oracle, appointed and held in authority by Emerson alone. His faith in the old man was so sincere and simple that it was almost painful to see it.
He once told me, "I asked Alcott the other day what he would do when he came to the gate, and St. Peter demanded his ticket. 'What have you to show to justify your right to live?' I said. 'Where is your book, your picture? You have done nothing in the world.' 'No,' he said, 'but somewhere on a hill up there will be Plato and Paul and Socrates talking, and they will say: 'Send Alcott over here, we want him with us.'" "And," said Emerson, gravely shaking his head, "he was right! Alcott was right."
Mr. Alcott was a tall, awkward, kindly old man, absolutely ignorant of the world, but with an obstinate faith in himself which would have befitted a pagan god. Hearing that I was from Virginia, he told me that he owed his education wholly to Virginia planters. He had traveled in his youth as a peddler through the State, and finding how eager he was to learn they would keep him for days in their houses, turning him loose in their libraries.
His own library was full of folios of his manuscripts. He had covered miles of paper with his inspirations, but when I first knew him no publisher had ever put a line of them into print. His house was bleak and bitter cold with poverty, his wife had always worked hard to feed him and his children. In any other town he would have been more respected if he had tried to put his poor carpentering skill to use to support them. But the homelier virtues were not, apparently, in vogue in Concord.
During my first visit to Boston in 1862, I saw at an evening reception a tall, thin young woman standing alone in a corner. She was plainly dressed, and had that watchful, defiant air with which the woman whose youth is slipping away is apt to face the world which has offered no place to her. Presently she came up to me.
"These people may say pleasant things to you," she said abruptly; "but not one of them would have gone to Concord and back to see you, as I did to-day. I went for this gown. It's the only decent one I have. I'm very poor;" and in the next breath she contrived to tell me that she had once taken a place as "second girl." "My name," she added, "is Louisa Alcott."
Now, although we had never met, Louisa Alcott had shown me great kindness in the winter just past, sacrificing a whole day to a tedious work which was to give me pleasure at a time when every hour counted largely to her in her desperate struggle to keep her family from want. The little act was so considerate and fine, that I am still grateful for it, now when I am an old woman, and Louisa Alcott has long been dead. It was as natural for her to do such things as for a pomegranate-tree to bear fruit.