The Vacation Of The Kelwyns – William Dean Howells
‘The Vacation of the Kelwyns’ was written at the time of his greatest literary activity but for purely personal reasons was denied publication by him during his lifetime. The exquisite delineation of the New England character, as affected by the Shaker faith, and the delicate love story set against the quaint rural background, will undoubtedly rank this with the most distinguished of Mr. Howells’ works.
The Vacation Of The Kelwyns.
Excerpt from the text:
Kelwyn’s salary as a lecturer in the post-graduate courses would not have been enough for his family to live upon; but his wife had some money of her own, and this with his salary enabled them to maintain themselves upon the scale of refined frugality which was the rule in the university town, and to indulge, now and then, a guarded hospitality. Like the other university people, they spent their whole income on their living, except the sum which Kelwyn paid for his life insurance. They kept two maids, and had, in common with four other university families, the use of one undivided one-fifth of a man, who took care of their furnace and shoveled the snow off their paths in winter, and cut their grass in the spring and fall; in the summer when they were away they let the grass tangle at will.
Mrs. Kelwyn passed this season largely in a terror of moths, especially the hairy sort called buffalo-bugs, which began to introduce themselves by that name at the date of our story. In dreams and in many a fearful reverie she saw them gorging themselves upon her carpets and furniture and blankets and all her other woolens, and treating the camphor the things were put up in as an agreeable condiment. She was, in fact, a New England housekeeper of the most exacting sort, with a conscience that gave those she loved very little peace, in its manifold scruples, anxieties, and premonitions. She was so far in the divine confidence as to be able to prophesy events with much precision, especially disastrous events, and especially disastrous events which her husband thought would not come to pass. In this, as in other things, she was entirely devoted to him and to their children; to hear her talk you would suppose there was a multitude of them.
She pampered Kelwyn and flattered him, and she did what she could to make him believe that because he had, after many years as a post-graduate student, become a post-graduate lecturer, he was something different from other men, and merited attention from destiny. He was really a very well-read and careful scholar in his department of Historical Sociology, with no thought of applying his science to his own life or conduct. In person, he was not tall, but he was very straight; he carried himself with a sort of unintentional pomp, and walked with short, stiff steps. He was rather dim behind the spectacles he wore; but he was very pleasant when he spoke, and his mind was not as dry as his voice; when pushed to the wall he was capable of a joke; in fact, he had a good deal of ancestral Yankee humor which he commonly repressed, but which came out in the stress put upon him by his wife’s requisitions in hypothetical cases of principle and practice. He suffered at times from indigestion; but he was indefatigably industrious, and had thought the blond hair thin on his head in places; he wore a reddish mustache.
He was either not quite so tall as his wife, or he looked not quite so tall, because of her skirts, and her aquiline profile; she seemed always to have him in charge when they were together, which made him appear smaller still; they were both of about the same blondness, though hers tended rather more to dust color.
Kelwyn’s father had been first a farm boy, and then a country merchant, who reserved him for an intellectual career; and his career since he first entered school had been as purely intellectual as if he had been detached from the soil by generations of culture and affluence. His associations had always been with nice people, in college and afterward; he liked that sort, and they liked him, for Kelwyn was a pleasant fellow, and was noticeably a gentleman, if not a gentleman by birth. In America society does not insist that one shall be a gentleman by birth; that is generally impossible; but it insists that he shall be intelligent and refined, and have the right sort of social instincts; and then it yields him an acceptance which ignores any embarrassing facts in his origin, and asks nothing but that he shall ignore them too. Kelwyn did this so completely that he never thought of them. His father and mother were now dead, and he had been an only child, so that he had not even a duty to the past. All his duties were to the present, and they were so agreeable that he could easily discharge them with conscience and credit. In a day when people were just beginning to look into sociology, and most people were still regarding it as the driest branch on the tree of knowledge, he made it one of the most important of the post-graduate courses at the university. The students liked him, and they took such a gratifying interest in their work under him that some of them had a habit, which he encouraged, of coming to talk with him about it at his house out of hours. He made them very welcome in his library, and even offered to offer them cigars, which they refused out of regard to Kelwyn’s not smoking himself; and when one of them would begin, ” Do you think, Mr. Kelwyn,” and then go on to ask him some question on one of his favorite points in the morning’s lecture, Kelwyn would feel that his office was a very high one, and could not be magnified too much.
His wife often wished that the faculty and the board of overseers could know the influence he had with the students; but, in fact, Kelwyn’s usefulness was well known to them, and his promotion to an under-professorship in the body of the university was only a question of time. He was respected outside of the university as well as in it. In politics he was a reformer, and he was faithful in a good deal of committee work, when his college work alone was killing him, as Mrs. Kelwyn said more than once. She herself did not shirk a share in the local charities, and she would have done more in that way, if she had not felt that Mr. Kelwyn and the children had the first claim upon her.
ROBUST health would not have been in keeping with Kelwyn’s vocation or circumstances; but his digestion was not so delicate as Mrs. Kelwyn believed when she took him every summer away from, the well-netted comfort of his study (they had wire nettings at every door and window of the house, and even over the tops of the chimneys, for it had been found that mosquitoes sometimes got in down the fines) and set him unnetted amid the insects of the open country. She had thought a great deal about the best places to go to, and she had gone to a great many places, each better in prospect and worse in retrospect than the other, but sufficing, for the time, to hold Kelwyn from his books, and give him what she called a rest; he felt it as an anguish of longing to get back to his work. They had not as yet imagined having a country house of their own, such as nearly everybody of their condition has now; even the summer shell was little known in the early eighteen-seventies, and the cheap and simple cottages of the better sort common in our day were undreamed of. Like other nice families of their circumstance and acquaintance, thirty or thirty-five years ago, the Kelwyns engaged board during the winter at some farm-house in the Massachusetts or New Hampshire hill country, going up to look at the place on a mild day of the January thaw, and settling themselves in it early in June. Their understanding would be for good beds and plain country fare, with plenty of milk and eggs and berries; and they would get mattresses of excelsior faced on one side with refuse wool; and premature beef and tardy lamb, with last year’s potatoes, and no leaf of the contemporary vegetation till far into July. Kelwyn himself had a respite from all this during commencement week, when he went home and slept in his own dwelling, taking his meals at the nearest boarding-house, where they had the spring fruits and vegetables, tender steak, and cream such as never appeared upon the unstinted milk of the farm.
Mrs. Kelwyn’s ideal was a place where there were no other boarders, and where they could have their meals at a table of their own, apart from the farmer’s family; but even when she could realize this it was not in the perfection that her nerves demanded. If she made Kelwyn take all the rooms in the house, still there was some nook where the farmer’s wife contrived to stow a boarder who ate with the farm family, or a visiting friend who woke the Kelwyns at dawn with the plaint of the parlor organ; the rest of the day they had the sole use of the parlor, and could keep the organ pacified. The farmer’s wife imagined that she had fulfilled the agreement for a private table when she had put everything on it at once, and shut the Kelwyns in to take care of themselves. After the first relay of griddle cakes she expected them to come out to the kitchen for the next; and to get hot water from the kettle and cold water from the pump, as they needed either. Kelwyn did not mind this so much as his wife, who minded it chiefly for his sake as wholly out of keeping with the dignity of a university lecturer; for it fell to him mostly to do these things.
In the last place she had so often undergone the hardship of making Kelwyn hurry out untimely in the morning to fill the wash-pitcher, forgotten overnight by the hostess, that she was quite disheartened, and came home in the fall feeling that she must give up the notion of farm board thereafter, and try to find some small hotel not too public and not too expensive for them. The winter passed and the spring was well advanced, and still they had not found just such a hotel as they wanted, though they had asked among all the nice people they knew, and Kelwyn had looked several of the places up. He would have been willing to try another farm-house, and still more willing to pass the summer in town, under his own well-shaded roof; but Mrs. Kelwyn was not willing to do either, and he was by no means resting from his search, but merely rejoicing in a little respite, when one day he received a very odd visit.
This visit was paid him by a quaintly dressed old man, who said he was an Elder of the people called Shakers, and that he had come to Kelwyn because of some account he had read of the kind of work he was doing in the university, and had thought he would be pleased, in his quality of lecturer on Historical Sociology, to know something of the social experiment of the Shakers. It presently appeared that he had counted so much upon Kelwyn’s interest in it as to believe that he might make it the theme of a lecture, and he had come with a little printed tract on the Shaker life and doctrine which he had written himself, and which he now gave Kelwyn with the hope, very politely expressed, that it might be useful to him in the preparation of his lectures. The whole affair was to Kelwyn’s mind so full of a sweet innocence that he felt it invited the most delicate handling on his part, and he used all the niceness he was master of in thanking the old man for his pamphlet, without giving him the expectation that he would really treat of Shakerism before the students of his post-graduate course. Inwardly he was filled with amusement at the notion of his august science stooping to inquire into such a lowly experiment as that of those rustic communists; but outwardly he treated it with grave deference, and said that he should have the greatest pleasure in reading the pamphlet of the Elder. He was curious enough to ask some questions about the Family to which his visitor belonged, and then about the general conditions of Shakerism. It amused him again when his visitor answered, from a steadfast faith in its doctrine, that his sect was everywhere in decay, and that his own Family was now a community of aging men and women, and must soon die out unless it was recruited from the world outside. He seemed to feel that he had a mission to the gentler phases of this world, and he did not conceal that he had come with some hope that if the character of Shakerism could be truly set forth to such cultivated youth as must attend Kelwyn’s lectures, considerable accessions from their number might follow. The worst thing in the present condition of Shakerism, he said, was that the community was obliged to violate the very law of its social being, for the brethren were too feeble to work in the fields themselves, and were forced to employ hireling labor. Kelwyn learned from his willing avowals that they had some thousands of acres which they could only let grow up in forests for the crops of timber they would finally yield, and that it was not easy always to find tenants for the farms they had to let. He spoke of one farm which would be given, with one of the Family dwellings, to a suitable tenant at a rent so ridiculously low that Kelwyn said, with a laugh, if the Shakers would furnish the house, though twenty-five rooms were rather more than his family needed, he did not know but he might take the farm himself for the summer. He went into a little history of their experience of farm board and the defeat of their aspirations for a house that they could control without putting the care of housekeeping upon his wife; and he ended by confessing that at the present moment they were without any prospects whatever for the summer.