Three Villages – William Dean Howells
In this volume Mr. Howells has collected three short pieces which show his power under various aspects. The pleasantest and in a literary sense the best of the three is the charming paper on ‘Lexington,’ originally contributed to Longman’s Magazine. It is distinguished by that happy faculty of description, that sure artistic eye, and that genial spirit which constitute so much of the fascination of his larger works; flashes of characteristic humor surprise us in its delicate pages; and it has all that strong individual flavor which makes the best writing of Mr. Howells so different from the rest of the good writing which is getting to be abundant in books. The second village in his collection is the Shaker settlement of ‘Shirley.’ If Lexington was a theme for a dainty literary exercise, Shirley served him rather for a plain and sympathetic account of a community which he seems to have regarded with a tender interest. The quiet and simple tone of the paper is in perfect accord with the life it portrays. The story of the Moravian Indian settlement of ‘Gnadenhütten,’ on the Muskingum, and the brutal massacre by which the white frontiersmen blotted it out in 1782, is vigorously told in the last chapter of the book, where Mr. Howells shows his skill in tragic narrative rather than description.
Excerpt from the text:
THE Bostonian spring being more than usually embittered against mankind the year 1882, we left our quarters in town very early, and went to pass the month of May in the pretty and historic village of Lexington. It lies ten or twelve miles inland; it is not only a little beyond the worst of the east wind, but is just a little too far from Boston to be strictly suburban in aspect; and thanks chiefly to an absence of water-power (a clear brown brook, that you may anywhere jump across, idles through the pastures unmolested by a mill-wheel), Lexington has not yet been overtaken by the unpicturesque prosperity which has befallen so many New England villages. It has no manufactures of any sort, neither shoes nor cotton, nor boxes, nor barrels, nor watches, nor furniture; it is still a farming-town, such as you find in the Massachusetts or New Hampshire hills, and is not yet a market-gardening town like those which lie nearer the city. The ancestral meadows are still mown by the great-great-grandchildren of those who cleared them of the primeval forest, and who, having begun to build into fences and bury in the earth the granite bowlders plentifully bestrewing its surface, invented rather than discovered their reluctant fertility. In many parts of New England the Western jokes about sharpening the sheep’s noses for their greater convenience in getting at the herbage between the rocks, and about firing the seed-corn into the ground with a shot-gun, do not seem so grotesquely imaginative. More than once at nightfall, as I drove along country roads, the flocks and herds, lying under the orchard trees, have turned on nearer inspection to companies of bowlders; in the hill towns I have seen stone walls six feet wide, titanic barriers thrown up in the farmer’s despair of otherwise getting rid of the stones scattered over his fields; and these gifts of the glacial period are often interred by the cord in pits dug for the purpose. It is said that the soil thus twice conquered from the wilderness is very rich and strong, and Lexington was by no means so barren originally as some other towns; but its fertility must once have been greater than it now is, or else people must once have been satisfied with less fertility to the acre than contents them at present, for I could not see any agricultural reason why Lexington should first have been known as Cambridge Farms. Doubtless the name did not imply that it was the fittest part of the township for farming; Beverly Farms and Salem Farms and Cambridge Farms must have all been so called because they were hamlets remote from the principal village. At any rate Lexington once formed part of our university town, but was set off long before the revolutionary days in which it achieved a separate celebrity.
In New England the “town” is the township, and there are some “towns” in which there is no village at all; but at Lexington there was early a little grouping of houses; and for two hundred and fifty years the local feeling has been growing more and more intense, until it can be said at last to be now somewhat larger than the place. This is not an uncommon result; as Dr. Holmes has remarked, American cities and villages all like to think of themselves as the “good old” this and that; but at Lexington more than anywhere else out of Italy I felt that the village was to its people the patria. With us the great Republic is repeated and multiplied in several smaller and diminishing republican governments, each subordinate to the larger, all over the land; and ever since its separation from Cambridge, Lexington has, like other New England towns, had its little autonomy. Twice a year the citizens convene and legislate in town meetings; and three Selectmen annually chosen see that the popular will is carried out and transact the whole business of the town government. This microcosm of democracy is the more interesting in Lexington because it is in many things an image of what the New England town was a hundred years ago, — a sufficiently remote antiquity with us. The Irish have their foothold there as everywhere; but they have not acquired much land; and though they remain faithful Catholics, they have Americanized in such degree that it is hard to know some of them from ourselves in their slouching and nasal speech. As for the Canadian French, who abound in the valley of the Connecticut, and in all the factory towns, I saw none of them in Lexington, and there are no Germans.
It is because of the typically New England character of Lexington village, as well as its historical note, that I ask English readers to be interested in it; and as we Americans are some times grieved by our cousins’ imperfect recollection of family troubles, I make haste to remind them that at Lexington the first blood was shed in the war of American Independence. It has a powerful hold upon the American imagination for this reason; it has therefore overloaded the gazetteer with namesakes in every part of the Union, and its celebrity is chief part of the first historical knowledge imparted to American school-boys. But the village has such a charm for me from its actual loveliness and quaintness, that I should be sorry to bring that bloody spectre of the past into the foreground of any picture, and I shall blink it as long as I can.
It was a shrewish afternoon late in April when we arrived from Boston at the odd but very pleasant hotel where we spent our month of May. The season was very dry, and the bare landscape showed scarce a sign of spring. At that time there is usually a half-scared, experimental-looking verdure on our winter-beaten fields; but except where a forlorn hope of grass cowered in some damp hollow, the meadows were now as brown and haggard in aspect as they are when the great snows leave them in mid-March, and they lie gaunt and wasted under a high, vast blue sky, full of an ironical glitter of sunshine. The wind was sharp, and for many weary weeks yet there would be no buds on the elms that creaked overhead along the village street.
Further north, in Maine and Canada, the spring comes with a bound after the thaw; but the region of Boston seems to me the battle-ground of all the seasons when the spring is nominally in possession. On the 18th of May this year we had a soft, sunny morning, which clouded under an east wind; a cold rain set in before noon, with hail; it snowed the greater part of the after noon, and we had an Italian sunset to the singing of the robins. This was excessive; but usually after the first relenting days the winter returns, and whips the fields with sleet and snow, storm after storm; and this martyrdom follows upon a succession of frosts and thaws, which began before Thanksgiving in November. Finally the east wind comes in, fretting the nerves and chilling the marrow, throughout April and May; even when it does not blow it remains in the air, a sentiment of icebergs and freezing sea. It is worst, of course, on the shore, and delicate people who cannot live in it there are sent to Lexington, and thrive. The air is very dry and pure, and that is perhaps the reason why even the east wind is tolerable. Lexington Common, they say, is as high as the top of Bunker Hill Monument in Boston; and the locomotive pants with difficulty up the heavy grade of the road near the village. Perhaps there is something in the grouping of the low hills — in the embrace of which the village lies on an ample plain — that gives it peculiar shelter; it is certain that beyond the eastern range there is practically another climate. This is not saying that the winter is not long and dreary there; the snows lie deep in the hollows of those hills for months, and clog the long street on which the village houses are chiefly set.
Streets branch off from this thoroughfare to the right and left; but it is the newer houses which are built on these, and the more characteristic dwellings, as well as the old-fashioned shops, face the westward road along which Major Pitcairne’s red-coats marched in the early April morning a hundred years ago to destroy the Provincial stores at Concord. Here and there before you reach the village is a large old mansion rambling with successive outhouses a hundred feet back from the road or beside it, all the buildings under one roof, and having a comfortable unity and snugness; but the dwellings in the village are small and very simple, generally of but two stories, and placed each in its separate little plot of ground. Where they pretend to the dignity of mansions, they stand
“Somewhat back from the village street,”
like the old-fashioned country-seat in Longfellow’s poem, and have stately elms and burly maples about them; but they are mostly set close upon the road, as seems to have been everywhere the early custom in New England. They are all of wood, — there are but two brick buildings in Lexington, — and here and there one is still painted saffron, with Paris-green shutters and white window casings, — the color of Longfellow’s house and the other colonial houses in Cambridge. When the paint is not too freshly renewed, they have a suggestion of antiquity which is pleasing and satisfactory in so new a world as ours. There is no attempt at ornamentation in these unassuming houses at Lexington; that is left to the later carpentry which has produced on the intersecting streets various examples, in one story and a half, of the mansard architecture so popular in our wood-built suburbs. There is also at one point of the principal street a wooden “block,” in emulation of the conventional American city block of brick or stone; but otherwise Lexington has escaped the ravages alike of “tasliness” and of enterprise, and is as plain and sober a little town as it was fifty years ago. There are old-fashioned shops in rows, quite different from the “block,” with wooden awnings to shelter their doorways, and with well-gnawed rails and horse-posts before them there is an old tavern dating from the days when all the transportation was by stage and wagon along the good hard roads; there are several churches of a decent and wholesome ugliness; and there are everywhere trees and grass and vines and flowers. The village is conscientiously clean; but except in midsummer the English reader must imagine a bareness impossible in an English hamlet. We have no evergreen vines; the spruces and firs which we plant about our houses only emphasize the nakedness of all the other trees in winter; in the clear, cold air the landscape is as blank and open as a good conscience. The village, when the leaves fall, will be honestly of whatever color it is painted, and its outlines will be as destitute of “atmosphere” as if they were in the moon. There is no soft discoloration of decay in roof or wall; at the best you will have a weather-beaten gray.
Lexington has a High-School house of wood upon the model of a Grecian temple; but the principal public building is the Town Hall, a shapely structure of brick, which has been put up within the last five or six years, and which unites under one roof a hall for town meetings, elections, and all sorts of civic, social, and artistic entertainments, the town offices, and the free town library. The number of books is uncommonly large and exceedingly well chosen, and the collection is the gift of a lady of the place. The library is named after her, but it is piously dedicated in an inscription over the door to the men of Lexington who fell in the first battle with the British in 1775, and in the many fields of our late civil war. Statues of John Hancock and Sam Adams, the patriots who had fled from arrest in Boston, and were in hiding at Lexington the night before the affair of 1775, occupy niches in the rotunda from which the library opens, and confront figures of a provincial Minute-Man and of a national volunteer beside the door. Three days in the week the library is open from one till nine o’clock, and then there is a continual coining and going of the villagers on foot, and the neighboring farmer-folks in buggies and carryalls. I noticed that these frequenters of the library, who thronged the reading-room, and kept the young lady at the desk incessantly busy recording the books they borrowed and returned, were mostly young people and mostly women. The women, in fact, are the miscellaneous readers in our country; they make or leave unmade most literary reputations; and I believe that it is usually by their advice when their work-worn fathers and husbands turn from their newspapers to the doubtful pleasure of a book. This is the case alike in city and country as regards lighter literature; and in small towns these devourers of novels and travels and magazines read so close to the bone, that sometimes being brought personally to book for my intentions in this or that passage, I have preferred to adopt their own interpretations; and when this copy of “Longman’s Magazine” is laid upon the table of the town library at Lexington, I am aware that I shall not be safe from my readers in any tortuous subtlety of phrase, but that they will search me out to the finest meaning of my commas, and the last insinuation of my semicolons. But I have a good conscience and I am not afraid.
Some friends, who compassionated the extremity of an author with an unfinished novel on his hands in the penetrating disquiet of a country hotel, lent me the keys to the Town Hall, and I had the library to myself on the days when it was not open to the public, and wrote there every morning amid the books, and the memorials of Lexington’s great day, and every sort of colonial bric-a-brac. On one side of the door was the gun carried by a Provincial (whose name I read whenever I lifted my eyes from my work, and now marvel that I should have forgotten) during the fight, and which being “brought back from Concord busted,” was thriftily sawed off just short of the fracture and afterwards used by his descendants; on the other side was a musket taken from the body of a British soldier who fell in the retreat; the sign of the old Monroe Tavern, where Earl Percy made his headquarters when he came out to support Major Pitcairne’s men, swung from the ceiling near these trophies; in glass cases on my right were collections of smaller relics, including shot from Percy’s cannon, the tongue of the bell that called the villagers from their slumbers the night before the attack; the pistols, richly chased and mounted, from which Pitcairne fired the first bullet in the war that made us two peoples; the hanger worn by the sexton when he went to light the signal lantern for Paul Revere in the belfry of the Old North Church in Boston, and sent him galloping out on his midnight ride through the sleeping land with the news that the King’s troops had begun their march on Concord; the broadside issued in the British interest, giving an account of the day’s fight with divers shoe-buckles, rings, knives, platters, and profiles cut out of black paper, belonging to the colonial period. No motive of patriotism shall induce me to represent these collections as very rich, or in themselves very interesting, and I am aware that I cannot give them great adventitious importance by grouping them with the rude writing-desk of one of the old Puritan ministers of Lexington, or the foot-stove which one of his congregation probably carried to meeting and warmed his poor feet with while he thawed his imagination at the penal fires painted as the last end of sinners in the sermon; the sincere home-made lantern of a later date, and the spinning-wheel of an uncertain epoch do not commend themselves to me as much more hopeful material for an effective picture. But all the more pathetic from their paucity did I find these few and simple records of the hard, laborious past of the little town, which flowered after a century’s toil and privation into an hour of supreme heroism. For whatever may be the several minds of my readers and myself concerning their right, there can be no question between us that it was sublime for forty unwarlike farmers to stand up and take the fire of six hundred disciplined troops in defence of what they believed their right: it was English to do that, it was American, and these plain martyr-folk were both. I own that I sympathized with the piety that has treasured every relic connected, however remotely, with that time; and that I took an increasing pleasure in showing off the trophies to such comers as tried the library door when nobody had any right there but myself. I was quite master to let them in or not, but I always opened, and waited for them to overcome their polite reluctance to disturb me at my writing. Their questions succeeded upon a proper interval of fidgeting and whispering, and then I confirmed orally all the written statements of the placards on the objects, and found my account in listening to the laudable endeavors of my visitors to connect their family history somehow with them. They were people of all ages and conditions; but they all had these facts by heart, and were proud of them, though with a pride unqualified by any foolish rancor. Most of all they were interested in the portrait of a young and handsome British officer in the uniform of the last century, whose sensitive face looks down from the library wall upon the records of the fight; and when I said that this was a portrait of Earl Percy, who commanded the British artillery, and explained (as I am afraid I have not the right to explain fully here) how it came to be given to a gentleman of Lexington by the present Duke of Northumberland, I elicited nothing but praises of the Earl’s good looks or expressions of satisfaction that his portrait should be there. No one apparently regarded him as out of sympathy with themselves, and I believe indeed that this generous foe acted only as a soldier on that day, and thought the measures used against the Provincials neither wise nor just. One small boy dwelt upon the portrait with delays that passed even the patriotic patience of the cicerone, and left it at last with a sigh of gratified wonder. “And he was a Britisher !” I give his language because, contrary to the experience of English observers among us, I never heard any other American say Britisher; and this small boy was unmistakably of Irish parentage.