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LV. American love of home.

It is common to say that love of home does not exist in America — that it is not a supposable quality in a nation founded on immigration, and only kept contented by constant migration. Nothing is easier than to misunderstand people, even whole races at a time. We insist on saying that Frenchmen, for instance, have no love of their home because they call it chez moi, forgetting that this moi identifies the abode with its proprietor far more unequivocally than the English word. You may speak of some one else as also having a home, but chez moi can belong to the speaker alone. So in regard to the selection of a place where to fix one's abode; we all assume that every Frenchman wishes to live in Paris, when in truth almost every Frenchman, if born in the country, dreams always of retiring to a little estate of his own, where for the rest of his life he may patrol the woods in long gaiters, and occasionally shoot at a cock-sparrow. We all observe this home-loving spirit in the French Canadians, who are perhaps [282] more thoroughly French than anybody left in France.

Now this dream which exists in the transatlantic mind is to be found also in the migrating Americans. The country boy who has come to the city and made his fortune ends in buying back the paternal farm he once hated, and in turning it into a country-seat. Many villages of the Atlantic States are already surrounded with showy houses that are, to all intents and purposes, ancestral estates, representing the old settlers several degrees removed. There are, no doubt, some variations in the style of living, but the whirligig of fashion has in many ways brought round the later generation to the habits of the earlier. The first settlers had uncarpeted floors, so have their descendants; the founders drove about in two-wheeled carts, so do their posterity; the earlier residents slept on hard mattresses, so do the later ones. The very houses must be colonial — with a difference-and their occupants wander about the country to buy eight-day clocks and spinning-wheels. Every such household vindicates the American love of home. We all like to live for at least a portion of the year at our birthplace, and we like to emulate the style in which our ancestors lived — with a few improvements. The town libraries, for example, which are springing up in every village of the Eastern States, are specimens of these [283] improvements; and they are built, half the time, at the expense of some native of the town who may not have set eyes upon it for many years. Nay, the instinct lasts into the next generation; and Mrs. Leighton tells us that children born on the Pacific coast often speak of the unseen Atlantic region as “home.”

It is to be observed that in these cases of reverting to the early haunts the old house is not always piously preserved, as is so frequently the case in Europe. No American can help being charmed with the ancestral homes of England; there are so few instances in this country of the permanence of a homestead through many generations. Some such there are: in the rural parts of Essex County, Massachusetts, there are farms that have stood for two hundred years under the same family name; and I lived at Newport, Rhode Island, opposite an estate which had never passed by a deed, but was still held by the old Indian title, and was occupied by the fifth or sixth generation of the original stock. But when one thinks of the tremendous price that is paid in England for this permanence — of the unjust and often cruel working of that practice of primogeniture by which it is secured, and of that sea of houseless poverty that is seething all around it — to say nothing of the incidental result attributed to primogeniture by Dr. Johnson, that it made but one fool [284] in a family--one may well be glad that we do not have the possession secured here in the same way.

And much of the attraction that draws Americans to England is this same love of home, bidding them explore a still older home. For this they endure temporary exile from their real abode, and bear as patiently as possible that rather childish social structure which still dominates the English world. Sometimes, indeed, by long residence, Americans come to enjoy tills structure, as dwellers in Switzerland come actually to like those high-flavored cheeses that are at first so repulsive. Many a man, too, as Wendell Phillips used to say, is a democrat only because he was not born a nobleman; and it is observed that when one speaks of the delights of living in Europe, he never imagines himself to be living there in the same way as here; the life must be a perpetual holiday with large outlay and no duties to anybody; without that, one might as well be in New York. So the young American girl, however moderate her claims at home, stipulates for nothing less than a ducal palace in England; let her marry an English business man, and she will soon find whether she likes it better than life in America. At least I knew a young girl who tried it, and she soon found herself undergoing so many real or fancied slights because her husband was “only in trade” [285] that she was soon glad to bring him back to this side of the Atlantic.

Again, it is to be remembered that we cannot get back to our old home by merely crossing the ocean for it; it has changed, even as our old homes in this country have changed, and perhaps more than they. The London of to-day is not even that of Dickens and Thackeray, much less that of Milton and Defoe; nor is the Paris of to-day that of Petrarch, which he described (in 1333) as the most dirty and ill-smelling town he had ever visited, Avignon alone excepted. Already we have to search laboriously for old things and old ways, as the traveller in Switzerland searches for the vanished costumes, such as the Swiss dolls wear. Already we have to go farther East for the old and the poetic; and find even Japan sending us back our own patterns a little Orientalized. The only unchanged past is in literature and in our fancy. It is in the books that most set us thinking-Emerson's “Nature” and Thoreau's “Walden,” for instance — that we really come back to our birthplace and re-enter the atmosphere of home.

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1333 AD (1)
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