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Chapter 10: a chapter about myself

If I may sum up in one term the leading bent of my life, I will simply call myself a student. Dr. Howe used to say of me: ‘Mrs. Howe is not a great reader, but she always studies.’

Albeit my intellectual pursuits have always been such as to task my mind, I cannot boast that I have acquired much in the way of technical erudition. I have only drawn from history and philosophy some understanding of human life, some lessons in the value of thought for thought's sake, and, above all, a sense of the dignity of character above every other dignity. Goethe chose well for his motto the words:—

‘Die Zeit ist mein Vormachtniss, mein Acker ist die Zeit.’ ‘Time is my inheritance; time is my estate.’

But I may choose this for mine:—

‘I have followed the great masters with my heart.’

The first writer of importance with whom I made acquaintance after leaving school was Gibbon, whose ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman [206] Empire’ occupied me during one entire winter. I have already mentioned my early familiarity with the French and Italian languages. In these respective literatures I read the works which in those days were usually commended to young women. These were, in French, Lamartine's poems and travels, Chateaubriand's ‘Atala’ and ‘Rene,’ Racine's tragedies, Moliere's comedies; in Italian, Metastasio, Tasso, Alfieri's dramas and autobiography. Under dear Dr. Cogswell's tuition, I read Schiller's plays and prose writings with delight. In later years, Goethe, Herder, Jean Paul Richter, were added to my repertory. I read Dante with Felice Foresti, and such works of Sand and Balzac as were allowed within my reach. I had early acquired some knowledge of Latin, and in later life found great pleasure in reading the essays and Tusculan dissertations of Cicero. The view of ethics represented in these writings sometimes appeared to me of higher tone than the current morality of Christendom, and I rejoiced in the thought that, even in the Rome of the pre-Christian Caesars, God had not left himself without a witness.

This enlarged notion of the ethical history of mankind might easily lead one in life's novitiate to underestimate the comparative value of the usually accepted traditions. I confess that I, personally, did not escape this error, which I have [207] seen largely prevalent among studious people of my own time.

Who can say what joy there is in the rehabilitation of human nature, which is one essential condition of the liberal Christian faith? I had been trained to think that all mankind were by nature low, vile, and wicked. Only a chosen few, by a rare and difficult spiritual operation, could be rescued from the doom of a perpetual dwelling with the enemies of God, a perpetual participation in the torments ‘prepared for them from the beginning of the world.’ The rapture of this new freedom, of this enlarged brotherhood, which made all men akin to the Divine Father of all, every religion, however ignorant, the expression of a sincere and availing worship, might well produce in a neophyte an exhilaration bordering upon ecstasy. The exclusive doctrine which had made Christianity, and special forms of it, the only way of spiritual redemption, now appeared to me to commend itself as little to human reason as to human affection. I felt that we could not rightly honor our dear Christ by immolating at his shrine the souls of myriads of our fellows born under the widely diverse influences which could not be thought of as existing unwilled by the supreme Providence.

Antichrist was once a term of consummate reproach, often applied by zealous Protestants to [208] their arch enemy, the Pope of Rome. As will be imagined, I intend a different use of it, and have chosen the term to express the opposition which has sprung up within the Christian church, not only to the worship of the son as a divine being, but even to the notion of his long undisputed preeminence in wisdom, goodness, and power. And here, as I once said that I had taken German in the natural way, with no preconceived notion of the import and importance of German literature, so I may say that I first received Christianity in the way natural to one of my birth and education. I have since been called upon to confront the topic in many ways. Swedenborg's theory of the divine man, Parker's preaching, the Boston Radical Club, Frank Abbot's depreciating comparison of Jesus with Socrates,—after following unfoldings of this wonderful panorama, I must say that the earliest view is that which I hold to most, that, namely, of the heavenly Being whose presence was beneficence, whose word was judgment whose brief career on earth ended in a sacrifice, whose purity and pathos have had much to do with the redemption of the human race from barbarism and the rule of the animal passions.

During the first score of years of my married life, I resided for the most part at South Boston. This remoteness from city life insured to me a good deal of quiet leisure, much of which I [209] devoted to my favorite pursuits. It was in these days that I turned to my almost forgotten Latin, and read the ‘Aeneid’ and the histories of Livy and Tacitus. At a later date my brother gave me Orelli's edition of Horace, and I soon came to delight much in that quasi-Hellenic Roman. I remember especially the odes which my brother pointed out to me as his favorites. These were: ‘Maecenas atavis edite regibus;’ ‘Quis desiderio sit pudor aut modus;’ ‘O fons Bandusiae;’ and, above all, ‘Exegi monumentum sere perennius.’

With no pretensions to correct scholarship, I yet enjoyed these Latin studies quite intensely. They were so much in my mind that, when we sat down to our two o'clock dinner, my husband would sometimes ask: ‘Have you got those elephants over the river yet?’ alluding to Hannibal and the Punic war.

Prior to these Latin studies, I read a good deal in Swedenborg, and was much fascinated by his theories of spiritual life. I remember ‘Heaven and Hell,’ ‘Divine Love and Wisdom,’ and ‘Conjugal Love’ as the writings which interested me most; but the cumbrous symbolism of his Bible interpretation finally shut my mind against further entertainment of so fanciful a guest. Hegel was for some time my study among the German philosophers. After some severe struggling with his [210] extraordinary diction, I became convinced that the obscurity of his style was intentional, and left him in some indignation. The deep things of philosophy are difficult enough when treated by one who desires to make them clear. Where the intention is rather to mask than to unfold the meaning which is in the master's mind, interpretation is difficult and hazardous. Hegel's own saying about his lectures is well known: ‘One only of my pupils understood me, and he misunderstood me.’

George Bancroft, the historian, spoke of Hegel as a man of weak character, and Dr. Francis Lieber, who had been under his instruction, had the same opinion of him. In the days of the Napoleonic invasion of Germany, Lieber had gone into the field, with other young men of the university. When, recovered from a severe wound, he took his place again among the students of philosophy, Hegel before beginning the day's lecture cried: ‘Let all those fools who went out against the French depart from this class.’

I think that I must have had by nature an especial sensitiveness to language, as the following trifling narration will show. I was perhaps twelve years old when Rev. James Richmond, who had studied in Germany, dining at my father's house, spoke of one of his German professors who was wont, as the prelude to his exercise, to exclaim: [211] ‘Aus, aus, ihr Fremden.’ These words meant nothing to me then, but when, eight years later, I mastered the German tongue, I recalled them perfectly, and understood their meaning.

One of my first efforts, after my return from Europe in 1851, was to acquaint myself with the ‘Philosophie Positive’ of Auguste Comte. This was in accordance with the advice of my friend, Horace Wallace, who, indeed, lent me the first volume of the work. The synoptical view of the sciences therein presented revealed to me an entirely new aspect of thought.

I did not, for a moment, adopt Comte's views of religion, neither did I at all agree in his wholesale condemnation of metaphysics, which appeared to me self-contradictory, his own system involving metaphysical distinctions as much, perhaps, as any other. On the other hand, the objectivism of his point of view brought a new element into my too concentrated habit of thought. I deemed myself already too old, being about thirty years of age, to conquer the difficulties of the higher mathematics, and of the several sciences in which these play so important a part. But I had had a bird's-eye view of this wonderful region of the natural sciences, and this, I think, never passed quite out of my mind. I used to talk about the books with Parker, who read everything worth reading. They had not greatly appealed to him. I also, at [212] this time, read Hegel's ‘Aesthetik,’ and endeavored to read his ‘Logik,’ which I borrowed from Parker, and which he pronounced ‘so crabbed as to be scarcely worth enucleating.’

I cannot remember what it was which, soon after this time, led me to the study of Spinoza. I followed this with great interest, and became for a time almost intoxicated with the originality and beauty of his thoughts. While still under his influence I spoke of him to Mr. Bancroft as ‘der unentbehrliche,’ the indispensable Spinoza. He demurred at this, acknowledged Spinoza's analysis of the passions to be admirable, but assured me that Kant alone deserved to be called ‘indispensable;’ and this dictum of his made me resolve to become at once a student of the ‘Critique of Pure Reason.’

I found this at first rather dry, after the glowing and daring flights of Spinoza, but I soon learned to hold the philosopher of Konigsberg in great affection and esteem. I have read extensively in his writings, even in his minor treatises, and having attained some conception of his system, was inclined to say with Romeo: ‘Here I set up my everlasting rest.’

I devoted some of the best years of my life to these studies, and to the writings which grew out of them. I remember one summer at my Valley near Newport, in which I felt that I had read and [213] written quite as much as was profitable. ‘I must go outside of my own thoughts, I must do something for some one,’ I said to myself. Just then the teacher of my sister's children broke out with malarial fever. She was staying with my sister at a farmhouse near by. The call to assist in nursing her was very welcome, and when I was thanked for my services I could truly say that I had been glad of the opportunity of rendering them for my own sake.

The Kantian volumes occupied me for many months, even years. In fact, I have never gone beyond them. A new philosophy has sometimes appeared to me like a new disease. If we have found our master, and are satisfied with him, what need have we of starting again, to make the same journey with a new guide. Once we have got there, it seems better to abide.

The early years of my married life interposed a barrier between my literary dreams and their realization. Those years brought me much to learn and much to do.

The burden of housekeeping was new to me, a sister of mine, highly gifted in this respect, having charged herself with its duties so long as we were ‘girls together.’ I accordingly found myself lamentably deficient in household skill and knowledge. I endeavored to apply myself to the remedying of these defects, but with indifferent [214] success. I was by nature far from observant, and often passed through a room without much notion of its condition or contents, my thoughts being intent on other matters. The period, too, was one of transition as regards household service. The old-time American servants were no longer to be obtained. The Irish girls who supplied their place were for the most part ignorant and untrained, their performance calling for a discipline and instruction which I, never having received, was quite unable to give them.

During the first years of my residence at the Institution for the Blind, Dr. Howe delighted in inviting his friends to weekly dinners, which cost me many unhappy hours. My want of training and of forethought often caused me to forget some very important item of the repast. My husband's eldest sister, who lived with us, and who had held the reins of the housekeeping until my arrival, was averse to company, and usually absented herself on the days of the dinner parties. In her absence, I often did not know where to look for various articles which were requisite and necessary. I remember one dinner for which I had relied upon a form of ice as the principal feature of the dessert. The company was of the best, and I desired that the feast should correspond with it. The ice, which had been ordered from town, did not appear. I did my best to conceal my chagrin, [215] but was scarcely consoled when the missing refreshment was found, the next morning, in a snowbank near our door, where the messenger had deposited it without word or comment. The same mischance might, indeed does sometimes happen at this later date. I should laugh at it now, but then I almost wept over it. Our kitchen and diningroom were on one floor, and a convenient slide allowed dishes to be passed from one room to the other. On a certain occasion, my sister being with me, I asked her whether my dinner had gone off well enough. ‘Oh yes,’ she replied; ‘only the slide was left open, and through it I saw the cook buttering the venison.’

I especially remember one summer which I resolved to devote to the study of cookery, for which there was then no school, and no teacher to be had at will. Having purchased Miss Catherine Beecher's Cook-book, I devoted some weeks to an experimental following of its recipes, with no satisfactory result. A little later, my husband secured the services of a very competent housekeeper, and my distresses and responsibilities were much diminished. After some years of this indulgence, I felt bound to make a second and more strenuous effort at housekeeping, and succeeded much better than before, having by this time managed to learn something of the nature and needs of household machinery. [216]

As I now regard these matters, I would say to every young girl, rich or poor, gifted or dull: ‘Learn to make a home, and learn this in the days in which learning is easy. Cultivate a habit of vigilance and forethought. With a reasonable amount of intelligence, a woman should be able to carry on the management of a household, and should yet have time for art and literature in some sort.’

In more recent years, having been called upon to take part in a public discussion regarding the compatibility of domestic with literary occupation, I endeavored to formulate the results of my own experience as follows:—

If you have at your command three hours per diem, you may study art, literature, and philosophy, not as they are studied professionally, but in the degree involved in general culture.

If you have but one hour in every day, read philosophy, or learn foreign languages, living or dead.

If you can command only fifteen or twenty minutes, read the Bible with the best commentaries, and daily a verse or two of the best poetry.

As I write this, I recall the piteous image of two wrecks of women, Americans and wives of Americans, who severally poured out their sorrows to me, saying that the preparation of ‘three square meals a day,’ the washing, baking, sewing, [217] and child-bearing, had filled the measure of their days and exceeded that of their strength: ‘And yet,’ each said, ‘I wanted the Greek and Latin and college course as much as any one could wish for it.’

But surely, no love of intellectual pursuits should lead any of us to disparage and neglect the household gifts and graces. A house is a kingdom in little, and its queen, if she is faithful, gentle, and wise, is a sovereign indeed.

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