American Thumbprints by Kate Stephens



There was never in any age more money
stirring, nor never more stir to get money.

                                      "The Great Frost of January, 1608"

Women have seldom sufficient serious employment to silence their feelings: a round of little cares, or vain pursuits, frittering away all strength of mind and organs, they become naturally only objects of sense.

                                      MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT

You have too much respect upon the world:
They lose it that do buy it with much care.


THE Big Muddy built the fertile regions near its course. Dropping in warm low tides mellow soil gathered from upper lands, it pushed the flood of the sea farther and farther to the south. Non palma sine pulvere has been the song of its waters--no green will grow here without my mould.

It was at its wonder-work those millions of suns ago when the tiny three-toed horse browsed among the grasses of what is now Kansas. Its great years can be measured only by the dial of God. All the monstrosities of the eld of its birth it has survived, and like a knowing, sentient thing--a thinking, feeling thing--it has been expanding and contracting, doubling up and straightening out its tawny body, each one of its numberless centuries pushing its uncounted mouths farther toward the submerged mountains of the Antilles.

In its thaumaturgy it formed vast prairies and rolling lands. Upon its gently-packed earth forests shot up. Subterranean streams jetted limpid springs, which joined and grew to rivers open to the light of day. Above the heavens were broad and the horizon far away--as far as you outlook at sea when sky and earth melt to a gray, and you stand wondering where the bar of heaven begins and where the restless waters below.

Indians, autochthons, or, perchance, wanderers from Iberia, or Babylon, were here. Then white men came to the flat brown lands, and that they brought wives showed they meant to stay and build a commonwealth. The two raised hearth-stones for their family, and barns for herds and flocks. They marked off fields and knotted them with fruit trees, and blanketed them with growing wheat, and embossed them in days of ripeness with haystacks such as the race of giants long since foregone might have built. In their rich cornfields they set up shocks which leaned wearily with their weight of golden kernels, or stood torn and troubled by cattle nosing for the sugary pulp. Such works their heaven saw and to-day sees, their air above entirely bright, beading and sparkling in its inverted cup through every moment of sunshine.

Over this land and its constant people icy northers, victorious in elemental conflicts far above the Rockies, rush swirling and sweeping. They snap tense, sapless branches and roll dried leaves and other ghosts of dead summer before their force. They pile their snows in the angles of the rail fence and upon the southern banks of ravines, and whistle for warmth through the key-holes and under the shrunken doors of farm-houses.

But winds and snows disappear, and again life leaps into pasture-land. A yellow light glowing between branches foreruns the green on brown stalk and tree. The meadow-lark lifts his buoyant note in the air, and the farmer clears his field and manures his furrow with sleepy bonfires and the ashes of dead stalks. Earth springs to vital show in slender grasses and rose-red verbena, and the pale canary of the bastard indigo.

In this great folkland of the Big Muddy, which is beyond praise in the ordinary phrase of men, there live alongside many other types, a peculiar man and woman. They are--to repeat, for clearness' sake--only two of many types there indwelling, for it is true of these parts as was said of England in 1755: "You see more people in the roads than in all Europe, and more uneasy countenances than are to be found in the world besides."

The man is seen in all our longitudes; the woman is rarely in any other milieu. She is a product of her city and town. The women of the country have ever before them queryings of the facts of life, the great lessons and slow processes of nature, the depth and feeling of country dwelling. But this city-woman suffers from shallowness and warp through her unknowledge of nature and the unsympathy with fellow humans that protection in bourgeois comfort engenders. She is inexperienced in the instructive adventure of the rich and the instructive suffering of the poor. The basis of her life is conventional.

The dollar to her eyes is apt to measure every value. Let us not forget that in the history of the world this is no new estimate. It was the ancient Sabine poet who advised "make money--honestly if we can, if not, dishonestly--only, make money." "This is the money-got mechanic age," cried Ben Jonson in Elizabeth's day. And the poet of the "Elegy written in a Country Churchyard" more than one hundred and fifty years ago wrote to his friend Wharton: "It is a foolish Thing that one can't only not live as one pleases, but where and with whom one pleases, without Money. . . . Money is Liberty, and I fear money is Friendship too and Society, and almost every external Blessing."

Lacking simplicity this woman is submerged in artificiality and false conceptions of life values. Her hair, often blondined and curled in fluffy ringlets, is filleted with gold-mounted combs above a countenance fine-featured and a trifle hardened. Her well-formed hands, even in daily comings and goings, are flashing with rings. She loves to turn the precious stones and watch them divide the light. These jewels are her first expression of accumulating wealth--these and the pelts of animals difficult to capture, and therefore costly. After obtaining these insignia of opulence she begins to long for a third--the gentle, inept riot and solitary Phorcides's eye for seeing life which she calls "society."

The voice is an unconscious index of one's spiritual tone; hers is metallic. At times it is deep, with a masculine note and force. The gift of flexible English speech, belonging to her by the right of inheritance of every American--she is at times of the old American stock, but more often of foreign-born parents,--she is apt to wrap in stereotyped phrases or newspaper slang. In her bustling life, formed, stamped, and endowed in spirit by an iron-grooved, commercial world, she gives little consideration to use of the greatest of all instruments and the mightiest of all arts. She has not the instinct of attention to her mother tongue which marks women of fine breeding.

The best thing made by man--good books--she has little love for. The newspaper and to-day's flimsy novel of adventure stand in their stead. There were times when her reading had the illuminating calm of Milton's "Penseroso" and the buoyant freshness of Shakespeare's comedies. But that was when the rosy morning of her life stood on the mountain-top of school-girl idealism and looked not at things near by, but afar--a period not long when compared to the jaded vacuity of later years.

To this shapely woman a writer is presented as "the highest paid lady-writer in the world." The highest paid! Where, then, is literature, O Milton, with thy ten pounds for "Paradise Lost," and eight more from Printer Simmons to thy widow! Where, O immortal writer of the simplicities of Wakefield, apprenticed in thy poverty to Publisher Newberry! Where, then, singer and gauger Robert Burns! "Learning," says Thomas Fuller, in his "Holy States," "learning hath gained most by those books by which the printers have lost."

This woman is fair and seemly. When you look upon her you think how full of strength and well-knit is her body. You foresee her the mother of strong and supple children. She is graceful as she moves--a result of her freedom and a sign of her strength--and she is mistress of the occasion always. In this domination (the right of the domina) she has, even when unmarried and as early as in her teens, the poise and solidity of the matron. She scorns your supposition that she is not informed in every worldly line, and that the wavering hesitancy of the one who does not know could be hers. She rarely blushes, and is therefore a negative witness to Swift's hard-cut apophthegm--

"A virtue but at second-hand;
They blush because they understand."

Although conventional, she is often uninstructed in petty distinctions and laws which of late more and more growingly have manacled the hands, fettered the feet, and dwarfed the folk of our democracy; and which threaten that plasticity which, it is claimed, is the great characteristic of life. "It is quite possible," says Clifford in his "Conditions of Mental Development" "for conventional rules of action and conventional habits of thought to get such power that progress is impossible. . . . In the face of such danger it is not right to be proper."

Secretly our St. Louis neighbor, like most women, subjects herself to

                      "the chill dread sneer
Conventional, the abject fear
Of form-transgressing freedom."

Openly she often passes it by and remarks, rocking her chair a trifle uneasily, that she is as good as anybody else. For some unspoken reason you never ask her if every one else is as good as she. You recall what de Tocqueville wrote eighty years ago: "If I were asked to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of that [American] people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply--to the superiority of their women."

Of all so-called civilized women, she makes the greatest variation in her treatment of those of her own and those of the other sex. Toward women she is apt to be dull, splenetic, outspoken about what she esteems the faults of others. Even the weaknesses of her husband she analyzes to their friends--herein is a fertile source of divorce. Toward women, you observe, she is apt to be metallic, rattling, and uncharitable, or possibly over-social, relieving the peccant humors of her mind and attitudinizing upon what she esteems a man's estimate of women--to please the sex she is not of. To men she is pert, flippant, witty, caustic, rapid, graceful, and gay. At times she amuses them and herself by slurring upon other women. She seems to leave it to the man to establish the spirit upon which the two shall meet; and by deft hand and turn and movement she is constantly suggesting her eternal variation from him. The woman is always chaste. It follows that marriages are many.

A not uncommon fruit of marriage vows is an application for divorce, which she estimates with such levity and mental smack that you would hesitate to bring a young girl to her presence.

"Has she applied, do you know?"

"Oh! they've separated. "

"On what grounds is she going to get it?"

"If she isn't careful she'll lose her case by seeing him too often."

These are a few of many such sentences heard from her lips in public places.

Nothing higher than what an ordinary civil contract seeks seems to be sought in her marital affairs. She undoes the decree of old Pope Innocent III., to whom is ascribed the ordination of marriage as a function of his church and the claim of its sanctified indissolubility. In the light of her action marriage is truly and purely a civil contract, and devoid of that grace, resignation, forbearance, patience, tenderness, sweetness, and calm which make it truly religious.

She is strong, she is hopeful, she is ardent. She knows herself and her power--that it is of the flesh which aims at prettiness. The divine beauty of spirit in the countenance she does not know. In her midst Fra Angelico would find few sitters. Her religion, commonly that which in other ages passed from a propulsive, burning spirit to frozen formalism, is the crystallized precept of theologue and priest, the fundamental ecstasy and informing soul having long since departed. If she had a real religion she could not be what she is.

Those questions of our day that shove their gaunt visages into sympathetic minds she has little knowledge of, and little of that curiosity which leads to knowledge. The fashion of her gown and the weekly relays at the theatre are nearer to her heart, and to her thinking touch her more personally, than the moral miasmata and physical typhoids of her neighboring Poverty Flat. Both pests the adjustment of her household relations brings within her door. For her dwelling is commonly domesticked by dusky shapes upon whom also the real things of life sit lightly, to whom permanence and serious thought and work are rare. Their engagement is by the week, like that of pitiful vaudeville associates, and their performance as surpassingly shallow. They come upon their stage of work, veneer their little task with clever sleight of hand, and roll off to the supine inertness and inanity of their cabin.

This woman has therefore in her hands no feeling of the real relation and friendship that grow between mistress and maid who live the joys and sorrows of years together. By the less fortunate themselves, as well as by her own shallow skimming, her sympathies with the less fortunate are dwarfed. She looks upon her domestic as a serving sub-human animal, infinitely below herself, tolerated because of its menial performance, and barely possessed of the soul which her ecclesiastical tradition says is in every human form. In this deflection of her moral sense, can the hand of secular justice be punishing the wrong-doing of past centuries--the bringing in putrid slave-ships the captured, dazed, Eden-minded, animal-man--"the blameless Ethiopian"--to our shores?

She is born of fine material. When her nature is awry it is because of lack of right incentive. Old measures and life estimates are absurd to her quick senses, and none of the best of our modern values are put in their place. Her creed is wholly at variance with the facts of life to-day. If substantial instruction had entered the formative period of her life, there would have been no substance to project the darker parts of her shadow. Her nature is now ill-formed because of the misdirection of its elemental forces. She knows the tenor of her empire, and in truth and secretly she wonders how long her reign will endure.

"And therefore," says Aristotle, in his Politics, "women and children must be trained by education with an eye to the state, if the virtues of either of them are supposed to make any difference in the virtue of the state. And they must make a difference, for children grow up to be citizens, and half the persons in a state are women."

Abiding beside this overdressed woman is an underdressed man. His first striking quality is a certain sweet-natured patience a result of his optimistic dwelling in the future. Not content with the present, and having forgotten the values of present-day simple life, he lives in a future of fictitious money values. "All human power," he thinks, with Balzac, "is a compound of time and patience. Powerful beings will and wait." He knows his power and he waits.

"It's going to be worth a good deal."

"In a few years, that'll be a good thing."

"Fifteen years from now it'll sell for ten times its present value."

People have called him deficient in imagination. Not since the old greeks have there been such ideal seekers upon this golden nugget of our solar system which we call the earth; nor since the old Hellenes has there been such an idealistic people as that of which he is a part. In Elizabeth's time, indeed, there was imaginative vigor similar to his. Then as now they were holding the earth in their hands and standing on the stars to view it as it whirled.

Instead of turning his fertile thought toward art or literature, he bends it first of all to material things. Schemes for developing land, for dredging rivers, for turning forests into lumber or railway ties, for putting up sky-scrapers facing four avenues; schemes for building and controlling transcontinental railways and interoceanic fleets; schemes for raising wheat by the million bushels and fattening cattle by hundreds of thousands; schemes for compressing air, gas, cotton, beef; for domestic and foreign mining; for, irrigation; for oil borings--he brings his dynamic energy and resourcefulness to the evolution of all things but the human who is to be yoked to work out his plan.

In theory he is democratic and humane for the future, after his interests in dividends shall have ceased. But his reckless exploiting of human life for the present, now growing more and more common by means of impersonal agents, is distinctly at war with our foundation, democratic ideas which hold one man's life as good as another's and which made his existence possible.

An essentially material basis of life turns his natural idealism into practical values and activities. He is an ideal practician, or rather a practical idealist.

His unnatural attitude toward to-day--that is, his futurity--and his inconsiderateness for to-day's sunshine, put him in a false position, which bears the fruit of self-consciousness. Nature is not self-conscious. The primal man was not self-conscious. Self-consciousness implies pain; it means that a fellow-being is not at one with his surroundings; that extraneous, false, or hostile things are pushing him from his native status. If his pain, whether physical or spiritual, is eased, morbidness disappears.

In this man's self-conscious habit he jumps at once to the conclusion that if you do not like his town you do not like him. Your taste is a personal affront. There is no logical connection, but he has a certain "defect of heat" which Dean Swift avers lies in men of the Anglo-Saxon type. The cordiality and open-handedness with which he first met you wanes. That he has one of the best of hearts, and one of the strongest of heads, you are sure. He inwardly has the same faith. He knows it as Achilles knew his own strength, and the knowledge gives him sometimes the leonine front which the son of silver-footed Thetis boasted. But your not recognizing the superiority of his physical and spiritual environment over all the world causes an irritation deeper than the epidermis--to the nerve-centres, in fact.

"What do you think!" he laughed, shaking burlily and plunging hands in pockets. "What do you think! The other day in Washington I met an Englishman, and when I told him the United States was the best country in the world, and the State I lived in the best State in the best country, and the town I lived in the best town in the best State, and the block my office was in the best block in the best town, and my office the best office in the best block----"

"And you the best man in the best office", I interjected, to which he laughed a hearty affirmative.

"What do you think he said? Why, `Comfohtaable, awh! comfohtaable!' I told him it was comfortable,--damned comfortable."

This very Englishman, with that condescension of manner which at times we see foreigners assume, declared such mental individualization to be purely American. Vanity, audacity, and self-appreciation exist among all peoples, and even from the banks of the Isis we hear how the late Dr. Jowett averred, "I am the Master of Baliol College; Baliol is the first college in Oxford; Oxford is the first city in England; England is the first country in the world."

United with the feeling of personal worth and independence in this citizen by the Big Muddy is, paradoxically, another characteristic--namely, a great tolerance. He could hardly expect tolerance himself if he did not extend it to another who may have opinions diametrically opposed to his own, is probably his attitude of mind. He is in his way a sort of embodiment of the spirit of our national constitution.

But this largess of broad tolerance leaves him lacking a gift of the discriminating or critical judgment. The sense or feeling of quality--that which measures accurately spiritual and artistic values--his very breadth and practical largeness, his democracy, allow no growth to. A sensitive discrimination, the power of differentiation, is no natural endowment, but a result of training, mental elimination, comparison, association, and a dwelling in inherent spiritual values.

Through his worth and capacity in other directions he would have this quality if he "had time" and seclusion for thought. But his life makes it possible for an explosive and heated talker, a mouther of platitudinous phrase, to stand cheek by jowl in his esteem with a seer of elevation and limpid thoughtfulness. His estimate of even lighter publicities is tinctured by this defect--the theatrical, for instance, where a verdant girl, lavishing upon her ambition for the stage the money she inherited from a father's patent syrup or pills, and an actress of genius and experience fall in his mind in the same category because a theatrical syndicate has equally advertised each.

What the result to politics of this indiscriminating and non-sagacious judgment, this lack of feeling for finer lines in character--mark, peculiar nature, as Plato means when he uses the word in the Phædrus--would be hard to estimate.

Although for the most part a private citizen absorbed in his own affairs, the holder of an office has to him a peculiar glamour. He is apt to fall into the thinking lines of writers of nameless editorials, who, forgetful of their own hidden effulgence, fillip at quiet folk as "parochial celebrities" and "small deer." And yet he knows that he lives in an age of réclame, and that by the expenditure of a few dollars in direct or indirect advertisement a name may be set before more people than our forefathers numbered on the first Independence Day.

In his midst is a certain publicity of spirit, and in his estimation work undertaken in the sight of men is of a higher order than that done in the privacy of one's closet. The active life is everything; the contemplative, nothing. Talking is better than writing--it so easily gives opportunity for the aggressive personality. For a young woman looking to support herself he advocated type-writing in a public office in preference to the retirement of nursery governess. When the girl drew back with the dread of publicity which results from the retired life of women, he exclaimed, "It's all a question of whether you've got the courage to take the higher thing."

If he is a fruit of self-cultivation, he enjoys talking of the viridity of his growth as well as these now purpler days. During early struggles he may have undergone suffering and privation. In that event, if his nature is narrow and hard, he has become narrower and harder, and his presence, like Quilp's, shrivels and deadens every accretion save his interest. But when he is of the better sort of soil, adversity discovers the true metal, and misfortune gives him a sympathy, depth, and tenderness that charm you to all defects. You would migrate to his neighborhood to live in the light of his genial warmth. You think of the beautiful encomium Menelaus pronounced upon Patroclus--"He knew how to be kind to all men."

Beyond all, he is open-eyed and open-eared. And above all he is affirmative; never negative. His intuition tells him it is affirmation that builds, and that Bacon says right--"it is the peculiar trait of the human intellect to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives."

"Why do people buy and read such fool stuff as `Treasure Island'? I can't see."

"They read it for its story of adventure, and for its rare way of telling the story," I ventured, in answer.

"They read it for its style."

"Style! Gemini! Style! I should smile! I can write a better book than that myself!. "

"Then it might pay you as a business venture to set yourself about it."

"It's by a man named Stevenson, and he's written other stories. Are they all as bad?"

Strange he should make such a criticism of Louis Stevenson, in literature pronouncedly the successful man. For success in the abstract, and successful men and women in the concrete the word success is here used in its vulgar, popular sense, in reference to material advancement, not to ethical or spiritual development--he worships. Success is a chief god in his pantheon,--to have returns greater than one's effort or worth deserve. Yet he believes with the author of Lorna Doone, "the excess of price over value is the true test of success in life." None of us would think of saying Shakespeare was a success; or Milton; or John Brown; or Martin Luther. But Pope, with his clever money-making, we might call a success, as did Swift in 1728: "God bless you, whose great genius has not so transported you as to leave you to the constancy of mankind, for wealth is liberty, and liberty is a blessing fittest for a philosopher"

The means to end, the processes by which the successful issue of a matter is gained, our neighbor of St. Louis tells you with a smile not to be finikin about. Many who have had success have not been. Look at all history, from Abraham to Joe Smith and Cecil Rhodes and many of our millionaires. He himself is not, he declares, but his acts often contradict his assertion. So long as a man, or a woman, "gets there," it does not matter much how. "Work through a corporation or trust," he tells you, and smiling at you with honest eyes, adds, "A corporation can do things the individual man would not." The one who succeeds is the model; he is to be envied; he is the ideal the ancients sought--the happy man. Pass by noblesse oblige, human heartedness, elevation that would not stoop to exploit human labor, human need, and human sacrifice--that is, as corporations pass these qualities by.

In short, let us, in fact, and not by legend alone, have the character formerly ascribed by average English folk to the Yankee.

Assumption of excellence, he knows, goes far toward persuading people that you have it. There is not so great difference in people after all, this democrat believes. When one has every material privilege that will allow him to assume, that will hedge and fence his assumption about, he is pretty apt to succeed, he thinks, and be cried up as a man of extraordinary virtue, of taste, of attainment. In any success, commonly so-called, he asks little of the great marks by which a man should be judged. "He has done this." "He has got that." "He is clever," he says. He rarely cries, "He is honest." "He is true."

Marriage he is not so apt as the brilliant woman beside him to consider impermanent. This is wholly a result of convention, for women, by their very nature and the conditions of married life, cling more closely to the permanence of the union.

In marital relations he has more liberty. When she asks him if she may, or in her phrase "can," do so and so, and in rehearsing the matter says he "let her," he accepts her homage and the servile status she voluntarily assumes. You exclaim that men for many centuries have been apt to do this. Entirely, if offered him by such an enchantress.

"If she be small, slight-natured, miserable,
How shall men grow?"

Toward women, with all his subtlety, he is possessed of a certain naïveté, which renders him a most agreeable companion, and much at the mercy of such associates.

On an express leaving St. Louis at nine of the morning and headed toward the East, two of these men were one day riding. A stretch of level land, encrusted in snow and flooded with sunshine glowing warm and yellow three weeks after the winter solstice, lengthened the way. By three in the afternoon the sight of the passengers was strained from the pulsation of the train, and reading gave place to lassitude.

"Say," yawned one of the men, "do you think marriage is a failure?"

"Failure! failure!" answered the other. "The biggest kind of a success! Failure! Holy smoke! Why I've just married my third wife. Failure! It beats electric lights all hollow."

"I don' know," answered the questioner, dyspeptically. "I don' know. I go home every week or ten days. My wife isn't glad to see me. I'm going home now. She won't be glad. They think more of you when you're not home so much."

"Whee-u-u-u," whistled number two.

With a holiday on his hands no man is more awkward. The secret of giving himself to enjoyment he does not know. His relaxation takes crudest form. Holiday enjoyment means in many cases sowing money in barbaric fashion, in every thinkable triviality that entails expense. That which he has bent every nerve toward getting, for which he has grown prematurely careworn, the possession of which vulgar philosophy counts the summa summarium of life, this he must scatter broadcast, not in the real things of art and literature and bettering the condition of the less fortunate, but in sordid pleasure and vacuous rushing hither and yon. It is his way of showing superiority to the cub who has not the money-making faculty, or who holds different ideas of the value of living. Upon such merrymaking he has been known to indulge in Homeric laughter over his own excess, and in tones heralds used in the days of Agamemnon. Physically he breathes deeper and is broader chested than many men; he has more voice, and he puts it out the top of the throat.

To watch the purple dog-tooth violet push up through dead leaves in March; to listen in his fragrant, sunlit spring to the song of the thrush or the delectable yearning of the mourning-dove; to know the quivering windflowers that freshen soil under oak and hickory--all this is to him as the yellow primrose to Peter Bell. There is no pleasure without an end--that end being money.

The blooded mare in his stable needs exercise and he likes not another to drive her lest she lose response to his voice and hand. But it is really a bore to drive; what interest is there in sitting in a wagon and going round and round? He must be doing something. He forgets the retaliation nature takes upon grooves in human life and that discountenancing of innocent pleasures is the first step toward dementia paralytica and the end of interest in his fair and buoyant world. He will probably die suddenly in middle age, for he is too extreme in expenditure of himself, and too small an eater of the honey of life. Honey-eaters have terrene permanence.

This man and woman are not disproportionate neighbors. What will be their record to the reading of Prince Posterity?

The lands that border the Big Muddy have more of the old American spirit than the extreme East. The proportions of the old American blood are there greater than upon the sea-coast, where Europeans of a tradition far different from the ideals and enthusiasms of our early comers have dropped and settled, and in such numbers that they can and do knit their old mental and social habits into a garment which is impervious to true American influences.

Our old American teachings!--for instance, the estimate of the greatness of work, the dignity of labor of any sort whatever--that, it was once claimed, was a great reason our republic existed to demonstrate to the world the dignity of work, of bodily exertion directed to some economic purpose, to produce use, adapt material things to living. "That citizen who lives without labor, verily how evil a man!"--Argus politeis keinos, hos kakos g'aneir, and such sentiments as this of Euripides dominated our democracy.

But in our eastern sea-coast cities, what with the development of an idle, moneyed class, and the settling down of millions of immigrants, the European conception of work's inherent ignobleness has grown to strong hold.

"Work is not a disgrace, but lack of work is a disgrace," Ergon d'ouden oneidos, aergin de t'oneidos. And Hesiod's words hold to the present day among genuine Americans.

Possibly with the great Middle West and its infinite "go," optimism, and constructive breadth, and with such men and women as these types by the Big Muddy, the preservation of Americanism really lies--but it must be with their greater spiritualization and greater moral elevation for the future.

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