CHAPTER FOURTEEN. LEXINGTON AND CONCORD
The one great merit of Walt Whitman is that he lived in America and in the nineteenth century; he did not live in the past; he did not live in Europe; he lived in the present and in the world about him, his home was America, his era was his own.
If we have no national literature, it is because those who write spend the better part of their lives abroad; they may not leave their own firesides, but all their sympathies are elsewhere, all their inspiration is drawn from other lands and other times.
We have very little art, very little architecture, very little music of our own for the same reasons. We have any number of painters, sculptors, composers, but few of them live at home; their sympathies are elsewhere; they seem to have little or nothing in common with their surroundings. Now and then a clear, fresh voice is heard from out of the woods and fields, or over the city's din, speaking with the convincing eloquence of immediate knowledge and first-hand observation; but there are so few of these voices that they do not amount to a chorus, and a national literature means a chorus.
All this will gradually change until some day the preacher will return from Jerusalem, the painter from Paris, the poet from England, the architect from Rome, and the overwhelming problems presented by the unparalleled development and opportunities of America will absorb their attention to the exclusion of all else.
The danger of travel, the danger of learning, the danger of reading, of profound research and extensive observation, lies in the fact that some age, city, or country, some man or coterie of men, may gain too firm a hold, may so absorb the attention and restrict the imagination that the sense of proportion is lost. It requires a level head to withstand the allurements of the past, the fascination of the foreign. Nothing disturbed Shakespeare's equanimity. Neither Stratford nor London bounded his life. On the wings of his imagination he visited the known earth and penetrated beyond the blue skies, he made the universe his home; and yet he was essentially and to the last an Englishman.
When we stopped before "Orchard House" it was desolate and forsaken, and the entrance to the "Hillside Chapel," where the "Concord School of Philosophy and Literature" had its home for nine years, was boarded up.
Parts of the house had been built more than a century and a half when Mrs. Alcott bought it in 1857. In her journal for July, 1858, the author of "Little Women" records, "Went into the new house and began to settle. Father is happy; mother glad to be at rest; Anna is in bliss with her gentle John; and May busy over her pictures. I have plans simmering, but must sweep and dust and wash my dishpans a while longer till I see my way."
Meanwhile the little women paper and decorate the walls, May in her enthusiasm filling panels and every vacant place with birds and flowers and mottoes in old English.
"August. Much company to see the new house. All seem to be glad that the wandering family is anchored at last. We won't move again for twenty years" (prophetic soul to name the period so exactly) "if I can help it. The old people need an abiding place, and now that death and love have taken two of us away, I can, I hope, soon manage to take care of the remaining four."
It is one of the ironies of fate that the fame of Bronson Alcott should hang upon that of his gifted daughter. It was not until she made her great success with "Little Women" in 1868 that the outside world began to take a vivid interest in the father. From that time his lectures and conversations began to pay; he was seized anew with the desire to publish, and from 1868 until the beginning of his illness in 1882 he printed or reprinted nearly his entire works, - some eight or ten volumes; it is no disparagement to the kindly old philosopher that his books were bought mainly on the success of his daughter's.
The Summer School of Philosophy was the last ambitious attempt of a spirit that had been struggling for half a century to teach mankind.
The small chapel of plain, unpainted boards, nestling among the trees on the hillside, has not been opened since 1888. It stands a pathetic memento to a vision. Twenty years ago the "school" was an overshadowing reality, - to-day it is a memory, a minor incident in the progress of thought, a passing phase in intellectual development. Many eminent men lectured there, and the scope of the work is by no means indicated by the humble building which remains; but, while strong in conversation and in the expression of his own views, Alcott was not cut out for a leader. All reports indicate that he had a wonderful facility in the off-hand expression of abstruse thought, but he had no faculty whatsoever for so ordering and systematizing his thoughts as to furnish explosive material for belligerent followers; the intellectual ammunition he put up was not in the convenient form of cartridges, nor even in kegs or barrels, but just poured out on the ground, where it disintegrated before it could be used.
Leaning on the gate that bright, warm, summer afternoon, it was not difficult to picture the venerable, white-haired philosopher seated by the doorstep arguing eloquently with some congenial visitor, or chatting with his daughter. One could almost see a small throng of serious men and women wending their way up the still plainly marked path to the chapel, and catch the measured tones of the lecturer as he expounded theories too recondite for this practical age and generation.
Philosophy is the sarcophagus of truth; and most systems of philosophy are like the pyramids, - impressive piles of useless intellectual masonry, erected at prodigious cost of time and labor to secrete from mankind the truth.