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The Prime of Life

ISSUE:  Summer 1933

Iam still in what is optimistically called the prime of life, yet as I look back over the changes in environment through which my generation and I have passed I seem to be peering into depths of time more like four and a half centuries than four and a half decades. Sometimes I think we are like those deep-sea fishes which Mr. Beebe’s dredges have brought to the surface near Bermuda and I wonder why our eyes do not pop out and our body cells explode. Sometimes, dallying with another figure of speech, I think an archeologist, digging and chipping away at our souls, would find layer after layer of distinct civilizations, separated by what would appear to him to be many feet of slowly-accumulated dust and debris.

My own three civilizations are typified for me by three communities in which I happen to have lived—one in Vermont, which I shall call Centerville; one in California, which I shall call the Santa Rita Valley; and one in New York, which I shall call New York City. I can detect few resemblances among these communities, except that all three were —and I believe still are—inhabited by human beings.

Centerville, I think, had its roots deep in the Protestant Reformation, though some of the finer fibres went far back into medieval and even ancient times. A Roman of the Republic, even a Swiss lake-dweller of the prehistoric period or a Pueblo Indian in the era of the Conquistadores, would have understood the rationale of Centerville after he had had a few minor details explained to him. On the other hand, a modern New Yorker would not. Santa Rita is harder to place. Sometimes it seems to have belonged to an infinite golden past, sometimes to a fugitive future, that might have happened but did not and never will. New York is now, whatever Now may be.

I review the first two of these communities from the long perspective of the third. I sit in mid-Manhattan, conscious of the total abolition of Nature in and around this man-infested island, aware of ten million fiercely competing human wills, and I remember the people going to church on a summer Sunday morning in Centerville, and the rattle of carriage wheels along the avenue of palms from the village of Santa Rita to the university campus, and I wonder, like the old lady in the nursery rhyme, if this be I. Like the rest of the ten million I adapt myself, I go hunting in this man-invented wilderness for my food, I digest, I sleep, I am a true citizen of this year and place. And yet, how far a cry . . . 1


Our house stood about half a mile south of the village. It must have been more than a century old when we lived in it. The road which ran past it had once been a main stage route, and this sprawling old structure an inn on that route. Upstairs, in a large room, in my time kept carefully locked, the patrons of the inn had once danced, to the music of fiddlers seated on a platform at one end. We could see the platform and some of the room by applying our eyes to the keyhole. I used to wonder why dancing had been right in the days when the house was an inn and had since become wrong. It had—well-behaved young people didn’t dance in Centerville when I was a boy there. Above the old ballroom was an attic, in which were trunks so old and battered that I am positive they contained such things as hoop-skirts, blue coats with brass buttons, perhaps even Colonial knee-breeches and Martha Washington gowns. There was an old spinning-wheel—not kept as a relic but with the notion that it might come in handy some day.

The house was heated in my time by coal stoves—if heated is quite the word to use—but sometimes when the parlor stove was taken down in the spring we were allowed to poke our heads into the old fireplace which it ordinarily concealed and look up through the chimney to the sky. Fireplaces had gone out because they weren’t as efficient as stoves; they hadn’t yet been reintroduced because they were picturesque. Our house was lighted by kerosene lamps, though whale-oil and candles were fresh in the memories of old people. It had no running water; we carried water in buckets from the well outside. Necessarily there was no “modern plumbing” —there was none in that whole village. Nor did any house have central heating. There were a number of families that were better off than mine and a number that were worse off; the former had plushier furniture and deeper-piled carpets, the latter had smaller houses and had to get along with furniture which would now be considered priceless by the antique dealers; but in point of modern conveniences we were all about on the same level. There were none. We were worse off in that respect than the inhabitants of Augustan Rome.

The old stage road had had a good deal of work done on it during the century of its existence, but it was still of the sort that would be indicated by a dotted line, if indicated at all, on a modern automobile map. In summer, after a dry spell, I remember it as a cool sensation to the toes, when we ran barefoot along it in the dusk; after a rain it was inches deep in mud. Along its ruts the farmers clattered to town.

There came a day when an automobile—or rather a horseless carriage—puffed like an exhausted porpoise past our house. I ran shouting from the back yard just in time to see it go by, then dashed excitedly into the kitchen to tell my mother. But that was toward the end. During most of my boyhood in that village the horse reigned unchallenged. The meadows were rich with hay. How sweet they smelled after the clacking mowing machines had done their work, how thrilling it was to climb into the barn lofts and jump into the fragrant mass, like divers into the sea. The hay barns of Centerville, I am told, are well-nigh empty now. Can a tractor or a flivver eat hay?

Our village had its little stores and its churches, just as it does to this day. It had horse sheds, where the farmers tied their nags when they came to town. It had an old blacksmith shop, where Jim Marvin swung a lusty hammer and sometimes paused to tell small boys anecdotes about his heroic exploits in the Civil War. It had a creamery, a saw-mill, a grist-mill, a cheese factory, and a box factory; all these, except the first, are gone now. The granite-cutting sheds were an industrial episode that lasted only a few years, and now they are gone, too, they and their Scotch and Italian cutters and polishers. Twice a day a train went out over the branch line, twice a day a train arrived. One of the engines was a bell-stacked affair which might have figured at the driving of the last spike on the Union Pacific; it ate up wood by the cord. Two of the stores had telephones; there were no others in town. Of the mechanical sort of recreation which is one of the glories of modern civilization there was, of course, almost none. The theatre was represented by an occasional Uncle Tom show, a travelling “ten-twenty-thirty” company, or a patent-medicine outfit. I had seen motion pictures, introduced as a novelty in a cheap vaudeville program, before I left the village.

Only a few years before my time the village must have been almost self-sufficient, producing its own food, grinding its own flour, sawing its own lumber; not many decades before that it probably wove its own cloth. The spirit of these primitive conditions survived; at heart Centerville still stood alone, squarely on its own feet, independent, rich in personalities. I have never read a description of medieval towns or manors without sensing that Centerville was nearer to them than it was to any similar community of the present day. I find it hard to convey the essential self-sufficiency of that village; to make a contemporary reader who did not live in that time or in such a community realize how seldom its natives strayed beyond its boundaries, how great an adventure it was to go even to the State Capital, twelve miles away, with what romance a boy might inflate a carriage ride of ten or fifteen miles to Mirror Lake, how foreign a town that distance away might seem to him.

I know only that for most of us, young or old, the great world was something read about, not experienced. With a few casual exceptions our travelled men were the veterans of the Civil War, who had seen Washington and slogged through the Virginia mud. For many of its inhabitants the town must have been a prison, poisonous with gossip, destructive of ambition, so steeped in the past and in mortality that its inhabitants seemed moving in procession, like the band on Memorial Day, though by a more round-about route, toward the graveyard on the hill.

But I remember, not a sense of gloom or isolation, but a warm and intimate relationship with every house and tree; a feeling that all outside the protecting wall of hills was strange and lonely. The frogs croaking in the meadows on summer nights, the dance of the fireflies, ice-cream suppers under Japanese lanterns in front of one of the churches, the farmers and mechanics lined along the porch of the general store on fine summer evenings, the hay-rides, the spelling matches, the singing school (yes, we had one, like a thousand other country towns), the snow plough coming through on a frosty January morning, the butcher’s wagon stopping in front of the house, the Fourth of July “Horribles”—how rich it was, how intimately woven into the texture of all the years and all the centuries that had gone before, and how completely it has ceased to matter!

The town is still there. The hills look just the same, the houses and people almost the same. But that warm, self-contained atmosphere has been blown away and dissipated by winds that sweep the world. The town is no longer a town, it is a suburb of a metropolis, two hundred miles away; as a stage of civilization it exists no longer.


Santa Rita stands not only for a town but for a valley and a university. Its horizons were far wider than those of Centerville. It belongs, in my case, to late adolescence and early manhood. I am somewhat puzzled as to how to deal with it, for what I saw in it was doubtless in part what it had been a little while before I went there and partly what it might have been had it been allowed to attain maturity out of reach of the currents of modern progress. Let rne describe first what it had been, and what to some degree it still was when I first went there.

It had been a Spanish land grant, a principality of salt marsh, oak-dotted plains and foothills climbing voluptuously toward a seaward sierra on the top of which giant redwoods made the teeth of the saw. It had been a cattle ranch, a wheat ranch, more recently a wide orchard of prunes, apricots, and peaches. Fifteen years before my first visit there had not been a house on the site. When I first pushed my bicycle down its main street its houses, shrubbery, and lawns still looked tentative and experimental. Only two of its streets were paved—I know because my first job was driving a milk wagon. It had automobiles but not enough to be a serious factor in a milkman’s life. They were not allowed on the roads of the near-by campus; I don’t think any student even owned one. The students wore high laced boots in winter, on account of the mud. Frequently they walked a mile to a near-by village to drink a few glasses of beer, feeling very wicked about it; once or twice a year they went to the city, thirty miles away, on a real bender, and bragged insufferably about their hideous sins when they returned. The professors rode bicycles and some of them in their hours of leisure washed out the babies’ diapers.

The campus, of vast extent, was isolated, dreamy, removed from traffic; we lived there a life of incredible unreality; I remember how faintly the pulses of the outside world seemed to beat in my ears, how strikes, political campaigns, and threats of wars were like a story that is told, and with what high sense of a noble cause at stake I went to my first football games. The instruction we received did not mar the idyll; literature ended with Stevenson, the drama with Ibsen, biology with a note of optimism that might have been borrowed from Tennyson, physics with I don’t know what, except that it did not include those desperate abysses, crammed with ominous incongruities, into which latter-day science wanly peers. It was good to dwell in, this sheltered cosmos. Nature had done her gentlest and most poetic best to take our minds from struggle, with golden summers and soft, green winters, and fogs at all seasons rolling over the crests from the invisible sea but rarely coming down into the valley. No more than the ocean pounding on the beaches twenty miles away did we hear the mutters of that gathering storm which four years after my graduation day was to break into the mighty winds and waves of the Great War.

One summer I lived a little way out of town, a casual tenant of a small estate whose wealthy owner had filled his cellar with empty bottles and so passed on. I slept in a tent, and sometimes thought that mild, uncomplaining ghosts slipped by at night. There was no question that coyotes came down the dry gullies from the hills and battled in the light of the moon with town dogs in the adjoining fields. Sometimes young people in carriages went by singing, along the highway some hundreds of feet distant. Sometimes I drove a two-wheeled cart with an Indian pony in the shafts; I rarely carried a light after dark and never collided with anything more menacing than a skunk.

In trying to fix the character of the valley at that time I find myself trying to distinguish the things that are permanent from those that were not, and trying, too, to reconcile a sense of great antiquity with one of shining, dewy newness. Time telescoped behind me; it was only yesterday that the Spaniards came down the creek, to settle here into a peaceful, pastoral life which, for all they knew, was to last forever. It ought, I thought, to have lasted forever. The ‘Forty-niners and the Bonanza Kings didn’t belong in the valley; slowly they gathered the hostile forces that were to break the charm.

There were mountains to the east, a bare, wrinkled range, and invisible behind that the greater valley and the Sierras. The East hadn’t really climbed over the Sierras in those days. I used to wonder, I still wonder, what if the transcontinental railroads hadn’t been built, what if the transcontinental motor highways had been left as wagon trails, what if this valley, like one in Greece more than two thousand years ago, had had a chance to work out, in the slow hours and years, a civilization of its own? I could imagine a kind of haze of beauty drifting in over the coast range, like the sea fogs, softening everything, tranquillizing everything, killing the frantic urge to tear down and change, to buy and sell. I could imagine a kind of Arcady developing here, with its poets and musicians, its painters and lovers; its religion of the seasons, its cults of wheat, vine, and tree, its slow and stately courtesies, its local dialects, its consciousness of local identity, its proud awareness of ruling its own life.

Yes, there was that possibility. What the Greeks did could have been done here. The ruins of that lost opportunity, the last whispers of that divine voice, were still to be seen and heard. I have sat on the slope of a sunny hill, with the sea fog beginning to descend a few hundred feet behind me, and looked down into a grove of oaks and almost seen white-robed figures flitting, and rustic processions emerging, and almost heard the pipes of Pan. In those oaks were dryads, though it was not there, nor at that time, that I saw one. Was this unreal? Did I come on truth later, on the river-bank at Pittsburgh or in the glare of light at Forty-second Street?

At any rate, the pipes of Pan were not long or loudly heard. The hills and oaks remained; the town grew and spread; the university attracted the second generation of the newly, easily, and vulgarly rich; traffic poured down all the highways and secret paths were turned into new highways, on which no one ever paused; my Grecian grove is part of somebody’s great estate, with a mock Spanish mansion dumped down on its borders, and the dreams that the valley dreamed have been, I am sure, these ten years forgotten.


Looking out from mid-Manhattan it is hard to believe in the reality of those two communities, Centerville and Santa Rita, as I knew them. I seem to have read of them in a book—a book which would now be dismissed by the critics, I suppose, as belonging to the literature of “escape.” Certainly they have nothing to do with anything I see or hear about me on Manhattan. They belong with the Athens of Pericles, the Europe of the Crusades, the England of Shakespeare—that is to say, without particularly resembling those countries or periods, they are equally remote from this Manhattan actuality. As positive forces in American culture they are just as dead. They are something I have lived through. I cannot return to them. Neither can any one else.

If this were merely the subjective experience of an individual it would have scant importance. Each of us, no doubt, passes through and recapitulates all the stages of culture. But Centerville and Santa Rita have not been transformed in my consciousness alone, but in objective fact. Their mountains stand forever, but men see them with alien eyes; their sticks and stones have not been scattered, but now they shelter strangers. Could I return to Centerville as it was in 1900, to the Santa Rita valley as it was in 1910, I too would be a stranger.

What is it that has vanished from those communities? One attribute, I think, was common to Centerville, child of Puritanism, and Santa Rita, which, for a brief moment before its vision vanished, felt vague after-stirrings of the Renaissance and the Golden Age. That element was tranquillity. In Centerville this may sometimes have been the tranquillity of despair, in Santa Rita very often the tranquillity of an agreeable but not very productive animal ease. The men of Centerville fought a long, quiet war with nature, they did not compete with one another. Their worldly ambitions could not rise high. The flavor of their lives, such as it was—and I would be the last to contend that it was highly spiced—had to be gotten out of each day’s living, out of social contacts at church, store, Grange, fair, or town meeting, out of victories over a stubborn soil, out of a real if somewhat sad appreciation of the beauty of earth and the drama of the seasons. In the Santa Rita valley it did not seem worth while or necessary to struggle, even with nature. Nature was never hard and cruel there, as it often was in Centerville; hardness and cruelty had to be imported—and ultimately were—like foreign luxuries. The stage was set for leisure, for quietness, for the slow drift of the hours. The physical eye was restricted neither by overhanging mountain-tops nor by gargantuan skylines, and the spiritual eye could likewise have seen far. But the doctrine that life is struggle, that each man’s hand must be against his brother, was duly introduced, along with other modern improvements, from Pittsburgh, Chicago, and New York. So was the meaner doctrine that man exists not to create but to barter. In the end Adam and Eve took a course in salesmanship and ate the apple of success.

Yes, I think it is the rise of salesmanship as the supreme art in American culture that left Centerville hopelessly marooned among its hills, and in the Santa Rita valley put beauty and romance on leash. It is salesmanship, not cre-ativeness, that accounts for the fierce beat of life on Manhattan—that appalling and fascinating surge of human energy. No one tried to sell himself in Centerville; quite a number did try in Santa Rita but they were not regarded as gods. But the people of Manhattan, of whom I cannot deny that I am one, are barkers in front of a side-show, and that side-show is our present civilization, a Coney Island stage of a culture which seems destined to sweep the world. If this civilization were able to confine itself to Manhattan and a few other large cities, Centerville and Santa Rita could go their calm ways undisturbed. But it cannot confine itself, it has felt obliged to devitalize Centerville and to vulgarize Santa Rita. It has done this clumsily, like an elephant stepping into a flower-bed. It has done it stupidly—witness the fatuous exhibition it has made of itself during the past four years. But it has done it with a kind of primitive force which makes its victory inevitable and, from a certain point of view, justifiable.

I look about me, rubbing my eyes, asking myself at times if this is not an agitated dream from which I will awake to the gray quietness of Centerville or the shining peace of Santa Rita. There arc days when I arm myself with joy for battle and days when, if I knew where to run, I would run away. In this alternation of moods I suppose I am not alone among the ten millions of the New York Region, nor the other tens of millions in other cities who find themselves caught in the same man-trap.

But it is particularly of my generation that I think, for I doubt that any generation has been so uprooted, so blown about, compelled to make so heroic an adjustment. And I ask myself, is this destruction of peace and beauty that we have witnessed a foreshadowing of doom, the beginning of a new age of barbarism, or is it only that we and our civilization together are arriving, with the great raw strength of disillusionment in our hands, at the prime of life?


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