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Beecher's Norwood

(A Review of: Norwood; or, Village Life in New England. By Henry Ward Beecher. New York, 1868.)

The Catholic World, December, 1869

THE Beecher family is certainly a remarkably gifted family, though we think the father, Dr. Lyman Beecher, was the best of them all. Yet his two daughters, Miss Catharine Beecher and Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe, are women of rare abilities, and have made their mark on the times and sad havoc with New England theology. Dr. Edward Beecher has written several notable books, among which may be mentioned The Papal Conspiracy and the Conflict of the Ages, which prove him almost equally hostile to Rome and to Geneva. Henry Ward Beecher is the most distinguished of the sons, and probably ranks as the most popular, certainly the most striking, pulpit orator in the country. But none of the family are remarkable for purity of taste, refined culture, or classical grace and polish as writers. They would seem to owe their success partly to their audacity, but principally to a certain rough vigor and energy of character, and to their sympathy with the popular tendencies of their country. They rarely take, never knowingly take, the unpopular side of a question, or attempt to stem the current of popular opinion. They are of the world, and the world loves them. They never disturb its conscience by condemning its moral ideal, or calling upon it to strive after a higher and purer ideal. They have in an eminent degree the genius of commonplace. There are in Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Minister's Wooing passages of rare force and vigor, but they are not very original, nor very recondite. The Beecher genius is not lyrical or dramatic, but essentially militant and prosaic. It can display itself only against an antagonist, and an antagonist at least about to fall under the ban of public opinion. They have some imitative ability, but little creative power, and rarely present us with a living character. We remember only two living characters in all Mrs. Stowe's writings, Dred and the Widow Scudder; and we are not certain that these are not copies of originals.

The author of Norwood is less of an artist than his sister, Mrs. Stowe, and under the relation of art his novel is below criticism. It contains many just observations on various topics, but by no means original or profound; it seizes some few of the traits of New England village life; but its characters, with the exception of Judge Bacon, Agate Bissell, and Hiram Beers, are the abstractions or impersonations of the author's theories. The author has little dramatic power, aud not much wit or humor. The persons or personages of his book are only so many points in the argument which he is carrying on against Calvinistic orthodoxy for pure naturalism. The substance of his volume seems to be made up of the fag-ends of his sermons and lectures. He preaches and lectures all through it, and rather prosily into the bargain. His Dr. Wentworth is a bore, and his daughter Rose, the heroine of the story, is a species of blue-stocking, and neither lovely nor lovable. As a type of the New England cultivated and accomplished lady she is a failure, and is hardly up to the level of the New England school-ma'am. The sensational incidents of the story are old and worn out, and the speculations on love indicate very little depth of feeling or knowledge of life, or of the human heart. The author proceeds on a theory, and so far shows his New England birth and breeding, but he seldom touches reality.

As a picture of New England village life it is singularly unfortunate, and still more so as a picture of village life in the valley of the Connecticut, some twenty miles above Springfield, in Massachusetts, where the scene is laid, and where the tone and manners of society in a village of five thousand inhabitants, the number Norwood is said to contain, hardly differ in refinement and polish from the tone and manners of the better classes in Boston and its vicinity. There are no better families, better educated, better bred, more intellectual in the state, than are to be found in no stinted numbers in the towns of the Connecticut valley, the garden of Massachusetts. The book is full of anachronisms. The peculiar New England traits given existed to a certain extent, in our boyhood, in back settlements or towns not lying near any of the great thoroughfares; but they have very generally disappeared through the influence of education, the railroads which run in all directions through the state, and the almost constant intercourse with the society of the capital.

The turnpikes did much to destroy the rustic manners and language of the population of the interior villages, and the railroads have completed what they left undone. Save in a few localities there is no longer a rustic population in Massachusetts, and very little distinction between the countryman and the citizen. In small country villages you may find Hiram Beers still, but Tommy Taft, Polly Marble, and Agate Bissell are of a past generation, and even in the past belonged to Connecticut rather than to the Old Bay State. Strangers suppose the people of the several New England states have all the same characteristics, and are cut out and made up after the same pattern; but in reality, except in the valley of the Connecticut, where there is a blending of the characteristics of the adjoining states, the differences between the people of one state and those of another are so strongly marked that a careful observer can easily tell, on seeing a stranger, to which of the six New England states he belongs, without hearing him speak a word, and not unfrequently the section of his state from which he comes. There is no mistaking a Berkshire county man for a Cape Codder, or a Vermonter for a true son of the Old Bay State, or a Rhode Islander. The gait, the air, the manners, the physiognomy even, tell at once the man's native state. The Vermonter is the Kentuckian of the East, as the Georgian is the Yankee of the South, and we have found no two cities in the Union, and there are few East of the Rocky Mountains that we have not visited, where the citizens of the one have so many points of resemblance with those of the other, as Boston, the metropolis of New England, and Charleston, the real capital of South Carolina. Accidental differences of course there are, but the type of character is the same, and the purest and best American type we have met with. And we are very disinterested in our judgment, for we are natives of neither city or state. In both we have the true English type with its proper American modifications. No two cities stood firmer, shoulder to shoulder, during the American war of independence, "the times that tried men's souls," than Boston and Charleston. They became opposed not till, under the lead of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania and Kentucky politicians, congress had fastened on the country the so-called American system, which struck a severe blow at the commerce of New England, and compelled its capitalists to seek investment for their capital in manufactures. It is a little singular that New England, which up to 1842 had voted against every protective tariff that had been adopted, should have the credit or discredit of originating and securing the adoption of the protective system. The ablest speech ever made against the system in congress was made in 1824 by Mr. Webster, then a member of the house of representatives from Boston. We express no opinion on the question between free-trade and so-called protection; we only say that Pennsylvania and Kentucky, not the New England states, are chiefly responsible for the protective system; the very remote cause, at least, of the late terrible civil war between the North and South, in which, if the victory was for the Union, the South are likely to be the gainers in the long run, and the North the losers.

But we are wandering. Mr. Beecher speaks truly of the diversity and originality of individual character in New England, which you discover when you have once broken through the thin crust of conventionalism; but he seems not to have observed equally the marked differences of character between the people of the several states. The wit of a Massachusetts man is classical and refined; of the Connecticut man sly, and not incapable of being coarse; of the Vermonter it is broad farce, and nobody better than he can keep a company of good fellows in a roar till morning. The Bay State man has a strong attachment to tradition and to old manners and customs, and his innovating tendency is superinduced, and is as repugnant to his nature as Protestantism is to the perfervidum ingenium Scotorum. He is naturally a conservative, as the Scotch are, if we may so speak, naturally Catholic; and it was only a terrible wrench of the Scottish nature that induced the loyal Scots to adopt the reformation. The Connecticut man excels the Bay State man in ingenuity, in inventive genius, in doing much with little; is less conservative by nature, and more enterprising and adventurous, and in his exterior conduct more under the influence of public opinion. Each is proud of his state, and the Connecticut man especially, who has acquired wealth elsewhere, is fond of returning to his early home to display it; but attachment to the soil is not very strong in either, and neither will make heavy sacrifices for simple love of country. The Bay State man is more influenced by his principles, his convictions, like the South Carolinian, and the Connecticut man more by his interests.

The Vermonter has no conservative tendency by nature; he cares not the snap of his finger for what his father believed or did; is personally independent, generally free from snobbishness, no slave to public opinion, and for the most part has the courage of his convictions; but he loves his state, loves her green hills and fertile valleys, and when abroad holds a fellow-Vermonter dear as his brother. A Georgian and a Connecticut man are fighting in Georgia; the Connecticut man looking on will wish his countryman to get the better of his Georgian opponent, but will not interpose till he has inquired into the cause of the dispute, and ascertained on which side is the law. A Georgian and a Vermonter are fighting under the same circumstances; the Vermonter comes up, looks, knocks the Georgian down, rescues his countryman, and investigates the cause and the law afterward. The Vermonter pays no attention to the personal responsibility he may incur; the Connecticut man tries to keep always clear of the law; and if he makes up his mind to do a great wrong to some one, he takes care to do it under cover of law, so that no hold can be got of him. The Bay State man is much the same; and the Connecticut man has less of patriotism than the Vermonter. We speak of what was the case in our own youth and early manhood; yet the character of the whole American people has so changed during the last forty years that we can hardly any longer recognize them, and in the judgment of an old man they have changed not for the better.

We have no space to remark on the characteristic differences of the three remaining New England states. These states have still less resemblance to each other. The people of Maine differ widely from the people of New Hampshire, and the people of Rhode Island have very few traits in common with the people of any of the other New England states. The author of Norwood has lost no little of his own New England character or overlaid it with his westernism. He is not in sympathy with the true New England character, as found in any of the New England states, and is more disposed to exaggerate, in his descriptions, its few eccentricities than to bring out its higher and nobler qualities. No doubt the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts and Connecticut set out with the intention of founding what they regarded as a Christian commonwealth, in which the evangelical counsels should be recognized and enforced as laws. They would have organized and maintained society, except in not enjoining celibacy, after the mode of a Catholic monastery. They attempted by constant vigilance and the strict enforcement of very rigorous laws to shut out all vice and immorality from their community. They were rigorists in morals, somewhat rigid and stern in their personal character, and have been generally supposed to be much more so than they really were. Their experiment of a Christian commonwealth as it existed in their own ideal failed, partly through their defective faith and the absence of supernatural grace, and partly through their exacting too much of human nature, or even of men in the flesh, except an elect few. But they, nevertheless, succeeded in laying the foundation of a Christian as distinguished from a pagan republic, or in founding the state, the first in history, on truly Christian principles, that is, on the rights of God, and which better than any other known state has protected the rights of man.

The Puritan did not separate from the Church of England on the principle of liberty of dissent, or because he wished to establish what liberals now understand by religious liberty. The principle of his separation was the Catholic principle, that the magistrate has no authority in spirituals, and no right to prescribe any forms or ceremonies to be used in worship. It was a solemn protest not against the doctrines of the Anglican Church, but against the authority it conceded in spiritual matters to the civil power, or the civil magistrate, as they said then. The Puritan was logical; he had a good major, and his conclusion would have been just, if his minor had only been true; and we are, in our opinion, indebted to him far more than to Lord Baltimore or to Governor Dongan of New York for the freedom of conscience secured by our institutions. Lord Baltimore and Governor Dongan sought the free exercise of their own religion for their co-religionists, and asserted, and in their situation could assert, only toleration. Neither could assert the principle of true religious liberty, the incompetency of the state in spirituals, holding, as they did, their power from the king of England and head of the Anglican Church. The Puritan abominated toleration, called it the devil's doctrine, and proved himself little disposed to practise it ; but in asserting the absolute independence of the church or religion before the civil magistrate, he asserted the true principle of religious liberty, which the Catholic Church always and everywhere asserts, and laid in the American mind the foundation of that religious freedom of which our religion, which they hated, now enjoys the benefit.

We have nothing to say of the virtues of the Puritans in relation to the world to come; but they certainly had great and rare civil virtues, and they have had the leading share in founding and shaping the American state. They were grave, earnest- too much so, if you will; but however short they fell in practice, they always asserted the independence and supremacy of the moral order in relation to civil government, and the obligation of every man to obey God rather than men, and to live always in reference to the end for which God makes him. Their moral standard was high, and they set an example of as moral a people as can be looked for outside of the church. They had only a faulty religion. and perhaps were Stoics rather than Christians in their temper; but they always put religion in its right place, and gave the precedence to its ministers. They placed education under charge of the church, and the system of common schools, which they originated or adopted was really a system of parochial schools, under the supervision of the pastor, and supported by a tax on the parish, imposed by the parishioners, in public meetings, on themselves. The centralized system of godless schools, borrowed from the convention that decreed the death of Louis XVI., generally adopted by the middle and western states, is hardly yet fully adopted in Massachusetts, though since 1835 it has been gradually gaining the ascendency.

The Puritans not only adopted a high moral standard, but they lived as nearly up to it as is possible for human nature alone since the fall, and few examples of a more rigidly moral people can be found than were the New England people for a century and a half after the landing of the Pilgrims, and to them, in no small measure, the whole Union is indebted for its moral character as well as for the greater part of its higher institutions of learning. There have been as learned, as gifted, as great men, found in other states, and perhaps even more learned, gifted, and greater; but there is no part of the Union where the intellectual tone of society is so high, or intellectual culture so general as in New England, especially in the states founded by the Puritans, as were Massachusetts and Connecticut. New York leads in trade and commerce; Pennsylvania latterly, Virginia formerly, in politics; but the New England mind has led in law, jurisprudence, literature, art, science, and philosophy; though since Puritanism has been lapsing into liberalism its preeminence is passing away. We speak of New England as it was thirty or forty years ago, or a little earlier, when the majority of the supreme judges, and two thirds of the members of the legislature of New York were Connecticut, or, at least, New England men. New England, we fear, is no longer what she was when we were young, and she appears only the shadow of her former self. She is attempting to do, from sheer calculation, and purely secular motives, what even in the heyday of Puritanism was more than she could effect, aided by strong religious convictions and motives. Still, if the substance is wanting, she keeps up the appearance of her old moral character, and in no part of the Union will you hear finer moral sentences, or better reasoned orations on the beauty of virtue and the necessity of religion to the commonwealth. Even New England infidelity is obliged to assume a moral garb, to express itself in Christian phrases, and affect to be more Christian than Christianity itself.

The author of Norwood does not do justice to the intellectual character of New England life, to the thought, the reflection, and movements of a New England village of five thousand inhabitants. His village philosopher, Dr. Wentworth, is very shallow, being very narrow and very prosy. We could easily find any number of farmers in the valley of the Connecticut able to see through his paganism at a glance and refute it with a word. Especially is the author unjust to New England women. No doubt such women as Polly Marble, Rachel Cathcart, Agate Bissell, and Mother Taft can be found in a New England village, but they are not representative characters. New England Puritanism was never so stiff, or so annoying to one's self or to others, as it appears in these exceptional characters. The women of New England are in general remarkable for their intellectual culture, their gentleness, their refinement, their grace and dignity of manners, the elevation and breadth of their minds, and the extent and variety of their information, no less than for their domestic tastes and habits, or superior faculty as housekeepers. There are, no doubt, blue stockings in Yankeeland which their wearers' skirts are too short to conceal ; no doubt, also, there are women there who encroach on the rights and prerogatives of the other sex, and aspire to be men; but your leading woman's rights women and men are not New Englanders. Our old friend, Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, is a New Yorker, and Susan B. Anthony, if born in Nantucket, is a Quakeress, and the Quakers are of no country, or simply are their own country.

Many movements are accredited to New England which originated elsewhere, and are simply taken up by a certain class of New Englanders in easy circumstances, as a diversion or a dissipation, instead of whist, balls, routs, and plays. Yet they are only a class. The Massachusetts legislature voted down, by a large majority, the proposition to give the elective franchise to women, and the legislation of the Old Bay State continues far more masculine and conservative than that of the state of New York.

Norwood leaves the impression on the reader that the Puritans were a set of gloomy fanatics, austere and unbending, harsh and cruel, minding every body's business but their own, and seeking, in season and out of season, to cram their horrible doctrines down every neighbor's throat, and that the only sociable and agreeable people to be found among them were precisely those who had broken away from the Puritan thraldom, and returned to the cultivation and worship of nature. The wish is father to the thought. More social, neighborly, genial, kind-hearted, hospitable people it would be difficult to find in the Union than were the great body of these New England Puritans, than perhaps they are still; though they have by no means improved since they have abolished the dinner-table, as they suppose in the interest of temperance, and substituted opium for Santa Cruz rum and old Jamaica spirits, as they have philanthropy for devotion. Intellect, morals, and sociality seem to us to have sadly deteriorated under the misdirected efforts to advance them.

But Henry Ward Beecher has had a far other purpose in Norwood than to produce a work of art, to construct a story, or to sketch New England village life. He is willing enough to correct some of the misapprehensions which southerners have, or had, of New England character; but his book, after all, has a serious purpose, and is intended to be a death-blow to New England theological and moral doctrines.

The author, though nominally a Christian, and professedly a Congregational preacher, is really a pagan, and wishes to abolish Puritanism for the worship of nature. But it is less the Puritan than the Christian he wars against; and if he understands himself, which is doubtful, his thought is, that a child, taken as born, without baptism or regeneration, may be trained up by the influence of flowers and close communion with nature, beasts, birds, and fishes, reptiles and insects, to be a Christian of the first water. Dr. Wentworth represents this theory, and reduces it to practice in the training of his daughter Rose, whose chief educator is the half-idiot negro, Pete, "no great things in the intellects, but with a heart as big as that of an ox." The theory recognizes Christ only in nature, and really identifies him with nature, and resolves the Christian law of perfection into the natural laws of the physicists. The author holds, if any thing, that heaven, the crown of life, is in the order of generation, and is attainable as the result of natural development.

The theory, of course, rejects the very fundamental principle of Christianity, which declares that "except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." The author, indeed, does not deny in words the new birth; nay, asserts it, but resolves it into a natural operation, a sort of mental and physical crisis, and recognizes nothing supernatural, or any infusion of grace in it ; which is in reality to deny it. We have as hearty a dislike of Calvinism as anyone can have, and we know it passably well by our own early experience; but we confess that we have no wish to see old-fashioned Puritanism exchanged for pure rationalism or mere naturalism, and as against Henry Ward Beecher, we are strongly tempted to defend it. Anyone who knows New England at all, knows that its morals have deteriorated just in proportion as its old Puritanism has declined, or been liberalized. The fact, whatever the explanation, is undeniable. In our judgment, it is the natural result of loosening the restraints which Puritanism undoubtedly imposed on the passions and conduct, and leaving people to their natural passions, instincts, and propensities, without any restraint at all. Despotism is bad enough; but it is better than no government, better than anarchy. As it affects the question of conversion to the church, we see no gain in the change. We think a sincere, earnest-minded, Puritan a less hopeless subject than a liberal, like an Emerson, a John Weiss, a John Stuart Mill, a Mr. Lecky, a Herbert Spencer, or such men as were the late Mr. Buckle and the late Sir William Hamilton, who despise Christianity too much to offer any direct opposition to it. The honest Puritan is prejudiced indeed, and unwilling to hear a word in favor of the church; yet he believes in Christian morals, and has some conception of the Christian plan of salvation, and therefore really something for the missionary to work on; but men who have resolved Christianity into naturalism, and measure reality or even the knowable by their own narrow and superficial understandings, are beyond his reach. Their case is hopeless.

Puritanism keeps alive in the community a certain Christian habit of thought, a belief in the necessity of grace, and more or less of a Christian conscience. The greater part of the common people gathered into the sects in seasons of revivals, if our missionaries were present, could just as easily be gathered into the church, and be saved. We suffer terribly in this country for the want of missionary priests, who can go wherever their services are needed by those who know not yet "the faith once delivered to the saints." Our priests are too few for the wants even of our old Catholic population, and what with hearing confessions, and attending sick calls, building churches and school-houses, and providing for the most pressing wants of a Catholic people, are over-worked, and soon exhausted. The great majority of our priests die young, from excessive labor. There is with us a vast missionary field, not indeed among the sects, but among the so-called Nothingarians, who comprise the majority of the American people, and who, though without any specific belief, are yet far from being confirmed unbelievers. But let the Beechers and their associates succeed in reducing Christianity to naturalism, and you soon make this whole class downright infidels. We can have, therefore, no sympathy with Beecherism, or pleasure in seeing its success against even old-fashioned New England Puritanism.

We should say as much of the Presbyterianism of the middle, western, and southern states. We believe any of the older Protestant sects that retain a belief in the Trinity, the Incarnation, and future rewards and punishments, and that practise infant baptism, are preferable by far to any form of modern liberalism, which discards dogma for sentiment and reason for the soul, and are really nature-worshippers, and as much idolaters as were the old pagans, whose rivers and ponds, whose gardens and orchards were overrun with gods. Even a Methodist is upon the whole better than a liberal, however puffed up he may be by the successful worship of mammon by his sect, and its growing respectability in the eyes of the world.

We have bestowed, perhaps, more attention on Mr. Beecher and his novel than they deserve, but we have made them the text for a desultory discourse, partly in defence of New England against her denigration attempted by one of her prominent sons, and partly in protest against the revival of heathen nature-worship favored by the author. We have not aimed at exalting New England above other sections of the Union. Each section of our common country has its peculiar merits, which are essential to the welfare and development of the whole. New England has hers, which, in some respects, excel those of other sections, and in other respects fall short of them. It is not for us to strike the balance, and to decide which upon the whole preponderate. We have wished to give New England her due, without detracting any thing from what is due to any other section of the Union. We should be sorry to see the effort now making to new-Englandize the South succeed. There are some things in the New England character that could be corrected with advantage: and there is much in the southern character, its openness, its frankness, its personal independence, its manliness, its aristocratic tone and manner, that we should be sorry to lose. But we do not like to find any man decrying his own native land or insensible to its merits.