1857

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Suddenly the broad highways grow empty, crack apart, and return to winding trails and woodlands. The cities shrink, the pace grows slower, and, before our eyes, the spinning world, with its galaxies of nations and peoples and its infinity of events, swells large again. The great banished monarch Distance, the enemy and friend against whom man has striven since the first hunter bestrode a horse or sought to make a raft, stumbles back toward his shaky throne. Pressing our journey backward through the long corridors of the decades, leaving behind us the crash of war and the upheaval of social change, we arrive, over a century ago, in a strange, far country; but not as explorers. For if the scene is sometimes baffling, sometimes outrageous, it also tugs at our hearts and mists our eyes. We have been here before.

The first thing we notice, waking suddenly in the year 1857, is the tremendous quiet, a forgotten silence that stuns the ear. All the electric power of the earth has ceased to throb; the horns, the blaring radios, the power mower next door and the vacuum cleaner downstairs, the airplane overhead, the roar of the traffic, all that background hum which we of 1969 accept unconsciously as part of the cosmos, all is still. Then, after a moment’s readjustment, the sounds of the past assert themselves—the buzzing of bees in the honeysuckle, the rooster proclaiming his strength, the distant clip-clop of a horse, a boy whistling, the scream of the morning train rolling out of the depot for its run to the junction.

Looking out the window at the New England scene—for we have to begin somewhere—we find a kind of stage set erected, and in a minute we recollect its authors. They are Currier and Ives. It is their artless lithographs, a little neater, a little more idyllic than life, that paint the self-portrait of 1857 America. Here are the tidy little towns, the prosperous farms and castellated suburban villas, the shady streets swarming with gentlemen in long jackets and stovepipe hats and ladies in great belled-out skirts. Everybody in 1857 is wearing the hoop, be it reinforced with wire or whalebone, steel or simply wood, and it is a matter of remark already, especially to visitors from classconscious Europe, that many a serving maid and seamstress wears it too. When a breeze springs up, as it never does in Currier and Ives, the hoops are a little frisky. The breeze, too, carries with it strong, faintly familiar odors, for this is an age innocent of sanitation, of plumbing and street cleaning, an age, to be candid, that is not yet quite convinced of the merits or even the morality of frequent bathing.

Currier and Ives present us also a kind of bird’s-eye view of the whole town, in a quaint perspective that shows the ginger-bread “palace” steamers loading at the wharves; the high-stepping eight-wheelers just behind, pulling the bright yellow wooden cars of the Lightning Express; the buildings of the local merchants, the white wooden churches, the town cotton mill; and, up on the hill behind, the imposing residences of the nabobs, in wood, granite, and brownstone, with towers, columns, and an occasional porte-cochere. Off on one side, not clearly developed by the artist, is a more crowded district, inhabited by the mill operatives. Just beyond this is “Darktown,” whose residents—if we are to believe the lithographers—are happy-go-lucky comics forever adventuring in chicken houses, dancing with athletic gusto to a whacking mandolin, strutting behind the local militia as it drills on the town green, and aping the white folks in one hilarious episode after another.

Is this really a world full of prosperity, of happy children and married domesticity? Are the less fortunate really so carefree? Is America this pious and patriotic and virtuous, a land where every statesman is a village Pericles and every soldier a Horatius in his youth and a Cincinnatus when age has snowed his hair? Can we accept as pure reportage the millennial joy and dignity pictured in the lithographer’s Four Seasons of Life : the children playing at the stile by the sun-dappled brook, the young man in his strength plowing the rich soil, the happy young marrieds, the benign elders philosophizing—doubtless over Beecher’s sermons—on the piazza?