Edward Bok & The Simple Life

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Like a stern father, Bok took up such objections one by one, parrying them with the skill of a fencer. He characterized the reader’s fear of being deemed eccentric as stemming from a “false notion. ” The woman who simplifies her life “will find herself of a sisterhood that numbers more votaries than she has ever dreamed of.” Besides, he asked, is not being true to one’s own values far more important than satisfying the jaded standards of society? That some friends might drop a “simple-living” couple from their “visiting list” was an indication that they were not true friends; the loss of their good graces should not be an issue of concern. “I repeat,” Bok emphasized, “our lives are what we make of them ourselves. If we are weak and accept the artificial our lives will be so. And just in proportion as we make our lives artificial we make them profitless and unhappy. ” When enough Americans displayed the courage to act on their own rather than wait for simplicity to become socially acceptable, then the country might begin to approach its original spiritual and ethical ideal. America might indeed become a nation of “real people, where each man and woman is measured by his or her own true worth, where friendships are honest and where laughs are hearty and tears are real: where lives are happiest because they are lived simplest: where the air is clear, and where people look you in the eye, and where the clothes you wear do not signify.”

BOK’S REFERENCE to clear air reflected not only his disgust at the stuffiness of Victorian home interiors but another of his beliefs—that urbanites needed to expose themselves to the purifying and exhilarating simplicities of nature. Contact with the countryside, whether the virgin wilderness, the plowed field, or the Arcadian retreat, he emphasized, meant turning away from artificiality to embrace more abiding realities. God and goodness always seemed more accessible in the woods than in the city. Moreover, the countryside offered fresh air and a stimulus to strenuous activity. Physical exertion, it was widely assumed among Progressive reformers, was crucial to moral vitality and mental alertness. And excursions into the countryside or wilderness were to be preferred over urban forms of recreation.

This was Bok’s persistent message to his urban readers. The return to nature he advocated was not that of a Thoreau or a Tolstoy but that of an Emerson or Jefferson—a comfortable home and garden in the country, within commuting distance of the city, and blessed with the amenities—but not the luxuries—of civilized living. It was vital, he believed, that the modern businessman and professional have some repose, and this was only possible “where a man lives in the country—in some suburban place, away from the actual scene of his daily grind.”

Bok spoke from experience. After marrying Mary Louise Curtis, the daughter of his publisher, Bok and his bride settled on four wooded acres near Merion, a fifteen-minute train ride from Philadelphia. There they raised their two boys, believing that the “closer we keep our children to the soil the healthier will they be physically, and the stronger will they develop mentally. ” Living in the country, Bok remarked, enabled overly busy men to see nature’s restful ways. Also, such sylvan surroundings developed in people an “interest in all things natural and simple.” And as the suburban housewife sees the “simplicity with which Nature works, unconsciously will the lesson be forced upon her and enter into her own methods.”

In advocating such commuter pastoralism, Bok bore witness to a veritable nature craze that seized the middle classes of America at the turn of the century. Country life had proven soothing to the affluent for years, and now, thanks to rising incomes and improved transportation, the middle classes could partake of it as well. Thousands of urban dwellers were swept up in a wave of enthusiasm for the outdoors, determined to recapture the nutrients deemed vital to the soul that contact with nature supposedly provided. “Country life,” one journalist observed, “is fortunately winning its way into the affections of all classes. The longing for fresh air and sweet odors and fresh fruit and a simple life all go together.”

Healthy morals can best be instilled in children where the air is healthy.

Bok was much encouraged by the burgeoning back-to-nature phenomenon. He argued in 1898 that there “would be a far smaller percentage of nervous women in America to-day if suburban life had been in vogue ten years ago as much as it is to-day. ” Nature’s “restful ways” would allow tense husbands and wives to relax, and outdoor activity and sports would promote more “robust constitutions.” In addition, Bok suggested, “healthy morals, too, are more easily instilled into a child’s mind where the air is healthy. Wholesome ideas come from a close intimacy with Nature.”