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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Of Mice and Men

What’s with me lately? Why are so many of the books I pick up not even from the most recent turn of the century but the one before my parents were born? John Burroughs, born in 1837, began keeping a journal at the age of 17 and continued until his death in 1921 (age 84). In addition, he wrote and 23 books of essays, three of them published posthumously. He lived on a farm in the Hudson River Valley and raised grapes but lived primarily by writing. Burroughs, along with Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman (he admired all three), preached a gospel of closeness to nature:
Let me work all day in my garden, the next day ramble in the fields and woods, with a little reading, and the third day I can give myself to literary pursuits with a new freshness and vigor.

- Journals, April 5, 1867

When he is telling of what gives him joy, or when he tells of some small event in a quiet day--such as bringing home in his pocket a cold, motionless mouse, making for it a nest in a bucket and bringing it back to life before releasing it again to the wild—he is at his most charming, but there is another side to Burroughs, the rush to form a hasty opinion and then state it as if it fell from God’s own mouth and he just happened to make the catch.

Religion, he says “is a sentiment, like poetry or art; ...not a universal gift.” I sense a kernel of truth there, but the pontificating expression grates on me. What does it mean to call poetry or art a “sentiment,” anyway? Religion, poetry and art nothing but feelings? Yes, one must have a feeling for poetry to appreciate it, but the feeling alone, though it may be one sort of “gift,” hardly makes a poet. And can Burroughs stop there? No, he must go on to say that what he calls this “sentiment” of religion “belongs to women more than to men, though the finest specimens of it are men, as in every other field... [my emphasis added, as if you couldn’t guess]. Meaningless, maddening, unsupported generalization! Yet one hardly knows where to aim an objection, since B. never made it clear what he was talking about in the first place.

In general, what annoys me most about these journals is a lack of wonder, an overabundance of certainty and the way he fell, time after time, to the temptation of sweeping, general statements, as if pronouncing Truth with a capital T. But there were other things, too. Little, niggling, jarring notes. For example, many writers I know live alone, and some of them live in the country, so when I reached the following passage I began to mark it mentally for an old friend:
I wonder [he wondered! Read on—did he really?] if there is another so-called literary man who spends his time as I do—in the solitude of the country, amid the common people. Here I sit, night after night, year after year, alone in my little Study perched upon a broad slope of the Hudson, my light visible from afar, reading for an hour or two each evening, and then to bed at nine. No callers, no society, no proper family or home life. Not in years has a person dropped in to spend the evening with me.

Well, but then he says that “Julian comes in” from time to time, and instantly I wonder, Who is Julian? He writes that in the morning he, the writer, may “lend a hand in getting breakfast,” and I recall (looking back, to make sure, to the list of important dates in his life that the editor has thoughtfully provided in the front of the book) that Burroughs married in 1857 and that his wife survived until 1917. No society? John Locke would have seen it differently! The shadowy Mrs. Burroughs turns up only on rare occasions, in a sentence or an enigmatic phrase such as when the writer mentions he might “lend a hand in getting breakfast,” but where there’s a wife.... I wonder! And yes, a short search turns up the fact that Julian was, in fact, his son.

“No proper family life” could mean any number of things. The marriage might have been unhappy. Perhaps the writer felt that his wife was not his intellectual equal. If you follow this link and read of the disposition of Burroughs’s estate, you’ll find another surprising revelation about this "solitary" life in the country, a revelation that answers, for me, another question I’d had when, after noting the almost complete absence of the author’s wife and son from his journal, I turned back and saw that his editor had been a woman. I’d wondered what she thought of the author’s pronouncements on women and the invisibility of the wife in the journals. Turns out his female editor was also his “longtime secretary and mistress,” who upon his death received as long as she lived all the income from his writings. The wife, I should note, had predeceased Burroughs, and Julian, the son, inherited all of his father’s not inconsiderable real estate. (The farm remains--at least, as of 2004--in the family.) Perhaps in the unedited journals the wife appears more fully--then again, perhaps not. My point is only that a life with wife, son and secretary-mistress is hardly solitary.

We all know by now that Thoreau’s little cabin was not far from town and that he didn’t live in it very long—two years and two months, by his own account. Still, he did live there alone, and no one has ever questioned that he built the cabin and planted his beans himself.

What put me on the trail of David Grayson? Probably nothing more than that I had Adventures in Contentment on the shelf between Burroughs and Thoreau. Long before the hippies of the Sixties, Grayson wrote (using these very words) of “dropping out” of the race for success:
One morning I wakened with a strange, new joy in my soul. It came to me at that moment with indescribable poignancy, the thought of walking barefoot in cool, fresh plow furrows as I had once done when a boy. So vividly the memory came to me—the high, airy world as it was at that moment, and the boy I was walking free in the furrows—that the weak tears filled my eyes, the first I had shed in many years. Then I thought of sitting in quiet thickets in old fence corners, the wood behind me rising still, cool, mysterious....

I remembered that Grayson was a pseudonym but nothing more than that. Beware research and the shattering of illusions! David Grayson was none other than muckraking journalist Ray Stannard Baker, and the retirement of “David” to the country with sister “Harriet” (as housekeeper, naturally) was a complete fabrication. Like Burroughs, Baker had a wife; unlike Burroughs, he didn't even live in the country. Baker stayed in the rat race, and he and his wife lived first in a Chicago apartment, later in a suburb of Westchester County. In fact, Baker liked the suburbs, admitting to his bride that he had had to revise his opinion of them when they settled in their home. Follow this link to read more about this writer’s relationship to women, how he wrote about women, and how women responded to his writing and speechifying.

Heaven only knows I am not opposed to marriage, and the suburbs are fine for many people who find that way of life congenial. Marriage and suburbs aren’t the problem for me. It’s that the idea of these men building myths of themselves so at odds with the reality of their lives makes me suspect almost every other sentence they wrote. Give me Thoreau! Give me Anne LaBastille! Give me Harlan and Anna Hubbard! Give me Wendell and Tanya Berry! I don’t need rugged, solitary individualism in a man before I can respect his views on nature. I do need honesty.

Here in our old farmhouse, with the winter's first snow lying all around, David comments, "It may be too soon to say anything, but I haven't seen any mouse activity yet." I tell him it is indeed too soon. The temperature is barely below the freezing mark. When the thermometer plummets, those mice will be running for shelter and all the peanut butter and crumbs left on the counter! "Here, mice! Your banquet table has been spread!" David thinks I'm kidding. Here's how our attitudes break down: We both think mice are cute. We don't want them in the house. He is the eternal optimist, thinking that this year they won't come in, while I am on perpetual sentry duty, scolding and banishing crumbs. We live in the country, in company with one another and Sarah. That's enough. The mouse chorus can get cozy under the snow.


Susan said...


I just read that a journalist has re-traced John Steinbeck's alleged steps in "Travels with Charlie" and found that most of it was fabricated as well. Very little time alone; wife always flying in to stay with him at fancy resorts.

I do love Henry Beston as well, "The Outermost House" especially.

P. J. Grath said...

Actually, I think it's kind of sweet that Mrs. Steinbeck dropped in on the trip from time to time, though why in fancy resorts? Why not in the little trailer? That would have been sweeter. And what's with hiding the wives, anyway? That ticks me off!

Gerry said...

It's hard to create a whole world and then step out of it to carry out the garbage. Probably accounts for the general insufferability of writers.

That last photo is extremely appealing. I'm pretty sure it says "You come too."

P. J. Grath said...

You think I ask too much, Gerry? Glad you like Sarah's invitation, anyway. She is far less demanding than I.

Gerry said...

On the contrary. I think what you ask is entirely appropriate. Just unlikely to be achieved. Alas, writers are a cantankerous bunch. OK, I am a cantankerous bunch.

Sarah is a love.

Dawn said...

We have mice too. Though not yet. Last winter I was standing a chair reaching into the pantry for something on the top shelf and met the biggest, most scared eyes I've ever seen. A little mouse stood stock still staring back at me. Sadly he and all the other (6 in total) had to go.

As for rustic writers? Ah, I guess it doesn't bother me if they stretch the truth. If their writing takes me somewhere interesting I can live with the rest.

I'm going to have to purchase Judt's Momory Chalet from you. Nothing in my library, not even in MEL (anywhere else in the state). So let me know how much plus shipping! :) I'll mail you a check.

P. J. Grath said...

Is a consensus building that I'm being too crabby about the wife-hiding, solitude-claiming nature writer? If these were the only ones who could take me to nature, I guess I'd have to bear with their naughty ways, but for now, a free woman in the country, I'll stand my ground, respecting others of you to take different positions.

Dawn, you can send a check for $26.45 to my p.o. box (272) in Northport, zip code 49670, and I'll ship the book to you media mail at no extra charge. I love this book so much and hope you do, too!

Poor mice! I know, they are so cute and innocent! If only they would not poop in kitchen drawers and gnaw into packages! My son, by the way, says that rats are much more personable than mice: "You can have a relationship with a rat." I've declined so far.