Tuesday, July 5, 2011

old home days or reunions of sentimentality

In 1907, James Ball Naylor wrote a poem entitled "Old Home Week" which read as follows:


I was sitting in my office, -- far above the busy street
Where the laden barks of business come and go,
Where the rushing streams of traffic swirl and mingle as they meet
And the surging tides of commerce ebb and flow, --
Dimly conscious of full many sounds -- the city's swash and foam,
But unmindful of the import they might bring;
I was pouring o'er a letter from a schoolmate 'way back home --
And drinking from the dipper at the spring!

'Twas a letter from a boyhood friend from whom I hadn't heard,
Till then, in all the fleeting fruitful years;
And the quaint school-day chirography, each smudged or blotted word,
Brought a taste of joy -- with just a tang of tears.
I read, "Dear Jim, we're trying to get up an old-home week,
And make the old place fairly buzz and hum.
The boys and girls all say they're just a-longing for a peek
At your old homely face; so say you'll come."

The load of years slipped from my sagging shoulders, and again
A lad was I back in the old abode;
And I whistled up and down the room as merrily as then
I whistled up and down the country road.
The freighted day became a dream -- a bright dream of the days
When held in thrall by Nature's potent charm
And shackled with the clinging vines of dewy woodland ways,
I knew the mystic rapture of the farm.

And the tumult of the city -- its titanic crash and roar,
And babel of the many tongues men speak --
Sank and softened to the rumble of a wagon rattling o'er
The stony ford of old Bald-eagle creek;
The jangle of the telephone became the drowsy call
Of sheep-bells far within the forest gloom;
And the whir of the electric fan, the rhythmic rise and fall
Of the buzz of bees among the clover bloom.

I could see it -- I could see it all! The home -- the days gone by!
The farmhouse and the honeysuckle sweet;
The cool and darkling woodland -- and the glimpse of sunlit sky
Where the gray and mossy branches failed to meet;
The greenish, glassy shimmer of the spring brook near at hand,
The loop of grapevine where I used to swing,
And myself a careless youngster -- flushed and thirsty, grimed and tanned --
Drinking from the big gourd dipper at the spring.

I could hear the bob-white's whistle in the field of waving grain,
And the robin's cheery lilt within the shade
Of orchard on the hillside; and far down the leafy lane,
The cries of barefoot comrades in the glade.
And my soul a-thirst! -- and I hankered for the dipper at the spring,
My playmates, and the hills we used to roam;
And in fancy I could hear a boyhood chorus softly sing:
"He is coming! He is coming -- coming home!"

I could see my father's rugged form, my mother's wrinkled face --
Ah, the homesick feeling tongue can never tell! --
The vagrant, dusty highway idling past the dear old place,
And the apple-tree on guard beside the well.
I could smell the blue smoke curling o'er the rooftree gray and high,
Could hear the swallows chirping 'neath the comb;
And in my happy heart, in echo, to those swallows made reply:
"I am coming home! I am coming -- coming home!"


With the gleaming road ahead of me, the teeming town behind,
And my thoughts the wayward fancies of a boy! --
With the rule of gold forgotten and the Golden Rule in mind,
I went speeding toward the loyal land of Joy.
The many miles dropped out of sight, as had the many years
Since I abandoned subjects, crown and throne;
But the blue sky's smile of sunshine and the brown earth's dewdrop tears
Bade me welcome to a kingdom still my own.

I thought to slip into the sleepy village, and depart
For cottage of my boyhood and my birth --
Just to spend one evening worshiping and talking heart to heart
With my parents, at the fondest shrine on earth;
But my friends were at the station, kindly faces all aglow,
With madly waving banners and a band. --
Those grown up lads and lassies of the blissful long-ago!
And the nearest and the dearest took my hand.

Then the band commenced a-playing, and the treble of the fife
And the rumbling, grumbling basso of the drums
Made me laugh as I had seldom laughed in all my busy life
They were playing - "See, the Conq'ring Hero Comes"!
But I looked at the musicians -- understoof their wild acclaim
Of welcome, that was ringing to the skies; [name]
Heard the joyful cheers and outcries that were burdened with mine
And I found the tear drops trickling from my eyes.

There they were to meet and greet me, those dear chums of other days! --
Older, graver, bent with work and worldly care;
Badly marred in many features, sadly changed in many ways --
Lacking grace of limb and sorely scant of hair.
But I knew them -- oh, I knew them! Knew each girlish trick and trait --
Remnants of the merry coquetry of yore;
And recognized each impish grin, each boyish move and gait --
And I loved them as I never had before!

But ah! I saw an aged pair -- their eyes alight with pride,
Their countenances bright with love and joy! --
Hesitatingly advancing, hand in hand and side by side;
And I caught their murmured words: "My son!" -- "My boy!"
Father! -- Mother! Halt of speech were they, and quaintly, oddly dressed --
But I loved the very ground they trod upon;
And I sprang and caught them in my arms, and strained them to my breast --
As each had held me oft in years agone!

There we left the people cheering; took the well remembered road
Leading to the homestead high upon the hill,
Crossed the shrunken, dribbling creek that once made music as it flowed
To turn the mossy wheel of Bingham's mill;
Passed the lightning-blasted sycamore, its naked arms outspread --
I recalled the very day the bolt was loosed! --
Climbed the slope and reached the farmhouse with its windows sunset-red
And the noisy chickens cluttering to roost.

Supper in the roomy kitchen! Homely bliss without alloy!
There I took my old-time chair and old-time place,
And had the same old plate and mug I had when just a boy --
Heard my pious father say the same old grace.
There we ate and drank and chatted in the fond familiar way--
The gracious, gently manner of the past! --
Till the golden twilight purpled, and the purple paled to gray;
And the twinkling stars came peeping out at last.

In the little white-washed bedroom, where the wan moon's tricksy beams
Pencilled airy fairy pictures on the wall --
In the same fantastic tints that colored all my childhood dreams! --
There I soundly slept till waked by mother's call.
Father's grace was in my mem'ry, mother's voice was in my ears --
The balm of bloom was on the morning air;
Healed of all the hurts and headaches of the burden-bearing years,
A boy again was I -- without a care!

All that summer day I spent in roaming old Clovertown --
Searching here and hunting there for odds and ends
Of broken school-boy idols! -- and in strolling up and down
The streets and shaking hands with long-lost friends.
Some were dwelling in the village -- in the homes where they were born;
Others, like myself, had traveled mile on mile --
Hoping once again to know the joys of youth's sunshiny morn,
To receive the benediction of its smile.

There was Bobby Brown from Texas -- with his gracious grin unfurled,
And an overgrown sombrero on his head;
Johnny Smith, who as a youngster always planned to see the world --
But had never crossed the county ling, instead;
Tommy Plummer from Chicago, Billy Hawkins from New York,
Jimmy Fuller -- looking older than the hills;
Shorty Donaldson from Kansas -- lank and lengthy as a stork,
And wed to pretty frisky Mandy Mills.

Some were there -- and some were absent! One was lost beneath the sea,
Another laid at rest beneath the sod;
One was up in far Alaska -- serving Mammon for a fee,
One was down in distant Chili -- serving God.
Some were single -- more were married! Some had children almost grown,
To whom they gave full mead of Love and praise --
Finding in each disposition early virtues of their own,
Fond and foolish boys and girls of other days!

To the quiet little churchyard -- underneath a spreading thorn,
I went to search for truant Brother Jack;
With waving hand he left us, on a sunny summer morn --
And he never - never - never more came back!
And I thought of him, my playmate, as I stood beside the stone
That told of how he came -- and went away;
And I felt so old and weary, so dejected and so long,
That I wept -- and wondered why he had to stay!

But, ah, the picnic that we held, next day, in Hunter's grove! --
And the dinner that we knelt and hunkered round,
Where the threads of sunlight dangling through the spangling treetops wove
A lacy cloth of gold upon the ground!
How we sniffed the toothsome incense of that altar of delight
As good old Parson Dawson thanked the Lord;
Then like greedy youngster sought to cat up ev'rything in sight --
And joked and laughed and frolicked round the board!

There was lakes and streams of milk and cream, and tablelands of cake --
There were spouting coffee-geysers, steaming-hot;
That fragrant amber drink was just like mother used to make --
For she was there and made it on the spot!
There were mountain-peaks of chicken and extensive plains of pie.
Hills of luscious bread-and-butter, vales of fruit;
'Twas a goodly land of plenty smilling 'neath the summer sky --
And we were marauders after loot!

Then the games we played! The noise we made at tag and blind-man's bluff.
Hide-and-seek, and skip-the-rope, and pris'ner's-base,
Woke the echoes of the woodland; and sounded loud enough
To rouse the dozing dryads of the place.
Shorty Donaldson, in some way, tangled up his legs and fell --
The same old Shorty! -- sprawling on the turf;
And Tim Hardin, captain of the good ship Bonnie Bell.
Gave a sailor shout that thundered like the surf!

A jolly, heedless boy was I for one whole happy week!
Cuddled close to Mother Earth's warm breast again,
I bent my ear to catch the words of wisdom she might speak --
And forgot the vaunted vanities of men,
O'er the well-known hills I rambled, climbed the well-remembered trees, --
Grown to double size since I observed them last! --
Swung and teetered with the sunbeams, romped and rollicked with the breeze.
And sighed to see the rosy hours flit past!

As in olden summers of the golden years of yore,
I trudged the sun-baked highroads up and down;
Loitered in the leafy greenwood and relearned its ancient lore,
And sauntered o'er the meadow-fields of brown.
I plunged into the deep ravine below the barn, to seek
The spring I loved -- and once more drink my fill;
Wandered aimlessly along the banks of old Bald-eagle creek --
And rested in the shade of Bingham's mill.

Bingham's mill-a crazy ruin! Through the doorway yawning wide,
Crept the lazy breeze or swept the boist'rous blast;
From the broken, cobwebbed windows peeped a spirit somber-eyed --
The spirit of the dead and buried past!
And the whirring burrs were silent --lost their busy, buzzing song
And the wheel was idly dabbling in the stream,
While the murmur of the water as it softly lipped along,
Was the music of a long-forgotten dream!

Badly shriveled was the millpond where as boys we dove and swam.
Dry and weed-grown were the forebay and the race;
Gone were laden carts and wagons -- and the ford below the dam
Mirrored now no barefoot urchin's freckled face.
But I loafed and lolled upon the butment's crumbling, mossy brim,
And I fished -- and wished for nothing but to know
That my soul was steeped in sunshine, as the minnows were a-swim
In the filmy floating shadows far below!

Dear delightful Land of merriment! I roamed it all again --
From the gaunt gray house of worship on the ridge
To the humble little schoolhouse nestling low in Carter's glen,
And the sun-fish pool near Sandy Bottom bridge.
I lived and loved and laughed again -- and was so loathe to leave,
I argued with myself for longer stay;
But grim, unfeeling duty sought me out and plucked my sleeve --
And pointed to the city far away!


So here I am back at my work -- revivified, reborn!
In my mind the pressing duties of the day;
But in my soul the sunshine of the dewy summer morn
And the fragrance of the fields of new mown hay
Father's grace still tarries with me, mother's voice still greets my ears --
The balm of bloom still lingers, cool and sweet;
And I'm ready -- eager, ready! -- for the warfare of the years --
Fore the never-ending battle of the street!

And I swing my pack upon my willing shoulder once again --
And smile to note the lightness of the load;
I trudge and whistle on my way, as merrily as when
I trudged and whistled 'long the country road.
And the tumult of the city -- all its brazen clash and blare.
And the hoarse and throbbing thunder of its might --
Is soul-inspiring music of a stirring martial air
To which I march to conquer in the fight!

Yet -- in spite of all! -- I sometimes pause -- and think -- and long to be
Cuddled close to Mother Earth's fond breast again,
To catch the words of wisdom that I know she has for me --
And forget the worthless vanities of men;
To ramble o're the grassy hills, to climb the spreading trees --
The meadow-fields and pasture-lots of roam;
To whistle with the robins and to frolic with the bees --
For my best love's back there in the dear old home!

*    *    *   *    *    *    *    *    *

Old home days, or old home week, began for more practical than sentimental reasons. New England farming towns were losing population and the state and town governments were drowning in debt. In 1897, the governor of New Hampshire, Frank West Rollins, came upon an idea. He established Old Home Week in order to lure back native born New Englanders to their home towns. He thought that, upon seeing where they had been born and turning on the flood of memories, these folk would buy back their old farms, contribute to the upkeep of the local communities, donate to the libraries and meeting houses... and further, that the local towns would awaken from their "moral slumber." He explained:
"I wish that in the ear of every son and daughter of New Hampshire, in the summer days, might be heard whispered the persuasive words: Come back, come back. Do you not hear the call? What has become of the old home where you were born? Do you not remember it -- the old farm back among the hills, with its rambling buildings, its well sweep casting its long shadows, the row of stiff poplar trees, the lilacs and the willows?"
Here, Rollins expressed the nostalgic side of Old Home Week. He knew full well that pulling on strong emotional bonds was a better angle than just asking people to donate money. Rollins was also thinking long into the future of these New England farm towns:
"There have been, of course, reunions since the beginning of time, but my plan differed from the ordinary reunion in that it was to occupy a week in each year so that each one could make his plans to be back, and was to be recognized by the state as a permanent festival."
And his arguments were successful as in 1899, he oversaw the state's first official Old Home Week festivities.

By 1907, when Naylor wrote his ode to Old Home Week, the idea had spread to the rest of New England and across the nation to places such as Ohio, Alabama, North Carolina, Kentucky... and even across national boundaries to Canada and Australia.

What is interesting about Naylor's poem is the expression of the contrast between the city and the country. Of course, the turn of the 20th century brought with it extensive urban expansion and rapid technological advancements. The pace of change frightened many as to what may be inadvertently lost in the process, not to mention whether our human processing abilities would be ready to adapt quickly enough to all that was new and different. The German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote his famous treatise on "The Metropolis and Mental Life" in 1903 in which he warned about the rapidity of images and intellectual stimulation that the city forced upon a person and which would take up large amounts of man's consciousness and mental space. These threats included:
... the rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance, and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions. These are the psychological conditions which the metropolis creates. With each crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational, and social life, the city sets up a deep contrast with small town and rural life with reference to the sensory foundations of psychic life. The metropolis exacts from man as a discriminating creature a different amount of consciousness than does rural life. Here the rhythm of life and sensory mental imagery flows more slowly, more habitually, and more evenly. Precisely in this connection the sophisticated character of metropolitan psychic life becomes understandable -- as over against small town life which rests more upon deeply felt and emotional relationships. These latter are rooted in the more unconscious layers of the psyche and grow most readily in the steady rhythm of uninterrupted habituations. The intellect, however, has its locus in the transparent, conscious, higher layers of the psyche; it is the most adaptable of our inner forces. In order to accommodate to change and to the contrast of phenomena, the intellect does not require any shocks and inner upheavals; it is only through such upheavals that the more conservative mind could accommodate to the metropolitan rhythm of events. Thus the metropolitan type of man -- which, of course, exists in a thousand individual variants -- develops an organ protecting him against the threatening currents and discrepancies of his external environment which would uproot him. He reacts with his head instead of his heart. In this an increased awareness assumes the psychic prerogative. Metropolitan life, thus, underlies a heightened awareness and a predominance of intelligence in metropolitan man. The reaction to metropolitan phenomena is shifted to that organ which is least sensitive and quite remote from the depth of personality. Intellectuality is thus seen to preserve subjective life against the overwhelming power of metropolitan life, and intellectuality branches out in many directions and is integrated with numerous discrete phenomena. (Simmel, 1903)
In short, we lose our emotional connections. An indifferent, almost cold intellectual outlook dominates the urban man because it is required for him to take on all of the rapid changes, all of the mass of stimulating distractors that confront and assault him as he moves through and amidst the city. The values of punctuality, calculating thought processes, and exactness take predominance over a rhythmic connection with the world, spirituality, and emotional bonding. Thereby, man loses some of his instincts and much of his natural connection with the world. As the metropolis is about individual success, personal freedom overtakes social connections in import. Thus, Simmel felt, modern culture leads to a "preponderance of what one may call the 'objective spirit' over the 'subjective spirit.'.. Indeed... we notice a retrogression in the culture of the individual with reference to spirituality, delicacy, and idealism." Self-preservation is of the utmost importance... it dominates the brain of the urban man... and somehow, it kills his soul. Simmel's particular perspectives on urban and rural life have infiltrated the way in which we see the two places.

It is just such a notion that intrigued Raymond Williams in his Introduction to The Country and the City. He writes:
'Country' and 'city' are very powerful words, and this is not surprising when we remember how much they seem to stand for in the experience of human communities. In English, 'country' is both a nation and a part of a 'land'; 'the country' can be the whole society or its rural area. In the long history of human settlements, this connection between the land from which directly or indirectly we all get our living and the achievements of human society has been deeply known. And one of these achievements has been the city: the capital, the large town, a distinctive form of civilisation.

On the actual settlements, which in the real history have been astonishingly varied, powerful feelings have gathered and have been generalised. On the country has gathered the idea of a natural way of life: of peace, innocence, and simple virtue. On the city has gathered the idea of an achieved centre: of learning, communication, light. Powerful hostile associations have also developed: on the city as a place of noise, worldliness and ambition; on the country as a place of backwardness, ignorance, limitation. A contrast between country and city, as fundamental ways of life, reaches back into classical times.

Yet, the real history, throughout, has been astonishingly varied. The 'country way of life' has included the very different practices of hunters, pastoralists, farmers and factory farmers, and its organisation has varied from the tribe and the manor to the feudal estate, from the small peasantry and tenant farmers to the rural commune, from the latifundia and the plantation to the large capitalist enterprise and the state farm. The city, no less, has been of many kinds: state capital, administrative base, religious centre, market-town, port and mercantile depot, military barracks, industrial concentration. Between the cities of ancient and medieval times and the modern metropolis or conurbation there is a connection of name and in part of function, but nothing like identity. Moreover, in our own world, there is a wide range of settlements between the traditional poles of country and city: suburb, dormitory town, shanty town, industrial estate. Even the idea of the village, which seems simple, shows in actual history a wide variation: as to size and character, and internally in its variation between dispersed and nuclear settlements, in Britain as clearly as anywhere...

This importance can be stated, and will have to be assessed, as a general problem. But it is well to say at the outset that this has been for me a personal issue, for as long as I remember. It happened that in a predominantly urban and industrial Britain I was born in a remote village, in a very old settled countryside, on the border between England and Wales. Within twenty miles, indeed at the end of a bus route, was in one direction an old cathedral city, in the other an old frontier market town but only a few miles beyond it the first industrial towns and villages of the great coal and steel area of South Wales. Before I had read any descriptions and interpretations of the changes and variations of settlements and ways of life, I saw them on the ground, and working, in unforgettable clarity. In the course of education I moved to another city, build round a university, and since then, living and travelling and working, I have come to visit, and to need to visit, so many great cities, of different kinds, and to look forward and back, in space and time, knowing and seeking to know this relationship, as an experience and as a problem...

Thus at once, for me, before the argument starts, country life has many meanings. It is the elms, the may, the white horse, in the field beyond the window where I am writing. It is the men in the November evening, walking back from pruning, with their hands in the pockets of their khaki coats; and the women in headscarves, outside their cottages, waiting for the blue bus that will take them, inside school hours, to work in the harvest. It is the tractor on the road, leaving its tracks of serrated pressed mud; the light in the small hours, in the pig-farm across the road, in the crisis of a litter; the slow brown van met at the difficult corner, with the crowded sheep jammed to its slatted sides; the heavy smell, on still evenings, of the silage ricks fed with molasses. It is also the sour land, on the thick boulder clay, not far up the road, that is selling for housing, for a speculative development, at twelve thousand pounds an acre.

As I said, I was born in a village, and I still live in a village. But where I was born was under the Black Mountains, on the Welsh border, where the meadows are bright green against the red earth of the ploughland, and the first trees, beyond the window, are oak and holly. Where I live now is in the flat country, on a headland of boulder clay, towards the edge of the dikes and sluices, the black earth of the Fens, under the high East Anglican skies...

In the east now, at nights, over the field with the elms and the white horse, I watch the glow of Cambridge: a white tinged with orange; and in the autumn, here, the stubble fields are burned, sometimes catching the thorn hedges, and when I saw this first at night I took it as strange accidental fire. My own network, from where I sit writing at the window, is to Cambridge and London, and beyond them to the postmark places, the unfamiliar stamps and the distant cities: Rome, Moscow, New York.

The lights of the city. I go out in the dark, before bed, and look at that glow in the sky: a look at the city while remembering Hardy's Jude, who stood and looked at the distance, attainable and unattainable, Christminster. Or I remember Wordsworth, coming from high country to London, and saying from Westminster Bridge:

"Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This city now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air."

It is true that this was the city before the rush and noise of the working day, but the pulse of the recognition is still unmistakable, and I know that I have felt it again and again: the great buildings of civilisation; the meeting-places; the libraries and theatres, the towers and domes; and often more moving than these, the houses, the streets, the press and excitement of so many people, with so many purposes. I have stood in many cities and felt this pulse: in the physical differences of Stockholm and Florence, Paris and Milan: this identifiable and moving quality: the centre, the activity, the light. Like everyone else I have felt also the chaos of the metro and the traffic jam; the monotony of the ranks of houses; the aching press of strange crowds. But this is not an experience at all, not an adult experience, until it has come to include also the dynamic movement, in these centres of settled and often magnificent achievement. H. G. Wells once said, coming out of a political meeting where they had been discussing social change, that this great towering city was a measure of the obstacle, of how much must be moved if there was to be any change. I have known this feeling, looking up at great buildings that are the centres of power, but I find I do not say 'There is your city, your great bourgeois monument, your towering structure of this still precarious civilisation' or I do not only say that; I say also 'This is what men have built, so often magnificently, and is not everything then possible?' Indeed this sense of possibility, of meeting and of movement, is a permanent element of my sense of cities: as permanent a feeling as those other feelings, when I look from the mountain at the great coloured patchwork of fields that generations of my own people have cleared and set in hedges; or the known living places, the isolated farms, the cluster of cottages by castle or church, the line of river and wood and footpath and lane; lines received and lines made. So that while country and city have this profound importance, in their differing ways, my feelings are held, before any argument starts.

But then also, specifically, I came from a village to a city: to be taught, to learn: to submit to personal facts, the incidents of a family, to a total record; to learn evidence and connection and altering perspectives. If the walls of the colleges were like the walls of parks, that as children we had walked round, unable to enter, yet now there was a gate, an entry, and a library at the end of it: a direct record, if I could learn to read it. It is ironic to remember that it was only after I came that I heard, from townsmen, academics, an influential version of what country life, country literature, really meant: a prepared and persuasive cultural history. I read related things still, in academic books and in books by men who left private schools to go farming, and by others who grew up in villages and are now country writers: a whole set of books, periodicals, notes in newspapers: country life. And I find I keep asking the same question, because of the history: where do I stand in relation to these writers: in another country or in this valuing city? That problem is sharp and ironic in its cultural persistence. (Raymond Williams, The Country and the City, 1973)
And so Williams struggles with the distinctions, the idealizations, the stereotypes, the realities, the nostalgic longings, the connections and disconnections -- that exists between and amongst the city and the country. Old Home Days are a chance to fall into the stereotypes and the nostalgia... or to ponder the ways in which these two realms have been set up against each other as foes and opposites... how they have been typecast and frozen in perpetual images that may not melt upon the actual reality. Nonetheless, Old Home Days proliferate around New England and should be taken in. Old Home Days are not just a chance to remind the city man of his lost connections to family and nature, but to imbue the country with urban vibrancy and ideas. Between city and country, there can and should be an exchange... rather than a fallacious contradistinction. These places are not just places to dig up the graves of memory past, but are living places, full of present and people and life... in which memory is incorporated and thereby its celebration can be a celebration of genuine connection rather than of sentiment only.

No comments:

Post a Comment