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Misdirected Energy.

Sarah Orne Jewett

      There is something ominous in the number of advertisements, in our most widely circulated papers, which offer scraps of silk for patchwork. I have not a word to say about the quality of material which certain friends of mine have had in return for the money they have sent to these merchants. I am going to protest against the whole state of things that makes this business possible and profitable.

      Several hundred years ago it was the custom for women to embroider tapestries, but they had many reasons for doing such work. In the first place there were very few shops, and almost all the cloth that was worn by a household had to be woven and shaped by the members of it; of course all the decoration and adornment of a fine house was necessarily simple and largely of home manufacture. The famous tapestries were almost always the work of the richest women, for they only were free from the incessant household work. In one way they had nothing else to do. Many could not read at all, and, if they could, they had, at best, only their prayer books and a handful of other volumes to spend their time upon; books that were not read so much for what we should call instruction, as for some half superstitious reverence for religious things. Repetition was more important than anything else to the average mind.

     But now that our walls are already covered with neat papers, and our chairs are comfortably cushioned, why should we go on behaving as if we lived in houses with damp gray stone walls, and bare and comfortless furnishings? Why need so many women spend so much of their time in needlework which is quite unnecessary, and really not beautiful. [no question mark] It does not merit admiration when a woman has not one single decent photograph or picture of any sort in her house, and goes on year after year eagerly copying the latest fashions in tidies. More money goes in such ways in the course of five years than would put some beautiful thing within her reach that would be a constant joy and education. Our taste grows by what it feeds upon; and a piece of good sense in the way of ornament puts all the nonsense to shame.

      I believe in having pretty colors in a room. I believe in making it dainty and attractive and home-like as we can; but if anybody asked me what I thought the best way to begin, I should answer by reading.

      This will seem quite apart to some people from any connection with fancy work, but this is what I mean; we must take some way of providing ourselves with the best ideas. If I go into a library, or even stand before one small shelf of well chosen books, this is the thing I think of which has more force for me every year. Here are the records of what the best thinkers have thought and observed about life and its successes and failures. Some of us may live in the same town with a very wise and charming man or woman; we may even have a very helpful and suggestive person under the same roof; but all of us can be on the most intimate terms of friendship with the best men and women of all ages, if we will read what they have written and printed for us, and left as a legacy for our use. The followers of the Old Testament and of the New, have also left testaments for us to read, and some of the wise men and women of our own day are telling us what they think of great questions of modern society. If we do live in the same town with them, they may be so busy with their work that we ought not to claim much of their time, but we can read what they say and be better for it, and gain the closest sort of friendship with them.

      Most people think that reading is simply a thing to be enjoyed, to make an idle hour pass pleasantly; but, while that is a part of the mission of literature, it is only a small part. I am sure that we forget often that we first of all must read for the sake of learning something, and making ourselves more intelligent. I suppose that one of the very first aims of every writer is to make what he has to say as pleasant and attractive as possible. The food of our minds must be palatable, but we must bring an appetite to the feast, Fortunately we all have a certain instinct at first toward what belongs to us, as animals do for their proper food; but, unfortunately, a large part of the reading public never becomes civilized in its literary taste. When we see some of the great piles of absurd, if not shameful, literature that occupy much of the space on every news-stand, it is impossible not to feel that the readers of it are like the Digger Indians and their kindred, who live on dirt and vermin.

      But those who really have a proper liking for good books sometimes read far less than they ought, because they are always thinking that other things must be done first. It is because fancy work steals so much of the time that reading ought to have, that I want some of my readers to find fault with it. There is too little strength and vigor in American women, and it is a pity any of it should be wasted. We are in this world for the sake of growth and development in spiritual things - for the sake of profiting by the experience of life; we ought to learn something, and grow a little, mentally and spiritually, every day of our lives; we ought to be continually elevating our uses and enlarging our horizons.

      Since this is true, ought we to spend a great proportion of our time in doing things that, to all intents and purposes, leave us just where they find us? Every woman has some work to do, some care to take and provision to make, some duties for every day; a certain routine, which whether profitable or unprofitable, uses a great part of her time. Then there comes an hour when she can do what she pleases. Perhaps it is only a few minutes in the morning or at night, but the free time is always ours - longer or shorter.

      Now, if a person lives in a small town and has to be busy in her own house, to look after her family's wants, she sometimes feels shut in to a small circle of things. She grows tired of her little round of duties, and fretful, perhaps, and looks a little way up and down the street, as if she were a bird in a cage. She has a great deal of happiness as she goes along, but still she has times of wondering if she will ever get her work done, and get ahead of things, to a place where she can take a long breath.

      Perhaps some neighbor with a great deal more free time shows her triumphantly a great silk quilt which she has been making, and our poor friend feels as if she really ought to make one too. Everybody has a silk quilt, and so her own few tired evening hours are spent in a desire to rival the tempting piece of work. Perhaps she stitches and fits it together with aching back and stiff fingers and smarting eyes, and it is something to talk about when friends come in, and at last it is done; but after it has been shown to everybody, and its maker has seen a new pattern which is ever so much more to her taste, she puts it away because she doesn't really have a use for it. There is all her time and strength wasted; next year there is a fashion for making elaborate tidies, and she struggles to do those too, and her sitting-room is tangled in worsted works of strange shapes and discordant colors, and life grows less and less interesting, and, when its emergencies come, she somehow is overthrown by them, instead of being their conqueror. When she hears her husband or some of her own friends talk about the events of the time, or some new book, she feels stupid and left out, and wishes she had a little time for reading. On the parlor table are some books she had before she was married - she used to be a good scholar at school - and there are two or three great useless volumes she has bought at the door, not because they could tell her anything that it was important for her to know, but because they had ornamental covers.

      I wish everybody would read three or four good novels every year, if only for the sake of seeing something of people in other situations of life. It is a great pleasure to know some of the characters in Mrs. Oliphant's stories, for instance; to be familiar with the pretty English houses they live in, and to follow them through their perplexities, and interests and little excitements. I wish, when we find things in our story books that we don't understand, we could make notes of them, and look up the explanation or details in somebody's encyclopædia. I wish we got new ideas about our everyday work; there are plenty of wise people trying to help us cook better and more economically, and telling us what we ought to know - we, in our familiar homes. Some of the greatest scholars in the world have been men and women who were very busy about other things than books through almost the whole of their waking hours. Newspapers are a help, but they don't take the place of good books. It is only by getting at new ideas - finding out what wiser people than we think about life in its different aspects - that we shall grow and be really fit to settle the great problems of existence. So, if we must stay at home, let us go traveling with General Gordon or Stanley, or some of the brave men who are real missionaries wherever they go, no matter whether it is north or south or east or west. The way to make our houses beautiful is to fill them and their ordering with a large and intelligent spirit. If we only think scraps of worsted and patchwork, we shall forever go on making them; if we think books and pictures and simple coverings and charming colors and attractive economies, instead of repellant extravagances, we shall go on finding these and putting them in their places in our homes. It is not for nothing that there are so many delightful biographies nowadays, and that they are made so much more interesting every year; they are an outgrowth of civilization, and are meant for us to take pattern by. To match our age there are thousands of books; to match the condition of the ancient queens of France there were the crewels and the tambour frames and the ambitious schemes for making tapestries. Machinery does so much of the work of our houses so much more cheaply than we can do it ourselves, I will do better things; I will climb the next step and the next. It is going back too far and hindering ourselves too much, putting ourselves into wrong relations with our time, to use our precious leisure in making patchwork tapestries, or in doing anything which is of so little real use or ornament, and makes such waste of our half hours and our strength.


NOTES

"Misdirected Energy" appeared in The Congregationalist, Thursday Oct. 9, 1884 p. 333, first page of this issue. This text is made available courtesy of the Newberry Library.
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patchwork: pieces of fabric for fitting together decorative tops of quilts.
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tidies: A receptacle for sewing materials, odds and ends. Probably in this case, Jewett refers to pieces of fancywork used to protect parts of a chair or sofa from wear and dirt.
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what the best thinkers have thought and observed: See Matthew Arnold's preface to Literature and Dogma. "Matthew Arnold, b. Dec. 24, 1822, d. Apr. 15, 1888, was a major Victorian poet, the principal English literary critic of his generation, an important commentator on society and culture, and an effective government official. His father was Thomas Arnold, the headmaster of Rugby School." (Source: Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia).
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Digger Indians: The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia identifies Digger Indians as the Paiute, "North American Indians who were traditionally divided into northern and southern groups that spoke different Shoshonean languages. The Northern Paiute occupied portions of Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, and California; the Southern Paiute were in parts of Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California. Sparse food resources in the Great Basin area forced the Northern Paiute to live in small groups. Temporary leaders were chosen for rabbit drives, war, and dance festivities. Individual families lived in sagebrush or rush huts, called wickiups. They made a variety of twined and coiled baskets adapted for seed collecting, processing, and storage. The Southern Paiute subsisted principally by digging for roots, although those occupying the high plateau skirting the Grand Canyon area planted maize and squash in irrigated fields."
    Clearly this account relates only remotely to Jewett's reference to the Diggers as "living on dirt and vermin."  It appears Jewett has accepted uncritically the widespread view that at least some of the Paiutes lived at a low level of civilization.  In November of 1884, The American Missionary (38:11) reported: "The Digger Indians, were until a few years ago, considered the most ignorant and least intelligent human beings on the Pacific coast. Those who live on Rancho Chico have now been educated in civilized ways.  They have learned to read and write almost as well as white people; and some have even become musicians.  They recently gave an entertainment in San Francisco, under the care of their instructors" (326).  Another "Indian" note on the same page tells of Sarah Winnemunca, "daughter of a chief of the Piutes," giving a lecture in Virginia City.  These notes give some idea of the complexity of how whites thought and wrote about Indians at this time.  Jewett's reference stands out here, because in other texts, such as "Tame Indians" (1875) and "York Garrison" (1886), she seems at pains to emphasize the humanity and culture of Native Americans.
    A likely source for Jewett's "information" is California Sketches, Second Series (1883) by O. P. Fitzgerald, available on-line as a Gutenberg ebook.  The second sketch, on "The Diggers," opens:

    The Digger Indian holds a low place in the scale of humanity. He is not intelligent; he is not handsome; he is not very brave. He stands near
the foot of his class, and I fear he is not likely to go up any higher. It is more likely that the places that know him now will soon know him no more, for the reason that he seems readier to adopt the bad white man's whisky and diseases than the good white man's morals and religion. Ethnologically he has given rise to much conflicting speculation, with which I will not trouble the gentle reader. He has been in California a long time, and he does not know that he was ever anywhere else. His pedigree does not trouble him; he is more concerned about getting something to eat. It is not because he is an agriculturist that he is called a Digger, but because he grabbles for wild roots, and has a general fondness for dirt. I said he was not handsome, and when we consider his rusty, dark-brown color, his heavy features, fishy black eyes, coarse black hair, and clumsy gait, nobody will dispute the statement. But one Digger is uglier than another, and an old squaw caps the climax....

    The Digger has a good appetite, and he is not particular about his eating. He likes grasshoppers, clover, acorns, roots, and fish. The flesh of a dead mule, horse, cow, or hog, does not come amiss to him--I mean the flesh of such as die natural deaths. He eats what he can get, and all he can get. In the grasshopper season he is fat and flourishing. In the suburbs of Sonora I came one day upon a lot of squaws, who were engaged in catching grasshoppers. Stretched along in line, armed with thick branches of pine, they threshed the ground in front of them as they advanced, driving the grasshoppers before them in constantly increasing numbers, until the air was thick with the flying insects. Their course was directed to a deep gully, or gulch, into which they fell exhausted. It was astonishing to see with what dexterity the squaws would gather them up and thrust them into a sort of covered basket; made of willow-twigs or tule-grass, while the insects would be trying to escape; but would fall back unable to rise above the sides of the gulch in which they had been entrapped. The grasshoppers are dried, or cured, for winter use. A white man who had tried them told me they were
pleasant eating, having a flavor very similar to that of a good shrimp. (I was content to take his word for it.)

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too little strength and vigor in American women: The idea that American women were especially weak, delicate, unhealthy was widely expressed in the late 19th century. One helpful source on this topic is Chapter 2 of Dale M. Bauer, editor, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1998.
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we ought to be continually elevating our uses and enlarging our horizons: This theme recurs in much of Jewett's early writing; the language here echoes Ralph Waldo Emerson's in "Self-Reliance" (1841) and H. D. Thoreau's in Walden (1854).
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Mrs. Oliphant's stories: Margaret Oliphant (1828-97) was a Scots writer of over 100 books.
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General Gordon or Stanley: Probably, Jewett refers to Charles George Gordon (1833-1885). Gordon was a British war hero, who fought in the Crimean War (1853-56), the Second Opium War in China (1860), and eventually died in the siege of Khartoum. Jewett may have admired him especially for his activity in suppressing the slave trade and keeping order while he was governor-general of the Sudan (1877-1880). Almost certainly she refers to Sir Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) "a British-American journalist and explorer who achieved fame in 1871, when he found the Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone." (Source: Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia).
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.


Main Contents
Uncollected Essays