Protoplasm and House-Cleaning.
SARAH O. JEWETT.
I AM roused to make solemn reflections this morning on life and progress, to ask whether the advances we make, and the heights we attain, add sufficiently to our happiness and contentment. Do not discourage me in the outset by saying that mere satisfaction and pleasure are low aims, though Mr. Froude has an eloquent and convincing passage on this subject, in his Essay on the Book of Job.
But, after all, we do look somewhat for happiness, -- we do measure the success or failure of men's lives, more or less by this standard. We will not yield wholly to the idea that a man, however great his spiritual and metaphysical achievements and capabilities, is to be envied, if he gives us no outward evidence of being victorious. For we anticipate a material success and a visible happiness.
I make no effort to be scientific. I shall not try to give an accurate definition of Protoplasm. Never mind whether it is a substance with definite physical and chemical properties of the highest importance, as regards our vital organization, or only a word representing a set of ideas, or a group of radically different substances, or one of the 'words, words, words!' as Hamlet said to Polonius. I think you will not mind the non-settlement of this question, and I should not wish to blind you by leading you too suddenly from darkness to the blinding daylight. But I consider the second part of my subject a fine type of the height of progress to which we have attained, and I merely make the suggestion of Protoplasm by way of reminding you of the wide distance between the two points, of departure and attainment.
Spring cleaning is truly the reign of an idea to which every other interest and occupation must bow. What attention is paid to any demand of society on the day when the parlor carpets are to be shaken? It is reckoned almost useless to attempt writing the history of one's own age while one is sure to be influenced by some of its conflicting prejudices, and so incapacitated from seeing the whole ground. It is hard, even after centuries have gone by, to be impartial, and avoid the danger of being one-sided. And some of the best histories have been written by men who were foreigners to the country of which they wrote. And I claim to be heard with respect in this matter, for the spring cleaning of my house is over with, and I did not help.
Some one says that it is a grand triumph of mind over matter; surely it is heroic, this being willing to undergo, at stated periods, an operation which makes us uncomfortable. You may mention the martyrs of old, who were hanged and stoned and drowned; but that was only for once!
I was driving to-day, and met a cheerful company of gypsies. I had left the room where my favorite corner is, in a state of chaos that was wholly undesirable. My attention had been called to a stack of my books, and other possessions, waiting for me to carry them away to some less convenient place than my desk or chair, and I fled to the highways. Those lucky gypsies! They live in wagons without springs; they are unenviable in some other particulars; but their years go smoothly round, their housekeeping is uniform, and unbroken by any such catastrophes as are ever looming up before us. There was a woman seated upon a pile of hay and dirty looking bundles, and smoking a long clay pipe; there were two dear little dogs sound asleep at her feet, and a child leaned over the side of the wagon, dragging a forlorn shaker bonnet by its only string. The lord of the wagon-hold was taking gentle exercise by the side of the lazy horse, and some older children ran ahead to a farmhouse with a pail and a basket. That woman had no cellar and no closets; her carpet of green grass sprinkled with dandelions has not needed taking up.
Is there no chance that we are in a transition stage as regards the outward requisites of our home life? The love and interest we have for each other -- the sentimental and moral part of it is in a much more hopeful state, but it cannot be possible that our housekeeping is perfected when twice a year such annoyances are inevitably ours. The idea of cleanliness reigns over us, but may we not be certain that sometime all these things will cease to be associated with discomfort?[.] It is not the ideal setting one's house in order, to have one's possessions put away in inconvenient places where they cannot be found without a loss of time and temper. But each of us has some peculiar grievance of this kind, and it would lead us, if more were said, to meditate with interest upon the ancient pastoral life.
Follow any brook far enough and it leads you to the sea; and here I am thinking of the disadvantages of our position; the general disadvantages, not those of the present state of housekeeping alone. We so much more readily accept the good old things that were established by our predecessors, than the new. And who can help feeling we are somewhat defrauded, when he thinks of the greater advantages which will belong to the day of those who will live after us, for which our day is the starting point?[.] For in all times and acts there is both a beginning and an ending; there is a completion, and the germ of something afterwards to be completed. We are seeing the protoplasms that are to develop more and more through the years to come. How do we know that we are not fighting as blindly and unreasonably against progress as our ancestors did? The world learns so slowly, and men are so unwilling to follow their leaders. The advances that are no longer new things to us, to which we have been familiar from our childhood, and which unless we stop to think seem always to have existed, were by no means made easily.
Look at the history of the practice of medicine. It seems to have met with the most benighted opposition to its most important improvements. There was poor Lady Mary Wortley Montague, who introduced small-pox innoculation into England from Turkey. Lord Wharncliffe says in his life of her: 'Lady Mary protested that during the four or five years succeeding her arrival at home, she seldom passed a day without regretting her patriotic undertaking. The clamors raised against the practice, and against her were beyond belief. The faculty all rose in arms to a man, foretelling failure and disastrous consequences; the clergy descanted from their pulpits on the impiety of taking events out of the hands of Providence. And the common people were taught to look upon her us an unnatural mother who had risked the lives of her own children.' The doctors have even fought each other most bitterly; often refusing to believe in, and deriding the discoveries which afterwards come to be considered landmarks of the profession. Moliere who used to be called the terror of the Parisian apothecaries makes one of his dramatis personae say to another. 'Call in a doctor, and if you do not like his physic, I'll soon find you another who will condemn it.'
We suffer, no doubt, in all connections from being in an age of transition; but affer all, we have the consolation of being sure that we are better off than our ancestors were, and this comparison has served to flatter the pride and increase the consequence of the generations that have preceded us. It may be humilating to acknowledge that we in our day are capable only of originating the merely protoplastic ideas, the first formations of the successes and improvements of the future.
But because all science and art, all culture, has not culminated in our ages; because we cannot do what we wish to do, is all we have attained and do know to pass for nothing? [.] The Hospital is not finished, though it is long past its protoplastic stage, when it was only a suggestion in acknowledgment of the great need in our State. Who ignores what has been done for it so far? Who forgets what its president's share of the work has been, or the trustees', the generosity of its donors, the interest shown in its welfare and success by rich and poor? When the hospital is finished and doing its grand service; when the only workmen within its walls are its doctors and nurses, who will not be glad; but is not the fact of its being in progress one that gives us satisfaction now?
So do not let us quarrel with the unalterable, and even if our most cherished work and plan should prove in the ages to come merely a first hint and foreshadowing, let us be glad of the light that is shining for us. The insufficiency; the need of something better; the awkwardness of the means we use to accomplish our ends; all these tower up grandly when contrasted with the machinery of life a hundred years ago. And so, letting alone the question whether our present position will seem by and by to have been high or low in the scale of ascent, we will remember that every step is necessary, everything is worth while, and be satisfied.
"Protoplasm and House-Cleaning" originally appeared in The Tonic (Portland, ME, June 17, 1873, p. 3). The Tonic, edited by Mary S. Deering, published from June 7 through June 19 of 1873 as a daily newspaper of the Maine General Hospital Fair in Portland, Maine. The text appears here courtesy of the collections of the Maine Historical Society, Portland, ME.
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Mr. Froude ... Essay on the Book of Job: English author, James Anthony Froude (1818-1894) is remembered in part for his work on Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). His "Essay on Job" was published in book form in 1854. Probably Jewett refers to the passage visible in this Google Book preview.
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Hamlet said to Polonius: See William Shakespeare, Hamlet, II, ii.
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shaker bonnet: Shakers are known for the simplicity and plainness of their designs. Founded in England in the eighteenth century, "the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, also known as the Millennial Church, or the Alethians, came to be called Shakers because of the trembling induced in them by their religious fervor." Under the leadership of Mother Ann Lee the sometimes persecuted Shakers set up communal villages in the United States, beginning in 1776. (Source: Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia).
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Lady Mary Wortley Montague ... small-pox innoculation .... Lord Wharncliffe: Lady Mary Wortley Pierrepont Montagu (1689-1762) was an English letter writer and poet. Her husband, Edward Montagu , served as ambassador to Turkey, 1716-1718; there Lady Mary wrote a famous set of letters. She also observed and introduced into England the Turkish practice of inoculating against smallpox. (Source: Encarta Encyclopedia) Her Letters and Works, 3 Volumes, edited by her great-grandson, Lord Wharncliffe, appeared in 1837.
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Providence: God as active in the material world.
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Moliere ... 'Call in a doctor, and if you do not like his physic, I'll soon find you another who will condemn it': Born Jean Baptiste Poquelin, Molière (1622-1673) was a French comic dramatist, remembered best perhaps for his play, Tartuffe (1664). He also wrote The Doctor in Spite of Himself (1739) and The Imaginary Invalid (1673). Almost certainly, Jewett's quotation is from: Fallacies of the Faculty (1861) by Samuel Dickson, Lecture 1, p. 4. She reproduces the passage almost exactly. See Google Books. Another very similar passage appears in "Of Experience," by the French essayist, Montaigne (1533-1592): "If your doctor does not think it good for you to sleep, to drink wine, or to eat such-and-such a food, don't worry: I'll find you another who will not agree with him" (The Complete Works of Montaigne: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters, essay 13, part III. Stanford UP p. 833).
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Hospital is not finished: Maine General Hospital (now the Maine Medical Center) was founded in the early 1870s. This essay and Jewett's other contributions for The Tonic were part of a fund-raising fair to complete construction of the original hospital. That building now houses the hospital archives.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.
If you find errors or items needing annotation, please contact the site manager.