Uncollected Pieces for Young Readers
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WAYS TO DO THINGS.

BY SARAH ORNE JEWETT.

XXVI.

TOWN CLERKS.



     EVERY year of my life I find myself sorrier that I did not get into the habit, when I was growing up, of making notes of the facts and fancies that interested me. My father had an immense fund of knowledge of the local history and tradition of our native town, and I was always very much interested in what he had to say. During a long experience of practice as a physician he had an excellent opportunity to make himself acquainted with what information belonged both to his contemporaries and the generation before his own. Beside him I had several friends who were very old people and whom I used to like to visit because they were so entertaining with their stories of the old times: of their own childhood and the people who had borne the same relations to them as they did to me.
   But the years went by, and now I would give anything if I had kept at least some of the very valuable knowledge which has utterly perished with my elders and betters just because I had not enough wisdom and forethought to now and then write a half-page of records. I remember vaguely the once familiar stories which used to delight me, but I cannot tell them again with accuracy, or be sure of many dates or names which I should be more than glad to turn to in some little note book.
    There are some persons who have the power of memory developed to a marvelous degree -- who are living encyclopædias, and who are rarely to be caught tripping in any statement. But these are by no means common and are very apt early in life to direct their gift into some special channel. If that is not the case they just let their lives drift on without anyplace -- their minds are like ragbags out of which one may sometimes pull a piece of cloth which is large enough for some use, but where most of the contents are utterly worthless; conspicuous only for their quantity. And these persons who have never trained and employed their memories cannot be depended upon as recorders, so we will count them out of this plan. Most of us can remember pretty well the things which most closely concern us and which minister to our chief interests -- that is, we remember them for a time and then, if they are not great leading facts, but only details and suggestions, they fade away. It is a great deal better as Hamerton says, to have a selecting memory than a miscellaneous one, which holds no end of useless matter, but for all that we waste and lose a great many things it would be for other people's advantage if not our own, to keep. Perhaps we can apply this thought to other things afterward, but first I should like to gather a Company of Town Clerks.
    Every town elects a man to keep the records because people have long ago found out that they cannot get on comfortably without a systematic registration of the most important facts of their history. If you go to the town clerk's office -- I am speaking first of all to country boys and girls -- you will be surprised to find that the town has been keeping a sort of diary ever since it was a town at all, and I dare say that you will take the oldest volume in your hands first and turn over its yellow leaves with a good deal of reverence. The early records will seem very interesting to you, and you will find your own family name perhaps, before you have read the first page, and then will look with great eagerness to see what your grandfather and his grandfather were busy about. There will be the record of their births and marriages and deaths perhaps and you can piece out the outlines of your family history. I shall not say much about these old books because if you really care about them you will go to the town clerk and ask if you may look at his little library very carefully -- and if you don't think it worth while to spend your time in this way, there is no use in my trying to persuade you. Perhaps you will think you have spent an hour very wisely, and will begin to understand one of the ways in which people fit themselves for the writing of history. If you should go into any of the great storehouses of English records you would be pretty sure to find several persons busily at work over the great volumes, some making notes from the documents of the time of Queen Anne and some reading carefully the worn and crumbling parchments which gave his title to the Master of Rolls. These gentlemen and ladies will spend many days in such research if they are going to write a chapter of English history, and there are certain periods when partisanship and rival factions in politics have left opposing accounts of people and events, so that the historians of today are still taking sides, and Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary of Scots, for example, are rivals yet, with troops of faithful followers. Many a lie has been given to the keeping of these faithful pages and while vexed questions puzzle the scholars, which the brown pages could easily have been made to answer, they tell no secrets -- they are deaf and dumb -- the old record books, though we cannot help thinking they have a certain wisdom of their own and are conscious of the past.
    But, to come back to our own time, here in America; I cannot help feeling that there ought to be more than one clerk for every town. The one who is regularly appointed can do all the most important business; can go- to the town-meetings and make out the marriage licenses and do all that sort of thing, but he will be sure to leave out a good many things that people will like to remember, and to make sure of a great many years from now, when we are dead and gone.
    I said at first that I was so sorry that I did not write down some of the dates and stories which my old friends used to tell me, and so I am going to urge you to profit by my regret. Every boy and girl will readily think of some friend who can remember what happened a great many years ago -- perhaps it will be your own grandfather or grandmother, and your eyes shine as you think how many times they have told you stories of their childhood and youth, and of the men and women who were most interesting and important then.
    Now, don't get a sheet of paper and sit down before the dear old souls as if you were going to insist upon their making their wills or to do some other uncomfortable things; don't say to them: "Who did you use to know and how old was he?" or attack them in any foolish way. When some evening has been spent most pleasantly in talking about old times, and they have been exercising their memories in a most delightful way both for your sake and their own, just try to see how much you can save for yourself; try to write down all you can think of easily. Perhaps they will begin by saying how the village has grown in the last fifty years; how the place where somebody's fine house stands now was a bit of rough pasture land, and then they will go on to tell you who cleared that up and built a little house when he was married, and then you can ask whom he married and will quickly learn all the fortunes of the family. You will be perfectly amazed to find out how much that is interesting has happened to that one small piece of land -- how many people have owned it -- or else the varied successes and misfortunes which have come to those who have lived there, three generations it may be, since your grandfather was a boy.
    There are two good sides to spending an evening in this way -- you will be sure to learn something and it will give pleasure to the one who entertains you -- besides this, you will be making it easy for yourself to be accurate in making notes and in paying attention to a speaker, and these things will be most valuable to you all your life long. I remember my father saying to me when I was a little child that I must get into a firm habit of listening carefully if I tried to listen at all, else I should not be able to listen to or remember the things I really cared to keep. It used to seem to me very stupid and unnecessary when people talked to me about disciplining my mind, but I have learned now what they meant and how hard it is to do without such discipline. It is to have one's mind under control, to be able to use it, and to make it work accurately. There are some lessons at school which are very uninteresting while one is studying them, but because you insist upon your memory holding fast the truths of them, and your reason working with the rules of them -- you can take up any studies of the same sort afterward with very little difficulty. If you can't learn to play one game of marbles you will probably bungle at all, and if you can't muster enough cleverness of fingers and sense of harmony to manage one set of scales and exercises on the piano you will probably never make a musician.
    I don't believe that we all need aim at being historians, yet I am sure we should not be sorry if we began to fill a little blank book with bits of interesting fact about the history of our own towns, of their most noted men, and most striking events. By and by when you are grown up it may happen that somebody in the family will say, "Now, Grandmother could have told us all about that -- she used to speak of it often, but I have only a vague recollection of the story." Then you will suddenly remember the little record book, and find it on a top shelf with its pages written in your childish hand which seems already unfamiliar, and there will be the few lines which it will be such a satisfaction to have. Perhaps it may be very important to somebody else if not to you.
    I am not sure that it is wise to keep a diary, for most of us have not anything that is worth writing about in every one of our days, but I do believe that it is worth while to have a sort of journal where we can keep some account of the most important things, if only for the pleasure we shall have in looking them over by and by. There are many charming books which the world would have been sorry to miss -- that were made up in just this way, of personal reminiscences, and notes of men and things -- and a few like Mr. White's History of Selborne which is a plain record of a very small English village and its wild birds and animals and out-of-door life. You have no idea how much more interesting it will make the whole world to you if you carefully acquaint yourself with the smallest part of it. Don't try to make a fine story out of what conversation you hear. Just begin by putting down short notes -- or if you find you can remember part of a long series of reminiscences write them on alternate lines of your page and when you hear the account repeated you can fill in the gaps. Your friend will be pleased enough if you ask within a day or two whether his grand-uncle's name was John or Jonas, or whether it was 1822 when he saw the town in such gala dress and was one of the great procession and took part in the festivities in honor of Lafayette -- or whether it was your great uncle or his, who was taken prisoner and carried to the island of Jamaica in the war of 1812. And you will find out about the old ministers and doctors of the town -- and a great many things well worth keeping. I can't begin to tell you all the advantages it will be -- first to listen carefully, then to make written notes, and most of all to tell things yourself just as they are, with certainty and simplicity. It will do you more good than formal compositions and you will soon learn to discriminate between worthless incidents and valuable ones -- though I advise you always to follow your own instincts and write exactly what seems most important to you at the time. Tell about yourself and what you do if you think it will be wise to know the true facts in the case twenty years after. You won't care to know that the Fourth of July, 1884, was a pleasant day, but you will care to remind yourself that you were this figure or that in the Antiques and Horribles. When you read that you will remember the whole day well enough. Certain facts are the keys to whole store-rooms in your memory, and those are the ones to be written down carefully in your best round hand.
    But this is all about being your own clerk: I hope you won't forget to be assistant town clerks as well, and rescue every bit of the town history you can find, floating about in the river of everyday talk.


 Notes

"Town Clerks" appeared in a special volume "T" of Wide Awake, Boston: D. Lothrop & Co., 1885, pp. 13-15.  The volume was prepared for the Chautauqua Young Folks Reading Union, "the young people's branch of the Chautauqua movement for popular home education."  The introduction to the volume opens:

     As the C.Y.F.R.U. is now beginning what in institutions of learning (one of which we are, of course) is called "the scholastic year," it may be well to explain its designs and plans, for the benefit of our new readers.  It is an endeavor to provide for young people, boys and girls, the opportunities which the great C.L.S.C., “the College at Home,” gives to the older people: namely, a course of reading which will at once interest and instruct, and give acquaintance with the most important departments of knowledge.  This is given partly in this JOURNAL and in the magazine WIDE AWAKE, and partly in a number of selected books, apart from the magazines.  The course is carefully prepared to include subjects concerning which a well-read boy or girl needs to know.  Upon these subjects articles are prepared in serial form, giving variety to the readings, and leading the student from month to month through interesting and instructive papers, illustrated whenever pictures are useful.  No person can even glance over the list of topics in the Required Readings of the last twelve months without noticing their range and the value of the knowledge contained in them.  Three years of careful reading in the course of the C.Y.F.R.U. will give no light education; and that, too, with ease and without severe study; for the course can be read in twenty minutes a day.
     Encarta (1998) describes the Chautauqua movement, an "adult education movement founded in the United States. Combining education, recreation, and religion, the movement took its name from Chautauqua Lake, New York, on whose shores the first, and by far the most successful, of the Chautauqua schools was founded. There, in 1874, American Methodist Bishop John Heyl Vincent set up a Sunday school teachers assembly designed to 'utilize the general demand for summer rest by uniting daily study with healthful recreation.' The project was so successful that other denominations joined the assembly. Additional features, including popular lectures, concerts, readings, and social entertainment, were soon added, and the program opened to the general public. In 1878 the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, designed to give year-round service to local study groups, was set up, and in 1882 a correspondence school division, one of the first of its kind in the country, was established."
     The text of "Town Clerks" is available by courtesy of the University of New England Maine Women Writers Collection.
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Hamerton:  Probably this is Philip Gilbert Hamerton (1834-1894), English artist and art critic.  The source of these ideas about memory, however, is not known.  Assistance is welcome.
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Queen Anne … title to the Master of Rolls:   Anne (1665-1714) was queen on England (1702-14), the last sovereign of the house of Stuart. Encarta identifies the Master of the Rolls as the president of the Civil Division of the English Court of Appeal, the last court of appeal in a civil judgment.  A subsequent appeal can be made to the House of Lords.
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Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary of Scots:  Mary Stuart (1542-1587) was queen of Scotland from her birth until 1568, when she was forced to abdicate in favor of her son, James VI, who eventually became King James I of England.  Because of complexities of religion and politics, the Catholic Mary’s reign was precarious.  Upon her abdication, she sought refuge with the Protestant Queen of England, Elizabeth I (1533-1603; reign 1558-1603).  The politically and religiously charged rivalry between the two queens eventually led to Elizabeth ordering Mary’s execution for treason.
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Mr. White's History of Selborne:  Gilbert White (1720-1793), though a fellow at Oriel College, Oxford, lived most of his life at Selbourne, in England, as a curate, where he could follow his avocations of naturalist and writer. His correspondence with Daines Barrington grew into the Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne (1788).
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whether it was 1822 … the festivities in honor of Lafayette:  The French Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834) was an enormously popular hero in the United States after his participation in the American Revolution of 1776. The Marquis and Marquise de Lafayette made a grand tour of the United States in 1825.  Jewett makes use of the event in her children's story, "Peg's Little Chair," which appeared in Wide Awake in 1891.
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taken prisoner and carried to the island of Jamaica in the war of 1812::  The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia says, "The War of 1812 was fought between the United States and Great Britain from June 1812 to the spring of 1815, although the peace treaty ending the war was signed in Europe in December 1814. The main land fighting of the war occurred along the Canadian border, in the Chesapeake Bay region, and along the Gulf of Mexico; extensive action also took place at sea."  Jewett's grandfather, Theodore Furber Jewett was captured from his American merchant ship during the War of 1812 and held briefly on the Dartmoor prison ship at Bristol, England (Blanchard, Sarah Orne Jewett, p. 8).
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you were this figure or that in the Antiques and Horribles:  The Antiques and Horribles was once a common part of the celebration of the American Independence Day on July 4.  It consisted of a procession of masked and costumed figures, often including Uncle Sam, the Yankee cartoon figure dressed in top-hat, stars and stripes often used to graphically represent the United States.  Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) observes in her essay, "How to Celebrate the Fourth of July":  "Removing to Boston some ten years later, I found the night of the third of July rendered almost sleepless by the shrill gamut of gunpowder discharges. The ringing of bells and the booming of cannon destroyed the last chance of an early morning nap, and in self-defense most people left their beds and went forth to see what could be seen. This was some-times a mock procession of the Antiques and Horribles, so called in parody of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery, so well known in and about Boston."
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College


Uncollected Pieces for Young Readers
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