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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

On Being Born Away from Home

By Titus Munson Coan (1836–1921)

[Born in Hilo, Hi., 1836. Died in New York, N. Y., 1921. The Galaxy. 1877.]

ALEXANDER HAMILTON was an eminent American who migrated in search of a home; but seeking, not quitting, our country. Born of English parents in another British colony, the West Indies, he spent his boyhood cursing the fate which had doomed him, apparently, to what he called the “grovelling condition of a clerk” in the North Caribbee islands. He longed to escape from trade; boylike, he longed for a war, for the opportunity of distinction in affairs. Nor did he have to wait until age, or even until maturity, for verification of the saying of his contemporary, Goethe, about the final fulfilment of the desires of youth. What Hamilton desired in boyhood came to him promptly, almost as by the rubbing of the lamp. We all know the story: how at fifteen he found his way to New Jersey, whence extricating himself he went to Columbia college; and how, while he was there, the Revolutionary war broke out, making the lad drop his books at once to accept an appointment as major of artillery; and how naturally his career flowed from that initial point. And in our own times Thackeray was another product of a British colony, having been born in Calcutta, and spending the first seven years of his childhood there. I will not venture to say that I trace much colonial influence in his writings. He may have been an Indian at heart, but his novels are certainly those of a clubman and a Londoner; and none of his essays disclose very much of the Hindoo. Sainte-Claire Deville, again, one of the truest of Frenchmen, was born, like Hamilton, in the Antilles.

But how many have there been who never found a real home, though they sought it painfully and with tears! Byron, the predestinate wanderer, and Rousseau, who never found rest, who complained that his birth was but the beginning of his misfortunes, le premier de mes malheurs—these are types of the less fortunate class. We need not multiply examples; it is the old story of wandering and homelessness. How often is the homing effort made in vain! One would fancy the air filled with piloting spirits that endeavor to find ways of escape for the languishing body, spirits constantly coming and going between the rock of exile and the far distant home. Sometimes the effort succeeds, and sometimes it fails; the spirit wastes itself in vain endeavor, passes away like the unnoticed melting of a cloud. To spirits thus aspiring, thus failing, life is indeed what old Desportes calls it, a bitter and thorny blossom, une fleur espineuse et poignante. For what is the loss of opportunity but the loss of the soul? and the conscious loss of opportunity may go on for a lifetime, a protracted martyrdom. Take the case of any intelligent exile, some wanderer in the Macerian desert, some refined person unluckily born in Patagonia, who rejects the Patagonian ideals, who no longer craves the most succulent of limpets gathered at the lowest tide: in our own comfort and satisfaction cannot we extend a little compassion to him? Not that I have the least prejudice against Patagonia; but we need a name for the better concentration of our sympathy. The intelligent but discontented Patagonian, then, the man who rejects the Patagonian ideals, whose thoughts are not the thoughts of Patagonia, whose ways are not Patagonian ways, he to whom even the most successful popular career in Patagonia would seem a humiliation, because it would associate him with the Patagonian character, and so compromise him before the extra-Patagonian world—his, I say, is not a happy case. His exile must end like other banishments for life—either in escape or in death. For while he lives he must do without spiritual light and heat, without the intellectual climate that he needs.

Do you call this a morbid state of mind in the Patagonian? Well, it may be that he should imitate the repose, the serenity of the limpet; it may be his duty to rest contented with the beach at low tide, with the estate to which he was born; and yet I say that his feeling is not devoid of a certain distinction. It may be, indeed, very blamable, but it is a feeling that is no trait of ignoble natures.

And there is, too, a sanative quality in that feeling. His critical attitude may help the exile to keep before him higher standards, whether in thought or in conduct, whether in his “Hellenizing” or his “Hebraizing” tendencies, as Mr. Arnold calls them, than he might entertain were he living comfortably at the very centre. His privations may thus be more effective than the maceration of the recluse in keeping him in sympathy with culture, with the best things of the mind; and surely that is some compensation for living in Patagonia! There is still another: there is a fortunate exemption for such exiles—fortunate we may safely call it, though it is but a negative beatitude—the exemption from envy. That is worth not a little. In Paris, in London, in Pekin, how many provocatives to envy beset even the philosopher! For in those towns he must see many undeniably superior persons about him—persons superior to himself not only in fortune, but in ability. There, in attainment of all kinds, he meets his rivals; and if he is a real philosopher, he will remember Creon’s caution—“not to get the idea fixed in your head that what you say and nothing else is right.” Still, philosopher or not, he will be likely to envy some of the desirable things that he sees; and the fault is perhaps excusable: at any rate an occasional touch of the claw, an effleurement now and then of the passion, need not surprise us, even when we do not excuse it, in London or Pekin. But in the Patagonian civilization, however important it may be to the progress of the world, what does such a man find to envy? Surely the higher provocatives to that weakness are not abundant. Hereditary wealth, ancient family dignities, culture, scholarship, imposing genius—these do not surround him, these do not confront him with his inferiority as they do (let us say) in our country. It is we, then, who are the unhappy ones in this respect; but we can understand, at least, the weakness of brethren who may be a little shaken by the contemplation of the desirable things in which the richer civilizations abound.

Yes, the careers which we may observe from day to day may certainly prove stumbling-blocks to some of us. The thriving politician or contractor, for instance, Dives in his barouche, the blooming members of literary cliques, the fashionable clergymen and poets, chorusing gently to feminine audiences who listen intent, perhaps even “weeping in a rapturous sense of art,”—as Heine tells us the women of his day wept when they heard the sweet voices of the evirates who sang of passion, of “Liebessehnen, von Liebe und Liebeserguss,”—how admirable are all these characters! These, indeed, are careers to move any but the steadfast mind.

And yet even in Philistia it is not every one that will yearn after successes like these. In Philistia, far from the promised land, the exile may yet contemplate without desire all these desirable things, envying neither them nor their possessors. He may even indulge in a saving scorn of them, a scorn of the main achievements, the popular men of the Philistine community; bathing himself in irony as a tonic against the spiritual malaria. Such a man I once knew, a man of Askelon. He lived in that rich city as a recluse, and he was not rich according to any standard recognized in Askelon. On this text he would sometimes quote delightful old Rutebeuf:

  • “Je ne sai par ou je coumance,
  • Tant ai de matyère abondance
  • Por parleir de ma povretei.”
  • Yet this man was not without his pleasures. One of them, I remember, came from his interest in the study of architecture. For Askelon was an expensively built city; and he used to walk much in the streets of it, gazing upon the fronts of the costly houses, all patterned, as I was told, after the purest Greek orders. He used to walk around admiring, and making me admire. But this man had a wonderful eye, a visual gift which must have been, I think, much the same thing as the second sight or clairvoyance of which we read; for upon the fronts of these fine houses he saw more than what the delicate taste, the cunning hand of the builder, had placed there. He certainly made out writing upon those walls and doors which I, for one, could never see, though I have no doubt that it was really there. But they were legends which would have startled the residents could they have been audibly published in the streets of Askelon. “What inscriptions upon these door-plates!” he would sometimes remark, walking down the Pentodon, the most fashionable street in the place: “Let me read you a few that I discern in this neighborhood”; and as we passed slowly before the Greek houses he pronounced, one by one, these remarkable words, reading them off, as it seemed, from the lintels of the very finest edifices. I cannot give all of them, but these, if I remember, were some: Charlatan, Tartufe, Peculator, Sharper, Parthis mendacior; and when we came to one of the corner houses, or “palaces,” as they called them in Askelon, he said: “One of our furtive men lives there—one of our men of three letters. We have as many of them here in Askelon as ever existed in Plautus’s time, and they are quite as able now as they then were to live in fine houses to which they have not quite the most honest claim in the world.” While he spoke the man of three letters came out and ran down the marble staircase, smiling, and offering, I thought, to salute my friend as he stepped into his chariot; but my friend, though he had clear sight for the palace, did not see the owner.

    But you were surely too severe, dear friend of mine! There were just men even in Askelon—upright, religious, and intelligent, full of good works. What if this clever conveyancer had appropriated to himself enough to buy him a fine house? Was it not in the very air of Askelon that he should do such a thing—that he, like others, should at any rate establish himself comfortably? and may not some honester man than himself live after him in the fine house? Come now, confess, I used to say, that you yourself in his place might not have done much better: confess, at least, that when you were a boy you put your fingers into the sugar-bowl when you should have kept them out, when well you knew that you ought to keep them out! And then my friend would confess the pressure of the environment, the power of the “Zeitgeist,” as we have learned to call it since then. Poor man! That was long ago; and things have changed greatly in Askelon of latter years. They tell me that everybody there has now grown honest, and that nobody goes around any more reading invisible writing on the houses. And all of the fine buildings are still standing, it appears; though the journals of that city remark that the Grecian architecture has mostly peeled off from the fronts of the houses in the Pentodon, having been insecurely fastened on, it seems, at first. And how my poor friend used to criticise those very palaces in his dry, technical way! One thing in particular that he said I remember by the antithesis, the turn of it; he used to say that the architects of Askelon were never certain whether to construct ornament or to ornament construction.

    Well, he is gone now; he will never blame Askelon again, or run down Gath. He died in Philistia. Perhaps he served his purpose there, but I am sure he would have done more if he had been a little less Quixotic in his notions.