By far, one of my favorite blogging experiences of the Sesqui was posting David Hunter Strother’s accounts of the early war (before he joined the Union army), in real time. It should be no surprise, therefore, that I often find myself returning to Strother for the rich content he left behind. Interestingly, in addition to his experiences in the war, Strother also projected autobiographical elements into his fictional accounts… authored under his pen name of “Porte Crayon”… of course.
One of these fictional stories suggests some of what he and his wife may have experienced at war’s end… maybe. Strange to say, the date that he uses in the story is not actually the date he left government service and returned home. Nor did he and his wife actually return to their former home, as it had been sold (if memory serves) before the war. Still, at the very least, these fictional (and entertaining) stories give us a window to what was churning around in Strother’s head.
Strother’s story, “Home” (published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, January 1879) is by no means one that is typical of Southern Unionist exiles (either voluntarily or forced)… and of course this says nothing of those who remained at home… or decided not to return at all. In that “Porte Crayon’s” portrayal of “Home” is of one who returns home… at least that much rings true for David Hunter Strother. There are other points that genuinely parallel Strother’s real life experiences as well… such as the fact that he was in a Southern city [Richmond, Virginia] when he submitted his resignation.
The following is from Cecil D. Eby’s biography of Strother, “Porte Crayon”: the life of David Hunter Strother (1960), page 162:
In December, it took no great perception to see who truly governed in Virginia. Strother’s request for five thousand arms to resist the threat of Negro uprisings was referred to the commander of the United States troops in Richmond. Soon afterward, despite Pierpont’s entreaties, Strother submitted his resignation and magnanimously recommended his predecessor, General Richardson, to succeed him. Not without relief, Strother retired to the tranquility of Berkeley Springs, “where the newspaper enters but once a week, the telegraph is unknown, and honor is spelled with a u.” In this placid environment, he hoped to re-enter the lists as a writer for Harper’s.
That last quote you see in that passage is from “Home”… and it seems rather curious that Eby uses it as a literal device applied to Berkeley Springs, when Crayon’s story varied so much between reality and fiction that it can be difficult to say if Crayon/Strother meant it literally.
Nevertheless, there’s also this, from page 163:
Since the cottage at Berkeley Springs where Strother and his wife had spent their honeymoon in 1861 had been sold, for a time they boarded with his sister, Emily Randolph, at Norborne Hall in Martinsburg. Here, in late January of 1866, his faculties began to flow as he reviewed journals and sketches of the war period.
With these facts in mind, consider what Strother, writing, fictionally, as “Porte Crayon” described in “Home”…
“Home is home, be it ever so homely.”
It was the spring of 1856 [did he mean 1866?], while I was still in the public service, and stationed in a Southern city. Society was extinct, official duties merely nominal, and wife and I tried to while away the weary evenings with the old-fashioned game of cribbage. But it is a dull business for husband and wife to play antagonistically at cards (or at any other game), for when by shrewd calenlation [sic] one makes a long sequence at play, or by good luck is enabled to show a full hand of sevens and eights, a glance at the vexed countenance of his vis-à-vis is always sufficient to quench his exultation, and he feels a sort of guilty humiliation in accepting the advantage accorded by blind fortune over the gentle being whom he has solemnly vowed to love, cherish, and protect. On the other hand, no one who piques himself ever so modestly on his skill and manhood enjoys being beaten continually, to say nothing of the impolicy of allowing his life partner to acquire a habit of supremacy even in matters apparently so innocent and insignificant as parlor games.
So when the clock struck eleven we dropped our cards, hustled the counters into the box without deigning to note the score, and thrust the box into the stand drawer with a listless precipitancy, as if we were glad the evening’s amusement was over.
My position afforded at least a pretense of the present occupation, and a chance, however vague and uncertain, of a future career. Madame had no direct interest in anything except myself, a flea-beaten poodle, and a splendid geranium that adorned the window of our lodging-room. With such feeble adjutancy it required more than masculine conceit to imagine that one could absorb the while existence of a young, large-hearted, well-trained and capable woman. If I had been weak enough to indulge in any such conceit, a glance at my partner’s countenance would have dispelled the illusion. She sat a picture of magnanimous meekness, a statuesque monument of dutiful martyrdom. Her compressed lips indicated a silent damming (this is an unhappy expression; we should say, rather, an uncomplaining suppression) of natural longings and instincts. It was evident there was something lacking in her life which neither official dignity, nor cribbage, nor floral decoration, not an animated poodle could fully supply.
Now I was by no means wedded to the public service, for “the big wars that made ambition virtue” were ended, and party spite, self-seeking, intrigue, and calumny, which made all virtue seem despicable or impracticable, had resumed their sway, as when a thunder-storm, with its awe-inspiring sublimity, has passed away, the frightened frogs again venture out from their slimy puddles to vex Peace with their windy croakings.
Amid the disgusting din I had already concluded that “le jeu ne vandrait pas la chandelle,” and was rather anxious for an apology to throw up my hand, box my counters, and quit. I thought I could guess what was the matter, and shrewdly surmised that the same unspoken and unacknowledged yearnings had troubled both our hearts for months past, but etiquette requires that the lady shall speak first; and she didn’t, and she wouldn’t. Perhaps she would have died first, and perhaps it may have been the dread of such a catastrophe which finally induced me to waive ceremony and compromise masculine dignity so far as to invite an advance on her part – in military parlance, to make a demonstration so as to draw her fire and develop her position.
“All ancient literature and tradition recognize the dignity of fixedness, while the nomad has ever been an object of contempt, distrust, and pity. Soliman asks, ‘Who will trust a man who has no house, and who skippeth from city to city?’ If he stops at a tavern, the suspicious landlord demands his bill in advance; if he asks private hospitality, he is called a tramp, and delivered over to the police. The exiled poet of Etruria has immortalized ‘the weariness of other people’s stairs, and the bitterness of a stranger’s salt.’ How much of the demoralization of American life is directly attributable to the restlessness engendered by cheap lands and cheaper honors, aggravated by unlimited facilities of locomotion and perennial elections.”
Up to this point my “white-armed Juno” had hearkened silence. Now, with flushed cheek and kindling eye, she turned and questioned me: “And where, then, are we to look for all the virtues of our boasted republic – the unselfish patriotism, the pure morality, the cheerful industry, and proud independence – which I have heard you descant upon so often and so eloquently?”
I felt confused and cornered, for now I must either acknowledge that I didn’t know, and confess the emptiness of my democratic rhetoric, or I must take the lead and subject which I had hoped by skillful play to thrown into my partner’s hands. But pride of consistency and of country prevailed, and I frankly answered: “Where else would you look for it but in our American home life – in those homes where the door-plates are not changed every May-day, and where the children learn to climb the trees which their fathers have planted. A homeless man makes but a sorry citizen at best, yet in turbulent times your adventurous carpet-bagger may attain both wealth and honors. But woman, the nucleus of all social organization, the incentive of all man’s noblest thoughts and enterprises, the conservator of all that is most worthy in our civilization – what is she without a home?’
A gleam of triumphant joy lit up the face of my questioner. Then she abruptly turned away and was silent, and I thought I saw a tear upon her cheek.
“Well,” I continued, “since you confess you are pining for a home – “
“I confessed nothing of the sort,” she replied, briskly. “It was you who introduced the subject..”
I answered that I was merely generalizing – talking philosophy, you know.
“You’ve been talking at and around it for the last three months, trying to induce me to propose it; but I had made up my mind that I wouldn’t say a word, and I didn’t. But now that you have proposed it yourself, I say, yes, with all my heart. Oh, husband, do let us have a home of our own!”
It was settled, and we were both so happy in the prospect that the little pique involved in the introduction was soon forgotten in the delicious emotions of planning.
“Shall I resign to-morrow, or wait until the end of the month? Let me see, that will be next Saturday a week.”
“Oh, do not wait!” exclaimed the lady, eagerly. “Let it be to-morrow, and early, before evil counselors or selfish second thoughts can come to thwart our plans. I can pack the trunks in an hour.”
“Patience, dear wife; there must be some method to our madness. A pair of simple wrens, whose occupancy lasts but for a little season, will reconnoiter and chatter for a week or more ere they venture to locate a nest; the requirements of our more enduring and complicated humanity certainly deserve as much consideration. In abandoning our present position we shall be literally houseless and homeless,
‘With the world all before us, where to choose
Our place of rest, and Providence our guide.’
In this faithless age we hold that Providence takes care of those only who help themselves. Let us endeavor, then, to ascertain which way the wind blows before we lift our anchor, and look a while at the chart ere we put to sea. In the first place, would you prefer a home in the city or country?”
My dame replied, considerately: “A city residence has many advantages, but the home of my dreams has always had a garden and a woodland.”
“There is one point settled. We will live in the country; it costs less, and one gets more for his money. Next, to what point of the compass shall we direct our reconnoitering glasses? How would you like the North?”
“It is too cold in winter, and the people are too busy to enjoy life.?
“And the South?”
Is too feverish and Southern.”
“Then there is the boundless West open to us, with climate to order; no local narrowness; no antiquated opinion; no ancestral dignity to weight one down like the Old Man of the Sea; no rats nor haunted chambers – all fresh and free and hopeful as youth – “
“Neither is there any settled society; no ancestral trees; none of those mingled sweet and sad traditions that make home sacred. Their towns are encampments, their villages picket posts, their cottages sentry-boxes of the Grand Army of Civilization. There can be no homes there until the conquest is complete.”
“Then we shall find a suitable restingplace, I am sure, among the ancient settlements of the Eastern sea-board, where long attrition has polished the manners, and time mellowed the crudeness of individual opinion; where the growth of quiet centuries overshadows the old gambrel-roofed, dormer-windowed dwellings; where green and flower-decked slopes and hazy landscapes have not been scarred nor martyred by railroad cuts or factory chimneys; where soberpaced habit in business or pleasure remains unstartled by rumbling trains or steam-whistles; where those venerable bulls-eye watches which our great-grandfathers brought from England still endeavor to keep time on tick, and with uplifted hands protest against the centralizing tyranny of the sun; where the newspaper enters but once a week, the telegraph is unknown, and the honor is spelled with a u.”
“Alas! Sighed my lady, “your sketch is too suggestive of stagnation and decadence; ancestral pride vainly struggling with poverty; dilapidated, rat-infested tenements, ill built and ill contrived originally, and not adaptable to modern improvements and conveniences.”
So eager had she been to move that I was a little surprised and disappointed to find my companion so critical; and having boxed the geographical compass, I waited in silence for a suggestion from her, inly suspecting the while the existence of some concealed magnet which fixed her fancy, and turned its repellent point toward every thing else.
After some hesitation she asked: “Why have you not suggested our going back to the old place?”
“In that war-wasted region every thing is so sadly changed that I hardly imagined you would care to see it again. I did not suppose your brief sojourn there had inspired any local attachment, and, as I understand, the old place is a wreck and ruin – most likely not inhabitable, and as for society, it is extinct, or worse.”
Madame leaned her flushed cheek upon her hand and spoke thoughtfully: “I would rather make my home there than in any place I have ever seen; and if you are not averse, I should be content to keep house in a shed by the ruined walls until we can have every thing repaired and refitted. As for society, the richest grapes are those which spring from volcano ashes.”
“At any rate, we can go and see.”
And so we packed, made our formal bow, and departed.
At first, I wasn’t quite sure why Strother used his sketch “Old-Time Conveniences” before transitioning to what follows. I think it becomes clear soon after.
And… on that note… more to follow, later.