Thursday, August 4, 2011

Village Life in America by Caroline Cowles Richards

Caroline Cowles Richards in 1860

Village Life in America is a name given to a diary written by one Caroline Cowles Richards, later Mrs. Edmund Clarke, from 1852, when Caroline was 10 years old, to 1872, when she is married and has a family. The writer lived in Canandaigua, New York, in the finger lakes region, with her maternal grandparents, Mrs. and Mrs. Thomas Beals, and her sister Anna, younger by four years. Caroline's mother had died, and their father had sent the girls to be raised by the Beals, as he pursued his career, remarried, and had a new family. He wrote to the girls often. Even with these paltry facts, we can note that the nuclear family was not so stable as we might think in yesteryear, as it was often torn asunder by death, and children may be sent to live with relatives rather than stay with a single parent. This is just one example of the richness of comparisons and insights into mid-19th-entury housekeeping, social mores, attitudes, child-rearing, and religious belief and practice that are to be gained from this slim and charming book.

The diary takes us through the Civil War. With a Puritan grandmother, Caroline had been well taught of the necessity to end slavery. She describes in detail the patriotic fervor that gripped the village upon the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, which reached a fever pitch in the early days of the war; of the town's deep sadness at the loss of so many of its menfolk and sons; and its intense joy at the war's end followed only 10 days later by its shock and grief at the assassination of Lincoln.

As a historical record the diary is priceless. As a record of the coming to age of a young girl, it will leave voyeurs disappointed. Youthful perplexities are not subjects for discussion; Caroline says that she wanted to write down only the good things. Nevertheless, we are privileged to learn about daily life in the Beals household, as if we were walking through a museum of their house except they are still there and interacting right before our eyes.

First Congregational Church of Canandaigua, the center of social life for the Beals household, where they attended church, Sunday School, lectures, and meetings regularly each week.

Within the pages of the book we find a social fabric quite different from that of life today. The community revolves around its churches, and the household relies on written Scripture for the raising of children. Particularly, Grandmother Beals cites a verse or two from the Bible, it seems, at any point that she admonishes or reprimands her two granddaughters. For example, Caroline wrote in 1854:

I almost forgot that it was Sunday this morning and talked and laughed just as I do week days. Grandmother told me to write down this verse before I went to church so I would remember it: "Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear than to offer the sacrifice of fools." I will remember it now, sure. My feet are all right any way with my new patten leather shoes on but I shall have to look out for my head… Grandmother always comes upstairs to get the candle and tuck us in before she goes to bed herself, and some nights we are sound asleep and do not hear her, but last night we only pretended to be asleep. She kneeled down by the bed and prayed aloud for us, that we might be good children and that she might have strength given to her from on high to guide us in the straight and narrow path which leads to .life eternal. Those were her very words. After she had gone downstairs we sat up in bed and talked about it and promised each other to be good, and crossed our hearts and "hoped to die" if we broke our promise. Then Anna was afraid we would die, but I told her I didn't believe we would be as good as that, so we kissed each other and went to sleep.

Grandmother Beals is especially fascinating because she is of Puritan stock and was born in the 18th century (1784). She tells the story of how as a little girl, "down in Connecticut in 1794, she was on her way to school one morning and she saw an Indian coming and was so afraid, but did not dare run for fear he would chase her. So she thought of the word sago, which means 'good morning,' and when she got up close to him she dropped a curtsy and said 'Sago,' and he just went right along and never touched her at all. She says she hopes we will always be polite to every one, even to strangers."

Grandmother Beals is a "good neighbor"--delivering food to families under duress, treating her two hired girls (who live in the household) well, and extending herself to African Americans. In one case, she invites to dinner a former slave woman, and Caroline is surprised to see that the grandmother has her eat in the dining room with the family.

Grandmother Beals was dearly loved and respected by her granddaughters:
I asked Grandmother to-day to write a verse for me to keep always and she wrote a good one: "To be happy and live long the three grand essentials are: Be busy, love somebody and have high aims." I think, from all I have noticed about her, that she has had this for her motto all her life and I don't think Anna and I can do very much better than to try and follow it too. Grandfather tells us sometimes, when she is not in the room, that the best thing we can do is to be just as near like Grandmother as we can possibly be.

Despite the determination of both grandparents to stay on the "straight and narrow path" to heaven, there is plenty of wit and humor in the Beals household. Anna is a jokester, but unless her jokes are sacriligious, she never seems to get in trouble for it. Here is an entry from 1858 that gives an idea of the ruefulness with which the family members thought of each other:

Frankie Richardson asked me to go with her to teach a class in the colored Sunday School on Chapel Street this afternoon. I asked Grandmother if I could go and she said she never noticed that I was particularly interested in the colored race and she said she thought I only wanted an excuse to get out for a walk Sunday afternoon. However, she said I could go just this once. When we got up as far as the Academy, Mr. Noah T. Clarke's brother [and Caroline's future husband], who is one of the teachers, came out and Frank said he led the singing at the Sunday School and she said she would give me an introduction to him, so he walked up with us and home again. Grandmother said that when she saw him opening the gate for me, she understood my zeal in missionary work. "The dear little lady," as we often call her, has always been noted for her keen discernment and wonderful sagacity and loses none of it as she advances in years. Some one asked Anna the other day if her Grandmother retained all her faculties and Anna said, "Yes, indeed, to an alarming degree."
I would love to post the entire diary, but no need, because you can read it right here. I recommend this fascinating book for all, but especially for girls aged 10 to old age.


Merisi Vienna said...

Thank you, Linda, for introducing us to this wonderful voice!

Cathy said...

The link you've included to read the diary leads to a virus warning, which is disappointing. Further investigation now. Thank you for writing and sharing this.