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An essay by William Dean Howells


Title:     Flitting
Author: William Dean Howells [More Titles by Howells]

I would not willingly repose upon the friendship of a man whose local attachments are weak. I should not demand of my intimate that he have a yearning for the homes of his ancestors, or even the scenes of his own boyhood; that is not in American nature; on the contrary, he is but a poor creature who does not hate the village where he was born; yet a sentiment for the place where one has lived two or three years, the hotel where one has spent a week, the sleeping car in which one has ridden from Albany to Buffalo,--so much I should think it well to exact from my friend in proof of that sensibility and constancy without which true friendship does not exist. So much I am ready to yield on my own part to a friend's demand, and I profess to have all the possible regrets for Benicia Street, now I have left it. Over its deficiencies I cast a veil of decent oblivion, and shall always try to look upon its worthy and consoling aspects, which were far the more numerous. It was never otherwise, I imagine, than an ideal region in very great measure; and if the reader whom I have sometimes seemed to direct thither, should seek it out, he would hardly find my Benicia Street by the city sign-board. Yet this is not wholly because it was an ideal locality, but because much of its reality has now become merely historical, a portion of the tragical poetry of the past. Many of the vacant lots abutting upon Benicia and the intersecting streets flourished up, during the four years we knew it, into fresh-painted wooden houses, and the time came to be when one might have looked in vain for the abandoned hoop-skirts which used to decorate the desirable building-sites. The lessening pasturage also reduced the herds which formerly fed in the vicinity, and at last we caught the tinkle of the cow-bells only as the cattle were driven past to remoter meadows. And one autumn afternoon two laborers, hired by the city, came and threw up an earthwork on the opposite side of the street, which they said was a sidewalk, and would add to the value of property in the neighborhood. Not being dressed with coal- ashes, however, during the winter, the sidewalk vanished next summer under a growth of rag-weed, and hid the increased values with it, and it is now an even question whether this monument of municipal grandeur will finally be held by Art or resumed by Nature,--who indeed has a perpetual motherly longing for her own, and may be seen in all outlying and suburban places, pathetically striving to steal back any neglected bits of ground and conceal them under her skirts of tattered and shabby verdure. But whatever is the event of this contest, and whatever the other changes wrought in the locality, it has not yet been quite stripped of the characteristic charms which first took our hearts, and which have been duly celebrated in these pages.

When the new house was chosen, we made preparations to leave the old one, but preparations so gradual, that, if we had cared much more than we did, we might have suffered greatly by the prolongation of the agony. We proposed to ourselves to escape the miseries of moving by transferring the contents of one room at a time, and if we did not laugh incredulously at people who said we had better have it over at once and be done with it, it was because we respected their feelings, and not because we believed them. We took up one carpet after another; one wall after another we stripped of its pictures; we sent away all the books to begin with; and by this subtle and ingenious process, we reduced ourselves to the discomfort of living in no house at all, as it were, and of being at home in neither one place nor the other. Yet the logic of our scheme remained perfect; and I do not regret its failure in practice, for if we had been ever so loath to quit the old house, its inhospitable barrenness would finally have hurried us forth. In fact, does not life itself in some such fashion dismantle its tenement until it is at last forced out of the uninhabitable place? Are not the poor little comforts and pleasures and ornaments removed one by one, till life, if it would be saved, must go too? We took a lesson from the teachings of mortality, which are so rarely heeded, and we lingered over our moving. We made the process so gradual, indeed, that I do not feel myself all gone yet from the familiar work-room, and for aught I can say, I still write there; and as to the guest-chamber, it is so densely peopled by those it has lodged that it will never quite be emptied of them. Friends also are yet in the habit of calling in the parlor, and talking with us; and will the children never come off the stairs? Does life, our high exemplar, leave so much behind as we did? Is this what fills the world with ghosts?

In the getting ready to go, nothing hurt half so much as the sight of the little girl packing her doll's things for removal. The trousseaux of all those elegant creatures, the wooden, the waxen, the biscuit, the india- rubber, were carefully assorted, and arranged in various small drawers and boxes; their house was thoughtfully put in order and locked for transportation; their innumerable broken sets of dishes were packed in paper and set out upon the floor, a heart-breaking little basketful. Nothing real in this world is so affecting as some image of reality, and this travesty of our own flitting was almost intolerable. I will not pretend to sentiment about anything else, for everything else had in it the element of self-support belonging to all actual afflictions. When the day of moving finally came, and the furniture wagon, which ought to have been only a shade less dreadful to us than a hearse, drew up at our door, our hearts were of a Neronian hardness.

"Were I Diogenes," says wrathful Charles Lamb in one of his letters, "I would not move out of a kilderkin into a hogshead, though the first had nothing but small beer in it, and the second reeked claret." I fancy this loathing of the transitionary state came in great part from the rude and elemental nature of the means of moving in Lamb's day. In our own time, in Charlesbridge at least, everything is so perfectly contrived, that it is in some ways a pleasant excitement to move; though I do not commend the diversion to any but people of entire leisure, for it cannot be denied that it is, at any rate, an interruption to work. But little is broken, little is defaced, nothing is heedlessly outraged or put to shame. Of course there are in every house certain objects of comfort and even ornament which in a state of repose derive a sort of dignity from being cracked, or scratched, or organically debilitated, and give an idea of ancestral possession and of long descent to the actual owner; and you must not hope that this venerable quality will survive their public exposure upon the furniture wagon. There it instantly perishes, like the consequence of some country notable huddled and hustled about in the graceless and ignorant tumult of a great city. To tell the truth, the number of things that turn shabby under the ordeal of moving strikes a pang of unaccustomed poverty to the heart which, loving all manner of makeshifts, is rich even in its dilapidations. For the time you feel degraded by the spectacle of that forlornness, and if you are a man of spirit, you try to sneak out of association with it in the mind of the passer-by; you keep scrupulously in-doors, or if a fancied exigency obliges you to go back and forth between the old house and the new, you seek obscure by-ways remote from the great street down which the wagon flaunts your ruin and decay, and time your arrivals and departures so as to have the air of merely dropping in at either place. This consoles you; but it deceives no one; for the man who is moving is unmistakably stamped with transition.

Yet the momentary eclipse of these things is not the worst. It _is_ momentary; for if you will but plant them in kindly corners and favorable exposures of the new house, a mould of respectability will gradually overspread them again, and they will once more account for their presence by the air of having been a long time in the family; but there is danger that in the first moments of mortification you will be tempted to replace them with new and costly articles. Even the best of the old things are nothing to boast of in the hard, unpitying light to which they are exposed, and a difficult and indocile spirit of extravagance is evoked in the least profuse. Because of this fact alone I should not commend the diversion of moving save to people of very ample means as well as perfect leisure; there are more reasons than the misery of flitting why the dweller in the kilderkin should not covet the hogshead reeking of claret.

But the grosser misery of moving is, as I have hinted, vastly mitigated by modern science, and what remains of it one may use himself to with no tremendous effort. I have found that in the dentist's chair,--that ironically luxurious seat, cushioned in satirical suggestion of impossible repose,--after a certain initial period of clawing, filing, scraping, and punching, one's nerves accommodate themselves to the torment, and one takes almost an objective interest in the operation of tooth-filling; and in like manner after two or three wagon-loads of your household stuff have passed down the public street, and all your morbid associations with them have been desecrated, you begin almost to like it. Yet I cannot regard this abandon as a perfectly healthy emotion, and I do not counsel my reader to mount himself upon the wagon and ride to and fro even once, for afterwards the remembrance of such an excess will grieve him.

Of course, I meant to imply by this that moving sometimes comes to an end, though it is not easy to believe so while moving. The time really arrives when you sit down in your new house, and amid whatever disorder take your first meal there. This meal is pretty sure to be that gloomy tea, that loathly repast of butter and toast, and some kind of cake, with which the soul of the early-dining American is daily cast down between the hours of six and seven in the evening; and instinctively you compare it with the last meal you took in your old house, seeking in vain to decide whether this is more dispiriting than that. At any rate that was not at all the meal which the last meal in any house which has been a home ought to be in fact, and is in books. It was hurriedly cooked; it was served upon fugitive and irregular crockery; and it was eaten in deplorable disorder, with the professional movers waiting for the table outside the dining- room. It ought to have been an act of serious devotion; it was nothing but an expiation. It should have been a solemn commemoration of all past dinners in the place, an invocation to their pleasant apparitions. But I, for my part, could not recall these at all, though now I think of them with the requisite pathos, and I know they were perfectly worthy of remembrance. I salute mournfully the companies that have sat down at dinner there, for they are sadly scattered now; some beyond seas, some beyond the narrow gulf, so impassably deeper to our longing and tenderness than the seas. But more sadly still I hail the host himself, and desire to know of him if literature was not somehow a gayer science in those days, and if his peculiar kind of drolling had not rather more heart in it then. In an odd, not quite expressible fashion, something of him seems dispersed abroad and perished in the guests he loved. I trust, of course, that all will be restored to him when he turns--as every man past thirty feels he may when he likes, and has the time--and resumes his youth. Or if this feeling is only a part of the great tacit promise of eternity, I am all the more certain of his getting back his losses.

I say that now these apposite reflections occur to me with a sufficient ease, but that upon the true occasion for them they were absent. So, too, at the first meal in the new house, there was none of that desirable sense of setting up a family altar, but a calamitous impression of irretrievable upheaval, in honor of which sackcloth and ashes seemed the only wear. Yet even the next day the Lares and Penates had regained something of their wonted cheerfulness, and life had begun again with the first breakfast. In fact, I found myself already so firmly established that, meeting the furniture cart which had moved me the day before, I had the face to ask the driver whom they were turning out of house and home, as if my own flitting were a memory of the far-off past.

Not that I think the professional mover expects to be addressed in a joking mood. I have a fancy that he cultivates a serious spirit himself, in which he finds it easy to sympathize with any melancholy on the part of the moving family. There is a slight flavor of undertaking in his manner, which is nevertheless full of a subdued firmness very consoling and supporting; though the life that he leads must be a troubled and uncheerful one, trying alike to the muscles and the nerves. How often must he have been charged by anxious and fluttered ladies to be very careful of that basket of china, and those vases! How often must he have been vexed by the ignorant terrors of gentlemen asking if he thinks that the library- table, poised upon the top of his load, will hold! His planning is not infallible, and when he breaks something uncommonly precious, what does a man of his sensibility do? Is the demolition of old homes really distressing to him, or is he inwardly buoyed up by hopes of other and better homes for the people he moves? Can there be any ideal of moving? Does he, perhaps, feel a pride in an artfully constructed load, and has he something like an artist's pang in unloading it? Is there a choice in families to be moved, and are some worse or better than others? Next to the lawyer and the doctor, it appears to me that the professional mover holds the most confidential relations towards his fellow-men. He is let into all manner of little domestic secrets and subterfuges; I dare say he knows where half the people in town keep their skeleton, and what manner of skeleton it is. As for me, when I saw him making towards a certain closet door, I planted myself firmly against it. He smiled intelligence; he knew the skeleton was there, and that it would be carried to the new house after dark.

I began by saying that I should wish my friend to have some sort of local attachment; but I suppose it must be owned that this sentiment, like pity, and the modern love-passion, is a thing so largely produced by culture that nature seems to have little or nothing to do with it. The first men were homeless wanderers; the patriarchs dwelt in tents, and shifted their place to follow the pasturage, without a sigh; and for children--the pre- historic, the antique people, of our day--moving is a rapture. The last dinner in the old house, the first tea in the new, so doleful to their elders, are partaken of by them with joyous riot. Their shrill trebles echo gleefully from the naked walls and floors; they race up and down the carpetless stairs; they menace the dislocated mirrors and crockery; through all the chambers of desolation they frolic with a gayety indomitable save by bodily exhaustion. If the reader is of a moving family,--and so he is as he is an American,--he can recall the zest he found during childhood in the moving which had for his elders--poor victims of a factitious and conventional sentiment!--only the salt and bitterness of tears. His spirits never fell till the carpets were down; no sorrow touched him till order returned; if Heaven so blessed him that his bed was made upon the floor for one night, the angels visited his dreams. Why, then, is the mature soul, however sincere and humble, not only grieved but mortified by flitting? Why cannot one move without feeling the great public eye fixed in pitying contempt upon him? This sense of abasement seems to be something quite inseparable from the act, which is often laudable, and in every way wise and desirable; and he whom it has afflicted is the first to turn, after his own establishment, and look with scornful compassion upon the overflowing furniture wagon as it passes. But I imagine that Abraham's neighbors, when he struck his tent, and packed his parlor and kitchen furniture upon his camels, and started off with Mrs. Sarah to seek a new camping-ground, did not smile at the procession, or find it worthy of ridicule or lament. Nor did Abraham, once settled, and reposing in the cool of the evening at the door of his tent, gaze sarcastically upon the moving of any of his brother patriarchs.

To some such philosophical serenity we shall also return, I suppose, when we have wisely theorized life in our climate, and shall all have become nomads once more, following June and October up and down and across the continent, and not suffering the full malice of the winter and summer anywhere. But as yet, the derision that attaches to moving attends even the goer-out of town, and the man of many trunks and a retinue of linen- suited womankind is a pitiable and despicable object to all the other passengers at the railroad station and on the steamboat wharf.

This is but one of many ways in which mere tradition oppresses us. I protest that as moving is now managed in Charlesbridge, there is hardly any reason why the master or mistress of the household should put hand to anything; but it is a tradition that they shall dress themselves in their worst, as for heavy work, and shall go about very shabby for at least a day before and a day after the transition. It is a kind of sacrifice, I suppose, to a venerable ideal; and I would never be the first to omit it. In others I observe that this vacant and ceremonious zeal is in proportion to an incapacity to do anything that happens really to be required; and I believe that the truly sage person would devote moving-day to paying visits of ceremony in his finest clothes.

As to the house which one has left, I think it would be preferable to have it occupied as soon as possible after one's flitting. Pilgrimages to the dismantled shrine are certainly to be avoided by the friend of cheerfulness. A day's absence and emptiness wholly change its character, though the familiarity continues, with a ghastly difference, as in the beloved face that the life has left. It is not at all the vacant house it was when you came first to look at it: for then hopes peopled it, and now memories. In that golden prime you had long been boarding, and any place in which you could keep house seemed utterly desirable. How distinctly you recall that wet day, or that fair day, on which you went through it and decided that this should be the guest chamber and that the family room, and what could be done with the little back attic in a pinch! The children could play in the dining-room; and to be sure the parlor was rather small if you wanted to have company; but then, who would ever want to give a party? and besides, the pump in the kitchen was a compensation for anything. How lightly the dumb waiter ran up and down,--

"Qual piuma al vento!"

you sang, in very glad-heartedness. Then estimates of the number of yards of carpeting; and how you could easily save the cost from the difference between boarding and house-keeping. Adieu, Mrs. Brown! henceforth let your "desirable apartments, _en suite_ or single, furnished or unfurnished, to gentlemen only!"--this married pair is about to escape forever from your extortions.

Well, if the years passed without making us sadder, should we be much the wiser for their going? Now you know, little couple, that there are extortions in this wicked world beside Mrs. Brown's; and some other things. But if you go into the empty house that was lately your home, you will not, I believe, be haunted by these sordid disappointments, for the place should evoke other regrets and meditations. Truly, though the great fear has not come upon you here, in this room you may have known moments when it seemed very near, and when the quick, fevered breathings of the little one timed your own heart-beats. To that door, with many other missives of joy and pain, came haply the dispatch which hurried you off to face your greatest sorrow--came by night, like a voice of God, speaking and warning, and making all your work idle and your aims foolish. These walls have answered, how many times, to your laughter; they have had friendly ears for the trouble that seemed to grow by utterance. You have sat upon the threshold so many summer days; so many winter mornings you have seen the snows drifted high about it; so often your step has been light and heavy upon it. There is the study, where your magnificent performances were planned, and your exceeding small performances were achieved; hither you hurried with the first criticism of your first book, and read it with the rapture that nothing but a love-letter and a favorable review can awaken. Out there is the well-known humble prospect, that was commonly but a vista into dreamland; on the other hand is the pretty grove,--its leaves now a little painted with the autumn, and faltering to their fall.

Yes, the place must always be sacred, but painfully sacred; and I say again one should not go near it unless as a penance. If the reader will suffer me the confidence, I will own that there is always a pang in the past which is more than any pleasure it can give, and I believe that he, if he were perfectly honest,--as Heaven forbid I or any one should be,-- would also confess as much. There is no house to which one would return, having left it, though it were the hogshead out of which one had moved into a kilderkin; for those associations whose perishing leaves us free, and preserves to us what little youth we have, were otherwise perpetuated to our burden and bondage. Let some one else, who has also escaped from his past, have your old house; he will find it new and untroubled by memories, while you, under another roof, enjoy a present that borders only upon the future.

[The end]
William Dean Howells's essay: Flitting