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An essay by George William Curtis

Academy Dinner In Arcadia

Title:     Academy Dinner In Arcadia
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

The Easy Chair went up lately to the hills to enjoy the annual dinner at Arcadia. It is a summer feast which tradition assigns to some old academy in those parts, supposed to have been founded by a pastor of the village in the days before railroads, when there was no path to Arcadia except that which is still sometimes pursued. It is a winding sylvan way through woods and by singing streams and solitary farms, and as you drive slowly on you feel yourself penetrating farther and farther into a rural seclusion to which the modern world has hardly found its way, and where you might expect to surprise a peaceful community of ancient New England, as in threading the remoter recesses and heights of the Catskill you might come upon a party of Hendrik Hudson's crew.

In this loneliness of the hills the young pastor, who was in delicate health and unmarried, relieved the sombre severity of clerical life by teaching a few boys and girls. By that fond indirection he brightened with fresh air and natural music and sunshine the dry routine of his unmated days. For the cheerless solemnity of the life of the country clergy in those times it is hard to imagine. The missionaries to East London tell us that the peculiar characteristic of that vast region, swarming with human beings, is want of entertainment. The people there do not laugh. They have no diversion. There is nothing pleasant to see or to hear. It is a huge stone mill in which human life is ground up in an endless and barren monotony of hard work.

It is odd to trace any resemblance to it in a life so different; but the old-fashioned Calvinistic divine in his small country parish, revolving in an actual world of petty details, and in another world of grim theological speculation and absorption in the contemplation of death, must have seldom smiled. The young pastor was bound by no vow of celibacy, but he knew that his life must be brief, and he gladly surrounded himself with children in the guise of pupils, and when he died he left a Bible to his church, a small sum for the education of heathen youth in America, some manuscript sermons to his parents, and the rest of his little property to found an academy for godly youth.

This at least is the tradition. But when Silvertongue came once to the dinner he put the story aside airily as a pleasant fiction, and averred that the annual feast was instituted simply to glorify two legendary friends of the town and enjoy them forever. This had a sound that contrasted not inaptly with the seriousness of the hills, and suggested an origin not unlike that of the feasts in the Lacedemonian worship of the Dioscuri. Still another theory which is like to grow with time associates it with the memory of two strangers of benignant aspect, who appeared suddenly in the village like the gray-haired regicide at Hadley, and aiding the towns-people not with a sword, but with a bounty, departed. They are all pleasant tales. But the earliest tradition is likely to be the truest. It was the good pastor who sowed the modest seed which has now sprung up a hundred-fold.

This year the text of the afternoon, for the dinner begins at one o'clock, was the report of the census that the town is declining in population. The guests were a company of the people of the hills. They came from a circuit of a score of miles. The dinner is served cold, and the guests feast

"In summer, when the days are long,
On dainty chicken, snow-white bread,"

and by two o'clock the blue gauze is spread over the remnants, the benches are turned so that the whole company faces the speakers, and then speech begins.

It was the verdict of the hills upon the report of the census that if the number of individuals is decreasing, the number of families is not. The ancient quiverfuls are disappearing, and the tale of children in a family is diminishing. But the general welfare of the family itself is increasing, while the marvellous facilities of communication bring all resources into the hills, and the remote little village of the old pastor is practically becoming a suburb.

If a higher general welfare prevails, what matter if the population somewhat declines? Quality is better than quantity. If, as a Senator of Massachusetts says, the people of the hills are merely descending into the valleys, who can complain if they bring with them the simple and hardy virtues which grow upon the hills like the great agricultural staples? Let the census say what it will, statistics need not frighten until they show a decadence of character as well as a decline of population. If, however, character is decaying, if the primary conditions of that fundamental life of the country are changing, a general change may be anticipated. But in Arcadia those signs do not yet appear. Whether there are more or fewer persons than there were fifty years ago, the comfort, the resources, the opportunities are constantly greater. Undoubtedly they bring their dangers and disadvantages. But the same steady force of character that dealt with the old difficulties can deal with the new.

Perhaps the trouble lies less in the depletion of the hills than in the surfeit of the shore. The dragon of the glittering scales that threatens American youth and maidens may be rather Sybaris by the sea than Arcadia on the hills. It may be also rather the annual half-million of utter aliens that come from other lands, strange to us in everything that fosters a homogeneous national life, rather than the hundreds who come down morally as well as numerically from the uplands nearer heaven.

So in the larger academy which the young pastor unconsciously founded the various voices of suggestion, experience, and reflection spoke. It was a rural feast, an Arcadian holiday, such as the Swedish poet Tegner might have sketched in simple and melodious measure, or Grecian artists carved upon a frieze.

Then in the late and beautiful afternoon, and later in the light of the full moon, the guests dispersed, weaving the fragmentary hints of speech into completer views and purposes of patriotic life, as the children of the fairies wove the scattered shreds of gold into shining garments. Slowly over the hills by every bowery road, towards loftier Goshen and Hawley, and higher Chesterfield, and Plainfield where Byrant sang to the Water-fowl, down winding ways to Buckland and Charlemont and Zoar, eastward to Conway and Deerfield and remoter Sunderland, and all the wide valley of the Connecticut, the pilgrims wended homeward.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Academy Dinner In Arcadia