"Country Girls in Town"
July 17, 1902
July 17, 1902
IT was about ten years ago when I first saw Mary Carr. She was a woman of forty, healthy, resolute, keen of eye and sharp of tongue; with a firm belief in herself and very little belief in any other person or thing. She always had lived in a wideawake village in Iowa, and now had come to "the East" to make her fortune. She proposed to make it by authorship or journalism, but I soon found that she knew no more of either kind of work than she did of ship-building.
People who live outside of the Atlantic seaboard cities can have little idea of the number of women, poor and unprotected, who rush into them yearly from the West and South with the hope of making their fortune, or at least a living. Nobody can blame them for coming. On most Western ranches the woman is overworked, and the loneliness of her life is intolerable; while in the smaller Southern towns the monotony, the pettiness of events in the slow-going hours and days and years stifle and kill an active brain, just as the creeping gray moss smothers a living plant.
These women break away and fly to "God's country," as they call it, to find companionship and work. At first their ideas are large. They clamor for the best and biggest kinds of work, and for high pay--above everything for high pay.
Mary Carr stopped in Philadelphia--they all stop in Philadelphia--and, finding it dull and cold--they all find it dull and cold--she hurried on to New York.
It has so happened that in every decade some woman of unusual power has come up from the South or West and has conquered a foremost place in New York. Invariably she has been followed by a troop of poor incompetents, who have ended in wretched failure. There were Maggie Mitchell and Mary Anderson. What a horde of would-be Fanchons and Juliets crowded up after them into the cheap theaters, and how soon their little penny lights flickered and went out in darkness!
The success of "That Lass o' Lowrie's" set countless Southern women to writing short dialect stories, which never found their way into print; just as the enormous sales of "To Have and to Hold" have brought from Maine to Texas upon the wretched editors of magazines avalanches of historical novels.
Mary Carr had read in her youth Mrs. Evans Wilson's "Beulah." Now that she needed money, why, she reasoned, should she not write a popular religious novel? There was no word of wisdom or wit in her that cried for utterance. She wanted work and pay for it. That was her only qualification for authorship.
She went to New York with two hundred dollars in her pocket, which she regarded as a large provision for the time of waiting until the great triumph should come. "My means," she often would say with complacency, "are ample--ample."
She brought with her manuscript poems and a novel, and she ground out an essay almost every day. She haunted publishers and editors. In the offices of Scribner's, Harpers' and the Appletons her face was known to every proofreader and errand boy. But at the end of three months not a line had been accepted.
Then she tried the newspapers. She wrote short stories, verses and jokes. None were published. The money was fast melting away. She tried reporting, and sometimes her "stuff," as she learned to call it, would go in, after much blue-penciling. Then, how proud and triumphant she was! Not because she had spoken well a word worth hearing, but because there were two stickfuls of her "stuff" in and she would be paid so much a stick. But at last even these poor little successes ceased. She sank lower and lower; grew limp and bloodless; began to take a little whisky at night instead of dinner--
It was like some live creature lost on a bog, slowly sucked down, inch by inch, to the black death below.
One day she was gone.
Nobody saw her at the last, nor knew how or when the end came.
Now, let me tell you or another woman--Jane Sevier. The names, of course, are fictitious, but the stories are absolutely true.
Jane lived in Iturbide, one of the deadest of the dead villages on the Mexican Gulf. There once had been some good orange groves in Iturbide. But the great frost had put a sudden end to that industry, and nobody as yet had found the energy to plant another tree. The pigs rooted unchecked through the hummocks, and their owners sat all day long on the porch of the post office smoking and playing dominoes. As long as there was fish in the Gulf and game in the woods nobody was afraid of starvation. Iturbide was content.
Jane Sevier was not content. She was the daughter of the postmaster, a lean, clean-skinned, fair-haired woman of thirty. She made her first protest against the lazy, grimy life around her by a personal cleanliness so marked as to be offensive to her neighbors. She always wore a close fitting gown of dark blue cotton stuff with white collar and cuffs, a perpetual reproach to the other women lounging all day in greasy Mother Hubbards of violent hues.
"Jane," her neighbors said. "had been to Orleans too often, and got high notions there." It spoiled a woman for everyday use to travel.
"I'm tired of the dirt and drink and the dead laziness at home," she told a friend who came once to the town.
"Do you mean to leave Iturbide," he said. "You can easily find work in New Orleans or Mobile."
"No, I can be clean and useful and earn my living at home. I'll stay right here and pull Iturbide up with me."
She kept her word. She began with the help of a couple of negroes by re-grafting the orange trees of her father's grove. She went to Biloxi and learned how figs there were preserved and shrimps cooked before they were canned for the New Orleans market. Then she came home and canned figs and shrimps in her own kitchen. She had a keen intelligence and nimble fingers, but her chief strength lay in her ability to make others work. In a year she had the most trusty handy negroes in the village busy in her grove and canning factory. As her trade increased she opened a shop and added to her canned goods home-made jellies and pickles, and sent her advertisements throughout the Gulf States, bringing in a large and steady trade. Iturbide slowly, very slowly, awoke, rose to the situation and proceeded to clean and bestir itself to greet the strangers who now came to it. The pigs were fenced in, the old orange groves replanted, a brisk trade in fish and game started up, and there had been lately a good deal of talk about a new hotel. Jane does not interfere in this and other vague projects, but when she thinks that the new hotel is needed, the talk will stop and it will be built.
Jane Sevier has not made a great fortune, but she has conquered a stable, sound prosperity. She has work enough and pleasure enough to keep her healthy and contented. Her neighbors respect her and her friends who look behind the canning and trading abilities of the woman love her.
Now, why did one woman succeed and the other make such a shipwreck of body and soul?
Simply because one ventured out into unknown seas with neither knowledge, skill nor chart, and the other took up work which was familiar to her, among people whom she knew and could influence.
I wish that THE INDEPENDENT could reach every discontented, needy woman outside of the great cities of the United States that I could urge them to stay outside of them, as they value their souls' health and their bodies' health. They have no money, perhaps; but in the place where they are known they have capital which they cannot take with them in the influence of family and friends, and in the respect and confidence of the community. Or, if they have not, if they never have been able to conquer influence and respect and love at home in all the years that are gone, how will they get them in the seething life of a strange town? Let us throw a little daylight of common sense onto this thing.
There are other possessions which a woman gives up when she rushes into the town--the sense of stability, of rest, of comfort, which belong to the old familiar places. They know her. They are her dumb, faithful friends. The pigeons cooing in the oaks which shade the homestead have something to say to her which she will never hear again in the roar of Chicago or New York. The sense of stability, or repose, in home, in friendly faces, the affection of dumb things, are part of the capital of life which we do not set down in our schedule of property. But how starved the days are without them!
The lives of most women who rush into strange cities to earn their living are not only starved, but are failures. The story of the one woman who succeeds goes back to her old home, the others end in silence. Here is one significant fact: The lower classes of employes in the great department stores and factories are recruited from farms and country villages, and the worst houses in New York and Philadelphia are recruited from the department stores and factories.
But a woman may debase and hopelessly foul her life and remain as chaste as Diana. Take Mary Carr as an example, which will stand for thousands. If she had had genius or talent, or even that popular knack of hiding common thoughts in uncommon phrasing, she could have made her way with editors and publishers quite as rapidly by writing at home in the old farmhouse as in New York. Being in New York and hungry, she took up the baser work in journalism, work of which the readers of THE INDEPENDENT probably never heard. Thousands of sharp unscrupulous women earn their bread today by such work. They prowl into obscure and filthy quarters of life to find a sensational item to sell to the Sunday papers. It is they who fill "Personal" columns with anecdotes of the men and women who are known to the public through their books or official position. It is they who invent stories of Mrs. Roosevelt's dealings with her children or the boyhood of this general, or the love affairs of that poet. The poor creatures probably never saw one of the men and women whom they malign. They could not comprehend their political actions, or the books which they have written, or their lives, but they can invent foul personal anecdotes about them, and they know that no "stuff" which they can offer to certain newspapers will be as secure of ready sale as these. It is not the man who sells poisonous toadstools who is to blame, it is the public that relishes and eats toadstools.
There are still lower depths of blackmailing, etc., to which these poor women sink. But I have said enough. Why should any good pure Southern girl leave her home to try her future in such muddy ways as these?
The chance of success is in staying at home. In almost every country town there is one clever woman, who, like Jane Sevier, has pushed her way up to comfort and influence. She is a florist, or a milliner, a librarian, or the editor of a paper; she makes jam, or she has nature classes in summer for city children. She goes not go into the city to live, but she brings some fad or taste or demand of the city to her country home and earns her living by gratifying it.
The noblest name ever given to the President was that of the Great Father. If we only had a Great Mother, who could lead the myriads of American woman that are struggling for money and fame into the ways of simplicity and common sense!
1. That Lass o' Lowrie's (1872) was the first novel published by English playwright and author, Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924).↩
2. To Have and to Hold (1900) by Mary Johnston (1870-1936); the bestselling novel in the U.S. in the year of its publication.↩
3. Beulah (1859); Augusta Evans Wilson (1835-1909), American Southern author.↩
University of Connecticut