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Recollections of a Varied Life. Eggleston, George Cary, 1839–1911 


THE old life of the Old Dominion is a thing of the dead past, a memory merely, and one so different from anything that exists anywhere on earth now, that every reflection of it seems the fabric of a dream. But its glamor holds possession of my mind even after the lapse of half a century of years, and the greatest joy I have known in life has come from my efforts to depict it in romances that are only a veiled record of facts.

It was not a life that our modern notions of economics can approve, but it ministered to human happiness, to refinement of mind, to culture, and to the maintenance of high ideals of manhood and womanhood. It bred a race of men who spoke the truth, lived uprightly, and met every duty without a shadow of flinching from personal consequences. It reared a race of women fit to be the wives and mothers of such men. Under its spell culture was deemed of more account than mere education; living was held in higher regard than getting a living; refinement meant more than display; comfort more than costliness, and kindliness in every word and act more than all else.

I know an old plantation where for generations a family page: 73[View Page 73] of brave men and fair women dwelt in peace and ministered in gracious, hospitable ways to the joy of others. Under their governance there was never any thought of exploiting the resources of the plantation for the sake of a potential wealth that seemed superfluous to people of contented mind who had enough. The plantation supported itself and all who dwelt upon itblack and white. It educated its sons and daughters and enabled them to maintain a generous hospitality. More than this they did not want or dream of wanting.

There are twenty-two families living on that plantation now, most of them growing rich or well-to-do by the cultivation of the little truck farms into which the broad acres have been parceled out. The woodlands that used to shelter the wild flowers and furnish fuel for the great open fireplaces, have been stripped to furnish kindling wood for kitchen ranges in Northern cities. Even the stately locust trees that had shaded the lawns about the old mansion have been converted into policemen's clubs and the like, and potatoes grow in the soil where greensward used to carpet the house grounds.

Economically the change means progress and prosperity, of course, but to me the price paid for it seems out of proportion to the goods secured. But then I am old-fashioned, and perhaps, in spite of the strenuous life I have led, I am a sentimentalist,and sentiment is scorned as silly in these days.

There is another aspect of the matter that deserves a word, and I have a mind to write that word even at risk of anathema from all the altars of sociology. At seventy years of age one is less sensitive to criticism than at thirty.

All the children of the twenty-two truck farming families on that old plantation go to school. They are taught enough to make out bills, add up columns of figures, and page: 74[View Page 74] write business letters to their commission merchants. That is what education means now on that plantation and on hundreds of others that have undergone a like metamorphosis. No thought or dream of culture enters into the scheme. Under the old system rudimentary instruction was merely a stepping stone by which to climb up to the education of culture. Under the theories of economics it is a great gain thus to substitute rudimentary instruction for all in the place of real education and culture for a class. But is it gain? Is the world better off with ten factory hands who can read, write, and cipher, than with one Thomas Jefferson or George Wythe or Samuel Adams or Chancellor Livingston who knows how to think? Are ten factory girls or farmers' wives the full equivalent of one cultured gentlewoman presiding gracefully and graciously over a household in which the amenities of life are more considered than its economics?

Meanwhile the education of the race of men and women who once dwelt there has correspondingly lost its culture aspect. The young men of that old family are now bred to be accountants, clerks, men of business, who have no time to read books and no training that leads to the habit of thinking; the young women are stenographers, telegraph operators, and the like. They are estimable young persons, and in their way charming. But is the world richer or poorer for the change?

It is not for me to answer; I am prejudiced, perhaps.

However it may be, the old life is a thing completely dead and done for, and the only compensation is such as the new affords. Everything that was distinctive in that old life was burned out by the gunpowder of the Civil War. Even the voices of the Virginia womenonce admired throughout the landare changed. They still say "right" for "very," and "reckon" for "think," and their enunciation is still marked by a certain lack of page: 75[View Page 75] emphasis, but it is the voice of the peacock in which they speak, not that of the dove.

Whenever I ask myself the questions set down above, I find it necessary to the chastening of my mind to recite my creed:

I believe that every human being born into this world has a right to do as he pleases, so long as in doing as he pleases he does not interfere with the equal right of any other human being to do as he pleases;

I believe in the unalienable right of all men to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;

I believe that it is the sole legitimate function of government to maintain the conditions of liberty and to let men alone.

Nevertheless, I cannot escape a tender regret when I reflect upon what we have sacrificed to the god Progress. I suppose it is for the good of all that we have factories now to do the work that in my boyhood was done by the village carpenter, tanner, shoemaker, hatter, tailor, tinsmith, and the rest; but I do not think a group of factory "hands," dwelling in repulsively ugly tenement buildings and dependent upon servitude to the trade union as a means of escaping enslavement by an employing corporation, mean as much of human happiness or signify as much of helpful citizenship as did the home-owning, independent village workmen of the past. In the same way I do not think the substitution of a utilitarian smattering for all for the education and culture of a class has been altogether a gain. As I see young men flocking by thousands to our universities, where in earlier times there were scant hundreds in attendance, I cannot avoid the thought that most of these thousands have just enough education of the drill sort to pass the entrance examinations and that they go to the universities, not for education of the kind that brings enlargement of mind, but for technical training page: 76[View Page 76] in arts that promise money as the reward of their practice. And I cannot help wondering if the change which relegates the Arts course to a subordinate place in the university scheme is altogether a change for the better. Economically it is so, of course. But economics, it seems to me, ought not to be all of human life. Surely men and women were made for something more than mere earning capacity.

But all this is blasphemy against the great god Progress and heresy to the gospel of Success. Its voice should be hushed in a land where fame is awarded not to those who think but to those who organize and exploit; where men of great intellect feel that they cannot afford to serve the country when the corporations offer them so much higher salaries; and where it is easier to control legislation and administration by purchase than by pleading.

The old order changed, both at the North and at the South when the war came, and if the change is more marked in the South than at the North it is only because the South lost in the struggle for supremacy and suffered desolation in its progress.