Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Houses and Bess Streeter Aldrich -- Part II

At the time Mrs. Aldrich wrote her stories, young people were breaking with "traditional" ways of doing things. Many wanted to be "urban" and "sophisticated", and they wanted to distance themselves from small town or rural roots. They were also experiencing the end of the First World War. The horrors of a world war were a shock to that generation, and war experiences left many young people with a jaded view of life.

Society was changing, as well. Chaperones and strict rules of courtship were falling by the wayside. Automobiles were replacing horses and buggies. Young people were more likely to meet each other away from home than ever before. Now, families might not even meet a prospective son or daughter in law until the couple had already formed some type of friendship.

While some people rushed towards the "Roaring Twenties" with enthusiasm, many others yearned for the days when life was simpler. Sound familiar? Based on where we are today, we think of the early twentieth century as being part of "the good old days". We look back to that time and long for its "innocence".

Yet, people of the early twentieth century weren't sure what to make of the changes in their day, just as we wrestle with the changes in our own times. Thus, they had to make the same choice that all people have to make in every century and every decade: Do I build my life on the unchanging Rock or do I let myself be blown along the sands of life by the winds of an ever-changing world?

Mrs. Streeter didn't exactly put it that way. What she saw was a growing "modern" disdain for the "old-fashioned", wholesome, Midwestern way of life. Now, that way of life is not necessarily one and the same as true faith in the Rock. However, there is much to be said for the values Mrs. Streeter had grown up with. She championed those values with a light touch and a dose of humor.

Mrs. Streeter captures this theme in her light-hearted story, "The Mason Family Now on Exhibition." Katherine, the eldest daughter of a large and happy family, had just returned from teacher's college. The experience has been a good one for her, and she has come home as a contented and accomplished young woman.

But, now, as she awaits the arrival of her beau, Professor Keith Baldridge, to Sunday dinner, she starts looking at her home through newly critical eyes. Suddenly, her family's faults seem to loom larger and larger. Their many great points seem, unaccountably, to diminish. She does not stop to analyze why this is so.

Keith hasn't proposed yet, and Katherine hopes that he will once he has formally met her family. The thought excites her, but makes her nervous at the same time. Though she is usually easy-going in character, she now drives her family to distraction. She wants her home and family to be perfect for her wonderful, intellectual, sophisticated Keith.

Katherine views Keith's home life as being the ultimate in refinement, and she tries her best to turn her own family into an imitation of his. Her parents realize this is unwise. Still, they are patient with Katherine, and they urge her siblings and the maid, Tilly, to be patient with her, as well. However, the family, in no wise, shares Katherine's attitude that anything is lacking in their happy home. Katherine redoubles her efforts:
"If you could just know, Mama, how different the Baldridge home is from ours!" Katherine was in the kitchen now, assisting Mother and Tillie. "Our family is so talkative and noisy, and laughs over every little silly thing, and there is so much confusion. Why, at their dinners -- beside Professor Baldridge, there's just his father and an aunt, both so aristocratic -- at their dinners it's so quiet and the conversation is so enlightening -- about Rodin, and -- and -- Wagner -- and, oh, Maybe Milton... -- you know what I mean, so much more refined...And I wish you could see their house. It's not as big as ours, and really no nicer, but, oh! the atmosphere! The hangings are gray or mauve or dark purples -- and they keep the shades down so much lower than ours -- so it's peaceful, you know, like twilight all the time..."
"Ain't that a gloomy way to live, and unhealthy, too, I must say." It was Tilly speaking.
Katherine still insists on perfecting the family before Keith's arrival.
"After breakfast, Katherine, like General Pershing, reviewed her troop, the house, and the grounds. From vestibule to back porch, through the big reception hall, library, living-room, sun parlor, everything was immaculate. There was not a flicker of dust in the house. There was not a stick or dead leaf on the lawn."
Mother Mason remembers her own days of courtship, when she waited for Father Mason to propose. As sympathetic to Katherine's plight as she is, she realizes that Katherine is behaving poorly. She resists the impulse to make an issue of it right then, when her daughter was anticipating Keith's arrival. Still, she is a bit skeptical about her daughter falling for a man who has inspired her to indulge in such snobbish attitudes.

When Keith finally arrives, Mother Mason realizes that he is a man of character. She also sizes him up as being friendly and down-to-earth, to boot. Her heart is relieved for her daughter's sake.
"He was big and athletic-looking, and under well-modeled brows shone gray-blue eyes that were unmistakably frank and kind. What that God-given intuition of mothers, she knew that he was clean--clean in mind and soul and body."
For her part, Katherine is thrown for a loop when her Grandfather decides to join her family for lunch. She loves the elderly man, but he is from the pioneer generation, and his manners are anything but aristocratic. Grandfather tells Keith all about his adventures as a young homesteader and pioneer, peppering the stories with poor grammar and incidents he has already told the family a hundred times. Keith, being a professor of history, couldn't be more delighted to meet a man who actually made history.

Katherine doesn't realize just how much Keith enjoys the lunch until -- after obtaining her family's permission -- he takes her for a drive. He tells Katherine the astonishing news that he has invited her grandfather to dine at his father's house the next week. He wants to write a book about the state's pioneer generation, and he wants to interview Grandfather Mason.

As Keith talks on and on enthusiastically about Katherine's family and her town and the land around them, Katherine realizes -- perhaps for the first time -- just how special her family really is. Perhaps, by using "sophisticated" Keith as a mouthpiece, Mrs. Aldrich was gently challenging her "modern" readers to respect their own heritage.
"And this", he went on again, indicating the landscape, "this is our heritage from the pioneers. From sod houses to such beautiful homes as yours! I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed being with your family today. It's the typical happy American family. When I think of my own gloomy boyhood, I could fight someone -- a lonesome, motherless, little tad studying manners, and "Thanatopsis," under a tutor. Yours is the kind of home I've always wanted. It's the kind of home I mean to have when I marry -- all sunshine and laughter and little children."...
He turned to her suddenly and caught her hands. "It was to talk about that that I brought you out here. With my whole heart -- I love you -- Katherine."
Katherine accepts his proposal, and Keith takes his leave. The whole family sends him off with love and food and well wishes.
"All but Katherine, for she was not there. She had slipped into the front door and up to her room. There she dropped on her knees by the side of her bed and made a little fervent prayer to the God of families. And her prayer was this: That some day -- if she lived humbly for the rest of her life -- she might be purged from the sin of being disloyal -- even in thought -- to her own."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful story!