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The Shadow and the Light of a Young Man's Soul



WHEN young Archibald Dean went from the city—(living out of which he had so often said was no living at all)—went down into the country to take charge of a little district school, he felt as though the last float-plank which buoyed him up on hope and happiness, was sinking, and he with it. But poverty is as stern, if not as sure, as death and taxes, which Franklin called the surest things of the modern age.2 And poverty compelled Archie Dean; for when the destructive New-York fire of '35 happened, ruining so many property owners and erewhile rich merchants, it ruined the insurance offices, which of course ruined those whose little wealth had been invested in their stock.3 Among hundreds and thousands of other hapless people, the aged, the husbandless, the orphan, and the invalid, the widow Dean lost every dollar on which she depended for subsistence in her waning life. It was not a very great deal; still it had yielded, and was supposed likely to yield, an income large enough for her support, and the bringing up of her two boys. But, when the first shock passed over, the cheerful-souled woman dashed aside, as much as she could, all gloomy thoughts, and determined to stem the waters of roaring fortune yet. What troubled her much, perhaps most, was the way of her son Archibald. "Unstable as water," even his youth was not a sufficient excuse for his want of energy and resolution; and she experienced many sad moments, in her maternal reflections, ending with the fear that he would "not excel." The young man had too much of that inferior sort of pride which fears to go forth in public with anything short of fashionable garments, and hat and boots fit for fashionable criticism. His cheeks would tingle with shame at being seen in any working capacity: his heart sunk within him, if his young friends met him when he showed signs of the necessity of labor, or of the absence of funds. Moreover, Archie looked on the dark side of his life entirely too often; he pined over his deficiencies, as he called them, by which he meant mental as well as pecuniary wants....... But to do the youth justice, his good qualities must be told, too. He was unflinchingly honest; he would have laid out a fortune, had he possessed one, for his mother's comfort; he was not indisposed to work, and work faithfully, could he do so in a sphere equal to his ambition; he had a benevolent, candid soul, and none of the darker vices which are so common among the young fellows of our great cities.

A good friend, in whose house she could be useful, furnished the widow with a gladly accepted shelter; and thither she also took her younger boy, the sickly, pale child, the light-haired little David, who looked thin enough to be blown all away by a good breeze. And happening accidentally to hear of a country district, where for poor pay and coarse fare, a school teacher was required, and finding on inquiry that Archie, who though little more than a boy himself, had a fine education, would fill the needs of the office, thither the young man was fain to betake him, sick at soul, and hardly restraining unmanly tears as his mother kissed his cheek, while he hugged his brother tightly, the next hour being to find him some miles on his journey. But it must be. Had he not ransacked every part of the city for employment as a clerk?4 And was he not quite ashamed to be any longer a burthen on other people for his support?

Toward the close of the first week of his employment, the entering upon which, with the feelings and circumstances of the beginning, it is not worth while to narrate, Archie wrote a long letter to his mother, (strange as it may seem to most men, she was also his confidential friend,) of which the following is part:

"——You may be tired of such outpourings of spleen, but my experience tells me that I shall feel better after writing them; and I am in that mood when sweet music would confer on me no pleasure. Pent up and cribbed here among a set of beings to whom grace and refinement are unknown, with no sunshine ahead, have I not reason to feel the gloom over me? Ah, poverty, what a devil thou art! How many high desires, how many aspirations after goodness and truth thou hast crushed under thy iron heel! What swelling hearts thou hast sent down to the silent house, after a long season of strife and bitterness! What talent, noble as that of great poets and philosophers, thou dost doom to pine in obscurity, or die in despair! * * * Mother, my throat chokes, and my blood almost stops, when I see around me so many people who appear to be born into the world merely to eat and sleep, and run the same dull monotonous round—and think that I too must fall in this current, and live and die in vain!"

Poor youth, how many, like you, have looked on man and life in the same ungracious light! Has God's all-wise providence ordered things wrongly, then? Is there discord in the machinery which moves systems of worlds, and keeps them in their harmonious orbits? O, no: there is discord in your own heart; in that lies the darkness and the tangle. To the young man, with health and a vigilant spirit, there is shame in despondency.  per_sb.00127.jpg Here we have a world, a thousand avenues to usefulness and to profit stretching in far distances around us. Is this the place for a failing soul? Is youth the time to yield, when the race is just begun?

But a changed spirit, the happy result of one particular incident, and of several trains of clearer thought, began to sway the soul of Archie Dean in the course of the summer: for it was at the beginning of spring that he commenced his labors and felt his severest deprivations. There is surely, too, a refreshing influence in open-air nature, and in natural scenery, with occasional leisure to enjoy it, which begets in a man's mind truer and heartier reflections, analyzes and balances his decisions, and clarifies them if they are wrong, so that he sees his mistakes—an influence that takes the edge off many a vapory pang, and neutralizes many a loss, which is most a loss in imagination. Whether this suggestion be warranted or not, there was no doubt that the discontented young teacher's spirits were eventually raised and sweetened by his country life, by his long walks over the hills, by his rides on horseback every Saturday, his morning rambles and his evening saunters; by his coarse living, even, and the untainted air and water, which seemed to make better blood in his veins. Gradually, too, he found something to admire in the character and customs of the unpolished country-folk; their sterling sense on most practical subjects, their hospitality, and their industry.

One day Archie happened to be made acquainted with the history of one of the peculiar characters of the neighborhood—an ancient, bony, yellow-faced maiden, whom he had frequently met, and who seemed to be on good terms with everybody; her form and face receiving a welcome, with all their contiguity and fadedness, wherever and whenever they appeared. In the girlhood of this long-born spinster, her father's large farm had been entirely lost and sold from him, to pay the debts incurred by his extravagance and dissipation.5 The consequent ruin to the family peace which followed, made a singularly deep impression on the girl's mind, and she resolved to get the whole farm back again. This determination came to form her life—the greater part of it—as much as her bodily limbs and veins. She was a shrewd creature; she worked hard; she received the small payment which is given to female labor; she persisted; night and day found her still at her tasks, which were of every imaginable description; long—long—long years passed; youth fled, (and it was said she had been quite handsome); many changes of ownership occurred in the farm itself; she confided her resolve all that time to no human being; she hoarded her gains; all other passions—love even, gave way to her one great resolve; she watched her opportunity, and eventually conquered her object! She not only cleared the farm, but was happy in furnishing her old father with a home there for years before his death. And when one comes to reflect on the disadvantages under which a woman labors, in the strife for gain, this will appear a remarkable, almost an incredible case. And then, again, when one thinks how surely, though ever so slowly and step by step, perseverance has overcome apparently insuperable difficulties, the fact—for the foregoing incident is a fact—may not appear so strange.

Archie felt the narrative of this old maid's doings as a rebuke—a sharp-pointed moral to himself and his infirmity of purpose. Moreover, the custom of his then way of life forced him into habits of more thorough activity; he had to help himself or go unhelped; he found a novel satisfaction in that highest kind of independence which consists in being able to do the offices of one's own comfort, and achieve resources and capacities "at home," whereof to place happiness beyond the reach of variable circumstances, or of the services of the hireling, or even of the uses of fortune. The change was not a sudden one: few great changes are. But his heart was awakened to his weakness; the seed was sown; Archie Dean felt that he could expand his nature by means of that very nature itself. Many times he flagged; but at each fretful falling back, he thought of the yellow-faced dame, and roused himself again..... Meantime, changes occurred in the mother's condition. Archie was called home to weep at the death-bed of little David. Even that helped work out the revolution in his whole make; he felt that on him rested the responsibility of making the widow's last years comfortable. "I shall give up my teacher's place," said he to his mother, "and come to live with you; we will have the same home, for it is best so." And so he did. And the weakness of the good youth's heart never got entirely the better of him afterward, but in the course of a season, was put to flight utterly. This second time he made employment. With an iron will he substituted action and cheerfulness for despondency and a fretful tongue. He met his fortunes as they came, face to face, and shirked no conflict. Indeed, he felt it glorious to vanquish obstacles. For his mother he furnished a peaceful, plentiful home; and from the hour of David's death, never did his tongue utter words other than kindness, or his lips, whatever annoyances or disappointments came, cease to offer their cheerfullest smile in her presence.

Ah, for how many the morose habit which Archie rooted out from his nature, becomes by long usage and indulgence rooted in, and spreads its bitterness over their existence, and darkens the peace of their families, and carries them through the spring and early summer of life with no inhalement of sweets, and no plucking of flowers!


1. This tale may be, in part, autobiographical. For more on the autobiographical aspects of this story, see "About 'The Shadow and the Light of a Young Man's Soul.'" [back]

2. While Benjamin Franklin was not the first writer to affirm the inevitability of death and taxes, he did write in a 1789 letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, "Our new Constitution is now established, and has an apperance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Much like the character Archibald Dean, Whitman also become a teacher, prompted by financial need, and it was one of the most difficult periods in his life. From 1836 to 1841—the year he began writing fiction—Whitman taught school in approximately ten Long Island towns. At this time, he boarded at the homes of his students and taught students ranging in age from five to fifteen for some nine hours each day and received little pay for his efforts. Unlike Lugare, the cruel schoolmaster depicted in his story "Death in the School-Room. A Fact." (August 1841), Whitman was a progressive educator: he engaged his students in educational games and did not punish them with the rattan or the paddle. For a detailed account of Whitman's teaching experiences, see the "Schoolteaching Years" section of Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price's biography, "Walt Whitman." [back]

3. On December 16, 1835, a warehouse in New York's financial district caught fire. High winds spread the fire to some of New York City's most well-known commercial buildings, and the cold temperatures froze firemen's hoses and water sources, making it difficult to fight the fire. The New York Herald reported on "The Conflagration" on December 18, 1835, estimating that "twenty blocks of valuable buildings are destroyed . . . all involving a ruin of two thousand merchants" and likely costing some five to eight thousand jobs, including many men who worked as clerks and porters. See "The Conflagration," The Herald, December 18, 1835, [2]. [back]

4. In the nineteenth century, most clerks were young men who performed the tasks of writing and accounting for employers engaged in business or commercial sales. For more information on these and other responsibilities, as well as the lives of clerks in New York City, see Brian P. Luskey, On The Make: Clerks and the Quest for Capital in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: New York University Press, 2010). See also Thomas Augst, The Clerk's Tale: Young Men and Moral Life in Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003). [back]

5. "Spinster" was often used to refer to a woman who remained unmarried beyond the usual age of marriage. Dissipation can refer to excessive indulgence in pleasures such as alcohol or sex. [back]

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