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The Passing of the New England Conscience
Harper’s Weekly (December 19, 1908) : 29 : link

      The fastenings of the New England conscience are loosening. The characteristic has been so deeply imbedded in our American make-up that one hears with a start of surprise the creaks and groans of an uneasy foundation. Presently there will be a landslide and miracles will be found to have happened. A few years ago the New England conscience could be met with on the Pacific coast, or in the Middle West, even in expatriated Americans in Tangiers and Greece; neadless to say it never got very far south. But now quite out of the blue a change has come. People of the meekest ouward appearance, egged on by a mysterious something, defying their New England conscience and going against its dictates. They are much upset by their own behavior and conceal it as best they can. They are given to guilty starts if looked at unexpectedly, and if one smiles knowingly at them they will blush. Instead of bowing their heads as they once did at the distant approach of duty, they now look it squarely in the face, even planting their legs slightly apart and with hands on hips demand of Duty, “Well, and what have you to say for yourself?” Duty’s surprise and displeasure can be imagined. This is not the sort of thing it has been accustomed to. Duty has been growing fat and omnipotent in the New England conscience for some generations and it puffs and feels asthmatic at sudden changes. It is just its ubiquitous quality that makes us so justifiably nervous. The thing may attack us at any moment. In the data that one gathers — and we are all keeping a shy watch on our friends — appear such cases as this :
      A man planned for two years to take a trip on the Continent. He deprived himself of many pleasures in order to accumulate a sufficient sum of money, and his consequent discomfort told him that he was doing right. He was inconvenienced enough to prove to himself that he was following a praiseworthy plan. Naturally in two years he had a great deal of time in which to lay out a careful route, and by the time he finally sailed he knew what he would do with every hour of the six weeks he was to be away. When he got to Venice an awful thing happened. His character rumbled ominously and he never felt the same confidence in it afterward. This is the way it happened : Up to the time of his reaching Venice he had done everything on schedule time. His pleasure was derived as much from the precision with which he made whole cities and countries bow to the rigor of his plan as it was from anything the cities or countries had to exhibit. He spent his allowed two days in Venice, looked at no pictures he had not intended to look at, paid his hotel bill, arrived at the station with his baggage, and just there the bolt fell. An unknown force within him said, “Why not stay in Venice another day or two?” He was shocked, his New England conscience was shocked.
      “He said he would stick to his plan,” it cried.
      “Yes, I know,” returned the force, “but he likes Venice.”
      “Isn’t this giving away to impulse?” New England conscience was fighting for its own.
      “Probably,” replied the force, and by its lack of putting it mind upon the subject showed what its source must have been.
      “Hasn’t he paid his bill?”
      “He has.”
      “And given up his room?”
      “Also that.”
      “Then how can he go back?”
      “Why can’t he?” This denying of facts savored of a lack of reverence, a flippancy in the face of serious obstacles. New England conscience was dogged but weakening. “Is he justified in this move, has he weighed —”
      “Oh, chuck it!” cried the force, and led the man and his conscience back to the hotel, on the way losing the plan. When the man realized that he no longer balanced his every action against seven varying standpoints he knew that something dreadful had happened to him, and his health began to give way. When he returned to America he brought back with him a shifty eye, a shambling gait, and a collection of jade gods that he had picked up on the spur of the moment. Unable to account for the impulse or the gods, he moved to a strange town, where he has not done well.
      It is not, of course, as though each of these poor sufferers realized that they are only one in a general movement. This comfort is deined them, and their loneliness is extreme. They think they are different, and to people who have for generations regarded a differing from the general rule as an individual leaning toward sin, their having an unshared failing is the last drop of bitterness. They think of the time when life to them meant a red barn, a frame church with a steeple, and a white house with green blinds; other things have intruded into the general scheme, their certainty of the world’s immediate end has now become fixed. It is to cheer them with the news that they are still of a kind with their fellow mortals that this article is written. The roubles of their beighbors are greater than they suspect, and amazingly like their own.
      A clerk who has been a comfort to himself and his employer for many years confessed the other day that curious things are goig on in his hitherto well-regulated brain. He sits at his desk, he says, figuring business, and suddenly a little voice whispers in his ear, “The door is open.” The door’s being open is nothing to the clerk and he tells the voice so. Yet again it comes, “The door’s open.” At this the clerk is justifiably vexed, he figures frantically, and says to the voice, “My dear fellow, have the goodness to remember that I am busy,” but a moment later he is again reminded that the door is open, and he jumps up, closes it, looks out of the window on the way, makes a face at a passing grocer’s boy, and returns to his desk ineffably cheered. “This is a pretty business, I must say, opening doors and looking out of windows — a pretty waste of time.” His New England conscience chimes in with him, and together they give him a thorough wigging. For fifteen minutes he figures. At the end of that time a frivolous little laught sounds in his ear and the voice says, “Why don’t you wash out the ink-bottle?”
      “Why should I?” demands the clerk, hotly though silently.
      “Oh, I don’t know; I thought it might amuse you.”
      The clerk fumes at such impertinence; and after the voice has for ten minutes or so persisted in its suggestions as to washing the ink-bottle the clerk firmly sends for his New England conscience and tells it to see what this interference means. The New England conscience takes in the situation at a glance, and wrestles with the clerk. He says, “Isn’t it imperative that you work?”
      “If you were out of work you and your sister would both starve?” “Dear, dear, yes.”
      “You believe in work and are interested in your own particular work?”
      “Of course, of course.”
      “Then the one sane thing for you to do is to figure steadily?”
      “It is. You are right. Only, I think I will wash out the ink-bottle because — well, because I happen to feel so exactly like washing out ink-bottles.” And off the clerk goes and does it, with the voice doing ecstatic somersaults on his head and the New England consciousness in a terrible state of collapse. The clerk’s shame need not be described. It lasts for days.
      This is a capital time to inspect the past of the New England conscience, just as, when an old hotel is about to be demolished, the newspapers review the conventions, balls, and famous guests that have been held in the famous old hostelry. Some rather black things can be laid against this disappearing characteristic. Antimacassars and living with tyrant husbands, for instance. Ladies have held back the art of this country and made spiritless martyrs of themselves all because they were born in — we willl make it general and say Connecticut. They have believed that antimacassars, daily house-cleanings, and ceertain types of married life must be good for them because they suffer so intensely under them. “We are almost dead,” they gasp, “and our conscience assures us the condition is a healthful one.” The thing was carried so far that in some families present-day descendents only feel safe when they are utterly uncomfortable. A thoroughly enjoyable time makes them so unhappy that they cannot enjoy it. It is this instinct that makes unselfishness the vaunted thing it is, and respect towards the opinion of one’s elders must be a superstition directly attributable to the early teachings of the New England conscience. The mad, perverted idea probably grew up in the interests of discipline and self-control, and without looking into the future with a criminal blindness the custom was allowed to become a law that is still followed For the chief trait of a New England conscience is that it utterly unreasonable. Its victories are all against sense and common comfort, not to mention healthy instinct and delightful inclination. It is a tyrant that has gone too far, and its present fall was only to be expected. When making an effort to free themselves humans, in their wrench away, may fall to the other extreme. Indications of the present exaggerated lurch can be felt on all sides. Serious-minded souls now regard the power to vary as a goal imperative to attain. They read big books on the bad things that habit does to one — they who once regarded a habit as Heaven-sent armor-plate — and they seriously look over their habits and consciously break them with not iconoclastic zeal, perhaps, but at least with a New England persistence and concentration. It has suddenly been noised about that we should all follow instincts and particularly impulses. Nothing could be more up to date than impulse. It is prophesied by those in a position to know that its popularity will last all winter, with a tendency to lighter shades in the spring. After years of suppressing instincts and impulses, they have succumubed to a a natural discouragement, and some of us are going to have difficulty in finding any. But this very difficulty appears to our Puritan rigor; it’s amazing how it holds out, and we have put our minds determinedly on being impulsive. The awkwardness of a beginner is only to be expected. We often let an impulse go by, mistaking it for a temptation, but on recognizing our mistake we patiently retrace our steps and follow that impulse. Follow it! We dog its footsteps to see where it is going, and if it does not go far enough we push it from behind. We are on the alert for the faintest intimation of an impulse. We start on the slightest encouragement, and, putting a finger on our pulse, we say, “Did I? No, Yes, Wait a minute, Ah no, no! I didn’t want to do it, after all.” And though we are disappointed, we have the satisfaction of knowing that we investigated the matter thoroughly. Where this new cult is going to take us no one knows. It is hoped to no very dreadful ends. The very thing that drove us to it may manage to save us. Our not having any want strong enough to lead us a disastrous dance is going to prove humiliating; but it may save us an infinite deal of trouble, and if it does we must just turn and thank our defunct New England conscience. It will, perhaps, turn over in its grave by way of answer, but that must not induce us to resurrect it.

11 November 2022