The Life of Benjamin R. Tucker
Disclosed by Himself
2. Childhood in Padanaram.
The first thing that I can remember in my life is the day when I was four
years old, which seemed to me a great event; but I am told that several
things happened at an earlier date. For instance, it is a matter of tradition
that I could read fairly well when I was two years old; but my literary
taste seems to have confined itself at that period to the perusal of an
enormous Family Bible, weighing more than seventeen pounds, which used
to be placed wide open, upon a lounge, before which I stood to decipher
the text. This volume is still in my possession. In fact, beyond my fleshly
wrappings, it contains, so far as I know, the only evidence extant that
I was ever born at all and as such it has stood me in good stead.
Miraculous Power of the Bible.
In 1910, when I was living in Le Vesinet, near Paris, I had occasion to
visit the local police station to comply with certain formalities required
by French law. The official asked me for my birth certificate. I explained
that in 1854, when I was born, it was not the habit in the United States
to give birth certificates, and that scarcely any one of my age possessed
one. "That is not my affair," he answered. "A certificate I must have."
I bethought me of the Bible. "Bring it," said he, with an air of finality.
I went to my villa, found the volume and, under the burden of its size
and weight, staggered through the streets for half a mile, back to the
police office. Out of breath, I planted it before the stubborn man. Open
it nearly covered his desk. It was his turn to stagger. I pointed my finger
at the entry of my name. He could not read the English, but he pretended
to do so and straightway wilted. In his eyes anything so formidable must
be valid. Without further assistance, he signed all the necessary documents.
And I staggered home again, thinking as I went: "After all, good does come
out of Nazareth sometimes." Being and Egoist, scripture in general has
for me no sacred quality. But, since the Le Vesinet experience, my reverence
for this particular piece of scripture has been something akin to idolatry.
With its Family Registry, written in my father's hand from 1838 to 1873,
in my mother's from 1873 to 1878, and in my own thereafter, I am determined
that it shall stay with me, as a talisman, until the end.
But where was I? I must get back from France to Padanaram, where I was
studying the Sacred Book. At the age of four I had become so familiar with
its contents that, being taken by my parent to call at the home of my father's
half-sister in Smith Mills, I was asked by the young ladies of the household,
who were Episcopalians, to read from their prayer-book. Doing so, I came
upon a passage that startled me by its inaccuracy. I stoutly asserted that
it appeared to come from the Bible, but was erroneously quoted; to which
the young ladies answered that I must be wrong. A Bible was produced and
I had no difficulty in demonstrating that I was right. Which demonstration
established me as a prodigy.
In Padanaram, my family attended the Congregational Church, and there
too, in the Sunday School, I learned things that made me still more famous.
I am told that it was a habit of my father to stand me on the counter of
his village store, from which point of vantage I informed the villagers
assembled around the fire, with a confidence that I have since lost, that
the Lord was my shepherd and I should not want, concluding with the assurance
that I should dwell in the house of the Lord forever. At the age of five
or six, one is prone to be credulous.
Rebellion in the Tucker Blood.
At this point I imagine the reader wondering how the family happened to
be sitting under Congregational preaching in this Quaker community where
my father and his ancestors had been "Friends" for generations. The explanation
is simple. My father, in violation of the denominational law forbidding
marriage outside the fold, had committed a grievous sin in marrying my
mother, who, though by no means gay or giddy, did not wear a poke bonnet
of the prescribed type. Because of this, he was expelled from the Meeting.
True, in the course of time the elders offered to restore him to membership,
if he would say that he was sorry, but this offer he refused. Evidently
rebellion was latent in the Tucker blood. I doubt if he was more Congregationalist
than Quaker. In fact, I am not at all sure that he entertained any religious
views whatever. As to that, I can say only that at a later period, after
our Unitarian Church, I never heard him give utterance to any kind of religious
belief, until one day at the table, when I was about seventeen years of
age, the conversation having turned upon the existence of God, he, who
up to that point had taken no part, suddenly remarked, in a very commonplace
tone, that he never had been able to see any reason for believing in such
a being. I looked at him with some amazement, and the conversation ended
there, but I remember that the declaration greatly impressed itself on
my mind. I may add that I had already arrived at his conclusion, but was
greatly surprised to learn that he had even considered the subject.
Whether an atheist or not, my father certainly was an optimist, and
his optimism was often not a little annoying both to my mother, who generally
looked upon the dark side, and to his business partner. It is told that,
on one occasion, when one of the firm's whaling ships, after a voyage of
some years' duration, had returned to port with empty casks, my father,
walking on the pier and surveying the unpleasant situation, disgusted his
partner by saying: "Well, Charles, we shall not have to buy any new casks
for the next voyage." The remark was characteristic of his entire life.
Watching the return of the whalers was one of the diversions of the
Padanaram home, whose rear windows commanded a view of Buzzards Bay, an
arm of the Atlantic ten or fifteen miles wide stretching between the Dartmouth
shore and the Elizabeth Islands. Through this expanse of water passed the
whalers en route for New Bedford. Near one of the widows a long spy-glass
was kept, and, when a vessel was in sight, there was a grand rush for first
possession. As each owner had a special flag, it was often possible to
identify the new arrival, which in those days was apt to be unheralded;
and, as a result, there was must exerted speculation concerning the good
or bad fortune of those immediately interested.
A return of quite another sort one day brought mingled consternation
and joy to the household. Some months earlier my half-brother, Henry, who
was proving rather unruly, had been shipped on a whaling voyage by his
father as a means of discipline. One afternoon (probably Sunday, for I
seem to remember my astonished father in the picture), when Henry was supposed
by all the family to be thousands of miles away, he came walking up the
flagging leading to the back piazza. I believe that he had escaped from
his vessel at San Francisco where the whalers often stopped, and had secured
return passage by another. The details of the greeting have passed from
my mind, but surely all were glad to see him, regardless of the disciplinary
failure. It is safe to say, however, that my father did not kill the fatted
calf, or even the freak -- the chicken with four necks -- as is recorded
in a modern version of the prodigal's return.
One of the New Bedford whalers, and one of the last to go out of service,
was named for our father. The New Bedford Sunday Standard of May 10, 1925,
printed a large reproduction of a photograph of the A.R. Tucker at its
pier, accompanied by this comment: "A whaler whose stern recalls the old
witticism that whale ships were built by the mile and cut up in lengths
First Lesson in French.
With Henry's return the household, exclusive of domestics, again became
six in number, a figure originally attained through the birth of my sister
Julia in January 1858, -- an event which I scarcely remember. But this
was really the case only during the vacations enjoyed by my half-sister
Sarah, who was receiving her education at Wheaton Female Seminary in Norton,
Massachusetts. Of her, during those years, but a single remembrance remains
vivid. In the course of my play, my handkerchief had fallen to the floor.
Sarah, naturally proud of her superior learning, remarked, "Il y a votre
mouchoir." I was beginning to wonder if her reason had departed when she
relieved me by explaining that the words were French for the expression:
"There is your handkerchief." My wonder changed promptly into admiration.
It was my first lesson in the language the reading knowledge of which was
to become so important a factor in my later life. Telling this story recently
to my daughter Oriole, who having lived in France since the age of six
weeks, speaks the language like a native, I was reminded by her (it was
her turn to be proud) that Sarah's words had established merely the existence
of the handkerchief rather than the position in the room, and that her
French would have been more idiomatic has she said: "Viola votre mouchoir!"
I humbly accepted the correction, but with the further amendment (for it
was my turn to be proud) that, since Sarah was addressing her little brother,
her French would have been simply perfect had she exclaimed: "Voila ton
mouchoir!" Thus, between my earliest French lesson and my latest, nearly
seventy years have passed, and it must be confessed that in that period
I have learned none too much, considering the unusual opportunities that
I have enjoyed. It is true that as a translator of non-technical French
into written English I may properly be counted among the best. It is also
true that I can read such French to myself with great rapidity and with
some approach to instant and perfect comprehension. Nor is it an exaggeration
to say that I can read aloud to others, from any ordinary French book or
newspaper that I may pick up, at sight and in English, with fluency not
common. My pronunciation of French is far from good, but by no means ridiculous;
and I think that I could make a creditable record at a French spelling-bee.
But to this day I cannot converse in French for two minutes without getting
into a hopeless muddle, nor can I write in French with any ease or assurance
of accuracy. If a Frenchman speaks to me at a rate exceeding twenty words
a minute, I do well if I catch two words out of the twenty. If, on the
other hand I chance to catch a complete sentence, I rarely fail to see
the meaning, and in one direction at least I have attained a degree of
proficiency that enables me at the Monaco market, which I attend almost
daily, to dodge successfully the wiles of the dealers, regardless of sex.
In fact, in the bosom of my family I am continually chaffed about my lady
friends at the market. I should not have been thus explicit in defining
my linguistic limitations but for the fact that the newspapers very often
credit me, kindly but erroneously, with a thorough knowledge of French.
My Musical Repertory.
All the other secular knowledge that I have acquired in Padanaram days
must have been imparted by may mother (though my mind carries no picture
of her as teacher and myself as pupil), and must have covered a large part
of the ground included in a New England primary school course. Nothing
else was attempted. For instance, nothing musical, for there was no music
in the family. Neither of my parents could distinguish one tune from another,
and a discord had to be very violent to cause me the least disturbance.
But there was one good voice among the Cummingses, -- the soprano of my
Aunt Louise. She sometimes came to Padanoram to pass a few days, and her
singing I enjoyed, probably because of the character of her selections.
Up to the age of four I spelt in the ground-floor chamber of my parents,
but after Julia's birth an up-stairs room was assigned to me, where I spelt
by myself. Such was my appreciation of Aunt Louise's lullabies that during
her visits I used to beg that she might put me to bed. In my early childhood
I heard little other singing except of the familiar hymns of the orthodox
sects, which rang in my ears not only at Sunday services, but in the home
of my father's sister, who lived in Westport, a town adjoining Dartmouth
on the west, -- a home in which I had five cousins, and where I sometimes
visited for a week. Here was another case of violation of the Quaker marriage
code. But I never heard that my Aunt Rebecca suffered expulsion from the
Meeting in consequence. Or did she perhaps, less rebellious than her brother
Abner, consent to say that she was sorry, and thus regain her standing!
In any case, she was a faithful attendant, theeing and thouing to the last
day of her life. But she married an Episcopalian. Their surname was Church,
and they did not steal it. It appropriateness made it their own. At the
beginning of each meal the father said a short grace consisting of fifteen
or twenty stereotyped words, opening with the phrase: "O Lord, we thank
Thee for these provisions of Thy bounty." And very frequently in the evening
the children gathered around the piano (or perhaps an organ), prepared
to exhaust the following repertory: "Yes, we shall gather at the river,"
"For oh we stand on Jordan's strand," "Rock of Ages, cleft for me," "There
is rest for the weary," "From Greenland's icy mountains," "Watchman, tell
us of the night," "Oh, wonderful love," and the Doxology. Lacking ear and
voice, I could not join, but gradually I caught the swing of the music
and swiftly absorbed the words. Since those days I have arrived at a high
appreciation of the dramatic, the emotional, and, to an extent, the tuneful
content of the best music. But for myself I rarely attempt anything beyond
the repertory of my infancy, supplemented by a few similar selections of
later date, such as "Nearer, My God to Three" and "Hold the fort, for I
am coming." Were I to venture anything more ambitious, my presence, I fear,
would not long be tolerated. As it is, with second childhood imminent,
I lie on my lounge, or pace up and down my apartment, pouring forth my
soul. Said Jim Lefferts to Elmer Gantry: "You certainly can make that hymn
sound as if it meant something." Well, so can I. I deliver it with clear
enunciation, shaded emphasis, and much gusto. In "There is rest for the
weary" I seem to make a special hit, possibly by the suggestion of an opposite
conclusion. Up to a certain point the other members of the family maintain
a charitable composure, but at last a huge outburst of unappreciative,
not to say mocking, laughter greets me, perhaps quieting me for the moment;
soon, however, nothing daunted, I soar again upon the winds of song. The
outpour begins when I am dressing in the morning, and, but for the fact
that I sit up till nearly midnight and live in a thickly-settled and well-regulated
community, would continue when I am undressing in the evening. Ought I
not to stop it altogether? Already the fear begins to haunt one that the
religious, after my death, may seize upon this innocent habit as evidence
of recantation of my atheism. It is hardly likely that my Monegascan neighbors
understand the words. Still, one never knows. Once more, then, let these
pages serve to head the liars off.
Aunt Louise was not the only visitor at Padanoram. Cousins came also;
generally boys from one to four years older than myself. The place had
its attractions. Besides the lawn, the flower garden, the vegetable garden,
the orchard, the stable, and a considerable expanse of meadow,-- perhaps
an acre or more, in all, -- there was the seashore, within five or ten
minutes' walk of the house; and, when all else failed, there was still
a timid cousin to tease. One of the favorite amusements was to entice and
aid me to the hay-loft and leave the descent to my own resources, which
were not fertile. It was oftener my lungs than my limbs that brought me
release from my predicament. This species of torture must have been inflicted
in the summer of 1860, and before another summer arrived the hay-loft had
become in my life thing of the past. I do not know what induced my parent
to remove to New Bedford. Perhaps the business of Tucker & Cummings
was in the decline. Whatever the reason, the removal occurred, early in
1861. My father sold his residence, -- for twelve thousand dollars, I believe.
Whether the land is still intact, I do not know. Nearly thirty years have
passed since I laid eyes upon it. It must now be a very valuable property,
as the entire region for miles around ahs become a summer stamping-ground
for the "dead swells" of America and even of foreign parts, and the population
of the adjacent city of New Bedford has increased more than five fold.
The buyer was Charles Tucker, a brother of my father's first wife; and
his son, Arthur L. Tucker, still occupies the premises, if I am not mistaken.
Though my father, who, be it remembered married a Tucker not related to
himself, was related to Charles Tucker only by marriage, Charles Tucker's
son Arthur is my cousin. How so? Simply because Charles Tucker also married
a Tucker not related to himself but a cousin of my father. Hoping that
these complications have not led me into error, and leaving the reader
to find his way out of the labyrinth, I pass on to New Bedford, taking
with me as souvenir a photograph of myself at the age of two, which, in
an oval gilt frame, still hangs upon my wall in Monaco. The first experiments
with collodion dry plates were described in La Lumiere on April 22, 1854,
-- just five days after my birth. This photograph, then, taken in 1856,
must be one of the very early products of the photographic art, and seems
to me a creditable piece of work.
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