[Wednesdays, I am posting pieces of Chasing Smallwood, an early book now out of print. This is a book about four interconnected themes:
- how to communicate with the dead;
- the life of a 19th-century American;
- the massive task facing us today, and
- the physical world’s place in the scheme of things.]
.3. Going West
I have been observing, of course. Your life from here is an open book to us, and our ability to influence you, primarily through your emotions, means that we are ever closely in contact. Resonance, you would term it.
You watched a movie “last night” and were in tears and were irritated and downcast about it, comparing your reaction to imagined or portrayed situations to your somewhat stunted conflicted reaction to what occurs in your external life. But there is no need to reproach yourself—your internal life, fully lived and somewhat more fully than average reported, is your task and your gift. So of course you will feel things more closely when you connect through your essential center rather than your center of personality. Your personality is the part of you that is farthest from us; your essence is our essence. How can we not be as close to you as breath?
Now as to your question. Let it flow easily, taking it as fantasy, so that you don’t choke up the flow of it. After all, you may alter some of the flow without your knowledge against your conscious will, so – psychics being usually 20% wrong anyway – you can give yourself the freedom to be wrong. What is wrong or is “made up” to correct the flow can always be corrected. None of this or anything is Gospel, you know. Everything is subject to later correction.
You sensed a heaviness when I came in. This is a difference between us. You are “silly” as we would have said, compared to us. You have often felt the difference as a form of self-judgment. Your frivolity, your merry-making, what you call your comedic presence, is a valuable and even necessary possession for your personality. It gets you through your isolated life. So – I do not judge it harshly; do not judge it at all. But the difference is there to be experienced.
I was born in Vermont near Brattleboro on a farm in 1822 – July 17, 1822 to be exact. My father John and mother Mary were long-time Americans. That is, they’d been here long enough to have no contact with the English family they belonged to. John was grandson of the first Joseph Smallwood who came over from Lancashire to Massachusetts (as it was then – Maine, later) in 1742 as a young man. Joseph was a sailor. He married Harriett Catlett in 1750 and they had 14 children, my father being the youngest. He became a farmer, traded farms twice, wound up near Brattleboro. Ended his life (father of six) there, aged 82.
My mother’s father Horace Widgeon left Bristol as a boy, sailing as ship’s boy for the passage. Came to Penobscot Bay. Sailed with fishermen and coasters till he got his majority, spent most of his life in the coasting trade. Married Sarah Jane Custis in [17?], my mother was their first child, 1792.
My parents met in Portland, Maine. My father had brothers and cousins there, and visited often – more so after he met Sarah Jane. They married and produced me and three brothers, John, Robert, and Edward, in that order, I being first.
I went to Harvard College because it was my mother’s wish and my own bookish inclination. My father did not object, though he had to sell some land to help pay for it. I was there from ’36 to ’40, a little younger than Henry Thoreau, I didn’t know him there. I think we might have become friends had we been there together, had we been of an age, for we had the same bookish traits and the mystical inclination that might have allowed us to exchange views, so to speak. Certainly we each responded to Emerson! However, that was not so uncommon.
My mother would have been happy to see me as a teacher or lawyer, and would not have been unhappy had I become a doctor. Minister was out of the question, for she had enough of her family’s “plain folk’ [Quaker] tradition to reject out of hand established churches. – or disestablished ones, for that matter. She was somewhat as Henry’s mother is reported to have been: educated, independent, plain-spoken and loving. But she did not have a meeting house, and might not have participated even if she had had one. Even the Friends were too organized for my mother!
I did teach school to earn money for more schooling. Yet I could not reconcile myself to staying in New England. The West called me, and I responded. The romance of The West that you have answered to all your life is me, is my life. You did not go; you did not need to go. I had done it. You know how, when you were a boy, the West was the “real” world you wanted to live in, and the east, and the 20th century, were annoyances? You were hearing me, just as now you are hearing the high point of my life as you listen to Marching Through Georgia.
I graduated college, I worked for a while at teaching, to accumulate a little money, I stopped in at Emerson’s and had an afternoon and evening with Emerson, and Thoreau – I not having any idea how closely hewn his mind and mine were. Then, I finally got to go West! It was 1843, forty years from the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, and I had a sort of an idea about following the trail Lewis and Clark had taken.
You don’t quite remember the impact on you, the first time you saw the Ohio. That was me, remembering. (Or so it would seem to your way of understanding. I would say you and I were at the same “place” and the emotion carried, though you had no conscious idea of it.)
Down the Ohio to Cincinnati, and on to Saint Louis. And it took about 20 minutes of exposure to slavery to rouse a deep animosity – a hatred – that lived within me for more than 20 years. My letters home may have helped my mother to decide to join an anti-slavery society, despite her not being what you call “a joiner.”
At St. Louis, the question of how to proceed. I didn’t care to go along the Oregon Trail; too many people. And when I later heard descriptions of how it had been – the ceaseless surrounding people, the ruts, the dust, the isolation of it from the country it was traversing – I knew that my instinct had served me well. Besides, I had this fixed notion to go the way Lewis and Clark had gone.
I was a competent horseman and I could survive in the open without the trouble you would have had – the weakness in my lungs did not appear until much later. But I knew I could not travel among the Indians unescorted. For that matter, no one much traveled alone in that country save the mountain boys, and I was not in that league. I was not a trapper nor a hunter save to provide myself with food. I was a farm boy who had been to college; my talents lay elsewhere.