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Chapter 18

THE NATURE OF BOYS.

I tell these things about my boy, not so much because they were peculiar to him as because I think they are, many of them, common to all boys. One tiresome fact about boys is that they are so much alike; or used to be. They did not wish to be so, but they could not help it. They did not even know they were alike; and my boy used to suffer in ways that he believed no boy had ever suffered before; but as he grew older he found that boys had been suffering in exactly the same way from the beginning of time. In the world you will find a great many grown-up boys, with gray beards and grandchildren, who think that they have been different their whole lives through from other people, and are the victims of destiny. That is because with all their growing they have never grown to be men, but have remained a sort of cry-babies. The first thing you have to learn here below is that in essentials you are just like every one else, and that you are different from others only in what is not so much worth while. If you have anything in common with your fellow-creatures, it is something that God gave you; if you have anything that seems quite your own, it is from your silly self, and is a sort of perversion of what came to you from the Creator who made you out of himself, and had nothing else to make any one out of. There is not really any difference between you and your fellow-creatures; but only a seeming difference that flatters and cheats you with a sense of your strangeness, and makes you think you are a remarkable fellow.

There is a difference between boys and men, but it is a difference of self-knowledge chiefly. A boy wants to do everything because he does not know he cannot; a man wants to do something because he knows he cannot do everything; a boy always fails, and a man sometimes succeeds because the man knows and the boy does not know. A man is better than a boy because he knows better; he has learned by experience that what is a harm to others is a greater harm to himself, and he would rather not do it. But a boy hardly knows what harm is, and he does it mostly without realizing that it hurts. He cannot invent anything, he can only imitate; and it is easier to imitate evil than good. You can imitate war, but how are you going to imitate peace? So a boy passes his leisure in contriving mischief. If you get another fellow to walk into a wasp's camp, you can see him jump and hear him howl, but if you do not, then nothing at all happens. If you set a dog to chase a cat up a tree, then something has been done; but if you do not set the dog on the cat, then the cat just lies in the sun and sleeps, and you lose your time. If a boy could find out some way of doing good, so that he could be active in it, very likely he would want to do good now and then; but as he cannot, he very seldom wants to do good.

Or at least he did not want to do good in my boy's time. Things may be changed now, for I have been talking of boys as they were in the Boy's Town forty years ago. For anything that I really know to the contrary, a lot of fellows when they get together now may plot good deeds of all kinds, but when more than a single one of them was together then they plotted mischief. When I see five or six boys now lying under a tree on the grass, and they fall silent as I pass them, I have no right to say that they are not arranging to go and carry some poor widow's winter wood into her shed and pile it neatly up for her, and wish to keep it a secret from everybody; but forty years ago I should have had good reason for thinking that they were debating how to tie a piece of her clothes-line along the ground so that when her orphan boy came out for an armload of wood after dark, he would trip on it and send his wood flying all over the yard.

This would not be a sign that they were morally any worse than the boys who read Harper's Young People, and who would every one die rather than do such a cruel thing, but that they had not really thought much about it. I dare say that if a crowd of the Young People's readers, from eight to eleven years old, got together, they would choose the best boy among them to lead them on in works of kindness and usefulness; but I am very sorry to say that in the Boy's Town such a crowd of boys would have followed the lead of the worst boy as far as they dared. Not all of them would have been bad, and the worst of them would not have been very bad; but they would have been restless and thoughtless. I am not ready to say that boys now are not wise enough to be good; but in that time and town they certainly were not. In their ideals and ambitions they were foolish, and in most of their intentions they were mischievous. Without realizing that it was evil, they meant more evil than it would have been possible for ten times as many boys to commit. If the half of it were now committed by men, the United States would be such an awful place that the decent people would all want to go and live in Canada.

I have often read in stories of boys who were fond of nature, and loved her sublimity and beauty, but I do not believe boys are ever naturally fond of nature. They want to make use of the woods and fields and rivers; and when they become men they find these aspects of nature endeared to them by association, and so they think that they were dear for their own sakes; but the taste for nature is as purely acquired as the taste for poetry or the taste for tomatoes. I have often seen boys wondering at the rainbow, but it was wonder, not admiration that moved them; and I have seen them excited by a storm, but because the storm was tremendous, not because it was beautiful.

I never knew a boy who loved flowers, or cared for their decorative qualities; if any boy had gathered flowers the other boys would have laughed at him; though boys gather every kind of thing that they think will be of the slightest use or profit. I do not believe they appreciate the perfume of flowers, and I am sure that they never mind the most noisome stench or the most loathsome sight. A dead horse will draw a crowd of small boys, who will dwell without shrinking upon the details of his putrefaction, when they would pass by a rose-tree in bloom with indifference. Hideous reptiles and insects interest them more than the loveliest form of leaf or blossom. Their senses have none of the delicacy which they acquire in after-life.

They are not cruel, that is, they have no delight in giving pain, as a general thing; but they do cruel things out of curiosity, to see how their victims will act. Still, even in this way, I never saw many cruel things done. If another boy gets hurt they laugh, because it is funny to see him hop or hear him yell; but they do not laugh because they enjoy his pain, though they do not pity him unless they think he is badly hurt; then they are scared, and try to comfort him. To bait a hook they tear an angle-worm into small pieces, or impale a grub without flinching; they go to the slaughter-house and see beeves knocked in the head without a tremor. They acquaint themselves, at any risk, with all that is going on in the great strange world they have come into; and they do not pick or choose daintily among the facts and objects they encounter. To them there is neither foul nor fair, clean nor unclean. They have not the least discomfort from being dirty or unkempt, and they certainly find no pleasure in being washed and combed and clad in fresh linen. They do not like to see other boys so; if a boy looking sleek and smooth came among the boys that my boy went with in the Boy's Town, they made it a reproach to him, and hastened to help him spoil his clothes and his nice looks. Some of those boys had hands as hard as horn, cracked open at the knuckles and in the palms, and the crevices blackened with earth or grime; and they taught my boy to believe that he was an inferior and unmanly person, almost of the nature of a cry-baby, because his hands were not horn-like, and cracked open, and filled with dirt.

He had comrades enough and went with everybody, but till he formed that friendship with the queer fellow whom I have told of, he had no friend among the boys; and I very much doubt whether small boys understand friendship, or can feel it as they do afterwards, in its tenderness and unselfishness. In fact they have no conception of generosity. They are wasteful with what they do not want at the moment; but their instinct is to get and not to give. In the Boy's Town, if a fellow appeared at his gate with a piece of bread spread with apple-butter and sugar on top, the other fellows flocked round him and tried to flatter him out of bites of it, though they might be at that moment almost bursting with surfeit. To get a bite was so much clear gain, and when they had wheedled one from the owner of the bread, they took as large a bite as their mouths could stretch to, and they had neither shame nor regret for their behavior, but mocked his just resentment.

The instinct of getting, of hoarding, was the motive of all their foraging; they had no other idea of property than the bounty of nature; and this was well enough as far as it went, but their impulse was not to share this bounty with others, but to keep it each for himself. They hoarded nuts and acorns, and hips and haws, and then they wasted them; and they hoarded other things merely from the greed of getting, and with no possible expectation of advantage. It might be well enough to catch bees in hollyhocks, and imprison them in underground cells with flowers for them to make honey from; but why accumulate fire-flies and even dor-bugs in small brick pens? Why heap together mussel-shells; and what did a boy expect to do with all the marbles he won? You could trade marbles for tops, but they were not money, like pins; and why were pins money? Why did the boys instinctively choose them for their currency, and pay everything with them? There were certain very rigid laws about them, and a bent pin could not be passed among the boys any more than a counterfeit coin among men. There were fixed prices; three pins would buy a bite of apple; six pins would pay your way into a circus; and so on. But where did these pins come from or go to; and what did the boys expect to do with them all? No boy knew. From time to time several boys got together and decided to keep store, and then other boys decided to buy of them with pins; but there was no calculation in the scheme; and though I have read of boys, especially in English books, who made a profit out of their fellows, I never knew any boy who had enough forecast to do it. They were too wildly improvident for anything of the kind, and if they had any virtue at all it was scorn of the vice of stinginess.

They were savages in this as in many other things, but noble savages; and they were savages in such bravery as they showed. That is, they were venturesome, but not courageous with the steadfast courage of civilized men. They fought, and then ran; and they never fought except with some real or fancied advantage. They were grave, like Indians, for the most part; and they were noisy without being gay. They seldom laughed, except at the pain or shame of some one; I think they had no other conception of a joke, though they told what they thought were funny stories, mostly about some Irishman just come across the sea, but without expecting any one to laugh. In fact, life was a very serious affair with them. They lived in a state of outlawry, in the midst of invisible terrors, and they knew no rule but that of might.

I am afraid that Harper's Young People, or rather the mothers of Harper's Young People, may think I am painting a very gloomy picture of the natives of the Boy's Town; but I do not pretend that what I say of the boys of forty years ago is true of boys nowadays, especially the boys who read Harper's Young People. I understand that these boys always like to go tidily dressed and to keep themselves neat; and that a good many of them carry canes. They would rather go to school than fish, or hunt, or swim, any day; and if one of their teachers were ever to offer them a holiday, they would reject it by a vote of the whole school. They never laugh at a fellow when he hurts himself or tears his clothes. They are noble and self-sacrificing friends, and they carry out all their undertakings. They often have very exciting adventures such as my boy and his mates never had; they rescue one another from shipwreck and Indians; and if ever they are caught in a burning building, or cast away on a desolate island, they know just exactly what to do.

But, I am ashamed to say, it was all very different in the Boy's Town; and I might as well make a clean breast of it while I am about it. The fellows in that town were every one dreadfully lazy—that is, they never wanted to do any thing they were set to do; but if they set themselves to do anything, they would work themselves to death at it. In this alone I understand that they differed by a whole world's difference from the boys who read Harper's Young People. I am almost afraid to confess how little moral strength most of those long-ago boys had. A fellow would be very good at home, really and truly good, and as soon as he got out with the other fellows he would yield to almost any temptation to mischief that offered, and if none offered he would go and hunt one up, and would never stop till he had found one, and kept at it till it overcame him. The spirit of the boy's world is not wicked, but merely savage, as I have often said in this book; it is the spirit of not knowing better. That is, the prevailing spirit is so. Here and there a boy does know better, but he is seldom a leader among boys; and usually he is ashamed of knowing better, and rarely tries to do better than the rest. He would like to please his father and mother, but he dreads the other boys and what they will say; and so the light of home fades from his ignorant soul, and leaves him in the outer darkness of the street. It may be that it must be so; but it seems a great pity; and it seems somehow as if the father and the mother might keep with him in some word, some thought, and be there to help him against himself, whenever he is weak and wavering. The trouble is that the father and mother are too often children in their way, and little more fit to be the guide than he.

But while I am owning to a good deal that seems to me lamentably wrong in the behavior of the Boy's Town boys, I ought to remember one or two things to their credit. They had an ideal of honor, false enough as far as resenting insult went, but true in some other things. They were always respectful to women, and if a boy's mother ever appeared among them, to interfere in behalf of her boy when they were abusing him, they felt the indecorum, but they were careful not to let her feel it. They would not have dreamed of uttering a rude or impudent word to her; they obeyed her, and they were even eager to serve her, if she asked a favor of them.

For the most part, also, they were truthful, and they only told lies when they felt obliged to do so, as when they had been in swimming and said they had not, or as when they wanted to get away from some of the boys, or did not wish the whole crowd to know what they were doing. But they were generally shamefaced in these lies; and the fellows who could lie boldly and stick to it were few. In the abstract lying was held in such contempt that if any boy said you were a liar you must strike him. That was not to be borne for an instant, any more than if he had called you a thief.

I never knew a boy who was even reputed to have stolen anything, among all the boys, high and low, who met together and played in a perfect social equality; and cheating in any game was despised. To break bounds, to invade an orchard or garden, was an adventure which might be permitted; but even this was uncommon, and most of the boys saw the affair in the true light, and would not take part in it, though it was considered fair to knock apples off a tree that hung over the fence; and if you were out walnutting you might get over the fence in extreme cases, and help yourself. If the owner of the orchard was supposed to be stingy you might do it to plague him. But the standard of honesty was chivalrously high among those boys; and I believe that if ever we have the equality in this world which so many good men have hoped for, theft will be unknown. Dishonesty was rare even among men in the Boy's Town, because there was neither wealth nor poverty there, and all had enough and few too much.

William Dean Howells

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