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Chapter 8


We have since been at other weddings and at christenings and at funerals. The ceremonies are always held in the temples, and are always in the same serious spirit. As the Altrurians are steadfast believers in immortality, there is a kind of solemn elevation in the funeral ceremonies which I cannot give you a real notion of. It is helped, I think, by the custom of not performing the ceremony over the dead; a brief rite is reserved for the cemetery, where it is wished that the kindred shall not be present, lest they think always of the material body and not of the spiritual body which shall be raised in incorruption. Religious service is held in the temples every day at the end of the Obligatories, and whenever we are near a village or in any of the capitals we always go. It is very simple. After a hymn, to which the people sometimes march round the interior of the temple, each lays on the altar an offering from the fields or woods where they have been working, if it is nothing but a head of grain or a wild flower or a leaf. Then any one is at liberty to speak, but any one else may go out without offence. There is no ritual; sometimes they read a chapter from the New Testament, preferably a part of the story of Christ or a passage from His discourses. The idea of coming to the temple at the end of the day's labor is to consecrate that day's work, and they do not call anything work that is not work with the hands. When I explained, or tried to explain, that among us a great many people worked with their brains, to amuse others or to get handwork out of them, they were unable to follow me. I asked if they did not consider composing music or poetry or plays, or painting pictures work, and they said, No, that was pleasure, and must be indulged only during the Voluntaries; it was never to be honored like work with the hands, for it would not equalize the burden of that, but might put an undue share of it on others. They said that lives devoted to such pursuits must be very unwholesome, and they brought me to book about the lives of most artists, literary men, and financiers in the capitalistic world to prove what they said. They held that people must work with their hands willingly, in the artistic spirit, but they could only do that when they knew that others differently gifted were working in like manner with their hands.

I couldn't begin to tell you all our queer experiences. As I have kept saying, I am a great curiosity everywhere, and I could flatter myself that people were more eager to see me than to hear Aristides. Sometimes I couldn't help thinking that they expected to find me an awful warning, a dreadful example of whatever a woman ought not to be, and a woman from capitalistic conditions must be logically. But sometimes they were very intelligent, even the simplest villagers, as we should call them, though there is such an equality of education and opportunity here that no simplicity of life has the effect of dulling people as it has with us. One thing was quite American: they always wanted to know how I liked Altruria, and when I told them, as I sincerely could, that I adored it, they were quite affecting in their pleasure. They generally asked if I would like to go back to America, and when I said No, they were delighted beyond anything. They said I must become a citizen and vote and take part in the government, for that was every woman's duty as well as right; it was wrong to leave the whole responsibility to the men. They asked if American women took no interest in the government, and when I told them there was a very small number who wished to influence politics socially, as the Englishwomen did, but without voting or taking any responsibility, they were shocked. In one of the Regionic capitals they wanted me to speak after Aristides, but I had nothing prepared; at the next I did get off a little speech in English, which he translated after me. Later he put it into Altrurian, and I memorized it, and made myself immensely popular by parroting it.

The pronunciation of Altrurian is not difficult, for it is spelled phonetically, and the sounds are very simple. Where they were once difficult they have been simplified, for here the simplification of life extends to everything; and the grammar has been reduced in its structure till it is as elemental as English grammar or Norwegian. The language is Greek in origin, but the intricate inflections and the declensions have been thrown away, and it has kept only the simplest forms. You must get Mr. Twelvemough to explain this to you, Dolly, for it would take me too long, and I have so much else to tell you. A good many of the women have taken up English, but they learn it as a dead language, and they give it a comical effect by trying to pronounce it as it is spelled.

I suppose you are anxious, if these letters which are piling up and piling up should ever reach you, or even start to do so, to know something about the Altrurian cities, and what they are like. Well, in the first place, you must cast all images of American cities out of your mind, or any European cities, except, perhaps, the prettiest and stateliest parts of Paris, where there is a regular sky-line, and the public buildings and monuments are approached through shaded avenues. There are no private houses here, in our sense—that is, houses which people have built with their own money on their own land, and made as ugly outside and as molestive to their neighbors and the passers-by as they chose. As the buildings belong to the whole people, the first requirement is that they shall be beautiful inside and out. There are a few grand edifices looking like Greek temples, which are used for the government offices, and these are, of course, the most dignified, but the dwellings are quite as attractive and comfortable. They are built round courts, with gardens and flowers in the courts, and wide grassy spaces round them. They are rather tall, but never so tall as our great hotels or apartment-houses, and the floors are brought to one level by elevators, which are used only in the capitals; and, generally speaking, I should say the villages were pleasanter than the cities. In fact, the village is the Altrurian ideal, and there is an effort everywhere to reduce the size of the towns and increase the number of the villages. The outlying farms have been gathered into these, and now there is not one of those lonely places in the country, like those where our farmers toil alone outdoors and their wives alone indoors, and both go mad so often in the solitude. The villages are almost in sight of each other, and the people go to their fields in company, while the women carry on their house-keeping co-operatively, with a large kitchen which they use in common; they have their meals apart or together, as they like. If any one is sick or disabled the neighbors come in and help do her work, as they used with us in the early times, and as they still do in country places. Village life here is preferred, just as country life is in England, and one thing that will amuse you, with your American ideas, and your pride in the overgrowth of our cities: the Altrurian papers solemnly announce from time to time that the population of such or such a capital has been reduced so many hundreds or thousands since the last census. That means that the villages in the neighborhood have been increased in number and population.

Meanwhile, I must say the capitals are delightful: clean, airy, quiet, with the most beautiful architecture, mostly classic and mostly marble, with rivers running through them and round them, and every real convenience, but not a clutter of artificial conveniences, as with us. In the streets there are noiseless trolleys (where they have not been replaced by public automobiles) which the long distances of the ample ground-plan make rather necessary, and the rivers are shot over with swift motor-boats; for the short distances you always expect to walk, or if you don't expect it, you walk anyway. The car-lines and boat-lines are public, and they are free, for the Altrurians think that the community owes transportation to every one who lives beyond easy reach of the points which their work calls them to.

Of course the great government stores are in the capitals, and practically there are no stores in the villages, except for what you might call emergency supplies. But you must not imagine, Dolly, that shopping, here, is like shopping at home—or in America, as I am learning to say, for Altruria is home now. That is, you don't fill your purse with bank-notes, or have things charged. You get everything you want, within reason, and certainly everything you need, for nothing. You have only to provide yourself with a card, something like that you have to show at the Army and Navy Stores in London, when you first go to buy there, which certifies that you belong to this or that working-phalanx, and that you have not failed in the Obligatories for such and such a length of time. If you are not entitled to this card, you had better not go shopping, for there is no possible equivalent for it which will enable you to carry anything away or have it sent to your house. At first I could not help feeling rather indignant when I was asked to show my work-card in the stores; I had usually forgotten to bring it, or sometimes I had brought my husband's card, which would not do at all, unless I could say that I had been ill or disabled, for a woman is expected to work quite the same as a man. Of course her housework counts, and as we are on a sort of public mission, they count our hours of travel as working-hours, especially as Aristides has made it a point of good citizenship for us to stop every now and then and join in the Obligatories when the villagers were getting in the farm crops or quarrying stone or putting up a house. I am never much use in quarrying or building, but I come in strong in the hay-fields or the apple orchards or the orange groves.

The shopping here is not so enslaving as it is with us—I mean, with you—because the fashions do not change, and you get things only when you need them, not when you want them, or when other people think you do. The costume was fixed long ago, when the Altrurian era began, by a commission of artists, and it would be considered very bad form as well as bad morals to try changing it in the least. People are allowed to choose their own colors, but if one goes very wrong, or so far wrong as to offend the public taste, she is gently admonished by the local art commission. If she insists, they let her have her own way, but she seldom wants it when she knows that people think her a fright. Of course the costume is modified somewhat for the age and shape of the wearer, but this is not so often as you might think. There are no very lean or very stout people, though there are old and young, just as there are with us. But the Altrurians keep young very much longer than capitalistic peoples do, and the life of work keeps down their weight. You know I used to incline a little to over-plumpness, I really believe because I overate at times simply to keep from thinking of the poor who had to undereat, but that is quite past now; I have lost at least twenty-five pounds from working out-doors and travelling so much and living very, very simply.

William Dean Howells