Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Quaker City” (1888)

It was nearing the close of that May-time which is the morning of summer, when one fair, bright day I was borne away to the southward, through long, shining levels of grassy sea, shot over with yellow dandelion gleams like little baby sunshines playing in the sink and swell of the emerald waves. Up from that silent, dreaming, hazy, green ocean came floating the songs of its toilers; and the light-bathed airs which rested above it grew redolent with perfume, purple and silver with the sheen of the wings floating through it. and night came down like the gathered brooding of those wings, softly, slowly, darkly—only where a lost moonbeam wandered through the channel of Silence and paused for a moment to rest beneath the hovering shadow.

What a strange contrast was this day which had closed to that which dawned in the morrow’s east! Scarcely less wind than the Pennsylvania mountains themselvs, scarcely less changing than those winding streams, those hills in the distance where the purple twilights always lie, those jagged piles of nature’s giant masonry, those scarred summits with their eternal frown like that which rests above the sightless eyeballs of the blind, seeking, always seeking for the light that never comes, those wonderful gleams of uplifted color, those flashes of rays and dashes of starlessness; scarcely less changing than this wondrous panorama which is fairly hurled against the sight with the rapidity of lightning-darts, are those massy ranges of cloudy peaks, those lakes of blue, those wealths of troubled tears, those dips of golden sun, those quiverings upon the face of nature such as dwell upon the mouth ere it breaks into sobs or laughter, those shadowy embodiments of shifting human passion which greet the eye when it is lifted to the changing skies. Now the hills climb to kiss the clouds, now the clouds sink to hug the hills, and come curling down off the mountain side as if some king among them had blown a whiff of smoke from his gray lips; now we seem pressed and gathered into the very bosom of gloom, we shoot into a tunnel—the darkness becomes almost palpable, it is like a living thing stealing around and clutching your throat; you vaguely wonder if—if—“some horrid male creature is”—presto, we dart into the light! There is a sweep of glittering sunshine that fairly stuns the eye; the mournful little streams of rain on your window which hav been patiently running in crooked lines down the glass are a bedazzlement of smiling glory; the stern gray rocks drip light. “Ah,” says the pious individual across the aisle, “how typical of the resurrection!” and he proceeds with some pretty nonsense about a worm and a butterfly. Behold how habitual trains of thought lead people in far-sundered channels. Said I to myself, conscious that my audience if slim was at least appreciativ, “How typical of the glory of freedom! And won’t it be fine if we can ever get tunneled through the mountains of ignorance, and people find out that this isn’t a vale of tears after all!”

The heels of Time were treading upon twilight when I set my feet on terra firma, and, after methodical examination, discovered that I was not running around myself, and the platform stationary. On passing through the—what shall I call it, it looks like a cattle-guard?—I began looking earnestly for a little gentleman with a Wettstein badge, who was to be the hard-working secretary of Friendship Liberal League. Presently I heard a gentle voice speak my name, and turning about I met the leveled glance of three pair of dark eyes, set respectively in three little gentlemen’s heads. I suppose one’s ideas would be naturally confused under such circumstance; but while engaged in the remarkable task of adjusting names to these three individuals in a way which mixed them up so their own mothers wouldn’t hav known them, one very definit idea took possession of my brain, and I hugged it with infinit delight. This was, that there is an advantage to being born in the backwoods of Michigan—one has a chance to grow—these three little gentlemen were so very little.

Yet as it is said that valuable articles are often done up in small parcels, I shortly discovered that this trinity of big eyes and small bodies contained about as valuable material as can be found anywhere in the Liberal ranks. Secretary Longford has the best qualities which should characterize the incumbent of that arduous office—faithfulness, impartiality, sacrificial devotion to the cause, and a quiet persistency that simply smiles at obstacles. The merry little Bishop who kept amusing us with his quaint speeches is a model for all secular bishops; and Mr. Elliott is a whole entertainment committee in himself.

The following afternoon, before the lectures, I had the pleasure of meeting President Shaw, whose magnificent bearing reminded me of one of our stately Northern pines, and whose broad, generous, noble conception of life and its aims is more like the natural product of the West rather than the law-cursed city of Philadelphia.

A gentleman whose name I did not catch, but which appeared to variate from Brotherhood, Botherhead, Blubberhead, Bubblehead, Buddinghead, to Blunderhead, took occasion to allude to my balancing the starvation of millions against the mandates of Jehovah as an argument for this abolishment as a “wish-wash argument” from a “woman of your sex, madam.” I never before so thoroughly appreciated Mr. Watts’s remarks concerning “old women of both sexes.” As the gentleman afterward scolded the audience for not applauding his remarks, saying it was evident they preferred the ice-cream and confectionaries of public speaking to good solid “beefsteak,” I conclude that to cure him of his mistaken impression concerning the wishy-washiness of starvation, it would be a good plan to cut down his daily allowance of beefsteak. Will our Philadelphia friends please see to his case?

In response to the appeal for funds to sustain the national Union, Mr. J. W. Black, one of its vice-presidents, headed the list with a “V;” several others gave smaller sums, $9 in all being contributed. The names of President Putnam and Secretary Stevens were greeted with applause—a genuin tribute to the administration, and a sign that the self-sacrificing efforts of those gentlemen are appreciated. And I am glad to pay my tribute, faint as it is, to those noble Liberals who, in the city where the iron tongue of American liberty first spoke, yet hear the chains of bygone eras clank; who feel the curse of “church and state” like a hot, close mantle round them, yet dare to stand in the midst of all and say, boldly and fearlessly, “I despise your shackles; I ignore your priestly bondage; I defy your authority to chain my mind; I laugh at your superstition; I stand for truth, liberty, and justice.” I bow to those men and those women; and I thank them for their strength, which givs me strength.

Remaining in the city for some time, I visited various of its institutions, among which was that bone of contention, Girard College. And as Providence provided a very interesting treat to your wicked subscriber (which was a mistake of diplomacy on the part of P.), I will relate some details to the readers of The Truth Seeker in my next.

Voltairine de Cleyre.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Quaker City,” The Truth Seeker 15 no. 30 (July 28, 1888): 468-469.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.