FIFTY YEARS AGO, when I was a the helping hand essay of fifteen and helping to inhabit a Missourian village on the banks of the Mississippi, I had a friend whose society was very dear to me because I was forbidden by my mother to partake of it. He was a gay and impudent and satirical and delightful young black man -a slave -who daily preached sermons from the top of his master’s woodpile, with me for sole audience.
He imitated the pulpit style of the several clergymen of the village, and did it well, and with fine passion and energy. To me he was a wonder. I believed he was the greatest orator in the United States and would some day be heard from. It is the way, in this world. I listened to the sermons from the open window of a lumber room at the back of the house. You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.
I can never forget it. It was deeply impressed upon me. Not upon my memory, but elsewhere. She had slipped in upon me while I was absorbed and not watching. The black philosopher’s idea was that a man is not independent, and cannot afford views which might interfere with his bread and butter. He must restrict himself to corn-pone opinions — at least on the surface.
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I think Jerry was right, in the main, but I think he did not go far enough. It was his idea that a man conforms to the majority view of his locality by calculation and intention. This happens, but I think it is not the rule. It may be that such an opinion has been born somewhere, at some time or other, but I suppose it got away before they could catch it and stuff it and put it in the museum. I am persuaded that a coldly-thought-out and independent verdict upon a fashion in clothes, or manners, or literature, or politics, or religion, or any other matter that is projected into the field of our notice and interest, is a most rare thing — if it has indeed ever existed.
A new thing in costume appears — the flaring hoopskirt, for example — and the passers-by are shocked, and the irreverent laugh. Public opinion resented it before, public opinion accepts it now, and is happy in it. Was the resentment reasoned out? Was the acceptance reasoned out? The instinct that moves to conformity did the work.
The inborn requirement of self-approval. But as a rule our self-approval has its source in but one place and not elsewhere — the approval of other people. A person of vast consequences can introduce any kind of novelty in dress and the general world will presently adopt it — moved to do it, in the first place, by the natural instinct to passively yield to that vague something recognized as authority, and in the second place by the human instinct to train with the multitude and have its approval. An empress introduced the hoopskirt, and we know the result. A nobody introduced the bloomer, and we know the result. If Eve should come again, in her ripe renown, and reintroduce her quaint styles — well, we know what would happen. And we should be cruelly embarrassed, along at first.
The hoopskirt runs its course and disappears. It will come again, by and by and in due course will go again. We have not adopted this new fashion yet, but we shall do it presently. We may continue to admire them, but we drop the use of them. We notice this in literature.