A Celebration of Women Writers

"The Art of Living." by Mrs. Ellen M. Rich (1843-).
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 365-370.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 365] 



Whoever can produce happiness has mastered the rudiments of the art of living. To live rightly is to make a constant study of self. The acquisition of the art consists in learning to adapt inclination and desire to natural requirements and real conditions; to discriminate with reference to the expenditure of vitality and to so conserve natural forces that, after the ordinary routine work is accomplished, the mind is still left buoyant and happy. The real art of living is based upon the possession of that knowledge which enables us to hope, not despair; to rejoice, not mourn; to look forward, not backward.

Mere trifles suffice to make some happy. Others require the transforming influence that comes from daily contact with sunny natures. The characters we develop and the kinds of lives we live depend largely upon the choice made between yielding to adversity and seeking to live above it.

Some believe in fate, around which are grouped many superstitions, and they are content to drift with the current. Happily for America and American institutions, this subservience to destiny is not a dominating influence. If it is wise to recognize fixed laws for the physical and spiritual being, then it is wise to deliberately study such laws and from them learn the causes of individuality. It is only in this way that we may be able to discern our characters, and, from the study of them, learn how to make the best of life; learn to maintain an existence which shall bring happiness to ourselves and others. It is the life we really live, not the life we appear to live, that is to be considered.

History is replete with biography, but the truth is, that a well-written life is as rare as a well-spent life. Everyone is at liberty to pass verdict upon a great man after his death. No sooner does one's character become public property than a crowd rushes to catch glimpses of it; and since each can reflect only a small portion of it in his nature, so he holds up to the world his little mirror and exclaims, "Behold the life of a great man." And perhaps the great man, could he return to life, would feel like taking the life of his biographer in retaliation for his impertinence.

In seeking for the proper development of our own characters, the study of biography helps us very little, because through this medium the real elements of great lives are not properly presented. The order of study and labor and the influences which led to greatness are not mentioned. The aim which the great man had in view [Page 366]  is merely guessed at. The elements which led to and constituted his superiority are supposed to be so many touches of the fairy's wand, and we are left to the belief that there could be but one Cæsar, one Alexander, one Napoleon; whereas, the world is full of heroes and heroines today, but the occasion which places them on a pedestal is wanting, that is all.

The same misguiding influence pervades all classic literature. It matters not what myth or what poem we read, we still find that the heroes and heroines are represented as being allied to the gods who watch over them and direct their actions; and so we are led to think that a modern hero must have a peculiar and particular genius for his god-mother. But is heroism anything more than doing the best under existing circumstances? Does it require any rare gift to stand firmly by a task until it is finished? to see our duty and adopt the best means of doing it? Heroes are common mortals, subject to the laws of environment. What more can they be? Common fishermen became the disciples of Christ. Joseph was a carpenter. Grant was a tanner. Lincoln was a wood-chopper. The Pilgrim Fathers were only simple peasants who counted freedom of conscience more than life, and who, by adhering to this principle, made the American Revolution possible. Winkelried's patriotism made Switzerland free. And now, after the lapse of four hundred years, the world has placed an immortal crown upon the brow of a Genoese navigator, simply because he persistently kept the prows of his caravels turned westward. Has not each year of our lives brought to our notice examples of as high courage and as determined perseverance as Columbus displayed? Point to all the great men of history and then show us, if possible, a greater hero than the little Dutch boy who stood all night long with his tiny hand pressed against a hole in the dyke, that he might thereby keep out the sea and thus save the village. It is only an occasional hero who becomes historic, but there are brave, noble hearts all about us, and our own hearts beat to the rhyme of their courage and sense of right. A few we immortalize, but the memory of the masses we allow to die. Much depends upon the genial biographer.

It is interesting to note how we cherish every bit of narrative concerning Grace Darling, Florence Nightingale, or the Maid of Orleans. Single acts of daring made them illustrious. What of the thousands unsung and unknown, who have braved greater dangers and greater trials than the foaming sea and the bloody field? What will we say of the mother who, unaided, rears her children with the labor of her hands, provides them food and home and schooling? Who guides their steps aright so that to the working force of the world she adds brave, intelligent sons and daughters? When we want a great theme for true heroism, commend us to the mothers who, battling against adverse circumstances, nourish, educate, and discipline the youth of the nation. Do we recognize these brave spirits as we meet them? Are we not in daily contact with them and yet pass them unnoticed?

The rhythm of a beautiful soul may not, and need not, always be crystallized into forms of speech in order to be recognized and appreciated. This soul-radiance creates happiness within its sphere and, though no words are embodied in type, the sphere widens and widens nevertheless. The poetry of the human soul, which finds expression in deeds not words, is the leaven which lightens and makes buoyant all humanity. That the world is giving more attention to conduct as the expression of thought and feeling is shown by the novel of today as compared with the novel of a century ago. Novels are now the records of real life, and as such we study them. Do we not observe that the desire to do some great thing often prevents the doing of those little things which, rightly considered, indicate true greatness? It was perhaps a little thing for Sir Philip Sidney to withdraw the cooling cup from his own parched lips and give it to another dying soldier. But, little in itself, it was the act of a true knight, and it touched a chord in the heart of humanity which will go on vibrating forever. That simple act rendered the name of Sidney immortal. There may be people toward whom nature is not prodigal of brain. At least some seem to find it impossible to be both agreeable and learned. All scholars are [Page 367]  not like Sidney and Addison, both learned and polite. In fact, some seem to think rudeness a necessary part of their outfit. But this austerity may be organic. They may affect to be very good companions, when really their world is only large enough for one person. Occasionally we find a man so exquisitely made that he can and must live alone. But the majorities can not live in solitude. It is by constant contact with the world and its work that we are made happy. When we live with people and understand them; when we can adapt ourselves to circumstances; when we can fall in with the spirit of the times, without allowing our sympathies to degrade us, or our better natures to be overcome, then we place ourselves upon vantage-ground for doing good, and, if well disposed, can accomplish much.

Intelligent Americans realize that the true test of civilization is not in the extent of the public domain, the area of the crops, the returns of the census, or the wealth and grandeur of cities. It is rather in the kind of men and women that our systems of education and government produce.

People with much work before them must learn to discriminate with reference to the distribution of time and energy. They have no time to waste in discourtesies. It requires more time and effort to undo a wrong than to do the right thing at first. How the feminine soul is sometimes vexed with taking to pieces and making over ill-fitting garments! What diplomacy is sometimes necessary to correct some social error. It is a great part of the art of living to be able to do the right thing at the right time. Each should map out some line of work and pursue it. If the choice is domestic duties, then let those duties be well and faithfully done. If teaching, then let us magnify our calling. If ministering, let us wait on our ministry. Every line of work has some drudgery connected with it, but it need not be degrading. All honest and necessary work is ennobling.

Heretofore women have not tried to see what they can do along certain lines of work. So, today, they are surprised by their wonderful achievements, and are saying that it has been given to the nineteenth century to discover woman! Many achievements are possible. If some fail for lack of scholarship, or rhetoric, or eloquence, they may still be loyal, patriotic, and public spirited. They may thrill by their personality, although they may not sway by their oratory.

It was Sir Philip Sidney who advised his brother, saying, "When you hear of a good war go to it." There are good wars to which we should go, though not with sanguinary intentions. Our influence and effort should be on the side of patriotism, of temperance, of chastity, of equality before the law, of Christianity. When we hear of a conflict along these lines we should go to it. But the most highly-favored persons are not always the most successful. Most of the great men and women of history come from the middle classes, and this fact makes one believe that it is worth much to have some difficulty to struggle against; to have some obstacle in life to overcome; to have some hardship to endure. Often the great trials of life are the great purifiers of human nature. Do we not sometimes covet the privileges of royalty, and yet fail to perceive that royalty must suffer all the physical ills which are the lot of common mortals? Even the queen mother must bear the pangs of maternity. But greater than the privilege of royalty is that profound blessing which comes to the person born with a bias for some particular pursuit or definite calling, in which both employment and happiness may be found.

When, from any cause, a swarm of bees has lost its queen, it proceeds at once, in a most curious fashion, to provide the conditions by which the loss may be made good. It is purely a matter of environment and food, when, lo! as by miracle, the common worker bee becomes a queen. If the mere matter of space and food have such influence on insect life, changing form and function, how much more may these influences change the life and character of human beings! In our examination of self let us inquire whether we have sufficient space for growth and development. Is not our world too angular and too narrow? With greater opportunities would we not make greater advancement? There is a stimulating power in mutual sympathy, and when [Page 368]  this aid comes to a life which earnestly desires improvement, it may make of that life a royal province. But when the goal is finally reached it must be by innate strength that we stand or fall. The power by which one conquers will ever be a profound secret to the world. The drop which the Divine Alchemist added to the blood, in order to impart individuality to each being, is a secret known only to the Great Lifegiver. It is this personal element which we ought to prize as the one thing that distinguishes each from every other being. We owe a sacred debt to every heart which has rightly influenced our lives–a debt which can only be repaid by imparting the vigor of our genius to our successors. It is right culture which determines right development. As soil, air, water and sunshine all have their effect upon plant growth, so in the development of human characters there are certain environments which must be secured and controlled. But do not for a moment suppose that all desirable things are also necessary elements of culture. Travel does not change one; scholastic training does not produce contentment; neither is there bliss in ignorance. The advantage of travel lies in the fact that it teaches us in various ways how to know and estimate ourselves–the acme of all true knowledge. Travel and study combined develop the sense of beauty, and aid in the cultivation of the element in us which may be called the sense of appreciating the beautiful. They show us in what manner we differ from others, and that we are not alike because we are incapable of being so.

The personality which leads us to differ need not be deplored. Each one has his own world, which is to him his castle. If, unnaturally, the fern and the violet seek to grow in the burning sun; if the rose and the sunflower choose the shade; if the golden-rod and the lily seek the arid plain, how dwarfed will become their development! Let us recognize and accept this personality, and cultivate it as a most precious thing. Let us recognize the likeness to, and the difference from, our ideal of perfect humanity. But let us not be so anxious for the development of the higher faculties that we neglect the happiness which comes to all from pure sense of enjoyment. It is good for the most learned mortals to come back from the straining abstractions of speculative thought and to indulge in the common emotions and innate sensibilities of life.

People of one idea are, no doubt, very interesting when expressing themselves concerning that idea, but upon any other topic they may be exceedingly uninteresting. A musician believes that music lies at the base of everything, and that all happiness is developed through harmony of sound. The painter casts his enthusiasm along the line of color, while the electrician believes that electricity is the all-in-all.

Is it not because much of our training fails of effect, because success surprises us and seems like a venture, that we need to broaden our views of life in order to gain some standards of excellence, and obtain correct ideas of our own merits and demerits? Have we not placed for ourselves some ideals, and are we not unhappy because we cannot attain them?

And as to forms and faces–well, some of us must forgive Mother Nature for her mistakes, and solace ourselves with the fact that no two faces are alike, and that, consequently, there can be no common standard of beauty. We are not dolls and do not live in dolls' houses. If this were our condition, there would arise another Ibsen who would so dramatize our social errors and our weaknesses that they would appear odious.

A few well-established tenets of faith each one must have for himself, and when he has reasoned them out and relies upon them, what more does he require? Some one has aptly said that a few strong instincts and a few plain rules are sufficient. Why not keep our intellectual lives clean and healthful, and allow our lives to be easier, simpler, and happier than they are? Nature teaches us many things, if we would only observe them; for the simplicity of the universe is infinite. Let us consider what daily takes place around us, and we will learn that painful labor is unnecessary. That which can be done readily and spontaneously usually evinces most strength. There are many people who, moved by sudden impulses, thoughtlessly attempt first one thing [Page 369]  then another, only to find themselves exhausted without accomplishing any real good. There are others who, in the majesty of well laid plans, accomplish much without seeming to put forth great effort.

Of course we love impulsive people, but impulsiveness need not dethrone reason. On the contrary, it may lend vivacity and piquancy to life, thus removing the humdrum of existence. There are things which we can neither change nor control–things which are in the keeping and under the care of that Soul which is the center of the universe; which infuses enchantment into all nature; which brings prosperity, pleasure, and loveliness into the life of all.

When we seriously aim at right thinking and right living, we always discover that there is a class of writers and lecturers whose minds, moving in the same plane, aid in lifting the masses to our level, and we are thereby blessed with the sympathy and co-operation of those whom we are wont to class as our superiors. It is this inspiration that gives us pleasure and relieves us of regrets concerning personal imperfections.

Did you ever think that if the morning of this century could look down upon the evening of the same it would recognize few characteristics of a hundred years ago? Has all this progress been material? Have the liberal arts progressed beyond the power of the common mind to comprehend? Has there not also been a marked development in learning?

The crowning glory of the ninteenth century will ever be the intelligence which, within the past fifty years, has seized upon the subtle forces of nature and applied them to the industries of the world. This age of steam and electricity is the triumph of labor. Let this advancement of labor, this material prosperity, this triumphal interpretation of nature constitute a plea for correct living–a plea for plain and simple modes of doing the common and necessary tasks of life. Let us abandon conceits, fads and superstitions, and let us pursue the careful and conscientious study of nature which the century has begun. By so doing we may hope for an era of great happiness. Let us make our lives consistent with the plan of nature, modeled according to the harmony of universal law. The model has been given us–a model without a flaw. It is a life full of beauty, of grace, of tenderness. It is of this perfect type of humanity that one of the most cultured of American women thus sings:

"In the beauty of the lilies
   Christ was born across the sea,
 With a glory in His bosom
   Which transfigures you and me."

Bishop Wilson's definition of culture is "to make the reason and the will of God prevail." Matthew Arnold says: "Culture needs faith and ardor to flourish in." Since faith and ardor depend so much upon health and bodily vigor, in order to obtain the highest results in life, is it not necessary that we bestow more care on bodily perfection? The true art of living is to aim at perfection; to seek a correct and perfect development of both mind and body, insofar as development is possible.

The best things we possess are our thoughts. Our best utterances and our best work are the embodiment and expression of thought. We can not always frame our words and deeds to utter all we desire to express. Our impulses are more charitable than they appear. There is more love in our hearts than is manifest in our lives. There is more of the Christ in our natures than we are ready to express. It is this element in human nature that renders character lovely. The more of this element we have, the more capable we are of being happy and of shedding all about us the gracious influences of a happy life.

To solve the great question of Christian charity by Victor Hugo's method may require more courage than is usually vouchsafed. He says: "Love thy neighbor by teaching him how to live." Can we furnish our neighbor with the example of "how to live?" Can we live simply, not sumptuously? Can we live happily, live honestly? [Page 370]  Can we daily exercise enough courtesy to lubricate the wheels of existence and keep the tone of society sweet and pure? Can we cultivate self-reliance and couple with it good manners? Can we study nature and learn her laws? Can we respect our own individuality? Can we respect others as possessing in equal if not in higher degree as noble qualities as our own? Can we cultivate powers of physical endurance? Can we control the emotions? Can we cause reason to prevail over the will? Can we summon courage to endure great trials? Can we become stout-hearted without becoming hard-hearted? Can we grow old so gracefully that our advancing years shall be the full fruition of a beautiful flower? If we can do these things, we can fight a good warfare and teach our neighbor "how to live."

In striving to progress we need not perplex ourselves with speculations foreign to us. We can never reach a solution of great theological problems by neglecting all the sweet and sacred duties of home and brooding over the mysteries of eternity. Such problems need not trouble us if we do not invite them.

When we learn to move among people, to live in their society, to transact our business affairs, to practice our economies, to perform our labors, to carry on our social and commercial interests, and not only keep ourselves free from any stumbling, but preserve and hold in view a high ideal of human existence, then we shall have learned the majesty of true manhood and true womanhood. We will not only have exemplified in our lives the real art of living, but will embody in them some of that glory which transfigures humanity.

[Page 365] 

Mrs. Ellen M. Rich is a native of Newfane, Windham County, Vt. She was born May 6, 1843. Her parents were Dexter Moore and Abigail Knowlton Moore. She was educated at Glenwood Seminary, Brattleboro, Vt., and at the Iowa State University. At the Iowa University she received the degrees of B. S., B. A., and A. M., the last degree in 1863. She married September 10, l868, J. W. Rich, editor and proprietor of the Vinton Eagle, at Vinton, Iowa. Mrs. Rich edited a household department in the Vinton Eagle, and in the Farmer's Stock Journal of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for many years. For several years she taught mathematics in the Iowa State University. In 1882 she was appointed a member of the Iowa State Board of Educational Examiners, the first woman ever appointed on such a board. Mrs. Rich is a member of the Presbyterian Church. Was for three years vice president for Iowa of the National Association for the Advancement of Women. Her postoffice address is Iowa City, Iowa.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Hitchcock.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom