“Solitude in a Crowd,” Frank Harper; or, The Country-Boy in Town, 1847
This story excerpt belongs to a vast genre of Sunday school books, hundreds of which were published in antebellum America. Such books were inexpensive, widely distributed, and produced by trade publishers and denominational houses as well as the American Sunday School Union. The books aimed to nurture young people in the Protestant faith, allowing the instruction of Sunday schools to be continued during the week and imparting such values of the Protestant ethic as self-discipline, thrift, sobriety, and literacy itself. Most Sunday schools featured a library of such books, and indeed access to these libraries acted as an important draw to get children into Sunday schools. In this Sunday school book excerpt, a young clerk from rural New Jersey faces the temptations of popular culture offered by the lower Manhattan neighborhood that housed the American Museum.
DO you think anybody can feel lonely in such a city as New York, where there are hundreds and thousands of people? Yes, it is possible; and our Frank felt it to be his own case, as many a country boy has done before him. He met hundreds after hundreds in the streets; almost always looking brisk and animated, and often conversing and seeming happy. But as for him, he was alone. No one cared for him; scarcely any one spoke to him. His employers never said a word to him, except to give him orders. It was the same with the elder clerks. The younger lads held their heads too high, to have much to do with him; and their profane language made him willing to avoid them. At his lodgings, he found no one who took the least interest in him.
It is one of the great evils of our city business, that the young men who are employed in stores and shops cannot be said to have any home , except in cases where they live with their parents. Where shall a poor boy go, when work is over? To the store? It is locked up. To the house of his employer? He would as soon think of going to the house of the Mayor. To his boarding-house parlour? He is not expected there, and would often find no welcome. To his own chamber? It is small, dark and cold. In truth, he has no home! And hence the temptation is so much the greater, to spend the evenings in bad places.
Frank felt all this; and often did he think how different it was at Coventry. Father, mother, and sisters were all gathered around the fire; neighbours were dropping in; good things were served round; there were kind books and gentle words. Oh, let no boy desire to leave his father's house, until called away by a plain duty!
One evening Frank felt the need of a walk; so he put on his coat, and proceeded up Broadway. This crowded street was brilliant with gas. The shop-windows were far more showy than by day; and the multitude of persons was greater. Now and then, he would stop before a brighter lamp than usual; it was at some Oyster-saloon, Refectory, Bowling-gallery, or Cafe. These are the names given to various grog-shops. They are well lighted and well warmed, and hold out a powerful inducement to the shivering, the lonely, and the sad. But those who go there to drink away their sorrows are almost sure to perish, soul and body. Frank passed by.
Next he came to Park-Row, and stood before the theatre. The row of lamps was bright. He could catch the sounds of fine music. Gay-looking people were going in or coming out. A crowd of boys surrounded the entrance, eager to be admitted and clamouring for checks. Frank remembered the great posting-bills which had told of the wonders to be seen and heard; but he passed on, feeling very solitary.
As he went further and further, he found the grog-shops more numerous; the windows less rich; the houses poorer; and the liquors more publicly displayed. At open doors he could hear the sound of merriment within. He saw boys of his own age coming out of these shining rooms, full of gayety, and knew how easy it would be to go in himself. O parents! who send tender youth to cities, can ye wonder that they fall into these snares! Frank felt very, very lonesome; but he passed on.
Weary of rambling, he at length turned to go home. A poor ragged boy offered him a small box saying, "Three for two cents--matches--please buy--please buy--I am hungry."--"Other people are in trouble, besides me," thought Frank. He declined buying, and the child gave him a volley of curses. It shocked the country boy to hear such words, and made him even more afraid than before, to make street acquaintances.
Old Cato once said to him: "Mr. Frank, what is the reason that I never see you with any playmates?"
"I have no playmates, Cato. I used to have plenty of them in the country, but I am a stranger here."
"Have you got no friends?"
"Not any here, Cato. I have a good father and mother and sisters, in Coventry."
"Then you are poorer than I am. When I go to my poor house at night, I find a welcome. The stove is hot, and something is cooking on it. There I find my 'old woman' and three daughters. My boys come in during the evening, and we have a dozen of friends looking in. We are all glad to see one another. I could not live without friends."
"Yes, Cato, you have a home : but I am a stranger."
"I often wonder," said Cato, "why the rich gentlemen don't do something to keep the young men out of mischief in the evenings. Boys are boys; they will have company. If they are not cheerful in some good place, they will go to some bad one. I wonder if masters will not have to answer for this to the Master of all."
To this Frank made no reply; for he thought as Cato did; and his mind was wandering away to his father's house, and the delightful winter evenings which he had spent there.
As he was entering Dey Street, on his return to tea, he met Ned and Joe, with a gang of about a dozen boys and men, very loud and merry. One of the men was a stable-keeper to whom he had taken errands. "Come, Frank," cried he, "come. There is to be a great poultry-raffle in Leonard Street." This is a sort of lottery, in which the prizes are turkeys, ducks, and chickens; but the chief attraction is the liquor, which is given very freely.
Frank could not help thinking that it was better to be lonely than to make merry in such company as this. He ascended to his room; lighted his bit of candle with a match; wrapped a blanket around him, and proceeded to read in Pilgrim's Progress --the only book which he possessed besides the Bible.
If the reader of these pages should ever become the employer of young men, I hope he will take pity upon those who are under his care, and at least find out what means they have of passing away their evening hours.
The Circus, the Theatre, the low Concert, draw multitudes night after night. These persons afterwards become ripe for crimes. Boys in town, who have no one to look after them, are early tempted to such places. But if they love their own souls, they should resolve to avoid them, lest they be drawn into greater depths of iniquity. The nearest grocery to my house was robbed the other night by a boy in the store, who rifled the money-drawer. When the police were called in, they said at once, "He is probably at the Circus;" and there, indeed, he was, as they found in the course of half an hour.
Source: Sunday School Books: Shaping the Values of Youth in Nineteenth-Century America— American Memory Collection, Library of Congress