Degeneracy of Stature,” by “Thrace Talmon,” is a fairly tongue-in-cheek look at what increasingly worried the 19th century: that the rushrushrush of life would have dangerous consequences.
“Degeneracy of Stature,” by Thrace Talmon (from The National Era, 18 December 1856; p. 201)

With due deference to Young America, it must be confessed that our people are deteriorating in stature. The traditionary fact that “there were giants in those days,” becomes more and more marvellous. Gods, conquerors, monarchs, conscript fathers, in the ancient time, are represented to have been of physical proportions, which, as compared with our race, we pronounce not only colossal, but chimerical. The human skeleton discovered by Pliny, which was forty-six cubits in length, and that by Strabo, of sixty cubits, we hold to be absolute myths.

We remember our grandfathers as men of commanding height, of full figure, and stern port. Our fathers slightly trimmed down the pattern. The young men of to-day have dwindled not a little. A few days since, we saw the students of —— College, in a collective body, and, with but few exceptions, they looked dwarfed in stature. Not a quarter of a century since, such a body of young men would have averaged a number of feet in height, exceeding that of the present exceptions. It would see, that since the day when man was made

—“erect and tall,

Godlike erect, with native honor clad.”

he has been degenerating in that majesty of physical manliness, which has been the admiration of sculptors, painters, bards, and common eyes, in all the ages. We shrink from picturing the physique of the generations to come. Will they be dwarfs actual, pigmies, or fays? Doubtless, they will compare with models of the past, like the Israelitish spies before the sons of Anak—as grasshoppers! Not Titans, but sons and daughters of Titania, they will war with weapons of mushrooms, instead of mountains!

It behooves us to inquire into some of the causes of this degeneracy. We have paid dearly for many of the modern improvements called civilization. Household luxuries, school-room steam-press systems, and, above all, the mad spirit of the times, have not come to us without a loss more than proportionate. Little children, whose brains are still plastic from the mould of nature, are forced to go through a drill, which, considered in its absolute light with the relative effects upon the constitution, is appalling to the most dispassionate thinker. A boy, at ten or twelve years, is required to accomplish more processes in the text books of the sciences, than were ripe scholars of the past. Professors are expected to make discoveries—unearth the wonders of creation, or create wondrous theories, shortly to be earthed without an obituary.

In the world of mechanics, a young man, upon starting in life for himself, directly arrives at the conclusion that, in order to be something—which too often is only equivalent to be the possessor of a fortune—he must act upon the maxim, “Go ahead, if you burst your boiler.” Accordingly, he rushes headlong, with an impetuosity which strikes fire from the sharp flints under his tread. His brain works like an epitome of all the illustrations in Byrne’s dictionary of mechanics, really resting never. The result may be foreseen. Occasionally, one of this class reaches the end of his first aim—he amasses an estate, but at the expense of his peace, and often of his health. The lunatic asylum or the premature grave too frequently winds up his career. It is to be concluded that this system often generates moral as well as physical decay. They who will be rich are not always scrupulous. The wise man asserts, even, that “He that maketh haste to be rich, shall not be innocent.”

The evil effects of this system in affairs, we, the whole people, test every day of our lives, from the grand railway or steamboat accident, which kills off some scores, to the cheat in our articles of table consumption and common fabrics of clothing.

Authors are not less upon the rush. Books are now written to order, and by the week. The majority of them are Jonah’s guards. The reaction upon the material life of these book-makers is proportional to their unnatural intellectual efforts.

If any class of men may be likened to Ixion, it is that of modern politicians. Their motion surpasses all others in torment, for it is perpetual. Once tied to the wheel, and they must abide the shock of being turned upside down with every revolution.

It is not surprising, but clearly deducible, that the offspring of such a people should be found wanting in the elements that make real men and women.

The people of a newly-settled country, where arts, luxuries, and consequently competition, are introduced sparsely and leisurely, are of large and handsome physical symmetry. They expand physically and intellectually, in the strengthening atmosphere of a free life. “Our ancestors,” says Seneca, “when they were free, lived either in caves or arbors; but slavery came in with gildings and with marble.” They take time to think, to grow, and to live. They work slowly, but more often surely. Magnificent results follow—rare, indeed, but only the more grandly conspicuous. They turn out but few master minds in a century, but these are genuine. They are as mountains to hillocks. Every eye can see them. Their heads are nearer the clouds than all others. Their foundations are indestructible, immortal; and when they sleep, it is the sleep of giants, upon bedsteads of iron.

Had any one of the great statesmen, whose bodily presence is no more with us, been reared in one of our modern cities, according to the most model mode, he would no more have attained to the stature of a full man, in any sense, than the plant of the conservatory can rival the noble tree of the forest, or than a common mill-dam can compete with Niagara. Aristotle, to whom Philip intrusted the education of Alexander, was careful that the physical training of the young prince should be properly regulated in his early years. Gymnastics and the habit of endurance of cold were prominent in the regime. The result corresponded with the aim. Alexander became Alexander the Great, by reason of his ability to lead his bands of warriors onward, over all barriers, to victory.

Sallust, alluding to the degeneracy of the Romans from the state when they were “magnificent in their offerings to the gods, frugal in their families, and faithful to their friends,” to that when “avarice rooted out faith, probity, and every worthy principle,” declares that “this vice, (avarice,) as if impregnated with deadly poison, enervates both soul and body.”

Before me is a picture of Red Jacket, the great Indian chief. His mien is truly awe-inspiring. There is mark in every line, strength in every relief. His bone and thews and nerve must have been wrought of the iron of life. Who can behold this son of the forest, this red Apollo Belvidere, and not admire? Imagination pictures that this being was made to hug ferocious bears to destruction, to wrench out the eye-teeth of rattlesnakes with the agility of a Hercules, and to take long moonlight excursions

“—o’er Siogeo’s ice,

With brindled wolves, all harnessed three and three,

High seated on a sledge.”

Let not my refined reader turn from this sketch with horror. A true Indian athlete, en rapporte with the mysteries of the mountains, the ledges, the forests, and the Great Spirit, is no contemptible study for the most fastidious. “Manuel,” remarked Nicetas, “had not yellow locks, like a cornfield; his hue was dark and sunburnt, yet it was the hue of the bride in the Canticles—black, but comely.” So my Indian chief is noble, though dark; his person is like night, with stars of eyes. The physical training, and that of his race, which accomplishes this “comeliness,” is too familiar to repeat.

We have no anticipation of any radical change for the better, in the rearing of our youth, or in the habits of our citizens. We expect each succeeding generation will grow “beautifully less.” Mountains will become mole-hills; mole-hills, atoms; till the sons of mankind are completely disembodied.

Copyright 1999-2024, Pat Pflieger
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