Part 2 out of 4
However, with a strange perversity--due perhaps to our having the
Declaration of Independence crammed down our throats as children--we in
America seem obsessed with an ambition to create a social aristocracy,
loudly proclaimed as founded on achievement, which, in point of fact, is
based on nothing but the possession of money. The achievement that most
certainly lands one among the crowned heads of the American nobility is
admittedly the achievement of having acquired in some way or other about
five million dollars; and it is immaterial whether its possessor got it
by hard work, inheritance, marriage or the invention of a porous
In the wider circle of New York society are to be found a considerable
number of amiable persons who have bought their position by the lavish
expenditure of money amassed through the clever advertising and sale of
table relishes, throat emollients, fireside novels, canned edibles,
cigarettes, and chewing tobacco. The money was no doubt legitimately
earned. The patent-medicine man and the millionaire tailor have my
entire respect. I do not sneer at honest wealth acquired by these
humble means. The rise--if it be a rise--of these and others like them
is superficial evidence, perhaps, that ours is a democracy. Looking
deeper, we see that it is, in fact, proof of our utter and shameless
Most of these people are in society not on account of their personal
qualities, or even by virtue of the excellence of their cut plug or
throat wash which, in truth, may be a real boon to mankind--but because
they have that most imperative of all necessities--money. The
achievement by which they have become aristocrats is not the kind of
achievement that should have entitled them to the distinction which is
theirs. They are received and entertained for no other reason whatever
save that they can receive and entertain in return. Their bank accounts
are at the disposal of the other aristocrats--and so are their houses,
automobiles and yachts. The brevet of nobility--by achievement--is
conferred on them, and the American people read of their comings and
goings, their balls, dinners and other festivities with consuming and
reverent interest. Most dangerously significant of all is the fact that,
so long as the applicant for social honors has the money, the method by
which he got it, however reprehensible, is usually overlooked. That a
man is a thief, so long as he has stolen enough, does not impair his
desirability. The achievement of wealth is sufficient in itself to
entitle him to a seat in the American House of Lords.
A substantial portion of the entertaining that takes place on Fifth
Avenue is paid for out of pilfered money. Ten years ago this rhetorical
remark would have been sneered at as demagogic. To-day everybody knows
that it is simply the fact. Yet we continue to eat with entire unconcern
the dinners that have, as it were, been abstracted from the dinner-pails
of the poor. I cannot conduct an investigation into the business history
of every man who asks me to his house. And even if I know he has been a
crook, I cannot afford to stir up an unpleasantness by attempting in my
humble way to make him feel sorrow for his misdeeds. If I did I might
find myself alone--deserted by the rest of the aristocracy who are
concerned less with his morality than with the vintage of his wine and
the _dot_ he is going to give his daughter.
The methods by which a newly rich American purchases a place among our
nobility are simple and direct. He does not storm the inner citadel of
society but at the start ingratiates himself with its lazy and
easy-going outposts. He rents a house in a fashionable country suburb of
New York and goes in and out of town on the "dude" train. He soon learns
what professional people mingle in smart society and these he bribes to
receive him and his family. He buys land and retains a "smart" lawyer to
draw his deeds and attend to the transfer of title. He engages a
fashionable architect to build his house, and a society young lady who
has gone into landscape gardening to lay out his grounds. He cannot work
the game through his dentist or plumber, but he establishes friendly
relations with the swell local medical man and lets him treat an
imaginary illness or two. He has his wife's portrait painted by an
artist who makes a living off similar aspirants, and in exchange gets an
invitation to drop in to tea at the studio. He buys broken-winded
hunters from the hunting set, decrepit ponies from the polo players, and
stone griffins for the garden from the social sculptress.
A couple of hundred here, a couple of thousand there, and he and his
wife are dining out among the people who run things. Once he gets a
foothold, the rest is by comparison easy. The bribes merely become
bigger and more direct. He gives a landing to the yacht club, a silver
mug for the horse show, and an altar rail to the church. He entertains
wisely--gracefully discarding the doctor, lawyer, architect and artist
as soon as they are no longer necessary. He has, of course, already
opened an account with the fashionable broker who lives near him, and
insured his life with the well-known insurance man, his neighbor. He
also plays poker daily with them on the train.
This is the period during which he becomes a willing, almost eager, mark
for the decayed sport who purveys bad champagne and vends his own brand
of noxious cigarettes. He achieves the Stock Exchange Crowd without
difficulty and moves on up into the Banking Set composed of trust
company presidents, millionaires who have nothing but money, and the
elite of the stockbrokers and bond men who handle their private
The family are by this time "going almost everywhere"; and in a year or
two, if the money holds out, they can buy themselves into the inner
circles. It is only necessary to take a villa at Newport and spend about
one hundred thousand dollars in the course of the season. The walls of
the city will fall down flat if the golden trumpet blows but mildly. And
then, there they are--right in the middle of the champagne, clambakes
and everything else!--invited to sit with the choicest of America's
nobility on golden chairs--supplied from New York at one dollar per--and
to dance to the strains of the most expensive music amid the subdued
popping of distant corks.
In this social Arabian Nights' dream, however, you will find no sailors
or soldiers, no great actors or writers, no real poets or artists, no
genuine statesmen. The nearest you will get to any of these is the
millionaire senator, or the amateur decorators and portrait painters
who, by making capital of their acquaintance, get a living out of
society. You will find few real people among this crowd of intellectual
The time has not yet come in America when a leader of smart society
dares to invite to her table men and women whose only merit is that
they have done something worth while. She is not sufficiently sure of
her own place. She must continue all her social life to be seen only
with the "right people." In England her position would be secure and she
could summon whom she would to dine with her; but in New York we have to
be careful lest, by asking to our houses some distinguished actor or
novelist, people might think we did not know we should select our
friends--not for what they are, but for what they have.
In a word, the viciousness of our social hierarchy lies in the fact that
it is based solely upon material success. We have no titles of nobility;
but we have Coal Barons, Merchant Princes and Kings of Finance. The very
catchwords of our slang tell the story. The achievement of which we
boast as the foundation of our aristocracy is indeed ignoble; but, since
there is no other, we and our sons, and their sons after them, will
doubtless continue to struggle--and perhaps steal--to prove, to the
satisfaction of ourselves and the world at large, that we are entitled
to be received into the nobility of America not by virtue of our good
deeds, but of our so-called success.
We would not have it otherwise. We should cry out against any serious
attempt, outside of the pulpit, to alter or readjust an order that
enables us to buy for money a position of which we would be otherwise
undeserving. It would be most discouraging to us to have substituted
for the present arrangement a society in which the only qualifications
for admittance were those of charm, wit, culture, good breeding and good
I pride myself on being a man of the world--in the better sense of the
phrase. I feel no regret over the passing of those romantic days when
maidens swooned at the sight of a drop of blood or took refuge in the
"vapors" at the approach of a strange young man; in point of fact I do
not believe they ever did. I imagine that our popular idea of the
fragility and sensitiveness of the weaker sex, based on the accounts of
novelists of the eighteenth century, is largely a literary convention.
Heroines were endowed, as a matter of course, with the possession of all
the female virtues, intensified to such a degree that they were covered
with burning blushes most of the time. Languor, hysteria and general
debility were regarded as the outward indications of a sweet and gentle
character. Woman was a tendril clinging to the strong oak of
masculinity. Modesty was her cardinal virtue. One is, of course,
entitled to speculate on the probable contemporary causes for the
seeming overemphasis placed on this admirable characteristic. Perhaps
feminine honesty was so rare as to be at a premium and modesty was a
sort of electric sign of virtue.
I am not squeamish. I have always let my children read what they would.
I have never made a mystery of the relations of the sexes, for I know
the call of the unseen--the fascination lent by concealment, of
discovery. I believe frankness to be a good thing. A mind that is
startled or shocked by the exposure of an ankle or the sight of a
stocking must be essentially impure. Nor do I quarrel with woman's
natural desire to adorn herself for the allurement of man. That is as
inevitable as springtime.
But unquestionably the general tone of social intercourse in America, at
least in fashionable centers, has recently undergone a marked and
striking change. The athletic girl of the last twenty years, the girl
who invited tan and freckles, wielded the tennis bat in the morning and
lay basking in a bathing suit on the sand at noon, is gradually giving
way to an entirely different type--a type modeled, it would seem, at
least so far as dress and outward characteristics are concerned, on the
French demimondaine. There are plenty of athletic girls to be found on
the golf links and tennis courts; but a growing and large minority of
maidens at the present time are too chary of their complexions to brave
the sun. Big hats, cloudlike veils, high heels, paint and powder mark
the passing of the vain hope that woman can attract the male sex by
virtue of her eugenic possibilities alone.
It is but another and unpleasantly suggestive indication that the
simplicity of an older generation--the rugged virtue of a more frugal
time--has given place to the sophistication of the Continent. When I was
a lad, going abroad was a rare and costly privilege. A youth who had
been to Rome, London and Paris, and had the unusual opportunity of
studying the treasures of the Vatican, the Louvre and the National
Gallery, was regarded with envy. Americans went abroad for culture; to
study the glories of the past.
Now the family that does not invade Europe at least every other summer
is looked on as hopelessly old-fashioned. No clerk can find a job on the
Rue de Rivoli or the Rue de la Paix unless he speaks fluently the
dialect of the customers on whose trade his employer chiefly
relies--those from Pennsylvania, New York and Illinois. The American no
longer goes abroad for improvement, but to amuse himself. The college
Freshman knows, at least by name, the latest beauty who haunts the
Folies Bergeres, and his father probably has a refined and intimate
familiarity with the special attractions of Ciro's and the Trocadero.
I do not deny that we have learned valuable lessons from the Parisians.
At any rate our cooking has vastly improved. Epicurus would have
difficulty in choosing between the delights of New York and Paris--for,
after all, New York is Paris and Paris is New York. The chef of
yesterday at Voisin's rules the kitchen of the Ritz-Carlton or the Plaza
to-day; and he cannot have traveled much who does not find a dozen
European acquaintances among the head waiters of Broadway. Not to know
Paris nowadays is felt to be as great a humiliation as it was fifty
years ago not to know one's Bible.
Beyond the larger number of Americans who visit Paris for legitimate or
semilegitimate purposes, there is a substantial fraction who go to do
things they either cannot or dare not do at home. And as those who have
not the time or the money to cross the Atlantic and who still itch for
the boulevards must be kept contented, Broadway is turned into
Montmartre. The result is that we cannot take our daughters to the
theater without risking familiarizing them with vice in one form or
another. I do not think I am overstating the situation when I say that
it would be reasonably inferred from most of our so-called musical shows
and farces that the natural, customary and excusable amusement of the
modern man after working hours--whether the father of a family or a
youth of twenty--is a promiscuous adventuring into sexual immorality.
I do not regard as particularly dangerous the vulgar French farce where
papa is caught in some extraordinary and buffoonlike situation with the
washerwoman. Safety lies in exaggeration. But it is a different matter
with the ordinary Broadway show, where virtue is made--at least
inferentially--the object of ridicule, and sexuality is the underlying
purpose of the production. During the present New York theatrical season
several plays have been already censored by the authorities, and either
been taken off entirely or so altered as to be still within the bounds
of legal pruriency.
Whether I am right in attributing it to the influence of the French
music halls or not, it is the fact that the tone of our theatergoing
public is essentially low. Boys and girls who are taken in their
Christmas holidays to see plays at which their parents applaud
questionable songs and suggestive dances, cannot be blamed for assuming
that there is not one set of morals for the stage and another for
ordinary social intercourse.
Hence the college boy who has kept straight for eight months in the year
is apt to wonder: What is the use? And the debutante who is curious for
all the experiences her new liberty makes possible takes it for granted
that an amorous trifling is the ordinary incident to masculine
This is far from being mere theory. It is a matter of common knowledge
that recently the most prominent restaurateur in New York found it
necessary to lock up, or place a couple of uniformed maids in, every
unoccupied room in his establishment whenever a private dance was given
there for young people. Boys and girls of eighteen would leave these
dances by dozens and, hiring taxicabs, go on slumming expeditions and
excursions to the remoter corners of Central Park. In several instances
parties of two or four went to the Tenderloin and had supper served in
This is the childish expression of a demoralization that is not confined
simply to smart society, but is gradually permeating the community in
general. From the ordinary dinner-table conversation one hears at many
of the country houses on Long Island it would be inferred that marriage
was an institution of value only for legitimatizing concubinage; that an
old-fashioned love affair was something to be rather ashamed of; and
that morality in the young was hardly to be expected. Of course a great
deal of this is mere talk and bombast, but the maid-servants hear it.
I believe, fortunately--and my belief is based on a fairly wide range of
observation--that the Continental influence I have described has
produced its ultimate effect chiefly among the rich; yet its operation
is distinctly observable throughout American life. Nowhere is this more
patent than in much of our current magazine literature and light
fiction. These stories, under the guise of teaching some moral lesson,
are frequently designed to stimulate all the emotions that could be
excited by the most vicious French novel. Some of them, of course, throw
off all pretense and openly ape the _petit histoire d'un amour_; but
essentially all are alike. The heroine is a demimondaine in everything
but her alleged virtue--the hero a young bounder whose better self
restrains him just in time. A conventional marriage on the last page
legalizes what would otherwise have been a liaison or a degenerate
The astonishingly unsophisticated and impossibly innocent shopgirl
who--in the story--just escapes the loss of her honor; the noble young
man who heroically "marries the girl"; the adventures of the debonaire
actress, who turns out most surprisingly to be an angel of sweetness and
light; and the Johnny whose heart is really pure gold, and who, to the
reader's utter bewilderment, proves himself to be a Saint George--these
are the leading characters in a great deal of our periodical literature.
A friend of mine who edits one of the more successful magazines tells me
there are at least half a dozen writers who are paid guaranteed salaries
of from twelve thousand dollars to eighteen thousand dollars a year for
turning out each month from five thousand to ten thousand words of what
is euphemistically termed "hot stuff." An erotic writer can earn yearly
at the present time more than the salary of the president of the United
States. What the physical result of all this is going to be does not
seem to me to matter much. If the words of Jesus Christ have any
significance we are already debased by our imaginations.
* * * * *
We are dangerously near an epoch of intellectual if not carnal
debauchery. The prevailing tendency on the part of the young girls of
to-day to imitate the dress and makeup of the Parisian cocotte is
unconsciously due to this general lowering of the social moral tone.
Young women in good society seem to feel that they must enter into open
competition with their less fortunate sisters. And in this struggle for
survival they are apparently determined to yield no advantage. Herein
lies the popularity of the hobble skirt, the transparent fabric that
hides nothing and follows the move of every muscle, and the otherwise
senseless peculiarities and indecencies of the more extreme of the
And here, too, is to be found the reason for the popularity of the
current style of dancing, which offers no real attraction except the
opportunity for a closeness of contact otherwise not permissible.
"It's all in the way it is done," says Mrs. Jones, making the customary
defense. "The tango and the turkey trot can be danced as unobjectionably
as the waltz."
Exactly! Only the waltz is not danced that way; and if it were the
offending couple would probably be put off the floor. Moreover, their
origin and history demonstrates their essentially vicious character. Is
there any sensible reason why one's daughter should be encouraged to
imitate the dances of the Apache and the negro debauchee? Perhaps, after
all, the pendulum has merely swung just a little too far and is knocking
against the case. The feet of modern progress cannot be hampered by too
much of the dead underbrush of convention.
The old-fashioned prudery that in former days practically prevented
rational conversation between men and women is fortunately a thing of
the past, and the fact that it is no longer regarded as unbecoming for
women to take an interest in all the vital problems of the
day--municipal, political and hygienic--provided they can assist in
their solution, marks several milestones on the highroad of advance.
On the other hand the widespread familiarity with these problems, which
has been engendered simply for pecuniary profit by magazine literature
in the form of essays, fiction and even verse, is by no means an
undiluted blessing--particularly if the accentuation of the author is on
the roses lining the path of dalliance quite as much as on the
destruction to which it leads. The very warning against evil may turn
out to be in effect only a hint that it is readily accessible. One does
not leave the candy box open beside the baby even if the infant has
received the most explicit instructions as to the probable effect of too
much sugar upon its tiny kidneys. Moreover, the knowledge of the
prevalence of certain vices suggests to the youthful mind that what is
so universal must also be rather excusable, or at least natural.
It seems to me that, while there is at present a greater popular
knowledge of the high cost of sinning, there is at the same time a
greater tolerance for sin itself. Certainly this is true among the
people who make up the circle of my friends. "Wild oats" are regarded as
entirely a matter of course. No anecdote is too broad to be told openly
at the dinner table; in point of fact the stories that used to be
whispered only very discreetly in the smoking room are now told freely
as the natural relishes to polite conversation. In that respect things
are pretty bad.
One cannot help wondering what goes on inside the villa on Rhode Island
Avenue when the eighteen-year-old daughter of the house remarks to the
circle of young men and women about her at a dance: "Well, I'm going to
bed--_seule_!" The listener furtively speculates about mama. He feels
quite sure about papa. Anyhow this particular mot attracted no comment.
Doubtless the young lady was as far above suspicion as the wife of
Caesar; but she and her companions in this particular set have an
appalling frankness of speech and a callousness in regard to discussing
the more personal facts of human existence that is startling to a
middle-aged man like myself.
I happened recently to overhear a bit of casual dinner-table
conversation between two of the gilded ornaments of the junior set. He
was a boy of twenty-five, well known for his dissipations, but,
nevertheless, regarded by most mothers as a highly desirable _parti_.
"Oh, yes!" he remarked easily. "They asked me if I wanted to go into a
bughouse, and I said I hadn't any particular objection. I was there a
month. Rum place! I should worry!"
"What ward?" she inquired with polite interest.
"Inebriates', of course," said he.
I am inclined to attribute much of the questionable taste and conduct of
the younger members of the fast set to neglect on the part of their
mothers. Women who are busy all day and every evening with social
engagements have little time to cultivate the friendship of their
daughters. Hence the girl just coming out is left to shift for herself,
and she soon discovers that a certain _risque_ freedom in manner and
conversation, and a disregard of convention, will win her a superficial
popularity which she is apt to mistake for success.
Totally ignorant of what she is doing or the essential character of the
means she is employing, she runs wild and soon earns an unenviable
reputation, which she either cannot live down or which she feels obliged
to live up to in order to satisfy her craving for attention. Many a girl
has gone wrong simply because she felt that it was up to her to make
good her reputation for caring nothing for the proprieties.
As against an increasing looseness in talk and conduct, it is
interesting to note that heavy drinking is clearly going out of fashion
in smart society. There can be no question as to that. My champagne
bills are not more than a third of what they were ten years ago. I do
not attribute this particularly to the temperance movement. But, as
against eight quarts of champagne for a dinner of twenty--which used to
be about my average when we first began entertaining in New York--three
are now frequently enough. I have watched the butler repeatedly at large
dinner parties as he passed the wine and seen him fill only four or five
Women rarely drink at all. About one man in three takes champagne. Of
course he is apt to drink whisky instead, but by no means the same
amount as formerly. If it were not for the convention requiring sherry,
hock, champagne and liquors to be served the modern host could satisfy
practically all the serious liquid requirements of his guests with a
quart bottle of Scotch and a siphon of soda. Claret, Madeira, sparkling
Moselles and Burgundies went out long ago. The fashion that has taught
women self-control in eating has shown their husbands the value of
abstinence. Unfortunately I do not see in this a betterment in morals,
but mere self-interest--which may or may not be the same thing,
according to one's philosophy. If a man drinks nowadays he drinks
because he wants to and not to be a good fellow. A total abstainer finds
himself perfectly at home anywhere.
Of course the fashionables, if they are going to set the pace, have to
hit it up in order to head the procession. The fastness of the smart set
in England is notorious, and it is the same way in France, Russia,
Italy, Germany, Scandinavia--the world over; and as society tends to
become unified mere national boundaries have less significance. The
number of Americans who rent houses in London and Paris, and shooting
boxes in Scotland, is large.
Hence the moral tone of Continental society and of the English
aristocracy is gradually becoming more and more our own. But with this
difference--that, as the aristocracy in England and Continental Europe
is a separate caste, a well-defined order, having set metes and bounds,
which considers itself superior to the rest of the population and views
it with indifference, so its morals are regarded as more or less its own
affair, and they do not have a wide influence on the community at large.
Even if he drinks champagne every night at dinner the Liverpool pickle
merchant knows he cannot get into the king's set; but here the pickle
man can not only break into the sacred circle, but he and his fat wife
may themselves become the king and queen. So that a knowledge of how
smart society conducts itself is an important matter to every man and
woman living in the United States, since each hopes eventually to make a
million dollars and move to New York. With us the fast crowd sets the
example for society at large; whereas in England looseness in morals is
a recognized privilege of the aristocracy to which the commoner may not
The worst feature of our situation is that the quasi-genteel working
class, of whom our modern complex life supports hundreds of
thousands--telephone operators, stenographers, and the like--greedily
devour the newspaper accounts of the American aristocracy and model
themselves, so far as possible, after it. It is almost unbelievable how
intimate a knowledge these young women possess of the domestic life,
manner of speech and dress of the conspicuous people in New York
I once stepped into the Waldorf with a friend of mine who wished to send
a telephone message. He is a quiet, unassuming man of fifty, who
inherited a large fortune and who is compelled, rather against his will,
to do a large amount of entertaining by virtue of the position in
society which Fate has thrust on him. It was a long-distance call.
"Who shall I say wants to talk?" asked the goddess with fillet-bound
yellow hair in a patronizingly indifferent tone.
"Mr.----," answered my companion.
Instantly the girl's face was suffused with a smile of excited wonder.
"Are you Mr.----, the big swell who gives all the dinners and dances?"
"I suppose I'm the man," he answered, rather amused than otherwise.
"Gee!" she cried, "ain't this luck! Look here, Mame!" she whispered
hoarsely. "I've got Mr. ---- here on a long distance. What do you think of
One cannot doubt that this telephone girl would unhesitatingly regard as
above criticism anything said or done by a woman who moved in Mr. ---- 's
circle. Unfortunately what this circle does is heralded in exaggerated
terms. The influence of these partially true and often totally false
reports is far-reaching and demoralizing.
The other day the young governess of a friend of my wife gave up her
position, saying she was to be married. Her employer expressed an
interest in the matter and asked who was going to perform the ceremony.
She was surprised to learn that the functionary was to be the local
country justice of the peace.
"But why aren't you going to have a clergyman marry you?" asked our
"Because I don't want it too binding!" answered the girl calmly.
So far has the prevalence of divorce cast its enlightening beams.
* * * * *
I have had a shooting box in Scotland on several different occasions;
and my wife has conducted successful social campaigns, as I have said
before, in London, Paris, Rome and Berlin. I did not go along, but I
read about it all in the papers and received weekly from the scene of
conflict a pound or so of mail matter, consisting of hundreds of
diaphanous sheets of paper, each covered with my daughters' fashionable
humpbacked handwriting. Hastings, my stenographer, became very expert at
deciphering and transcribing it on the machine for my delectation.
I was quite confused at the number and variety of the titles of nobility
with which my family seemed constantly to be surrounded. They had a
wonderful time, met everybody, and returned home perfected
cosmopolitans. What their ethical standards are I confess I do not know
exactly, for the reason that I see so little of them. They lead totally
On rare occasions we are invited to the same houses at the same time,
and on Christmas Eve we still make it a point always to stay at home
together. Really I have no idea how they dispose of their time. They are
always away, making visits in other cities or taking trips. They chatter
fluently about literature, the theater, music, art, and know a surprising
number of celebrities in this and other countries--particularly in London.
They are good linguists and marvelous dancers. They are respectful, well
mannered, modest, and mildly affectionate; but somehow they do not seem
to belong to me. They have no troubles of which I am the confidant.
If they have any definite opinions or principles I am unaware of them;
but they have the most exquisite taste. Perhaps with them this takes the
place of morals. I cannot imagine my girls doing or saying anything
vulgar, yet what they are like when away from home I have no means of
finding out. I am quite sure that when they eventually select their
husbands I shall not be consulted in the matter. My formal blessing will
be all that is asked, and if that blessing is not forthcoming no doubt
they will get along well enough without it.
However, I am the constant recipient of congratulations on being the
parent of such charming creatures. I have succeeded--apparently--in this
direction as in others. Succeeded in what? I cannot imagine these girls
of mine being any particular solace to my old age.
Recently, since writing these confessions of mine, I have often wondered
why my children were not more to me. I do not think they are much more
to my wife. I suppose it could just as well be put the other way. Why
are _we_ not more to _them_? It is because, I fancy, this modern
existence of ours, where every function and duty of maternity--except
the actual giving of birth--is performed vicariously for us, destroys
any interdependence between parents and their offspring. "Smart"
American mothers no longer, I am informed, nurse their babies. I know
that my wife did not nurse hers. And thereafter each child had its own
particular French _bonne_ and governess besides.
Our nursery was a model of dainty comfort. All the superficial
elegancies were provided for. It was a sunny, dustless apartment, with
snow-white muslins, white enamel, and a frieze of grotesque Noah's Ark
animals perambulating round the wall. There were huge dolls' houses,
with electric lights; big closets of toys. From the earliest moment
possible these three infants began to have private lessons in
everything, including drawing, music and German. Their little days were
as crowded with engagements then as now. Every hour was provided for;
but among these multifarious occupations there was no engagement with
Even if their mother had not been overwhelmed with social duties herself
my babies would, I am confident, have had no time for their parent
except at serious inconvenience and a tremendous sacrifice of time. To
be sure, I used occasionally to watch them decorously eating their
strictly supervised suppers in the presence of the governess; but the
perfect arrangements made possible by my financial success rendered
parents a superfluity. They never bumped their heads, or soiled their
clothes, or dirtied their little faces--so far as I knew. They never
cried--at least I was never permitted to hear them.
When the time came for them to go to bed each raised a rosy little cheek
and said sweetly: "Good night, papa." They had, I think, the usual
children's diseases--exactly which ones I am not sure of; but they had
them in the hospital room at the top of the house, from which I was
excluded, and the diseases progressed with medical propriety in due
course and under the efficient management of starchy trained nurses.
Their outdoor life consisted in walking the asphalt pavements of Central
Park, varied with occasional visits to the roller-skating rink; but
their social life began at the age of four or five. I remember these
functions vividly, because they were so different from those of my own
childhood. The first of these was when my eldest daughter attained the
age of six years. Similar events in my private history had been
characterized by violent games of blind man's buff, hide and seek, hunt
the slipper, going to Jerusalem, ring-round-a-rosy, and so on, followed
by a dish of ice-cream and hairpulling.
Not so with my offspring. Ten little ladies and gentlemen, accompanied
by their maids, having been rearranged in the dressing room downstairs,
were received by my daughter with due form in the drawing room. They
were all flounced, ruffled and beribboned. Two little boys of seven had
on Eton suits. Their behavior was impeccable.
Almost immediately a professor of legerdemain made his appearance and,
with the customary facility of his brotherhood, proceeded to remove tons
of debris from presumably empty hats, rabbits from handkerchiefs, and
hard-boiled eggs from childish noses and ears. The assembled group
watched him with polite tolerance. At intervals there was a squeal of
surprise, but it soon developed that most of them had already seen the
same trickman half a dozen times. However, they kindly consented to be
amused, and the professor gave way to a Punch and Judy show of a
sublimated variety, which the youthful audience viewed with mild
The entertainment concluded with a stereopticon exhibition of supposedly
humorous events, which obviously did not strike the children as funny at
all. Supper was laid in the dining room, where the table had been
arranged as if for a banquet of diplomats. There were flowers in
abundance and a life-size swan of icing at each end. Each child was
assisted by its own nurse, and our butler and a footman served, in
stolid dignity, a meal consisting of rice pudding, cereals, cocoa, bread
and butter, and ice-cream.
It was by all odds the most decorous affair ever held in our house. At
the end the gifts were distributed--Parisian dolls, toy baby-carriages
and paint boxes for the girls; steam engines, magic lanterns and
miniature circuses for the boys. My bill for these trifles came to one
hundred and twelve dollars. At half-past six the carriages arrived and
our guests were hurried away.
I instance this affair because it struck the note of elegant propriety
that has always been the tone of our family and social life. The
children invited to the party were the little boys and girls whose
fathers and mothers we thought most likely to advance their social
interests later on.
Of these children two of the girls have married members of the foreign
nobility--one a jaded English lord, the other a worthless and dissipated
French count; another married--fifteen years later--one of these same
little boys and divorced him within eighteen months; while two of the
girls--our own--have not married.
Of the boys one wedded an actress; another lives in Paris and studies
"art"; one has been already accounted for; and two have given their
lives to playing polo, the stock market, and elevating the chorus.
* * * * *
Beginning at this early period, my two daughters, and later on my son,
met only the most select young people of their own age in New York and
on Long Island. I remember being surprised at the amount of theatergoing
they did by the time the eldest was nine years old. My wife made a
practice of giving a children's theater party every Saturday and taking
her small guests to the matinee. As the theaters were more limited in
number then than now these comparative infants sooner or later saw
practically everything that was on the boards--good, bad and
indifferent; and they displayed a precocity of criticism that quite
Their real social career began with children's dinners and dancing
parties by the time they were twelve, and their later coming out changed
little the mode of life to which they had been accustomed for several
years before it. The result of their mother's watchful care and
self-sacrifice is that these two young ladies could not possibly be
happy, or even comfortable, if they married men unable to furnish them
with French maids, motors, constant amusement, gay society, travel and
Without these things they would wither away and die like flowers
deprived of the sun. They are physically unfit to be anything but the
wives of millionaires--and they will be the wives of millionaires or
assuredly die unmarried. But, as the circle of rich young men of their
acquaintance is more or less limited their chances of matrimony are by
no means bright, albeit that they are the pivots of a furious whirl of
gaiety which never stops.
No young man with an income of less than twenty thousand a year would
have the temerity to propose to either of them. Even on twenty thousand
they would have a hard struggle to get along; it would mean the most
rigid economy--and, if there were babies, almost poverty.
Besides, when girls are living in the luxury to which mine are
accustomed they think twice before essaying matrimony at all. The
prospects of changing Newport, Palm Beach, Paris, Rome, Nice and
Biarritz for the privilege of bearing children in a New York apartment
house does not allure, as in the case of less cosmopolitan young ladies.
There must be love--plus all present advantages! Present advantages
withdrawn, love becomes cautious.
Even though the rich girl herself is of finer clay than her parents and,
in spite of her artificial environment and the false standards by which
she is surrounded, would like to meet and perhaps eventually marry some
young man who is more worth while than the "pet cats" of her
acquaintance, she is practically powerless to do so. She is cut off by
the impenetrable artificial barrier of her own exclusiveness. She may
hear of such young men--young fellows of ambition, of adventurous
spirit, of genius, who have already achieved something in the world, but
they are outside the wall of money and she is inside it, and there is no
way for them to get in or for her to get out. She is permitted to know
only the _jeunesse doree_--the fops, the sports, the club-window men,
whose antecedents are vouched for by the Social Register.
She has no way of meeting others. She does not know what the others are
like. She is only aware of an instinctive distaste for most of the young
fellows among whom she is thrown. At best they are merely innocuous when
they are not offensive. They do nothing; they intend never to do
anything. If she is the American girl of our plays and novels she wants
something better; and in the plays and novels she always gets him--the
dashing young ranchman, the heroic naval lieutenant, the fearless
Alaskan explorer, the tireless prospector or daring civil engineer. But
in real life she does not get him--except by the merest fluke of
fortune. She does not know the real thing when she meets it, and she is
just as likely to marry a dissipated groom or chauffeur as the young
Stanley of her dreams.
The saddest class in our social life is that of the thoroughbred
American girl who is a thousand times too good for her de-luxe
surroundings and the crew of vacuous la-de-da Willies hanging about her,
yet who, absolutely cut off from contact with any others, either
gradually fades into a peripatetic old maid, wandering over Europe, or
marries an eligible, turkey-trotting nondescript--"a mimmini-pimmini,
Francesca da Rimini, _je-ne-sais-quoi_ young man."
The Atlantic seaboard swarms in summertime with broad-shouldered,
well-bred, highly educated and charming boys, who have had every
advantage except that of being waited on by liveried footmen. They camp
in the woods; tutor the feeble-minded sons of the rich; tramp and
bicycle over Swiss mountain passes; sail their catboats through the
island-studded reaches and thoroughfares of the Maine coast, and grow
brown and hard under the burning sun. They are the hope of America. They
can carry a canoe or a hundred-pound pack over a forest trail; and in
the winter they set the pace in the scientific, law and medical
schools. Their heads are clear, their eyes are bright, and there is a
hollow instead of a bow window beneath the buttons of their waistcoats.
The feet of these young men carry them to strange places; they cope with
many and strange monsters. They are our Knights of the Round Table. They
find the Grail of Achievement in lives of hard work, simple pleasures
and high ideals--in college and factory towns; in law courts and
hospitals; in the mountains of Colorado and the plains of the Dakotas.
They are the best we have; but the poor rich girl rarely, if ever, meets
them. The barrier of wealth completely hems her in. She must take one of
those inside or nothing.
When, in a desperate revolt against the artificiality of her existence,
she breaks through the wall she is easy game for anybody--as likely to
marry a jockey or a professional forger as one of the young men of her
desire. One should not blame a rich girl too much for marrying a titled
and perhaps attractive foreigner. The would-be critic has only to step
into a Fifth Avenue ballroom and see what she is offered in his place to
sympathize with and perhaps applaud her selection. Better a year of
Europe than a cycle of--shall we say, Narragansett? After all, why not
take the real thing, such as it is, instead of an imitation?
I believe that one of the most cruel results of modern social life is
the cutting off of young girls from acquaintanceship with youths of the
sturdy, intelligent and hardworking type--and the unfitting of such
girls for anything except the marriage mart of the millionaire.
I would give half of all I possess to see my daughters happily married;
but I now realize that their education renders such a marriage highly
difficult of satisfactory achievement. Their mother and I have honestly
tried to bring them up in such a way that they can do their duty in that
state of life to which it hath pleased God to call them. But
unfortunately, unless some man happens to call them also, they will have
to keep on going round and round as they are going now.
We did not anticipate the possibility of their becoming old maids, and
they cannot become brides of the church. I should honestly be glad to
have either of them marry almost anybody, provided he is a decent
fellow. I should not even object to their marrying foreigners, but the
difficulty is that it is almost impossible to find out whether a
foreigner is really decent or not. It is true that the number of foreign
noblemen who marry American girls for love is negligible. There is
undoubtedly a small and distinguished minority who do so; but the
transaction is usually a matter of bargain and sale, and the man regards
himself as having lived up to his contract by merely conferring his
title on the woman he thus deigns to honor.
I should prefer to have them marry Americans, of course; but I no longer
wish them to marry Americans of their own class. Yet, unfortunately,
they would be unwilling to marry out of it. A curious situation! I have
given up my life to buying a place for my children that is supposed to
give them certain privileges, and I now am loath to have them take
advantage of those privileges.
The situation has its amusing as well as its pathetic side--for my son,
now that I come to think of it, is one of the eligibles. He knows
everybody and is on the road to money. He is one of the opportunities
that society is offering to the daughters of other successful men.
Should I wish my own girls to marry a youth like him? Far from it! Yet
he is exactly the kind of fellow that my success has enabled them to
meet and know, and whom Fate decrees that they shall eventually marry if
they marry at all.
When I frankly face the question of how much happiness I get out of my
children I am constrained to admit that it is very little. The sense of
proprietorship in three such finished products is something, to be sure;
and, after all, I suppose they have--concealed somewhere--a real
affection for their old dad. At times they are facetious--almost
playful--as on my birthday; but I fancy that arises from a feeling of
embarrassment at not knowing how to be intimate with a parent who
crosses their path only twice a week, and then on the stairs.
My son has attended to his own career now for some fourteen years; in
fact I lost him completely before he was out of knickerbockers. Up to
the time when he was sent away to boarding school he spent a rather
disconsolate childhood, playing with mechanical toys, roller skating in
the Mall, going occasionally to the theater, and taking music lessons;
but he showed so plainly the debilitating effect of life in the city for
eight months in the year that at twelve he was bundled off to a country
school. Since then he has grown to manhood without our assistance. He
went away undersized, pale, with a meager little neck and a sort of
wistful Nicholas Nickelby expression. When he returned at the Christmas
vacation he had gained ten pounds, was brown and freckled, and looked
like a small giraffe in pantalets.
Moreover, he had entirely lost the power of speech, owing to a fear of
making a fool of himself. During the vacation in question he was
reoutfitted and sent three times a week to the theater. On one or two
occasions I endeavored to ascertain how he liked school, but all I could
get out of him was the vague admission that it was "all right" and that
he liked it "well enough." This process of outgrowing his clothes and
being put through a course of theaters at each vacation--there was
nothing else to do with him--continued for seven years, during which
time he grew to be six feet two inches in height and gradually filled
out to man's size. He managed to hold a place in the lower third of his
class, with the aid of constant and expensive tutoring in the summer
vacations, and he finally was graduated with the rest and went to
By this time he preferred to enjoy himself in his own way during his
leisure and we saw less of him than ever. But, whatever his intellectual
achievements may be, there is no doubt as to his being a man of the
world, entirely at ease anywhere, with perfect manners and all the
social graces. I do not think he was particularly dissipated at Harvard;
on the other hand, I am assured by the dean that he was no student. He
"made" a select club early in his course and from that time was
occupied, I suspect, in playing poker and bridge, discussing deep
philosophical questions and acquiring the art of living. He never went
in for athletics; but by doing nothing in a highly artistic manner, and
by dancing with the most startling agility, he became a prominent social
figure and a headliner in college theatricals.
From his sophomore year he has been in constant demand for cotillions,
house parties and yachting trips. His intimate pals seem to be
middle-aged millionaires who are known to me in only the most casual
way; and he is a sort of gentleman-in-waiting--I believe the accepted
term is "pet cat"--to several society women, for whom he devises new
cotillion figures, arranges original after-dinner entertainments and
makes himself generally useful.
Like my two daughters he has arrived--absolutely; but, though we are
members of the same learned profession, he is almost a stranger to me. I
had no difficulty in getting him a clerkship in a gilt-edged law firm
immediately after he was admitted to the bar and he is apparently doing
marvelously well, though what he can possibly know of law will always
remain a mystery to me. Yet he is already, at the age of twenty-eight, a
director in three important concerns whose securities are listed on the
stock exchange, and he spends a great deal of money, which he must
gather somehow. I know that his allowance cannot do much more than meet
his accounts at the smart clubs to which he belongs.
He is a pleasant fellow and I enjoy the rare occasions when I catch a
glimpse of him. I do not think he has any conspicuous vices--or virtues.
He has simply had sense enough to take advantage of his social
opportunities and bids fair to be equally successful with myself. He has
really never done a stroke of work in his life, but has managed to make
himself agreeable to those who could help him along. I have no doubt
those rich friends of his throw enough business in his way to net him
ten or fifteen thousand dollars a year, but I should hesitate to retain
him to defend me if I were arrested for speeding.
Nevertheless at dinner I have seen him bullyrag and browbeat a judge of
our Supreme Court in a way that made me shudder, though I admit that the
judge in question owed his appointment entirely to the friend of my son
who happened to be giving the dinner; and he will contradict in a loud
tone men and women older than myself, no matter what happens to be the
subject under discussion. They seem to like it--why, I do not pretend to
understand. They admire his assurance and good nature, and are rather
afraid of him!
I cannot imagine what he would find to do in my own law office; he would
doubtless regard it as a dull place and too narrow a sphere for his
splendid capabilities. He is a clever chap, this son of mine; and though
neither he nor his sisters seem to have any particular fondness for one
another, he is astute at playing into their hands and they into his. He
also keeps a watchful eye on our dinner invitations, so they will not
fall below the properly exclusive standard.
"What are you asking old Washburn for?" he will ask. "He's been a dead
one these five years!" Or: "I'd cut out the Becketts--at least if you're
asking the Thompsons. They don't go with the same crowd." Or: "Why don't
you ask the Peyton-Smiths? They're nothing to be afraid of if they do
cut a dash at Newport. The old girl is rather a pal of mine."
So we drop old Washburn, cut out the Becketts, and take courage and
invite the hyphenated Smiths. A hint from him pays handsome dividends!
and he is distinctly proud of the family and anxious to push it along
to still greater success.
However, he has never asked my help or assistance--except in a financial
way. He has never come to me for advice; never confided any of his
perplexities or troubles to me. Perhaps he has none. He seems quite
sufficient unto himself. And he certainly is not my friend. It seems
strange that these three children of mine, whose upbringing has been the
source of so much thought and planning on the part of my wife and
myself, and for whose ultimate benefit we have shaped our own lives,
should be the merest, almost impersonal, acquaintances.
The Italian fruit-vender on the corner, whose dirty offspring crawl
among the empty barrels behind the stand, knows far more of his children
than do we of ours, will have far more influence on the shaping of their
future lives. They do not need us now and they never have needed us. A
trust company could have performed all the offices of parenthood with
which we have been burdened. We have paid others to be father and mother
in our stead--or rather, as I now see, have had hired servants to go
through the motions for us; and they have done it well, so far as the
mere physical side of the matter is concerned. We have been almost
entirely relieved of care.
We have never been annoyed by our children's presence at any time. We
have never been bothered with them at meals. We have never had to sit up
with them when they could not go to sleep, or watch at their bedsides
during the night when they were sick. Competent nurses--far more
competent than we--washed their little dirty hands, mended the torn
dresses and kissed their wounds to make them well. And when five o'clock
came three dainty little Dresden figures in pink and blue ribbons were
brought down to the drawing room to be admired by our guests. Then,
after being paraded, they were carried back to the nursery to resume the
even tenor of their independent existences.
No one of us has ever needed the other members of the family. My wife
has never called on either of our daughters to perform any of those
trifling intimate services that bring a mother and her children
together. There has always been a maid standing ready to hook up her
dress, fetch her book or her hat, or a footman to spring upstairs after
the forgotten gloves. And the girls have never needed their mother--the
governess could read aloud ever so much better, and they always had
their own maid to look after their clothes. When they needed new gowns
they simply went downtown and bought them--and the bill was sent to my
office. Neither of them was ever forced to stay at home that her sister
might have some pleasure instead. No; our wealth has made it possible
for each of my children to enjoy every luxury without any sacrifice on
another's part. They owe nothing to each other, and they really owe
nothing to their mother or myself--except perhaps a monetary obligation.
But there is one person, technically not one of our family, for whom my
girls have the deepest and most sincere affection--that is old Jane,
their Irish nurse, who came to them just after they were weaned and
stayed with us until the period of maids and governesses arrived. I paid
her twenty-five dollars a month, and for nearly ten years she never let
them out of her sight--crooning over them at night; trudging after them
during the daytime; mending their clothes; brushing their teeth; cutting
their nails; and teaching them strange Irish legends of the banshee.
When I called her into the library and told her the children were now
too old for her and that they must have a governess, the look that came
into her face haunted me for days.
"Ye'll be after taking my darlin's away from me?" she muttered in a dead
tone. "'T will be hard for me!" She stood as if the heart had died
within her, and the hundred-dollar bill I shoved into her hand fell to
the floor. Then she turned quickly and hurried out of the room without a
sob. I heard afterward that she cried for a week.
Now I always know when one of their birthdays has arrived by the queer
package, addressed in old Jane's quaint half-printed writing, that
always comes. She has cared for many dozens of children since then, but
loves none like my girls, for she came to them in her young womanhood
and they were her first charges.
And they are just as fond of her. Indeed it is their loyalty to this old
Irish nurse that gives me faith that they are not the cold propositions
they sometimes seem to be. For once when, after much careless delay, a
fragmentary message came to us that she was ill and in a hospital my two
daughters, who were just starting for a ball, flew to her bedside, sat
with her all through the night and never left her until she was out of
"They brought me back--my darlin's!" she whispered to us when later we
called to see how she was getting on; and my wife looked at me across
the rumpled cot and her lips trembled. I knew what was in her mind.
Would her daughters have rushed to her with the same forgetfulness of
self as to this prematurely gray and wrinkled woman whose shrunken form
lay between us?
Poor old Jane! Alone in an alien land, giving your life and your love to
the children of others, only to have them torn from your arms just as
the tiny fingers have entwined themselves like tendrils round your
heart! We have tossed you the choicest blessings of our lives and
shouldered you with the heavy responsibilities that should rightfully
have been our load. Your cup has run over with both joy and sorrow but
you have drunk of the cup, while we are still thirsty! Our hearts are
dry, while yours is green--nourished with the love that should belong to
us. Poor old Jane? Lucky old Jane! Anyhow God bless you!
I come of a family that prides itself on its culture and
intellectuality. We have always been professional people, for my
grandfather was, as I have said, a clergyman; and among my uncles are a
lawyer, a physician and a professor. My sisters, also, have intermarried
with professional men. I received a fairly good primary and secondary
education, and graduated from my university with honors--whatever that
may have meant. I was distinctly of a literary turn of mind; and during
my four years of study I imbibed some slight information concerning the
English classics, music, modern history and metaphysics. I could talk
quite wisely about Chaucer, Beaumont and Fletcher, Thomas Love Peacock
and Ann Radcliffe, or Kant, Fichte and Schopenhauer.
I can see now that my smattering of culture was neither deep nor broad.
I acquired no definite knowledge of underlying principles, of general
history, of economics, of languages, of mathematics, of physics or of
chemistry. To biology and its allies I paid scarcely any attention at
all, except to take a few snap courses. I really secured only a surface
acquaintance with polite English literature, mostly very modern. The
main part of my time I spent reading Stevenson and Kipling. I did well
in English composition and I pronounced my words neatly and in a refined
manner. At the end of my course, when twenty-two years old, I was handed
an imitation-parchment degree and proclaimed by the president of the
college as belonging to the Brotherhood of Educated Men.
I did not. I was an imitation educated man; but, though spurious, I was
a sufficiently good counterfeit to pass current for what I had been
declared to be. Apart from a little Latin, a considerable training in
writing the English language, and a great deal of miscellaneous reading
of an extremely light variety, I really had no culture at all. I could
not speak an idiomatic sentence in French or German; I had the vaguest
ideas about applied mechanics and science; and no thorough knowledge
about anything; but I was supposed to be an educated man, and on this
stock in trade I have done business ever since--with, to be sure, the
added capital of a degree of bachelor of laws.
Now since my graduation, twenty-eight years ago, I have given no time to
the systematic study of any subject except law. I have read no serious
works dealing with either history, sociology, economics, art or
philosophy. I am supposed to know enough about these subjects already. I
have rarely read over again any of the masterpieces of English
literature with which I had at least a bowing acquaintance when at
college. Even this last sentence I must qualify to the extent of
admitting that I now see that this acquaintance was largely vicarious,
and that I frequently read more criticism than literature.
It is characteristic of modern education that it is satisfied with the
semblance and not the substance of learning. I was taught _about_
Shakspere, but not Shakspere. I was instructed in the history of
literature, but not in literature itself. I knew the names of the works
of numerous English authors and I knew what Taine and others thought
about them, but I knew comparatively little of what was between the
covers of the books themselves. I was, I find, a student of letters by
proxy. As time went on I gradually forgot that I had not, in fact,
actually perused these volumes; and to-day I am accustomed to refer
familiarly to works I never have read at all--not a difficult task in
these days of handbook knowledge and literary varnish.
It is this patent superficiality that so bores me with the affected
culture of modern social intercourse. We all constantly attempt to
discuss abstruse subjects in philosophy and art, and pretend to a
familiarity with minor historical characters and events. Now why try to
talk about Bergson's theories if you have not the most elementary
knowledge of philosophy or metaphysics? Or why attempt to analyze the
success or failure of a modern post-impressionist painter when you are
totally ignorant of the principles of perspective or of the complex
problems of light and shade? You might as properly presume to discuss a
mastoid operation with a surgeon or the doctrine of _cypres_ with a
lawyer. You are equally qualified.
I frankly confess that my own ignorance is abysmal. In the last
twenty-eight years what information I have acquired has been picked up
principally from newspapers and magazines; yet my library table is
littered with books on modern art and philosophy, and with essays on
literary and historical subjects. I do not read them. They are my
intellectual window dressings. I talk about them with others who, I
suspect, have not read them either; and we confine ourselves to
generalities, with a careful qualification of all expressed opinions, no
matter how vague and elusive. For example--a safe conversational
"Of course there is a great deal to be said in favor of Bergson's
general point of view, but to me his reasoning is inconclusive. Don't
you feel the same way--somehow?"
You can try this on almost anybody. It will work in ninety-nine cases
out of a hundred; for, of course, there is a great deal to be said in
favor of the views of anybody who is not an absolute fool, and most
reasoning is open to attack at least for being inconclusive. It is also
inevitable that your cultured friend--or acquaintance--should feel the
same way--somehow. Most people do--in a way.
The real truth of the matter is, all I know about Bergson is that he is
a Frenchman--is he actually by birth a Frenchman or a Belgian?--who as a
philosopher has a great reputation on the Continent, and who recently
visited America to deliver some lectures. I have not the faintest idea
what his theories are, and I should not if I heard him explain them.
Moreover, I cannot discuss philosophy or metaphysics intelligently,
because I have not to-day the rudimentary knowledge necessary to
understand what it is all about.
It is the same with art. On the one or two isolated varnishing days when
we go to a gallery we criticize the pictures quite fiercely. "We know
what we like." Yes, perhaps we do. I am not sure even of that. But in
eighty-five cases out of a hundred none of us have any knowledge of the
history of painting or any intelligent idea of why Velasquez is regarded
as a master; yet we acquire a glib familiarity with the names of half a
dozen cubists or futurists, and bandy them about much as my office boy
does the names of his favorite pugilists or baseball players.
It is even worse with history and biography. We cannot afford or have
not the decency to admit that we are uninformed. We speak casually of,
say, Henry of Navarre, or Beatrice D'Este, or Charles the Fifth. I
select my names intentionally from among the most celebrated in
history; yet how many of us know within two hundred years of when any
one of them lived--or much about them? How much definite historical
information have we, even about matters of genuine importance?
* * * * *
Let us take a shot at a few dates. I will make it childishly easy. Give
me, if you can, _even approximately_, the year of Caesar's Conquest of
Gaul; the Invasion of Europe by the Huns; the Sack of Rome; the Battle
of Chalons-sur-Marne; the Battle of Tours; the Crowning of Charlemagne;
the Great Crusade; the Fall of Constantinople; Magna Charta; the Battle
of Crecy; the Field of the Cloth of Gold; the Massacre of St.
Bartholomew; the Spanish Armada; the Execution of King Charles I; the
Fall of the Bastile; the Inauguration of George Washington; the Battle
of Waterloo; the Louisiana Purchase; the Indian Mutiny; the Siege of
I will look out of the window while you go through the mental agony of
trying to remember. It looks easy, does it not? Almost an affront to ask
the date of Waterloo! Well, I wanted to be fair and even things up; but,
honestly, can you answer correctly five out of these twenty elementary
questions? I doubt it. Yet you have, no doubt, lying on your table at
the present time, intimate studies of past happenings and persons that
presuppose and demand a rough general knowledge of American, French or
The dean of Radcliffe College, who happened to be sitting behind two of
her recent graduates while attending a performance of Parker's
deservedly popular play "Disraeli" last winter, overheard one of them
say to the other: "You know, I couldn't remember whether Disraeli was in
the Old or the New Testament; and I looked in both and couldn't find him
I still pass socially as an exceptionally cultured man--one who is well
up on these things; yet I confess to knowing to-day absolutely nothing
of history, either ancient, medieval or modern. It is not a matter of
mere dates, by any means, though I believe dates to be of some general
importance. My ignorance is deeper than that. I do not remember the
events themselves or their significance. I do not now recall any of the
facts connected with the great epoch-making events of classic times; I
cannot tell as I write, for example, who fought in the battle of the
Allia; why Caesar crossed the Rubicon, or why Cicero delivered an
oration against Catiline.
As to what subsequently happened on the Italian peninsula my mind is a
blank until the appearance of Garibaldi during the last century. I
really never knew just who Garibaldi was until I read Trevelyan's three
books on the Resorgimento last winter, and those I perused because I had
taken a motor trip through Italy the summer before. I know practically
nothing of Spanish history, and my mind is a blank as to Russia, Poland,
Turkey, Sweden, Germany, Austria, and Holland.
Of course I know that the Dutch Republic rose--assisted by one Motley,
of Boston--and that William of Orange was a Hollander--or at least I
suppose he was born there. But how Holland came to rise I know not--or
whether William was named after an orange or oranges were named after
As for central Europe, it is a shocking fact that I never knew there was
not some interdependency between Austria and Germany until last summer.
I only found out the contrary when I started to motor through the
Austrian Tyrol and was held up by the custom officers on the frontier. I
knew that an old emperor named William somehow founded the German Empire
out of little states, with the aid of Bismarck and Von Moltke; but that
is all I know about it. I do not know when the war between Prussia and
Austria took place or what battles were fought in it.
The only battle in the Franco-Prussian War I am sure of is Sedan, which
I remember because I was once told that Phil Sheridan was present as a
spectator. I know Gustavus Adolphus was a king of Sweden, but I do not
know when; and apart from their names I know nothing of Theodoric,
Charles Martel, Peter the Hermit, Lodovico Moro, the Emperor Maximilian,
Catherine of Aragon, Catherine de' Medici, Richelieu, Frederick
Barbarossa, Cardinal Wolsey, Prince Rupert--I do not refer to Anthony
Hope's hero, Rupert of Hentzau--Saint Louis, Admiral Coligny, or the
thousands of other illustrious personages that crowd the pages of
I do not know when or why the Seven Years' War, the Thirty Years' War,
the Hundred Years' War or the Massacre of St. Bartholomew took place,
why the Edict of Nantes was revoked or what it was, or who fought at
Malplaquet, Tours, Soissons, Marengo, Plassey, Oudenarde, Fontenoy or
Borodino--or when they occurred. I probably did know most if not all of
these things, but I have entirely forgotten them. Unfortunately I manage
to act as if I had not. The result is that, having no foundation to
build on, any information I do acquire is immediately swept away. People
are constantly giving me books on special topics, such as Horace Walpole
and his Friends, France in the Thirteenth Century, The Holland House
Circle, or Memoires of Madame du Barry; but of what use can they be to
me when I do not know, or at least have forgotten, even the salient
facts of French and English history?
We are undoubtedly the most superficial people in the world about
matters of this sort. Any bluff goes. I recall being at a dinner not
long ago when somebody mentioned Conrad II. One of the guests hazarded
the opinion that he had died in the year 1330. This would undoubtedly
have passed muster but for a learned-looking person farther down the
table who deprecatingly remarked: "I do not like to correct you, but I
think Conrad the Second died in 1337!" The impression created on the
assembled company cannot be overstated. Later on in the smoking room I
ventured to compliment the gentleman on his fund of information, saying:
"Why, I never even _heard_ of Conrad the Second!"
"Nor I either," he answered shamelessly.
It is the same with everything--music, poetry, politics. I go night
after night to hear the best music in the world given at fabulous cost
in the Metropolitan Opera House and am content to murmur vague ecstasies
over Caruso, without being aware of who wrote the opera or what it is
all about. Most of us know nothing of orchestration or even the names of
the different instruments. We may not even be sure of what is meant by
counterpoint or the difference between a fugue and an arpeggio.
A handbook would give us these minor details in an hour's reading; but
we prefer to sit vacuously making feeble jokes about the singers or the
occupants of the neighboring boxes, without a single intelligent thought
as to why the composer attempted to write precisely this sort of an
opera, when he did it, or how far he succeeded. We are content to take
our opinions and criticisms ready made, no matter from whose mouth they
fall; and one hears everywhere phrases that, once let loose from the
Pandora's Box of some foolish brain, never cease from troubling.
In science I am in even a more parlous state. I know nothing of applied
electricity in its simplest forms. I could not explain the theory of the
gas engine, and plumbing is to me one of the great mysteries.
Last, but even more lamentable, I really know nothing about politics,
though I am rather a strong party man and my name always appears on
important citizens' committees about election time. I do not know
anything about the city departments or its fiscal administration. I
should not have the remotest idea where to direct a poor person who
applied to me for relief. Neither have I ever taken the trouble to
familiarize myself with even the more important city buildings.
Of course I know the City Hall by sight, but I have never been inside
it; I have never visited the Tombs or any one of our criminal courts; I
have never been in a police station, a fire house, or inspected a single
one of our prisons or reformatory institutions. I do not know whether
police magistrates are elected or appointed and I could not tell you in
what congressional district I reside. I do not know the name of my
alderman, assemblyman, state senator or representative in Congress.
I do not know who is at the head of the Fire Department, the Street
Cleaning Department, the Health Department, the Park Department or the
Water Department; and I could not tell, except for the Police
Department, what other departments there are. Even so, I do not know
what police precinct I am living in, the name of the captain in command,
or where the nearest fixed post is at which an officer is supposed to be
As I write I can name only five members of the United States Supreme
Court, three members of the Cabinet, and only one of the congressmen
from the state of New York. This in cold type seems almost preposterous,
but it is, nevertheless, a fact--and I am an active practicing lawyer
besides. I am shocked to realize these things. Yet I am supposed to be
an exceptionally intelligent member of the community and my opinion is
frequently sought on questions of municipal politics.
Needless to say, the same indifference has prevented my studying--except
in the most superficial manner--the single tax, free trade and
protection, the minimum wage, the recall, referendum, or any other of
the present much-mooted questions. How is this possible? The only answer
I can give is that I have confined my mental activities entirely to
making my legal practice as lucrative as possible. I have taken things
as I found them and put up with abuses rather than go to the trouble to
do away with them. I have no leisure to try to reform the universe. I
leave that task to others whose time is less valuable than mine and who
have something to gain by getting into the public eye.
The mere fact, however, that I am not interested in local politics would
not ordinarily, in a normal state of civilization, explain my ignorance
of these things. In most societies they would be the usual subjects of
conversation. People naturally discuss what interests them most.
Uneducated people talk about the weather, their work, their ailments and
their domestic affairs. With more enlightened folk the conversation
turns on broader topics--the state of the country, politics, trade, or
It is only among the so-called society people that the subjects selected
for discussion do not interest anybody. Usually the talk that goes on at
dinners or other entertainments relates only to what plays the
conversationalists in question have seen or which of the best sellers
they have read. For the rest the conversation is dexterously devoted to
the avoidance of the disclosure of ignorance. Even among those who would
like to discuss the questions of the day intelligently and to ascertain
other people's views pertaining to them, there is such a fundamental
lack of elementary information that it is a hopeless undertaking. They
are reduced to the commonplaces of vulgar and superficial comment.
"'Tis plain," cry they, "our mayor's a noddy; and as for the
The mayor may be and probably is a noddy, but his critics do not know
why. The average woman who dines out hardly knows what she is saying or
what is being said to her. She will usually agree with any proposition
that is put to her--if she has heard it. Generally she does not listen.
I know a minister's wife who never pays the slightest attention to
anything that is being said to her, being engrossed in a torrent of
explanation regarding her children's education and minor diseases. Once
a bored companion in a momentary pause fixed her sternly with his eye
and said distinctly: "But I don't give a --- about your children!" At
which the lady smiled brightly and replied: "Yes. Quite so. Exactly! As
I was saying, Johnny got a--"
But, apart from such hectic people, who run quite amuck whenever they
open their mouths, there are large numbers of men and women of some
intelligence who never make the effort to express conscientiously any
ideas or opinions. They find it irksome to think. They are completely
indifferent as to whether a play is really good or bad or who is elected
mayor of the city. In any event they will have their coffee, rolls and
honey served in bed the next morning; and they know that, come what
will--flood, tempest, fire or famine--there will be forty-six quarts of
extra xxx milk left at their area door. They are secure. The stock
market may rise and fall, presidents come and go, but they will remain
safe in the security of fifty thousand a year. And, since they really do
not care about anything, they are as likely to praise as to blame, and
to agree with everybody about everything. Their world is all cakes and
ale--why should they bother as to whether the pothouse beer is bad?
I confess, with something of a shock, that essentially I am like the
rest of these people. The reason I am not interested in my country and
my city is because, by reason of my financial and social independence,
they have ceased to be my city and country. I should be just as
comfortable if our Government were a monarchy. It really is nothing to
me whether my tax rate is six one-hundredths of one per cent higher or
lower, or what mayor rules in City Hall.
So long as Fifth Avenue is decently paved, so that my motor runs
smoothly when I go to the opera, I do not care whether we have a Reform,
Tammany or Republican administration in the city. So far as I am
concerned, my valet will still come into my bedroom at exactly nine
o'clock every morning, turn on the heat and pull back the curtains. His
low, modulated "Your bath is ready, sir," will steal through my dreams,
and he will assist me to rise and put on my embroidered dressing gown of
wadded silk in preparation for another day's hard labor in the service
of my fellowmen. Times have changed since my father's frugal college
days. Have they changed for better or for worse?
Of one thing I am certain--my father was a better-educated man than I
am. I admit that, under the circumstances, this does not imply very
much; but my parent had, at least, some solid ground beneath his
intellectual feet on which he could stand. His mind was thoroughly
disciplined by rigid application to certain serious studies that were
not selected by himself. From the day he entered college he was in
active competition with his classmates in all his studies, and if he had
been a shirker they would all have known it.
In my own case, after I had once matriculated, the elective system left
me free to choose my own subjects and to pursue them faithfully or not,
so long as I could manage to squeak through my examinations. My friends
were not necessarily among those who elected the same courses, and
whether I did well or ill was nobody's business but my own and the
dean's. It was all very pleasant and exceedingly lackadaisical, and by
the time I graduated I had lost whatever power of concentration I had
acquired in my preparatory schooling. At the law school I was at an
obvious disadvantage with the men from the smaller colleges which still
followed the old-fashioned curriculum and insisted on the mental
discipline entailed by advanced Greek, Latin, the higher mathematics,
science and biology.
In point of fact I loafed delightfully for four years and let my mind
run absolutely to seed, while I smoked pipe after pipe under the
elms, watching the squirrels and dreaming dreams. I selected
elementary--almost childlike--courses in a large variety of subjects;
and as soon as I had progressed sufficiently to find them difficult I
cast about for other snaps to take their places. My bookcase exhibited a
collection of primers on botany, zooelogy and geology, the fine arts,
music, elementary French and German, philosophy, ethics, methaphysics,
architecture, English composition, Shakspere, the English poets and
novelists, oral debating and modern history.
I took nothing that was not easy and about which I did not already know
a little something. I attended the minimum number of lectures required,
did the smallest amount of reading possible and, by cramming vigorously
for three weeks at the end of the year, managed to pass all examinations
creditably. I averaged, I suppose, outside of the lecture room, about a
single hour's desultory work a day. I really need not have done that.
When, for example, it came time to take the examination in French
composition I discovered that I had read but two out of the fifteen
plays and novels required, the plots of any one of which I might be
asked to give on my paper. Rather than read these various volumes, I
prepared a skeleton digest in French, sufficiently vague, which could by
slight transpositions be made to do service in every case. I committed
it to memory. It ran somewhat as follows:
"The play"--or novel--"entitled ---- is generally conceded to be one of
the most carefully constructed and artistically developed of
all ----'s"--here insert name of author--"many masterly productions. The
genius of the author has enabled him skilfully to portray the atmosphere
and characters of the period. The scene is laid in ---- and the time
roughly is that of the --th century. The hero is ----; the heroine, ----;
and after numerous obstacles and ingenious complications they eventually
marry. The character of the old ----"--here insert father, mother, uncle
or grandparent, gardener or family servant--"is delightfully whimsical
and humorous, and full of subtle touches. The tragic element is furnished
by ----, the ----. The author touches with keen satire on the follies and
vices of the time, while the interest in the principal love affair is
sustained until the final denouement. Altogether it would be difficult
to imagine a more brilliant example of dramatic--or literary--art."
I give this rather shocking example of sophomoric shiftlessness for the
purpose of illustrating my attitude toward my educational opportunities
and what was possible in the way of dexterously avoiding them. All I had
to do was to learn the names of the chief characters in the various
plays and novels prescribed. If I could acquire a brief scenario of each
so much the better. Invariably they had heroes and heroines, good old
servants or grandparents, and merry jesters. At the examination I
successfully simulated familiarity with a book I had never read and
received a commendatory mark.
This happy-go-lucky frame of mind was by no means peculiar to myself.
Indeed I believe it to have been shared by the great majority of my
classmates. The result was that we were sent forth into the world
without having mastered any subject whatsoever, or even followed it for
a sufficient length of time to become sincerely interested in it. The
only study I pursued more than one year was English composition, which
came easily to me, and which in one form or another I followed
throughout my course. Had I adopted the same tactics with any other of
the various branches open to me, such as history, chemistry or
languages, I should not be what I am to-day--a hopelessly superficial
Mind you, I do not mean to assert that I got nothing out of it at all.
Undoubtedly I absorbed a smattering of a variety of subjects that might
on a pinch pass for education. I observed how men with greater social
advantages than myself brushed their hair, wore their clothes and took
off their hats to their women friends. Frankly that was about everything
I took away with me. I was a victim of that liberality of opportunity
which may be a heavenly gift to a post-graduate in a university, but
which is intellectual damnation to an undergraduate collegian.
The chief fault that I have to find with my own education, however, is
that at no time was I encouraged to think for myself. No older man ever
invited me to his study, there quietly and frankly to discuss the
problems of human existence. I was left entirely vague as to what it was
all about, and the relative values of things were never indicated. The
same emphasis was placed on everything--whether it happened to be the
Darwinian Theory, the Fall of Jerusalem or the character of Ophelia.
I had no philosophy, no theory of morals, and no one ever even attempted
to explain to me what religion or the religious instinct was supposed to
be. I was like a child trying to build a house and gathering materials
of any substance, shape or color without regard to the character of the
intended edifice. I was like a man trying to get somewhere and taking
whatever paths suited his fancy--first one and then another,
irrespective of where they led. The Why and the Wherefore were unknown
questions to me, and I left the university without any idea as to how I
came to be in the world or what my duties toward my fellowmen might be.
In a word the two chief factors in education passed me by entirely--(a)
my mind received no discipline; (b) and the fundamental propositions of
natural philosophy were neither brought to my attention nor explained to
me. These deficiencies have never been made up. Indeed, as to the
first, my mind, instead of being developed by my going to college, was
seriously injured. My memory has never been good since and my methods of
reading and thinking are hurried and slipshod, but this is a small thing
compared with the lack of any philosophy of life. I acquired none as a
youth and I have never had any since. For fifty years I have existed
without any guiding purpose except blindly to get ahead--without any
religion, either natural or dogmatic. I am one of a type--a pretty good,
perfectly aimless man, without any principles at all.
They tell me that things have changed at the universities since my day
and that the elective system is no longer in favor. Judging by my own
case, the sooner it is abolished entirely, the better for the
undergraduate. I should, however, suggest one important
qualification--namely, that a boy be given the choice in his Freshman
year of three or four general subjects, such as philosophy, art,
history, music, science, languages or literature, and that he should be
compelled to follow the subjects he elects throughout his course.
In addition I believe the relation of every study to the whole realm of
knowledge should be carefully explained. Art cannot be taught apart from
history; history cannot be grasped independently of literature.
Religion, ethics, science and philosophy are inextricably involved one
But mere learning or culture, a knowledge of facts or of arts, is
unimportant as compared with a realization of the significance of life.
The one is superficial--the other is fundamental; the one is
temporal--the other is spiritual. There is no more wretched human being
than a highly trained but utterly purposeless man--which, after all, is
only saying that there is no use in having an education without a
religion; that unless someone is going to live in the house there is not
much use in elaborately furnishing it.
I am not attempting to write a treatise on pedagogy; but, when all is
said, I am inclined to the belief that my unfortunate present condition,
whatever my material success may have been, is due to lack of
education--in philosophy in its broadest sense; in mental discipline;
and in actual acquirement.
It is in this last field that my deficiencies and those of my class are
superficially most apparent. A wide fund of information may be less
important than a knowledge of general principles, but it is none the
less valuable; and all of us ought to be equipped with the kind of
education that will enable us to understand the world of men as well as
the world of nature.
It is, of course, essential for us to realize that the physical
characteristics of a continent may have more influence on the history of
nations than mere wars or battles, however far-reaching the foreign
policies of their rulers; but, in addition to an appreciation of this
and similar underlying propositions governing the development of
civilization, the educated man who desires to study the problems of his
own time and country, to follow the progress of science and philosophy,
and to enjoy music, literature and art, must have a certain elementary
equipment of mere facts.
The Oriental attitude of mind that enabled the Shah of Persia calmly to
decline the invitation of the Prince of Wales to attend the Derby, on
the ground that "he knew one horse could run faster than another," is
foreign to that of Western civilization. The Battle of Waterloo is a
flyspeck in importance contrasted with the problem of future existence;
but the man who never heard of Napoleon would make a dull companion in
this world or the next.
We live in direct proportion to the keenness of our interest in life;
and the wider and broader this interest is, the richer and happier we
are. A man is as big as his sympathies, as small as his selfishness. The
yokel thinks only of his dinner and his snooze under the hedge, but the
man of education rejoices in every new production of the human brain.
Advantageous intercourse between civilized human beings requires a
working knowledge of the elementary facts of history, of the
achievements in art, music and letters, as well as of the principles of
science and philosophy. When people go to quarreling over the importance
of a particular phase of knowledge or education they are apt to forget
that, after all, it is a purely relative matter, and that no one can
reasonably belittle the value of any sort of information. But furious
arguments arise over the question as to how history should be taught,
and "whether a boy's head should be crammed full of dates." Nobody in
his senses would want a boy's head crammed full of dates any more than
he would wish his stomach stuffed with bananas; but both the head and
the stomach need some nourishment--better dates than nothing.
If a knowledge of a certain historical event is of any value whatsoever,
the greater and more detailed our knowledge the better--including
perhaps, but not necessarily, its date. The question is not essentially
whether the dates are of value, but how much emphasis should be placed
on them to the exclusion of other facts of history.
"There is no use trying to remember dates," is a familiar cry. There is
about as much sense in such a statement as the announcement: "There is
no use trying to remember who wrote Henry Esmond, composed the Fifth
Symphony, or painted the Last Supper." There is a lot of use in trying
to remember anything. The people who argue to the contrary are too lazy
* * * * *
I suppose it may be conceded, for the sake of argument, that every
American, educated or not, should know the date of the Declaration of
Independence, and have some sort of acquaintance with the character and
deeds of Washington. If we add to this the date of the discovery of
America and the first English settlement; the inauguration of the first
president; the Louisiana Purchase; the Naval War with England; the War
with Mexico; the Missouri Compromise, and the firing on Fort Sumter, we
cannot be accused of pedantry. It certainly could not do any one of us
harm to know these dates or a little about the events themselves.
This is equally true, only in a lesser degree, in regard to the history
of foreign nations. Any accurate knowledge is worth while. It is harder,
in the long run, to remember a date slightly wrong than with accuracy.
The dateless man, who is as vague as I am about the League of Cambray or
Philip II, will loudly assert that the trouble incident to remembering a
date in history is a pure waste of time. He will allege that "a general
idea"--a very favorite phrase--is all that is necessary. In the case of
such a person you can safely gamble that his so-called "general idea" is
no idea at all. Pin him down and he will not be able to tell you within
_five hundred years_ the dates of some of the cardinal events of
European history--the invasion of Europe by the Huns, for instance. Was
it before or after Christ? He might just as well try to tell you that it
was quite enough to know that our Civil War occurred somewhere in the
I have personally no hesitation in advancing the claim that there are a
few elementary principles and fundamental facts in all departments of
human knowledge which every person who expects to derive any advantage
from intelligent society should not only once learn but should forever
remember. Not to know them is practically the same thing as being
without ordinary means of communication. One may not find it necessary
to remember the binomial theorem or the algebraic formula for the
contents of a circle, but he should at least have a formal acquaintance
with Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Charlemagne, Martin Luther, Francis I,
Queen Elizabeth, Louis XIV, Napoleon I--and a dozen or so others. An
educated man must speak the language of educated men.
I do not think it too much to demand that in history he should have in
mind, at least approximately, one important date in each century in the
chronicles of France, England, Italy and Germany. That is not much, but
it is a good start. And shall we say ten dates in American history? He
should, in addition, have a rough working knowledge of the chief
personages who lived in these centuries and were famous in war,
diplomacy, art, religion and literature. His one little date will at
least give him some notion of the relation the events in one country
bore to those in another.
I boldly assert that in a half hour you can learn by heart all the
essential dates in American history. I assume that you once knew, and
perhaps still know, something about the events themselves with which
they are connected. Ten minutes a day for the rest of the week and you
will have them at your fingers' ends. It is no trick at all. It is as
easy as learning the names of the more important parts of the mechanism
of your motor. There is nothing impossible or difficult, or even
tedious, about it; but it seems Herculean because you have never taken
the trouble to try to remember anything. It is the same attitude that
renders it almost physically painful for one of us to read over the
scenario of an opera or a column biography of its composer before
hearing a performance at the Metropolitan. Yet fifteen minutes or half
an hour invested in this way pays about five hundred per cent.
And the main thing, after you have learned anything, is not to forget
it. Knowledge forgotten is no knowledge at all. That is the trouble with
the elective system as usually administered in our universities. At the
end of the college year the student tosses aside his Elements of Geology
and forgets everything between its covers. What he has learned should be
made the basis for other and more detailed knowledge. The instructor
should go on building a superstructure on the foundation he has laid,
and at the end of his course the aspirant for a diploma should be
required to pass an examination on his entire college work. Had I been
compelled to do that, I should probably be able to tell now--what I do
not know--whether Melancthon was a painter, a warrior, a diplomat, a
theologian or a dramatic poet.
I have instanced the study of dates because they are apt to be the storm
center of discussions concerning education. It is fashionable to scoff
at them in a superior manner. We all of us loathe them; yet they are as
indispensable--a certain number of them--as the bones of a body. They
make up the skeleton of history. They are the orderly pegs on which we
can hang later acquired information. If the pegs are not there the
information will fall to the ground.
For example, our entire conception of the Reformation, or of any
intellectual or religious movement, might easily turn on whether it
preceded or followed the discovery of printing; and our mental picture
of any great battle, as well as our opinion of the strategy of the
opposing armies, would depend on whether or not gunpowder had been
invented at the time. Hence the importance of a knowledge of the dates
of the invention of printing and of gunpowder in Europe.
It is ridiculous to allege that there is no minimum of education, to say
nothing of culture, which should be required of every intelligent human
being if he is to be but a journeyman in society. In an unconvincing
defense of our own ignorance we loudly insist that detailed knowledge of
any subject is mere pedagogy, a hindrance to clear thinking, a
superfluity. We do not say so, to be sure, with respect to knowledge in
general; but that is our attitude in regard to any particular subject
that may be brought up. Yet to deny the value of special information is
tantamount to an assertion of the desirability of general ignorance. It
is only the politician who can afford to say: "Wide knowledge is a fatal
handicap to forcible expression."
This is not true of the older countries. In Germany, for instance, a
knowledge of natural philosophy, languages and history is insisted on.
To the German schoolboy, George Washington is almost as familiar a
character as Columbus; but how many American children know anything of
Bismarck? The ordinary educated foreigner speaks at least two languages
and usually three, is fairly well grounded in science, and is perfectly
familiar with ancient and modern history. The American college graduate
seems like a child beside him so far as these things are concerned.
We are content to live a hand-to-mouth mental existence on a haphazard
diet of newspapers and the lightest novels. We are too lazy to take the
trouble either to discipline our minds or to acquire, as adults, the
elementary knowledge necessary to enable us to read intelligently even
rather superficial books on important questions vitally affecting our
own social, physical intellectual or moral existences.
If somebody refers to Huss or Wyclif ten to one we do not know of whom
he is talking; the same thing is apt to be true about the draft of the
hot-water furnace or the ball and cock of the tank in the bathroom.
Inertia and ignorance are the handmaidens of futility. Heaven forbid
that we should let anybody discover this aridity of our minds!
My wife admits privately that she has forgotten all the French she ever
knew--could not even order a meal from a _carte de jour_; yet she is a
never-failing source of revenue to the counts and marquises who yearly
rush over to New York to replenish their bank accounts by giving parlor
lectures in their native tongue on _Le XIIIme Siecle_ or Madame Lebrun.
No one would ever guess that she understands no more than one word out
of twenty and that she has no idea whether Talleyrand lived in the
fifteenth or the eighteenth century, or whether Calvin was a Frenchman
or a Scotchman.
Our clever people are content merely with being clever. They will talk
Tolstoi or Turgenieff with you, but they are quite vague about Catherine
II or Peter the Great. They are up on D'Annunczio, but not on Garibaldi
or Cavour. Our ladies wear a false front of culture, but they are quite
* * * * *
Being educated, however, does not consist, by any means, in knowing who
fought and won certain battles or who wrote the Novum Organum. It lies
rather in a knowledge of life based on the experience of mankind. Hence
our study of history. But a study of history in the abstract is
valueless. It must be concrete, real and living to have any significance
for us. The schoolboy who learns by rote imagines the Greeks as outline
figures of one dimension, clad in helmets and tunics, and brandishing
little swords. That is like thinking of Jeanne d'Arc as a suit of armor
or of Theodore Roosevelt as a pair of spectacles.
If the boy is to gain anything by his acquaintance with the Greeks he
must know what they ate and drank, how they amused themselves, what they
talked about, and what they believed as to the nature and origin of the
universe and the probability of a future life. I hold that it is as
important to know how the Romans told time as that Nero fiddled while
his capital was burning. William the Silent was once just as much alive
as P.T. Barnum, and a great deal more worth while. It is fatal to regard
historical personages as lay figures and not as human beings.
We are equally vague with respect to the ordinary processes of our daily
lives. I have not the remotest idea of how to make a cup of coffee or
disconnect the gas or water mains in my own house. If my sliding door
sticks I send for the carpenter, and if water trickles in the tank I
telephone for the plumber. I am a helpless infant in the stable and my
motor is the creation of a Frankenstein that has me at its mercy. My
wife may recall something of cookery--which she would not admit, of
course, before the butler--but my daughters have never been inside a
kitchen. None of my family knows anything about housekeeping or the
prices of foodstuffs or house-furnishings. My coal and wood are
delivered and paid for without my inquiring as to the correctness of the
bills, and I offer the same temptations to dishonest tradesmen that a
drunken man does to pickpockets. Yet I complain of the high cost of
My family has never had the slightest training in practical affairs. If
we were cast away on a fertile tropical island we should be forced to
subsist on bananas and clams, and clothe ourselves with
leaves,--provided the foliage was ready made and came in regulation
These things are vastly more important from an educational point of view
than a knowledge of the relationship of Mary Stuart to the Duke of
Guise, however interesting that may be to a reader of French history of
the sixteenth century. A knowledge of the composition of gunpowder is
more valuable than of Guy Fawkes' Gunpowder Plot. If we know nothing
about household economies we can hardly be expected to take an interest
in the problems of the proletariat. If we are ignorant of the
fundamental data of sociology and politics we can have no real opinions
on questions affecting the welfare of the people.
The classic phrase "The public be damned!" expresses our true feeling
about the matter. We cannot become excited about the wrongs and
hardships of the working class when we do not know and do not care how
they live. One of my daughters--aged seven--once essayed a short story,
of which the heroine was an orphan child in direst want. It began:
"Corrine was starving. 'Alas! What shall we do for food?' she asked her
French nurse as they entered the carriage for their afternoon drive in
the park." I have no doubt that even to-day this same young lady
supposes that there are porcelain baths in every tenement house.
I myself have no explanation as to why I pay eighty dollars for a
business suit any my bookkeepers seems to be equally well turned out for
eighteen dollars and fifty cents. That is essentially why the people
have an honest and well-founded distrust of those enthusiastic society
ladies who rush into charity and frantically engage in the elevation of
the masses. The poor working girl is apt to know a good deal more about
her own affairs than the Fifth Avenue matron with an annual income of
three hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
If I were doing it all over again--and how I wish I could!--I should
insist on my girls being taught not only music and languages but
cooking, sewing, household economy and stenography. They should at least
be able to clothe and feed themselves and their children if somebody
supplied them with the materials, and to earn a living if the time came
when they had to do it. They have now no conception of the relative
values of even material things, what the things are made of or how they
are put together. For them hats, shoes, French novels and roast chicken
can be picked off the trees.
* * * * *
This utter ignorance of actual life not only keeps us at a distance from
the people of our own time but renders our ideas of history equally
vague, abstract and unprofitable. I believe it would be an excellent
thing if, beginning with the age of about ten years, no child were
allowed to eat anything until he was able to tell where it was produced,
what it cost and how it was prepared. If this were carried out in every
department of the child's existence he would have small need of the
superficial education furnished by most of our institutions of learning.
Our children are taught about the famines of history when they cannot
recognize a blade of wheat or tell the price of a loaf of bread, or how
it is made.
I would begin the education of my boy--him of the tango and balkline
billiards--with a study of himself, in the broad use of the term, before
I allowed him to study about other people or the history of nations. I
would seat him in a chair by the fire and begin with his feet. I would
inquire what he knew about his shoes--what they were made of, where the
substance came from, the cost of its production, the duty on leather,
the process of manufacture, the method of transportation of goods,
freight rates, retailing, wages, repairs, how shoes were polished--this
would begin, if desired, a new line of inquiry as to the composition of
said polish, cost, and so on--comparative durability of hand and machine
work, introduction of machines into England and its effect on industrial
conditions. I say I would do all this; but, of course, I could not. I
would have to be an educated man in the first place. Why, beginning with
that dusty little pair of shoes, my boy and I might soon be deep in
Interstate Commerce and the Theory of Malthus--on familiar terms with
Thomas A. Edison and Henry George!
And the next time my son read about a Tammany politician giving away a
pair of shoes to each of his adherents it would mean something to
him--as much as any other master stroke of diplomacy.
I would instruct every boy in a practical knowledge of the house in
which he lives, give him a familiarity with simple tools and a knowledge
of how to make small repairs and to tinker with the water pipes. I would
teach him all those things I now do not know myself--where the homeless
man can find a night's lodging; how to get a disorderly person arrested;
why bottled milk costs fifteen cents a quart; how one gets his name on
the ballot if he wants to run for alderman; where the Health Department
is located, and how to get vaccinated for nothing.
By the time we had finished we would be in a position to understand the
various editorials in the morning papers which now we do not read. Far
more than that, my son would be brought to a realization that everything
in the world is full of interest for the man who has the knowledge to
appreciate its significance. "A primrose by a river's brim" should be no
more suggestive, even to a lake-poet, than a Persian rug or a rubber
shoe. Instead of the rug he will have a vision of the patient Afghan in
his mountain village working for years with unrequited industry; instead
of the shoe he will see King Leopold and hear the lamentations of the
My ignorance of everything beyond my own private bank account and
stomach is due to the fact that I have selfishly and foolishly regarded
these two departments as the most important features of my existence. I
now find that my financial and gastronomical satisfaction has been
purchased at the cost of an infinite delight in other things. I am
mentally out of condition.
Apart from this brake on the wheel of my intelligence, however, I suffer
an even greater impediment by reason of the fact that, never having
acquired a thorough groundwork of elementary knowledge, I find I cannot
read with either pleasure or profit. Most adult essays or histories
presuppose some such foundation.
Recently I have begun to buy primers--such as are used in the
elementary schools--in order to acquire the information that should have
been mine at twenty years of age. And I have resolved that in my daily
reading of the newspapers I will endeavor to look up on the map and
remember the various places concerning which I read any news item of
importance, and to assimilate the facts themselves. It is my intention
also to study, at least half an hour each day, some simple treatise on
science, politics, art, letters or history. In this way I hope to regain
some of my interest in the activities of mankind. If I cannot do this I
realize now that it will go hard with me in the years that are drawing
nigh. I shall, indeed, then lament that "I have no pleasure in them."
* * * * *
It is the common practice of business men to say that when they reach a
certain age they are going to quit work and enjoy themselves. How this
enjoyment is proposed to be attained varies in the individual case. One
man intends to travel or live abroad--usually, he believes, in Paris.
Another is going into ranching or farming. Still another expects to give
himself up to art, music and books. We all have visions of the time when
we shall no longer have to go downtown every day and can indulge in
those pleasures that are now beyond our reach.
Unfortunately the experience of humanity demonstrates the inevitability
of the law of Nature which prescribes that after a certain age it is
practically impossible to change our habits, either of work or of play,
without physical and mental misery.
Most of us take some form of exercise throughout our lives--riding,
tennis, golf or walking. This we can continue to enjoy in moderation
after our more strenuous days are over; but the manufacturer, stock
broker or lawyer who thinks that after his sixtieth birthday he is going
to be able to find permanent happiness on a farm, loafing round Paris or
reading in his library will be sadly disappointed. His habit of work
will drive him back, after a year or so of wretchedness, to the factory,
the ticker or the law office; and his habit of play will send him as
usual to the races, the club or the variety show.
One cannot acquire an interest by mere volition. It is a matter of
training and of years. The pleasures of to-day will eventually prove to
be the pleasures of our old age--provided they continue to be pleasures
at all, which is more than doubtful.
As we lose the capacity for hard work we shall find that we need
something to take its place--something more substantial and less
unsatisfactory than sitting in the club window or taking in the Broadway
shows. But, at least, the seeds of these interests must be sown now if
we expect to gather a harvest this side of the grave.
What is more natural than to believe that in our declining years we
shall avail ourselves of the world's choicest literature and pass at
least a substantial portion of our days in the delightful companionship
of the wisest and wittiest of mankind? That would seem to be one of the
happiest uses to which good books could be put; but the hope is vain.
The fellow who does not read at fifty will take no pleasure in books at
My club is full of dozens of melancholy examples of men who have
forgotten how to read. They have spent their entire lives perfecting the
purely mechanical aspects of their existences. The mind has practically
ceased to exist, so far as they are concerned. They have built marvelous
mansions, where every comfort is instantly furnished by contrivances as
complicated and accurate as the machinery of a modern warship. The doors
and windows open and close, the lights are turned on and off, and the
elevator stops--all automatically. If the temperature of a room rises
above a certain degree the heating apparatus shuts itself off; if it
drops too low something else happens to put it right again. The servants
are swift, silent and decorous. The food is perfection. Their motors
glide noiselessly to and fro. Their establishments run like fine
They have had to make money to achieve this mechanical perfection; they
have had no time for anything else during their active years. And, now
that those years are over, they have nothing to do. Their minds are
almost as undeveloped as those of professional pugilists. Dinners and
drinks, backgammon and billiards, the lightest opera, the trashiest
novels, the most sensational melodrama are the most elevating of their
leisure's activities. Read? Hunt? Farm? Not much! They sit behind the
plate-glass windows and bet on whether more limousines will go north
than south in the next ten minutes.
If you should ask one of them whether he had read some book that was
exciting discussion among educated people at the moment, he would
probably look at you blankly and, after remarking that he had never
cared for economics or history--as the case might be--inquire whether
you preferred a "Blossom" or a "Tornado." Poor vacuous old cocks! They
might be having a green and hearty old age, surrounded by a group of the
choicest spirits of all time.
Upstairs in the library there are easy-chairs within arm's reach of the
best fellows who ever lived--adventurers, story-tellers, novelists,
explorers, historians, rhymers, fighters, essayists, vagabonds and
general liars--Immortals, all of them.
You can take your pick and if he bores you send him packing without a
word of apology. They are good friends to grow old with--friends who in
hours of weariness, of depression or of gladness may be summoned at will
by those of us who belong to the Brotherhood of Educated Men--of which,
alas! I and my associates are no longer members.
The concrete evidence of my success as represented by my accumulated
capital--outside of my uptown dwelling house--amounts, as I have
previously said, to about seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars. This
is invested principally in railroad and mining stocks, both of which are
subject to considerable fluctuation; and I have also substantial
holdings in industrial corporations. Some of these companies I represent
professionally. As a whole, however, my investments may be regarded as
fairly conservative. At any rate they cause me little uneasiness.
My professional income is regular and comes with surprisingly little
effort. I have as clients six manufacturing corporations that pay me
retainers of twenty-five hundred dollars each, besides my regular fees
for services rendered. I also represent two banks and a trust company.
All this is fixed business and most of it is attended to by younger men,
whom I employ at moderate salaries. I do almost no detail work myself,
and my junior partners relieve me of the drawing of even important
papers; so that, though I am constantly at my office, my time is spent
in advising and consulting.
I dictate all my letters and rarely take a pen in my hand. Writing has
become laborious and irksome. I even sign my correspondence with an
ingenious rubber stamp that imitates my scrawling signature beyond
discovery. If I wish to know the law on some given point I press a
button and tell my managing clerk what I want. In an hour or two he