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 art.
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 corporation—shocking!"
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 man.
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 with another.
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 to try.
* * * * *
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 nineteenth century.
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 bald underneath.
* * * * *
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 living!
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 sizes.
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 Congo.
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 seventy.
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 watches.
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 hands me the authorities covering the issue in question in typewritten form. It is extraordinarily simple and easy. Yet only yesterday I heard of a middle-aged man, whom I knew to be a peculiarly well-equipped all-around lawyer, who was ready to give up his private practice and take a place in any reputable office at a salary of thirty-five hundred dollars!
Most of my own time is spent in untangling mixed puzzles of law and fact, and my clients are comparatively few in number, though their interests are large. Thus I see the same faces over and over again. I lunch daily at a most respectable eating club; and here, too, I meet the same men over and over again. I rarely make a new acquaintance downtown; in fact I rarely leave my office during the day. If I need to confer with any other attorney I telephone. There are dozens of lawyers in New York whose voices I know well—yet whose faces I have never seen.
My office is on the nineteenth floor of a white marble building, and I can look down the harbor to the south and up the Hudson to the north. I sit there in my window like a cliffdweller at the mouth of his cave. When I walk along Wall Street I can look up at many other hundreds of these caves, each with its human occupant. We leave our houses uptown, clamber down into a tunnel called the Subway, are shot five miles or so through the earth, and debouch into an elevator that rushes us up to our caves. Only between my house and the entrance to the Subway am I obliged to step into the open air at all. A curious life! And I sit in my chair and talk to people in multitudes of other caves near by, or caves in New Jersey, Washington or Chicago.
Louis XI used to be called "the human spider" by reason of his industry, but we modern office men are far more like human spiders than he, as we sit in the center of our webs of invisible wires. We wait and wait, and our lines run out across the length and breadth of the land—sometimes getting tangled, to be sure, so that it is frequently difficult to decide just which spider owns the web; but we sit patiently doing nothing save devising the throwing out of other lines.
We weave, but we do not build; we manipulate, buy, sell and lend, quarrel over the proceeds, and cover the world with our nets, while the ants and the bees of mankind labor, construct and manufacture, and struggle to harness the forces of Nature. We plan and others execute. We dicker, arrange, consult, cajole, bribe, pull our wires and extort; but we do it all in one place—the center of our webs and the webs are woven in our caves.
I figure that I spend about six hours each day in my office; that I sleep nearly nine hours; that I am in transit on surface cars and in subways at least one hour and a half more; that I occupy another hour and a half in bathing, shaving and dressing, and an hour lunching at midday. This leaves a margin of five hours a day for all other activities.
Could even a small portion of this time be spent consecutively in reading in the evening, I could keep pace with current thought and literature much better than I do; or if I spent it with my son and daughters I should know considerably more about them than I do now, which is practically nothing. But the fact is that every evening from the first of November to the first of May the motor comes to the door at five minutes to eight and my wife and I are whirled up or down town to a dinner party—that is, save on those occasions when eighteen or twenty people are whirled to us.
* * * * *
This short recital of my daily activities is sufficient to demonstrate that I lead an exceedingly narrow and limited existence. I do not know any poor men, and even the charities in which I am nominally interested are managed by little groups of rich ones. The truth is, I learned thirty years ago that if one wants to make money one must go where money is and cultivate the people who have it. I have no petty legal business—there is nothing in it. If I cannot have millionaires for clients I do not want any. The old idea that the young country lawyer could shove a pair of socks into his carpetbag, come to the great city, hang out his shingle and build up a practice has long since been completely exploded. The best he can do now is to find a clerkship at twelve hundred dollars a year.
Big business gravitates to the big offices; and when the big firms look round for junior partners they do not choose the struggling though brilliant young attorney from the country, no matter how large his general practice may have become; but they go after the youth whose father is a director in forty corporations or the president of a trust.
In the same way what time I have at my disposal to cultivate new acquaintances I devote not to the merely rich and prosperous but to the multi-millionaire—if I can find him—who does not even know the size of his income. I have no time to waste on the man who is simply earning enough to live quietly and educate his family. He cannot throw anything worth while in my direction; but a single crumb from the magnate's table may net me twenty or thirty thousand dollars. Thus, not only for social but for business reasons, successful men affiliate habitually only with rich people. I concede that is a rather sordid admission, but it is none the truth.
* * * * *
Money is the symbol of success; it is what we are all striving to get, and we naturally select the ways and means best adapted for the purpose. One of the simplest is to get as near it as possible and stay there. If I make a friend of a struggling doctor or professor he may invite me to draw his will, which I shall either have to do for nothing or else charge him fifty dollars for; but the railroad president with whom I often lunch, and who is just as agreeable personally, may perhaps ask me to reorganize a railroad. I submit that, selfish as it all seems when I write it down, it would be hard to do otherwise.
I do not deliberately examine each new candidate for my friendship and select or reject him in accordance with a financial test; but what I do is to lead a social and business life that will constantly throw me only with rich and powerful men. I join only rich men's clubs; I go to resorts in the summer frequented only by rich people; and I play only with those who can, if they will, be of advantage to me. I do not do this deliberately; I do it instinctively—now. I suppose at one time it was deliberate enough, but to-day it comes as natural as using my automobile instead of a street car.
We have heard a great deal recently about a so-called Money Trust. The truth of the matter is that the Money Trust is something vastly greater than any mere aggregation of banks; it consists in our fundamental trust in money. It is based on our instinctive and ineradicable belief that money rules the destinies of mankind.
Everything is estimated by us in money. A man is worth so and so much—in dollars. The millionaire takes precedence of everybody, except at the White House. The rich have things their own way—and every one knows it. Ashamed of it? Not at all. We are the greatest snobs in the civilized world, and frankly so. We worship wealth because at present we desire only the things wealth can buy.
The sea, the sky, the mountains, the clear air of autumn, the simple sports and amusements of our youth and of the comparatively poor, pleasures in books, in birds, in trees and flowers, are disregarded for the fierce joys of acquisition, of the ownership in stocks and bonds, or for the no less keen delight in the display of our own financial superiority over our fellows.
We know that money is the key to the door of society. Without it our sons will not get into the polo-playing set or our daughters figure in the Sunday supplements. We want money to buy ourselves a position and to maintain it after we have bought it.
We want house on the sunny side of the street, with facades of graven marble; we want servants in livery and in buttons—or in powder and breeches if possible; we want French chefs and the best wine and tobacco, twenty people to dinner on an hour's notice, supper parties and a little dance afterward at Sherry's or Delmonico's, a box at the opera and for first nights at the theaters, two men in livery for our motors, yachts and thirty-footers, shooting boxes in South Carolina, salmon water in New Brunswick, and regular vacations, besides, at Hot Springs, Aiken and Palm Beach; we want money to throw away freely and like gentlemen at Canfield's, Bradley's and Monte Carlo; we want clubs, country houses, saddle-horses, fine clothes and gorgeously dressed women; we want leisure and laughter, and a trip or so to Europe every year, our names at the top of the society column, a smile from the grand dame in the tiara and a seat at her dinner table—these are the things we want, and since we cannot have them without money we go after the money first, as the sine qua non.
We want these things for ourselves and we want them for our children. We hope our grandchildren will have them also, though about that we do not care so much. We want ease and security and the relief of not thinking whether we can afford to do things. We want to be lords of creation and to pass creation on to our descendants, exactly as did the nobility of the Ancien Regime.
At the present time money will buy anything, from a place in the vestry of a swell church to a seat in the United States Senate—an election to Congress, a judgeship or a post in the diplomatic service. It will buy the favor of the old families or a decision in the courts. Money is the controlling factor in municipal politics in New York. The moneyed group of Wall Street wants an amenable mayor—a Tammany mayor preferred—so that it can put through its contracts. You always know where to find a regular politician. One always knew where to find Dick Croker. So the Traction people pour the contents of their coffers into the campaign bags.
Until very recently the Supreme Court judges of New York bought their positions by making substantial contributions to the Tammany treasury. The inferior judgeships went considerably cheaper. A man who stood in with the Big Boss might get a bargain. I have done business with politicians all my life and I have never found it necessary to mince my words. If I wanted a favor I always asked exactly what it was going to cost—and I always got the favor.
No one needs to hunt very far for cases where the power of money has influenced the bench in recent times. The rich man can buy his son a place in any corporation or manufacturing company. The young man may go in at the bottom, but he will shoot up to the top in a year or two, with surprising agility, over the heads of a couple of thousand other and better men. The rich man can defy the law and scoff at justice; while the poor man, who cannot pay lawyers for delay, goes to prison. These are the veriest platitudes of demagogy, but they are true—absolutely and undeniably true.
We know all this and we act accordingly, and our children imbibe a like knowledge with their mother's or whatever other properly sterilized milk we give them as a substitute. We, they and everybody else know that if enough money can be accumulated the possessor will be on Easy Street for the rest of his life—not merely the Easy Street of luxury and comfort, but of security, privilege and power; and because we like Easy Street rather than the Narrow Path we devote ourselves to getting there in the quickest possible way.
We take no chances on getting our reward in the next world. We want it here and now, while we are sure of it—on Broadway, at Newport or in Paris. We do not fool ourselves any longer into thinking that by self-sacrifice here we shall win happiness in the hereafter. That is all right for the poor, wretched and disgruntled. Even the clergy are prone to find heaven and hell in this world rather than in the life after death; and the decay of faith leads us to feel that a purse of gold in the hand is better than a crown of the same metal in the by-and-by. We are after happiness, and to most of us money spells it.
The man of wealth is protected on every side from the dangers that beset the poor. He can buy health and immunity from anxiety, and he can install his children in the same impregnable position. The dust of his motor chokes the citizen trudging home from work. He soars through life on a cushioned seat, with shock absorbers to alleviate all the bumps. No wonder we trust in money! We worship the golden calf far more than ever did the Israelites beneath the crags of Sinai. The real Money Trust is the tacit conspiracy by which those who have the money endeavor to hang on to it and keep it among themselves. Neither at the present time do great fortunes tend to dissolve as inevitably as formerly.
Oliver Wendell Holmes somewhere analyzes the rapid disintegration of the substantial fortunes of his day and shows how it is, in fact, but "three generations from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves." A fortune of two hundred thousand dollars divided among four children, each of whose share is divided among four grandchildren, becomes practically nothing at all—in only two. But could the good doctor have observed the tendencies of to-day he would have commented on a new phenomenon, which almost counteracts the other.
It may be, and probably is, the fact that comparatively small fortunes still tend to disintegrate. This was certainly the rule during the first half of the nineteenth century in New England, when there was no such thing as a distinctly moneyed class, and when the millionaire was a creature only of romance. But when, as to-day, fortunes are so large that it is impossible to spend or even successfully give away the income from them, a new element is introduced that did not exist when Doctor Holmes used to meditate in his study on the Back Bay overlooking the placid Charles.
At the present time big fortunes are apt to gain by mere accretion what they lose by division; and the owner of great wealth has opportunities for investment undreamed of by the ordinary citizen who must be content with interest at four per cent and no unearned increment on his capital. This fact might of itself negative the tendency of which he speaks; but there is a much more potent force working against it as well. That is the absolute necessity, induced by the demands of modern metropolitan life, of keeping a big fortune together—or, if it must be divided, of rehabilitating it by marriage.
There was a time not very long ago when one rarely heard of a young man or young woman of great wealth marrying anybody with an equal fortune. To do so was regarded with disapproval, and still is in some communities. To-day it is the rule instead of the exception. Now we habitually speak in America of the "alliances of great families." There are two reasons for this—first, that being a multi-millionaire is becoming, as it were, a sort of recognized profession, having its own sports, its own methods of business and its own interests; second, that the luxury of to-day is so enervating and insidious that a girl or youth reared in what is called society cannot be comfortable, much less happy, on the income of less than a couple of million dollars.
As seems to be demonstrated by the table of my own modest expenditure in a preceding article, the income of but a million dollars will not support any ordinary New York family in anything like the luxury to which the majority of our young people—even the sons and daughters of men in moderate circumstances—are accustomed.
Our young girls are reared on the choicest varieties of food, served with piquant sauces to tempt their appetites; they are permitted to pick and choose, and to refuse what they think they do not like; they are carried to and from their schools, music and dancing lessons in motors, and are taught to regard public conveyances as unhealthful and inconvenient; they never walk; they are given clothes only a trifle less fantastic and bizarre than those of their mothers, and command the services of maids from their earliest years; they are taken to the theater and the hippodrome, and for the natural pleasures of childhood are given the excitement of the footlights and the arena.
As they grow older they are allowed to attend late dances that necessitate remaining in bed the next morning until eleven or twelve o'clock; they are told that their future happiness depends on their ability to attract the right kind of man; they are instructed in every art save that of being useful members of society; and in the ease, luxury and vacuity with which they are surrounded their lives parallel those of demi-mondaines. Indeed, save for the marriage ceremony, there is small difference between them. The social butterfly flutters to the millionaire as naturally as the night moth of the Tenderloin. Hence the tendency to marry money is greater than ever before in the history of civilization.
Frugal, thrifty lives are entirely out of fashion. The solid, self-respecting class, which wishes to associate with people of equal means, is becoming smaller and smaller. If an ambitious mother cannot afford to rent a cottage at Newport or Bar Harbor she takes her daughter to a hotel or boarding house there, in the hope that she will be thrown in contact with young men of wealth. The young girl in question, whose father is perhaps a hardworking doctor or business man, at home lives simply enough; but sacrifices are made to send her to a fashionable school, where her companions fill her ears with stories of their motors, trips to Europe, and the balls they attend during the vacations. She becomes inoculated with the poison of social ambition before she comes out.
Unable by reason of the paucity of the family resources to buy luxuries for herself, she becomes a parasite and hanger-on of rich girls. If she is attractive and vivacious so much the better. Like the shopgirl blinded by the glare of Broadway, she flutters round the drawing rooms and country houses of the ultra-rich seeking to make a match that will put luxury within her grasp; but her chances are not so good as formerly.
To-day the number of large fortunes has increased so rapidly that the wealthy young man has no difficulty in choosing an equally wealthy mate whose mental and physical attractions appear, and doubtless are, quite as desirable as those of the daughter of poorer parents. The same instinct to which I have confessed myself, as a professional man, is at work among our daughters and sons. They may not actually judge individuals by the sordid test of their ability to purchase ease and luxury, but they take care to meet and associate with only those who can do so.
In this their parents are their ofttimes unconscious accomplices. The worthy young man of chance acquaintance is not invited to call—or, if he is, is not pressed to stay to dinner. "Oh, he does not know our crowd!" explains the girl to herself. The crowd, on analysis, will probably be found to contain only the sons and daughters of fathers and mothers who can entertain lavishly and settle a million or so on their offspring at marriage.
There is a constant attraction of wealth for wealth. Poverty never attracted anything. If our children have money of their own that is a good reason to us why they should marry more money. We snarl angrily at the penniless youth, no matter how capable and intelligent, who dares cast his eyes on our daughter. We make it quite unambiguous that we have other plans for her—plans that usually include a steam yacht and a shooting box north of Inverness.
There is nothing more vicious than the commonly expressed desire of parents in merely moderate circumstances to give their children what are ordinarily spoken of as "opportunities." "We wish our daughters to have every opportunity—the best opportunities," they say, meaning an equal chance with richer girls of qualifying themselves for attracting wealthy men and of placing themselves in their way. In reality opportunities for what?—of being utterly miserable for the rest of their lives unless they marry out of their own class.
The desire to get ahead that is transmitted from the American business man to his daughter is the source of untold bitterness—for, though he himself may fail in his own struggle, he has nevertheless had the interest of the game; but she, an old maid, may linger miserably on, unwilling to share the domestic life of some young man more than her equal in every respect.
There is a subtle freemasonry among those who have to do with money. Young men of family are given sinecures in banks and trust companies, and paid many times the salaries their services are worth. The inconspicuous lad who graduates from college the same year as one who comes from a socially prominent family will slave in a downtown office eight hours a day for a thousand dollars a year, while his classmate is bowing in the ladies at the Fifth Avenue Branch—from ten to three o'clock—at a salary of five thousand dollars. Why? Because he knows people who have money and in one way or another may be useful sometime to the president in a social way.
The remuneration of those of the privileged class who do any work at all is on an entirely different basis from that of those who need it. The poor boy is kept on as a clerk, while the rich one is taken into the firm. The old adage says that "Kissing goes by favor"; and favors, financial and otherwise, are given only to those who can offer something in return. The tendency to concentrate power and wealth extends even to the outer rim of the circle. It is an intangible conspiracy to corner the good things and send the poor away empty. As I see it going on round me, it is a heartless business.
Society is like an immense swarm of black bees settled on a honey-pot. The leaders, who flew there first, are at the top, gorged and distended. Round, beneath and on them crawl thousands of others thirsting to feed on the sweet, liquid gold. The pot is covered with them, layer on layer—buzzing hungrily; eager to get as near as possible to the honey, even if they may not taste it. A drop falls on one and a hundred fly on him and lick it off. The air is alive with those who are circling about waiting for an advantageous chance to wedge in between their comrades. They will, with one accord, sting to death any hapless creature who draws near.
* * * * *
Frankly I should not be enough of a man to say these things if my identity were disclosed, however much they ought to be said. Neither should I make the confessions concerning my own career that are to follow; for, though they may evidence a certain shrewdness on my own part, I do not altogether feel that they are to my credit.
When my wife and I first came to New York our aims and ideals were simple enough. I had letters to the head of a rather well-known firm on Wall Street and soon found myself its managing clerk at one hundred dollars a month. The business transacted in the office was big business—corporation work, the handling of large estates, and so on. During three years I was practically in charge of and responsible for the details of their litigations; the net profit divided by the two actual members of the firm was about one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The gross was about one hundred and eighty thousand, of which twenty thousand went to defray the regular office expenses—including rent, stenographers and ordinary law clerks—while ten thousand was divided among the three men who actually did most of the work.
The first of these was a highly trained lawyer about forty-five years of age, who could handle anything from a dog-license matter before a police justice to the argument of a rebate case in the United States Supreme Court. He was paid forty-five hundred dollars a year and was glad to get it. He was the active man of the office. The second man received thirty-five hundred dollars, and for that sum furnished all the special knowledge needed in drafting railroad mortgages and intricate legal documents of all sorts. The third was a chap of about thirty who tried the smaller cases and ran the less important corporations.
The two heads of the firm devoted most of their time to mixing with bankers, railroad officials and politicians, and spent comparatively little of it at the office; but they got the business—somehow. I suppose they found it because they went out after it. It was doubtless quite legitimate. Somebody must track down the game before the hunter can do the shooting. At any rate they managed to find plenty of it and furnished the work for the other lawyers to do.
I soon made up my mind that in New York brains were a pretty cheap commodity. I was anxious to get ahead; but there was no opening in the firm and there were others ready to take my place the moment it should become vacant. I was a pretty fair lawyer and had laid by in the bank nearly a thousand dollars; so I went to the head of the firm and made the proposition that I should work at the office each day until one o'clock and be paid half of what I was then getting—that is, fifty dollars a month. In the afternoons an understudy should sit at my desk, while I should be free.
I then suggested that the firm might divide with me the proceeds of any business I should bring in. My offer was accepted; and the same afternoon I went to the office of a young stockbroker I knew and stayed there until three o'clock. The next day I did the same thing, and the day after. I did not buy any stocks, but I made myself agreeable to the group about the ticker and formed the acquaintance of an elderly German, who was in the chewing-gum business and who amused himself playing the market.
It was not long before he invited me to lunch with him and I took every opportunity to impress him with my legal acumen. He had a lawyer of his own already, but I soon saw that the impression I was making would have the effect I desired; and presently, as I had confidently expected, he gave me a small legal matter to attend to. Needless to say it was accomplished with care, celerity and success. He gave me another. For six months I dogged that old German's steps every day from one o'clock in the afternoon until twelve at night. I walked, talked, drank beer and played pinochle with him, sat in his library in the evenings, and took him and his wife to the theater.
At the end of that period he discharged his former attorney and retained me. The business was easily worth thirty-five hundred dollars a year, and within a short time the Chicle Trust bought out his interests and I became a director in it and one of its attorneys.
I had already severed my connection with the firm and had opened an office of my own. Among the directors in the trust with whom I was thrown were a couple of rich young men whose fathers had put them on the board merely for purposes of representation. These I cultivated with the same assiduity as I had used with the German. I spent my entire time gunning for big game. I went after the elephants and let the sparrows go. It was only a month or so before my acquaintance with these two boys—for they were little else—had ripened into friendship. My wife and I were invited to visit at their houses and I was placed in contact with their fathers. From these I soon began to get business. I have kept it—kept it to myself. I have no real partners to steal it away from me.
I am now the same kind of lawyer as the two men who composed the firm for which I slaved at a hundred dollars a month. I find the work for my employees to do. I am now an exploiter of labor. It is hardly necessary for me to detail the steps by which I gradually acquired what is known as a gilt-edged practice; but it was not by virtue of my legal abilities, though they are as good as the average. I got it by putting myself in the eye of rich people in every way open to me. I even joined a fashionable church—it pains me to write this—for the sole purpose of becoming a member of the vestry and thus meeting on an intimate footing the half-dozen millionaire merchants who composed it. One of them gave me his business, made me his trustee and executor; and then I resigned from the vestry.
I always made myself persona grata to those who could help me along, wore the best clothes I could buy, never associated with shabby people, and appeared as much as possible in the company of my financial betters. It was the easier for me to do this because my name was not Irish, German or Hebraic. I had a good appearance, manners and an agreeable gloss of culture and refinement. I was tactful, considerate, and tried to strike a personal note in my intercourse with people who were worth while; in fact I made it a practice—and still do so—to send little mementos to my newer acquaintances—a book or some such trifle—with a line expressing my pleasure at having met them.
I know a considerable number of doctors, as well as lawyers, who have built up lucrative practices by making love to their female clients and patients. That I never did; but I always made it a point to flatter any women I took in to dinner, and I am now the trustee or business adviser for at least half a dozen wealthy widows as a direct consequence.
One reason for my success is, I discovered very early in the game that no woman believes she really needs a lawyer. She consults an attorney not for the purpose of getting his advice, but for sympathy and his approval of some course she has already decided on and perhaps already followed. A lawyer who tells a woman the truth thereby loses a client. He has only to agree with her and compliment her on her astuteness and sagacity to intrench himself forever in her confidence.
A woman will do what she wants to do—every time. She goes to a lawyer to explain why she intends to do it. She wants to have a man about on whom she can put the blame if necessary, and is willing to pay—moderately—for the privilege. She talks to a lawyer when no one else is willing to listen to her, and thoroughly enjoys herself. He is the one man who—unless he is a fool—cannot talk back.
Another fact to which I attribute a good deal of my professional eclat is, that I never let any of my social friends forget that I was a lawyer as well as a good fellow; and I always threw a hearty bluff at being prosperous, even when a thousand or two was needed to cover the overdraft in my bank account. It took me about ten years to land myself firmly among the class to which I aspired, and ten years more to make that place impregnable.
To-day we are regarded as one of the older if not one of the old families in New York. I no longer have to lick anybody's boots, and until I began to pen these memoirs I had really forgotten that I ever had. Things come my way now almost of themselves. All I have to do is to be on hand in my office—cheerful, hospitable, with a good story or so always on tap. My junior force does the law work. Yet I challenge anybody to point out anything dishonorable in those tactics by which I first got my feet on the lower rungs of the ladder of success.
It may perhaps be that I should prefer to write down here the story of how, simply by my assiduity and learning, I acquired such a reputation for a knowledge of the law that I was eagerly sought out by a horde of clamoring clients who forced important litigations on me. Things do not happen that way in New York to-day.
Should a young man be blamed for getting on by the easiest way he can? Life is too complex; the population too big. People have no accurate means of finding out who the really good lawyers or doctors are. If you tell them you are at the head of your profession they are apt to believe you, particularly if you wear a beard and are surrounded by an atmosphere of solemnity. Only a man's intimate circle knows where he is or what he is doing at any particular time.
I remember a friend of mine who was an exceedingly popular member of one of the exclusive Fifth Avenue clubs, and who, after going to Europe for a short vacation, decided to remain abroad for a couple of years. At the end of that time he returned to New York hungry for his old life and almost crazy with delight at seeing his former friends. Entering the club about five o'clock he happened to observe one of them sitting by the window. He approached him enthusiastically, slapped him on the shoulder, extended his hand and cried:
"Hello, old man! It's good to see you again!"
The other man looked at him in a puzzled sort of way without moving.
"Hello, yourself!" he remarked languidly. "It's good to see you, all right—but why make so much damned fuss about it?"
The next sentence interchanged between the two developed the fact that he was totally ignorant that his friend had been away at all. This is by no means a fantastic illustration. It happens every day. That is one of the joys of living in New York. You can get drunk, steal a million or so, or run off with another man's wife—and no one will hear about it until you are ready for something else. In such a community it is not extraordinary that most people are taken at their face value. Life moves at too rapid a pace to allow us to find out much about anybody—even our friends. One asks other people to dinner simply because one has seen them at somebody's else house.
I found it at first very difficult—in fact almost impossible—to spur my wife on to a satisfactory cooperation with my efforts to make the hand of friendship feed the mouth of business. She rather indignantly refused to meet my chewing-gum client or call on his wife. She said she preferred to keep her self-respect and stay in the boarding-house where we had resided since we moved to the city; but I demonstrated to her by much argument that it was worse than snobbish not to be decently polite to one's business friends. It was not their fault if they were vulgar. One might even help them to enlarge their lives. Gradually she came round; and as soon as the old German had given me his business she was the first to suggest moving to an apartment hotel uptown.
For a long time, however, she declined to make any genuine social effort. She knew two or three women from our neighborhood who were living in the city, and she used to go and sit with them in the afternoons and sew and help take care of the children. She said they and their husbands were good enough for her and that she had no aspirations toward society. An evening at the theater—in the balcony—every two weeks or so, and a rubber of whist on Saturday night, with a chafing-dish supper afterward, was all the excitement she needed. That was twenty-five years ago. To-day it is I who would put on the brakes, while she insists on shoveling soft coal into the social furnace.
Her metamorphosis was gradual but complete. I imagine that her first reluctance to essay an acquaintance with society arose out of embarrassment and bashfulness. At any rate she no sooner discovered how small a bluff was necessary for success than she easily outdid me in the ingenuity and finesse of her social strategy. It seemed to be instinctive with her. She was always revising her calling lists and cutting out people who were no longer socially useful; and having got what she could out of a new acquaintance, she would forget her as completely as if she had never made her the confidante of her inmost thoughts about other and less socially desirable people.
It seems a bit cold-blooded—this criticism of one's wife; but I know that, however much of a sycophant I may have been in my younger days, my wife has outdone me since then. Presently we were both in the swim, swept off our feet by the current and carried down the river of success, willy-nilly, toward its mouth—to a safe haven, I wonder, or the deluge of a devouring cataract?
* * * * *
The methods I adopted are those in general use, either consciously or unconsciously, among people striving for success in business, politics or society in New York. It is a struggle for existence, precisely like that which goes on in the animal world. Only those who have strength or cunning survive to achieve success. Might makes right to an extent little dreamed of by most of us. Nobody dares to censure or even mildly criticize one who has influence enough to do him harm. We are interested only in safeguarding or adding to the possessions we have already secured. We are wise enough to "play safe." To antagonize one who might assist in depriving us of some of them is contrary to the laws of Nature.
Our thoughts are for ourselves and our children alone. The devil take everybody else! We are safe, warm and comfortable ourselves; we exist without actual labor; and we desire our offspring to enjoy the same ease and safety. The rest of mankind is nothing to us, except a few people it is worth our while to be kind to—personal servants and employees. We should not hesitate to break all ten of the Commandments rather than that we and our children should lose a few material comforts. Anything, save that we should have really to work for a living!
There are essentially two sorts of work: first—genuine labor, which requires all a man's concentrated physical or mental effort; and second—that work which takes the laborer to his office at ten o'clock and, after an easy-going administrative morning, sets him at liberty at three or four.
The officer of an uptown trust company or bank is apt to belong to the latter class. Or perhaps one is in real estate and does business at the dinner tables of his friends. He makes love and money at the same time. His salary and commissions correspond somewhat to the unearned increment on the freeholds in which he deals. These are minor illustrations, but a majority of the administrative positions in our big corporations carry salaries out of all proportion to the services rendered.
These are the places my friends are all looking for—for themselves or their children. The small stockholder would not vote the president of his company a salary of one hundred thousand dollars a year, or the vice-president fifty thousand dollars; but the rich man who controls the stock is willing to give his brother or his nephew a soft snap. From what I know of corporate enterprise in these United States, God save the minority stockholder! But we and our brothers and sons and nephews must live—on Easy Street. We must be able to give expensive dinners and go to the theater and opera, and take our families to Europe—and we can't do it without money.
We must be able to keep up our end without working too hard, to be safe and warm, well fed and smartly turned out, and able to call in a specialist and a couple of trained nurses if one of the children falls ill; we want thirty-five feet of southerly exposure instead of seventeen, menservants instead of maid-servants, and a new motor every two years.
We do not object to working—that is to say, we pride ourselves on having a job. We like to be moderately busy. We would not have enough to amuse us all day if we did not go to the office in the morning; but what we do is not work! It is occupation perhaps—but there is no labor about it, either of mind or body. It is a sinecure—a "cinch." We could stay at home and most of us would not be missed. It is not the seventy-five-hundred-dollar-a-year vice-president but the eight-hundred-and-fifty-dollar clerk for want of whom the machine would stop if he were sick. Our labor is a kind of masculine light housework.
We probably have private incomes, thanks to our fathers or great uncles—not large enough to enable us to cut much of a dash, to be sure, but sufficient to give us confidence—and the proceeds of our daily toil, such as it is, go toward the purchase of luxuries merely. Because we are in business we are able to give bigger and more elegant dinner parties, go to Palm Beach in February, and keep saddle-horses; but we should be perfectly secure without working at all.
Hence we have a sense of independence about it. We feel as if it were rather a favor on our part to be willing to go into an office; and we expect to be paid vastly more proportionately than the fellow who needs the place in order to live: so we cut him out of it at a salary three times what he would have been paid had he got the job, while he keeps on grinding at the books as a subordinate. We come down late and go home early, drop in at the club and go out to dinner, take in the opera, wear furs, ride in automobiles, and generally boss the show—for the sole reason that we belong to the crowd who have the money. Very likely if we had not been born with it we should die from malnutrition, or go to Ward's Island suffering from some variety of melancholia brought on by worry over our inability to make a living.
I read the other day the true story of a little East Side tailor who could not earn enough to support himself and his wife. He became half-crazed from lack of food and together they resolved to commit suicide. Somehow he secured a small 22-caliber rook rifle and a couple of cartridges. The wife knelt down on the bed in her nightgown, with her face to the wall, and repeated a prayer while he shot her in the back. When he saw her sink to the floor dead he became so unnerved that, instead of turning the rifle on himself, he ran out into the street, with chattering teeth, calling for help.
This tragedy was absolutely the result of economic conditions, for the man was a hardworking and intelligent fellow, who could not find employment and who went off his head from lack of nourishment.
Now "I put it to you," as they say in the English law courts, how much of a personal sacrifice would you have made to prevent this tragedy? What would that little East Side Jewess' life have been worth to you? She is dead. Her soul may or may not be with God. As a suicide the Church would say it must be in hell. Well, how much would you have done to preserve her life or keep her soul out of hell?
Frankly, would you have parted with five hundred dollars to save that woman's life? Five hundred dollars? Let me tell you that you would not voluntarily have given up smoking cigars for one year to avoid that tragedy! Of course you would have if challenged to do so. If the fact that the killing could be avoided in some such way or at a certain price, and the discrepancy between the cost and the value of the life were squarely brought to your particular attention, you might and probably would do something. How much is problematical.
Let us do you the credit of saying that you would give five hundred dollars—and take it out of some other charity. But what if you were given another chance to save a life for five hundred dollars? All right; you will save that too. Now a third! You hesitate. That will be spending fifteen hundred dollars—a good deal. Still you decide to do it. Yet how embarrassing! You find an opportunity to save a fourth, a fifth—a hundred lives at the same price! What are you going to do?
We all of us have such a chance in one way or another. The answer is that, in spite of the admonition of Christ to sell our all and give to the poor, and others of His teachings as contained in the Sermon on the Mount, you probably, in order to save the lives of persons unknown to you, would not sacrifice a single substantial material comfort for one year; and that your impulse to save the lives of persons actually brought to your knowledge would diminish, fade away and die in direct proportion to the necessity involved of changing your present luxurious mode of life.
Do you know any rich woman who would sacrifice her automobile in order to send convalescents to the country? She may be a very charitable person and in the habit of sending such people to places where they are likely to recover health; but, no matter how many she actually sends, there would always be eight or ten more who could share in that blessed privilege if she gave up her motor and used the money for the purpose. Yet she does not do so and you do not do so; and, to be quite honest, you would think her a fool if she did.
What an interesting thing it would be if we could see the mental processes of some one of our friends who, unaware of our knowledge of his thoughts, was confronted with the opportunity of saving a life or accomplishing a vast good at a great sacrifice of his worldly possessions!
Suppose, for instance, he could save his own child by spending fifty thousand dollars in doctors, hospitals and nurses. Of course he would do so without a moment's hesitation, even if that was his entire fortune. But suppose the child were a nephew? We see him waver a little. A cousin—there is a distinct pause. Shall he pauperize himself just for a cousin? How about a mere social acquaintance? Not much! He might in a moment of excitement jump overboard to save somebody from drowning; but it would have to be a dear friend or close relative to induce him to go to the bank and draw out all the money he had in the world to save that same life.
The cities are full of lives that can be saved simply by spending a little money; but we close our eyes and, with our pocket-books clasped tight in our hands, pass by on the other side. Why? Not because we do not wish to deprive ourselves of the necessaries of life or even of its solid comforts, but because we are not willing to surrender our amusements. We want to play and not to work. That is what we are doing, what we intend to keep on doing, and what we plan to have our children do after us.
Brotherly love? How can there be such a thing when there is a single sick baby dying for lack of nutrition—a single convalescent suffocating for want of country air—a single family without fire or blankets? Suggest to your wife that she give up a dinner gown and use the money to send a tubercular office boy to the Adirondacks—and listen to her excuses! Is there not some charitable organization that does such things? Has not his family the money? How do you know he really has consumption? Is he a good boy? And finally: "Well, one can't send every sick boy to the country; if one did there would be no money left to bring up one's own children." She hesitates—and the boy dies perhaps! So long as we do not see them dying, we do not really care how many people die.
Our altruism, such as it is, has nothing abstract about it. The successful man does not bother himself about things he cannot see. Do not talk about foreign missions to him. Try his less successful brother—the man who is not successful because you can talk over with him foreign missions or even more idealistic matters; who is a failure because he will make sacrifices for a principle.
It is all a part of our materialism. Real sympathy costs too much money; so we try not to see the miserable creatures who might be restored to health for a couple of hundred dollars. A couple of hundred dollars? Why, you could take your wife to the theater forty times—once a week during the entire season—for that sum!
Poor people make sacrifices; rich ones do not. There is very little real charity among successful people. A man who wasted his time helping others would never get on himself.
* * * * *
It will, of course, be said in reply that the world is full of charitable institutions supported entirely by the prosperous and successful. That is quite true; but it must be remembered that they are small proof in themselves of the amount of real self-sacrifice and genuine charity existing among us.
Philanthropy is largely the occupation of otherwise ineffective people, or persons who have nothing else to do, or of retired capitalists who like the notoriety and laudation they can get in no other way. But, even with philanthropy to amuse him, an idle multi-millionaire in these United States has a pretty hard time of it. He is generally too old to enjoy society and is not qualified to make himself a particularly agreeable companion, even if his manners would pass muster at Newport. Politics is too strenuous. Desirable diplomatic posts are few and the choicer ones still require some dignity or educational qualification in the holders. There is almost nothing left but to haunt the picture sales or buy a city block and order the construction of a French chateau in the middle of it.
I know one of these men intimately; in fact I am his attorney and helped him make a part of his money. At sixty-four he retired—that is, he ceased endeavoring to increase his fortune by putting up the price of foodstuffs and other commodities, or by driving competitors out of business. Since then he has been utterly wretched. He would like to be in society and dispense a lavish hospitality, but he cannot speak the language of the drawing room. His opera box stands stark and empty. His house, filled with priceless treasures fit for the Metropolitan Museum, is closed nine months in the year.
His own wants are few. His wife is a plain woman, who used to do her own cooking and, in her heart, would like to do it still. He knows nothing of the esthetic side of life and is too old to learn. Once a month, in the season, we dine at his house, with a mixed company, in a desert of dining room at a vast table loaded with masses of gold plate. The peaches are from South Africa; the strawberries from the Riviera. His chef ransacks the markets for pheasants, snipe, woodcock, Egyptian quail and canvasbacks. And at enormous distances from each other—so that the table may be decently full—sit, with their wives, his family doctor, his clergyman, his broker, his secretary, his lawyer, and a few of the more presentable relatives—a merry party! And that is what he has striven, fought and lied for for fifty years.
Often he has told me of the early days, when he worked from seven until six, and then studied in night school until eleven; and of the later ones when he and his wife lived, like ourselves, in a Fourteenth Street lodging house and saved up to go to the theater once a month. As a young man he swore he would have a million before he died. Sunday afternoons he would go up to the Vanderbilt house on Fifth Avenue and, shaking his fist before the ornamental iron railing, whisper savagely that he would own just such a house himself some day. When he got his million he was going to retire. But he got his million at the age of forty-five, and it looked too small and mean; he would have ten—then he would stop!
By fifty-five he had his ten millions. It was comparatively easy, I believe, for him to get it. But still he was not satisfied. Now he has twenty. But apart from his millions, his house and his pictures, which are bought for him by an agent on a salary of ten thousand dollars a year, he has nothing! I dine with him out of charity.
Well, recently Johnson has gone into charity himself. I am told he has given away two millions! That is an exact tenth of his fortune. He is a religious man—in this respect he has outdone most of his brother millionaires. However, he still has an income of over a million a year—enough to satisfy most of his modest needs. Yet the frugality of a lifetime is hard to overcome, and I have seen Johnson walk home—seven blocks—in the rain from his club rather than take a cab, when the same evening he was giving his dinner guests peaches that cost—in December—two dollars and seventy-five cents apiece.
The question is: How far have Johnson's two millions made him a charitable man? I confess that, so far as I can see, giving them up did not cost him the slightest inconvenience. He merely bought a few hundred dollars' worth of reputation—as a charitable millionaire—at a cost of two thousand thousand dollars. It was—commercially—a miserable bargain. Only a comparatively few people of the five million inhabitants of the city of New York ever heard of Johnson or his hospital. Now that it has been built, he is no longer interested. I do not believe he actually got as much satisfaction out of his two-million-dollar investment as he would get out of an evening at the Hippodrome; but who can say that he is not charitable?
* * * * *
I lay stress on this matter of charity because essentially the charitable man is the good man. And by good we mean one who is of value to others as contrasted with one who is working, as most of us are, only for his own pocket all the time. He is the man who is such an egoist that he looks on himself as a part of the whole world and a brother to the rest of mankind. He has really got an exaggerated ego and everybody else profits by it in consequence.
He believes in abstract principles of virtue and would die for them; he recognizes duties and will struggle along, until he is a worn-out, penniless old man, to perform them. He goes out searching for those who need help and takes a chance on their not being deserving. Many a poor chap has died miserably because some rich man has judged that he was not deserving of help. I forget what Lazarus did about the thirsty gentleman in Hades—probably he did not regard him as deserving either.
With most of us a charitable impulse is like the wave made by a stone thrown into a pool—it gets fainter and fainter the farther it has to go. Generally it does not go the length of a city block. It is not enough that there is a starving cripple across the way—he must be on your own doorstep to rouse any interest. When we invest any of our money in charity we want twenty per cent interest, and we want it quarterly. We also wish to have a list of the stockholders made public. A man who habitually smokes two thirty-cent cigars after dinner will drop a quarter into the plate on Sunday and think he is a good Samaritan.
The truth of the matter is that whatever instinct leads us to contribute toward the alleviation of the obvious miseries of the poor should compel us to go further and prevent those miseries—or as many of them as we can—from ever arising at all.
So far as I am concerned, the division of goodness into seven or more specific virtues is purely arbitrary. Virtue is generic. A man is either generous or mean—unselfish or selfish. The unselfish man is the one who is willing to inconvenience or embarrass himself, or to deprive himself of some pleasure or profit for the benefit of others, either now or hereafter.
By the same token, now that I have given thought to the matter, I confess that I am a selfish man—at bottom. Whatever generosity I possess is surface generosity. It would not stand the acid test of self-interest for a moment. I am generous where it is worth my while—that is all; but, like everybody else in my class, I have no generosity so far as my social and business life is concerned. I am willing to inconvenience myself somewhat in my intimate relations with my family or friends, because they are really a part of me—and, anyway, not to do so would result, one way or another, in even greater inconvenience to me.
Once outside my own house, however, I am out for myself and nobody else, however much I may protest that I have all the civic virtues and deceive the public into thinking I have. What would become of me if I did not look out for my own interests in the same way my associates look out for theirs? I should be lost in the shuffle. The Christian virtues may be proclaimed from every pulpit and the Banner of the Cross fly from every housetop; but in business it is the law of evolution and not the Sermon on the Mount that controls.
The rules of the big game are the same as those of the Roman amphitheater. There is not even a pretense that the same code of morals can obtain among corporations and nations as among private individuals. Then why blame the individuals? It is just a question of dog eat dog. We are all after the bone.
No corporation would shorten the working day except by reason of self-interest or legal compulsion. No business man would attack an abuse that would take money out of his own pocket. And no one of us, except out of revenge or pique, would publicly criticize or condemn a man influential enough to do us harm. The political Saint George usually hopes to jump from the back of the dead dragon of municipal corruption into the governor's chair.
We have two standards of conduct—the ostensible and the actual. The first is a convention—largely literary. It is essentially merely a matter of manners—to lubricate the wheels of life. The genuine sphere of its influence extends only to those with whom we have actual contact; so that a breach of it would be embarrassing to us. Within this qualified circle we do business as "Christians & Company, Limited." Outside this circle we make a bluff at idealistic standards, but are guided only by the dictates of self-interest, judged almost entirely by pecuniary tests.