A New Observer
IT is hardly necessary to recall to the reader familiar with these pages that series of clear, penetrating studies of American life,1 at once so dispassionate and so sympathetic, which began with the impressive paper giving its title to the articles in their collected form. Certain Dangerous Tendencies in American Life; The Nationals, their Origin and their Aim; Three Typical Workingmen ; Workingmen’s Wives; The Career of a Capitalist; Study of a New England Factory Town ; Preaching; Sincere Demagogy, — no one can have forgotten their unsparing reality, their humane temper, and their fine and rare intellectual quality. Those interested in the growth of a literature which shall embody our national life must have felt that here was a man with the artist’s eye for seeing as perhaps no other American had seen our conditions ; and those who believe that life is above literature — is not to be treated as mere material from which characters and situations are to be quarried — must have been glad of the self-sacrifice which presented the rich results of the writer’s observation uncolored and almost uncommented. Nothing is further from him than the novelist’s purpose or the novelist’s method of using the facts which he sees with all a novelist’s keenness, and more than the keenness of any novelist who has yet looked at the same aspects of our civilization. Sometimes, almost against his will, as it seems, the matter takes a picturesque shape, as in certain descriptions of the New England Factory Town ; but his sympathetic earnestness is felt through the things that make us smile, and we know that he wishes us to think rather than smile. Some of these passages are worthy the great masters who have set down simply the things they have seen; that account of the “firstclass” entertainment, where the girl in spangled tights sang her comic song to an audience unalloyed by factory people, and that sketch of an evening in the musical beer-hall at Fall River, are worthy of Thackeray’s “ Spec.” In all the papers the characters are studied to such strong and serious purpose that they need but a touch of drama to make them move in artistic sequence and effect.
It is best, however, to have them as they are. We would be apt to lose sense of their need of help in a fiction, or of our own relation to them; and this we are not likely to do here, except as we imagine their case already become historical. Events move so rapidly with us, and superficially conditions change so suddenly, that with the present return of prosperity we shall be in danger of regarding the tendencies and characteristics of American life which this writer deplores as merely traits of the long period of adversity which is passing away. But what this essayist strives to do throughout is to persuade his reader that the relief which may come from better times is temporary and delusive; that hard times will return in their course, and then all the dangerous tendencies of two years ago will beset us again. He does not feel himself to be dealing with casual errors, but faults of character and mind not radical but well-nigh inveterate, and his remedy for them is simpler and honester life, resulting from the diffusion of real intelligence concerning its problems, from habits of frugality in spending and closeness in thinking, from home-training in unselfishness and benevolence, from a better understanding between the different stations and conditions of society. We state in generals what he states in particulars; for he does not shrink from that hard part of his task which consists in specifying the means that people should take to help themselves. He differs from many other philosophers, who have taught us of late, in prescribing work, and a great deal of it, for all classes as the prime agent in the purification of public and private morals. He has very little to say about the amusement of the people, and much about their edification, — about giving them good reading and good preaching; no doubt he thinks they may be trusted to take all the play they need, He does nothing new, perhaps, in prescribing this regimen for the poor, but he is refreshing in suggesting it for the rich also : he would not have stupid and idle rich people any more than ignorant paupers, and would doubtless think the one class as mischievous as the other.
More than once during the magazine publication of these essays we found the charge of pessimism brought against their author. The phrase probably recommended itself to his critics by its cheapness; certainly nothing could be more inexact, unless pessimism consists in the recognition of needlessly deplorable conditions, and the expression of a belief that the sufferers have the cure in their own hands. If it is pessimism to show the rich what excellent types of character exist among workingmen and their wives, and to teach the poor how a capitalist may be necessarily their friend, by all means let us have nothing but pessimism hereafter. We shall come to a better conception of each other, and learn to bear and forbear through that desperate doctrine. The essays really most discouraging are those on The Nationals and Sincere Demagogy, from which it appears that those who do most of our voting are not ready to do our thinking to advantage. Yet they are not so much corrupted as stupefied by the leaders who repeat to their credulity the thrice - exploded delusions of the past concerning the inherent virtue and wisdom of the people, the injustice of society to the poor, and the tyranny of capital; who preach their rights and say nothing of their duties. These studies are discouraging, because they show us how low the capacity of the masses — the public-schooled masses — still is for right thinking. The writer does not deny their capacity, and perhaps even his distrust of their intelligence may seem refuted just now, when returning prosperity has put us all in good humor with one another, and every one has apparently come to a clearer perception of things. But very possibly he might insist that this was a transitory and illusory appearance ; and that the supine acquiescence of those who confide in it was material for a still more discouraging paper than any he had yet written.
- Certain Dangerous Tendencies in American Life, and other Papers. Boston: Houghton, Osgood & Co. 1880.↩