Charity in the Light of Literature

KIPLING once wrote a story of the East End of London which may no more be forgotten than his Incarnation of Krishna Mulvaney or Without Benefit of Clergy. The Record of Badalia Herodsfoot narrates how a rough woman, Badalia Herodsfoot by name, spoke her mind to a charity worker; how she came to be tacitly accredited the chief charity-dispensing agent of her district; and how, in the midst of her work, a tragic fate suddenly overtook her.

Badalia did not respect the intelligence of the charity workers.

“ ‘You give Lascar Loo custids,’ said she, ‘ give her pork wine. Garn ! Give 'er blankits. Garn ’ome ! ’Er mother she eats ’em all and drinks the blankits. Gits ’em back from the shop, she does, before you come visiting again, so as to ’ave ’em all handy an’ proper ; an’ Lascar Loo she sez to you, “ Oh, my mother ’s that good to me,” she do. Lascar Loo ’ad better talk so, bein’ sick abed, 'r else ’er mother would kill ’er. Garn ! You’re a bloomin’ gardener — you an’ yer custids ! Lascar Loo don’t never smell of ’em, even.’ ”

Whether Mr. Kipling has ever studied the charity problem of the East End of London at close range, I am not aware. It does not matter. He has studied life, he has studied human nature ; he knows them both through and through. Knowing them, he has done more in the space of a few pages of fiction to illuminate the London charity problem (and so the charity problem of the English-speaking world) than a whole army of special students or active charity workers by written or spoken testimony.

More recently, Mr. Arthur Morrison, in a small volume of short stories entitled Tales of Mean Streets, pictured the weaknesses, follies, sins, and crimes of the people who come under the jurisdiction of London charity, with an almost appalling insight and frankness. Under the spell of such convincing realities as these of Mr. Morrison and Mr. Kipling, who are too thorough artists to attempt to point a moral, one does not stop to think or to care whether dialect is accurate, local color faithful, plot plausible, morale uplifting, outlook optimistic, or to raise any of the natural queries regarding a work of fiction ; but the inference is inevitable that modern charity is often a tragedy, and often a farce.

Years before these two men thus put the thinking world in their debt, an American author, of an entirely different type, — no less a person than Ralph Waldo Emerson, — delivered himself more directly to the same effect: —

“ I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me, and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons, to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold ; for them I will go to prison, if need be ; but your miscellaneous popular charities, the education at college of fools, the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand, alms to sots and the thousandfold relief societies, — though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar, which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.”

Robert Louis Stevenson, in an essay on Beggars, restated the thought of Emerson and amplified it in his inimitable way.

“ Gratitude without familiarity,” he says, “ gratitude otherwise than as a nameless element in a friendship, is a thing so near to hatred that I do not care to split the difference. Until I find a man who is pleased to receive obligations, I shall continue to question the tact of those who are eager to confer them. What an art it is to give even to our nearest friends, and what a test of manners to receive! How, upon either side, we smuggle away the obligation, blushing for each other; how bluff and dull we make the giver ; how hasty, how falsely cheerful, the receiver! And yet an act of such difficulty and distress between near friends it is supposed we can perform to a total stranger and leave the man transfixed with grateful emotions. The last thing you can do to a man is to burden him with an obligation, and it is what we propose to begin with ! But let us not be deceived; unless he is totally degraded to his trade, anger jars in his inside and he grates his teeth at our gratuity. ... We should wipe two words from our vocabulary, — gratitude and charity. In real life, help is given out of friendship, or it is not valued ; it is received from the hand of friendship, or it is resented. We are all too proud to take a naked gift; we must seem to pay for it, if in nothing else with the delights of our society.”