The Curious Impertinent


FOR several years past there have been published in various peviodicals articles devoted to telling one half of the world how the other half lives. One young man becomes a tramp, and goes up and down the highways and byways, arrayed in false rags, deceiving the tramps into confidences, and the timid or kindly housewives into mistaken charity. Another youth graduates from college, and masquerades as an unskilled laborer, toiling at tasks for which all his ancestry and education have rendered him unfit, and making his aching muscles the theme of his marketable copy. Three women, promptly following suit, become respectively working-woman, factory operative, and domestic servant, and record in detail their sordid experiences in the depths whereto they plunge. And all these have, they believe, found their inspiration in the nobler motives.

One might fairly question the good of it all. Were the inquiries worth making ? If worth making, was the method of inquiry well chosen to secure valuable results ? To answer both these questions, it is enough to refer the student of social conditions to the published results of the several experiments. Let them be carefully edited down to their residuum of novel facts, and you shall find but a thimbleful of actuality strained out of a barrelful of good “ copy.” For we will admit it all good copy and excellent magazine stuffing, well seasoned and put skillfully together. But need we dive so deep to learn that tramps are lazy, talk thieves’ lingo, and beat the railroads at every opportunity ? or to be assured that the girls employed in factories dress absurdly, and do not read the classics in their leisure hours ? or that some mistresses are kind and considerate of their servants, while others are the reverse?

I claim that not only are these quests fruitless and mischievous, but that if they were of the utmost value and of twenty-fold the interest, they are still unjustifiable, because they are deceitful and dishonest. No man or woman has a right to force a way into the affairs of others, or by deceitful pretense of social equality to obtain information not otherwise to be acquired. It is an infringement of personal rights.

Let us take the matter home to ourselves. Let us imagine an employee of some great mill or factory to be commissioned by fellow laborers to enact the part of a “ society man,” and having the education and breeding to fit him to escape detection. He obtains in disguise the right to social equality, cultivates the acquaintance of the owners of the factory, and, being a clever writer, gives his fellow operatives a fair and unvarnished account of the way in which the millowner and his family expend the profits derived from the labor of himself and his fellow laborers in the mills. He might, in some cases, make copy fairly comparable to that afforded by similar study of the home life of the working folk. Possibly, the comparison might not be all in favor of Mr. and Mrs. Dives and their offspring. But that is not the question. What we ask is what Mr. and Mrs. Dives and their friends would think of their clever employee. Would they invite him again to dinner, or again offer him the spare seat in their automobile ? Or do you imagine that they might have a strange and unaccountable feeling that he had not been quite the true gentleman they had invited to their home ? And would it have made so very much difference if the Dives family had lived in an apartment house, or in a flat, or even in a boarding-house ? And yet, what is the essential difference whether the party spied upon is Mr. Dives or his workwoman, Miss Lazarus ? If either is to be protected against the inquisitive reporter, let it be the helpless poor, rather than the rich. If either has any right or reason to conceal the private life, it is more likely to be the poor worker than the rich and prominent owner.