An Educated Wage-Earner

IT was with no chivalrous notion of living among wage-earners in order to be useful to them either as an example or as a reporter that I sought employ - ment in a factory, but simply because I needed ready money every week for living expenses, and the factory work paid from the beginning. No unpaid apprenticeship during which the learner must live on nothing, or go in debt, was required. And for a long while I was selfishly concerned as to how I could go about my work with the least possible infliction of the society of my shopmates ; not because I despised them, but because their conversation was rough, boisterous, and unmannerly at times, and always deadly dull, wearisome, and uninteresting. They said the same things over and over; and hut for their spice of malice these might have been the things that a machine constructed to run in one narrow groove would grind out. I kept on good terms with them instinctively. Their friendship would make all the difference between daily victory and nightly thankfulness and a cumulative succession of crushing defeats that would not have killed. This I knew without being told. It was as though the subconscious part of my mind was at one with them ; and I could feel many things of which my sophisticated intelligence could take no note. The most devastating folly that can be indulged in by women who are suddenly compelled to support themselves is the insufferable habit of gabbling about better days. It turns the worst side of industrial life toward them, and prevents them from seeing or using the best.

Not that a certain amount of verbal sympathy may not be wrenched from each new listener that is secured; but this absurd pampering of vanity, unhoused and in exile, brings swift retribution in the loss of that respect which the multiple consciousness of the proletariat has for any of its legitimate units. This compound being is more to be dreaded than any number of armies with banners. We catch glimpses of him in panics, when a hundred or a thousand people suddenly lose the power of individual thought, and each feels the accumulated fear of all; and in mobs, when men ordinarily incapable of brutality weld their beings in some white heat of anger into a single consciousness which uses them for fists and feet, and, having so coalesced psychologically, they are as destitute of the attributes of individual men, as brainless and heartless and usable as fists and feet. These are the spectacular appearances of the multiple human being ; and they are so disquieting to contemplate, so fraught with horror to the mind that speculates but for a moment on the consequences that will inevitably follow when that trick of combining has been learned and can be practiced at will, that they drive us to imitate the children who cover their eyes, clutch for the parental hand, and, when the terror is passed, forget. But the orderly, untumultuous manifestations of this portentous being are much harder to withstand. If one escapes the sudden fury of the panic or mob, one is safe; but the perpetual endurance of those things which instinctive dislike prompts every individual of the multitude to invent on the spur of the moment to convey, as by contact with a live wire, the accumulated voltage of the anger and dislike of all,— for no apparent reason except that of opportunity, — is infinitely worse than any violence that has a beginning and ending can possibly be. The discrepancy between the trivial provocation or no provocation and the malignant intensity of the hostile spirit that manifests itself confounds the mind and induces a frantic feeling as of being chained among ants, any one of which having found where to set its mandibles became at once a bulldog. I have known many women who expected to secure special consideration in shop or mill and some degree of social distinction outside by continually harping on the “better-days” and “never-expected-to-be-here ” string, and I have warned not a few; but I do not recollect one who did not go to pieces mentally, and lose every scrap of available intelligence except the pitiful notions that put her at odds with the life she could not escape. Absolutely there is no possibility of continuing normal in the multitude except by self-obliteration. Astonishingly personal questions will be asked, but they must be answered frankly and fully. The proletariat is absorbing another unit. That is all. Very little satisfies this friendly curiosity ; then the new worker becomes an old familiar fact, merges in the multitude, and thereafter is no more conspicuous than an individual grain in a bushel of wheat. That the apprentice is working for wages, however tremendous the fact may be to herself, requires neither explanation nor apology. Work is the normal condition. She would not be respectable if she did not work. Honest women and good girls take the middle of the road, and leave the whole sidewalk to their white-handed sisters who have no apparent means of support. The chances are that no woman is nearly so distinguished in appearance as she fancies herself to be ; and wage-earning women are much more presentable than their more fortunate sisters are accustomed to believe. Shorn away on both sides to the line of actual fact, the narrow border of difficulty remaining is easily negotiated at any point by the slightest exercise of tact and self-possession.

In my own case nothing was ever remarked upon but my hands. “How do you keep them so nice ? ” asked my window-mate in the factory where I first began to work, after instructing me for an hour or two in the special process that I had been set to learn.

“I’m not proud of them,” I answered, busy with the work; “I shall be glad when they are grubby as can be. They remind me of being sick in the hospital, and I want to forget it. Were you ever in a hospital? ”

I divined, probably by a certain avid eagerness of expression, that the girl wanted to know more about me, — wanted to place me, — and so I gave the above information and was ready to impart such other facts as would put her mind at ease.

“No, I never was in a hospital, but my mother died in one, so I know about it. That was when we were little. We are all grown up now, and have good jobs. You ’re catch in’ on to that trick first-rate. What ye been doin’? ”

“Housework. ”

“Oh my! How could you? Lib! come over here. My learner says she ’s been doin’ housework.”

“For the land’s sake!” Lib regarded me as one regards an inferior being; but gradually her face softened. “How’s she gettin’ along? ”

“First-rate. She ’ll earn half-pay in a week.” I was a thing, and they discussed me with frankness for several minutes, yelling their comments over my head, for one stood on each side of my chair. Finally Lib smiled at me encouragingly, still addressing my teacher.

“She won’t have to go back to housework, anyway. I c’n tell by the way she takes hold that she ’ll earn her board.”

“She ’ll do better ’n that first off.”

Having undertaken my instruction, something of the feeling of possession was developing, and my teacher was disposed to champion me. “She’s been sick, in the hospital. That’s the way with folks that hire help. They ’ll work ’em to death, ’n’ then shove ’em into the hospital when they take sick. It makes me mad. You did right to come into the mill. I wish every house girl in the city would skip their jobs ’n’ learn trades. ’T would serve ’em right — the folks that hire ’em I mean.”

“You seem to know something about it yourself, I said.

“You just bet I do; but when you catch me pot-wallopin’ again, lemme know.”

“That’s what,’-’ said Lib, moving away, but including me in her farewell smile. We were introduced.

Thus easily did the iron doors of industry close behind me. A fondness for nature study and considerable experience in field work probably stood me in good stead. I must instinctively have adopted the same tactics of becoming a stump or boulder and quietly observing the living things around me without being particularly aware of intending to do so. I learned to do my part of the work handily in a few days, and fell in with the interminable ranks of the regular array without undue fatigue or disagreeable friction.

Under these circumstances hand work becomes a sort of relief from over-much thinking; and, in moderation,that is, if the newcomer undertake only the simpler and less trying if less remunerative processes, it conduces to healthy recovery from whatever wounds the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune may have inflicted.

But when the problem of self-support has been disposed of, and the uneasy fear of failure is succeeded by the confidence of skilled, efficient labor, another danger, which has lurked in the background during the battle for mere existence, lifts its head and stalks near and nearer with each succeeding day, — the mental hunger and thirst of an active robust intelligence, confined in a paddock where no appropriate or satisfying food can be found. Reading is always obtainable, and that must suffice. At least it will keep the caged panther alive and prevent it from gnawing its own flesh and sucking its own blood, and so becoming a monstrous and unnatural thing which will finally burst its bars in lunacy or shrivel into imbecility. I read insatiably for years, following out every line ofawakened interest exhaustively. But all the while another kind of knowledge was accumulating; I began to demand different mental food from what was available; or else I was losing my taste for reading. Nine out of ten of my instructors, at whose feet I had sat gratefully and unquestioningly, left my mind unsatisfied, or in open rebellion. Sometimes the mood was one of simple endurance, identical with the refreshment produced by the conversation of district visitors, the chatter of the high school girl who brought bowers and old magazines to such of us as happened to be sick, and the discourse of the college students and Young Men’s Christian Association delegates who held meetings in boardinghouse parlors. As this conviction forced itself upon me, it brought the first low wash of waves from a cold outer deep that I had never sounded and had no wish to explore. If books failed me, God help me through the grayness of the decades and scores of years to come. I was capable of living till I was ninety or a hundred. The very narrowness and regularity of the life I led tended to conserve the vital energies wonderfully.

About this time a casual conversation which I had at the library with an Englishman, who happened to be searching the files, greatly stimulated my mind. He took me for a fellow worker, and it seemed to me afterwards that he gave me credit for a certain amount of mental ripeness and poise. I may as well record the fact that this conversation and an hour’s talk with a college or university professor in the cars are the only cases of the kind in the blank intellectual desert where I was tied to a peg or directed forward and back with my burden like any other creature whose time is not its own. By some sort of reasoning, difficult to trace without seeming ungrateful, those who bear mental pabulum to the wage-earner take counsel of the material provisioned and furnishers who bid for the trade of industrial suburbs, and organize veritable rummage sales. Merchants load their counters with the cheap, the worthless, the gaudy, and the adulterated goods that could not be sold at all in the metropolis, loudly and persistently proclaim that these are the latest in fashion and first-rate — none better — in quality, and demand of wage-earners a price in accordance with these assumptions.

For long years I had been engagingly besought to learn of the district visitor, the amateur dispenser of old magazines and single flowers (“even one lovely blossom can brighten a dingy room ”), the student anxious to practice oratory, and the irreproachable young clerks and salesmen associated for the good of the universe. (They seemed to concern themselves with about everything.) And what they offered in the way of mental and spiritual food left me in precisely the frame of mind about partaking as a walk among the shops and places of amusement would do. But twice, during fifteen years, I met a human being who talked with me and passed on unaware of the largess that was bestowed. If souls were not immortal I should have died, long before the completion of such a period, of spiritual hunger and thirst.

From the Englishman’s conversation I got a triangulation that made it possible to see myself in relation to my surroundings, and to arrive at a new understanding of my waning respect for the books on my specialty obtainable at the library. He took it for granted that I was a writer, several times asking if I had made use, or intended to make use, of what I was saying in my work. It amused me at the time, but after a while I began to say, “Why not? ” and to use my leisure for practice. Before then I had always imagined that, in order to gain a hearing for saner methods, I must meet persons and organizations concerned with social betterment, and persuade them orally to consider some of the anomalies and contradictions and futilities of the work as at present conducted. I hated the thought of putting myself forward personally, but gradually overcame the reluctance which after all was a species of pride, and put myself in communication with many leaders in this kind of work. They did not treat me with intellectual respect. One and all, they were very kind and scrupulously courteous; but my conversation was as that of an alien and inferior being, interesting as an exhibition, but of no significance, no practical use. In nearly every case it was interpreted personally. I was kicking against the pricks of the chevaux-de-frise that guarded the various little local social encampments, and displaying rather poor taste in making a public question of my necessary exclusion therefrom. And in the kindness of their hearts ladies from committees that had listened to me, or the wives of pastors with whom I talked, would call on me ostentatiously and sometimes heroically ask me to return the calls. Then the incident would be closed, and for all impression that it was possible for me to make I might better have remained silent.

Curiously enough, after I began to write, the editors to whom I submitted my copy took the same exasperating view. If I wanted to get into print I must leave unpopular subjects alone and write what people wanted to hear. Many advised me to write amusing sketches. I must have an enormous fund of material that could be treated lightly, even farcically. It would find instant favor. I would better work along those lines. This was discouraging, but no more so than the curious collection of editorial revelations that I accumulated from denominational and reform newspapers. The denseness of some of these was amazing; but the sum of all the adverse criticisms finally reacted on my courage and raised teasing doubts as to the validity of some of my conclusions. Things might be different in other places. The one community with which I was thoroughly familiar might not be typical in some important respects.

For these reasons I gave up writing for several years, and lived successively in eleven large industrial centres, occupying myself with different kinds of work, and remaining long enough at each to learn the environment by absorption. This enlargement of experience and observation was helpful to me in the extreme, but it brought about no fundamental change of opinion. Every growing centre of industry and trade is an illustration of every other.

Everywhere and at all times my first, deepest, and most lasting impression of my fellow workers has been a recognition of their native gifts, abilities, and capacities. I have met and observed at leisure probably a thousand women among wage-earners who were distinctly my superiors in everything but the accidents of a sheltered childhood and a fair degree of instruction. It would be difficult adequately to express my respect for what they are, or to voice a justifiable prophecy of what they will become when permitted free development, without seeming to indulge in exaggeration. Below the merest surface differences, the interests, influences, and determinations that combine automatically to prevent such development are strangely alike in all places where labor is massed. Employers strive to secure all the work that they can get for the least possible amount of wages; and when labor has its hard-earned wages in hand an army of buzzards and vultures springs out of the earth, drops out of empty space, gathers from the four winds, to batten on their natural prey. An increase of wages, which is often so bitterly fought for, is of little real advantage while the sumpter class hovers so close with avid maw, eagle eye, and dexterous talons. This goes on with the consent and active connivance of responsible workingmen who are perfectly well aware of the continual looting of the camp of labor from flank and rear, while they mass their forces along the other side of the square. Only two in ten of their number belong to unions; but those two contrive pretty effectually to lead or drive the other eight whithersoever they please, and by this we know that they could prevent economic spoliation if they so desired. But there is no such thing as a wageearning class, no cohesion of fellow feeling and loyalty among the common people of an industrial centre. It is a fundamental part of their creed and constitution that the individual has a perfect right to prey upon the mass to any extent that will not land him in jail. There is no stable condition as the norm of such a class. Individuals constantly arise who wheedle or bully scores or hundreds to tax themselves unnecessarily, and jump into the mud of extremest poverty to form of their bodies a raft by which the stream can be navigated. There is no commiseration for the despoiled families. In order to succeed others must be prevented from succeeding. That is the race law. The wageearning masses are simply the main body of the Anglo-Saxon race, reinforced by contributory streams from the most energetic portions of all allied races, which has reverted to pre-Christian ideas and methods in consequence of the social decree that no sort of personal merit, no degree of intelligence, no acquired culture, no refinement of manners, shall receive social recognition, but only the possession of money or material things that money will buy. If St. Francis himself should appear he would be treated as a tramp. And since all havings are valuable according to their negotiable social equivalents, we have no use for anything but money, and each family is bound to get in ahead of all others in the race. It is social disintegration absolute, in essence closely approaching anarchy.

The whole subject of social regeneration has been muddled well-nigh beyond the possibility of accurate statement or scientific consideration from the misfit vocabulary which, partly from mental laziness, partly from vanity, has been borrowed from English literature. The language has reacted on the minds of the users of it, till they persistently think of the population as a geological formation, and try to manipulate it architecturally, as numerically composed of inanimate blocks that can be labeled, ranged in courses, and — beautiful thought! — “stay put.”

There is nothing approximating this kind of social structure in any centre of American industry, and the sooner the literary cant of all reforming agencies is shed, the sooner will their influence begin to be felt. The real facts are too grave, the real danger of the permanent disappearance of those traits which can only be fostered in a kindly, hospitable home atmosphere is too appallingly imminent for mischievous affectations longer to be tolerated.

Jocelyn Lewis.