Living Caricatures

Let not the scornful think themselves exempt : for they, in truth the least of God’s blessings, are of all men and women the most absurd and the most ridiculous.

NEARLY everybody is a caricature of his own ambitions. Indeed, he is of a poor sort who is not. So long as one’s ideals are beyond him, ahead of him, rather than cast aside or forgotten, he is sure to be an inadequate representation of what he wants to be, uneven and distorted in one way or another, and hence a caricature.

Let us go to some place where people foregather — to church of a Sunday morning, for instance. We must sit so that we may watch the people as they enter. Everybody walks down the aisle as what he would like to be, — what he feels in his heart that he has it in him to be. There’s Mr. A., for instance, who is book-keeper down at the factory; but on Sundays he is free of his task and there you behold him: the Reasonable Man with the open mind, prepared to give valuable deliberation to any problem that may be presented. Few problems are presented to him except in the balancing of his books; and his wife manages his family, so that he has but slight opportunity to exercise his greatest gift, or what he would like to have as his greatest gift, — the faculty of sound judgment. His walk, his gestures, and his attitude, all show it.

His wife is a good woman and efficient, but not very interesting you may say. That is because you do not consider her with her Sunday hat on, or watch her carefully. In her heart she is a great lady, fully equipped for grandeur; and if you look deep enough, you cannot fail to see the picture of the Lady Marguerite (her husband calls her Maggie) walking down the gravel path of the palace garden with two pages in black velvet carrying her train. It’s all there: surely, you can see it if you half close your eyes, and look intently. She has something of the grand lady without any doubt, and her imagination surely plays about the idea. Whether it is a visiting ancestor who suggests it to her spirit, or she really is well equipped for the part now, to-day, if circumstances permitted it, is indeed hard to say. I rather think she could give a very respectable welcome to prosperity — which is more than may be said of most people.

If it is in a country church, and you see a young man who evidently has not the gift of orthodoxy, a none-too-willing worker in the vineyard, and yet for whom a vine has been found, — in short, the dashing‘Libarian ’ of the Sunday school, — you know at a glance that it is the girl in the red hat who keeps him at his job. He would rather catch one man out at baseball than gather an hundred into the Sunday school.

Observe the plate-passers in all their glory. As like as two peas in a pod, you say; but I deny it. They are as other men, and have hearts and feelings, and even romances. The one is president of the Upidee Manufacturing Company, and the other is cashier of the Upida National Bank. See how much more authority Upidee has than Upida as they march up the aisle in West Point style, while the organist, who knows his business, executes a finale to the offertory in 2-4 time.

Unhook Upidee’s ribs and look into his heart. Behold the picture: The individuals who are the choice of the few Representative Men of the Nations of the Earth are gathered together to determine a few of the things which, the parson intimates in his prayer, rest in the Hand of God. Note, please, that Upidee is a Member of this Committee.

Upida looks secretly at an entirely different picture. If he had only had the benefit of a college education, he thinks, and if — but with no disloyalty to Harriet, be it said — he had not married, he might be in some indefinite place among, and a part of, a group of people of distinct and illuminating culture. He has bought on subscription so-called libraries of the World’s Best everything, which he reads with diligence; but unhappily he cannot remember what he reads. He is in truth a caricature of a man of culture, but he is not funny except for the little kink in his mind about what sounds like ‘Collie Jedgication.’

Bachelors of Art find some other reason why it is not given unto them to browse in the pleasant pastures of the mind, whilst those without a degree find a delectable sorrow in the belief that this is their greatest lack. I am sure that I should like Upida better than Upidee, although the latter is a far more efficient head of the Upidee Manufacturing Company than his brother plate-passer could ever be.

Harriet, the wife of Upida, is a living joy to the man with eyes. Her ideal is the Affable Lady. She makes dreadful noises when she talks, she bumps into people right and left, and, having done so, assumes varied and surprising attitudes of affability. She does not read a book in six months, but she does a thousand generous and kindly things in far less time, which, after all, make her the more worth while. Indeed, she comes closer to her ideal than most people. Her ideal is not awkward and does not cackle, whereas she is the one, and does the other; and these are the greatest differences between her and what she would like to be.

Here comes the meanest man in seven counties, and yet see what an inspiring picture he carries in his heart: the vision of the Just Man. He only wants what is right; no one ever said he took what did not belong to him. He owes no man aught save good-will — and he is not wasteful of that. ‘Fairness’ is his watch-word, which he pronounces with a flattened a, as in hat. The picture is none too clear, but it is there, nevertheless, of men and women coming to him from far and near for judgment sound and ripe, untempered by foolish emotion. These people gathering round him in his imagination have finally discovered that his point of view is the only sane one.

But we need not abide in church to see the picture-show. On the street, in the cars, almost anywhere where there are people, is a good place. There is the humorist with his wink and smile; the satirist with his sneer; the man of feeling with a countenance which he hopes expresses suffering; the heavy, fussy man with visions of airy grace, as you may see by his agile steps and sweeping gestures. A feature at once encouraging and pathetic, that one sees on every hand, is a willingness and seeming preparedness to undertake great responsibilities; big, dramatic responsibilities. Sometimes it is great sport, and then again you wish you could not see the grim caricature, which you resent.

I have in mind a man, of noble ambitions, a few years ago, whose sense of duty took him among a group of men who were, on the whole, a tough brotherhood. To even things up, he addressed himself in his play-time to the ultra-fashionable, among whom he was welcome. He was greatly desired by those who followed relaxation as a primary object, and the tough brotherhood liked his popularity because it established their leader as having quality.

Years have passed, the ambition to be of great service and do great things has been laid aside, but the disposition to be very smart socially remains well established. It abounds in him, in his speech, his accent, his bearing, and his views of life. His comments on people have to do almost wholly with their short-comings and their absurdities; and they are made in derision. So, while his interest is keenest in observing the ridiculousness of others, he himself is becoming a comedy character of the tired, bored type. Twenty years ago this type was a prime favorite in low comedy, and it is still a stock feature in variety shows.

Where poverty pinches, there is the least caricature. Neither good manners nor ideals are easily maintained under stress of poverty. Poverty wants work and meat; and there is no imagination in such a need. Perhaps that is why the exceptional men, the men of genius, are so frequently those who have had the strength to cling to their ideals through poverty. The rest of us might have given up under the straw.

I have tried to satisfy myself wherein the humor of poverty lies. The first impulse, if one wants to make a picture of a funny man, seems to be to draw a raggetty man. Perhaps it is because poverty offends against the conventions of luxury, and the rudimentary mind conceives luxury as the fulfillment of joy and pleasantness.

This comedy, this caricature play of our own ideals, steps in as soon as we have a chance to grow. It is with us, dancing round and about us, so long as we amount to a hill of beans. When we are used up or spoiled, and our ambitions becomes atrophied, and when we finally have n’t even the desire to be anything better than we are, we may cease to be absurd. Until then, we may as well make the best of it; we are bound to be but caricatures of what we really, inwardly, secretly want to be. We need not be ashamed of it; all the other fellows are in the same boat.