The Greenhorn in America
‘ OH, I cannot live here, I am always late! Everybody runs ahead! The crowd on the street is so restless! Why are they hurrying so?’
This is the first complaint which hospitable America hears from the Russian immigrant. We are a slow, quiet nation. One of our national stories illustrates this.
‘Ivan, Ivan,’ says the mistress to her servant, ‘give a handful of hay to the horses, and take a rest.’
After two hours she calls again, —
‘Ivan, Ivan, shut the door of the stall, and take a rest.’
Three hours later, —
‘Ivan, look at the church clock, and tell me what time it is, and take a rest.’ The Russian people have a contemplative soul and are rather lazy. We are nearer to primitive life, when man worked as much as was absolutely necessary to cover his important needs, when he ate, slept, hunted, picked flowers, and had nothing more to do. The sweet remembrance of that plain life lives in the half-oriental soul of the Russian people, and its traditions are potent.
When a few Europeanized Russian manufacturers tried to transplant Taylor’s system into their country, there resulted innumerable strikes, and the poor bosses, who were too advanced for our labor-environment, were carried out of the factories on wheelbarrrows.
Such a shame!
The circumstances under which the workingmen of Russia can work are usually as follows: —
They come to the shop or factory half an hour late; and sometimes after a family holiday the delay is greater. At other times, after they have been thoroughly scolded by the boss, the delay is shorter, but as a rule they are late.
Before going to work they drink their tea. Do you know how we Russians drink tea? It resembles a religious ceremony; one must not hurry, when he drinks his tea.
After that they would begin to work. Of course, they did not work very quickly. They would take a rest as often as Ivan did in the story. The boss tried to cheer them up at such times. Every day you would hear a nice conversation between administrators and the employed. I must confess that it was not a literary talk, although very flowery; they blamed each other artistically. They would discover so many new and amazing words! Our people are talented, you know.
I must admit that they were always underpaid and had long hours of work. Naturally, they were not interested in ‘doing their duty.’ The conditions in our factories were beneath criticism: the choking air, the dirt, and the small working-rooms. Nobody, not even the most patient and humble Russian peasant., could stand it without making a protest. And as they were not strong enough to protest openly, they practised the Italian strike, which became the habit, the second nature of the Russian worker.
The same traditions of delay prevailed in our offices, in our schools, everywhere! We did not appreciate the value of time; or, perhaps, we appreciated it too much to waste it on boring everyday work. It depends on one’s point of view.
The same advanced bosses who tried in vain to teach Taylor’s system to Russians, attempted to abandon our tradition of delay. In a few offices were established automatic clock-machines, to note the time of the worker’s arrival. This was instituted in wartime. I remember the big munition factory where that ‘devilish American invention’ appeared for the first time.
The workers held a meeting and found the remedy for defeating the enemy machine.
‘I will throw sand in its mouth,’ said one of the bravest.
So he did. The expensive clock was destroyed by sand and the small stones which were dropped into its mechanism. The tradition ‘to come a bit later’ was saved once more.
Here in America such a thing would be impossible.
I notice, to my great surprise, that not laborers only, but even ‘professionals,’ must do their work scrupulously on time, and hurry, hurry, always hurry! How terrible for a genuine Russian greenhorn!
It was a great shock to me when I was called for the first time to an American magazine office, to translate from Russian to English. The editor telephoned to me, —
‘Will you kindly undertake that little work? It has to be done pretty soon.’
‘All right. Please send it to me by mail.’
‘No!’ answered the editor indignantly; ‘you had better come to the office immediately. We are in a hurry.’
It struck me as a shot. He could not wait even a few days, although it was not for a daily paper! It amazed me.
Mechanically I put on my overcoat and went to the office; but all the way I murmured to myself with a deep disapproval, ‘Why on earth are they in such a hurry?’
I bet you cannot understand my feeling. The poor greenhorn must worry alone: the natives would laugh at her troubles. But I want to describe to you a little scene in the Russian office, so you may see the big gulf between your life and mine. It is difficult for the Russian immigrant to jump across it at once.
The young man comes to the Russian editor. The latter summoned him two days before — by mail, of course, because there is not a telephone in every flat in our cities. The young writer is out of work, but the day before he had a headache and a ‘rendezvous,’ so he was too busy to come at once.
The editor begins, —
‘How do you do, dear Petr Petrovich? How is everything at home? Take a seat, please.’
‘Thank you. Mother is preparing a new sort of jam. Do you like the jam made of the rose-petals? Come and taste it some time. Mother makes it splendidly.’
‘Thank you very much. Will you take a glass of tea?’ (In Russia we drink it in glasses.) ‘Ivan, fetch the samovar.’
After the third glass of weak tea (the Russians have to drink it weak — another important remark), and a little talk about politics, the editor says, —
‘By the way, I have a little work for you. Would you like to translate that section of the English book? Just for quotation, you know.’
‘Sure! How soon do you need it?’
‘Oh, we are in no hurry — a week, or two.’
‘I have nothing to do now, so I can do it at once.’
‘So much the better. You will send it next week, then?’
W hat do you think of such a life, my dear American friends? I am conscience-stricken to have to confess that my comrade-greenhorns remember it as a lost paradise. Theoretically I always disagree with them. Very often I would talk and write, that our slowness and laziness ruin Russia. Russian writers always used to write about it. The famous Goncharoff’s Oblomoff is a novel about our national laziness. Our literature, which is called the ‘conscience’ of our nation, was always fighting against that ‘tradition of rest.’
I myself wrote a book, which should have proved by statistics the number of hours we lose daily, weekly, and monthly. There were dreadfully eloquent strings of figures, and they proved to my countrymen, without doubt, that we were always at the tail of every civilized nation, because of our bad habit of delay; and that now we are many centuries behind the time. (It was written before the present revolution.) There was a lot of good advice in my book, and it would have been very helpful to my countrymen; but, I regret to say, it was never printed, owing to a few mathematical mistakes: in some parts of my work there were too many 00000, in others too few of them. You understand, they are such trifles, these 00000; but my publisher (he had a dry heart) said to me, —
‘My dear Miss Moravsky, you would do better to continue writing poems and fiction; statistics are not your element.’
So my role of social reformer was stopped at the beginning.
But let me drop those disagreeable personal recollections. I will continue more objectively.
My people would never be capable of such a heroic deed as to be at the office on time. Never! Nobody! Even the Bolsheviki, who are in such a hurry and have tried to solve twenty-seven big social reforms daily. I bet you that neither Mr. Trotzky nor Mr. Lenine are on time at their headquarters in the Kremlin. It would be against all their habits. I know the Bolsheviki; I was a Bolshevik myself, when I was fifteen.
I remember the secret meetings of our revolutionary students, belonging to different parties, which were held at night in the University of Odessa. Our president was a Bolshevik.
There was no light, in the large hall (we were cautious enough and realized that the light might betray us). A few of us carried small dark lanterns, the speakers talked from the marble table on which the medical students used to chop corpses, and I enjoyed it immensely, because everything recalled to me stories of pirates. (I always had an entirely boyish imagination.)
The seventeenth of the youthful speakers had repeated for the seventeenth time that Tsarism should be overthrown at once, when our watchman came and, approaching the president-Bolshevik, said with a slightly trembling voice, —
‘Comrade president, the police have been told about our meeting. A comrade from the telephone station overheard it; the order to arrest us was given five minutes ago.'
There began a little disorder among the conspirators. They stood up, and a few of them moved toward the entrance. But the president-Bolshevik said, —
‘ Five minutes ago — hum — we have plenty of time to finish our meeting; our police is slow enough. Please, comrade, continue your speech, but. keep closer to facts. We all know perfectly well that Tsarism must be overthrown. But state your practical proposition about that newly organized district.’
The meeting continued. Half an hour later the second watchman entered and said breathlessly, —
‘Comrades, it is high time to flee! The regiment of Cossacks is ordered to seize us.’
We began to move again; but the Bolshevik-president lifted his hands calmly and commanded, —
‘Be still! Say, comrade watchman, where is that regiment of Cossacks located? ’
‘On the Kulikovo Pole.'
‘That is a long distance from here, seven or eight versts, and they have to dress themselves and to lead out their horses.'
‘But the order was given twenty minutes ago!’
‘Be quiet, comrades, we have time yet. Don’t you know our Cossacks?’
And he knew them well. After nearly half an hour of talking, we left the hall; and after we had parted peacefully, some of us met the Cossacks and gendarmes approaching the university building at full speed. They seemed to realize that they were a bit late!
We Russians were used to that kind of slow work, even under the pressure of danger. We never accomplished very much in a short time. But the results depend not always on the quickness of work. On the contrary, it is impossible for people who are always in a hurry to do things thoughtfully and carefully. It is impossible for a political party; it is impossible even for a trade company!
For instance: goods manufactured in America with such tremendous speed are made unskilfully, crudely; they are expensive and yet are not durable. I am talking about the clothes, the toilet articles, and generally about the things which I examined in everyday use. They are far inferior to the French and Russian goods. A pair of Russian shoes could be worn two years, and yet they cost less than American shoes. The delicate hats made in Paris last twice as long as American hats. The good silk dresses from Japan last several years; fur coats from Siberia are handed down from grandmothers to grandchildren as good as new. But here the dainty silken frocks often last no more than five or six months. This is the result of your speedy industries.
If the result of the speed is so bad for the mere goods, how much worse it must be for politics and art! I will not talk about politics — it is war-time, you know. But I think I may safely tell some bitter truths about your current literature, and your theatre.
I made an experiment: I exchanged the ends and the beginnings in some American short stories from the popular magazines — the parts fitted to each other perfectly after that vivisection. Is not that horrible? The stories made to order, made by dozens, like the machine-made shoes!
Of course, America has her great writers, admired by all the world. But their best works were never made in a hurry for the Sunday paper. And many of these writers died in poverty, like Edgar Allan Poe, because they were not suited to your modern speedy civilization.
The American theatre is not a temple, as in Russia, but merely a place of amusement. Can you Americans send your young people to see the modern drama, with the purpose to enrich their souls? No, your theatres, although rich in scenical effects, have not high enough standards. You yourself would laugh if one should call your theatre the school of life. Many of your comedies remind one of ready-made clothes. You have books which teach the beginner how to make a successful drama, but no one book can teach people how to make a good drama. Your writers think too much about quick success and money, and too little about sacred Art.
‘ Oh, the greenhorn begins to preach! ’ says the reader. ‘Is it not too bold for a newcomer to criticize our hospitable country?’
I know it may look too bold. But I criticize America with a loving heart. I do want to see her perfect, because she was the land of my dream, long ago before I came here; and it is so hard to be disappointed with one’s long-kept dream!
But the half-disappointed greenhorn loves America in spite of all her faults, and this is the reason she publishes her experiences; perhaps they may be of some use for her American friends.
I always suffer when I see how they spoil, with the best intentions, their art and their goods, their love and their digestion; all because they always hurry so much!
They are especially unkind to their poor stomachs.
A friend of mine, a very stolid and serious person, repeated to me when we happened to dine together, —
‘Eat slowly. Sir Gladstone ate slowly. Every healthy great man ate slowly. Don’t spoil your stomach. ’ (He was a physician.)
I came almost to hate him. He used to chew his meals as slowly as a whole herd of cows. But now, in America, when I see in the restaurant the crowd of people who devour their lunches with the speed of a first-class automobile, and who ruin daily their tired stomachs, because of their habit of hurrying, I recall my doctor friend with a grateful feeling. And I think it would be very helpful to your nation to have hung in every lunch-shop a cartoon with these words, —
GLADSTONE ATE SLOWLY
It would be even better, although more expensive, to print the portrait of Sir Gladstone in full and to put below, —
HE ATE SLOWLY !
But I leave the details of my genial proposition to the city fathers.
The laws of the stomach are violated in America no more often than the laws of the heart.
When I came to America I heard about the enormous percentage of divorces here. I was surprised, and for a short time I formed a bad opinion about American husbands and wives. But I realize, now, that it was a wrong opinion of a greenhorn, who did not get the spirit of the new country. Now I know better; surely American husbands, and especially American wives, are regular people, but the trouble with them is that they hurry too much when marrying.
They are used to hurry all their lives, and it is a dangerous habit, when one must arrange a marriage, which is supposed to be a lifelong business. One must be cautious in such a case, and slow. ‘Think before marrying’ is no less necessary a slogan than ‘Think before speaking.’
Even if an American marriage is a happy one, the couple have not time enough to enjoy their happiness (unless they are millionaires). How many nice women confessed to me here that they can see their husbands just five minutes a day.
‘He loves me dearly, you know, but he is so busy! Very often we cannot even dine together, he is always in such a hurry!’
Business before pleasure, business before joy, business before love; one must hurry if one wants to succeed. Don’t you think it is a bit cruel, that genuine American creed?
I feel that I begin to talk with bitterness, but I have my personal reasons.
When I was quite a green greenhorn, entirely green, fresh from the steamer, I fell in love with an American.
Oh, it was a terrible experience! I know now how it seems when some one dear to you counts his future appointments, and draws his watch from his pocket every moment when you are happily together. Six days a week he belongs to his work, and on Sunday only to you. But Sunday is always such a dull day in America; everybody makes love to his sweetheart on that day, so one feels to be in the general parades of lovers. Every nice eatingplace is overcrowded, and every cosy bank in the park is inhabited by two or three couples. Even up the Hudson River, even at the Bear Mountains. No, I will never love a businesslike American — never again, thank you.
‘Work must be done quickly.’ Oh, how I hate that heartless sentence! Especially on a sunny spring day, when the only duty of every human being should be, ‘Sing and love.’
How many clerks, shut in dusty offices, would agree with me! How many young girls from shops and factories would shake hands with me on a glorious day of May and say, —
‘Oh, you have spoken the very truth: we must not hurry to work now. You are a clever girl, although only a greenhorn.'
When the greenhorn in America complains to me of his hard time, when he bemoans loudly about his ‘lost paradise,’ his slow work in Russia, I agree with him at times; in spite of my great respect for the business ability of Americans.
In Russia we have often nothing to eat, and the rent is unpaid for a long time. (By the way, we pay rent every month, every three months, or once a year — never for a week, as here. This little fact proves once more that our life is much slower.) We are often out of work, but we have always plenty of time to dream, to love, and to live. The real Russian does not think that work means life: he considers it only a necessary evil. In the depth of his soul he always dreams of a five-minute work-day.
Sometimes he can work passionately, however. He would throw all his life into his task. He can write a book night and day, and forget sleep, and food. He can work on his field from twilight to sunset, if it is necessary for saving the harvest. He would organize the revolutionary movement, and stand it many years; and he put in jail, and he sent to Siberia, and run away, and start all anew. He would emigrate to a new country, and overcome thousands of obstacles; but he is incapable of one thing, steady and speedy work.
The steady hours of common, unromantic and hurried work, are killing for him. Only in the country, in the forest, and in the field, can he stand it. But you must remember that the country work is not so monotonous as that of the office or factory; the great variety of Nature cannot tire people like always-the-same surroundings of four walls. The spring work and the autumn work is hard, but it is — different. And in the long winter evenings the contemplative soul of the Russian peasant has its long-desired time of dreams. Then he composes songs, poems, stories — probably all the beautiful folk-songs were created during the long lazy season of winter.
The Russian peasant can carve amazingly artistic figures of wood; he can paint and make fantastic designs. The hand-work of our peasants is appreciated in all Europe! But — that is not a steady, common work, with a foreman behind your back to hurry you up. It is a free creating.
Our artists were always poor pupils in school. Many of the great writers were expelled for laziness; and still they could work passionately. Our vagabonds, exiled to the province near the Black Sea, built many successful towns, as Odessa, our first-class port. The immigrants and criminals of Siberia, ‘lazy people,’who could not undertake any steady work in cultured cities, created the new, sane, healthy and wealthy life over there. Our Siberian towns are our pride; their originators were able to work sufficiently, but not as steady machines.
Perhaps Russians, with their blind protest against any kind of steady work, are nearer to the ideal life of humanity. I should think so. I believe that all the work of humanity should be not a hurried job, undertaken for money, but a free, joyous and thoughtfully slow Creation.