Good-Bye, Dear Mr. Grundy
DEAR MR. GRUNDY, —
Of course I have read your views on ‘Polite Society,’ and Mrs. Gerould’s explanation of its collapse, and one of the ‘Wild Young People’s’ defense of present-day manners and morals. But I feel as if there ought to be just one more point of view expressed — that of the modern girl: a soprano voice should be raised, to round out the quartette.
I have never written anything but themes and compositions when I was at school, and of course the Atlantic would n’t dream of publishing anything I should send it myself; but I thought I would like to write you an informal letter, telling how an average girl feels about these perplexing modern questions, and then you could use your own judgment about sending it to the Atlantic or returning it to me. In either case I ’m afraid my letter will prove a homing pigeon.
I did enjoy your article; and you try so hard to get our point of view, that I feel as if you would really hurt yourself trying to do us justice—as if you might have apoplexy or something: not a bit from anger, like so many older people, but just a sort of rush of tolerance to the head. I agree with a great deal of what you say, and some of what Mrs. Gerould says, but of course most of all with the views of my male counterpart, because he and I belong to the same generation, speak the same language, and have the same code. Still, I must confess I think he is a little hard on the ‘oldsters.’ Of course, you are rather stupid about understanding us, — I mean bewildered, and dazed, and all that, — but I don’t want you to dig fat pink worms in your backyard; and I do think our fathers, at least, knew something about work, and our grandfathers certainly knew something about war.
I should n’t wonder if we young people were apt to lay a little too much blame for the general mix-up on the war, because, from all I can hear, we were headed six or seven years ago in the way we have gone, only the idealists thought we were all going to be purified by fire, and of course we were n’t. But I take my place boldly beside the wild young person of the opposite sex; only where he interprets and justifies, I should like to suggest modes of treatment and cure.
Perhaps it is my year’s experience of nursing with the Red Cross that gives me this desire to apply bandages and to give medicines; because I must tell you right away that I am not as young as you think I am. You see, I went to college for one year, and then I gave it up to get into action; and then, when that was over, I craved another kind of action, and so I ‘came out,’ violently and enthusiastically; only, instead of being eighteen, as tradition decrees, I was almost twenty.
It is awfully hard to know where to begin and just what words to use in writing to a person of your age, because, of course, words and actions are just symbols that mean entirely different things to different generations. Take the waltz, for instance. The other day I was reading a journal kept by my greatgrandmother when she was a girl, and she described how she felt when she first saw the waltz danced. Your horror at cheek-to-cheek dancing was as nothing to hers when ‘ she beheld ’ (these are her words) ‘a young gentleman actually place his arm boldly around a young lady’s waist and clasp her to his heart, while her left hand rested on his shoulder. They then floated away in an embrace so embarrassing to witness that I could only turn aside my head to hide my blushes.’
Now, you know, really it was a bigger jump from the square dance to the round than from the round to the cheekby-jowl business; yet see the tempest in a teacup raised by you old people who seem to have lost your memories from dance-shock! Words and actions mean different things to different generations, and that is why there is a never-ending war raging between oldsters and youngsters; for we are at war, and we may as well acknowledge it. We are just as different in language and customs as if we belonged to different nations instead of different ages. We are foreordained enemies, and we youngsters are not ready to appeal to a court of arbitration, even when justice is administered by so neutral a judge as you try to be.
It is perfectly true that, if the things we do and say and wear had been done and said and worn thirty years ago, Society would really have been as rotten as we are told it is to-day. But we that are part of it know that it is n’t rotten, — it only looks so, — and that all these sensational bids for popularity, which we have borrowed for a little while from the variety stage and which have been dragged into the limelight by our virtuous critics, are not the signs of social degeneration, but the inevitable result of a revolution that is being waged everywhere. Society revolts from the old conventions just as poetry and painting do.
And speaking of painting, we are told that if a girl of the last generation appeared with rouge she was socially damned. Rouge was a symbol of vice; but now, when some of the girls put it on, it is done perfectly frankly, with no intention of deceiving anyone, but simply to make them look prettier. Why is it really any worse than powdering one’s nose the way you do? (Of course, I don’t mean you personally, dear Mr. Grundy.) And is there any real reason why it is worse to make white cheeks look red than to make red noses look white?
My mother tells me that twenty-five years ago, when women first began to ride bicycles, it was considered a terribly shocking and immodest performance; and I myself can remember the screams of horror that went up when girls put on riding-breeches and insisted on riding in the only sensible way; but who thinks anything of such things now? The modesty of one generation is the prudishness of the next. How’s that for an aphorism? Don’t you realize, Mr. Grundy, that the world is on the hard boil just now, and that we poor little kernels of rice have been thrown into the centre of the pot and are being whirled and tossed about in the midst of bubbles and hissing steam? This is n’t the time to criticize us! Wait till things cool off, and we ’ll emerge as tame as rice-pudding.
In this warfare between generations we have had no time to become familiar with the newly invented tools and the poisonous gases of modern life. We are unskilled in the use of the new weapons; we don’t know how to manage them; but it is n’t logical to blame us for that: we should either be taught by modern experts, — modern, mind you, — or we should be ignored till we have learned from the best teacher of all — experience. Motors, movies, jazz-music, freedom of action, liberty of thought, the rights of individuals — all these facts and theories surround us, threaten us, excite us, and tempt us. We are experimenting with vital things, and we are bound to make mistakes; only, dear Mr. Grundy, don’t let your contemporaries judge us without realizing the seething, bubbling, changing, electrical world into which we have been flung — as unprepared as was America herself for the struggle from which she emerged triumphant, though very faulty and somewhat smirched.
I entirely agree with you that the responsibility for the mess we seem to be making rests with each one of us — in fact, with that ‘devastating and brutal frankness’ which, the ‘wild young person’ says, marks this generation, I will go further and say that larger buttons of responsibility are hidden in the hands of us girls than are concealed by our innocent mothers, who, poor dears, know so little about life as it is. I believe that small groups of girls, who know perfectly well what they are doing, are responsible for the most conspicuous of our faults; but even they are not so blamable as the times themselves, which are so out of joint that only Time itself can set them right.
But guiltiest of all, — now brace yourself for a blow right from the shoulder, — guiltiest of all are certain members of your generation who sit on the side-lines and criticize, as typical offenders, those who are most obviously playing to the gallery. You do not understand either the rules of the game you are watching or the psychology of the players. You misjudge what you see (not always — sometimes things are just as they seem), but you believe stories on insufficient evidence, you repeat fictions as facts, your attitude is hostile, not sympathetic, you are our censors, not our friends. Of course, I know that there is plenty to criticize; but, having taken a course in psychology at college, I know that temporary waves of thought can become permanent states of mind, that acts can become habits by constant repetition, and that you well-meaning people are simply crystallizing phases into facts.
What is the use of fixing the blame, you may ask, if even one of the guiltiest group can herself suggest no cure? She can, but it is such a simple one that I am almost ashamed to give you the recipe in its seven-word formula. It is just this: Do not flatter us by noticing us; for it does flatter us even to be criticized. The more objectionable ones among us love to be talked about and written about. Notoriety is the breath of life to the girls and young men who love to shock and scandalize their open-mouthed elders quite as much as they like to attract each other by their rather barbaric wiles. If no attention were paid to them, if tongues ceased to wag over tea-tables and scandals were never capped by super-scandals, a great deal of rubbish would go up in smoke; for there is really more smoke than flame. Don’t take the young people so seriously: it merely flatters and encourages them; ignore them as they deserve, and when they find that they are unnoticed, they will have been hurt in their only sensitive spot. Of course, their conduct is often rude, common, immodest, and objectionable; but were there no girls in your day, Mr. Grundy, to whom these adjectives might be applied, even though they then stood for entirely different qualities? And is it not also true that some of those very girls have grown into spirited, attractive, and even highly useful members of society?
I’ve thought about this a good deal, and I believe the trouble is that words do not change but the qualities they stand for do. In your pretty little parable Modesty gives signs of returning life — and Chivalry consequently breathes again. That makes a nice goody-goody ending to your eloquent little paper; but I don’t believe it is true. I am with Mrs. Gerould there — I don’t believe that the old idea of either Modesty or Chivalry will come to life again — at any rate, not yet; but other qualities will come to take their place, in a world in which men and women look at each other eye to eye and stand shoulder to shoulder (even if they also dance cheek to cheek).
Mrs. Gerould feels that religion is the cure for all this moral decadence, and that, by regarding the body as the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and by believing in the divine prohibitions, — the shalt nots that are not included in the Ten Commandments,— we shall restore the dignity of the social order. But, speaking again as one of the younger generation, I feel that the definition of religion has changed, and that religion itself must change to be the help to us that it was to our fathers, and that it can’t be of any help to us unless it is fluid. The ‘wild young people’ don’t believe that faith can be confined to a dogma or reduced to a creed. To say that we don’t believe in religion is like saying that we don’t believe in life. We think of religion as the spiritual stream in which we are all floating or swimming, or struggling or sinking, and how can we deny the existence of the very element in which we live? Of course, we may define it differently, and talk about it in a way that would seem irreverent and even blasphemous to the generation that looked alike upon a discussion of God and a discussion of sex as something ‘not done,’ almost indecent. I am afraid — no, I am not afraid, I am proud — that Mrs. Gerould will never see this generation the slave of creeds. We are all in the same rushing stream, but there are all kinds of inviting little brooks that some of us like to explore, even though they lead us over the rocks of false doctrine, and down waterfalls of strange philosophies; there are tempting little inlets, which seem to lead nowhere but finally trickle into the light; there are quiet pools where we dally for a time, lured by a peace that we have to discover for ourselves to be stagnation; there are rushing rivulets of poetry (perhaps poetry is one of the new outlets for our spirits, to take the place of orthodox religion); but they all empty into the same big ocean, and I don’t see that it much matters which current we follow so long as they are all headed in the same direction and so long as all keep moving.
You see this generation wants to find things out at first-hand. We have been taught so many things that have proved not to be true, that we have naturally grown distrustful, and are perhaps apt to dismiss a fact as a fancy just because it has been handed down to us as a tradition, and we have not discovered it for ourselves. We’d rather be wrong in our own way than right in someone else’s, and you ’ve just got to let us work out our own salvation, because we don’t believe there is any other kind.
But I don’t want you to worry too much about us, and I don’t want Mrs. Gerould to despair of us; I only want all the Grundy family, headed by that mischief-making mother of you all, to let us alone while we are in this state of ferment. Like the clergyman who keeps repeating his text, I want to say, over and over again, ‘Don’t flatter us by noticing us,’ till this crazy, topsy-turvy world gets its balance again and we with it. I believe that the most frivolous and seemingly empty-headed girls of to-day are going to produce a finer generation of children than our parents did — and there, you see, I am giving us a rather back-handed compliment; but if we are going to be better fathers and mothers than we have been sons and daughters, it will be partly because we have learned through bitter experience that sympathy with the growing generation is an essential part of progress, and I don’t believe our children will be half so rebellious as we are! You know, warnings are sometimes just as helpful as examples.
This is a dreadfully confused and incoherent letter, but I am sure you will read it with almost irritating tolerance. You have looked at this generation with Hope; Mrs. Gerould longs to give us Faith; the ‘wild young person’ views us with Charity. ‘Now abideth these three,’ and even I and my frivolous contemporaries are not so ignorant of the Bible as not to know the rest of that quotation — and believe in it, too!
Please regard me and all my erring friends with a mixture of these three virtues, dear Mr. Grundy, and then forget us; or, if we have made an indelible impression, at least stop talking about us! Then you will find that we shall soon emerge from the chaos of transition and take the place we ought to fill in a newly ordered world. But, besides forgetting, please forgive
AND UNKNOWN FRIEND.