The Rediscovery of Jones

JULY, 1931

BY SIMEON STRUNSKY

I

IN the new mood which is reported to have come over the spirit of America toward the end of the 1920’s, and in the new books that should reflect this new temper, what is likely to happen to Jones? He is the person who figures so prominently in the returns of the United States Census. He is, in the majority, white. He is, in the majority, of native white parentage. He is male. He is thirty-eight years old. He is married. He is an advertising solicitor. He lives at 1437 West Eleventh Street. In numbers he is, together with his wife and children, his parents and cousins, several scores of millions. But in the solid books dealing with the American people and American civilization he was quite generally overlooked in the now elapsed 1920’s, Will it be different in the current 1930’s?

To raise the question of Jones on the threshold of a new age is normal procedure for us plain folk. We are not like the professional prophets. They, when confronted with the dawn of a new age, insist on addressing to it a comprehensive, a universal Whither? They, when informed that with the approach of the 1930’s the spiritual climate of the United States entered upon a noticeable change, — from negation to affirmation; from disillusion to a renewed faith; from the satirical approach to the sympathetic approach; from destructive analysis to constructive synthesis, — the professional augurs, upon hearing of such things, immediately began to ask questions about American Civilization in the 1930’s and American Destiny in the 1930’s, with separate chapters on the Thirties and Religion, the Thirties and the Machine, the Thirties and Woman, the Thirties and children, music, art, architecture, football, labor, radio, aviation, armaments, the League of Nations; in other words, the Thirties and Everything.

We plain amateurs are content with much less than the cosmic vision. For us the advent of a new age means sitting down and looking, so to speak, into the wood fire of the imagination, and wondering what the times will bring, not to Civilization or to Humanity, but to our own particular little interest, or hobby, or foible. In the present instance it is Jones. What will an age of affirmative, sympathetic, constructive synthesis do to promote our knowledge and understanding of Jones, who is white, thirty-eight, married, and so forth? After all, it is Jones who in the 1930’s will attend or not attend the churches in whose future there is so much interest. He is the man who will live in the architecture of the thirties, shout at the football games, develop the aviation, pay for the music and the radio, and be seriously affected by the armaments. What will happen to him in the new books of the new decade?

Copyright 1931, by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

Well, to ask the question is to answer it. If the new books reflecting the new thought of the next ten years in America are to be affirmative, if they are to be sympathetic, if they are to strive for synthesis instead of riot, then it ought to be a pretty good time for Jones. The years immediately ahead of us are bound to witness the rediscovery of the ordinary American man in his normal recognizable aspects: him and his wife, and his young, and his newspapers, and his automobiles, and his political parties and opinions, and his industries and recreations. People in the new books ahead of us may be expected to resemble one’s actual familiar neighbors — the familiar groups, the familiar individuals, the familiar behavior, that so often find themselves submerged.

Submerged by what? Chiefly, one would say, by the formulas, and the slogans, and the doctrines. Take a man or group of men, launch a formula about them, ride that formula-hobby hard enough, and you will soon be out of sight of that man or group of men or the human race, careering at your own sweet will through a universe entirely of your own making. It is a familiar experience. An age will set out to smash the established idols and it will end up with a fine new collection of images of its own. A generation proclaims war to the knife upon sham, and it develops in the course of hostilities its own equipment of hollow loyalties, slogans, stencils. A decade goes forth resolutely to face the facts, at the cost of no matter what heartbreak, and it succeeds in accumulating many more broken facts than broken hearts. A generation will resolve to pierce beneath the surface of life to the inner, essential meaning of things; and sure enough it will succeed in getting beneath the surface, but only to get beyond its depth in the inner meaning of things; hav ing forgotten in the process how much of the meaning of life lies on the surface of life, and is to be apprehended by the innocent eye and the simple heart.

II

But in speaking of Jones and what the books of the past decade did to him, and what the books of the next ten years are likely to do to him, it is necessary to distinguish between books and books. The problem of Jones concerns only the ‘serious’ books.

The novelist may do what he likes with Jones, because he is dealing with an individual Jones. You protest that you don’t find Jones in the new novel true to life, and the author looks up and says, ‘You don’t recognize Jones? Well, I should hope not. This is n’t Jones, but a satire on Jones written for the purpose of waking him up.’ And the creative biographer will say, ‘You don’t recognize in my portrait the Edgar Allan Walt Waldo Jones whom you studied in your high-school American Literature? Of course you don’t. This is n’t E. A. W. W. Jones — it is a spiritual photograph of six of his selected sonnets.’ And creative biographer number 2 says, ‘Naturally you find it hard to identify in my new book the George Thomas Andrew Abraham Jones about whom you studied in your school history. You see, what I have done is to strip the man naked, reduce him to elemental planes, and pass him through the flame of my own temperament.’

The argument is a sound one. Any individual Jones in Marietta, Ohio, may become, in respect to character, manners, morals, language, clothes, and dietary habits, whatever the genius of his creator is able to make him. If you have the necessary ability you may do to Jones of Ohio what Dickens did to Micawber or Mark Twain to Huck Finn. You may write a book about a man named Jones who lives in Hartford and whose native language is Turkish: he was born in Angora of American missionary parents. You may have a man named Jones in Schenectady living in an igloo: he is the survivor of an Arctic expedition and slightly touched in the head. You may have a Jones in Mount Vernon, New York, who goes about naked: he is the leader of a sun cult and does his promenading in the privacy of his own grounds. The novelists and poets can do anything they please with Jones.

It is quite another matter with the men who write books on economics, social science, politics, democracies, schools, elections, newspapers, movies, automobiles, factories, and families. The man who deals with Jones in the mass, with Jones of the United States Census, cannot invoke the rights of his own vision and his own temperament. He is limited in his findings by certain basic data which no amount of creative inspirat ion can transcend. No amount of genius and no intensity of purpose will justify you in saying that the native language of the people of Hartford is Turkish, or that the dominant style of domestic architecture in Schenectady is the igloo, or that the 8.45 from Mount Vernon is crowded by commuters wearing just nothing. The latest finding of the New Physics asserts that truth is only statistical. There is no telling beforehand how one electron will behave. But one can foretell with certainty how ten billion electrons will behave. With respect to any one atom you may be a creative artist. With respect to the community of atoms you must stick to the statistical facts.

The heart warms as one peers into the future and sees the serious authors engaged in sticking to the facts about Jones, the Crowd Man. If the subject is Jones and the American press, the author will take a good deal of pains to ascertain w hat an American newspaper really contains. If the subject is Jones and his political parties, the author will not generalize from the New Psychology or from the dogmas of the British Labor Party, but will concentrate on the figures for the Presidential election of 1920, of 1924, of 1928, and the Congressional elections of 1930. The mind looks down the long vista of years, perhaps as far as the year 1940 and the next change in intellectual climate, and sees the serious authors keeping their eye on the ball, — that is to say, on Jones, — and not on the grand stand where blossom the formulas, the slogans, the fashions, and the epigrams. The imagination sees Jones of Hartford receiving in the next decade the same sympathetic consideration that students of civilization in the preceding decade brought to the study of the Protochukchi Confederation.

III

The Protochukchis are a private discovery of the present writer. They are a group of tribes, probably of Bushman stock, occupying the wooded country about the headwaters of the Mulligatawney River in Central Patagonia. Under different names they were not unknown to the earlier anthropologists, but their enormous vogue dates only from the Armistice. Since that time everything has been said about the Protochukchis that possibly could be said, and with a richness of sympathy and understanding such as one vainly looks for in contemporary observations on the inhabitants of Evanston, Illinois.

Take, for example, the annual delousing festival of the Protochukchi Confederation. This enormously significant folk-muster, as it has been called, falls at the time of the spring equinox. Professor Dunkler (my own discovery) speaks of it as the focal point of the Protochukchi communal life. H. J. Bias (my own discovery) refers to it as the nucleus around which cluster the warmest group loyalties and t he tenderest personal memories. In describing this picturesque and poignant ritual, the student of civilization in the 1920’s was as likely as not to say: ‘. . . a vitalized Protochukchi groupconsciousness integrated around the annual reënactment of vernal capillary evacuation.’ Or something of the sort.

On the other hand, well into the early months of the year 1929, when speaking of the average middle-class resident of Indianapolis, with his bathtub, his vacuum cleaner, his parquet floors, his cross ventilation, his high schools, his riding clubs, and his symphony orchestra, it was a not uncommon practice among students of American civilization to refer to him as 4 the Babbitt in his warren.’

The idea, of course, is easily grasped. The Protochukchis dwell in caves dug out of the muddy banks of the Mulligatawney River, two hundred inhabitants to a cave. The resultant living conditions, sanitary, ethical, and aesthetic, impressed the modern observer as being essentially and lovably human. But the average American family, four people to the five-room apartment, suggested to the dispassionate eye of the observer nothing so much as a vermin swarm. Indeed, that elegant and impressive phrase about the Babbitt and his warren compels the imagination to go further. It evokes the Protochukchi mother in her cave as giving birth to her young, whereas the American mother apparently added to the population of the United States by littering. To such heights of sympathetic identification on the one hand (Protochukchi), and cool detachment on the other (Syracuse, New York), did the study of civilization attain in the United States in the decade after 1920.

And what was true of the Protochukchis of Central Patagonia was also true in this interesting decade of the Hypercephalonians of New Guinea, of the Malosols around North Cape, Siberia, the Microgelasmi of the Atlas Mountains, and so forth (all my own discoveries). And, on the other hand, what was true of Indianapolis and Syracuse was also true of Ogden, Utah, of Montclair, New Jersey, and so forth. The manufacture and ceremonial sanctification of the annual supply of eye salve among the Malosols, who are much given to trachoma, assumed a human significance that was utterly lacking in the problem of adequate hospitalization for the members of the National Educat ion Association of the United States. Puberty rights among the Walarumbas of the upper Mackenzie were described with a passion quite absent in our accounts of child labor in the mill towns of the lower Connecticut. For it was the glory and charm of these primitive peoples that they had Folkways and Mores; whereas the American people had only customs and manners.

IV

As between the Protochukchis of Central Patagonia and the inhabitants of South Norwalk, Connecticut, the very slight attention accorded to the latter was not entirely due to their departure from the primitive. It was a quest ion of space as well as time. The people of South Norwalk were not only less aboriginal than the people of Patagonia — they were several thousand miles nearer home. That constituted a formidable handicap.

We have been speaking of bathtubs. As a matter of fact, not all the inhabitants of South Norwalk are the owners or lessees of a separate family tub. In New York City there are reputed to be half a million ‘old-law’ apartments without modern sanitary equipment. Several million American farmers manage without plumbing. In the back areas of every sizable American city there is a large population which in respect to housing standards — cleanliness, privacy, and quiet — harks back strongly to the primitive. There are mining villages in West Virginia that one would expect to have been eagerly seized upon by specialists in Protochukchi and Walarumba culture.

This did not happen. Twenty years ago, from the second Roosevelt administration to the first Wilson administration, the Bohunks of the Central Competitive Coal Field were a subject of enormous interest to American social students and to the general public. They are st ill of interest to the professional welfare workers; but for the student of civilization and for the public at large the Bohunk is obsolete. The trouble is that, living in Western Pennsylvania, he is too near home.

Another instance: There was published, toward the end of the 1920’s, a serious and scholarly monograph in anthropology which quickly won a large popular audience. The book was called, approximately, ‘On Growing Up in Nova Zembla.’ Among other matters it devoted considerable space to showing that boys and girls in Nova Zembla grow up with a knowledge of life that is denied to our own young people in the United States. Adolescents in Nova Zembla are spared, as one reviewer summed it up, ‘the horror, the shock, the nauseated recoil of our unsophisticated young when confronted with the facts of life.’ In Nova Zembla, individual experience begins almost with infancy. Young children are witnesses of the midwife’s ministrations. They watch the preparation of the dead for burial. They spy upon lovers in the dark. In other ways they pick up the information so readily available when large numbers of people live together in cramped quarters.

Might not the American people learn something from the Nova Zemblans about educating the young in the biological fundamentals? This was obviously a legitimate and perhaps a useful question to raise. But at least one reader of the news about Nova Zembla could not help asking himself why it was necessary to go all the way to Nova Zembla. If one wanted a picture of thoroughly instructed and uninhibited child life it might be had so conveniently on Manhattan Island, west of Ninth Avenue, east of Third Avenue, north of Ninety-Sixth Street, and south of Wall Street.

Babies are all the time being born in two-room flats on Washington Street in the shadow almost of the Stock Exchange. Last rites for the dead are continually being performed in the kitchen-living-rooms of the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. Small boys go scouting at night through the hallways of the South Bronx and intrude upon intimate wooings. For scores of thousands of families in the New York of 1931, privacy is an unknown thing. Concerning the sophisticated and thoroughly enlightened boys and girls who grow up in such an environment the welfare workers and the juvenile courts know a great deal. As in the case of the Bohunks of the Pennsylvania coal regions, these sophisticated children were a topic of intense popular concern in America before the war.

But in the decade of the 1920’s the tenement children of New York, with their rich fund of information about the facts of life, were forgotten by the student of folkways and mores. It was, you see, merely ‘Growing Up in the United States.’

V

As between the members of the Protochukchi Confederation and the inhabitants of Spokane, Washington, it was inevitable that the difference of esteem in which they were held should be reflected in a difference in literary treatment. One illustration we have already had in the case of the Protochukchi festival of capillary evacuation and the Babbitt in his warren. With certain exceptions to be noted further on, it is easy to grasp the general rule of literary composition in the 1920’s. It prescribed for the primitives a tone of sustained and respectful gravity, and for the Americans a tone varying from the acid to the flip.

Thus, a Malosol medicine man in northern Siberia was invariably described with the deference, we may even say with the awe, due to an elemental force, to an original Datum of Nature. But an Episcopal bishop was something that had strayed in from the vaudeville stage. However, when it was necessary to arraign the Church as an agency of war and domestic oppression, a bishop ceased to be a clown and became a malevolent and terrifying power of darkness.

Similarly with primitive and modern club life. The weekly meetings of the Walarumba clan fraternities in their secret sweat houses were studied as a valuable contribution to our knowledge of the gregarious instinct in man. But an initiation of the Knights of the 22nd Degree at Grand Rapids, Michigan, was a performance essentially simian. However, when it was necessary to portray the small-town business man as an incubus on free intelligence in the United States, the Knights of the 22nd Degree ceased to be a gathering of subnormal playboys and took on the hideous effectiveness of an executive session of the Spanish Inquisition.

Similarly in the home. In Nova Zembla, as we have seen, the relations between parents and growing children called for the most sympathetic inquiry and appraisal. But a meeting of the Parents’ Association of Dallas, Texas, was an exercise in the milder forms of imbecility.

The exceptions to this general rule of sympathy for the primitives and the loud laugh for the Americans were two:

1. Not all writers on American civilization went in for the satirical method. There were students of American civilization who always wrote with gravity and decorum; too much so, as we shall see a little further down.

2. The jazz writers, too, acknowledged that there were certain departments of human interest in the United States which did not admit of the flip method, but demanded serious and respectful consideration.

With the reader’s permission we shall first take up Class 2. The literary manner of the jazz writers varied in accordance with a very simple rule. Subjects which the inhabitants of Ohio and Utah took seriously must be handled with a maximum of frivolity. On the other hand, subjects which the average American considered to be minor, trivial, or even negligible, were discussed with enormous dignity, and in a style combining the best features of Plato’s Dialogues, the novels of Marcel Proust, and Secretary Mellon’s report for the fiscal year ending June 30 last.

Under this rule the flippant style was prescribed for the discussion of American business, business men, cities, family life, churches, colleges, Congress, the Supreme Court, the Constitution, the Monroe Doctrine, endowments for cancer research, associations for the protection of minors, aviation, automobiles, good roads, the World War, the League of Nations, symphony orchestras in the Mississippi Valley, luncheon clubs, Florida vacations, marriage, life insurance, famine relief in China, education, and the like. On these subjects it was the rule that Jones’s ideas were a travesty on the human mind and Jones’s practices were comic.

Quite different was the method prescribed for such subjects as night clubs, saxophones, the burlesque stage, jazz, comic strips, prize fights, and Coney Island. Here were genuine human values with much of the authenticity of the primitive. The style took on a corresponding elevation. It was de rigueur in the 1920’s to speak of middleclass homes as warrens, of colleges as Babbitt halls, and of bishops as smuthounds. But in appraising Mutt and Jeff the writer could not fail to recognize with how sure a touch of genius Bud Fisher has seized upon the dualistic machinery of the Ahriman-Ormuzd motive, which derives from the SetOsiris motive, which is only a variant of the Cain-and-Abel motive. For, in essence, Mutt is always trying to do to little Jeff what Set did to Osiris — namely, slay and dismember him.

The United States Constitution, as we have seen, was a something incurably grotesque. But in writing of Buddy Baxter and his Twenty Bouncing Beauties of Broadway Burlesk, it was strictly required that one should say, ‘The ecstatic explosion of Bacchic release induced by the projection, upon the Puritan-inhibited American sensorium, of two hundredweight of provocative female flesh.’

VI

Of the decorous writers of this period we have said that they were always dignified, on grave subjects as well as on light. Their method of approach may be illustrated by the hypothetical case of Grandmother Jones, née Perkins, of the hill country around Ridgefield, Connecticut.

Let it be remarked, in passing, that for the ultra-primitive students of civilization Grandmother Jones-Perkins had, of course, ceased to exist. To grasp her utter insignificance it was only necessary to compare her with the typical elderly woman of the Protochukchi culture level. Try to visualize this primitive Patagonian dowager going about her daily routine: perched naked on a rock in midstream on the lookout for dead fish coming down with the current; or steeping manioc roots in water for the family beer; or rubbing the young children of the tribe with lizard oil for eczema; or, perhaps at her best, an animated colorful figure in the tribal dance around the impaled war prisoner, taking her turn at him with a dull knife. With this vibrant, palpitant evocation of Beauty and Reality, compare Grandmother Jones-Perkins, with her lace collar and brooch, her zinnias and delphiniums, her knitting, her particular brand of Ceylon, her recollections of the late Henry Ward Beecher. Except as a subject for an occasional ironic thumb-nail notation, there is obviously nothing here to detain us.

For the serious student of civilization, Grandmother Jones-Perkins did exist; but only on condition that she be observed from the same point of view and described in the same vocabulary as if she were an old woman of the Protochukchis, 8000 miles and 20,000 years away from Ridgefield, Connecticut. To the decorous, conscientious student of social phenomena, Grandmother Jones-Perkins was very much worth while; provided that one might bring to bear on her the combined technique of biometrics, social dynamics, psychology, economics, and endocrinology, and in other ways encompass Grandmother with such a wealth of scientific methodology as to make her quite unrecognizable. Of her it was in order to write: —

‘In the behavior-pattern dominant among the inhabitants of Southern Connecticut, the impress of the original Congregationalist-capitalistic folkways is still discernible. In this pattern the role of the older women of the community is legislative without being formally coercive. We may go so far as to say that the defense of the ancient New England ethos against the encroaching waves of change is almost entirely in the hands of the female members of the community rating forty-five years and over, and irrespective of marital status. For the age class just mentioned it may be even regarded as axiomatic that as between the married female and the spinster it is the latter who is the more resolute in enforcing the hereditary Calvinistic taboos in the region north of the forty-first degree North Latitude and east of the Appalachian Divide. Beltley and Oxelheimer in their monumental contribution, Culture Patterns between the Housatonic and Block Island, have found that among women of forty-five years and over the pulse beat is not markedly different from the ascertained norm for the Middle Atlantic States. The respiration is correspondingly uniform. The average height is five feet four and one-half inches, with no trace of a tendency to stoop such as is encountered among the mountaineers of the lower Appalachian massif. Goitre indications are negative. Housework, including light laundry but excluding table linen and sheets, consumes four and one-half hours a day. Church, including the regular three Sabbatical prayer-house exercises and such quasi-secular cultusrecreational proliferations as the strawberry festival and the church-organ benefit picnic, two hours daily. Maintenance of clan and consanguinity bonds, — writing to married daughters in California, Nova Scotia, and Detroit, — one hour weekly. The average amount of garden space in cultivation has been estimated at 250 square feet for married women, 450 square feet for spinsters, and 150 feet for widows, but varying considerably with the presence of individual art-aptitudes and specialized technological employment — piano, water colors, putting up fruit for the local market, and so forth.’

The fate of Grandmother JonesPerkins in the years after the war was the fate of the whole Jones family. Ignored by the ultra-primitivists and wrapped up beyond recognition by the culture specialists, Jones, the common man of the United States Census, of Ridgefield, Connecticut, and of the New York Subway; Jones in his measurable, recorded numbers and qualities; Jones in his daily observable habits and practices; Jones with his newspapers, autos, schools, machines, and democracies, virtually ceased to exist. In his place flourished the formulas and the epigrams.

Only toward the end of the decade did people begin to suspect that life in Jones was not quite extinct. Beneath the weight of the theories, the stencils, and the wise-cracks, he went on breathing, and with the approach of the 1930’s he began to thrust his head up into the light. The full rediscovery of the American Jones by serious American writers is a promise of the years ahead of us. It will be a group Jones in harmony with the Census returns, and an individual Jones resembling the man next door and across the aisle.

(In August Mr. Strunsky will rediscover ’Jones, His Mother and His Wife’)