Jones, His Mother and His Wife

I

FOR the perfect example of what the Machine Age has done to the soul of America, for the climax and triumph of Standardization, it has been suggested that we cannot do better than turn to the Western Union Telegraph Company and its competitors. The wire companies have laid a heavy hand on the nation’s finer feelings. This they have done by compiling a large stock of form messages which permit the customer to express himself on every conceivable human occasion with complete adequacy and without the slightest mental effort.

If Jones, for instance, happens to think of his old mother on Mother’s Day, all he needs to do —

Why, no! Jones does not even have to recall that this is Mother’s Day. Western Union and Postal Telegraph have been reminding him these last several days, in large display advertisements in the newspapers, of the approach of Mother’s Day. Their efforts have been bravely seconded by the florists, who have stumbled upon the happy thought that flowers are an excellent medium for expressing one’s love for one’s mother. All that Jones needs to do, then, is to call up the telegraph company and leave an order for the dispatch, early on Mother’s Day, of Form No. 18. He may then walk over to the barber shop to have his hair cut, while Western Postal sends humming over the wires to the gray-haired little woman in the old homestead the pulsating message: ‘Mother of Mine, I have many blessings for which to be thankful, but the greatest of these is you, and my thoughts are with you this Mother’s Day.’ So daughter at college, as of the less sentimental sex and the more economical, calls up the Union Telegraph and asks for No. 89: ‘To-day I salute the most precious of all people — my mother.’

For every occasion, for every anniversary, for every festivity, for every fatality, the telegraph company has seen to it that the American of the year 1931 shall be spared the pains of composing anywhere from ten to fifty words. While the barber cuts Jones’s hair and the manicure girl polishes his nails and the bootblack shines his shoes, the Radio Corporation of America is voicing for him his affection, his love, his sympathy, his pride, his congratulations, his regrets, his condolences. According to directions, Commercial Cables is gay for him, grave for him, sentimental for him, tearful or boisterously good-fellow. That is the Machine Age of it. And the Standardization would be, of course, the fact that at any one moment a hundred identical messages of love, affection, grief, and sympathy are coursing through the American atmosphere from Maine to Florida and from Los Angeles to Seattle.

It is a pitiful and portentous spectacle. One need hardly ask what it bodes for the spiritual and intellectual integrity of a nation, this substitution of canned heart throbs for fresh, this expenditure on the old mother at home of telephone and telegraph tolls in lieu of a few minutes with paper and pen and a touch of real affection. But before we have definitely identified in this new American custom another factor contributing to the atrophy of men’s souls and the triumph of machines, it may be in order to ask a question.

Have you ever read J. M. Barrie’s Sentimental Tommy? If you are in years more than fifty, you probably know the book, and perhaps you may remember that one form in which young Tommy’s exceptional literary gifts found expression was in writing letters for the villagers. At the age of fourteen, let us say, Tommy was an excellent hand at love letters. He would write — But it may very well be that you are in years under forty. You are not acquainted with Barrie’s story, but you have read, of course, nearly everything by Chekhov. In that case you may have read the little story called ‘At Christmas Time.’ The old peasant woman, Vasilisa, and her husband, Peter, have just hired the services of the village scribe, Yegor. The letter is to their daughter, who married and went away to the city four years ago and, after writing to them twice, has not been heard from.

‘ What am I to write? ’ Yegor asked again.

‘What?’ asked Vasilisa, looking at him angrily and suspiciously. ‘You are not writing for nothing; no fear, you’ll be paid for it. Come, write: “To our dear son-in-law, Andrey Hrisanfitch, and to our only beloved daughter, Yefimya Petrovna, with our love we send a low bow and our parental blessing abiding forever. ” ’

‘Written; fire away.’

‘“And we wish them a happy Christmas; we are alive and well, and I wish you the same, please the Lord . . . the Heavenly King.”’

Vasilisa pondered and exchanged glances with the old man.

‘And I wish you the same, please the Lord . . . the Heavenly King,’ she repeated, beginning to cry.

She could say nothing more. And yet before, when she lay awake thinking at night, it had seemed to her that she could not get all she had to say into a dozen letters.

Or if not Chekhov, you are sure to have read during these last few years a good many books about the way of life among peoples who have not been altogether spoiled by the Industrial Revolution and by literacy. In such studies of pre-industrial man you are sure to have come across the universal figure of the village letter writer. He flourishes in China and Japan and India, as in Russia, and Italy, and Ireland. He squats in the bazaar, in the public square, in his own cabin, and to him come Nipponese mothers for letters to their sons with the army in Manchuria, and Calabrian wives for letters to their husbands in Buenos Aires, and Connaught girls for messages to their sweethearts on the Boston police force. And everywhere, in Yokohama, in Cittanova, in Roscommon, these simple souls find it easy enough to pour out their hearts to the letter writers, but stand tongue-tied in awe before the specific demand of the blank page. The professional scribe thereupon writes as he pleases. He knows what mothers should say to their sons and wives to their husbands. Being seventy and toothless, he knows what girls want to say to their sweethearts. And his message, in style and detail, is quite as far removed from the original source as Western Postal’s Form 55 on Mother’s Day. Messrs. Newcomb Carlton and Clarence Mackay are only perpetuating an ancient Folkway.

Of course there is an objection to be noted. This peasant mother in Chekhov and this Hindu girl in the Bengal village are at the mercy of the professional letter writer’s formulas because they are, as a matter of fact, illiterate. But the American patrons of Forms 55 and 74 have all of them been to school, a great many of them to high school, many of them to college. They know how to write. Why don’t they?

But don’t they write? And do they know how? A great many sons still write to their mothers on Mother’s Day or mother’s birthday — many more, I will venture to say, than send form telegrams. By no means all the girls at college are in too great a hurry for a date to do more for father’s birthday than wire him Form 74, ‘ Daddy Dear.’ They write a letter and send him a book, and they have the book charged to him.

For it is with this subject of the people and civilization of the United States as it used to be generally with the subject of Woman, and still is in considerable measure: one fact makes a generalization, and three instances make a universal truth. At all times it has been the rule that if a man at lunch is observed putting red pepper into his coffee the incident will be reported in the following words: ‘ There are some men who have a queer habit of putting red pepper into their coffee.’ But if the coffee drinker should be female, the circumstance invariably gives rise to the statement: ‘Woman has the extraordinary habit of putting red pepper into her coffee. Some authorities attribute this to her historic subordination to masculine rule; other authorities are inclined to explain red pepper in coffee as a secondary sex characteristic.’

So it is with ever so many traits of American civilization as depicted by foreign observers and native sons. Fifty Americans wire on Mother’s Day. Five thousand Americans write letters on Mother’s Day. Ergo: ‘In nothing, perhaps, does American standardization manifest itself as in the habit of sending stereotyped telegraphic messages on Mother’s Day.’

II

And do all Americans know how to write because they have been to school? It is, of course, a rash conclusion. Even among educated people there is only a small minority to whom the business of writing is not a task. Literate man in the mass exhibits in the presence of pen and paper the same timidity that possessed poor Vasilisa in the presence of the village letter writer. The gift of expression is far less common than the gift of self-expression. See what a boast the English people make of the tongue-tied shyness of the English, as when the son goes off to war and father and son cannot bring themselves to speak out their heartache. So perhaps the Western Postal’s form messages are a part of an Anglo-Saxon tradition of emotional reticence; and it should be to the credit of the Radio Corporation that its stencils permit parents and children to express a love that would else go silent and for naught.

The notion that sincere feeling cannot be expressed in a formula is absurd. It has been the questionable good fortune of most of us to read in the newspapers the letters written by infatuated old fools to slim young sirens and by women of years to young men. Such documents are always turning up in breach of promise suits and in the domestic relations courts. They show that elderly men and women of fair literacy, when caught on the swell of a real passion, almost invariably resort to a vocabulary of roses and stars, and limpid eyes mirroring Heaven, and lips whispering messages from the isles of bliss; he is her Laddie-Boy aged sixtyfive, and she is his Dream Girl in the early fifties. The poetic quotations in such legal proceedings are nearly always from ‘The Road to Mandalay,’ ‘A Fool There Was,’ and ‘Dan McGrew.’ It is a fact of newspaper record that men and women beset by love will go down to destruction shouting the most dreadful banalities.

Fifty years before Americans were standardized into telegraphic form messages, people wrote letters to each other out of the Complete Letter Writer, containing one hundred specimens for every possible occasion. One hundred and fifty years ago, little boys writing to their mothers from school addressed them as Honoured Parent, the whole letter dictated by the headmaster. And thirty-five hundred years ago, as we have seen, the Egyptian mother told the village writer that she wished to write to her son in garrison at Jerusalem, and the scribe wrote what he thought was suitable to the occasion. The form of the message does not exclude a living heart behind it.

The mother cult in the United States, as part of the all-pervading woman worship which was long ago identified as a basic American trait, needs the caustic and corrective examination to which it has been subjected by the lighter satirists. This religious code maintains that every prize fighter goes into the ring thinking only of the little woman and the kiddies. Every bacteriologist glues his eye to the telescope through the weary years for the sake only of the little woman and the kiddies. Every aviator is out to break the 42,187-feet altitude record for the sake of the wife and the kiddies. Unmarried prize fighters, bacteriologists, and aviators are spurred on to effort and victory by the thought of the old mother back there in the little whitewashed cottage. If the Nobel prizewinning bacteriologist forgets to mention his old mother, the reception committee in the old home town will remember her. If the reception committee should happen to forget, the committee’s publicity agent will remember her. If the publicity agent should forget, the reporters will remind him of his mother. The hint has not been wanting in the press that Professor Einstein discovered Relativity for the sake chiefly of his womenfolks.

Given these amiable lunacies in gyneolatry, there can be no quarrel with the newspaper humorist for suggesting that the cult of Mother’s Day may have profited by the activities of the American florist; just as Father’s Day is not altogether frowned upon by the necktie manufacturers; just as Apple Week is said to find some support among the apple growers of the Pacific Northwest Coast; just as Fire Prevention Week is said to encounter no undue hostility from the sprinkler and chemical manufacturers; just as Old Home Week finds no irreconcilable enemies among the railroad companies and the bus lines. The newspaper paragrapher is obviously useful as well as amusing when he makes his thrust at this particular bit of nonsense, and goes his way.

Harder to accept is the humorless satirist and sociologist who picks up the mother jest and turns it into a jeremiad, who picks up a grain of incongruity and magnifies it into a problem and a menace. With a mighty clanking of scientific apparatus and at enormous length, people fell to work soon after the Armistice to expose the infantilism which inheres in the Mother’s Day cult, and the arrested development, and the narcissism, and other defects and aberrations peculiar to the American people. Sometimes, to be sure, the touch faltered a bit; as when the analyst seemed to find it hard to decide just which was responsible for Mother’s Day, the essentially adolescent nature of the Americans or the Western Union Telegraph Company and the Associated Florists. The dilemma was surmounted, of course, by deciding that Mother’s Day was the result of the telegraph company and the florists’ bringing their full power to bear upon the adolescent instincts of the American people.

That the mother cult in America should be compared with the Frenchman’s worship of his maman is obviously too much to ask. It is too much to ask of a social critic busy with the abnormalities of the American scene that he take a look at other civilizations.

That the mother cult in the United States should be studied in the light of the primitive matriarchal institutions of the Protochukchis is too much to ask. In comparing Jones with the primitives it is the rule to cite from primitive civilization only the evidence that will count against Jones, and never for him.

But it is not too much to ask that students of Mother’s Day in America, and of the broader subject of woman worship in America, should occasionally give a moment to the thought that the cult may be not altogether an aberration, or at least something more than an aberration. Merely in idle curiosity, merely to take his mind off really serious questions, merely for a change, the observer of Mother’s Day might say: ‘I wonder if there is n’t something in American history and American statistics that will explain, to some extent, why Americans make so much more fuss about their mothers than other nations do.’

Such a question, candidly put and pondered, might ultimately direct the inquirer’s attention to the fact that in the United States — even in the United States of super-booming 1928 prosperity — nine housewives out of ten do their own housework.

This interesting fact leads us to what I think is the just inference that in the average articulate American family the children spend much more time in close communion with their mothers than in the average articulate European family.

III

By the articulate classes I mean those that give form and stamp to the national life. They are the classes that count, the classes one has in mind when one says that Englishmen do this or Americans do that. In this sense, even in the most advanced countries of Europe the peasant population and the industrial masses are not articulate. Even in England, where the working classes have become definitely articulate in the political life, they are still but a timid voice in the rounded national chorus. When you speak of what books and newspapers Englishmen read and what music the Germans listen to, you mean perhaps 10 per cent of the English or the German people. But when you speak of what Americans read or play or telegraph to their mothers, you are thinking of a potential 75 per cent of the American people. Whatever may be America’s ‘contribution’ to history, the number of participants in that contribution is easily five times as great as in England or Germany. The people who count are five times as many here as in other countries.

The case might be stated in terms of family income. Take ten English families having an annual income of $2500; eight out of the ten families almost certainly keep a servant. Take ten American families with the same income; one out of the ten will keep a servant. One element in European life that never fails to surprise the visiting American is the presence of domestic servants in ‘poor’ homes. One thing that never fails to astonish Europeans is the number of ‘rich’ American women who do their own housework. The wife of the English university professor will stint herself on clothes, on food, on coal, but there will nearly always be a couple of sturdy Devon lasses to do the work of the house. The American professor’s wife, herself a college graduate often, does her own cooking and cleaning, and sometimes her own washing of clothes.

Among other things she gives personal care to her children. She performs for her children of the pre-school age the services which the Englishwoman or German lady of her income status delegates to the celebrated Nanny of the London Times classified advertisements, to the nurse, the nursery governess, and, in humbler homes, to the stout maid of all work. The wives of American clergymen with an income of $2500, or country lawyers, doctors, small merchants, college professors, bathe their children until the children can look after themselves, put them to bed, read to them. The English or German boy wheedles kitchen gratuities from ‘Cook,’ the American boy does it from his mother, for it is she who does the cooking while keeping an eye on the small children.

It is scarcely necessary to go on with the details in order to demonstrate the simple truth that the American child sees a great deal more of his mother than his European coeval of the same articulate class. It is so in the early formative years, and is emphasized in later years. The eight-year-old son of the English small-town banker is sent away from home to school. The banker’s son in small-town Ohio, California, and Maine does not leave home until he goes away to college.

If, then, a member of the British House of Commons — excluding the Labor Party — is likely between the ages of six months and seventeen years to have seen his mother only one third as often as our average member of Congress has seen his, is there not some prima facie reason why ‘ mother’ should bulk larger in the daily American vernacular than in the English? Whether or not the thing is desirable is quite another matter. I understand that mother fixations are dangerous things. But if the mother fixations are there, it follows that Mother’s Day cannot be wholly explained as propaganda by the Associated Florists; just as Father’s Day is not 100 per cent the handiwork of the necktie manufacturers. Notorious for generations has been the American habit of parents deferring to children, instead of having children defer to their elders as they do everywhere else in the world. Foreigners assert that in this country the family is dominated by the claims of the child. But if it is true that the American child is outrageously indulged and spoiled, is there not the likelihood that the child will remember with some tenderness the mother who spoiled him?

These are obvious matters, but perhaps not out of place in an inquiry dedicated to the great many obvious facts of American life which the critical temper of recent years has so amazingly succeeded in overlooking. The mother cult in America is not all ballyhoo and propaganda, because the general cult of woman in America is not all ballyhoo and propaganda. The American boy is brought up by women as European boys of equal economic and social station are not. The case of the mother and her boy up to the age of six we have seen. After six the American boy goes to school to a woman teacher, but the European boy has a man schoolmaster. Out of every five teachers whom the American boy has met up to college age, four have been women. It is a big subject that has been much discussed, and here calls only for mention.

This American respect for Womanhood, as the orator calls it, this American habit of putting woman on a pedestal, as the cooler heads call it, argues neither virtue nor demerit in the American. The tradition has a sound social-economic basis, and is due, I assume, to pioneer conditions. It is a commonplace among the statisticians that in the older countries of Europe there are more women than men, and in new countries — the United States, Australia — there are more men than women. We have to-day probably two million more males than females. England has two million more females than males, and the war is not entirely responsible. There was a large female surplus in Great Britain and Germany before the war, and a large female deficit in this country. For sixty years it has been true with us that for every one hundred women there have been nearly one hundred and five men.

American respect for womankind would thus appear to be grounded in the scarcity value of women in this country. For this reason, among others, the American male needs comparatively little encouragement from his florist and his telegraph company in order to be kind to his womenfolk. This kindness is inbred in him. The infection is in the air. It seizes upon the immigrant from Central Europe at Quarantine, and impels the peasant woman to step into her higher status as a matter of course and her menfolk to concede it as a matter of course.

Let the critics of American gyneolatry and of its devastating effects on American civilization be patient. As the country fills up, as we cut down the male surplus and ultimately develop a female surplus, our traditional respect for women will approximate the established forms in the older countries. With that will come a weakening of the mother cult as part of our general cult of women. As America grows still richer and more urbanized and more specialized, American children will begin to see less and less of their mothers and more and more of cooks and governesses. They will see less and less of female school-teachers. Our wealthy classes have already mastered the art of sending the small boy away to what the English call a public school and we call a private school, with men teachers predominant. For the moderately comfortable classes there are the public schools (in the American sense). In growing variety and number they are stepping in between mother and child. Below the primary grades are the kindergarten classes, the pre-kindergarten classes, the pre-school nursery, moving steadily down, one is almost tempted to say, to the pre-natal school.

Countless observers, foreign and domestic, have pointed out that American men in respect to their women are like Matthew Bagnet —

Safety first in the face of new reading habits! Let it be said for the benefit of all readers under fifty that there is a book called Bleak House by a man named Charles Dickens. Not the least attractive group of characters in that book consists of Matthew Bagnet, ex-artilleryman with a record of service in British garrisons all around the world; his strong, brave, hard-working, cheerful wife, Mrs. Bagnet, affectionately referred to as the Old Girl; their two charming daughters, Malta and Quebec, and their son, young Woolwich. Now to Matthew Bagnet has been denied the gift of ready expression. When approached on any subject, — as, let us say in modern terms, whether the family should move out to the suburbs, or whether the son should go in for aviation engineering, or whether Picasso marks an advance over Cézanne, — this Matthew Bagnet invariably turns to the Old Girl and says, ‘You tell them what I think.’ And the Old Girl tells them, with vigor and common sense and fondness for her own men.

The men of America as yet depend on their Old Girls to attend to most of the expression and self-expression for them, with one important difference. Though Matthew Bagnet respects his wife enormously, and insists he never saw the Old Girl’s equal, he never owns to it before her. ‘Discipline must be maintained.’ The American male would n’t dream of applying discipline to his womenfolk. He delights in telling the Old Girl what he thinks of her. He says it with flowers, with telegrams, with candy. Perhaps he gets a reminder from the Western Postal and other advertisers. But the urge is his own.

(In September Mr. Strunsky will rediscover ‘Jones, His Machines’)