Letter to Elisaveta Andrievna

December 15, 1938
New York at last! How glad I am! I won’t ask you how you like that city, where, as one of my friends puts it, ' too much is said too loudly’; you ’ll soon discover whether it is your cup of tea. Down here we don’t care much for New York or New Yorkers, although we are gradually acquiring a great many kin among them. Several of our local girls have gone up there and, by seeming to be Persian cats asleep on little rugs of yellow Byzantine velvet, have managed to marry some of the most eligible bachelors in town, leaving the Near East relief and ‘Save China’ campaigns to the more capable young ladies of Vassal and Bryn Mawr. And I must confess that it pleases me to see our rural ingénues living on a gold standard that they can neither comprehend nor discuss, because they symbolize — much as a tiny Indian mahout directing the monolithic bulk of an elephant with pinpricks of a goad — the triumph of mind over matter. Occasionally a lot of us pile into our cars to visit our old friends and newly acquired relatives, see the shows, let the womenfolk window-shop, spend five bales of cotton for an evening at a night club, and pull out when the aspirin shows signs of weakening.
On the return trip we always stop in Washington, which is our heaven on earth now that we have a Government that understands us and, understanding, pays us for doing — nothing. Somehow, somewhere, our Secretary of Agriculture, Mr. Wallace, breathing the Delphic air of Iowa, discovered in a trance that superior wisdom summed up long ago by George Moore as he stood an Irishman amid the alien corn of Ebury Street: ‘The fruits are for the vulgar.’ This is a wisdom that has always pulsed in the veins of Southerners, and it came as a delightful shock to us to have it recognized and legalized by Washington after so many years of American life filled with the poisonous indoctrination of Longfellow’s creed, ’Let us, then, be up and doing.’ In any event Mr. Wallace, after passing through a catalysis that transformed the mystic into the man of action, found ways to pay us for not growing cotton and corn, so that we plough not and neither do we hoe. Around my house we call this new form of economy the Rachmaninoff agriculture, because one of my friends sometimes comes in and sings a song of your countryman, Rachmaninoff, that just fits the case.
Do you recall it? It runs something like this: —

Ah, thou billowy harvest fields of grain,
Never shalt thou be mown by a single swath,
Never shalt thou be bound in a single sheaf.

But our gratitude to Mr. Wallace and the taxpayers of the North does not end with singing. We want them to get their money’s worth, and we are therefore trying to make the legend of the South a reality before their eyes, to transform it into the land pictured by the song writers of New York, and if the subsidies hold out we shall do it — a land where Negroes endlessly strum guitars on the levee when they are not busy keeping the river away from their doors or respectfully explaining to visitors, in syncopated time, why darkies were born; where pickaninnies drown themselves in incarnadined seas of watermelon, and goateed Colonels sip mint juleps on white-columned verandahs deep-buried in honeysuckle, mowing down whole regiments of Yankees, suh, while they sip; where even the poison ivy exhales a heady perfume, and Southern charm grows so lush and thick that you have to cut it three times a week in order to get up to the big house.
For our spiritual home we have Hollywood, where Greta Garbo leans out (at the Amusu Theatre) a blessed damozel above the gold bars of heaven, and Charlie McCarthy talks with the tongues of men and of angels, while Memphis and New Orleans — conveniently near, but sufficiently remote from the eyes of the local lady vigilantes — enable us to embrace the monster of sin that we so hotly denounce at home. What need have we, then, of New York or New Yorkers?
But all this — and more — you will see when you come here. I can’t tell you how glad I am that you are in this country, even though your journey from Tsarist Russia took you twenty years and led you past many doleful Stations on the way. You will need all your great capacity for happiness, because you know not only that you can’t go back to Russia while the Bolsheviks are in power, — you who once owned half a province, — but also that we cannot foresee the time when they won’t be in power. And I remember your once saying to me, ‘Nothing is too long for the exile except exile, and even the grave is not the end, for there is no rest unless the body be buried whole. But the exile’s body and the exile’s heart must forever lie in widely separated places.’
Even now I should n’t believe that you are in America were it not that above your familiar handwriting is the familiar George Washington postage stamp — first in the consciousness of his countrymen because first in the repetition of his likeness, thereby proving what the advertising gentlemen have always said: repetition will put over any product provided it has a little merit to start with.
You arrive here at a time when there is much talk about the ‘refugee problem.’ Most of us want to keep the foreigners out, but that is nothing new in our history, although we seem to have forgotten it. Our national capacity for forgetting is indeed part of our genius for survival as a democratic nation. The First Families of North America — the Iroquois, the Sioux, the Natchez — also wanted to keep the foreigners out way back in the seventeenth century. They did n’t want a good, hundred-per-cent, red Indian country overrun by a horde of white European adventurers, ticket-ofleave men, gold hunters, land grabbers, convicts, indentured servants, and missionaries. And they died fighting in the attempt to keep the foreigners out. Now history, like a garrulous old man talking by the fireside, repeats itself. As hundreds of thousands of Europeans — blood brothers of those who are here — find life intolerable all over Europe, they clamor to come to America, seeking liberty and bread. And, as they clamor, the Iroquois of the Bronx, the Mohawks of Los Angeles, the Arapahoes of Detroit, with property eagle feathers in their hair and property tomahawks in hand, arise and say that we must not admit a lot of ignorant, troublemaking foreigners who will break down the high standards of living, literacy, and love of law that have made this country the envy of the world all the way from New York to Brooklyn.
Now this protest is strange. So far as I can find, the only large body of Americans who did n’t hanker to come to the United States or who were n’t run out of their own countries are the Negroes. They were content to stay where they were, tough as staying might have been. Of course we could n’t stand that, because it seemed to be a reflection upon our superior amenities, so we sent our ships to Africa, pulled the blacks out of the jungles, and forced our amenities upon them. Consequently I find it strange that now, in the 1938th year of Christianity, men whose ancestors or who themselves came here because they were oppressed in Europe refuse to others the same chances of life and liberty that America gave to them. But I’m not trying, as you asked, to explain this country to you. In my simple American way I’m telling you.
For further light on émigrés, I suggest the obituary columns of the New York Times. There you will learn something about the men who made this country — or, as it is now fashionable to say, who destroyed it. Almost any day you will come across a notice like this: —

William Llangollen Lewis, President of the Great Consolidated Coal Company, died to-night. He was 70 years old.

The coal magnate, noted for his vast philanthropies, came to this country from Wales a penniless immigrant boy, and his first job was as a slate picker at $2.00 a week.

The Times never contents itself with the simple, all-inclusive statement that ‘he came to this country when a young boy.’ It must always stick in that gem of tautology: ‘penniless.’ Of course young William came here without a dime. If he had had money, or the prospect of money, and had tried to emigrate to America, he’d have been regarded as insane by his relatives and committed to an institution supported, in all probability, by a rich American widow. (I warn you that a wealthy American woman determined to do good unto others even if it kills them is one of nature’s most terrifying spectacles.) Did anybody ever hear of a rich European leaving his castles, wines, and mistresses to fight Indians in Wyoming or politicians in New Jersey? Or — and the descent is precipitous — titled Europeans? These aristocrats, who express themselves shyly and with exquisite evasions (there’s no crude American ‘gimme’ or grab about them), waited a long time before coming to America. They first began to show up here — a cloud of grasshoppers no bigger than Texas —in the 1890’s. By that time we had accumulated wealth, socially ambitious mammas, and marriageable daughters who could make the mammas princesses once removed. (Papas did n’t count. They never do in a matriarchy.) Some of the daughters balked. Others gave in. And we moved fast. Money was no object. Old English titles, not too frayed from wear, were the dearest. The French were slightly cheaper. Scandinavians were definitely in the second flight, although a good Swede in prime condition occasionally commanded a high price. Bulgarians, Rumanians, and Greeks appealed only to ladies who wore Poiret gowns and collected exotica. Russian grand dukes, as you know, did n’t come on the market until after the revolution in 1917 and were snapped up by the war profiteers. In any event, we rapidly bartered such large quantities of cash for titles that by 1910 any town in Connecticut that did n’t have at least one baroness back on the hands of its wealthiest citizen hung its head in shame and desperately turned to making fishing tackle and phonographs.
Well, why go on? You know how few voluntary expatriates there are in the world. Look about you in New York. Look at your own people — the White Russians — there. Look at the once Russian Jews. First the upper-class Russians drove out the Jews. Then the Bolsheviks drove out the upper-class Russians. And now both are in New York while the Bolsheviks continue to slaughter one another with lamentable Russian inefficiency. It does n’t make sense. But is n’t there a Russian saying, ‘Life is an idiot laughing down the wind ’ ?
The whole insane process does n’t end even here. You and the Jews now have much in common. I don’t mean the brotherhood of man. It has always seemed to me that Saint Francis of Assisi was a wise man because he preached that doctrine to those who might understand and feel it — the birds. I mean this. The Jews have seldom been considered as human beings. They are generally segments of a problem. ' Good morning, Mr. Rosenberg, one of 14,133,389 people who give even sociologists a headache when they wonder what you are.’ And because you arrive here a refugee at a time when we have a so-called refugee problem to consider, you will not be regarded as Elisaveta Andrievna, a Russian woman of distinction and charm, but as a thorn in the side of our unemployment problem. If we follow the advice of some of our best thinkers, you may even be sterilized. One of our alert Major Generals recently said in New Orleans that for humanitarian reasons we should let refugees in, but once they are in we should sterilize them because refugees are troublemakers and we don’t want little groups of troublemakers springing up all over our non-homicidal countryside.
There is a good deal of truth in what the General says. If Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, Giuseppe Borgese, and Heinrich Brüning are n’t good enough for Hitler or Mussolini, why, I ask you, should they be good enough for us? For us, who as a people demand and get only the best. You will see this trait exemplified in the advertisements that are part of our folklore. Open almost any magazine and you will find a photograph of a washing machine with a question appended that everybody knows is purely rhetorical: ‘Is anything too good for your wife?’ Look and listen intently. You will hear a ghostly, millionthroated, masculine chorus replying: ‘No, a thousand times no.’

The General is right on another score. Generals are always right. You remember what Margot Asquith said to General Pershing? ‘General, we won the war only because there were generals on the other side.’ But to come back. See what troublemakers once did in this country. Think of them: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson — all of them young or youngish men, getting along pretty well, working and eating regularly, wit h the prospect that if they saw things in the right light and saved their money they might amount to something some day. But were they grateful for the privileges they enjoyed? Were they satisfied with English justice — a standard brand even then? Did they go on being loyal subjects of His Britannic Majesty? Or did they make trouble?
But we order things better nowadays. We shall certainly not crucify refugees (synonym: troublemakers) in the United States. We shall offer them the choice between death or humiliation worse than death in their own countries, and sterilization in our country if the General’s advice is taken. Half a man is better than no man at all. And reproduction in a non-militarist country where every boy is n’t brought up to be a soldier is at best a luxurious form of egoism that only great democracies can afford.
I’m saying all this to you because you ought to know what our better minds are thinking about a subject that affects you. And you come at a difficult time. We are suffering an economic depression. I don’t quite understand it myself, but it seems we are suffering because we have Too Much of Everything — a Gargantuan horse foundering on a superabundance of oats. Of course, if we let in a lot of you refugees, you might consume our surpluses, thereby reducing our unemployment, and — who knows? — destroy the political party in power and send us all back to work. And that would be a pity, because it has taken us one hundred and fifty years to learn that a government is merely a long, legalistic detour to enable a people to arrive at leisure without the bothersome precedent condition of earning it.
I admit that I’m a little confused about what is going on, although I read all the political columnists, who are omniscient three times a week in our best newspapers. And I’m afraid that I shall not be able to make the situation clear to you. But this is certain. We want more Consumers in this country. Unless you become a Good Consumer you will be told to go back to Russia, because the first duty of a good American — and surely you aspire to be one — is to consume even unto death. You must spend your days consuming: buying clothes, getting your hair waved, sending flowers and books (if you have n’t a friend who likes flowers and books, the florists and booksellers will provide one anywhere in the United States), exchanging the old radio for a new one, drinking milk to reduce, and drinking more milk to fatten. In your leisure moments you may play bridge, ski, travel, skate, go to the six-day bicycle races, be psychoanalyzed, track culture to its lair, or take a metabolism test. At night — having done your duty for the country — you may relax. Then all you have to do is go to the theatre or the movies. The movies are our third largest industry, and you could n’t let them down. While you consume for Shirley Temple by Eastern Standard Time, she sleeps; but when you sleep she awakens and consumes for you by Pacific Time. Thus, like the True Church, you ‘sleep and graze at once.’
Of course, if you’re sincere and are not being merely dilettantish about consuming, you can do your bit even after you have come home at night. You might — to give a few easy examples — smash the windowpanes instead of raising the windows. It’s easier and gives work to unemployed glaziers. Or you might eat a pound of candy, dye your hair, do your home lessons in How to Be Charming, and then, after applying a quart or two of muscle oil, eye-freshener, wrinkle-chaser, and an all-duty vanishing cream, take a sedative and go to bed. That’s how we, in this country, keep the Wheels of Industry turning. And what’s the result? The highest standard of living in the world!
In other countries — France or Finland, for instance — people are n’t good Consumers. They are just Frenchmen or Finns. The French spend too much time making love, playing with the children they have acquired in fits of abstraction, sitting in cafés, walking in parks, or fishing along the Seine. And what’s the result? A country of farms so small that they won’t support both a family and a mortgage, so that in some cases the family has been stuck with the same old farm for as long as thirteen hundred years. A country of little factories so small that the patron often works alongside his employees, sharing their halitosis and an intimate knowledge of their troubles and personalities; little merchants who pull down the shutters and take a month off with the family at some frugal seaside resort ; a great deal of hand labor instead of our ingenious machinery that releases everybody to play polo at least once a week; and so much wasting of time that business men in Paris take two hours off for lunch in order to eat a bonne soupe at home with mamma and the children. What kind of country is that, I ask you?
My confusion is deepened because, while we all agree that we need more and better Consumers, we are actually reducing their number. Immigration is practically barred. I don’t know whether we are closing our doors as a philanthropic measure to prevent guileless would-be immigrants from sharing our depressions, or whether we are afraid that a great supply of cheap labor would break down our high standard of living. (In 1929 about 72 per cent of all American families rejoiced in incomes under $2500.) The fact is — whatever the reason — that only a handful of immigrants can come in, and that means fewer Consumers.
But there’s worse to come. A few years ago we made a revolutionary discovery: birth control. The South has n’t caught on yet except for a few people in the upper income brackets, but those people are as scarce as Republicans in Vicksburg and don’t count. Most of us are still a lazy lot of sexual reactionaries living blissfully in an outmoded world of our own, and taking the Bible’s word for it that man ought to be fruitful and multiply. But the result of our ignorance is extraordinary, and it may affect Southern agriculture, Northern industry, and the national economy more than the Civil War and dear Mr. Wallace combined. This is how I see it.
Elsewhere in the country the rate of population growth is slowing down, but the Southern population is increasing. Two years ago, for example, Alabama, with only three million people, had approximately the same number of births in excess of deaths as New York State, with twelve millions. The South contains about half the natural resources of the country; in a few years we’ll have an enormous supply of young men and women able to work. Natural resources plus a labor supply usually means industry. We have n’t enough industry now. Cotton is all but dead. European labor is shut out. The Northern population is n’t growing. Where will industry then turn? To the South, unless I miss my guess. And that will mean a gigantic reshuffling of our whole economy, and much wailing in New England because they did n’t obey Horace Greeley’s advice in 1859 when he told them to let ‘the erring sisters depart in peace.’ But in the interval, while we await our removal to an industrial heaven, we shall go on being ignorant, poor, proud, and prolific.
In the meantime, except for the South, contraception is tending to cut off the Consumer ab initio. The process has indeed gone so far that I sold a few shares of stock I owned in a company doing a national business in consumer’s goods, since I found that the firm, bowing to popular demand, had put in a line of contraceptives. And I have no faith in a management that deliberately stultifies its own future.
Mind you, dear Elisaveta, I’m not an economist, and I can’t tell you whether the upturn in the sale of rubber inner tubes for automobiles means that the star of our civilization is again in the ascendant. In fact, when I want to take a peek at the future, I consult Aunt Tempe, the Negro hoodoo lady doctor, on Deer Creek. Nor am I a business man creating profits in an ineffectual void. I’m no longer even a farmer now that Mr. Wallace (may his tribe increase!) does my thinking for me. You must not, therefore, take me too seriously. You must, instead, come to Mississippi, where we shall have time to talk things over and avoid conclusions. I shall bring to meet you some of my planter friends whose understanding of America is far better than mine. Three years ago they retired to their porches to drink good whiskey and await the end with calm dignity.