Contentment by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

As the result of certain ideal standards adopted among us when this country was still in long clothes, a time when the equality of man was the new “fad” of many nations, and the prizes of life first came within the reach of those fortunate or unscrupulous enough to seize them, it became the fashion (and has remained so down to our day) to teach every little boy attending a village school to look upon himself as a possible future President, and to assume that every girl was preparing herself for the position of first lady in the land. This is very well in theory, and practice has shown that, as Napoleon said, “Every private may carry a marshal’s baton in his knapsack.” Alongside of the good such incentive may produce, it is only fair, however, to consider also how much harm may lie in this way of presenting life to a child’s mind.

As a first result of such tall talking we find in America, more than in any other country, an inclination among all classes to leave the surroundings where they were born and bend their energies to struggling out of the position in life occupied by their parents. There are not wanting theorists who hold that this is a quality in a nation, and that it leads to great results. A proposition open to discussion.

It is doubtless satisfactory to designate first magistrates who have raised themselves from humble beginnings to that proud position, and there are times when it is proper to recall such achievements to the rising generation. But as youth is proverbially over-confident it might also be well to point out, without danger of discouraging our sanguine youngsters, that for one who has succeeded, about ten million confident American youths, full of ambition and lofty aims, have been obliged to content themselves with being honest men in humble positions, even as their fathers before them. A sad humiliation, I grant you, for a self- respecting citizen, to end life just where his father did; often the case, nevertheless, in this hard world, where so many fine qualities go unappreciated,–no societies having as yet been formed to seek out “mute, inglorious Miltons,” and ask to crown them!

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To descend abruptly from the sublime, to very near the ridiculous,–I had need last summer of a boy to go with a lady on a trap and help about the stable. So I applied to a friend’s coachman, a hard-working Englishman, who was delighted to get the place for his nephew–an American-born boy–the child of a sister, in great need. As the boy’s clothes were hardly presentable, a simple livery was made for him; from that moment he pined, and finally announced he was going to leave. In answer to my surprised inquiries, I discovered that a friend of his from the same tenement-house in which he had lived in New York had appeared in the village, and sooner than be seen in livery by his play-fellow he preferred abandoning his good place, the chance of being of aid to his mother, and learning an honorable way to earn his living. Remonstrances were in vain; to the wrath of his uncle, he departed. The boy had, at his school, heard so much about everybody being born equal and every American being a gentleman by right of inheritance, that he had taken himself seriously, and despised a position his uncle was proud to hold, preferring elegant leisure in his native tenement-house to the humiliation of a livery.

When at college I had rooms in a neat cottage owned by an American family. The father was a butcher, as were his sons. The only daughter was exceedingly pretty. The hard-worked mother conceived high hopes for this favorite child. She was sent to a boarding-school, from which she returned entirely unsettled for life, having learned little except to be ashamed of her parents and to play on the piano. One of these instruments of torture was bought, and a room fitted up as a parlor for the daughter’s use. As the family were fairly well-to-do, she was allowed to dress out of all keeping with her parents’ position, and, egged on by her mother, tried her best to marry a rich “student.” Failing in this, she became discontented, unhappy, and finally there was a scandal, this poor victim of a false ambition going to swell the vast tide of a city’s vice. With a sensible education, based on the idea that her father’s trade was honorable and that her mission in life was to aid her mother in the daily work until she might marry and go to her husband, prepared by experience to cook his dinner and keep his house clean, and finally bring up her children to be honest men and women, this girl would have found a happy future waiting for her, and have been of some good in her humble way.

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It is useless to multiply illustrations. One has but to look about him in this unsettled country of ours. The other day in front of my door the perennial ditch was being dug for some gas-pipe or other. Two of the gentlemen who had consented to do this labor wore frock-coats and top hats–or what had once been those articles of attire–instead of comfortable and appropriate overalls. Why? Because, like the stable- boy, to have worn any distinctive dress would have been in their minds to stamp themselves as belonging to an inferior class, and so interfered with their chances of representing this country later at the Court of St. James, or presiding over the Senate,–positions (to judge by their criticism of the present incumbents) they feel no doubt as to their ability to fill.

The same spirit pervades every trade. The youth who shaves me is not a barber; he has only accepted this position until he has time to do something better. The waiter who brings me my chop at a down-town restaurant would resign his place if he were requested to shave his flowing mustache, and is secretly studying law. I lose all patience with my countrymen as I think over it! Surely we are not such a race of snobs as not to recognize that a good barber is more to be respected than a poor lawyer; that, as a French saying goes, Il n’y a pas de sot metier. It is only the fool who is ashamed of his trade.

But enough of preaching. I had intended–when I took up my pen to-day–to write on quite another form of this modern folly, this eternal struggle upward into circles for which the struggler is fitted neither by his birth nor his education; the above was to have been but a preface to the matter I had in mind, viz., “social climbers,” those scourges of modern society, the people whom no rebuffs will discourage and no cold shoulder chill, whose efforts have done so much to make our countrymen a byword abroad.

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As many philosophers teach that trouble only is positive, happiness being merely relative; that in any case trouble is pretty equally distributed among the different conditions of mankind; that, excepting the destitute and physically afflicted, all God’s creatures have a share of joy in their lives, would it not be more logical, as well as more conducive to the general good, if a little more were done to make the young contented with their lot in life, instead of constantly suggesting to a race already prone to be unsettled, that nothing short of the top is worthy of an American citizen?

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