Some American Husbands by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

Until the beginning of this century men played the beau rôle in life’s comedy. As in the rest of the animal world, our males were the brilliant members of the community, flaunting their gaudy plumage at home and abroad, while the women-folk remained in seclusion, tending their children, directing the servants, or ministering to their lords’ comfort.

In those happy days the husband ruled supreme at his own fireside, receiving the homage of the family, who bent to his will and obeyed his orders.

During the last century, however, the “part” of better half has become less and less attractive in America, one prerogative after another having been whisked away by enterprising wives. Modern Delilahs have yearly snipped off more and more of Samson’s luxuriant curls, and added those ornaments to their own coiffures, until in the majority of families the husband finds himself reduced to a state of bondage compared with which the biblical hero enjoyed a pampered idleness. Times have indeed changed in America since the native chief sat in dignified repose bedizened with all the finery at hand, while the ladies of the family waited tremblingly upon him. To-day it is the American husband who turns the grindstone all the year round, and it is his pretty tyrant who enjoys the elegant leisure that a century ago was considered a masculine luxury.

To America must be given the credit of having produced the model husband, a new species, as it were, of the genus homo.

In no rôle does a compatriot appear to such advantage as in that of Benedict. As a boy he is often too advanced for his years or his information; in youth he is conspicuous neither for his culture nor his unselfishness. But once in matrimonial harness this untrained animal becomes bridle-wise with surprising rapidity, and will for the rest of life go through his paces, waltzing, kneeing, and saluting with hardly a touch of the whip. Whether this is the result of superior horse-womanship on the part of American wives or a trait peculiar to sons of “Uncle Sam,” is hard to say, but the fact is self-evident to any observer that our fair equestrians rarely meet with a rebellious mount.

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Any one who has studied marital ways in other lands will realize that in no country have the men effaced themselves so gracefully as with us. In this respect no foreign production can compare for a moment with the domestic article. In English, French, and German families the husband is still all-powerful. The house is mounted, guests are asked, and the year planned out to suit his occupations and pleasure. Here papa is rarely consulted until such matters have been decided upon by the ladies, when the head of the house is called in to sign the checks.

I have had occasion more than once to bewail the shortcomings of the American man, and so take pleasure in pointing out the modesty and good temper with which he fills this role. He is trained from the beginning to give all and expect nothing in return, an American girl rarely bringing any dot to her husband, no matter how wealthy her family may be. If, as occasionally happens, an income is allowed a bride by her parents, she expects to spend it on her toilets or pleasures. This condition of the matrimonial market exists in no other country; even in England, where mariages de convenance are rare, “settlements” form an inevitable prelude to conjugal bliss.

The fact that she contributes little or nothing to the common income in no way embarrasses an American wife; her pretensions are usually in an inverse proportion to her personal means. A man I knew some years ago deliberately chose his bride from an impecunious family (in the hope that her simple surroundings had inculcated homely taste), and announced to an incredulous circle of friends, at his last bachelor dinner, that he intended, in future, to pass his evenings at his fireside, between his book and his pretty spouse. Poor, innocent, confiding mortal! The wife quickly became a belle of the fastest set in town. Having had more than she wanted of firesides and quiet evenings before her marriage, her idea was to go about as much as possible, and, when not so occupied, to fill her house with company. It may be laid down as a maxim in this connection that a man marries to obtain a home, and a girl to get away from one; hence disappointment on both sides.

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The couple in question have in all probability not passed an evening alone since they were married, the lady rarely stopping in the round of her gayeties until she collapses from fatigue. Their home is typical of their life, which itself can be taken as a good example of the existence that most of our “smart” people lead. The ground floor and the first floor are given up to entertaining. The second is occupied by the spacious sitting, bath, and sleeping rooms of the lady. A ten-by-twelve chamber suffices for my lord, and the only den he can rightly call his own is a small room near the front door, about as private as the sidewalk, which is turned into a cloak-room whenever the couple receive, making it impossible to keep books or papers of value there, or even to use it as a smoking-room after dinner, so his men guests sit around the dismantled dining-table while the ladies are enjoying a suite of parlors above.

At first the idea of such an unequal division of the house shocks our sense of justice, until we reflect that the American husband is not expected to remain at home. That’s not his place! If he is not down town making money, fashion dictates that he must be at some club-house playing a game. A man who should remain at home, and read or chat with the ladies of his family, would be considered a bore and unmanly. There seems to be no place in an American house for its head. More than once when the friend I have referred to has asked me, at the club, to dine informally with him, we have found, on arriving, that Madame, having an evening off, had gone to bed and forgotten to order any dinner, so we were obliged to return to the club for our meal. When, however, his wife is in good health, she expects her weary husband to accompany her to dinner, opera, or ball, night after night, oblivious of the work the morrow holds in store for him.

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In one family I know, paterfamilias goes by the name of the “purse.” The more one sees of American households the more appropriate that name appears. Everything is expected of the husband, and he is accorded no definite place in return. He leaves the house at 8.30. When he returns, at five, if his wife is entertaining a man at tea, it would be considered the height of indelicacy for him to intrude upon them, for his arrival would cast a chill on the conversation. When a couple dine out, the husband is always la bête noire of the hostess, no woman wanting to sit next to a married man, if she can help it.

The few Benedicts who have had the courage to break away from these conditions and amuse themselves with yachts, salmon rivers, or “grass-bachelor” trips to Europe, while secretly admired by the women, are frowned upon in society as dangerous examples, likely to sow the seeds of discontent among their comrades; although it is the commonest thing in the world for an American wife to take the children and go abroad on a tour.

Imagine a German or Italian wife announcing to her spouse that she had decided to run over to England for a year with her children, that they might learn English. The mind recoils in horror from the idea of the catastrophe that would ensue.

Glance around a ball-room, a dinner party, or the opera, if you have any doubts as to the unselfishness of our married men. How many of them do you suppose are present for their own pleasure? The owner of an opera box rarely retains a seat in his expensive quarters. You generally find him idling in the lobbies looking at his watch, or repairing to a neighboring concert hall to pass the weary hours. At a ball it is even worse. One wonders why card-rooms are not provided at large balls (as is the custom abroad), where the bored husbands might find a little solace over “bridge,” instead of yawning in the coat-room or making desperate signs to their wives from the doorway,-signals of distress, by the bye, that rarely produce any effect.

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It is the rebellious husband who is admired and courted, however. A curious trait of human nature compels admiration for whatever is harmful, and forces us, in spite of our better judgment, to depreciate the useful and beneficent. The coats-of-arms of all countries are crowded with eagles and lions, that never yet did any good, living or dead; orators enlarge on the fine qualities of these birds and beasts, and hold them up as models, while using as terms of reproach the name of the goose or the cow, creatures that minister in a hundred ways to our wants. Such a spirit has brought helpful, productive “better halves” to the humble place they now occupy in the eyes of our people.

As long as men passed their time in fighting and carousing they were heroes; as soon as they became patient bread-winners all the romance evaporated from their atmosphere. The Jewish Hercules had his revenge in the end and made things disagreeable for his tormentors. So far, however, there are no signs of a revolt among the shorn lambs in this country. They patiently bend their necks to the collar-the kindest, most loving and devoted helpmates that ever plodded under the matrimonial yoke.

When in the East, one watches with admiration the part a donkey plays in the economy of those primitive lands. All the work is reserved for that industrious animal, and little play falls to his share. The camel is always bad-tempered, and when overladen lies down, refusing to move until relieved of its burden. The Turk is lazy and selfish, the native women pass their time in chattering and giggling, the children play and squabble, the ubiquitous dog sleeps in the sun; but from daybreak to midnight the little mouse-colored donkeys toil unceasingly. All burdens too bulky or too cumbersome for man are put on his back; the provender which horses and camels have refused becomes his portion; he is the first to begin the day’s labor, and the last to turn in. It is impossible to live long in the Orient or the south of France without becoming attached to those gentle, willing animals. The rôle which honest “Bourico” fills so well abroad is played on this side of the Atlantic by the American husband.

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I mean no disrespect to my married compatriots; on the contrary, I admire them as I do all docile, unselfish beings. It is well for our women, however, that their lords, like the little Oriental donkeys, ignore their strength, and are content to toil on to the end of their days, expecting neither praise nor thanks in return.

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