The False Start by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

Having had, during a wandering existence, many opportunities of observing my compatriots away from home and familiar surroundings in various circles of cosmopolitan society, at foreign courts, in diplomatic life, or unofficial capacities, I am forced to acknowledge that whereas my countrywoman invariably assumed her new position with grace and dignity, my countryman, in the majority of cases, appeared at a disadvantage.

I take particular pleasure in making this tribute to my “sisters” tact and wit, as I have been accused of being “hard” on American women, and some half-humorous criticisms have been taken seriously by over-susceptible women–doubtless troubled with guilty consciences for nothing is more exact than the old French proverb, “It is only the truth that wounds.”

The fact remains clear, however, that American men, as regards polish, facility in expressing themselves in foreign languages, the arts of pleasing and entertaining, in short, the thousand and one nothings composing that agreeable whole, a cultivated member of society, are inferior to their womankind. I feel sure that all Americans who have travelled and have seen their compatriot in his social relations with foreigners, will agree with this, reluctant as I am to acknowledge it.

That a sister and brother brought up together, under the same influences, should later differ to this extent seems incredible. It is just this that convinces me we have made a false start as regards the education and ambitions of our young men.

To find the reasons one has only to glance back at our past. After the struggle that insured our existence as a united nation, came a period of great prosperity. When both seemed secure, we did not pause and take breath, as it were, before entering a new epoch of development, but dashed ahead on the old lines. It is here that we got on the wrong road. Naturally enough too, for our peculiar position on this continent, far away from the centres of cultivation and art, surrounded only by less successful states with which to compare ourselves, has led us into forming erroneous ideas as to the proportions of things, causing us to exaggerate the value of material prosperity and undervalue matters of infinitely greater importance, which have been neglected in consequence.

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A man who, after fighting through our late war, had succeeded in amassing a fortune, naturally wished his son to follow him on the only road in which it had ever occurred to him that success was of any importance. So beyond giving the boy a college education, which he had not enjoyed, his ambition rarely went; his idea being to make a practical business man of him, or a lawyer, that he could keep the estate together more intelligently. In thousands of cases, of course, individual taste and bent over-ruled this influence, and a career of science or art was chosen; but in the mass of the American people, it was firmly implanted that the pursuit of wealth was the only occupation to which a reasonable human being could devote himself. A young man who was not in some way engaged in increasing his income was looked upon as a very undesirable member of society, and sure, sooner or later, to come to harm.

Millionaires declined to send their sons to college, saying they would get ideas there that would unfit them for business, to Paterfamilias the one object of life. Under such fostering influences, the ambitions in our country have gradually given way to money standards and the false start has been made! Leaving aside at once the question of money in its relation to our politics (although it would be a fruitful subject for moralizing), and confining ourselves strictly to the social side of life, we soon see the results of this mammon worship.

In England (although Englishmen have been contemptuously called the shop- keepers of the world) the extension and maintenance of their vast empire is the mainspring which keeps the great machine in movement. And one sees tens of thousands of well-born and delicately-bred men cheerfully entering the many branches of public service where the hope of wealth can never come, and retiring on pensions or half-pay in the strength of their middle age, apparently without a regret or a thought beyond their country’s well-being.

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In France, where the passionate love of their own land has made colonial extension impossible, the modern Frenchman of education is more interested in the yearly exhibition at the Salon or in a successful play at the Francais, than in the stock markets of the world.

Would that our young men had either of these bents! They have copied from England a certain love of sport, without the English climate or the calm of country and garrison life, to make these sports logical and necessary. As the young American millionaire thinks he must go on increasing his fortune, we see the anomaly of a man working through a summer’s day in Wall Street, then dashing in a train to some suburban club, and appearing a half-hour later on the polo field. Next to wealth, sport has become the ambition of the wealthy classes, and has grown so into our college life that the number of students in the freshman class of our great universities is seriously influenced by that institution’s losses or gains at football.

What is the result of all this? A young man starts in life with the firm intention of making a great deal of money. If he has any time left from that occupation he will devote it to sport. Later in life, when he has leisure and travels, or is otherwise thrown with cultivated strangers, he must naturally be at a disadvantage. “Shop,” he cannot talk; he knows that is vulgar. Music, art, the drama, and literature are closed books to him, in spite of the fact that he may have a box on the grand tier at the opera and a couple of dozen high-priced “masterpieces” hanging around his drawing-rooms. If he is of a finer clay than the general run of his class, he will realize dimly that somehow the goal has been missed in his life race. His chase after the material has left him so little time to cultivate the ideal, that he has prepared himself a sad and aimless old age; unless he can find pleasure in doing as did a man I have been told about, who, receiving half a dozen millions from his father’s estate, conceived the noble idea of increasing them so that he might leave to each of his four children as much as he had himself received. With the strictest economy, and by suppressing out of his life and that of his children all amusements and superfluous outlay, he has succeeded now for many years in living on the income of his income. Time will never hang heavy on this Harpagon’s hands. He is a perfectly happy individual, but his conversation is hardly of a kind to attract, and it may be doubted if the rest of the family are as much to be envied.

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An artist who had lived many years of his life in Paris and London was speaking the other day of a curious phase he had remarked in our American life. He had been accustomed over there to have his studio the meeting- place of friends, who would drop in to smoke and lounge away an hour, chatting as he worked. To his astonishment, he tells me that since he has been in New York not one of the many men he knows has ever passed an hour in his rooms. Is not that a significant fact? Another remark which points its own moral was repeated to me recently. A foreigner visiting here, to whom American friends were showing the sights of our city, exclaimed at last: “You have not pointed out to me any celebrities except millionaires. ‘Do you see that man? he is worth ten millions. Look at that house! it cost one million dollars, and there are pictures in it worth over three million dollars. That trotter cost one hundred thousand dollars,’ etc.” Was he not right? And does it not give my reader a shudder to see in black and white the phrases that are, nevertheless, so often on our lips?

This levelling of everything to its cash value is so ingrained in us that we are unconscious of it, as we are of using slang or local expressions until our attention is called to them. I was present once at a farce played in a London theatre, where the audience went into roars of laughter every time the stage American said, “Why, certainly.” I was indignant, and began explaining to my English friend that we never used such an absurd phrase. “Are you sure?” he asked. “Why, certainly,” I said, and stopped, catching the twinkle in his eye.

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It is very much the same thing with money. We do not notice how often it slips into the conversation. “Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaketh.” Talk to an American of a painter and the charm of his work. He will be sure to ask, “Do his pictures sell well?” and will lose all interest if you say he can’t sell them at all. As if that had anything to do with it!

Remembering the well-known anecdote of Schopenhauer and the gold piece which he used to put beside his plate at the table d’hote, where he ate, surrounded by the young officers of the German army, and which was to be given to the poor the first time he heard any conversation that was not about promotion or women, I have been tempted to try the experiment in our clubs, changing the subjects to stocks and sport, and feel confident that my contributions to charity would not ruin me.

All this has had the result of making our men dull companions; after dinner, or at a country house, if the subject they love is tabooed, they talk of nothing! It is sad for a rich man (unless his mind has remained entirely between the leaves of his ledger) to realize that money really buys very little, and above a certain amount can give no satisfaction in proportion to its bulk, beyond that delight which comes from a sense of possession. Croesus often discovers as he grows old that he has neglected to provide himself with the only thing that “is a joy for ever”–a cultivated intellect–in order to amass a fortune that turns to ashes, when he has time to ask of it any of the pleasures and resources he fondly imagined it would afford him. Like Talleyrand’s young man who would not learn whist, he finds that he has prepared for himself a dreadful old age!

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