Story type: Essay
The truth of the saying that “it is always the unexpected that happens,” receives in this country a confirmation from an unlooked-for quarter, as does the fact of human nature being always, discouragingly, the same in spite of varied surroundings. This sounds like a paradox, but is an exceedingly simple statement easily proved.
That the great mass of Americans, drawn as they are from such varied sources, should take any interest in the comings and goings or social doings of a small set of wealthy and fashionable people, is certainly an unexpected development. That to read of the amusements and home life of a clique of people with whom they have little in common, whose whole education and point of view are different from their own, and whom they have rarely seen and never expect to meet, should afford the average citizen any amusement seems little short of impossible.
One accepts as a natural sequence that abroad (where an hereditary nobility have ruled for centuries, and accustomed the people to look up to them as the visible embodiment of all that is splendid and unattainable in life) such interest should exist. That the home-coming of an English or French nobleman to his estates should excite the enthusiasm of hundreds more or less dependent upon him for their amusement or more material advantages; that his marriage to an heiress–meaning to them the re-opening of a long-closed chateau and the beginning of a period of prosperity for the district–should excite his neighbors is not to be wondered at.
It is well known that whole regions have been made prosperous by the residence of a court, witness the wealth and trade brought into Scotland by the Queen’s preference for “the Land of Cakes,” and the discontent and poverty in Ireland from absenteeism and persistent avoidance of that country by the court. But in this land, where every reason for interesting one class in another seems lacking, that thousands of well-to- do people (half the time not born in this hemisphere), should delightedly devour columns of incorrect information about New York dances and Lenox house-parties, winter cruises, or Newport coaching parades, strikes the observer as the “unexpected” in its purest form.
That this interest exists is absolutely certain. During a trip in the West, some seasons ago, I was dumbfounded to find that the members of a certain New York set were familiarly spoken of by their first names, and was assailed with all sorts of eager questions when it was discovered that I knew them. A certain young lady, at that time a belle in New York, was currently called Sally, and a well-known sportsman Fred, by thousands of people who had never seen either of them. It seems impossible, does it not? Let us look a little closer into the reason of this interest, and we shall find how simple is the apparent paradox.
Perhaps in no country, in all the world, do the immense middle classes lead such uninteresting lives, and have such limited resources at their disposal for amusement or the passing of leisure hours.
Abroad the military bands play constantly in the public parks; the museums and palaces are always open wherein to pass rainy Sunday afternoons; every village has its religious fetes and local fair, attended with dancing and games. All these mental relaxations are lacking in our newer civilization; life is stripped of everything that is not distinctly practical; the dull round of weekly toil is only broken by the duller idleness of an American Sunday. Naturally, these people long for something outside of themselves and their narrow sphere.
Suddenly there arises a class whose wealth permits them to break through the iron circle of work and boredom, who do picturesque and delightful things, which appeal directly to the imagination; they build a summer residence complete, in six weeks, with furniture and bric-a-brac, on the top of a roadless mountain; they sail in fairylike yachts to summer seas, and marry their daughters to the heirs of ducal houses; they float up the Nile in dahabeeyah, or pass the “month of flowers” in far Japan.
It is but human nature to delight in reading of these things. Here the great mass of the people find (and eagerly seize on), the element of romance lacking in their lives, infinitely more enthralling than the doings of any novel’s heroine. It is real! It is taking place! and–still deeper reason–in every ambitious American heart lingers the secret hope that with luck and good management they too may do those very things, or at least that their children will enjoy the fortunes they have gained, in just those ways. The gloom of the monotonous present is brightened, the patient toiler returns to his desk with something definite before him–an objective point–towards which he can struggle; he knows that this is no impossible dream. Dozens have succeeded and prove to him what energy and enterprise can accomplish.
Do not laugh at this suggestion; it is far truer than you imagine. Many a weary woman has turned from such reading to her narrow duties, feeling that life is not all work, and with renewed hope in the possibilities of the future.
Doubtless a certain amount of purely idle curiosity is mingled with the other feelings. I remember quite well showing our city sights to a bored party of Western friends, and failing entirely to amuse them, when, happening to mention as we drove up town, “there goes Mr. Blank,” (naming a prominent leader of cotillions), my guests nearly fell over each other and out of the carriage in their eagerness to see the gentleman of whom they had read so much, and who was, in those days, a power in his way, and several times after they expressed the greatest satisfaction at having seen him.
I have found, with rare exceptions, and the experience has been rather widely gathered all over the country, that this interest–or call it what you will–has been entirely without spite or bitterness, rather the delight of a child in a fairy story. For people are rarely envious of things far removed from their grasp. You will find that a woman who is bitter because her neighbor has a girl “help” or a more comfortable cottage, rarely feels envy towards the owners of opera-boxes or yachts. Such heart-burnings (let us hope they are few) are among a class born in the shadow of great wealth, and bred up with tastes that they can neither relinquish nor satisfy. The large majority of people show only a good- natured inclination to chaff, none of the “class feeling” which certain papers and certain politicians try to excite. Outside of the large cities with their foreign-bred, semi-anarchistic populations, the tone is perfectly friendly; for the simple reason that it never entered into the head of any American to imagine that there was any class difference. To him his rich neighbors are simply his lucky neighbors, almost his relations, who, starting from a common stock, have been able to “get there” sooner than he has done. So he wishes them luck on the voyage in which he expects to join them as soon as he has had time to make a fortune.
So long as the world exists, or at least until we have reformed it and adopted Mr. Bellamy’s delightful scheme of existence as described in “Looking Backward,” great fortunes will be made, and painful contrasts be seen, especially in cities, and it would seem to be the duty of the press to soften–certainly not to sharpen–the edge of discontent. As long as human nature is human nature, and the poor care to read of the doings of the more fortunate, by all means give them the reading they enjoy and demand, but let it be written in a kindly spirit so that it may be a cultivation as well as a recreation. Treat this perfectly natural and honest taste honestly and naturally, for, after all, it is
The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow.
The devotion to something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow.