The Future in America

by H.G. Wells

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Chapter VI - Some Aspects of American Wealth

Chapter VI - Some Aspects of American Wealth from The Future in America


The Spenders

It is obvious that in a community that has disavowed aristocracy or rule and subordination or service, which has granted unparalleled freedoms to property and despised and distrusted the state, the chief business of life will consist in getting or attempting to get. But the chief aspect of American life that impinges first upon the European is not this, but the behavior of a certain overflow at the top, of people who have largely and triumphantly got, and with hand, pockets, safe-deposit vaults full of dollars, are proceeding to realize victory. Before I came to America it was in his capacity of spender that I chiefly knew the American; as a person who had demoralized Regent Street and the Rue de Rivoli, who had taught the London cabman to demand "arf a dollar" for a shilling fare, who bought old books and old castles, and had driven the prices of old furniture to incredible altitudes, and was slowly transferring our incubus of artistic achieve[Pg 89]ment to American soil. One of my friends in London is Mr. X, who owns those two houses full of fine "pieces" near the British Museum and keeps his honor unsullied in the most deleterious of trades. "They come to me," he said, "and ask me to buy for them. It's just buying. One of them wants to beat the silver of another, doesn't care what he pays. Another clamors for tapestry. They trust me as they trust a doctor. There's no understanding—no feeling. It's hard to treat them well."

And there is the story of Y, who is wise about pictures. "If you want a Botticelli that size, Mr. Record, I can't find it," he said; "you'll have to have it made for you."

These American spenders have got the whole world "beat" at the foolish game of collecting, and in all the peculiar delights of shopping they excel. And they are the crown and glory of hotel managers throughout the world. There is something naïve, something childishly expectant and acquisitive, about this aspect of American riches. There appears no aristocracy in their tradition, no sense of permanence and great responsibility, there appears no sense of subordination and service; from the individualistic business struggle they have emerged triumphant, and what is there to do now but spend and have a good time?

They swarm in the pleasant places of the Riviera, they pervade Paris and Rome, they occupy Scotch[Pg 90] castles and English estates, their motor-cars are terrible and wonderful. And the London Savoy Hotel still flaunts its memory of one splendid American night. The court-yard was flooded with water tinted an artistic blue—to the great discomfort of the practically inevitable gold-fish, and on this floated a dream of a gondola. And in the gondola the table was spread and served by the Savoy staff, mysteriously disguised in appropriate fancy costume. The whole thing—there's only two words for it—was "perfectly lovely." "The illusion"—whatever that was—we are assured, was complete. It wasn't a nursery treat, you know. The guests, I am told, were important grown-up people.

This sort of childishness, of course, has nothing distinctively American in it. Any people of sluggish and uneducated imagination who find themselves profusely wealthy, and are too stupid to understand the huge moral burden, the burden of splendid possibilities it carries, may do things of this sort. It was not Americans but a party of South-African millionaires who achieved the kindred triumph of the shirt-and-belt dinner under a tent in a London hotel dining-room. The glittering procession of carriages and motor-carriages which I watched driving down Fifth Avenue, New York, apparently for the pleasure of driving up again, is to be paralleled on the Pincio, in Naples, in Paris, and anywhere where irresponsible pleasure-seekers gather together. After the naïve joy of buying[Pg 91] things comes the joy of wearing them publicly, the simple pleasure of the promenade. These things are universals. But nowhere has this spending struck me as being so solid and substantial, so nearly twenty-two carats fine, as here. The shops have an air of solid worth, are in the key of butlers, bishops, opera-boxes, high-class florists, powdered footmen, Roman beadles, motor-broughams, to an extent that altogether outshines either Paris or London.

And in such great hotels as the Waldorf-Astoria, one finds the new arrivals, the wives and daughters from the West and the South, in new, bright hats, and splendors of costume, clubbed together, under the discreetest management, for this and that, learning how to spend collectively, reaching out to assemblies, to dinners. From an observant tea-table beneath the fronds of a palm, I surveyed a fine array of these plump and pretty pupils of extravagance. They were for the most part quite brilliantly as well as newly dressed, and with an artless and pleasing unconsciousness of the living from inside. Smart innocents! I found all that gathering most contagiously interested and happy and fresh.

And I watched spending, too, as one sees it in the various incompatible houses of upper Fifth Avenue and along the border of Central Park. That, too, suggests a shop, a shop where country houses are sold and stored; there is the Tiffany[Pg 92] house, a most expensive-looking article, on the shelf, and the Carnegie house. There had been no pretence on the part of the architects that any house belonged in any sense to any other, that any sort of community held them together. The link is just spending. You come to New York and spend; you go away again. To some of these palaces people came and went; others had their blinds down and conveyed a curious effect of a sunlit child excursionist in a train who falls asleep and droops against his neighbor. One of the Vanderbilt houses was frankly and brutally boarded up. Newport, I am told, takes up and carries on the same note of magnificent irresponsibility, and there one admires the richest forms of simplicity, triumphs of villa architecture in thatch, and bathing bungalows in marble....

There exists already, of these irresponsible American rich, a splendid group of portraits, done without extenuation and without malice, in the later work of that great master of English fiction, Mr. Henry James. There one sees them at their best, their refinement, their large wealthiness, their incredible unreality. I think of The Ambassadors and that mysterious source of the income of the Newcomes, a mystery that, with infinite artistic tact, was never explained; but more I think of The Golden Bowl, most spacious and serene of novels.

In that splendid and luminous bubble, the Prince Amerigo and Maggie Verver, Mr. Verver, that as[Pg 93]siduous collector, and the adventurous Charlotte Stant float far above a world of toil and anxiety, spending with a large refinement, with a perfected assurance and precision. They spend as flowers open. But this is the quintessence, the sublimation, the idealization of the rich American. Few have the restraint for this. For the rest, when one has shopped and shopped, and collected and bought everything, and promenaded on foot, in motor-car and motor-brougham and motor-boat, in yacht and special train; when one has a fine house here and a fine house there, and photography and the special article have exhausted admiration, there remains chiefly that one broader and more presumptuous pleasure—spending to give. American givers give most generously, and some of them, it must be admitted, give well. But they give individually, incoherently, each pursuing a personal ideal. There are unsuccessful givers....

American cities are being littered with a disorder of unsystematized foundations and picturesque legacies, much as I find my nursery floor littered with abandoned toys and battles and buildings when the children are in bed after a long, wet day. Yet some of the gifts are very splendid things. There is, for example, the Leland Stanford Junior University in California, a vast monument of parental affection and Richardsonian architecture, with professors, and teaching going on in its interstices; and there is Mrs. Gardner's delightful[Pg 94] Fenway Court, a Venetian palace, brought almost bodily from Italy and full of finely gathered treasures....

All this giving is, in its aggregate effect, as confused as industrial Chicago. It presents no clear scheme of the future, promises no growth; it is due to the impulsive generosity of a mob of wealthy persons, with no broad common conceptions, with no collective dream, with little to hold them together but imitation and the burning possession of money; the gifts overlap, they lie at any angle, one with another. Some are needless, some mischievous. There are great gaps of unfulfilled need between.

And through the multitude of lesser, though still mighty, givers, comes that colossus of property, Mr. Andrew Carnegie, the jubilee plunger of beneficence, that rosy, gray-haired, nimble little figure, going to and fro between two continents, scattering library buildings as if he sowed wild oats, buildings that may or may not have some educational value, if presently they are reorganized and properly stocked with books. Anon he appals the thrifty burgesses of Dunfermline with vast and uncongenial responsibilities of expenditure; anon he precipitates the library of the late Lord Acton upon our embarrassed Mr. Morley; anon he pauperizes the students of Scotland. He diffuses his monument throughout the English-speaking lands, amid circumstances of the most flagrant publicity; the re[Pg 95]ceptive learned, the philanthropic noble, bow in expectant swaths before him. He is the American fable come true; nothing seems too wild to believe of him, and he fills the European imagination with an altogether erroneous conception of the self-dissipating quality in American wealth.


The Astor Fortune

Because, now, as a matter of fact, dissipation is by no means the characteristic quality of American getting. The good American will indeed tell you solemnly that in America it is three generations "from shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves"; but this has about as much truth in it as that remarkable absence of any pure-bred Londoners of the third generation, dear to the British imagination.

Amid the vast yeasty tumult of American business, of the getting and losing which are the main life of this community, nothing could be clearer than the steady accumulation of great masses of property that show no signs of disintegrating again. The very rich people display an indisposition to divide their estates; the Marshall Field estate in Chicago, for example, accumulates; the Jay Gould inheritance survives great strains. And when first I heard that "shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves" proverb, Which is so fortifying a consolation to the older[Pg 96] school of Americans, my mind flew back to the Thames Embankment, as one sees it from the steamboat on the river. There, just eastward of the tall red Education offices of the London County Council, stands a quite graceful and decorative little building of gray stone, that jars not at all with the fine traditions of the adjacent Temple, but catches the eye, nevertheless, with its very big, very gilded vane in the form of a ship. This is the handsome strong-box to which New York pays gigantic yearly tribute, the office in which Mr. W.W. Astor conducts his affairs. They are not his private and individual affairs, but the affairs of the estate of the late J.J. Astor—still undivided, and still growing year by year.

Mr. Astor seems to me to be a much more representative figure of American wealth than any of the conspicuous spenders who strike so vividly upon the European imagination. His is the most retiring of personalities. In this picturesque stone casket he works; his staff works under his cognizance, and administers, I know not to what ends nor to what extent, revenues that exceed those of many sovereign states. He himself is impressed by it, and, without arrogance, he makes a visit to his offices, with a view of its storage vaults, its halls of disciplined clerks, a novel and characteristic form of entertainment. For the rest, Mr. Astor leads a life of modest affluence, and recreates himself with the genealogy of his family, short stories about[Pg 97] treasure lost and found, and such like literary work.

Now here you have wealth with, as it were, the minimum of ownership, as indeed owning its possessor. Nobody seems to be spending that huge income the crowded enormity of New York squeezes out. The "Estate of the late J.J. Astor" must be accumulating more wealth and still more; under careful and systematic management must be rolling up like a golden snowball under that golden weather-vane. In the most accidental relation to its undistinguished, harmless, arithmetical proprietor!

Your anarchist orator or your crude socialist is always talking of the rich as blood-suckers, robbers, robber-barons, grafters and so on. It really is nonsense to talk like that. In the presence of Mr. W.W. Astor these preposterous accusations answer themselves. The thing is a logical outcome of the assumptions about private property on which our contemporary civilization is based, and Mr. Astor, for all that he draws gold from New York as effectually as a ferret draws blood from a rabbit, is indeed the most innocent of men. He finds himself in a certain position, and he sits down very congenially and adds and adds and adds, and relieves the tedium of his leisure in literary composition. Had he been born at the level of a dry-goods clerk he would probably have done the same sort of thing on a smaller scale, and it would have been[Pg 98] the little Poddlecombe literary society, and not the Pall Mall Magazine, that would have been the richer for his compositions. It is just the scale of the circumstances that differs....


The Chief Getters

The lavish spending of Fifth Avenue and Paris and Rome and Mayfair is but the flower, the often brilliant, the sometimes gaudy flower of the American economic process; and such slow and patient accumulators as Mr. Astor the rounding and ripening fruit. One need be only a little while in America to realize this, and to discern the branch and leaf, and at last even the aggressive insatiable spreading root of aggregating property, that was liberated so effectually when America declared herself free.

The group of people that attracts the largest amount of attention in press and talk, that most obsesses the American imagination, and that is indeed the most significant at the present time, is the little group—a few score men perhaps altogether—who are emerging distinctly as winners in that great struggle to get, into which this commercial industrialism has naturally resolved itself. Central among them are the men of the Standard Oil group, the "octopus" which spreads its ramifying tentacles through the whole system of American[Pg 99] business, absorbing and absorbing, grasping and growing. The extraordinarily able investigations of such writers as Miss Tarbell and Ray Stannard Baker, the rhetorical exposures of Mr. T.W. Lawson, have brought out the methods and quality of this group of persons with a particularity that has been reserved heretofore for great statesmen and crowned heads, and with an unflattering lucidity altogether unprecedented. Not only is every hair on their heads numbered, but the number is published. They are known to their pettiest weaknesses and to their most accidental associations. And in this astonishing blaze of illumination they continue steadfastly to get.

These men, who are creating the greatest system of correlated private properties in the world, who are wealthy beyond all precedent, seem for the most part to be men with no ulterior dream or aim. They are not voluptuaries, they are neither artists nor any sort of creators, and they betray no high political ambitions. Had they anything of the sort they would not be what they are, they would be more than that and less. They want and they get, they are inspired by the brute will in their wealth to have more wealth and more, to a systematic ardor. They are men of a competing, patient, enterprising, acquisitive enthusiasm. They have found in America the perfectly favorable environment for their temperaments. In no other country and in no other age could they have risen to such[Pg 100] eminence. America is still, by virtue of its great Puritan tradition and in the older sense of the word, an intensely moral land. Most lusts here are strongly curbed, by public opinion, by training and tradition. But the lust of acquisition has not been curbed but glorified....

These financial leaders are accused by the press of every sort of crime in the development of their great organizations and their fight against competitors, but I feel impelled myself to acquit them of anything so heroic as a general scheme of criminality, as a systematic organization of power. They are men with a good deal of contempt for legislation and state interference, but that is no distinction, it has unhappily been part of the training of the average American citizen, and they have no doubt exceeded the letter if not the spirit of the laws of business competition. They have played to win and not for style, and if they personally had not done so somebody else would; they fill a position which from the nature of things, somebody is bound to fill. They have, no doubt, carried sharpness to the very edge of dishonesty, but what else was to be expected from the American conditions? Only by doing so and taking risks is pre-eminent success in getting to be attained. They have developed an enormous system of espionage, but on his smaller scale every retail grocer, every employer of servants does something in that way. They have secret agents, false names, con[Pg 101]cealed bargains,—what else could one expect? People have committed suicide through their operations—but in a game which is bound to bring the losers to despair it is childish to charge the winners with murder. It's the game that is criminal. It is ridiculous, I say, to write of these men as though they were unparalleled villains, intellectual overmen, conscienceless conquerors of the world. Mr. J.D. Rockefeller's mild, thin-lipped, pleasant face gives the lie to all such melodramatic nonsense.

I must confess to a sneaking liking for this much-reviled man. One thinks of Miss Tarbell's description of him, displaying his first boyish account-book, his ledger A, to a sympathetic gathering of the Baptist young, telling how he earned fifty dollars in the first three months of his clerking in a Chicago warehouse, and how savingly he dealt with it. Hear his words:

"You could not get that book from me for all the modern ledgers in New York, nor for all that they would bring. It almost brings tears to my eyes when I read over this little book, and it fills me with a sense of gratitude I cannot express....

"I know some people, ... especially some young men, find it difficult to keep a little money in their pocket-book. I learned to keep money, and, as we have a way of saying, it did not burn a hole in my pocket. I was taught that it was the thing to keep the money and take care of it. Among the early[Pg 102] experiences that were helpful to me that I recollect with pleasure, was one of working a few days for a neighbor digging potatoes—an enterprising and thrifty farmer who could dig a great many potatoes. I was a boy perhaps thirteen or fourteen years of age, and he kept me busy from morning until night. It was a ten-hour day....

"And as I was saving these little sums, I soon learned I could get as much interest for fifty dollars loaned at seven per cent.—the legal rate in the State of New York at that time for a year—as I could earn by digging potatoes ten days. The impression was gaining ground with me that it was a good thing to let money be my slave and not make myself a slave to money. I have tried to remember that in every sense."

This is not the voice of any sort of contemptuous trampler of his species. This is the voice of an industrious, acquisitive, commonplace, pious man, as honestly and simply proud of his acquisitiveness as a stamp-collector might be. At times, in his acquisitions, the strength of his passion may have driven him to lengths beyond the severe moral code, but the same has been true of stamp-collectors. He is a man who has taken up with great natural aptitude an ignoble tradition which links economy and earning with piety and honor. His teachers were to blame, that Baptist community that is now so ashamed of its son that it refuses his gifts. To a large extent he is the creature of opportunity;[Pg 103] he has been flung to the topmost pinnacle of human envy, partly by accident, partly by that peculiarity of American conditions that has subordinated, in the name of liberty, all the grave and ennobling affairs of statecraft to a middle-class freedom of commercial enterprise. Quarrel with that if you like. It is unfair and ridiculous to quarrel with him.


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